• 22nd November 2013 • Feature by URP! Team •
We’re not going to pretend that we can offer anything particularly significant or deep to the chorus of discussion surrounding Doctor Who at the time of its fiftieth anniversary. But we’re a Who blog – okay, a Who blog that doesn’t update very frequently, but a Who blog nevertheless – and it behooves us to at least try to mark it in some way. So a bunch of URP!’s regular contributors – John Hoare, Alex Newsome, Ben Paddon and Seb Patrick – have written a few individual pieces of varying length, exploring in a few different ways what the show means or has meant to us, or how we first connected (or reconnected) with it. There’s not really one over-arching theme, except “This is Doctor Who, and we like it.”
(And while you’re here, if you’re interested in our writing about the show, you can find a whole load more stuff about it by Seb over at the BBC America Anglophenia blog, where he’s been working on the subject for the last week or so)
And, although we’ve made promises about content in the past we haven’t necessarily been able to keep (wonder if we’ll ever finish reviewing either of series six or seven?), we will be back in the next week or so with a similar group-based piece reviewing The Day of the Doctor. In the meantime, take it away, John…
By rights, McCoy should have been my first Doctor. I was born in ‘81; I would have been six when “Time and the Rani” was broadcast. Old enough to remember random images; images I wish I’d seen. Images which should have been etched into my memory.
We were a Doctor Who-free household. My parents had strict control of the television once CBBC and CITV were over: I did not get a say. And they were not interested in Doctor Who. I think I vaguely remember some appearance McCoy did on some CBBC show or another, but that was it.
Flash forward to 2005. I was no longer living with my parents by then, but by lucky coincidence, I was visiting during the broadcast of that very first episode. (Same house; different room; different sofa. No cheap nostalgia to be had there.) I’d caught up a bit on Who in preparation for the new show, thanks to a forum aquaintance with a binbag full of videos. So I sat, and watched: I was allowed charge of the telly by that point. And fell in love.
Because here was a show, that – for all its genuine, mainstream appeal – felt like it was being made for me. At a time when television wasn’t really doing an awful lot for me, here was a show – bang in the middle of Saturday night on BBC One – which felt like…. mine.
I was cheated out of the Who of my childhood. I wasn’t going to let that happen again.
John Hoare spends his days skulking around a TV playout centre and wondering when he’ll be asked to leave. He posts a variety of nonsense on his blog Dirty Feed which steadfastly refuses to capture the zeitgeist. When he says run, run. Run.
With the show as popular as it is these days, we often see people say that they started watching it since 2005. It’s often an assumption I find made of myself, as alhough I was born before the close of part four of “Survival”, I was only just over eight months old when it went to air. As such, a plot based around other worlds, cat people and a burgeoning sexual awaking was lost on a mind that could barely process why all food couldn’t be breast dispensed, though I’d likely have been no more confused by “Ghost Light” than I am today.
The result was that at the age of 5, when I should have been latching onto the show, it was little more than something I was culturally aware of. My earliest strong memory of watching the show was seeing the 1996 movie when it first aired, and images such as The Master strangling Bruce’s wife to death stuck in my eight-year-old mind for years to come. However, McGann’s stint in the TARDIS was as fleeting a one night stand as the one so many fans hoped to have with Nicola Bryant at a convention; both of which were doomed to end in disappointment. With a good-looking but ultimately confused one-off special seeming to be it for new Doctor Who, it simply wasn’t enough to spark my love of the show properly.
Yet despite growing up in the absence of new televised Doctor Who, the so called wilderness years were a time of great excitement to me as I came to discover the show that had already been beloved by my parents, despite the fact that no one I knew of my age watched it. A trendy cultishness was being lent to the show in the late 90s/early 2000s, and with each element I was drawn closer to it. On Radio 4, Dead Ringers were making heavy use of Jon Culshaw’s Fourth Doctor impression; on television Daleks appeared on adverts and other programmes such as Red Dwarf night; and with the advent of remastered and new Star Wars films, Doctor Who things started to crop up at various events as the UK grabbed at its largest Sci-Fi franchise. A Star Wars-based exhibition I went to at the age of eight largely consisted of more Daleks and Cybermen than it did Storm Troopers and Bounty Hunters, and there is a certain amount of irony in the way the two franchises have reversed in terms of praise subsequently.
But while these furthered my interest, none of them were the spark that set the fires of fandom ablaze. No, the big draw for me was a lot closer to home. About five miles away to be precise. This was because Tom Baker lived for quite some time in the small village of Lenham, just down the road from where I grew up. Consequently it was all too common to hear people talking about him, even if they had never been fans of Doctor Who. His perceived eccentricity was a source of fascination for the local population, and the fact that he had his own gravestone primed and leant up against the church wall caused many to think he must be slightly mad.
