See those innocent, unassuming book covers up above there? Look harmless enough. You wouldn’t think that they’d be the trigger for a lifetime’s obsession, but it’s true. In my memory, it was the summer of 1977. I was seven years old. My family had just moved from Northern Ireland to a new home in Wales. I was sitting around twiddling my thumbs, doing whatever it is that seven year olds do when my Mum came home from shopping.
“Bought you these. Thought you might like them”, she said. Did I ever. And I continued to like them and a lot more besides. Because of them, I’m writing this on the eve of Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary. Time for a little look back at life with Doctor Who. It means a lot to me. Let me explain.
I’d been aware of Doctor Who, of course. Like every family in Britain (and considerably further afield, I suspect) legends are rife of me hiding behind the sofa, peeking out to enjoy the thrill of watching either the Bionic Granddad or old Teeth-And-Curls saving the universe on a weekly basis at Saturday tea-time. Of course, I deny everything. I was always a brave, hard as nails wee lad, and extremely unlikely to be scared by anything on television. If it were true though, I suspect it might have been Pyramids of Mars or The Brain of Morbius that did it. I have very very vague, fleeting memories – almost rewritten by a lifetime of viewing as an ostensible grown up.
However – the arrival of those two books – one Terrance Dicks, one Gerry Davis – that was THE MOMENT. That was when a passing interest developed into something more, into something that threaded its way into my life and became a part of me, of who I am. It triggered a love affair that I suspect will never ever end. Believe me, I don’t want it to.
It didn’t hit me immediately, of course. You will note that I was a hard lad, and extremely unlikely to be scared by anything on television. That applies to what I read as well, and any rumours you may have heard regarding me having to put down “The Auton Invasion” at the point where Sam’s wife opened the metal trunk and triggered off the advance of a searching Auton and go out for a consoling play in the sunshine – well, they’re malicious rumours, that’s all. I wasn’t scared. I just wasn’t, alright?
I don’t like your tone, Sir.
Yeah? Well I don’t like your face. Nor your hair.
I picked it up again eventually, of course. That book was read so often it almost fell apart, but I still have it. “The Tenth Planet”? That was even worse. To an impressionable seven year old the bare, fuss-free prose retelling the First Doctor’s final adventure against a bunch of emotionless anorak-clad monsters from another planet had an even bigger impact. The point at which I had to go for a consoling scamper in the sun came when the Cybermen broke into the South Pole base for the first time. By the time I reached the end I was a Fan, rather than just a fan. That capital letter seems important somehow. Gerry tampered considerably with the regeneration sequence in the book, but it still really works. To me, there’s still a small part expects Troughton to be revealed hands-first. It’s an interesting, equally valid approach and it tickled me no-end when the Capaldi digits were the first thing we saw of the new Twelfth Doctor just a few short months ago. I can’t imagine it was deliberate but we humans can find patterns in anything.
I’ve often wondered if those two unassuming Target Novelisations are the reason why Doctor Who for me has always been about more than just the television series. I soon reached an age where the obsession with behind the scenes facts and lists took over, the desperate need to know EVERYTHING about how it was made. Patrick Troughton has commented about not wanting to peek behind the curtain and see how the magic works because it might spoil it, and I’m not altogether sure he wasn’t wrong. Somehow though, the initial love of Doctor Who as a massive, sprawling, never-ending story – that never goes away. In print, on audio, on TV, even (god help me) for two very strange afternoons in 1989, on stage – the thrill of an exciting adventure, well told – that’s the thing. A dear friend always refers to Doctor Who as An Exciting Adventure In Time And Space, and I agree with him totally. Cut out all the hoo-hah about production, cast changes, who didn’t like working with whom, and what’s left is the child-like joy of losing yourself in an fantastic adventure with the best mate, the barmy uncle, the loony but trustworthy stranger you knew was ok from the moment you set eyes on him. If I work hard enough at it, I can recapture that sensation. Sometimes it happens instantly – about which, more anon.
