LIKE many who entered into cultural awareness in the 1960s and 1970s, my heart strings were tugged just a little by last week’s news from the BBC.
Doctor Who, it seems, is coming back. This will be the good Doctor’s ninth incarnation, if you count the 1996 movie starring Paul McGann. And that’s the sort of thing you have to get right when you’re talking about Doctor Who, because there are a lot of people out there who are counting, and who’ll be on to you like a Hutton inquiry barrister if you get it wrong.
Doctor Who was, and still is, taken very seriously indeed by its fans, and you mess with its legacy at your peril. The woolly scarves, the idiosyncratic hats, the cardboard cut-out sets, the cheesy special effects, the cute female sidekicks - all are lovingly remembered in nerdish detail.
This isn’t about just another TV remake, but the cultish world of fan clubs, conventions, memorabilia, and arcane debate around such questions as who made the best Doctor, and are the Daleks robotic or organic? The movie Galaxy Quest affectionately sent up the phenomenon, and the fan community around Doctor Who is our own very British version of it. Like Blake’s Seven and other British efforts at TV sci-fi, it may have been crap, in the main, but by god it was our crap, so bad it had to be good.
There’s something about the fantasy genre, from Star Trek through Star Wars to The Lord of the Rings that brings out the obsessive in people. That’s because at their best they involve the creation of fully realised alternative universes in which time can be travelled, the normal laws of physics do not apply, and the messy moral dilemmas of real life are replaced with simple struggles between the forces of good and evil.
Kids love them, and the inner child in us clings on to their memory as we leave carefree youth for the challenges of adulthood. In a world of uncertainty and confusion the Doctor, or Gandalf, or Obi Wan Kenobi, represent benign paternal power, and the reassuring security which that power brings. In a world where the real villains make the Cybermen seem as menacing as morris dancers, Doctor Who and his ilk bring us back to a place of safety.
And because they mean so much to so many people, tinkering with these alternative worlds can be dangerous. What an odd experience it was to see The Lord of the Rings, a book I could recite practically page by page by the time I was 14, turned into the property of a new generation of children brought up on digital effects and computer games.
I wanted Peter Jackson to succeed, though I doubted if he, or anyone, could do it, so all consuming is the literary universe of Middle Earth to those who immerse themselves in it.
Fortunately, Jackson turned out to be a fan of the book too, and successfully preserved the essence of Tolkien’s vision in the transition to celluloid. If he hadn’t - and others have failed in the attempt - he would have been a hate figure to hobbit-fanciers the world over.
George Lucas on the other hand ruined his own Star Wars myth, and his reputation as a director, if not a money maker, with poorly plotted, miscast prequels which played fast and loose with the fans’ cherished memories.
People all over the world queued up loyally to see Lucas’ efforts to screw another few billion from his lucrative franchise, but even the most uncritical fan couldn’t escape the fact that the Star Wars universe had become overcrowded with tricky effects, forgettable characters, and incomprehensible plot twists.
Doctor Who, which though operating on a budget that would hardly keep Lucas and his crew in cheeseburgers, inhabits the same emotional space as Darth Vader and chums, has come and gone many times since its first appearance in 1963, and experienced mixed fortunes. As a Time Lord, the Doctor’s physical appearance could change from one series to the next without insulting the viewer’s intelligence. As a result William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker all convinced as the Doctor, who became younger and more interesting with each incarnation.
Baker was my own personal favourite, bringing a genuinely dangerous quality to the role. The man who would later play Rasputin the mad monk, and a lascivious lecher in The Life and Loves of a She Devil made a wonderfully subversive Doctor, child-like but never patronising. After that high point in his evolution the role was played by a succession of increasingly weightless performers. Maybe it’s just that I grew up, but the show lost its audience, finally being put to sleep in 1986.
Which is where it might have remained, had it not been for the fans who kept writing in, pleading for a further incarnation, another roll of the cosmic dice to bring the Doctor back to his rightful place in our hearts. A TV movie underwhelmed in 1996, and persistent reports of a US Spielberg production came to nothing. The Americans preferred their own tradition of comic book heroes, starting with Batman and still going strong with the Hulk and Spiderman.
Now, though, Doctor Who is to get his chance at a comeback. Like Top of the Pops and Andy Pandy, the character is to be reinvented for a 21st century audience most of whom will be unfamiliar with the original.
So what will they be getting, and will they buy into it? Will the producers opt to preserve the charming amateurishness of earlier incarnations, preserving the low-tech look of classic Doctor Who rather than compete with the glossy slickness of Buffy or Angel.
Will the new Doctor be another gentleman adventurer, or an Americanised superhero? He’s going to be written by Russell T Davies, best known for Queer As Folk and The Second Coming. Will his Doctor be a sexually ambiguous Christ-figure with a taste for apocalypse? And who will play him? The book opens now, with to 10/1 about Graham Norton, Eddie Izzard at 15/1 (with a transvestite twist), and Rhona Cameron a rank outsider. In these post-feminist days, who said Doctor Who had to be a he?