50

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.

,

(Or, ‘Nick’s writing complicated posts about Doctor Who again, so look away now if you’re only here for the politics)

First up, if you haven’t already, go read Teatime Brutality’s post ‘Canon and sheep shit: Why we fight‘ which explains why there’s no such thing as a Doctor Who ‘canon’. Second, if you haven’t seen The Night Of The Doctor yet, you probably should before you read further, as there will likely be spoilers.

Read the rest of this entry

, ,

I wrote on a forum a couple of weeks ago, when the first rumours about Peter Capaldi becoming the Doctor that “I’d love it to be Capaldi, but I don’t think we live in an awesome enough universe for that to happen.” Obviously, I was wrong and the universe remains an awesome and wonderful place where things like that can happen.

Obviously, I’m excited that he’s going to be playing the Doctor and not just because it means that the actor playing the Doctor is older than me again. I only discovered recently just how much of a fan of the series he is, beating even David Tennant for fannish credentials, but the reason his name got me excited was that he’s an incredibly talented actor. While he’s become famous as Malcolm Tucker, he has a huge range as an actor, and most of his roles have been a long way away from the rage and anger of Tucker. Indeed, having seen his interview on Sunday, and had a look back at some of his other roles, it’s clear how much of a performance Tucker is. Tucker’s voice is a deeper and more guttural than Capaldi’s own, and his physicality is completely different.

In combination with his comment on Sunday about not quite seeing the Twelfth Doctor in the mirror yet, I think it would be foolish to try and assume what sort of Doctor he will portray. The Doctor is a very interesting part for an actor, as a lot of different approaches to it have worked over the years. At one extreme, there’s the Tom Baker approach, where the character becomes a larger version of the actor, while at the other, there’s the style that Patrick Troughton pioneered of creating a distinct character and playing that role. I think the new series started with Eccleston taking the Troughton approach, but Tennant and Smith had moved it closer to the Baker style, but Capaldi’s comments make me think the pendulum will be swinging back.

The other thought that occurs to me is that by the time his first proper series as the Doctor starts (around Autumn next year, I believe, after the regeneration at the end of this year), the new series will have been around for almost nine and a half years. To put that into perspective, that’s the time in the original series between An Unearthly Child and The Green Death and longer than the gap between the TV movie and Rose. With a whole new take on the Doctor and a chance for everyone to recharge and think about how to take the series forward for the next fifty years, don’t be surprised if the whole series has a different feel when the Twelfth Doctor’s in the TARDIS.

,

YouGov have done a survey asking people their opinions about Doctor Who and what characteristics they want to see in the next Doctor. As politics and Doctor Who are two of this blog’s continuing obsessions, I couldn’t resist writing about it – and this post becomes even more ‘my entire blogging history in one post’ if I tell you I’m doing it while I wait for the highlights of the Criterium du Dauphine cycling to come on TV.

(Insert your standard disclaimer here about polling not necessarily being accurate, margins of error, just a bit of fun etc)

It’s perhaps not surprising that Lib Dem voters are more likely to be Who fans than supporters of other parties (see Alex Wilcock’s ‘How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal‘ or my take on it here) but it’s nice to see it statistically confirmed – 41% of Lib Dem supporters are interested in the series, compared to 34% of Labour, 29% of Tories and just 26% of UKIP supporters.

I’m actually surprised to see David Tennant topping the ‘favourite Doctor’ part of the survey by quite a convincing margin – 43% to Tom Baker’s 16% and Matt Smith’s 14%. He won a similar DWM poll while he was the Doctor, but he’s now three years out of the role, which does indicate that he may well have replaced Tom Baker as the public’s image of the Doctor. (He is one of my favourites, but if I’d have been polled, I’d have doubled Patrick Troughton’s support amongst Lib Dems.) However, fun confirmation of stereotypes comes with Jon Pertwee getting his highest ratings from UKIP and Tory voters, but absolutely no support from Lib Dems. It’s possibly because he’s the most ‘establishment’ of all the Doctors – no other Doctor spent so much time hanging around the military – though one could also argue that the Pertwee era was full of images of a proudly independent Britain with its own space programme and big energy projects. As soon as he went, Tom Baker’s first story saw international sovereignty being pooled to protect nuclear codes in ‘Robot’ and the English countryside, if it was real at all, was depicted as being full of androids.

There’s also interest in the questions about what characteristics the new Doctor should have. Even without the breakdown by party, I’m surprised to see that the population of Britain are relatively open to the idea of a different Doctor. The only characteristics that get bare majority support are British (54%) and male (52%) – and male only gets about 40% support from Labour and Lib Dem voters. That gives me hope that when – and I believe it is a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’, even if it’s not this time – we get a female Doctor, the general populace will be much more inclined to accept it and see how it goes than certain Who fans believe they will be.

Other figures almost look as though they were created by the stereotype-o-matic such as 50% of UKIP voters thinking it’s important the Doctor is white, compared to 5% of Lib Dems, though I’m confused by a couple of spikes (which might just be statistical noise because of small sample size) – Tories are more likely to want the Doctor to be attractive, while Labour voters are more likely to want the actor to already be a household name.