I don’t know about you – and I’m told that this is not exactly normal – but Doctor Who is so intertwined with my life that were you give me virtually any episode title, I’d probably be able to tell you where I was and what I was doing at the time it was broadcast. It’s a handy little memory aid. My family probably couldn’t tell you when our beloved family pet – a Shetland Collie called Becky – delivered her first litter of pups. I can – because she did it in the small hours of the morning after “The Trial of A Time Lord”, episode 14. I can pin down the exact date that we moved to Scotland from Wales, because it happened in the week between the broadcast of “Paradise Towers”, episode 4 and “Delta and the Bannermen”, episode 1. Sitting in rented accommodation in Bonnyrigg watching an episode of my favourite television show set in the country I’d just left – that sort of thing stays with you. I can tell you exactly what I was doing and where I was on the Monday morning before the first Christopher Eccleston episode aired, because I was standing on a pavement on Slateford Road in Edinburgh staring in hushed awe at the enormous billboard that had suddenly appeared, telling me that yes it was actually happening, and Doctor Who was coming back. Oddly enough, the week before it had been displaying a twenty foot wide poster of David Tennant as Casanova. “Who is that grinning maniac”? I thought to myself. How little I knew.
Back when I first started at the very beginning, I was always trying to be old and grumpy and important, like you do when you’re young
Meanwhile, back in “childhood”…. Season 17 suddenly arrived on television. You remember Season 17, don’t you? It’s not supposed to be very good, with the exception of “City of Death”. I was nine, and I loved every episode, especially the first four which had Daleks in. The only episodes that year I missed - of course – were the ones that had Tom and Lalla running around Paris, trying to pretend they weren’t madly in love. The grown up me gets aggravated by an obviously bored and frustrated leading man doing anything – everything – to keep his own interest up, and the almost total lack of budget given to Doctor Who in an inflation-struck 1979. But… it’s a wee firecracker of a season for ideas, isn’t it? The Daleks, burrowing to find their creator. Emotion defeats logic. An enormous monster in a pit on a planet where metal is at a premium. Spaceships crashing into each other. The Muppets, invading from ITV and stomping after the Doctor until they’re melted down into hard drugs. An enormous bull, hopping from planet to planet devouring resources and living in a giant printed circuit board while re-enacting a loose version of Greek myth. There are ideas tumbling out of every corner, almost too many for one series to hold.
Season 18 didn’t impact much on me the first time around. I have memories of travelling to the Vetch Field in Swansea quite a lot for the football – living in Dyfed meant quite a commute and we frequently didn’t get home until long after the episode ended. On the weeks when Swansea were playing away I’d have been distracted by Buck Rogers on the other side or reading yet another one of the ever expanding collection of Target Novelisations I was acquiring. A fan, ignoring the new in favour of wallowing in the past. Imagine that. Examined all these years later it’s obvious that the new broom that swept Tom Baker right out of the door didn’t quite shift the residue of the previous year, despite what “received wisdom” might tell you. Season 18 – and indeed every season afterward – is filled with just as much loony science and madness as all the seasons prior, and that’s just how I like it. This is a series which would have us believe an enormous cactus with delusions of grandeur can steal an earthling, nick his identity, turn himself into a doppelganger of our hero and acquire a bunch of rubbish mercenaries – the name of one of whom is an anagram of “Bad Actor”. We’re not exactly watching “Coronation Street” here.
The obsession grew and grew. By the time an overdubbed Nyssa announced “he was the Doctor all the time” and Tom gave way to Peter, I was more in love than ever. Oh, I didn’t know what was waiting for me.
Somehow – and given the complicated nature of contracts, repeat fees and assorted other deals that need to be made – John Nathan-Turner managed to secure sufficient repeat space on BBC2 to show an entire serial for each Doctor plus the mythical, only to be mentioned in whispers story where Three Doctors Appeared At The Same Time. The trailer that announced the imminent arrival of “The Five Faces of Doctor Who” caused a certain amount of excitement, it’s safe to say.
