So – 1996. TV Movie done, and we all waited for the series. And waited. And waited. Eventually, we gave up hope and Paul McGann became the great lost Doctor. Barely an hour of screen time. It just wasn’t enough. He deserved so much more.
I am the man that gives monsters nightmares. The Daleks call me the Bringer of Darkness. I am the Eighth Man Bound. I am the Champion of Life and Time. I’m the guy with two hearts. I make History better. I am the Doctor.
Someone else who deserved so much more was Virgin Publishing. After several years of sterling service and two highly successful series of Doctor Who books the BBC suddenly withdrew their license. The book ranges were taken in-house, becoming the Eighth Doctor Adventures and the Past Doctor Adventures, respectively. “The Well Mannered War” by Gareth Roberts became the final Missing Adventure; Lance Parkin’s “The Dying Days” was the last New Adventure to feature the Doctor. The Eighth Doctor appeared only once for Virgin. In the final pages he was ambushed by Bernice Summerfield, who claimed that she’d never be able to forgive herself if she didn’t do a certain something at least once. The reader is invited to draw their own conclusions.
Having got that out of her system Bernice stepped up to take charge of the New Adventures. Using characters and concepts created specifically within the range and focussing on everyone’s favourite good-time, party-loving, slightly damaged archaeologist, the books continued for quite some time – eventually grinding to an apocalyptic halt some twenty-or-so novels later.
I loved them. Sometimes, I loved them more than I loved the New Adventures which actually featured the Doctor. The withdrawal of BBC copyrights forced the writers into producing some dazzlingly good books and Bernice proved herself to be more than capable of holding the limelight by herself. There was something about the character that just refused to lie down. In 1998 her first solo novel “Oh No It Isn’t” – a romp through the wild and wonderful world of pantomime – became the first audio play to be released by the fledgling production company Big Finish. A further Benny adaptation (“Beyond The Sun”) followed, before… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
What was a slightly jaded and disappointed fanboy to make of the new BBC Books? As it turned out, not a great deal. Things started bizarrely for the Eighth Doctor, as Uncle Terrance kicked things off with “The Eight Doctors”.
It’s a bizarre book, it really is. An amnesiac Eighth Doctor (whose debut television adventure it’s obvious Terrance really hated with a passion) takes a wander through his own back pages. In chronological order, and stopping off at stories that either Terrance had a major hand in, or were written by people he worked closely with. Hence, “The Daemons” unexpectedly gains a sixth episode, “State of Decay” a fifth. Manfully Terrance attempts to sort out the mess of “The Trial of a Time Lord” and in the process leaves us with the winning image of a Sixth Doctor so egotistical that unless he’s actually being referred to directly, he just doesn’t bother listening.
“The Eight Doctors” had another job to do, introducing the teeth-achingly right on Sam as the new companion. There are three things about Doctor Who that I utterly loathe, and Sam’s all three of them. The anti-companion, the most aggravating character in Doctor Who history, she first appears in a drug-related plot at Totters Lane, which features yoof dialogue so archaic I expect someone to turn up and say “don’t worry. I speak jive” and interpret for everyone. Sam would pollute the range for a long time to come, sad to say.
Things improved almost immediately with Orman and Blum’s “Vampire Science”, featuring someone who was meant to be Grace Holloway but wasn’t, a San Francisco setting and an Eighth Doctor so attractive to kittens that he ends up festooned with them at one point. It even found time to throw in a reference to “Forever Knight”. All too often though, the range wandered all over the shop and despite the introduction of serial fantasist Fitz as a companion and some good work here and there – I gave up. “The Burning” was supposed to be a clear-the-decks, reset everything and let new readers jump on book but it proved to be the point at which I jumped off. I’ve never been back, so I have no idea what happened after that although I’m given to believe at least one human Tardis is involved.
Over in the PDAs things started alarmingly with a Day/Topping Third Doctor pastiche so alarmingly accurate I feared for the sanity of the authors. It remains one of the few Doctor Who novels for me that completely captures Pertwee on the page – frighteningly so. Sadly, my interest in this range began to wane as well and after years of dedicated service I fell off that particular wagon too. Sometimes I wonder what I missed. But not often.
Remember that little company who produced those Bernice audio adventures? One to watch, they were. Or at least, listen to. In 1999, they appeared again. They’d managed to achieve the impossible. They had the rights to produce full cast Doctor Who audio adventures featuring past Doctors and companions. Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy were signed up from the beginning, which meant that a multi-Doctor story kicked things off in fine style. Nick Briggs used the traditional four episode structure to showcase his three Doctors in single episode stories before having everyone pile in (literally) in the final episode and the warmth invoked from a sudden re-acquaintance with friends thought long gone got them off to a cracking start.