To my child self though, this was hugely exciting. He may not have been the mad man in the blue box, but his reputation gave him an air of intrigue that was similar to his character’s. As this interest raised, I began to search out the show more actively than before. Doctor Who became my incentive to get up early on a Saturday morning, as UK Gold would broadcast old episodes just before Live & Kicking started on BBC 1. I never had a Doctor that I could claim as my own as the shows leapt from on period to another, but I always sought out Tom’s episodes with a special interest. As I watched the show more, each sighting of Tom in Tesco, seemingly in his Randall and Hopkirk costume, became more of an event until one day while shopping with my parents we decided to say hello.
“I was watching you this morning on Doctor Who!”
“REALLY? But it’s not been on for years. How did you see it?”
“They show your old stories on UK Gold in the mornings.”
“Ah the miracles of UK Gold, my dear boy. Here, have a pound.”
We stayed and talked to Tom for some considerable time considering that we were both weighed down by heavy shopping and surrounded by the unusual vista of bottles of bleach, but it was difficult to draw yourself away from the man. Occasionally you meet someone with a personality so large that it leaves you in bewildered awe, and this was certainly the case with Tom. This wasn’t an isolated case though, and I remember various people at my school recounting how they had themselves had similar meetings with him. It may have been a pound rather than a Jelly Baby, and his choice of vehicle may have been distinctly 4×4 in variety rather than inter-dimensional, but you couldn’t escape the feeling that you had met The Doctor rather than the actor Tom Baker.
It’s a hard come-by ability to mesmerise a child, and like the show itself, there was no denying that Tom was still capable all these years later. After this, my interest in the show quickly surpassed the casual and I found myself deep in the Dapol-buying, Big Finish-listening world of ming-mongery from which there is little escape.
Skip ahead to 2012, and I find myself killing time in Cardiff’s Millennium Centre for the first official Doctor Who convention since Longleat, and considering whether to meander around some of the activities or slip away a little early. But this is not because I still have the indifference that I had before meeting Tom. It’s because the activities such as classes that teach you to walk like a monster are aimed at an audience much younger than me.
Quite right too.
For why should the show be catering to the likes of me? The writers and producers aren’t concerned with the likes of us debating how early we should leave avoid the rush for the car park. That’s the adult world whose reality should be kept away from the show. For the show to survive it needs to constantly draw in more new blood than a haemophiliac creature of the night, and if that means pushing me aside for future generations then I’m more than happy to use each episode as a chance to mentally regress to that more exciting childlike wonder.
As I turn to leave I knock the side of someone passing me on the stairs. A glance up reveals that to my surprise it’s Matt Smith, flanked by the various members of security to get him through the building quickly. As we exchange our bumbling apologies and carry on, I watch him interact with the fans as he is escorted across the through fair, and realise how difficult it is to separate his natural persona from that of his character’s. With a smile, I leave the centre and the attendees to the rest of the convention, wondering how many of the children Matt met that day would go on to have their own stories of the day they met the Doctor.
Alex Newsome is a a girl! No! No! He’s not a girl! Though his supple breasts would have you believe otherwise. He’s still not ginger, but he does write, podcast and play music so bad that it probably would be improved by a Delaware synth.
In March of 2005 I discovered that an old TV show was coming back. Not a reboot, not a reimagining, but a revival. A direct continuation of the show, picking up more or less where it had left off.
Doctor Who. Just the name set off fuses in my mind, leading to sticks of dynamite, blasting away rock that had been blocking off passages in my memory for years. Suddenly it all came back – watching the show with my dad as a kid, seeing “The Mind Robber” (my earliest memory of watching the show) and being absolutely terrified as the Second Doctor tried, and failed, to rebuild Jamie’s face from memory. Wearing out a VHS cassette of “Robot”, the first of many classic Doctor Who serials I would see over and over again in my youth. Waking up early on Sundays to catch the omnibus reruns of the show on UK Gold. Taking the plastic blue pole from the inside of my Real Ghostbusters fire station playset, jamming it into the grill on the roof, and playing Doctor Who in the garden while wearing a Hero Turtles scarf my friend’s gran had knitted for me. My little sister playing the role of companion, inexplicably putting on a naff American accent for reasons neither of us really seems to recall.
Doctor Who meant so much to me as a child, and yet in 2005, as I was about to turn 19, it had I’d forgotten it all. And then, I remembered.
Truth be told, Doctor Who – specifically, Russell T Davies’ vision of Doctor Who, all optimism and joie de vivre and the idea that there is more to life than work and telly and chips – came back at just the right time for me. I was trapped in a job I hated, in a relationship with a woman who made me absolutely miserable, but too scared to leave either because I thought I would never, ever do better. I looked forward to the show each week, initially because that childhood love, though forgotten, had never really died, but because it was my one escape each week.
And then “The Parting of the Ways” aired.
