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DR. WHO: Which Who is Who?

Even without a TV show, the Doctor has never been busier.

By Andrew Osmond     November 13, 2000

At the beginning of September, the British Film Institute produced their list of Blighty's hundred greatest TV shows. The voters included program makers, actors, academics, critics and executives (1,600 polled, a quarter replied). In third place, just under the well-loved John Cleese sitcom Fawlty Towers and the mold-breaking 1966 drama Cathy Come Home, wasyou guessed itDoctor Who. Not bad for a shoestring show that's been dead for a decade. Not everyone was pleased at the ranking, though. The Guardian newspaper called the Time Lord's elevation 'bizarre.' Be that as it may, it still suggests Who is important to more than an aging clique of fanboys. (For more information about the poll, see below.)

Appropriately for a veteran time-and-space traveler, the good Doctor enters the new century on several planes of reality. In audio form, he can be found in multiple incarnations, fighting Daleks and other menaces. On the printed page, he's had his life erased and is making a new start. Over in the comic-strips, he's just ended an epic tussle with his arch-nemesis, the Master, for control of the universe no less. Meanwhile, the backlog of his two-and-a-half decades of TV voyages continues to be released in collectible format, including ambitious DVD releases.

Only a TARDIS traveler could be so omnipresent. To start in the past tense, BBC Video has recently remastered the first Doctor Who serial. 'An Unearthly Child' was originally transmitted back in November 1963. For those wondering, the 'unearthly child' is a misfit London schoolgirl, ostensibly the Doctor's granddaughter. (This claim has had fans arguing ever since about the Time Lord's family). The story follows two of the girl's teachers as they try to find out more about her. The mystery leads them to a junkyard, a police telephone box...and then out of this world.

The BBC also continues to release audio recordings of stories that no longer exist in visual form. Two recent offerings, 'The Highlanders' and 'The Macra Terror,' both feature the late Patrick Troughton, who played the Doctor from 1966-69. Troughton is hardly the best-known Doctorfew of his episodes surviveand the stories are not always what people think of as 'typical' Who. For example 'The Highlanders,' set in Scotland after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie, features no alien invaders or space journeys, being simply an adventure based on real-life history.

Along with such 'missing' stories, there are also incomplete Who serials, where some episodes exist and others don't. One of the most significant is 'The Tenth Planet' (1966), which not only introduces the proto-Borg Cybermen, but also sees the Doctor change his face for the first time (Hartnell to Troughton). The first three episodes are intact, but the last is mostly lost, though the all-important transformation was preserved by accident, used as a 'clip' on a children's magazine show. There are also some fan-made 8mm recordings of a few extracts, taped off the air two decades ago. These fragments, combined with BBC library photos and off-air 'telesnaps,' will now be issued on an upcoming double video (released early November). This features both the remains of 'The Tenth Planet' and the complete 1985 Colin Baker yarn 'Attack of the Cybermen.'

But enough about such old technology. What about DVD? Following a release of the anniversary story 'The Five Doctors' last year, the BBC has embraced the new medium. This month sees the 1977 story 'The Robots of Death,' starring Tom Baker in an android whodunnit with obvious debts to Isaac Asimov. It includes a full audio commentary by the director and writer, plus brief model test shots, unedited studio material and photo galleries. Another commentary will figure on December's DVD, 'Spearhead from Space' (1970), the debut story for Jon Pertwee. Series regulars Caroline John (Liz in the series) and Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier) have recorded commentaries for the title.

Among the titles scheduled for next year is the final Dalek TV adventure, 'Remembrance of the Daleks' (1989), with Sylvester McCoy. This will feature 13 deleted and/or extended scenes, plus out-takes, two 'multi-angle' sequences, a photo gallery and an isolated audio track holding the entire soundtrack. McCoy and Sophie Aldred (companion Ace) provide commentary. That's out in January. April will see the 1984 'Caves of Androzani,' in which Peter Davison bowed out of the role. Davison and co-star Nicola Bryant (companion Peri) join the director for a commentary, while there are plans for remastered effects (matte shots will be recreated to remove 'judder'), studio material and a separate music track.

At present, there are two main lines of 'new' Who adventures: written and audio. However, the phrase 'new' is misleading. Many of these tales feature Doctors and characters who bowed out of the TV show decades back. On the BBC books side, the tone was set by Justin Richards' The Burning. Following the apocalyptic end of its predecessor, The Ancestor Cell, this sees the Eighth Doctor (as played by Paul McGann in the 'canonical' 1996 US TV movie) stripped of memory and identity and confined to Earth, where he'll stay for the next few adventures.

The long-term implications are secret, but the intention is apparently to clear away the convoluted back stories and arc-plots that typified many Who books. If so, it's comparable to the comic book trick of revamping (or at least ignoring) continuity and setting the issue number of a series back to one. At the moment (so to speak), the Doctor is living through the twentieth century Forrest Gump style. In The Turing Test (Paul Leonard), he meets the eponymous mathematician, plus Grahame Greene and Joseph Hellerno, I'm not making this up! Terrance Dicks' Endgame, meanwhile, has him involved with Cold War espionage and notorious real-life spies.