One particular Doctor has benefitted remarkably from his association with Big Finish. His crisis-ridden years on television really didn’t give Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor a proper crack at things and it was something BF were determined to address. They did (and continue to do) him proud. The Big Finish version of the Sixth Doctor is charming, adventurous, urbane, witty, swashbuckling, sensitive, gentle, wistful, generous and kind. Prone to bluster occasionally, but always totally, wonderfully Doctorish in all the best ways – Colin Baker now frequently tops lists of favourite Doctors amongst those of us who’ve spent the last fourteen years or so in his welcome company. The rehabilitation of the Sixth Doctor is surely one of Big Finish’s two greatest gifts to Doctor Who.
The other – well, it wasn’t long before Paul McGann popped up to join in. I remember the excitement terribly well. “Storm Warning” suffered in its first episode from the aggravating problems of having a Doctor talking to himself and explaining the plot to us but as soon as India Fisher’s Elizabethan Adventuress Charlotte Pollard (capitals absolutely deliberate) turned up we were off and running.
Big Finish has a knack of producing new companions you take to your heart instantly, none more so than for the Sixth and Eighth Doctors. Septugenarian Evelyn Smythe kept the Sixth Doctor well and truly in his place and remains one of my all time favourite characters in Doctor Who. Most of the Eighth Doctor’s friends aren’t far behind her. Although Charlie exhibited distinct bunny-boiling tendencies as time went on India Fisher was never less than sparkling, and it’s obvious that Big Finish can’t quite bear to let her go. Quite right too. C’Rizz was a bit of a misstep – no harm to Conrad Westmass but the poor soul didn’t have any sort of character he could latch onto in order to produce a memorable companion. Besides which he was soon overshadowed by the introduction of the divine, the devastating, the delectable Lucie Miller.
Conceived absolutely deliberately – I’m told – as a gobby Northern response to developments in television Doctor Who, Lucie Miller is up with the very greatest. Sheridan Smith plays her to the absolute hilt and her eventual departure from the series is one of Big Finish’s most emotionally affecting moments. Equally adept at the silly and the serious stuff, Lucie is terrific. I love her. I miss her and I hope she’ll be back. Sometime. No other companion has ever – ever attempted to distract a Dalek by flashing their chest at them. No other companion would dare.
There’s not really space here to do Big Finish justice. Their output is incredible – hundreds of plays, with a remarkably high success rate. Spin off series all over the place. Releases for a plethora of other television series. They’ve enriched my days immeasurably and if I’ve fallen behind it’s entirely my fault, not theirs. I’ve sometimes felt that it’s impossible for one person to keep up with everything they do, although I do try. There’s just so damn much of it. The only reason I’ve not mentioned Peter and Sylvester here is that developments for the Fifth and Seventh Doctor haven’t been as striking as for Colin and Paul. All the Doctors have had great stories to play with. They’ve all had some stinkers too. In that, Big Finish replicate the parent series precisely. After years of refusing, Tom Baker joined the party recently and he seems to be having a ball. We are too.
I fight – frequently – with friends who refuse to listen to any of the audio plays on the grounds that if they’re not on tv, they “don’t count”. I suspect very strongly that they get great pleasure in telling me this because they know how much it annoys me. My version of the Doctor Who universe features an Eighth Doctor who’s been in the role for thirteen years, has appeared in multiple wonderful adventures and travelled with companions I love equally as much as the ones from the television show. A Sixth Doctor who has appeared in some of the most dazzlingly audacious stories I’ve had the pleasure to hear. Jago and Litefoot have romped through multiple series of adventures. Romana II has been Madame President of Gallifrey to me for years. Ace has grown up considerably and now acts as an almost mentor figure to young Hex, ably played by Philip Olivier. Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa has grown considerably more of a spine than she ever had on television and now fires off sparks like a catherine wheel at least three times a year with the reunited season 20 team of Davison, Fielding, and Strickson. It’s an enormously rich universe they’ve created and terribly easy to get lost in. I do so, frequently.
