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It's the biggest gig in British TV and possibly the most frightening. Grant Smithies talks to David Tennant about the legend and legacy of playing Doctor Who.

When we were kids, we thought it was hilarious: "Knock, knock." "Who's there?" "Doctor." "Doctor Who?" We laughed and laughed. And now, 40 years later, I'm talking to him. Doctor Who!

He is, they say, over 900 years old, yet he sounds like an excitable wee boy. And yes, the word "wee" is intentional, because this boyish man is as Scottish as shortbread. "Hellooo," he says, his voice high and lilting, his accent as lovely as a single malt near a crackling fire. "How are ye?"

A bit overwhelmed, to tell the truth. I grew up watching Doctor Who, often through the fleshy louvres of my fingers during the scary bits. I watched in amazement as he hurtled through time and space in a blue police box called the Tardis, and I quaked in my jocks whenever he went into battle with seemingly unbeatable herds of intergalactic bad-arses.

It was a different Doctor Who in those days, of course. I grew up during the reign of the second and third doctors, Patrick Troughton (1966-69) and Jon Pertwee (1970-74), and lost interest part-way through the reign of the fourth doctor, Tom Baker (1974-81). The guy I'm talking to today is the 10th doctor, played by David Tennant.

Tall, skinny, quick-witted and cheeky, Tennant has been credited with revitalising the Doctor Who franchise. The show originally ran from 1963 to 1989, with New Zealand broadcasting from 1964, the first country to pick up the show outside the UK.

Then, after a long hiatus, production resumed in 2005. Christopher Eccleston played the mighty Time Lord for one season before being replaced by Tennant in the middle of 2005. He is now widely hailed as the best Doctor Who in the show's 44-year history.

In particular, he's been a big hit with female fans, many of whom type slightly randy prose about him in Doctor Who chatrooms and admit to first becoming smitten when Tennant played the titular bodice-tearing horndog in Casanova, an earlier series written by current Doctor Who writer, Russell T Davies.

I can't see the attraction myself. Rail thin, with a stiff black bush of hair, Tennant looks like a broom in a suit. Perhaps his appeal is simply an issue of contrast, given that most of the previous doctors were dowdy old buggers.

"Oooh, I don't know about that. I think the doctor is a very sexy dude, really, no matter who's playing him. It's just that the way the show is written nowadays invites girls and women in more than it did before. Russell gives it a kind of emotional heart that it hasn't always had, which means that the stories are still enjoyable to sci-fi or adventure fans, but now they connect with people who like more conventional drama as well."

Doctor Who was initially intended to appeal to adults as well as children, and to be educational; the time-travelling concept meant younger viewers could learn about history, while the more futuristic storylines were intended to foster a love of science. But from the start, most kids liked it because it was scary.

Some particularly creepy plotlines rolled out during the early 70s, including one story that involved psychopathic plastic dolls, daffodils that killed people who bent to sniff them, and android policemen with blank faces. An early Doctor Who exhibition at London's Museum of the Moving Image was called "Behind The Sofa", in honour of the fact that hiding behind the couch during the worrying bits was one of the great shared experiences of British childhood.

This was a shared experience among many New Zealand children, too. Certainly, what I loved most about Doctor Who were the monsters. Back then it was the Daleks and the Cybermen, but since then the good doctor has dodged death at the hands of Zygons, Sontarans, Sea Devils, Ice Warriors, Autons, Silurians, the Slitheen, the Judoon and a host of other worrying critters, most of them conveniently bipedal and suspiciously human-shaped.

In the early days, most of the monsters looked like they'd been strapped together on a low budget in somebody's suburban tool-shed. The Daleks ("Exterminate! Exterminate!") resembled animated pepper pots, and the Cybermen looked like skinny guys wrapped in tinfoil.

