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Dr Who Profile: Britain's Favourite Alien

He makes an unlikely hero: he's the ultimate know-it-all, has real issues with commitment and is constantly in trouble of one kind or another.

Not to mention the fact that he's got two hearts, is almost a millenium old, and comes from another planet.

Yet for 10 incarnations and counting, Doctor Who has been Britain's favourite alien.

If you were to pitch the idea today, the focus groups would laugh it out of the room. A crotchety old man lives in a police box with his granddaughter, and has the ability to travel through time and space which he uses to kidnap a couple of nosy teachers and whisk them back to Paleolithic times.

But since that first episode in November 1963, the nation has been glued to the TV set for the Doctor's adventures.

There were scary monsters for the children, distant planets and amazing science for the geeks, and attractive young companions for the dads – not to mention the cliffhanger endings that kept the audience hooked.

In retrospect, the show possessed a unique set of ingredients for long-term success.

Using his transport – the TARDIS -Time and Relative Dimension in Space – the Doctor could go anywhere, see anything.

The convenient device of "regeneration" meant that whenever an actor tired of playing this alien do-gooder, a replacement could step in (up to a notional limit of 13).

The Doctor's companions could be exchanged with even greater ease when things got stale, while the possible settings were limited only by the writers' imaginations.

Admittedly, the show's budget also played a part - hence all those alien planets that bore a convenient resemblance to the gravel pits off the M25.

As time went on, the Doctor inevitably accrued a mythology around him, meticulously chronicled by his more devoted fans.

His home planet was called Gallifrey; his people were called Time Lords; he was an exile, or a fugitive, or a wanderer (save for a brief period in the 1970s, when his compatriots, mindful of the BBC's expenses policy, exiled him to Earth).

Yet wherever he came from, and whichever human actor he resembled, the fundamentals were the same: a bright, eccentric traveller pitches up in some far-flung place, accompanied by a robot dog, or curious teenager, or Bonnie Langford.

There, he discovers some sinister plot, which he thwarts in the most entertaining and seemingly accidental manner possible.

It was a winning formula, and at the show's height, under Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, it was attracting stratospheric viewing figures: more than 16 million, on one occasion.

Quite a few of these must have been cowering behind the sofa, for a hero as brilliant as the Doctor needed villains who were equally dastardly – the shrieky-voiced Daleks, the robotic Cybermen, the moustache-twirling Master, the Sontarans, the Ice Warriors, the Rani ...

Some, however, did not quite hit the mark. The villainous Kandy Man, a giant creature made out of sweets and bearing a startling resemblance to Bertie Bassett, would probably do more damage to your dental hygiene than the fabric of time and space.

In the end, however, the Doctor's most determined enemies were not the Daleks, but the BBC's executives – as ratings fell and interest waned in the 1980s, they consigned the character, now played by Sylvester McCoy, to the dustbin.

The fact that he returned, more popular than ever, is thanks to the Doctor's greatest allies: writer and executive producer Russell T Davies and his team.

When 21st-century executives decided to gamble on a revamped version of Doctor Who, they brought in the Welshman – a childhood fan, but most famous as the creator of the ground-breaking gay drama series Queer as Folk rather than as action-adventure writer.

He claims to have merely “restored [the show] to its former glory”, but he has done more: he has reinvented Saturday-night telly, creating a series that families can watch together, with enough pizzazz for the children and enough depth for the adults.

His Doctor, played first by a leather-jacketed Christopher Ecclestone and then by a trenchcoated David Tennant, is a more modern and more complex figure: younger and sexier, yes – but also lonelier, the last survivor of a mysterious Time War that swallowed both his own race and their arch-enemies, the Daleks (although, as we have found out repeatedly over the past four years, you can't keep a good villain down).

Perhaps Davies's most impressive accomplishment is to explain why this time-travelling tourist has quite so many of his adventures on present-day Earth.

This is down to the Doctor's companions – Martha Jones, Donna Noble, but most particularly Rose Tyler, played by Billie Piper.

As David Tennant, the current incumbent has said, Rose and the Doctor are the new John Steed and Emma Peel - even if, as he also admitted, the age gap (he is 900, she 19) makes them more like Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

But despite this gulf in age, experience and even species, the modern companions are are our window into the Doctor's world, with far more to do than simply run, scream and feed the Doctor straight lines: their connections to their families, and to the troubled Time Lord, are the heart of the series.

Tomorrow's finale to his fourth season is the ultimate showdown between the Doctor, the Daleks and their creator Davros, and Davies has thrown everything into the mix – including Rose's long-awaited return.

Yet his comment that “for all the spectacle, it's about character” reflects his approach to the series as a whole: we – and quite probably the Doctor – are more worried that at least one of the three companions is slated for extermination than that the entire universe is seemingly doomed.

The new Doctor is modern in another way, too: he is not a character, but a brand.

There were spin-offs of the old series – films starring Peter Cushing and the Daleks, countless tie-in books – but the 21st-century hero has been merchandised with a ruthlessness the Cybermen might envy.

From the show's Cardiff studios have poured out DVDs, books, stickers, remote-controlled Daleks, voice-changer masks, action figures, as well as two spin-off series: the more adult Torchwood, starring Captain Jack Harkness, an immortal “omnisexual”, and The Sarah Jane Adventures, a children's series featuring one of the Doctor's former companions.

“We turned down a request for Dr Who-branded yoghurts because people are so concerned about what children eat right now,” Davies recalled. “I said yes to a Dalek hot water bottle, though.

But despite all this success, the Doctor has come to a crossroads.

Tomorrow's episode, which 10 million people are expected to watch, will be almost the last for Davies: after a few one-off specials this year and next, including the now-traditional Christmas episodes, he will hand over the reins to Steven Moffat, another writer who had nurtured his love for Doctor Who during the series' long absence, and who has contributed many of the new show's best, and scariest, episodes.

When the series proper returns in 2010, we do not know which of the Doctor's companions will still be there, nor even whether Tennant will still be in the role.

However, for millions of fans, new and old, the future is still promising.

“We've set it up in such a way that it should be around for 20-30 years yet,” believes Davies.

If Moffat can equal his deft touch, the Doctor should have plenty more opportunities to save the day – and send those children scurrying behind the sofa.


Name: The Doctor

Real name: Unknown

Age: Approx 900

Born: Planet of Gallifrey (now destroyed). First came to Earth on Nov 23, 1963

Appearance: Varies. Currently tall, handsome, slightly Scottish

Hobbies: Time travel, investigating unusual phenomena, saving the day/world/universe

Likes: The TARDIS, seeing new things, humanity (especially young English women called Rose/Martha/Donna)

Dislikes: Daleks, Cybermen, pointless violence

Source: The Telegraph 4th June 2008