'It's never over with Doctor Who'

00:15, Apr 20 2013
Paul McGann
Makeover: Paul McGann, the eighth Doctor, wields his Weta Workshops-designed sonic screwdriver in his new Victorian navy coat.

It was supposed to last six weeks, but Doctor Who is celebrating its 50th anniversary in November. Chris Gardner attended the Lords of Time convention in Auckland and discovers, with some of the show's leads, more about the show that is bigger on the inside.

Sir Peter Jackson's Weta Workshop made Doctor Who actor Paul McGann a new sonic screwdriver after his last one was stolen on a train.

McGann was last weekend presented with the new prop, a sort of Swiss Army knife for Time Lords, by the Lords of Time convention organiser Bill Geradts in Auckland. The prop was made by Weta's senior model maker Dave Tremont who had made the original as a gift for McGann in 2010 after he visited Weta.

"I lost it, someone stole it from my bag," McGann, the eighth actor to play the iconic role, confessed. "It's a wicked world, folks. I felt terrible when it was nicked. I didn't want to tell anyone, but I'm glad I did now," McGann said as he waved the blue glowing prop around.

"It works. It actually works. That's fantastic."

McGann's Doctor, who wore a velvet green coat and cravat, was given a makeover by Weta during his last visit to New Zealand in 2010.

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"Bill Geradts and I, three years ago, were sat during one of these signing sessions lamenting that we only had old pictures," McGann said. "That's how the conversation started."

McGann wanted his new costume, which would be used on the cover of Big Finish Productions Doctor Who audio plays, to honour his seafaring ancestors and came up with the idea of a Victorian-era navy- style pea coat which Weta's senior costume supervisor Matt Appleton made for the actor.

Jackson, one of the world's biggest Doctor Who fans, has put his hand up to direct Matt Smith, the 11th actor to play the role, after Smith told the Waikato Times he would "campaign endlessly" to work with Jackson in New Zealand.

Geradts, the man behind the chain of Armageddon pop culture expos which run across New Zealand every year, described the Lords of Time event as "pretty much the biggest Doctor Who event in New Zealand history".

McGann was joined by the fifth, sixth and seventh actors to have played the Doctor - Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy - at the event alongside Nicholas Briggs, who has voiced the daleks, cybermen and other alien nasties since the show returned to television in 2005. Briggs is also executive producer of Big Finish Productions.

So who drove the Doctor's time machine, the Tardis, to New Zealand?

"The Tardis. It drove itself," McCoy answers first. McGann nods. "It drives itself."

Baker clarifies. "Autopilot." Briggs claims: "I was chasing them." McGann concludes: "I really was nervous."

Doctor Who was developed by the BBC in 1963. It starred William Hartnell as the time-travelling Doctor whose time machine was disguised as a police box.

"It was supposed to run for six weeks," McCoy said, "as a science programme for children."

Its format proved popular and when Hartnell decided to leave the show in 1966 the BBC decided to hire another actor, Patrick Troughton, to play the role. Thus the concept of regeneration was born.

Jon Pertwee, who, with his two predecessors is now dead, followed and then Tom Baker. McCoy was the last actor to play the Doctor before the show was canned in 1989 by BBC controller Michael Grade who thought its concept was old hat.

"The BBC loves the programme now," Colin Baker said. "Certainly when I was doing it and when Sylvester was doing it it was a tad embarrassing that they were still churning out something that was 25 years old, and we are now celebrating 50. One spaceship on the screen when I was doing it took up a third of the budget. Now it's two 12-year-olds on a computer and bang there's your spaceship."

McGann starred in a Canadian television pilot designed to relaunch the series in 1996, but it failed.

"This TV pilot that I was involved in in 96, some of the criticism that we heard was that it was too glossy," McGann said. "It ran counter to what nostalgically people used to love about the old show. People didn't necessarily want it to look too slick.

"Would have, could have, should have, it's the life of an actor. It's never over with Doctor Who, I am still sitting here. What keeps me interested is the enthusiasm of the fans. It's the only reason, there's no other reason for us to be here. We can choose to be here or not. Most performers, like everybody else, like a pat on the back. If you work in the theatre it's instantaneous, if you work in film or television it might be a year or two later that you get to talk about the work.

"Some of the things we talked about [had the pilot gone to series] we have been able to incorporate into some of the audios."

But it did pave the way for the new BBC series which started in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston, followed by David Tennant, now Peter Davison's son-in-law, and current Doctor, Matt Smith.