“An Unearthly Child” stoked things up nicely. The very first serial. History, come to life in front of my eyes. Terrance hadn’t even novelised that one at that stage (give him a couple of weeks). He hadn’t novelised “The Krotons” either, which brought on a bout of Troughton mania that has yet to abate, nearly 35 years later. “Carnival of Monsters” didn’t make much of a blip, then or now. I can appreciate the artistry but it’s never really flown for me for some reason. Perhaps I was too excited by the imminent arrival of “The Three Doctors”. Or “The Two and a Half Doctors”, as it should perhaps be called. Kicking off a grand tradition whereby anniversary serials are hamstrung by illness, awkwardness or unavailability, poor old Hartnell was resigned to pottering about in his potting shed while the other two grandstanded their way through a story involving jelly, anti-matter, recorders, Stephen Thorne shouting and the Lenny Mayne Repertory Company (Rex Robinson, basically). Somehow the magic still clings to “The Three Doctors”. That Troughton love could only increase in intensity from here. “Logopolis” came and went, with the magnificent bouffanted Davison appearing at the end to tease us before his first proper appearance in the new year. JN-T hadn’t finished with us yet though, oh no.
Who Is The Doctor?
28th December 1981, and “K9 and Company” escaped. I can’t say it was released or screened, because that seems inappropriate for a pilot so magnificently stupid, so addle-patedly wrong in every respect that it’s impossible not to love. That title sequence is justly famous, as is Brendan’s honking, K9’s carol singing, and… oh, all of it, really. But especially the theme tune. Bill Fraser always claimed he took the part in “Meglos” so’s he could kick K9. Presumably the temptation to cast him in a K9 special (and I use that word advisedly) was too much for JN-T to resist.
Back to business as usual then, and the advent of Peter Davison. Living in Scotland, we were treated to episode one of “Castrovalva” at 3:30 on a gloriously wintry weekday afternoon. Strange place to kick off a whole new era, but my god, I loved Season 19.
I love Peter Davison. Wholeheartedly. I have a list – of course I do, I’m a boy, I love lists. That list consists of a number of names – people who have appeared in Doctor Who more than once and not given anything even resembling a bad performance. There’s a cluster of familiar names, and some not so familiar. Right at the top of the list is Peter. Not only does he never give a bad performance (sometimes under extreme provocation) but I don’t think he knows how to. It’s not in him, and at a point when I was struggling towards adolescence and desperately needed one of the things I loved most not to be laughed at, he guided us (and me) through three years which seem like a golden age to me. Looked at objectively, they’re not. Not by any stretch. At best, huge chunks of Season 19 to 21 would struggle to hit midpoint in most people’s personal bests – but somehow that period seems magical to me. It was a period where all of a sudden everyone wore the same clothes, week in, week out. Where things seemed to go a bit day-glo and garish (oh, just you wait, Dunlop. Just you wait). Where suddenly fluent Sawardese was the way that everyone spoke as a matter of course (all clipped one-liners and strange sentence construction). A period where the return of old favourites would be greeted by a rousing cheer, until we actually saw them. Where Anthony Ainley could turn up as a Chinese sorcerer, as a French Taunter, as a man wearing several Perspex top hats one on top of another and we didn’t bat an eyelid. And yet… and yet… Peter held it all together, and damn well made you believe that every breathless, desperate rush towards the conclusion of episode 4 meant something. There was greatness in here.
Are The Kinda Dangerous?
We Don’t Know. You See, with the Kinda, they seem innocent enough. And they smile a lot. Or used to.
Sometimes it seemed to happen almost by accident. Christopher Bailey’s two stories. The giddy romantic rush of “Black Orchid”. The astonishing return of the Cybermen and the even more astonishing dispatch of a companion at the end of “Earthshock”. The funereal, oppressive greatness of “Terminus” episode 1, followed by the funereal, oppressive great script neutered by production hell of episodes 2-4 (albeit with an enormous Space Dog). The party atmosphere of “The Five Doctors”, the… oddness… of “Frontios”. And then there was Androzani. Davison’s Doctor sacrifices himself for a friend he’s only just met and it seems the rightest thing in the world. And then…
… it was time to welcome my teenage years, and a version of Doctor Who that seemed to be going terribly wrong. That’s what they say, you know. I have never – ever – read an analysis of the Colin Baker years of Doctor Who that isn’t steeped in regret and dislike. Just this last week a review of Doctor Who’s “best” stories ever skipped over Colin’s period with a blithe dismissal in its rush to get to Sylvester and this has always seemed unjust because I loved Season 22 then and I still get a certain amount of that love now. It is harsh and uncompromising by comparison to the three years we’d just had, but it’s not exactly Apocalypse Now, is it? The Sixth Doctor on television is very very difficult to warm to, they say, but I managed it. I didn’t manage it during “The Twin Dilemma”, which stubbornly resists revisionism and remains to this day absolutely bloody appalling, but by the time “Attack of the Cybermen” rolled around I found him really quite easy to get used to. Mind you, I was a fifteen year old boy and there were other attractions to that season. Hello, Nicola. Sorry, Nicola.
