Somewhere in the dim and distant recesses of my childhood memories, I can just about remember William Hartnell playing the very first Doctor in Doctor Who. Despite the myths that have grown up around the show since then, I was never the kind of kid to hide cowering behind the sofa, frightened by the mechanical menace of the Daleks. I just loved the fantasy and one ancient B&W episode in particular has always stuck in my mind. Set on an alien planet, it featured some giant ant-like creatures (possibly known as Zarbi?)
I have clearer (and less fond) memories of Patrick Troughton prancing around in check trousers and whistling on a flute but, for me, the actor who will always be associated with the role is Jon Pertwee. By then, of course, the series was already being hit by budget constraints. The TARDIS was trapped permanently on Earth; the sets were noticeably cardboard; the costumes and SFX were of a laughably low standard and the acting of the supporting cast distinctly "children's TV". But I liked it. For all its absurdities, Pertwee's intense focus made the Doctor himself a credible character and that was enough for me to overlook everything else.
After Pertwee, I lost interest in the series. Looking back, I can see that production standards did continue to fall but, in reality, I think I just outgrew it. Had I been younger, I suspect I might have bought into Tom Baker's Doctor but we'll never know. For my generation, by the time Pertwee left, Doctor Who had become something of a joke, and the surprise wasn't that the BBC eventually cancelled it but that they hadn't done so many years earlier.
When Russell Davies resurrected the show, I had mixed feelings. The nostalgic in me wanted it to be a success but, despite the advent of computer-generated SFX, I never found Christopher Ecclestone convincing as the Doctor. To me, he always seemed to be hamming it up slightly; as if he couldn't quite rid himself of the idea that the show was meant for kids. He was okay, but he always seemed to be self-consciously acting rather living the role.
And then came David Tennant. For the first time since the 1960s, when Tennant took over the role as the Doctor, the show made the jump from "watchable" to "must-see" TV! He was the Doctor. He didn't just put on a costume and act slightly eccentric, he became the Doctor. Tennant's wide-eyed irrepressible enthusiasm was the Doctor's wide-eyed irrepressible enthusiasm and, like Pertwee, he brought an intensity to the role that enabled us to swallow even the most ludicrous of plots. And it was contagious. For the first time since William Hartnell, Doctor Who wasn't just a show that adults could watch with their kids, it was a show that adults could enjoy as much as their kids. No wonder both the BBC and the show's fans were worried about having to replace him.
Which brings us to the first episode of the new series starring Matt Smith. So, how did he measure up against his predecessors? To be honest he was not bad as the Doctor. Following Tennant was always going to be a difficult task and, for most of the episode, Smith seemed to be still in his shadow, imitating Tennant rather than playing the role his own way. He still has time to grow into the role, of course, and he may yet make it his own. In fact, I suspect that part of the problem may well have been that the script was written with Tennant's Doctor in mind, making it difficult for Smith to play any other way. We shall see. On the strength of one episode, I can't quite give him two thumbs up yet, but one thumb is certainly raised. The episode's frantically fast pace careered from pathos, to slapstick, to action and back again, without missing a beat. It was in short ... fun.
And much of the credit for that fun belongs to the performance of Karen Gillan as the Doctor's new assistant, strippergram (sorry, kiss-a-gram!) Amy Pond. Perhaps more than any other of the Doctor's assistants, Amy seems to be a refreshingly complex character. Having seen the Doctor as a child, she has something of Martha Jones's starry-eyed infatuation with him. Having been entranced by his seemingly fantastical stories she has something of Rose Tyler's star-struck wonder. But, most importantly, having spent years in therapy as a result, she has more than a little of Donna Noble's combative feistiness. She is, in short, all of her predecessors and yet none of them. She is a worthy successor and yet very much her own person. It may take a few episodes for Matt Smith to become his own Doctor but it seems that, while we're waiting, Karen Gillan is going to give the kind of performance that will ensure we hardly notice!