"Well, it doesn't matter when you're wee, does it?" says Tennant. "You just go with it. If things are a bit clunky, your mind fills in the gaps. I was very frightened by the show myself as a kid, but it's the kind of fear that does you good when you're growing up. It scares the shit out of you to just the right degree, without pushing you over the edge. I think a few gentle nightmares is something we should all experience as children, so long as it's a safe fear."

The modern version is still pretty scary. An episode that plays here in a few weeks is bound to make a few kids run screaming from their grandmas: it features a little old lady who is a "plasmavore" and kills her victims by jamming a drinking straw into their necks and sucking out their blood.

This kind of inspired ridiculousness has made Doctor Who a huge hit worldwide, though the most rabid fans, known as "Whovians", are generally found in the UK. Many seem to be nerds of the highest order, spending half their lives on Doctor Who internet sites discussing interplanetary lore, monster genealogy, tardis mechanics and so forth.

"Well, it becomes a hobby, doesn't it?" Tennant says. "I think that's OK. I think Doctor Who fans are somewhat unfairly judged, like what they're doing is socially unacceptable. It's entirely harmless. At least they're not going out raping or murdering people. And it's a fantastic world to lose yourself in, which is probably why it has survived so long.

I'm not sure about New Zealand, but certainly in Britain, Doctor Who is a part of the cultural framework of our nation. It has an iconic status here, so the amount of attention and analysis is inevitably huge. Which can be daunting as an actor, actually. The show has a lot of devoted followers, and they're looking to you to not ruin something they love. It's quite a responsibility."

Now 36, Tennant was born David McDonald in West Lothian, Scotland, in 1971, the son of a minister in the Church of Scotland. There was already a British actor of the same name, so he later swiped the surname of the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant.

"I was about three when I decided acting was something I wanted to do, which is lucky, because I was far too young to realise how unlikely it was that I would succeed. If I'd been 12 I'd have probably thought, hey, hang on, people from Paisley don't really do that; I'll get a job in a shoe shop instead. But no, I had a really singular view of my path.

"I used to watch the telly and very quickly understood that there were people who spent their lives pretending to be other people so as to tell stories. I thought that was a fantastic thing to do. As soon as I left school I went straight to drama college and have made my living as an actor ever since." Tennant has been a fixture on British stages and screens for more than 20 years now.

A particular love is performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company. But the lead in Doctor Who carries with it a huge risk of type-casting. Now that he's so widely lauded as a time-travelling, Dalek-trouncing alien hero, can Tennant ever go back to playing Romeo? "I certainly hope so. As an actor, you don't want to destroy your career by becoming so associated with one role that people will never accept you as anyone else. But the only other option was not to accept the part, and I couldn't do that, because Doctor Who is one of the best TV characters ever invented, I think.

"He's a free spirit and an anarchist, almost a force of nature, but he also has this immoveable moral centre to him. That's what makes him heroic, really. He's not heroic in the way that Superman or Batman is, or even Captain Kirk is. He's not a jock. He's not the strongest or the fastest, but he's the quickest witted, so it's about the triumph of the geek over the all-powerful, really, and I think that's very appealing. It was certainly very appealing to me as a child. It's wit over brawn. He's fast and anarchic and fun, but there's a degree of comfort attached for kids, because they always know where they stand with him. He's always got that strong moral compass."

Tennant is notoriously close-lipped about his private life, but it's well known that he lives in London, is dating actress Sophia Myles and has a sufficiently well developed sense of humour to drive a Skoda. He is also a staunch supporter of Britain's Labour Party, and once told a reporter he was amazed whenever he met anyone involved in the arts who voted Conservative: "I'd be thinking, `I have never met anyone from your world. What's it like? Do you roast children over open fires?"' He laughs when I remind him of it; in fact, he laughs all the time. He's certainly the happiest 900-year-old alien life form I've had the pleasure of speaking to.

"Yes, well, I'm having the time of my life. I'm very content at the moment. The public appreciate me, I love my work, and here I am on my day off, sitting in sunny London in the middle of summer, overlooking the West End from my agent's very posh office. Life, as they say, is sweet."