Once again that old devil hindsight whispers seductively in my ear – and yes, there’s something in almost every story in this season that lets it down. Be it body-popping Cybermen, Jason Connery’s just-out-of-drama school performance, a remarkably active BBC Tree, a performance by John Stratton as a human-eating chef that starts at “ripe” and ascends straight into “rotten”, King Richard of Darrow the Third, her from below stairs in Upstairs Downstairs descending to an even lower level of acting competence than anyone ever thought possible. Conversely…
Colin’s little “I won’t hurt you, Peri. Honest” followed by an affectionate chuck of the nose. “Don’t think I misjudged anybody quite as badly as I misjudged Lytton”, barely forty minutes after the line regarding same – “the sort of person who’d shoot his own grandmother just to keep his trigger finger supple”. The Greek Chorus of “Vengeance on Varos”, and both episode endings. The beauty of that elegant, leisurely first few minutes of “The Mark of the Rani”, where the plot takes its own sweet time to get going. The return of the Second Doctor and Jamie, for one last – very silly – hurrah. The way that once Colin gets out of that coat and into the white shirt and waistcoat he sports in the Spanish sequences he becomes the Doctor I imagine everyone wanted him to be right from the first. Even “Timelash” has Herbert, who I like but I know lots of people don’t. There are no 100 percent successful Colin Baker stories. There aren’t too many 100 percent successful Doctor Who stories, full stop. There is one that comes bloody close though.
Well, you’ve got a wife and a half there, George. She found a cure for Beck’s Syndrome forty years ago. Still, it’d be interesting to know what she’s really doing with the money.
“Revelation of the Daleks” is my favourite Doctor Who story. It has been since some time in the summer of 1986, when a late night viewing stopped me dead in my tracks with wonder at just how bleakly, nihilistically, brutally wonderful it is. The humour is pitch dark. It features genuine body horror, coupled with emotional heartbreak (Stengos’s “if you ever loved me Natasha, kill me. Kill me” while fighting to retain control of his own humanity is one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen inside or outside of Doctor Who). Clive Swift’s little moments of vanity with his hairpiece, followed by the same hairpiece falling off as Jobel dies is such a wonderfully savage touch. It has Daleks as guard dogs, checking security passes in a bored manner. It has John Ogwen looking Eleanor Bron up and down in a manner so lascivious it should travel in a brown paper bag. Alexei Sayle switches from prattle to cynic to hero with no audible grinding of gears. As does Colin, actually. He has a moment here in the corridors of Tranquil Repose where he’s running along and then hears the climactic battle between DJ and Daleks coming through the tannoy. We see the DJ gunned down, then cut to Colin in the corridor as Peri’s anguished “you murdered him! Why did you have to…?” comes over the speaker. He stops and just for a second closes his eyes in pain at another senseless waste of a life. He shudders very gently, as if bowed down by it all and then takes off again, careening round the corner straight into some Daleks. “There you are! They went that way”, he blusters – which the Daleks rightly ignore, and a recaptured Colin walks off with them, with a nod that says “yes, yes. I know. Pathetic attempt, wasn’t it?” It’s a beautiful little moment, and one that shows what Colin can really do when he’s allowed to. Allied with a strong director, he could be (and is) superb. When I was fifteen, I fell in love with it. The shine hasn’t worn off yet.
At Last, Doctor.
Am I late for something?
I was beginning to fear you had lost yourself.
