Thomas Pratchett marks the, er, 48th anniversary of Doctor Who with some personal reflections.
On an October evening in 1987 I wandered into our small brown living room, in which our aged, four-channel, push-button TV was on. It was past six o’clock, so cartoons were long gone for the day, and I was seven, so whatever was actually on at that time usually never interested me. But what I saw on screen that night was different. A man was being chased by a white robot. What cool craziness was this on during the boring TV hours? I remember little else about it, but this was my first exposure to Doctor Who.
48 years ago today at 5:15pm, Doctor Who was first broadcast on BBC One, shadowed by the death of JFK the day before. William Hartnell stepped out of a foggy November night into a police box in a junkyard and made television history. Then, after twenty-six years and seven Doctors, the programme was put to rest by the BBC after its long-suffering producer, John Nathan-Turner, could not be persuaded to stay. Thus, the 1987-89 period was my only experience of watching Doctor Who ‘live’ for some years, but in that brief time, and at such a young age, I became versed in the canon; Daleks, Cybermen, UNIT, The Master. What was even better was discovering that the show had been around for many years, and the BBC was starting to put out the show on VHS at a rapid rate.
With my pocket money I bought Dapol action figures of woefully bad quality, along with VHS tapes of Hartnell and Patrick Troughton stories. I would watch the black and white stories rapt, apparently unfazed by the lack of special effects and occasionally glacially-paced storylines (The Dominators, I’m looking at you). To me these were new exciting stories! The Doctor meeting the Daleks for the first time, and having no clue who they were! I moved on to the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker episodes (which I’ve still not seen all of to this day) – the move to colour from Pertwee onwards made the serials ‘pop’ more to my young eyes, and the BBC seemed to delight in being able to show off said colours, right from Pertwee’s psychedelic intro sequence.
Along with all this time and space-hopping adventure, I was picking up values. The Doctor was special to me in a way my other childhood heroes didn’t match up to. Optimus Prime had his ion blaster, the Ghostbusters had their proton packs, the Doctor? He had, well, his smarts and eccentricities. He’d talk the villains into destroying themselves, trick them into doing what he wanted, and save the universe time and again. For me this was mindblowing, especially watching Sylvester McCoy do it (McCoy being ‘my’ Doctor), because his portrayal was that of the chessmaster, the man who’d planned every endgame from the moment he found out what was wrong on this planet. Most indicative of his style is this scene from The Happiness Patrol in which he talks down a sniper.
This was a man who hated bullies. A man who hated burnt toast, unrequited love, cruelty and tyranny. These were traits I admired, and so took them into myself. Stand up to the bully, freedom and liberty for all. I’d developed ethics from a TV programme. Well, there are worse places to get them, I guess?
After the programme’s cancellation in 1989, it’s fair to say that Who fandom dwindled away, fed only by the drip of New Adventures novels published by Virgin, some of the authors of which are now writing for the revival. The remit of the line was ‘stories too big for television’, and the books did things the TV series would never have been able to get away with, such as letting the Doctor meet Sherlock Holmes and have a Lovecraftian adventure with him, or setting a story in what was basically Iain M. Banks’ Culture with the serial numbers filed off, even if I didn’t know it at the time. For me, however, there was always the nagging at the back of my mind that somehow this wasn’t ‘real’ Who, the adult themes often feeling out of place.
Then, in 1996 came a bright light from out of the dark hinterland, Doctor Who was coming back! And it was about time! A co-production between the American Fox network and the BBC, the TV movie premiered on BBC One on May 27th, with Paul McGann taking over the TARDIS. However, the week before, it had been released on VHS, at a midnight opening in London’s HMV Trocadero store. A release I was embarrassingly present at, because of the genuine excitement and enthusiasm I felt that there was new Who. I went with my dad, and came home with the video, watching half that night and half before school the next day. I remember running up to my geekier friends and tripping over myself verbally, struggling to get out every detail of the awesome new adventure I’d seen, and hoping that no-one else overheard us talking about the TV equivalent of herpes.
Of course, looking back now, the TV Movie is lacking in a lot of ways, and has dated very badly. Paul McGann and the absolutely stunning console room design were the only things that escaped from it with any sense of dignity. Nonetheless, the disappointment felt when it was announced that there was to be no more episodes was palpable in the Who community, and the BBC instead commissioned a range of novels to continue the adventures of the eighth Doctor.
The books, known as the EDAs, or Eighth Doctor Adventures ran right up until 2005, when it was announced that the Doctor would return, played by Christopher Eccleston, with the whole affair orchestrated by Russell T. Davies. To say there was trepidation was putting it mildly. Would it be a continuation or a reboot? Would it be faithful to the original show? The questions flew thick and fast, until a week before airing, the first episode, Rose was leaked onto torrent websites. Obviously I couldn’t wait a week when it was sitting there waiting to be watched.
I have to admit, I didn’t initially like what I saw. A screensaver-like title sequence, burping wheelie bins and the Doctor standing around being useless in the climax of the story. Where was my Doctor Who? What was this abomination?
I softened on the show over the weeks, getting into the groove of it, enjoying it, finding the new dynamics different, but understanding that the old Who could never return, not in the TV environment of today. So now we live in a day and age where Doctor Who is as big as it’s ever been, in the capable hands of Matt Smith, a young-old man with a fine line in whimsy. Kids can buy action figures of virtually any character from the show, wave sonic screwdrivers with impunity from playground ridicule, and still take home the message that there are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things, and that they must be fought, be they bullying or tyranny.
Just what the Doctor ordered.