And then. And then…
One day in 2003, the announcement came. We’d gone through years of “ooh, it’s coming back, and Alan Davies is playing him!” “Ooh, it’s coming back and John Cleese is playing him!”. Novelty casting and repeated barbed jabs at the old series had worn us out. Suddenly – and it took a while to believe it – it was happening. The Ninth Doctor was on the way, and Christopher Eccleston was playing him. That put a stop to the stunt casting rumours, once and for all. The Doctor is an actor’s role once again as opposed to the subject of a thousand “wouldn’t be funny if so-and-so were to play him?” newspaper pieces. Fandom decided to disgust me one more time, though. The casting of Billie Piper was greeted with howls of anger. Abuse, chauvinism, sexism and filth spewed forth just because a pop singer had been cast as the companion. I have my problems with Rose Tyler. Goodness, I have my problems with Rose Tyler. I have none whatsoever with Billie Piper – a fine actress who didn’t deserve any of this. Russell T Davies has said he was ashamed of fandom for their reaction to Billie’s casting. So am I. It was unforgiveable and was only surpassed by the reaction to Catherine Tate’s casting several years later. We really are nasty pieces of work sometimes. I wish we could behave better, or at least with more dignity. However…
In March 2005 our best friend came back. He hasn’t been away for too long since. Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner and Phil Collinson grabbed that battle weary Time Lord by the scruff of the neck and kicked him back into life. The night that “Rose” aired was unforgettable. It had happened. Doctor Who was back, and nobody could stop it. Except, perhaps, Christopher Eccleston, who quit the part after just one series. The announcement came three days after “Rose” aired. Once again it looked like disaster was upon us. Actorly restlessness, disgust at the way other members of the crew were being treated, distaste at the way the first shooting block had gone? Who knows? All I do know is that he left behind a year of remarkable work and a portrayal of a Doctor that was up there with the finest. I’d rather have a year of a good man giving his best than several years of inconsistent performances. Christopher Eccleston, Russell, Julie, Phil , Billie et al put Doctor Who back where it belonged, at the heart of family viewing and I can never thank them enough.
Far far too soon Chris was gone, to be succeeded by that grinning chap from the billboard on Slateford Road. David Tennant arrived on Christmas Day and was an instant, enormous success. Whether you’re a fan of the Tenth Doctor or not, I find it hard to deny that almost immediately David became possibly the most popular Doctor there’s ever been. Certainly it’s between him, Tom Baker and possibly Matt Smith. It might just be that because Russell T Davies is a master publicist, David was absolutely everywhere from 2006 through to 2010.
Now, this is all very well if you like the Tenth Doctor. I had problems, though. The Tenth Doctor aggravated the living daylights out of me. The moments of “I’m crazy me!!!” wackiness, the I’m-such-a-lonely-god schtick that Russell seemed to favour. Most of all though – and I’ve gone on about this at length in the past because it aggravates me so much – suddenly the Doctor / Rose relationship began to cloy. Pretty much from the opening moments of “New Earth”, and it never got any better.
I know the overarching theme of series 2 was that the Doctor and Rose were having so much fun together that they became overconfident, made mistakes and received a massive punishment by the end of the year. Unfortunately, that punishment was for the two of them to be separated for-evah, and it was something I was screaming for since those first moments in New New York. I remember shouting very rude words at the screen during “The Impossible Planet” when Rose and The Doctor had their little “You’d have to get a mortgage”. “Oh, stop it. Stop, I’m dying here” exchange. When the Tenth Doctor got smacked in the face in “The Idiots Lantern” I cheered, and then was astonished to discover our hero was honestly prepared to let countless others suffer in the same story, only kicking into high gear when something nasty happened to Rose. It felt wrong and it got wronger. The “Ghostbusters” moment in “Army of Ghosts” is a nadir. If Doctor Who never gets any more teeth-clenchingly embarrassing than that, I’ll be a very happy chap indeed.
Then… series 3, and The Doctor became even more of an arse. His awful, cavalier treatment of Martha Jones left me – at times – really hating my favourite television character, and it wasn’t pleasant. The Doctor/Donna (no, we’re not married) nonsense in series 4 made things even worse and it reached a high/low point when Rose returned and was rewarded with her own personal Tenth Doctor shaped sex toy at the end of a series that she wasn’t even supposed to be in. By the time “The End of Time” rolled round I couldn’t wait to be shot of the bugger.
