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Who's The Greatest?

As David Tennant's place as the master of the Tardis is in doubt, one Life-long Dr Who fan assasses his place among the show's ten Timelords...

Tomorrow evening, millions of us will sit down in front of the gogglebox to discover whether the rumours are true that David Tennant is indeed to take his leave as Dr Who. Actually, that's not quite right. Perhaps half of those watching will be found behind the sofa, eyes and ears covered, moaning 'is the scary bit over yet?'

Our five year-old daughter spent much of last week's episode burrowed into the back of my armchair, whimpering and shivering like a rainsoaked whippet.

Towards the end The Doctor took a direct zap of Dalek fire. At the time he was running in slow motion towards his gorgeous, pouting assistant Rose Tyler. 

'Exter-min-ate!' croaked various Daleks. 'Brzzzzt' went a laser beam of mega-watt Dalek juice. Dr Who: 'Arrrgh.' Five year-old daughter: 'Waaaaaah'.

The episode ended with our hero writhing in agony as his body started to change  -  the first stages of his rebirth as the next Doctor Who. 

Most forms of cruelty to children have been banned. We may no longer thrash them with a tawse or send them up chimneys. It is even illegal, apparently, to strap little ones into the front seat of your motor car, although I don't know many parents who actually obey that meddlesome law. 

Subjecting your offspring to Dr Who's weekly dose of eyeball-bulging terror is still permitted, however, and a good job, too.

They have to learn at some point in childhood that the universe is a vast void, full of prickly uncertainty. And, at the same time, they need to be introduced to almost Christian concepts of rebirth and continuity. Dr Who is as good an introduction as any to these tricky ideas.

The spindly-limbed, gaunt-cheeked Tennant, who is tipped to be replaced by Robert Carlyle, has proved a worthy holder of this ancient office.

He has kept a great institution firmly on track and with Saturday's episode expected to attract an audience of ten million, the series has re-created a sense of Saturday night telly as communal, family-centred, mainly wholesome entertainment.

Some critics complain that it is too frightening for young minds, but if it was less scary our children would not insist that we parents watched it with them. The terror factor gels the family.

How old is Dr Who? Ask any of the programme's thousands of addicts and they will assure you that the Timelord was born on the planet Gallifrey 903 years ago, and that almost since then he has been travelling from galaxy to galaxy in the Tardis.

On a more mundane level BBC1 first broadcast this prime-time series to earthlings on the evening of November 23, 1963. It ran until 1989 when it was banished by the cruel and possibly alien BBC1 Controller Michael Grade. It returned in 2005 with Christopher Ecclestone playing the Doctor.

Tennant, who took over for the following series, did not at first seem a natural fit for the role. Ecclestone had been a manly Doctor, brooding, almost violent.

He was the Doctor as tough guy. He wore a leather jacket and could be filmed running away from an explosion or punching a flatulent ogre without making the audience laugh. He had a way of scowling simply by tensing the veins on his short-cropped skull.

There was a danger at first that Tennant's Doctor could look under-powered after such a pumped-up Time Lord. Our son, then aged eight, was highly sceptical to start, declaring that 'the old Doctor' (Ecclestone) had been infinitely superior.

Was Tennant sufficiently muscular? Did he look mature enough to be a convincing hero? Furthermore, was his Estuarine accent (he decided not to use his native Scots) maybe a little too obviously early 21st century?

He was not helped by the programme's scriptwriter Russell T Davies, an irksome little man with too high an opinion of himself and a tendency to proselytise for gay
rights at any opportunity. The Doctor was given college-kid, smart-alec wisecracks which he was encouraged to deliver with glottal-stopping ironic mirth.

This post-modern drift, which started around the middle of the 2006 series with the episode about Coronation Year England, seems to have been reduced. Or maybe we just got used to it.

By the time the Dalek's burst of fire caught him amidships last Saturday evening, it is fair to say that Tennant had established himself firmly in the public's affection as 'The Doctor'.

Viewers have strong feelings about past Doctors. I can remember only as a vague blur the first, William Hartnell, who gave it up in 1966. He presented an almost ghostly visage, all grey hair and actorly consonants.

Hartnell was followed by Patrick Troughton, his lined face being well-suited to the part of a man who had seen a millennium of air travel.

In 1970 the part went to Jon Pertwee whose Doctor wore elaborately ruffed shirts and velvet jackets. The raffish Pertwee was friendly with an uncle of mine in Ibiza so as a family we took particular interest in his fortunes.

Aged 11, I was so impressed by his Doctor that I barely noticed the crumby BBC sets  - lunar landscapes that were pretty obviously gravel pits somewhere wet in Ted Heath's strike-bound Britain.

Pertwee served five seasons in the Tardis but eventually decided there was a danger he could become stereotyped. Too late, Doctor! You are doomed!

Over the years stereotyping has proved as fiendish a danger to Dr Who stars as any hairy, worm-tentacled spaceling their characters encountered.

Jon Pertwee did enjoy success later as Worzel Gummidge and as the voice of Spotty in 'SuperTed' but when he died in 1996 most of us remembered him chiefly as the Doctor with the silken voice.

To be Doctor Who is to become a public figure, part of the nation's gallery of fixed stalwarts. This was the daunting undertaking for clergyman's son Tennant when, after a solid grounding on stage and TV, he became the tenth Doctor in 2005.

Not all actors have coped with the challenge. Sylvester McCoy, who succeeded the rather bland Colin Baker in 1987, was told to play it for laughs - with disastrous results.

Only recently has the likeable McCoy re-emerged artistically from that misjudgment (he made a fine fool to Ian McKellen's king in the RSC production of Lear last year).

Tom Baker, who followed Pertwee, had a beautifully gravelly voice and the long face of a troubled donkey but he was undone by his Doctor's tendency for silly scarves.

Peter Davison, next up in 1981, fared little better at the hands of the BBC costumes department. They dolled him up in striped blazers, poor man. Enough to make an alien laugh several of its heads off.

For its more recent revival under Russell T Davies, the restored Dr Who has had some terrific bogeymen, from grovelling Oods to grisly Slitheen, the half-fish Hath and the marching Cybermen.

If a Doctor is to defeat such monsters he needs to have backbone. He can not be entirely a comic creation.

David Tennant found the right level of urgency, bashing the dashboard of his Tardis, flicking back his oiled hair, persuading audiences that he -not to mention human civilisation - was in danger. The levity has been there but it was eventually kept in check.

He has also been sufficiently handsome to earn the adoration of Billie Piper's trout-pouty Rose.

Tennant the actor is off to his old stomping ground in Stratford-upon-Avon to play Hamlet. Will his career manage to escape the Tardis? Maybe. But we will miss his Doctor.

No doubt my son will again declare just as vehemently that his successor - whose identity has yet to be confirmed - is 'not a patch on the old one'.

Source: The Daily Mail 4th June 2008

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