Doctor Who disappeared off our screens in 1989. It went not with a bang, or a whimper, but a voiceover. “Come on Ace – we’ve got work to do”, said a cheerily optimistic 7th Doctor, and indeed they had. Not on television, though.
Just Who is Who… on Doctor Who???!!
Over in the brave new world of satellite television – great things were afoot. Squarials festooned every wall. Well, one or two, including ours, following a sustained period of pester-power and wails of “but I’ll pay for it!” from me. Goodness, how I wanted BSB in my life.
In 1990, I was a 20 year old hairy person. British heavy metal was exerting a deep and altogether healthy influence on me. It still does, because – much like everything I love – it has a very highly developed sense of just how ridiculous it can be and cheerfully accepts it. It’s also highly tribal – heavy metal fans tend to be very aware of how they’re perceived by the rest of the world, cheerily blow raspberries at it and just get on with having fun. When I was 20 I needed that. When my Squarial was first connected and started receiving pictures the first thing that came through was Aerosmith and Run DMC’s “Walk This Way” video. This seemed like an omen, a good one. BSB didn’t last but they lasted just long enough to get to one remarkable weekend in September 1990. For two entire days the schedules on the Galaxy Channel were cleared, showing nothing but Doctor Who. Even now that takes my breath away. A remarkable act of faith on the part of the station and one which enabled me to get my first viewing of several Hartnell and Troughton stories which the BBC hadn’t released yet. The murky world of video trading was still a couple of years off for me. I woke up that Saturday morning, resolved to watch EVERYTHING. Even the serials I’d already seen. I lasted until part 3 of An Unearthly Child before I had to go for a walk.
Came back just in time for the first of the unseen treasures. “The Edge of Destruction” started, with the second episode accidentally shown first. It took a good five minutes before I noticed. The rest of the weekend was composed of equal parts bliss, boredom and embarrassment. Bliss – my first sighting of what were then the only two surviving installments of Troughton’s Yeti serials, billed as “The Yeti Rarities”. As someone pointed out drily, the missing ten episodes were considerably rarer. Boredom – lots of filler features designed to illustrate elements of Doctor Who – but using clips from the stories cleared for tx that weekend. I grew heartily sick of certain sequences as they cropped up over and over again during those 48 hours. Embarrassment – the quizzes, the attempt to make Peter Purves join the ranks of companions who screamed, the bizarre experiment to see if members of the general public would recognise what a sink plunger was if waggled about in front of the camera suggestively. I was hugely grateful to BSB, though. Twelve serials shown over a weekend, with no ad breaks? That was the way to do it, and I loved them for it.
A Battle-Weary Time Lord, languishing in the backwaters of popularity
Meanwhile… Doctor Who steadfastly refused to appear on BBC1. Statements came and went which meant very little. Terry Nation and Gerry Davis popped up with a proposal for a new series. DWB claimed it was entirely JN-T’s fault and mounted a witch hunt which – to my eternal shame – I happily joined in with, not knowing any better. The fan press was hysterically anti-JN-T back then. The internet was yet to be invented and the keyboard warriors had to have some outlet. I found an issue of DWB recently which featured a letter complaining about JN-T’s connections with BBC Worldwide – “having this man in charge of the video releases is akin to putting Myra Hindley in charge of a children’s home”, they said – unaware of just how awful they sounded. It makes me shudder just typing it.
On the other hand, they were comprehensively first with the news that “Tomb of the Cybermen” had been returned. The grail – or one of them.
Lost television is fascinating. What might have been, ifs, ands and buts. Was it rubbish? Was it the greatest thing ever screened? Nobody knows until it comes back. The lost episodes of Doctor Who in particular exercise a remarkable hold on the imagination, much to the frustration of those who want to know about other programmes that may or may not have been found. Any new discovery is greeted with cries of “Any Doctor Who”? Even to a died in the wool fanboy like me, it gets a bit wearing. I can’t pretend that it’s not terribly exciting when something turns up, though. In 1992, an entire serial came back. Not just any serial, either. “Tomb of the Cybermen”, one of the “classics”. Younger fans would sit at the feet of the old ones and listen in awe as they recounted the story of how Toberman battled the Cyberleader, how the Cybermen coming out of their Tombs was the greatest bit of television ever, how… well, you know. It’s easy to talk something up when you haven’t any fear of being contradicted. Now we’d all get the chance to find out for ourselves.