However, for those fans who balk at the Gumpish trend and prefer a more random kind of adventure, BBC Books has a parallel line of 'untold' stories from the Doctor's past. An intriguing title for next year is David A. McIntee's Bullet Time, a 'quasi-contemporary thriller' that places Sylvester McCoy's Doctor in Hong Kong and the Far East. Hmm, could there be a connection to a certain Keanu Reeves film? Between these past and future adventures, BBC Books are fast on the way to their hundredth Who book. (And remember, former license-holder Virgin Books produced dozens of spinoffs of its own, not to mention the 150-odd novelizations produced by Target. The brain boggles...)

On the audio side, the company Big Finish Productions is now established as the new home of Who drama. For the last year, it's been producing BBC-authorized Doctor Who adventures with original TV Doctors and companions. The recent Apocalypse Elementreleased on CD and cassetterepresents a coup in its character line-up. It not only brings back killer pepperpots the Daleks (also featured in an earlier audio, The Genocide Machine), but also Lalla Ward, who reprises her TV role as the Time Lady Romana from nineteen years back. Ward was briefly married to co-star Tom Baker, and is now the wife of scientist/author Richard Dawkins.

The role of the Doctor is taken by Colin Baker (no relation to Tom), who played the character for a short interval in the 1980s. Much panned when he was on TV, Colin figured in many subsequent Who spinoffs, gaining in favor with fans. Despite its cast assets, Apocalypse Element has had mixed reviews. The main complaint is that it's overplotted and over-egged, with too much indulging of fanboy wish fulfillment. Time for a Burning-style clearing of the decks?

Big Finish has a bigger casting coup planned for next year. Four of its upcoming stories, to be released from January to April, will star Paul McGann, who played the Doctor in the one-off, would-be pilot American TV movie. Although he jokingly calls himself the 'George Lazenby of Time Lords,' McGann's performance was immensely popular with fans and his new adventures are eagerly awaited. Of course, Paul McGann is still the 'official' current Doctor, as mentioned above. His likeness adorns the covers of many of the new books, as well as the regular comic-strip in Britain's monthly Doctor Who Magazine.

And that's not even counting a new sub-series of tie-in audios combining characters from Robots of Death (above) and rival British series Blake's 7, or the BBC's own just-completed Doctor Who radio pilot, featuring McCoy alongside John Sessions, Stephen Fry and Jacqueline Pearce (the latter best known as a villainess in Blake's 7). But enough...my brain hurts.

British TV Poll Details

As mentioned, Doctor Who came third overall in a BFI poll to find the greatest British TV programs of all time. Oddly, the BFI listed it as a 'Children's and Youth' program, not among the 'Drama Series and Serials,' a fact that undoubtedly irked fans. To be fair, the institute later said, 'Had there been sub-categories of cult and sci-fi programs, the Doctor would surely have been well placed there too.'

In a subsequent discussion on the BFI Website, Douglas Adams, one-time Doctor Who writer/script-editor and creator of Hitch Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy, added his own view of the show. 'I was told by the producer that the guiding principle was to make the scripts complex enough to keep the kids interested and simple enough for the adults to understand!'

Other sci-fi/fantasy shows included in the BFI poll were: Aardman's The Wrong Trousers at 18; The War Game (1966), a controversial 'documentary' about Britain under nuclear attack, 27; the original 'sixties Avengers, 51; Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds, 60; the acclaimed 1982 animated film The Snowman, 71; Walking with Dinosaurs, 72; and a 1992 dramatization of Mary Norton's Borrowers books, 79 (not to be confused with the different American versions).

Nigel Kneale, one of the biggest names in British TV fantasy, was represented twice. His 1954 adaptation of Orwell's 1984, with Peter Cushing as Winston Smith, was ranked 73. His TV serial version of Quatermass and the Pit (1958) was at 75. Both titles starred actor Andre Morell, as torturer O'Brien and Professor Quatermass respectively.

Other, less easily categorized poll winners included Monty Python's Flying Circus at 5; the Gaia themed 1985 thriller Edge of Darkness at 15; and Dennis Potter's cross-genre The Singing Detective at 20, plus its musical predecessor Pennies from Heaven at 21.

Bearing in mind John Cleese's double appearance in the 'top five' programs (Fawlty Towers and Monty Python), it's interesting to note he is, also, technically a Doctor Who actor. Cleese made a cameo appearance in the 1979 Tom Baker serial 'City of Death.'

Note: This article refers to British releases. Many of the books, audio and video tapes mentioned are available in America and elsewhere from online sites or selected retailers. For full details of current releases and international availability, visit www.gallifreyone.com/news.htm. Unfortunately, the DVDs mentioned in the article are currently Region 2 only, though the BBC is reportedly bringing out Doctor Who Region 1 DVDs soon. Anchor Bay is planning to release the two 1960s Dalek films (with Peter Cushing as the Doctor) to the format in 2002.

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