My travels with the Doctor

Doctor-Who-50Doctor Who is 50 years old today and I feel like celebrating. This post is going to be long, rambling and very self-indulgent. These are my memories of Doctor Who, my relationship to the show and the parts of my life he was there for.

If you don’t like Doctor Who, rambling or self-indulgence … probably best to skip this. To be honest, I’m not even sure I’ll bother to read it.

For me, Doctor Who began in January 1977 with the first episode of The Robots of Death. I’d only recently turned four years old and I was completely hooked.

Come on, what chance did I have? Robert Holmes? Tom Baker? Philip Hinchcliffe? Leela’s costume (not sure this was a consideration at four or not)? Great story, great costumes, great make up and wonderfully designed murderous robots. That story is so vividly burnt into my memory that it still felt familiar when I finally saw it again on VHS ten years later.

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Apart from vague snippets of home, parents and the birth of my baby brother it’s my first proper memory.

Or rather, that’s how I remember it. Maybe it’s not? Memory’s a funny thing, primarily because it doesn’t really exist. Or at least, not in the way we think it does. You remember that thing you were looking at five minutes ago?

No, you don’t.

You remember the story you told yourself about the thing you were looking at five minutes ago. And already you’ve embellished the story to make yourself cooler/stupider/sexier/wiser or whatever else your brain thinks your personality lacks.

I think The Robots of Death is my first exposure to Doctor Who, but maybe it wasn’t? Maybe I saw bits and bobs beforehand? Maybe it was just the first complete story I saw? Or just the first one I was old enough to remember?

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I don’t recall any kind of electric eureka moment – it’s not like I remember thinking “This is it! This is the thing I’ve been waiting for, the beginning of a life-long obsession!”

To be honest, I don’t even remember watching it. I just know I saw it. When I read the Target novelisation I could vividly remember every scene, I could picture bits and pieces of model work, I could recognise still photos in Doctor Who Weekly in years to come and I still find reflectors vaguely sinister.

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The Face of Evil? None of that’s familiar. Even watching it now, multiple viewings later it feels fresh and new and alien.

When The Master turned up in The Keeper of Traken – I had no idea who he was. I had to ask (not-so-obsessive) friends – some of whom could remember something about him and a disappearing Grandfather clock and maybe some fire. They believed I should remember it since it “wasn’t that long ago” (their words); but since I had no idea what they were talking about, I’m assuming I never saw The Deadly Assassin either.

Sarah Jane Smith was unknown to me as anything other than a photo or a book cover until K9 and Company … so I’m pretty confident in dating my obsession to January 1977 and The Robots of Death.

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Pretty confident, but not 100% certain.

I could, of course, have constructed the whole memory from still photos, clips and the Target novelisation. Maybe I was drunk in 1986 when I first saw the VHS omnibus, forget I’d already watched it and then “remembered it from my childhood” on second viewing?

I don’t know. But hey, I think The Robots of Death was my first trip in the TARDIS so that’s the story I’m sticking to.

That was the seed, which quickly blossomed into a fully fledged obsession.

I can still remember the night I was sent to bed as a child without watching Doctor Who – it stands alone as my only memory of being punished (or of the only punishment which hurt) even though I can’t remember what I’d done or which episode I’d missed.

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Well, I wouldn’t, would I? I’d missed it.

Because that was thing in those dark pre-VCR days. These things were shown once and once only. If you missed it, tough titty. Life just rolls on without you.

The Robots of Death, The Talons of Weng Chiang … I don’t remember seeing The Horror of Fang Rock, but then … The Invisble Enemy. K9! I was five by then, similarly obsessed with Star Wars and enamoured with robots. A talking robot dog who shoots lasers?

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Yes please.

When Doctor Who Weekly came out, I was first in the queue. And I stayed in the queue until sometime in the mid-nineties … but I’ll get to that in a bit. The magazine was my first introduction to the artwork of Dave Gibbons – some may know him chiefly for The Watchmen, but to me he will always be inextricably linked with Doctor Who strips like The Iron Legion, The City of the Damned or The Dogs of Doom.

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When Denys Fisher released their ten inch toys, I was desperate to have them. A trip to London and Hamleys left me hating the store for decades. I asked if they, the biggest toy shop in the whole world, had the Doctor Who toys … to which they replied … no.

No? Why the fuck not?

For Christmas that year, Santa was very good to me. The Doctor, Leela and the TARDIS … all of which I dropped down the stairs on Christmas morning, breaking the TARDIS. Best and worst Christmas ever.

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Although the joy of getting the TARDIS was moderated by the disappointment I felt when I realised my parents were right – it didn’t really dematerialise. And the all consuming grief of having dropped it was ameliorated when my Uncle Hilton fixed it and I then had a much more fitting battered Police Box.