When May 1992 came round, I steeled myself to watch. It was – no two ways about it – magical. It always is, when something’s been found and you settle down to view something you thought you’d never have the chance to.
“Tomb” is flawed. Very flawed in places. Jamie attempts to kid us on that the door to the Tomb is too heavy to open, despite his foot holding it in place being clearly visible. The Toberman / Cyberleader fight features wires and a very obvious dummy Cyberleader. When the Cyberleader is revealed for the first time he’s squatting like Frank Hovis in “Absolutely”. The Cybermen salute like Gumbies. But… the regulars are in wonderful form (Pat leading the other two backwards into the first scene with the guest cast is merely the start of one of his greatest Who performances). The George Roubicek / Clive Merrison double act is sweet – doling out Space Anoraks and trying to keep Cyril Shaps on the right side of hysteria, and responding to Victoria’s pained “Oh, who’d be a woman?” with a sarky “How would you know?”
As with the best in Doctor Who, the concepts take root. The Cybermen setting traps intriguing enough to draw in the most intelligent of the human race and then harvesting them for their own use is a chilling concept, and I love the way Pat hovers around the edges of scenes, letting everyone damn themselves. There’s one shot in particular where Kaftan’s about to trap Victoria, and you can see Pat in the background, just standing. Watching. To this day I haven’t worked out if he’s just waiting for his cue, or whether it’s a genuine scripted bit of business involving the Doctor manipulating everyone to his own ends, including his companions. He wasn’t immune to it in the story immediately prior, after all – using Jamie to trip up the Daleks and bring about “The Final End”.
Years later, “Tomb” still has an aura about it. At least, it does for me. Anything falls apart if you watch it often enough and we did. I don’t think there’s any Doctor Who story I know better, but it still carries a certain cachet that others didn’t. At least, until recently, when “The Enemy of the World” and “The Web of Fear” reappeared. You can’t beat a bit of new Troughton.
That was the past. Doctor Who did have a remarkably rosy future ahead of it. Not on tv, though. Virgin Publishing were about to unleash the first of the New Adventures upon us, with stories “too broad and too deep for the small screen”. Initially, they tried far too hard. A linked series of books seemed a good way to go, but John Peel’s “Timewyrm : Genesys” tried far too hard to be “adult”. It succeeded in the same way as early “Torchwood” is adult – lots of gratuitous sex. Lots of gratuitous talking about sex. Lots of swearing. Nakedness. Bare breasts. It was all very unedifying, but thankfully Uncle Terrance came galloping over the hill and put things right. Ish. The second book was much more what we thought the series was going to be, with the Seventh Doctor battling returning villains in a sort of sequel to a television serial. Even Terrance succumbed slightly though, with the revelation that the Doctor liked ‘em “blonde and bouncy”. Deary dear.
Things settled down a bit, although the swearing became a problem. It reached something of a peak with the legendary moment in “Iceberg” which I won’t repeat here. This is a polite blog and I won’t sully your ears. Besides which, it’s a very very stupid line. In the end the NA’s compromised with “Cruk”, which is about as useful as “Drokk” in 2000ad. You know what it actually means but it somehow sneaks past the censors.
Anyroad, I was a faithful little fanboy. I read every one of them, from first to last. Some were easier than others. Indeed, some left so little impact that I couldn’t tell you even now what they were about, much less what I was doing or where I was when I read them. Sometimes it was a pleasure. Sometimes it was a duty. At their best they joyously pushed boundaries while staying on the right side of gratuitous. Sometimes they featured companions undergoing a trepanning for reasons which appropriately enough, I completely forget. They kept the flame burning, and they (mostly) did it well. Unfortunately, Ace proved to be something of a problem. In an attempt to do something different with the character she was bent and twisted into shapes that I’m sure Andrew Cartmel and his team of original writers hadn’t been expecting. Her virtues became loose, her clothing became tighter, she became a hardened space soldier (which suited David A MacIntee, with his loving descriptions of military hardware). She was also terribly, terribly boring. Something clearly had to be done. Thankfully, moves were afoot.
