It’s October 1977. I’m five years old, and on the TV screen a virus is growing into something much much bigger than a virus has any right to be, and a professor is introducing his robot dog. The Invisible Enemy is that month’s slice of Doctor Who, but the reason I mention it is because those scenes are my first proper memories of watching Doctor Who. It’s not the first of it I’ve ever watched, but the first that I can remember watching. I’m sure I watched plenty of Who since I was born in the gap between The Time Monster and The Three Doctors, but it didn’t lodge in my head in the same way.
Today, that TV series I watched back then, which had already outlived all expectations by surviving for nearly fourteen years, celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, and not just as ‘hey, some TV show was first made fifty years ago’ but as a national institution.
It used to be hard to explain to people just what an institution Doctor Who was in the 70s. By the 90s, it was headed firmly into the ‘cult sci fi’ box, and yet the series I first encountered was nothing of the sort. It was a fixture of Saturday night TV, watched by millions with Tom Baker one of the most recognisable people in the country. Watching Doctor Who wasn’t something weird or cult, it was what great swathes of the country did in between Grandstand and the Generation Game. (Juke Box Jury had originally been the latter half of that scheduling sandwich, but Who had already outlasted it)
I’ve got plenty of memories from that time after The Invisible Enemy – a bizarre chase through mismatched rooms that were all part of the TARDIS, an old man giving the Doctor a mission, a spaceship hidden in orbit above a stone circle, Tom Baker jumping in to stop a wedding, a man with six copies of the Mona Lisa bricked up in his cellar – all permeated through a blue box that was impossibly larger on the inside and a curly-haired fool with a grin like danger and a scarf that seemed to have a mind of its own.
Then as I got older, I learnt that there was more of this, more that I hadn’t seen (and obviously never would, because who would make old TV programmes available to watch again?) but was available in a huge series of books, most of which were written by a man named Terrance Dicks. Like so many others of my age, Dicks may be the most responsible for my love of reading, and once I’d finished all the local library’s limited Doctor Who collection (and filled my Christmas and Birthday lists with wishes for more), I started picking up other books from the shelves around the Doctor Who.
(In my head, a man with a name like Terrance was obviously posh, and I had an image of Dicks as a retired schoolmaster who enjoyed writing science fiction, so was shocked when I finally discovered he was an Eastender…)
I found other friends who were into Doctor Who, and we pooled our books and our knowledge to know more about what had come before, poring over copies of Doctor Who Weekly magazine and my friend James’ much-treasured yet much-read copy of The Making Of Doctor Who. When one of us got a new book, or heard that the library was getting new stock in, we’d trade them around in between our games of Doctor Who Top Trumps.
And then things changed. The time tunnel became a star field, the weird howling of the theme tune became electronica and suddenly the BBC were actually showing old episodes again – The Five Faces Of Doctor Who meant we could actually see Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee, preparing us for that time when the curly-haired (but greyer and limper than it used to be) grinning man would disappear and someone else would take his place. And as if that wasn’t enough change, the biggest of all was soon to follow – in shock, we learned that we wouldn’t be able to watch Peter Davison between Grandstand and Larry Grayson on a Saturday night, but that Doctor Who would now appear on Mondays and Tuesdays (and every other day except Sunday for the rest of that decade).
Suddenly, the programme had slipped from being part of the national consciousness to just another midweek TV programme. They moved it back to Saturdays eventually, but then something had been lost, seemingly never to return. A couple of years before they’d effectively suspended Children In Need for a couple of hours to show The Five Doctors, but now they were cancelling – no, not cancelling, ‘delaying’ – the next series, and what had once been fixed now seemed unexpectedly vulnerable. I was still watching, but it was harder to find anyone else who was.
And then I went away, off to America for a year, where I remember watching The Pirate Planet on late night PBS one night and remembering that this was by Douglas Adams. Would there have been a Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy without Doctor Who? Would his imagination have fired the same way if he’d not watched it in the 60s? I don’t know, but what mattered then was that when I came back to the UK, it was common knowledge that Doctor Who wouldn’t be back on the TV. There were more books then, ones with strange titles that didn’t match up to anything that had appeared on TV, but by then I was off to University, and didn’t have the time or the cash for them.
By then, Doctor Who was diminished, reduced to speculation of David Hasslehoff and rapping TARDISes in the paper, something those people in the Cult TV Society watched. There was talk of movies and TV series, but all we got was Paul McGann reciting infodumps in a bad wig, and then nothing. That felt like a low progress towards an end, circling a plughole as it was gradually forgotten, the keepers of the flame wandering off to other things as it spluttered out, filed away with the Tomorrow People, Blake’s 7 and all the others that meant so much in the 70s, but nothing now.
Then one day the news came that it was coming back. I was wary at first – sure, that bloke who wrote Queer As Folk and The Second Coming was writing it, but the press appeared to think the series would consist of Alan Davies running around corridors doing a weak Tom Baker impression. Nostalgia TV, looking back and not making anything new, but something that might amuse for a while. Not the sort of thing you’d expect serious actors like Christopher Eccleston to appear in.
That was shocking news, and something that built up hope, but surely this would just be some dark and gritty reboot, targeting the cult TV fans at 9pm on BBC Two for a couple of series, then never to be heard of again. After all, who watched TV drama on Saturday nights any more? Surely that was the home of Celebrity Wrestling, not Doctor Who? But millions of people can’t be wrong, and what had seemed like a crazed gamble, a sure sign the BBC didn’t know anything about what people wanted to watch, turned into the TV event of the year.
“There was a war, and we lost.” That’s the line that turned me from regular viewer back into fan. One small scene, ending with two people going for chips, but one that changed everything. It was still the same show, a wild adventure with a man in a blue box, but was ready to shock and confound your expectation, not just tell the same old stories in the same old way.
I said last week that what distinguishes Doctor Who from other series is that it wasn’t created as a story, but as a way to tell stories. Like King Arthur, Robin Hood or Sherlock Holmes, it’s a way to tell stories that speak to us wherever and whenever we are, a character who can change but always remain the same, something that may have had a beginning back in November 1963 but resolutely refuses to have an origin and something which can end a story with a finale, but will never have an end.
I don’t know what story they’re going to tell tonight, and I’m sure that all of them who created it fifty years ago (and like all good myths Doctor Who could never have one creator) never expected it to still be telling stories fifty years later. If I’m lucky I might be here in fifty years time to see it reach one hundred, but I’m sure now that won’t be the last anniversary to be celebrated. Doctor Who will outlive all of us because it’s bigger than all of us and yet belongs to all of us – from now to the universe, whenever people tell stories, and however they tell them, there’ll be someone telling a story that starts with a blue box appearing somewhere, and someone stepping out of it.
Go tell your stories.