I can’t remember where or when I got rid of that, but if there’s one thing I continually drift back to on ebay, it’s that battered cardboard Police Box. One day, you will be mine.

In 1980, I moved to Mexico. Disaster! How was I going to see Doctor Who now? Luckily, my Gran kept getting Doctor Weekly and sending them on once a month. Or so.

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Even luckier, I think I must have been there between seasons – looking at the episode listings, I definitely saw The Leisure Hive. The Horns of Nimon I’m not so certain about … but I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing. By far the best thing about being in Mexico was seeing old episodes, even some I’d never seen before! Always Tom Baker, mostly in black and white and frequently out of order … or in some bizarre order I just couldn’t fathom. I saw the first episode of Robot twice in a row and then episode three of The Invisible Enemy, followed by the first episode of Robot again … but it didn’t matter. It was Doctor Who!

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Whilst living in Mexico, my dad brought a pile of stiff card home from work and, using the template in The Adventures of K9 and Other Mechanical Creatures, built a scale (to an eight year old) model of K9. I loved that cardboard dog. My brother had one too, but mine was better. I modified mine – adding lego wheels, a drinking-straw-antenna-probe and a slot for disgorging printouts. Sadly, when it came time to go home … in true Professor Marius fashion, I couldn’t take K9 home with me. In not so Professor Marius fashion, my brother and I smashed our faithful yellow card-dogs up before returning to Monkseaton.

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I’m not sure how I became aware there were other Doctors. Maybe it was from the pages of Doctor Who Weekly? But that didn’t turn up until October 1979 – nearly three years later. Maybe it was from the Target novelisations – the only real source of archive information in those days? Or maybe my dad told me? He used to watch it when he was younger – maybe he even turned me onto the show in the first place?

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No idea. But somehow I knew. Somehow we all knew and decided the first two Doctors were boring because they were in black and white (an opinion I’ve long since recanted). I know when the BBC showed the Five Faces of Doctor Who series of re-runs, it didn’t feel like a revelation. It was exciting, getting to see Doctors past; but it wasn’t new information. Just new stories. New to me, anyway.

Tom Baker’s departure, my Doctor leaving, was painful. Even worse, it coincided with my brief attendance at Cubs. Peter Davison came in (and was awesome, allaying all my fears) and brought with him a change of time-slot. Twice-weekly, one of those twices was on Cubs night and so, for a brief period (until something cut short my cubs’ experience … something with a puppet?) I only saw episodes 1 and 3 of every 4.

Thankfully, my mum stepped up into the breech and faithfully retold the missing episodes on our morning walk to school. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, her re-tellings were vivid enough for the episodes to feel familiar when they were finally released on video years later.

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Somewhere in Peter Davison’s tenure, a move from the North East to the Midlands brought about a new group of friends, sporty guys who prefered football to telly. I mean, yeah, they watched Doctor Who and they read the books because … well, everyone did; but they didn’t really care. Not really. They couldn’t name all the Doctors, in order, for example. As for the companions … forget it.

Hanging around with those guys meant missing the odd episode here and there. Not many, but every now and then. If the sun was out, so were we. If it wasn’t … fuck it, we went out anyway. The sun going down didn’t really herald time to go home either.

My love for Doctor Who never waned … but my attendance for his adventures did. I re-read the novelisations voraciously, but somehow failed to video all the episodes. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because VCRs were so bastardly difficult to program? Or because it only took one inadvertent button press to bugger the whole thing up? Or maybe I did watch them all and just forgot? Or maybe I was just succumbing to peer pressure and beginning to believe I was getting too old to watch a kids’ programme?

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Again, like so much of this, I don’t know.

By the time Colin Baker arrived, I was a casual viewer. I saw the odd episode, but they seemed poor and not particularly interesting (except for Vengeance on Varos – still love that). Weirdly, I kept getting Doctor Who Monthly (as it was by then) – I rarely missed an issue. The comics in there were always the first thing I read – I needed new stories. Tales about behind the scenes stuff from past episodes or news about up and coming stuff … didn’t really interest me. So maybe my lack of interest was more to do with how I perceived the quality of the show than the Doctor himself?

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It would be nice to say I was developing more of an interest in girls and booze by that point; but I really wasn’t that kind of teenager. Booze, yes … enough so that by 18 I’d really had enough and have been teetotal ever since. Girls … well, I wasn’t interesting to them and they were completely beyond my understanding. So no, it wasn’t teenage life getting in the way of Doctor Who … it was just a gentle parting of the ways.