New companions were created. Some were more successful than others. Chris and Roz didn’t seem to have much life to them (although Chris’s routine involving a small grinning penguin and a bucket of snow, recreating an old W.C Fields routine in “Sky Pirates!” was a bit of a favourite). “Love and War” introduced Paul Cornell’s most enduring contribution to Doctor Who, as Bernice Summerfield first entered my life in a book which – thanks to an unfortunate cover – fandom instantly joyously dubbed “Attack of the Bollock Monsters”. Bernice endures. She’s still out there, sporadically appearing in print and played by Lisa Bowerman in a series of audio adventures which has lasted well over a decade. More of them later.
Eventually, editor Peter Darvill-Evans admitted defeat and caved in to increasing howls of “what about the old Doctors?” I quite understand his reluctance. Doctor Who should always be about pushing forward. If it looks back, it stagnates. The best thing it can do is invent, invent, invent. Unfortunately – and I count myself well and truly in this camp, but not all the time – a proportion of the readership didn’t want new. They wanted old – specifically books that read like they were stories off the telly. Reluctantly, grudgingly, the Missing Adventures were born and some of the regular NA writers joyously jumped ranges. Gary Russell, Gareth Roberts, Christopher Bulis and others seemed much more comfortable there, carving niches for themselves. Gareth’s recreations of Tom and Lalla’s season 17 rapport in particular were uncanny – cups of tea carried about in the pocket and all.
The thing about the MAs – and later the BBC Past Doctor Adventures – an awful lot of people wanted them to be nothing more than Chicken Soup. A comforting read, something to reassure you and not challenge you too much. Something to remind you of good times and favourite characters. Didn’t always pan out that way. Fans of Dodo Chaplet – and yes, there are those out there who might qualify – were well advised to stay well away, as the horrendous fates she kept on meeting became something of a running joke.
Me? I plugged along with them both. The bit of my brain that thinks it’s intelligent read some of the more opaque NAs, scratching a mental chin and going “hm”. The bit of my brain that likes to join up dots pounced on some of the MAs with their love of filling in past bits of continuity. There were some wonderful books. There were some truly terrible ones. They were there, though. There wasn’t much else, then, and it seemed the way forward, it really did. How could we know what was waiting around the corner? A very very long corner as it turned out, and thinking back I remain immensely grateful to Darvill-Evans, Rebecca Levene and all who contributed. The future of the television series was shaped here – several writers became key contributors to the programme when it came back. One in particular – a particular tall, welsh gentleman who contributed a little number set on a housing estate quite late in the run. From little acorns, and that.
While the future was bold and experimental / backwards looking and defiantly retro in print, what were the BBC up to? A kagoule on a stand presenting clips in a Brummie Accent, that’s what. “Resistance is Useless” was the apotheosis of the “phew, aren’t fans loony” perception. Well, some of us are, usually the ones with very loud voices and strange ideas. Quite a lot of us though – we just wanted to enjoy ourselves. There was an anniversary round the corner, but before that…
…1992, and my first convention approached. A good friend urged me to go. I wasn’t going to, as I was still being Solitary Fan. Goodness knows a regular DWB habit isn’t conducive to wanting to meet anyone else, but I eventually went. Panopticon 1992 in Coventry was my first, and I couldn’t have imagined the chain of events it’d set off. I also couldn’t have imagined starting my first convention dancing on stage with Nick Briggs. Or at least, essaying a soft shoe shuffle beside him. He danced to the left, I danced to the right. We met in the middle. Which is why I should never – ever – be allowed to dance in public.