For many, that first series of the show is defined by the Ninth Doctor’s “turn of the earth” speech in that first episode, or by “Dalek” taking what had become a camp icon and making it legitimately scary once again, or the emotional resonance of “Father’s Day”. For me, that first series will always be defined by Rose, sitting with Mickey and Jackie in the chippy, giving her impassioned defence of the life she believes she’s just lost.
“The Doctor showed me a better way of living your life… You don’t just give up. You don’t just let things happen. You make a stand. You say ‘no.’ You have the guts to do what’s right when everyone else just runs away…”
For the second time in months, fuses were lit in my mind. I started to rediscover who I was, and what I wanted, and where I wanted to be. It took time – change doesn’t happen overnight – but a year and a half later I was no longer in that wretched job, no longer in that miserable relationship. Almost exactly two years later, just three days after “The Sound of Drums” aired, I was on a plane headed for Los Angeles, with just the clothes on my back and a luggage case full of classic Doctor Who DVDs.
That may sound ridiculous. It probably is. It hasn’t always been easy either, but I’ve never been happier. A big part of that happiness is sitting down in front of the TV for fourteen nights out of the year to watch a brand new Doctor Who, or throwing in a DVD and watching an adventure from years gone by.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Doctor Who saved my life.
Ben Paddon certainly isn’t here to help a malevolent entity to bring down the website. Heavens, no. Ben writes and hosts PortsCenter, a webseries about video game ports that exists solely because someone once asked him if Doom on the PSone was any good. His favourite colour is mope.
If there’s a fundamental truth to the canon of Doctor Who it’s that every possible Doctor Who story imaginable is as “true” as any other. With that in mind, here are three Doctor Who stories that exist only in my own personal canon:
• A series of adventures with the Third Doctor and his companions Jason and Crystal from The Ultimate Adventure, as played out in my back garden after I’d seen The Ultimate Adventure at the Empire Theatre in Liverpool in 1989. My cousins might be the only people in the world (other than the actors who did so on stage) who were ever called upon to pretend to be Jason and Crystal. We made a TARDIS out of a cardboard box and then came up with the frighteningly imaginative idea of getting inside it and then having someone stand outside it and rotate it so that it faced a different part of the garden: hence giving the illusion that we’d “travelled” elsewhere in it.
• A sequel to Remembrance of the Daleks that took place in my primary school, where the “Dalek climbing up the stairs after the Doctor” scene was repeated almost verbatim, because of the fact that the stairs in the boys’ toilets looked remarkably similar to the ones in the original story. Also, for some reason, Pex from “Paradise Towers” was involved, because another lad said that was who he wanted to play, and he was really keen on the “put Paradise Towers to rights” catchphrase.
• A story where the Seventh Doctor’s TARDIS lands in a giant aquarium, surrounded by giant people and fish several times his size. This may or may not have something to do with getting the Dapol Seventh Doctor figure and TARDIS for my seventh birthday, and then refusing to leave them either at home or in the car when going on a family trip to an aquarium.
Doctor Who is what you make of it. There is no other long-form story in popular fiction that is so shaped by what we the viewer personally and individually project onto it. It can comfortably absorb any type of story, character, setting or narrative style, and still – so long as a relatively small set of characteristics and values remain in place – be Doctor Who.
You can hate a significant majority of the stories put out under its title and still be a “fan”. You can spend your life trying to fit every single piece of spin-off fiction into one coherent narrative (good luck fitting Jason and Crystal in there somewhere), or you can argue that the only piece of actual canon is the unaired pilot of “An Unearthly Child”. You can dress as David Tennant without knowing the names of any of the other actors who’ve played the character – or even that there are other actors. You can get in the Guinness Book of Records for having the world’s largest collection of Daleks and then admit that you’re not actually a fan of the show. You can know an enormous amount about what happens in every classic story and yet not actually have sat down and watched the majority of them. You can reject the television series entirely, and purely follow the books, or the comic strips, or the audio dramas, or the David Banks-starring performance of The Ultimate Adventure. You can obsess over the dimensions of the TARDIS windows yet not know whether the fourth letter stands for “Dimension” or “Dimensions”.
And even if you’re one of the people who doesn’t like it yet – it’s waiting for you. You might never get around to finding your own personal way into it (especially if you’re as bloody-minded about your dislike of it as my ex-girlfriend was), but it’s there somewhere, all the same. The only wrong perspective on Doctor Who is the one that tries to limit how other people engage with it. No matter who you are, you can make it your own story and be as much a part of it as you want. You can be the companion. You can be the Doctor. Hell, you can even be Pex.
It’s not just a sci-fi show aimed predominantly at kids about a white middle-class bloke who travels through time and space righting wrongs. It’s so much stranger than that. It’s so much darker. And so much madder.
And so much better.
Seb Patrick once met Paul McGann, who immediately pretended to be Mark McGann. He writes for Den of Geek, BBC America, Film4 and the official Red Dwarf website, among others. He owns over thirty toy Daleks. This does not, at present, qualify him for inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records.