That said, though – some of the stories the Tenth Doctor was given…. well, they really are quite superb. “School Reunion”, with Anthony Head delivering a masterclass in just how to do Doctor Who Villainous Acting (that swimming pool scene, with Head walking round Tennant, sizing him up like he’s absolutely nothing). The return of Sarah-Jane Smith. Once we got past the awful Doctor/Rose exchange, the rest of “The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit” was fantastically dark and nasty. “Love & Monsters” – a story like no other, and one written specifically as a love-letter aimed at the heart of fandom – was beautifully sweet and loving and terribly moving to boot. “Gridlock”‘s 2000ad inspired antics were merely a taster before the second half of series 3 barely put a foot wrong, with “Human Nature / The Family of Blood”, “Blink” and the “Utopia” trilogy all superb. Series 4 is crammed with good stuff too – “Partners in Crime” was fun, and sets up a remarkably nasty gag later in the season. “Midnight” still takes the breath away, as does “Turn Left”. “The Next Doctor” has a breathless, headlong rush to it that I find most appealing, with David Morrisey proving to be one of the best guest turns Doctor Who ever had. “The Waters of Mars” proved to be a one last terrific hurrah for The Tenth Doctor as, unleashed from the restraining influence of his companions he went ever so slightly mad – before being brought up short by a single, shocking action on the part of Lindsey Duncan’s character. Nearly 50 years in and Doctor Who could still make me sit up and go “hang on. What have they just done???!!!”
Over on CBBC, something wonderful was happening. Following her glorious reintroduction in “School Reunion”, Lis Sladen became a hero all over again, to an all new generation of children. Of all ages, because “The Sarah Jane Adventures” held me spellbound for four and a half glorious seasons. The Doctor always referred to her as “my Sarah-Jane”. She was “our Sarah-Jane” as well and Lis Sladen’s sudden, shocking death midway before she’d finished series 5 hurt more deeply than anything connected with Doctor Who had ever done. It really – honestly – felt like I’d lost a member of the family. Lis Sladen doesn’t die. It just doesn’t happen, it’s so unlikely it doesn’t even enter your frame of reference. Ditto Nick Courtney, Caroline John, Barry Letts and so many, many others. They should all be here to share the happiness of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary. Without them, we wouldn’t be here to celebrate. These celebrations are for them as much as us. We love them, we miss them, we cherish them. Their legacy lives on forever.
As The Tenth Doctor took one last valedictory trot through his back-pages (and incidentally sealed my love for Jacqueline King and Bernard Cribbins in one short scene that brings a lump to the throat even thinking about it) – regeneration time was imminent. I didn’t know what to expect but I knew I was ready for something different. Murray Gold’s standard Tenth Doctor swelling choral harmonies suddenly stopped short to be replaced by a skanking electric guitar motif and Matt Smith exploded into my life, into the series, into my heart.
A few months later he crash-landed in a young girl’s back garden. From the moment The Eleventh Doctor stuck his soaking wet bonce out of the Tardis doors and brightly asked, “can I have an apple?” I was sold. By the time he’d gathered his support team of The Legs, The Nose and Mrs Robinson around him, it was clear to me that Steven Moffat was making Doctor Who entirely the way I’d always wanted it to be, the way it always was in my head. The Eleventh Doctor lives in a remarkable limbo, half way between Science and Phantasmagoria, and that’s just where I want him to be. Series 5 is my single favourite run of Doctor Who stories ever. Before too long Matt Smith became my favourite Doctor.
All of which is strange, because on paper there’s no discernible difference between the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors. It’s all in what Matt does with it. He’s utterly unpredictable and that gawky giraffes body which he doesn’t seem altogether in control of is a great asset. Even more of an asset is that face. The oldest, kindest, saddest eyes, looking out of a young man’s face. There are so many Eleventh Doctor moments that I can hear David Tennant saying – “Look how COOL this stuff is!” “I wear a Fez now. Fezzes are cool”. The Pandorica Speech in particular. The sequence in “A Good Man Goes To War” where the Doctor experiences fury for the first time. It’s the twist Matt puts on it that makes it fly. Almost as much as Troughton, it’s the performance that sells it. I will miss him, more than I can say. His time on Who was my personal golden age. I’m just glad I was able to recognise it while it was happening.
Back in reality, strange things were happening. Remember the girl from the pub on the night of the TV Movie? I fell head over heels in love with her instantly, then spent forever dancing around her like a demented pigeon. The feelings we had for each other grew ever stronger and by the time The Eleventh Doctor popped into view we were very much an item.
Unfortunately a lifelong battle with a crippling combination of anxiety and depression was taking its toll. I struggle more or less every day with this. I’ve learnt that it’s not something to be cured, but something to be managed. It blights my life, makes me withdraw from the world and makes me say and do things I’m sometimes not proud of. On the night that “Vincent and the Doctor” aired, Luisa was sitting next to me on the sofa. There’s a scene where Vincent Van Gogh has been struck down suddenly with another violent bout of depression. Hunched on his pallet, he tries to shut out the world. The Eleventh Doctor tries to jolly him out of it, suggesting all he needs is to get up and about to shake the mood. Tony Curran lashes out, screaming his hurt, then turns to the wall, leaving the Eleventh Doctor defeated and for possibly the first time in his lives, unable to help. At that moment Luisa leaned over to me and took my hand. Gently she whispered, “I understand, now”. With infinite understanding, kindness and empathy, Doctor Who made clear to her exactly what I was going through and it did in a way that I could never ever express. I will be grateful to it for the rest of my life.