My general position is that I want the next Doctor to be played by someone interesting – I’ve not been the biggest fan of the last three years of the series, but I think Matt Smith’s done a good job with some weak material and has been very good when he gets a good script – and most of the actors who I’ve thought could be interesting Doctors have been different from the norm. (That said, I do edge towards the ‘I’d like a woman Doctor, but not one written by Steven Moffat‘ position) If it was up to me, I’d be trying to persuade one of Adrian Lester, Maxine Peake, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Naomie Harris or Ben Whishaw to take the role – but it’s not up to me, so I just get to wait, watch and see what comes next. Hopefully, I’ll still be around for the 100th anniversary, when all this speculation will seem as quaint and irrelevant as ‘can you really get another completely different actor to play the Doctor?’ was in 1966.

, , ,

Writing and reading about Aliens vs Wizards on Thursday sparked up some old thoughts on Russell T Davies’ writing, and I wanted to set them down somewhere. As I’m trying to encourage myself to blog more again (as I have been doing for almost all of the ten years since I started) I thought this would be good place for them to be set down. Besides, I haven’t written at length about Doctor Who and the like for some time, and it’d be nice to get back in the habit.

Read the rest of this entry

,

If you haven’t heard, former Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies has got a new children’s show starting on the BBC soon – Wizards vs Aliens. The Guardian have seen the first episode at a press screening, and their review is very positive, and the sort of thing that makes me wish I was 10 again.

(The comments on that article also make me wish I was 10, and too young to waste time doing stupid things like read the comments on an article. There’s a nostalgic element to reading some of them, in that they’re like Doctor Who forums circa 2006, though no one has of yet brought up Davies’s ‘Gay Agenda’.)

Even if it’s not aimed at far-too-old me (but that’s what iPlayer’s for), it’s good to see Davies back writing and creating after taking time off for personal reasons. I do miss his touch on Doctor Who, and would like to see him back to write an episode or two, not least because his Sarah Jane Adventures ‘Death Of The Doctor’ featured what I think’s one of Matt Smith’s best performances as the Doctor. And with the 50th anniversary coming up, it would be good for one of the series’ most experienced writers to come back and contribute.

But until then, we’ve got wizards fighting aliens led by the voice of Brian Blessed. Today’s kids don’t know how lucky they are…

,

One of these is obviously a day late. Can you guess which?

One genre to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them – There’s been some interesting discussion recently about the claims of literary fiction, and how this one genre dominates media coverage of books and reading. Here’s an interesting take on it all. (via)
Meat Lover! The Scariest (True) NYC Sublet Story You’ve Ever Heard – Does exactly what it says on the headline. Probably not to be read if you’re squeamish, easily offended or are about to eat Chinese food.
One cold may morning in June – Phil Edwards on the difference between Adams and Pratchett.
Ireland and Doctor Who – For St Patrick’s Day, Nicholas Whyte chronicles the connections. “There is occasional confusion about whether Gallifrey might be located in Ireland.”
If Cameron can’t explain AV, his education was wasted – “So for Cameron to blithely claim he is not able to explain AV suggests one of two things to me. Either he is not being honest, or his extremely privileged education was wasted on him.”

, , , , ,


Inspired by this piece of news, which is quite interesting casting actually.

, ,

Looking through the Onion site, I found this interesting article in the AV Club about time travel and when and where you’d choose to go live for a few years if you had the opportunity:

Where and when would you most want to live for five years, restricted to a five-mile radius?

Everyone says things like “Oh man, how cool would it be to be in Dealey Plaza during the JFK assassination, or see The Beatles during one of their Cavern Club concerts, or witness ancient Rome?” Well, what if you were given the chance?

Here are the conditions. You’ve been granted a hypothetical ticket to live, in comfort and coherence, during one five-year time period. Maybe you want to be in New York in Chicago during Prohibition, or Victorian London, or France right before the Revolution. (Or during—no judgments.) You’ll be able to understand and speak the language (if needed), have enough disposable cash to live at leisure, and experience whatever you want, with no need for a job. You’ll have a comfy apartment or house to return to, full period wardrobe, and as much time as you need before making this trip to study up on the period you’ll live in.

But you must stay within a five-mile radius of where/whenever you choose to live. Thus you can’t go see the Kennedy assassination, then go zipping around the world to London to watch the birth of the British Invasion, or New York for the early years of Greenwich Village. Want to see the Kennedy assassination? Fine. But then you’re stuck in Dallas for the next five years.

What historical period (and place), in your opinion, offers the most enticing experiences in one five-year period?

So, despite the fact that they illustrate it with a TARDIS, this isn’t a simple where would you want to pop into as a time tourist for a few hours, but a proper time traveller, really experiencing and being part of the local culture. The fact you have to stay within five miles of your location for five years probably rules out some interesting locations – going to see the Boudiccan revolt burn down Colchester might be interesting, but spending five more years in and around an under construction Roman border town probably wouldn’t be. Other great battles and conflicts will most likely suffer from the same restrictions – several years of hanging around 20 square miles of countryside in exchange for a few days of historical action.

My choice would be for London between 1685 and 1690. For me, that period from the death of Charles II to the accession of William and Mary to the throne is a key point in British and world history. The changes that were wrought in that period were much more profound than the question of who got to sit on the throne, they were about the basic nature of the British state and whether Parliament or the Crown would finally emerge victorious from the battles that had begun long before the Civil War. How fascinating would it to be able to sample the public mood during that period – what did people think when news came through of Monmouth’s rebellion in the West? What were the protests, discussions and arguments over religion like during the reign of James II? What wild rumours went through the streets as William’s navy sailed down the Channel and James led the Army towards Salisbury Plain? And how did it feel to be in a city seemingly abandoned by its monarch and under what was effectively Dutch occupation? A remarkable time in history, and so much of it happening within those few miles of one city.

So where would you go?

, , ,