While I was stampeding into my teenage years – full of insecurity and anxiety about the future – it seemed that all of a sudden Doctor Who didn’t have one. Following an eighteen month break which earned Michael Grade the coveted horses-arse award from one of the increasingly noisy subsections of fandom, the subtle-as-a-brick “The Trial of a Time Lord” gave us one of the greatest additions (for those of us who like these things) to Doctor Who continuity. The Valeyard not only delivers the first of several highly self-referential broadsides contained within “Trial”, he also is the subject of one of “Trial”’s two astonishing drop-me-bacon-sandwich moments. The revelation that he’s actually The Doctor from the future but an amalgam of the Doctor’s nastier moments, stuck between regenerations… well, it’s a hair-on-end television moment. The music. Colin’s increasingly horrified reaction to what he’s being told. The way the Valeyard sits – seemingly miles away from The Doctor – and just stares at him while the balloon goes up – it all just justifies my faith in this occasionally wayward, frequently loony thing that is Doctor Who. Of course, being Doctor Who, it blows it out of the water seconds later with the advent of SuperValeyard, cheesing it in plain sight across a room full of Time Lords and Security Guards without anyone seemingly noticing. I can forgive. Just.
The other astonishing drop-me-bacon-sandwich moment – spin back to episode 8, and just watch the way everything that’s not supposed to happen in Doctor Who suddenly does. Events spiral out of control. The Doctor is taken out of the way to a point where he has to watch helplessly as his companion dies alone and terrified on the operating table, her essence drained away and replaced by an alien businessman’s mind. The Time Lords set things up so the Warrior King who is so conveniently lurking around – and is in love with Peri – arrives just after the operation. And then – just watch. Go on, just watch. Peri sits up, shouts “Protect me. I am the lord and master”. And Brian Blessed – the master of overacting, who has reduced the normally ebullient Colin to monosyllables a few minutes earlier – the ear-drum splitting, caricature of himself that we all know and love – stops. Looks in horror at the girl he thought he knew. Realises what he has to do, makes a little facial gesture that shows he’s steeling himself to do the worst thing he’ll ever have to do in his life, raises the gun… and pulls the trigger. “Trial of a Time Lord” may be a hopelessly confused mess, full of contradictory evidence, ridiculous hammy scenes in which Colin Baker and Michael Jayston needle each other while Lynda Bellingham fiddles ineffectually with a biro. It may feature a megabyte modem, a feeling of desperate tiredness and an ending where the terminally bored composer actually climaxes the entire season with the same musical sting that accompanies the matchbox in The Young Ones (“don’t look at me – I’m irrelevant”). But – for those two moments alone – it gets a free pass from me. Throw in the tragic and understated subplot of Ruth Baxter from episodes 9-12 and that incredible opening effects shot and it just about balances out all the bits that make me wince.
It ended on a relatively positive and upbeat note. But then it all fell apart. We lost Robert Holmes, Dennis Spooner, Ian Marter. Colin Baker was sacked (I still remember the day the issue of Celestial Toyroom – the Doctor Who Appreciation Society newsletter – arrived. Bright yellow. Huge headline – “Playing Dirty. Colin Baker ousted”.) . JN-T was desperate to leave, but the BBC wouldn’t let him. A mere three years after the anniversary mania it looked like it was all over. I couldn’t see – although I didn’t want to admit it to myself at the time – Doctor Who lasting much longer.
And then… things seemed to stabilise, at least temporarily. But not immediately.
Gowon, Run. Run. The areas full. Of. Traps. As-well-you-know.
I didn’t know it but life was about to take another surprising turn. One day I came home from school (I’d just started sixth form) to be told that within a very short time the entire family would be headed off to Scotland to start a new life. We’d lived there before. We moved from Ireland to Wales, then up to Scotland (just in time for Season 18). We moved back down to Wales again in time for Season 20 (told you I can reckon my life by what Who was on where). Exactly halfway through Season 24 we were back in Scotland again, but not before as a 16 year old – desperately serious and wanting TO be taken seriously – I’d watched the new Doctor falling arse over elbow and Kate O’Mara impersonating poor, poor Bonnie Langford in a production that screamed “Will this do??!!” in enormous capital letters. Letraset, day-glo capital letters. I’m glad I got out of Wales before “Delta and the Bannermen” started. I like “Paradise Towers”, but the abuse from my schoolmates seemed to indicate that they didn’t much like the way things were going and a story set in a Welsh holiday camp was unlikely to improve matters. As it turned out, “Delta” proved to be elegant, lyrical, wistful and many other things that made me think this programme really could do absolutely anything.
