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Revitalised Doctor Who takes off
Tom Bishop (BBC News)
The latest regeneration of sci-fi character Doctor Who has been introduced to a Cardiff audience as the show's new series was officially unveiled.
Cast and crew members were given a preview of the revitalised BBC One series ahead of its UK broadcast later this month.
Guests at the St David's Hotel launch shuffled through a makeshift Tardis - the Time Lord's vehicle - into a screening which featured cameos from actors Simon Callow, Penelope Wilton, Spaced's Simon Pegg and ex-Coronation Street star Bruno Langley.
But it was the Doctor himself who dominated proceedings, with actor Christopher Eccleston adding a welcome intensity to the character's ninth incarnation.
"This is the closest I have ever been to playing myself," said the 41-year-old actor.
"It's a version of me as a child, the way I feel about the world and everything in it."
Eccleston, whose previous credits include The Others, Our Friends in the North and Cracker, said he took the role of the Doctor "just as seriously" as any other.
"Children are watching so you have to take it seriously," he said. "Death happens in every episode - the world of Doctor Who is tough.
"According to the Daily Mail I stayed in character and slept in the Tardis. That's not true - we worked so hard I never slept!"
By giving the Doctor a slight northern accent, Eccleston has redressed an imbalance he saw within the show since its 1963 debut.
"There's a link between all the previous Doctors in that they spoke in RP - Received Pronunciation," he explains.
"The fact that he was heroic and intelligent said to kids 'if you speak like this you will be heroic and intelligent'.
"That was one of the reasons I turned off as a kid because the Doctor seemed to be like a teacher in school, a figure of authority."
The new Doctor is accompanied on his time travels by Rose Tyler, a spirited teenager played by Billie Piper, who is unafraid to poke fun at the Time Lord.
"Rose is a feisty character, she's got balls," said Piper, who explains that one of the reasons she took the part was because she related so closely to Rose.
"I was very similar at 19," she said. "I wanted something to happen in life, I wanted a bit more. I wanted to find someone who could challenge my ideas. So I definitely tapped into that."
When not saving worlds from creatures such as the Daleks, the Doctor and Rose find time to develop a closeness that borders on the romantic.
"I am convinced they love each other," said Eccleston. "I think perhaps it's love at first sight.
"But it's not a conventional love affair - it's far more mysterious than that."
Eccleston praised co-star Piper, with whom he shared a gruelling work schedule on the BBC Wales production.
"So far there has been no heroine out there for eight to 12-year-old girls, but she is one," he said.
"She carries the series with me. Billie pulled it off like that," he continued, snapping his fingers.
Piper, who at 22 barely remembers previous Doctor Whos, says acting came naturally to her despite being better known in the UK as a pop star.
"I originally trained as an actress but I did not want to act and sing at the same time," she explained.
"I felt like one would suffer if I tried to do both, but that it would only be a matter of time before I returned to acting."
She said she was not daunted by the role because the early storylines, written by the show's executive producer Russell T Davies, were "so fantastic".
"When I met Russell he was this incredible force," she recalled. "I felt I just had to work with him."
Davies is a committed Doctor Who fan, as demonstrated by references to the cult series which crept into his earlier TV hit Queer As Folk.
In reviving Doctor Who after 16 years he was determined to keep "fundamental" elements, which he lists as "a Time Lord and a human, a police box which is bigger on the inside than on the outside, the noise when the Tardis takes off and the theme tune".
Everything else was open to question, he said, unafraid of upsetting fellow Who devotees - known as "Who-vians" - with the show's latest incarnation.
"If a cult fan hates it that means he will watch it 20 times rather than 30," Davies said. "We want to make a new cult."
The new Doctor Who series comprises 13 dynamic 45-minute episodes that should keep Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans happy while retaining a very British flavour all of its own.
Acknowledging that the Saturday evening show will seek a family audience, Davies and his co-writers aim to frighten their viewers "responsibly".
"But we're not just relying on scares - there's a lot of plot in there and a lot of character," he added.
Davies is less distressed than his Doctor Who colleagues that an episode of the new series found its way onto the internet three weeks before transmission.
"I do not think it's that big a deal," he said. "A couple of thousand people will watch it on the internet. I think they are also the people who will watch it again on transmission."
When asked whether a second series of the revitalised Doctor Who is likely, Davies replied: "That would be nice.
"I want to give this a good few years - there's so much more to learn. You can't just leave a show like this."
Doctor Who begins on BBC One on 26 March.
Date Added: 3/9/2005
1) 8/10/2005 - New challenge for Dr Who artist
2) 5/27/2005 - Sales of Dr Who exterminate rivals
3) 5/23/2005 - Piper 'to leave Who series two'
4) 5/25/2004 - Dreamwatch
5) 5/10/2004 - The Master, arch-enemy of Doctor Who
6) 4/27/2004 - Press Release
7) 1/23/2004 - Who Won? Cosgrove Hall Brings Home the Big Chip
8) 1/10/2004 - New Companion for 7th Doctor
9) 11/12/2003 - Net première for Dr Who
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