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Doctor Who: I’m just a Space Cadet, he’s The Pilot

“He’s woven the future from the cloth of the past. Simple, stark, and back to basics. No frills, no scarf, no messing, just 100% Rebel Time Lord.” – Peter Capaldi, 2014

So The Doctor has returned. After a series sabbatical in 2016 – a year in which so many of our childhood heroes disappeared for good – the world’s longest running science fiction show is back, back, back!

I always make a point of watching Doctor Who if I can, and have done since its coruscating comeback at Easter 2005 with Rose, with Billie Piper in the episode’s title role and Christopher Eccleston as an edgy iteration of the rebel hero. It’s a thoroughly British institution – up there with the James Bond movies and Coronation Street – a triumvirate of 1960s creations that everybody has an opinion on, one way or another.

For me and my generation, the BBC’s 21st century reboot was nothing short of miraculous.

I remembered Doctor Who, fondly but with reservation, as a nostalgia piece that I grew up with in fledgling 1970s Milton Keynes. In fact, my earliest memories of British television are of two things: a plethora of tin-foiled tinsel-sporting glam rockers stomping around Top Of The Pops every Thursday night (Slade, Gary Glitter and Bolan, but no Bowie, ironically) and two evenings later, a rather scarier T. Rex in The Dinosaur Invasion; during the tail end of Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the third Doc, just before he morphed into Tom Baker. I know I had to share him with millions of others, but for all of us Tom was most definitely our doctor.

Time travelling back to 2008 with my ex and my doctor. I’d just interviewed the latter legendary Lothario

I was born five days after the viewing public saw Doctor Two, played by Patrick Troughton, being forced to regenerate into a brand new body by his own race, the Time Lords. The transformative aspect of the Doctor’s metamorphoses was a neat production trick, borne out of William Hartnell’s relinquishing of the role in 1966, that kept more actors in work and transfixed audiences. It certainly did me, but then my favourite lunchtime programme was already Mr Benn, another show with a Byronic, chameleonic characterisation.

But in 1984, when the beastly Colin Baker (6) took over from Peter Davison (No.5, are you keeping up?) this 14-year-old boy was going through some ch-ch-changes of his own. I’d swapped the stamp collecting for clubbing, the vests for sex, and Adam Ant for David Bowie. In fact, the month after Baker’s portrayal was first seen on screen in The Caves Of Androzani, I purchased my very first Bowie record: a four year-old Ashes To Ashes, chiefly because the video was my earliest memory of The Thin White Dame.

My first Bowie purchase, from Adrian’s Records, April 1984

Only later did it emerge that the main villain of that particular story, Sharaz Jek, was a role actually offered to Bowie. I doubt the stunt casting would have made much of a difference either way. I simply didn’t take to the less than masterful Baker Mk.II and stopped watching Doctor Who completely. Androzani was out, adolescence was in. The show was exterminated five years later, the year I stopped being a teen.

Flash forward to 2007’s Voyage of the Damned, the third Christmas special of New Who, and it’s incredible to think how huge the programme became under Russell T. Davies’s stewardship. Doctor Who made a star of David Tennant, but David Tennant helped propel the show to some of its greatest ever rating successes.

The festive story, which co-starred a typically anodyne Kylie Minogue, was the second most-watched programme of the year, beaten only by the episode of EastEnders which aired immediately after it. Saturday nights were the Sabbath, and I felt like a kid all over again.

Glory days are, by definition, always numbered, however. Much like the Doctor’s incarnations.

In 2010, Tennant’s 10 transformed into Matt Smith’s 11th Doc, and in 2013 Matt regenerated into Peter Capaldi’s 12. Happily, it was kind of fitting that the great Tom Baker should be the only iteration from the so-called Classic Series to have a starring role in 2013’s 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, joining Smith and Tennant, whose portrayals of the Doc both owe a great debt to Baker’s introduction of the zany Doctor characterisation to the programme in the mid ’70s.

My interest has just about remained but dipped. I still enjoy the show but not quite in the same way. Well, I moved to the other side of Planet Earth for starters.

A stranger in a strange land, yup

Casting Capaldi as the humanoid time-traveller was a brave and interesting choice. PC is a grand actor, a Bowie fan too, and like The Dame, Doctor Who is all about reinvention, and with Doc 12, a subtle reimagining can be seen in his aesthetic interpretation of the offbeat time-travelling alien. Fashion might not be the first thing people associate with Doctor Who, but what the Doctor wears is an intrinsic part of the show. Tom Baker’s long scarf, David Tennant’s pinstripe suit; those are things that people immediately associate with it.

Initially, Capaldi‘s costume was loosely, and economically, based on the tie-less monochromaticity of the Station To Station album cover, which portrays the Thin White one as the alien who just Fell To Earth.

But the red-eyed wrinkly rocker reification of our favourite alien has lost fans and the public alike. And so it goes that Peter bows out at the end of the year, rumoured to be replaced by a woman (The horror! The horror!). I’ll happily wager that part of the decline is the other PC – political correctness – that’s suffocated many of Stephen Moffat’s too-clever-clever-by-half scripts of recent years.

Having said that, I’m currently back in Blighty for an extended visit, and Doctor Who felt like event TV all over gain. I loved The Pilot on Saturday night. The introduction of Bill Potts – the pointedly less than hetero new companion – was engaging. Much like Rose, The Pilot follows Bill around in every scene; the common thread being Rose ate chips, Bill serves them.

Elsewhere Matt Lucas as Nardole was a kooky delight, and the redecorated Tardis interior was a close encounter I’ll happily revisit. Likewise, the brief stopover in Sydney, where I’ve just flown from, was a fun cameo that felt pertinent.

At various points the new season opener was exciting and frightening, and the episode felt like an indicator that the show as a whole might be a little more accessible again with this ‘soft reboot’. I’m happy, hope you’re happy too.

Steve Pafford

PS: If you didn’t get the post title clicky the linky…

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