The role, then, tends to be one the lead actor rents as he brings new sides to the Doctor's personality.

"That's a good thing really," Baker said. "It takes away a huge responsibility, it's a massive burden because it's such a big programme, and the fact that we have all, one after the other, played a part and all done it very differently, means that the programme is bigger than any one of us and that's the way it should be really."

McGann, whose Doctor notched up 35 audio adventures with Big Finish Productions after his 89-minute appearance on screen, said: "The possibilities seem infinite. It doesn't matter how many actors get to play the part, probably we'll still only scratch the surface."

Geradts credits Big Finish Productions for keeping fandom alive in what is known in Doctor Who fandom as the wilderness years.

McCoy disagrees: "It was the fans actually that kept it going, really. I mean if it wasn't for them there wouldn't be Doctor Who now. They decided they didn't want it to die."

McGann adds: "The longer it goes on, the bigger the mythology builds. It's often amazing to hear people that have no right to know this stuff, it's almost PhD level, it's quite possible that 50 years from now we could all be sitting here Doctors."

So what has made Doctor Who endure?

"I think it's an odyssey," Briggs said. "In some senses, it's about a journey, a voyage of discovery, with a main character who has insatiable curiosity. His Achilles heel is his tendency to want to interfere, he says ‘I won't get involved, but I will just change that'. He can't help himself."

Baker says it's to do with Doctor Who being something that parents can share with their children.

"Young parents who watched it when they were young are bringing their children and sharing. Once that ball is rolling it's unlikely to stop because the children of today are going to want to share it with their children. I can easily see Doctor Who on the screens 20 years from now."

Davison says the late Douglas Adams, a one-time script editor on the show and creator of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, knew the secret.

"I've got to the age where I am watching Doctor Who with my two sons and I find myself turning to them and saying, ‘What's going on?' Adams told me once that the secret of Doctor Who is you make it simple enough for the adults to understand, and complicated enough to hold the children's attention."

One fan, who confesses a 35-year love of the show, asks if the Doctors think she and her fellow fans are a bit pathetic.

"No," smiles Davison. "Slightly barking mad!

"It's very nice," he continues. "We essentially come along here and you tell us how wonderful we are."

Davison, like many of his fellow Who-ers as McCoy calls them, cites Troughton as his favourite Doctor.

"You're not recording this, are you," aware his comments may get back to his son-in-law.

"Patrick Troughton in many ways had the toughest job because he had the first regeneration, and the whole population never even dreamt about there being another Doctor. I just remember watching it with great trepidation and thinking it's never going to be anywhere near as good as it was and within one episode he had just won everybody over with his characterisation."

Davison remembers a meeting with his predecessor Tom Baker.

"We did have a get-together in the BBC bar which is a very noisy place and he did say to me: ‘What you have got to remember about Doctor Who Peter is . . .' and then he said something, and much like today I didn't hear a bloody word."

While the BBC is filming a 50th anniversary programme to air in November, which will feature Tennant and Smith, Big Finish Productions will release a 50th anniversary story featuring the first eight Doctors.

"It's called The Light at the End," Briggs reveals. "It features the first eight Doctors, it's got the Master in it and it has many different types of Doctor Who in it. There's out-and-out adventure, real hard sci-fi, then there's sinister dark Doctor Who, and then there's Time Lordy Doctor Who."

He won't say who is playing the first three Doctors.

"Big Finish has given me the opportunity to take my Doctor where I wanted to take him back in the 80s," Baker said. "To me, one of the most interesting characters in fiction is Darcy in Pride And Prejudice and for three quarters of the book we all loathe him until we realise that he's the only truly honourable person in the whole story and everybody else is self-interested and he's a true hero who allows himself to be seen to be less than a hero in order to achieve a greater good.

"Doctor Who gave me the opportunity to present the sixth incarnation as selfish and arrogant but over a period of time he wasn't. He was in fact, if not the same as his predecessors, even better, even more selfless."

So what about the show's future?

McCoy asks: "Will they get to a lady Doctor do you think?"

"There should be a lady," Baker adds.

"The legend is that there are 12 regenerations but I am sure they will overcome that though when the necessity arrives and extend it. It's extraordinary to think that this personality does not have a feminine side of any kind."

Briggs concurs: "The idea that a Time Lord can change sex when they regenerate has been established in the television series."

The new series of Doctor Who is on Prime at 8.30pm on Thursdays.

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