Shortly after that, I was wandering the merchandise hall when I was accosted by a Scottish Chap. He liked the t-shirt I was wearing. I’d arrived proudly emblazoned with the logo from Fish’s last tour and this Doug gentleman obviously felt safe to approach. We got chatting and before the day was out he’d invited me to the next meeting of the Edinburgh Local Group. Apparently he should have told others in the Group first, so I could be checked out in case I was a loony. I still don’t know what the final verdict was, but that was that. The die was cast. My path was set.
Before too much longer Manopticon rolled around. Manchester Town Hall was invaded by Who fans, and it’s safe to say that over that weekend the Edinburgh and Glasgow mob – who previously hadn’t had much to do with each other – gelled. We became a family, and that lasted for several years. I made some great, great friends that weekend. Some of those friendships endure to this day, and I’m proud to know you, folks.
Back at the BBC there may or may not have been an anniversary story. Adrian Rigelsford might or might not have been writing it and it might or might not have featured David Bowie and kd lang. BBC Worldwide might or might not have been putting up the cash, but Colin Baker definitely wasn’t going to be doing it. Given that his minuscule part of the script involved him being stuck in a courtroom again, I’m not surprised. It all fell apart, leaving us with the remarkably brave 3D special for Children In Need.
You’re all going on a journey. A very long journey.
Most people try to deny that “Dimensions in Time” ever existed. If we do that, how can we learn from history? It happened. We must ensure that the likes of it never happen again. It is one of the single stupidest, barely incompetent pieces of television ever to go out with the name Doctor Who attached – but it did tick an important box in that the Sixth Doctor finally met The Brigadier. These things – they’re important, you know. Sort of. Meanwhile, fandom gave Sam West’s character a suitable name – Shagg – and developed a drinking game which is really the only way to watch Dimensions in Time. If you’re going to put yourself through it, you might as well anesthetize yourself.
Meanwhile, Kevin Davies gave us a thing of rare beauty in the form of the celebratory documentary “30 Years in the Tardis”. Lovingly recreated scenes, intelligently chosen clips. Rare footage, real affection and Sylvester beginning his remarkable transformation into Thora Hird. Really, it had everything. The video version had even more and I still have real affection for it. It was nice to see Doctor Who being shown a bit of love for a change. All too often it seemed be ushered out of the back door of the BBC with a jacket over its head.
Then – suddenly – America came calling. Before we knew it the long-standing rumours began to coalesce into facts. There was a pilot episode for an American funded series on the way, and it absolutely definitely would feature The Doctor in a quest for his Father, Borusa. There’d be some rapping Tardis lips, too. And an excess of unnecessary continuity. Lies, all lies. Apart from the last bit, but it did mean that Sylvester got to come back for one last hurrah. He got shot, was hacked about by the Amazing Grace Holloway, said “blargh” and died. In a mortuary, he gurned his gurniest, and regenerated into… Paul McGann.
I thought you were a Doctor?
I thought YOU were a Doctor!
Now, the TV Movie has many, many things wrong with it. Some would say Eric Roberts as the Master is a major one, although his obsession with correct grammar is a rather nice touch. Others would say the Smurf Daleks and a Master who looks like one of the Pet Shop Boys in the pre-credits sequence doesn’t help the cause much.
For me, it’s the sheer amount of mucking about before anything actually happens is the problem. What it gets right – and spectacularly – is a new Doctor – Paul McGann absolutely, blissfully right even before he opens his mouth. Watch him in the lift scene, when he’s curiously staring at Grace while she studiously ignores him. There’s our Doctor, and he hasn’t even spoken yet. By the time his shoes fitted perfectly and he went scampering off leaving Grace to Oliver Hardy at the screen, I wanted him to stay forever. Wasn’t to be. His first appearance would be all we’d have. At least on television.
For me, though – there was something rather more important afoot. The night the TV Movie aired I was sitting in a small pub in the darkest corners of Edinburgh. The Local Group had convened for a celebratory screening. I noticed a young lady sitting in the corner, staring raptly at the screen. It took a while before I had the courage to speak to her – in fact, I don’t think I did manage to speak to her that night – but things began to happen. My life – well, it was about to change. My goodness, but it would change….