Ridiculously enough Doctor Who even got me a job. I went for an interview with an advisor at the job centre in December 1987. Me being me, I went in with a Doctor Who book sticking out of my pocket. The interviewer spotted it. “You like reading?”, he said. “Yes”, I squeaked, ratcheting up and down the vocal register (it was that time of every teenage boy’s life). “Why not try for work experience in a library?”, he said. So I did. 25 years later, I’m still in the same job. It’s all John Lucarotti’s fault. Him and the Abbot of Amboise, who was peeking out of my jacket pocket during the interview. Good grief.
I know it’s not as good as it used to be, but I’m still terribly interested
Meanwhile back at the mothership Doctor Who was fighting a valiant but ultimately losing battle to the forces of Weatherfield. “Coronation Street” was always unstoppable. Even more so back in the late eighties, when Doctor Who was hobbled with a production team that was exhausted and a management that had lost faith. Andrew Cartmel arrived, gave things a good kick up the arse and began to drag things around. Things were getting interesting. I like huge swathes of McCoy-era Doctor Who. It doesn’t feel like the rest of the series, in some way I can’t quite define, and it has problems – primarily my total lack of interest in Ace means that the final two season’s focus on her tend to make my attention drift. Sylvester is a wonderful performer when he’s being quiet, quirky, wistful, thoughtful, ruminative. His Season 24 persona is great and I could have done with him playing it a bit longer in that vein. Cartmel had other ideas and the Seventh Doctor became the devious schemer, the player of Jenga in a Thousand Pub Basements. Unfortunately Sylvester doesn’t convince when he has to really sell the heavy stuff. Paul Cornell has put forward a rather lovely theory that this Doctor is constantly frustrated by his inability to express heady emotion properly. A nice idea, but on-screen a number of moments that should have knocked me sideways… didn’t. Because gurning – unless you are Les Dawson doing the “blow the candle out” story – is never the answer.
That said – as I was settling into my new job, so was Sylvester. Season 25 really seemed to spark people’s imaginations again. “Remembrance” was the one that everyone talked about but it was “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” that really got to me. If you get the chance, do go and look at it again. Alan Waring really plays a blinder. It looks and sounds gorgeous, it’s unnerving and off-kilter in so many different ways and the whole thing is tailored to Sylvester’s strengths. No other Doctor could do that distracting-the-gods routine. His walk away from the collapsing tent – likewise, all him. And yes, it has a double insult to the viewing public. Whizzkid representing me, and the Gods of Ragnarok for the passive yet deadly audience whose boredom spells death to the troubled entertainer. Thing is – those barbs are true. I was like that. I probably still am, to an extent. I try to hide it, but my enthusiasm gets the better of me sometimes. If you’ve read this far you probably agree.
What’s that noise?
A Cry in the Dark.
Season 26 roared out of the traps with no promotion and no support from anyone in the BBC, or so it seemed. Unsurprisingly, a strong set of stories went unwatched by James and Jennifer Public – and that’s a shame, as there are some arrestingly good things in here. “Ghost-Light” and “Fenric” are rightly lauded but I’ve always been quietly fond of “Survival” as well (oh, JN-T just never could resist the hiding-in-plain-sight commentary on the state of his programme, could he)?
By this stage I was 19, and still Mr Solitary Fan. I’d had my first stint with the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, which went from the month of the cancellation announcement in 1985 through to the end of season 25. Not the luckiest time to enter the swimming pool, and eventually the amount of people pissing in it persuaded me to exit. I was happier on my own, to be honest. Despite the valiant rearguard action of Neil Hutchings during his period editing “Celestial Toyroom” there was a real feeling of last-one-out-turn-out-the-lights about things, and I didn’t need to have 32 pages worth of grumbling (then – following a catastrophic misallocation of society money, rather fewer than that) delivered to me every month to make me feel sad about Doctor Who. I could do that all on my own, as 1989 shaded into 1990, then into 1991. Would it ever return? How would I cope? Would girls ever look at me if I admitted to being word perfect on “The Mark of the Rani”? We shall see. The Wilderness Years beckoned.