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Sylvester McCoy’s first season came and went and I barely noticed it. I think I saw a reasonable percentage of it … but I don’t remember caring. Paradise Towers sticks in the mind as a story with excellent bits, let down by silly bits like “fortamoloscope opening device”. I’ve never liked sci-fi-sounding words. Doctor Who, on TV at least, was pretty much a thing of the past …

And then there was Season 25. Daleks, Cybermen, Killer Clowns and Bertie Bassett.

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And just like that I was back in love.

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I bought the Dapol toys. I made pilgrimages to the exhibition at Longleat. I hunted down all the Target books I’d missed. My Aunty Sheila knitted me a scarf (seventeen feet long – long enough for me and four of my friends to wear it to school at the same time). I bought all the videos I could find … I was just obsessed. Again.

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Season 26 was even better … and ranks for me as some of the best the show has ever produced.

Weirdly, despite this renaissance, when I was allowed to write a story on any subject for GCSE English, I chose to write a Doctor Who story featuring Shockeye and Chessene from The Two Doctors. Obviously the Colin Baker years left some impression.

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First and only time I ever got a double A for anything.

And then it was over. The show was cancelled, the TARDIS grounded – he was never coming back.

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I wasn’t ready to let go though.

At some point in the sixth form I stopped sleeping. At least in any real meaningful way. A few hours here and there, nothing you’d recognise as a full night’s sleep. I needed a project to fill in the wee small hours after Sledge Hammer had been on or I’d finished staring at Mariella Frostrup’s legs on … whatever that Video programme was called. Video View? Something like that.

There’s only so much of Teletext’s Jobfinder you can watch at four a.m. before you start going a bit funny. I couldn’t play my guitar because it was too noisy. Although I had a TV in my room, the VCR was downstairs, directly under my parents’ room, so noise ruled that out too. I suppose I could have done some homework … but that never seemed important.

The logical thing to do was to build a new K9, this time sprayed the proper colour with remote control bits and light up other bits and proper full size and everything.

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Which I did. In great detail, from plans sent to me (on request) by Tony Harding. Plans, I might add, which differed slightly from the actual prop version built. Only found that out halfway through the build, ruining nights of work. I read and reread Matt Irvine’s book on visual effects during this period – half-convinced my true calling was to be a visual effects designer. Building model spaceships and then blowing them up? Sign me up!

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Unfortunately, I’d failed all the wrong A levels … so that was out.

When I left for university, K9 came with me. God knows what the guys I lived with thought about that, but I was unashamedly a geek and didn’t really care. He got left behind in a dazzling series of house moves over the next few years (nine in six years!). I’d like to think someone found in him in the garage of Cwmdonkin Terrace and gave him a new home. But I suspect damp and rats claimed him.

When the New Adventures books were published, I devoured them religiously – this is what I wanted, more complex Doctor Who!

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It was hard being a Doctor Who fan by then – the programme no longer existed, I was working a shitty job and couldn’t really afford to keep buying the videos, I had as many Target books as I could find and the New Adventure books grew less complex, interesting and enjoyable as the series progressed (my perception, not fact!) … and then my obsession was dealt a death blow.

Well, two death blows. I suppose, technically, only one of them can be the actual death blow though.

Two events really turned me off Doctor Who – one was I sold all my videos to buy an engagement ring for my first wife (the word first in the sentence should give you some clue as to how terrible an idea that was). So I no longer had access to repeat viewings of my favourite episodes. The other was a poll in DWM naming (what I thought was) the worst of the New Adventures book as a fan favourite. The reviews for this book stunned me – I thought it was terrible, full of stupid ideas and silly sci-fi names for simple things. It reminded me of the worst stories of the Colin Baker years … but, apparently, it was exactly what most Doctor Who fans thought the show should be.

So, in disgust, I stopped buying the magazine and the books and gave up on the Doctor for a second time. If that’s what they want it to be, I’m fucking glad it got cancelled.

Apparently I’m a fair weather fan.

In this second wilderness, there were two things which kept the flame flickering.

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One was the American TV pilot – an event which caused me to threaten to lock my house-mate (post-divorce living arrangement) out of the house if he wasn’t home on time (because I really, really didn’t want anything interrupting my enjoyment). I even made a sign for the front door: FUCK OFF, DOCTOR WHO’S ON. I was determined to enjoy it. And I did. Mostly – so much of it was so good, just a bit of a duff story, that’s all. Such a shame to waste such potential.

The second was a guy I worked with called Ashley who plied me with whole seasons on VHS, recorded off UK Gold. Thank you, sir – you kept that fan-flame alive.

But apart from that, it was over. Doctor Who was dead.

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Mostly.

Except for that little notebook I used to scribble story ideas in.

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Stories and a list of places in Swansea and South Wales which might make good locations for episodes. Most of which have now been used.

