Run for Your Life: A Battle for Ratings Upstages the Fight for Survival
Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
Doctor Who (BBC1)
I missed Doctor Who's first regeneration, the one that turned him from a grumpy Victorian into Chico Marx. I can't imagine what family calamity prevented us from getting to the television in time that November Saturday in 1966. All I know is that we had to rely on my grandmother's hazy recollection. We wanted to know exactly how it had happened, how William Hartnell, whom we loved, had transformed into Patrick Troughton, whom we would love even more. "He just walked on," Granny told us, but we knew the BBC would never have left it at that.
To deprive us of a scene in which the doctor regenerates into Christopher Eccleston must have been one of the first decisions Russell T Davies made while writing his comeback episode (26 March, 7pm). His reasons are sound enough. Most of the target audience of children will never have even heard of Doctor Who, let alone know that eight actors have played the role since 1966. It would have made a puzzling and slow start. Instead we plunge into young Rose Tyler's worst day ever in her menial job in a trendy West End department store. Trapped in the shop's attic, she is being chased by clothes dummies when Eccleston appears. His first word is "Run!"
Running is another choice Davies has made for the doctor. The early doctors were too old and grand to run; they out-paced their enemies intellectually and morally, not physically. "Nice to meet you, Rose. Run for your life," the new doc says after introducing himself. Indeed, the tempo is double-quick time. Even the traffic round Piccadilly Circus is speeded up. It is necessary. Whereas in the Sixties a single story could last up to ten weeks (five hours), here Earth is saved in 45 minutes. So the plotting gets foreshortened: the plastic dummies have been taken over by a "nesting consciousness" eager to dine on Earth's toxins; the doctor's computers tell him the wibbly-wobbly source is close to the London Eye; Rose suggests they look under a manhole and there it is. A struggle ensues, as they say.
But why did Davies choose to revive the shop mannequin plot in the first place? They were the first enemies that the third doctor, Jon Pertwee, took on, and even then they looked daft. They ushered in four of the programme's worst seasons, in which the doctor was stranded (for budget reasons) in early 1970s London. Aliens were thwarted monthly, often on the Underground. While Pertwee was essentially humourless, the world around him got sillier and sillier. Until the great Tom Baker and some new writers came along, we all felt we were being written down to.
Davies is too good to do that. …