Enough of this heady emotion. Series 6 confused and bewildered fandom with a plot that you actually had to think about and we all turned into Harry Hill’s older brother, taking to the internet to cry “If it’s too hard, I can’t understand it”. It wasn’t, it isn’t, and Series 6 is magnificently rich television, repaying your dedication in any number of ways as it careers through some of the finest episodes in Doctor Who’s history. “The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon” gets better everytime I watch. I know at least one person who loathes “The Doctor’s Wife” but that person isn’t me, who loves it dearly. “A Good Man Goes To War” comes close to being the rompiest romp wot’s ever been romped, while still managing to deliver nasty shocks when you least expect them. “The Girl Who Waited” and “The God Complex” are both extraordinary in so many different ways – the former with Karen Gillan’s natural exuberance giving way slowly to a lifetime of sorrow and loneliness expressed in a few short scenes; the latter being possibly the best-ever directed Doctor Who story. Gita’s extraordinary moment of “Go away – I don’t want you to see me lose my faith” is such a great, take-your-breath-away moment that it makes me well up just thinking about it.
I found a disassembled quadricycle in the garage.
I don’t think you did.
Oh! I invented the quadricycle.
Series 7, I’ve yet to watch again since it first aired. It’s always the second screening that kicks things into place for me and there’s been so much going on this year that I haven’t had the chance. On initial viewing it was the Karen Gillan / Arthur Darvill half of the season that stuck in the head much more than the Impossible Girl shenanigans of the second half – despite the fact that Jenna Coleman made an instant impression on me to the point where I’m becoming dangerously obsessed with Clara. As with every series of Doctor Who, the joy is rewatching, reappraising, being surprised at the bits you’ve missed, loving the bits you did get, making connections, losing yourself in yet another part of the story that never ends. I can’t wait to get started, but there are other things to do first.
In four days time it’ll be the 23rd of November, 2013. Fifty years ago William Hartnell stumbled through a BBC studio fog and into the psyche of the British viewing public. Before too much longer we’ll be saying goodbye to Matt Smith and hello to Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor. Things are changing again, as they always must. For now – it’s a time to celebrate. It’ll be even more of a celebration for me, because Luisa and I are getting married on that day. We finally stopped dancing around each other, and now we’re about to take those steps into a future together which I think neither of us ever quite thought would happen. It’s the single most important thing in my life. Finally admitting to her how I felt was the single best thing I’ve ever done.
One last thing. Last week, the BBC continued their promotional push towards the 50th anniversary with a special mini-episode of Doctor Who. “Night of the Doctor” begins as so many other stories have, with a scared human in a dangerous situation. Screaming at the communications console to stop talking about Doctors, she is suddenly interrupted by a voice from behind her. “I’m a Doctor”, says Paul McGann. “But probably not the one you were expecting.” I was sitting at my desk at work, watching at lunchtime. I burst into tears, much to my astonishment, and the bewilderment of my workmates. Astonishingly, impossibly, the BBC had pulled off the surprise of a lifetime. I never knew. Never expected. They brought the Eighth Doctor back to us and for a few short moments there was magic in the air.
But here’s the thing, the one last thing. I met Luisa in that pub in 1996, entirely because we’d both decided – completely independently – to watch the Doctor Who TV Movie in the company of like-minded people. It was entirely down to Paul McGann’s Doctor that we met, grew to like each other, fell in love. Now – the week before we’re due to get married – here he was again. Back playing the Doctor at the most perfect time he could possibly have chosen. There’s something so beautiful, so poetic about that, it quite stops me in my tracks. Walter Dunlop and Luisa Rampin. I’m about to become Walter Rampin. That’s not how it works. Yeah, it so is.
Flippancy aside – I hope I’ve managed to make a stab at what a life with Doctor Who has done for me, done to me, meant to me. It has brought me some of the deepest, most lasting friendships I’ve ever had. It brought me and my wife together. It means the world to me but I hope I never forget that this exuberant, silly, strange, occasionally demented, frequently quite daft and almost always very odd indeed series is there – firstly and most importantly – so that we can all have fun. Lots of it, and in many different ways. I love Doctor Who. Happy Birthday, old chap.