And that vague plan I had to write a CBBC series based around King Arthur, featuring an eerily familiar but never-referred-to-as-anything-but Merlin.

Then there was that recurring dream of mine, the one where I’m walking to school in the North East and there was a Police Box at the side of the road. Inside was … a full sized police station. Slightly odd. Not quite so odd as the fact there actually was a Police Box on the way to school, one I’d completely forgotten about (consciously) until I mentioned this dream and my parents told me about it. Even now, I can picture the space where the box was, but not the box itself.

How can a Doctor Who fan walk past a TARDIS every day without remembering?

Told you memory was an odd thing.

To be honest, I’m not 100% convinced it was actually a Mackenzie Trench box.

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I reckon it was probably more like this:

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But whatever it was, it lives on  in my dreams. The programme may have been dead, but it was never forgotten.

When the show came crashing back in 2005, I was so excited I nearly wet myself. I may even have wet myself, I can’t be sure.

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I loved Christopher Eccelston as the Doctor. I loved BIllie Piper. I loved the new 45 minute format (although, you kids today, you’ve got it easy. We used to live in terror of the Doctor dying for 3 out of every 4 weeks. 5 out of every 6 sometimes. That’s why the show used to give us nightmares. You get to see him win EVERY WEEK. Parents, try this for an experiment – show your young children half an episode, stopping it at the point where they think the Doctor is dead or is being throttled by something with tentacles … then lock them in a dark bedroom overnight. See how they fucking like it).

The redesigned TARDIS – loved it. Whilst simultaneously mourning the loss of that cosy, familiar roundreled glow.

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David Tennant I loved when he wasn’t being amazed by things. Which was a little too often for my taste. Having said that, most of my favourite stories from New Who belong to him.

Matt Smith I think is fantastic and I will be sorry to see him go.

Peter Capaldi … I look forward to loving with all my heart.

Although there’s a wrinkle. A wrinkle which may or may not be meaningless once I’ve seen the 50th anniversary episode tonight, at the cinema – courtesy of my second, last and far superior wife.

When we were kids, we invented our own Doctors. Future Doctors, ones we’d become when we were older. Ones we could, conceivably, play ourselves if we became actors.

Mine was the 12th Doctor.

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Until The Name of the Doctor – I always knew that when Matt Smith went, I wouldn’t get to be the 12th Doctor. The next Doctor, whoever he was, would be taking my space in the pantheon. At the moment, now that John Hurt’s been lobbed into the mix like a wrinkly hand grenade, it looks like Matt Smith sneakily took my place while I wasn’t looking.

I’ve been preparing for a lifelong dream to die, but it may well have already been murdered when I wasn’t looking.

Maybe tonight will throw new light on that and I can live in hope that I am secretly Peter Capaldi until next year …

But either way, I’m looking forward to the next fifty years with optimism and utter joy.

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As an adult fan, I’ve met socially with people involved in the show – something I wouldn’t have dreamt possible as a kid. I even managed to have a lengthy chat with Philip Hinchcliffe – the man responsible for my first (probably) Doctor Who memory.

But best of all, I’ve been able to introduce my own daughter to the show – holding her close when things get scary and reassuring her that, no matter what, it will be okay … because the Doctor will save the day.

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Because, ultimately, that’s what the show means to me – faith in the future. Faith in the idea that a single person who’s prepared to stand up and be counted, can make all the difference. Faith that intellect, curiosity and compassion will win out over those who try to enslave or impoverish humanity.

I guess this is why I’ve always liked hero driven stories. The idea that individuals can make a difference by doing what’s right. I think it’s a vitally important lesson, one which used to be told on TV all the time. Growing up there was a plethora of programmes which espoused this ideal, couched in action and adventure … most of those were American, most have them have gone now.

The Doctor is British and he’s still standing … because heroes don’t give up. Not ever.

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I’m glad I’ve been exposed to his ideals for nearly my entire life. I’m proud to have been there for all but 13 years of his life and hope he’s around to inspire my daughter for all of hers. I have no doubt the Doctor’s fortunes will wax and wane. I’ve no doubt he will get cancelled again at some point in the future … but I also know fans will keep that flame alive and one day he’ll be back again.

Maybe I’ll get to be part of that legacy one day? Maybe my daughter will when she grows up? Or maybe we already are? Maybe she too will hold her children’s hand when things get scary, as I’ve held hers and my father held mine?

I hope so.

Happy birthday, Doctor. Here’s to many more.

Doctor-Who-50th

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Categories: BBC, Random Witterings, Writing and life | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “My travels with the Doctor

  1. This is lovely, Phill. 🙂

  2. Pingback: That was the 50 years that was | The Jobbing Scriptwriter

  3. Pingback: 2013 | The Jobbing Scriptwriter

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