And no, it’s not bigger on the inside. Although the inner layer is mostly made of white bricks. (I ran out of blue.)
And no, it’s not bigger on the inside. Although the inner layer is mostly made of white bricks. (I ran out of blue.)
I first met Gareth just over a decade ago. He is tall. He is traditionally seen in black. He knows a lot about Doctor Who and the works of Tolkien. He likes toast and the earlier adventures of Lara Croft. He is, in many ways, quietly infuriating. This is because he’s nearly always right. He is one of the funniest people I know, and I am extremely fond of him.
Gareth lives with his partner in a house in Cambridge, known by us as The Gallery due to its airy, open lounge / dining area, with stairs leading to a balcony that overlooks the ground floor, with doors that open onto bedrooms and (the last time I was there) a mass of computer equipment on the landing. Downstairs there is a PS3 and a mass of DVDs, along with a couple of He-Man action figures. Many have shared with Gareth over the years, including my own wife before we were married. I liken the Gallery to the House of Elrond, described in The Hobbit as “a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep, or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all”.
Gareth and I don’t see each other very much these days, so most of our correspondence is done via email, which suits fine, although I miss the back-and-forth intensity of the face-to-face chats we’d have in the period I was visiting regularly, some eight years ago now. I am considerably more tolerant of the more recent episodes of Doctor Who than he is. His outlook has nothing to do with rose-tinted spectacles or any sort of nostalgic bias but has come about simply because his standards are higher than mine. “I can’t think,” he told me recently, “of anything on TV that’s made me laugh out loud since Eddie Izzard in the 1990s”. Many people would find this sad. I don’t.
Gareth will pop in here occasionally, principally when I’m talking about New Who, but today he features because he recently observed this, parked on the road opposite.
Well, we always wondered.
A conversation with my children this morning about unusual food combinations (jelly with onions, sausages filled with cake) led me to revisiting this:
Josh hasn’t yet experienced any Eleventh Doctor stories (although I am assured that ‘The Death of the Doctor’ is approaching in the Sarah Jane Adventures playlist he’s working through with his mother). But everyone – including my father – is familiar with this. It’s one of my favourite scenes with Matt Smith, back when Moffatt’s irreverence was still relatively fresh, and before it started to come across as inevitably gimmicky. Tennant’s Doctor – while admirable in many respects – had become almost too human by the end of his run, and even his arrogant godlike demeanour was an enhanced form of humanity. The Tenth Doctor, like the Ninth, had never been particularly eccentric, being content with a sort of know-it-all smugness instead, and I’d felt for a while that the show had needed a more alien Doctor – a Doctor who admired humanity, but who had trouble relating to it.
It’s a shame, really, that the Beeb didn’t include the beginning of this scene, which sees a sopping wet Doctor (who’s just climbed out of the library, which was in the swimming pool) chomp on an apple before spitting it out with the words “That’s disgusting. I hate apples. Apples are rubbish”. The current Doctor’s little foibles are starting to grate a bit now, which is by no means the fault of the actor, but is rather down to some annoying recurring themes (yes, we understand the irony of a twenty-nine-year-old saying “Oh, I’m so old”, but we don’t need to keep hearing it). But this was back when everything was new and exciting and we were shaking off the post-Davies blues and hoping that the show would stop being so overblown and melodramatic (it hasn’t, but it’s easier to take under Moffatt’s penmanship).
Thus I’m perhaps inclined to give ‘The Eleventh Hour’ more credence than it ultimately deserves, because it launched a new era for the show in which a lot of the problems it had been having were fixed (only for new ones to crop up, but that’s for another day). They were still working out the Eleventh Doctor’s characterisation at this point and I suspect many people watching – perhaps those who weren’t familiar with Baker (i) or Troughton, whose eccentricities Smith mimics – wondered what on earth they were watching. But the source of Moffatt’s inspiration actually goes back much further than the 60s and 70s – the parallels are obvious to anyone who remembers The House at Pooh Corner, and the first time we watched this, Emily’s response was “Right, so he’s Tigger, then?”.
The sadist within me would dearly love to think that shooting this was as tortuous for Matt Smith as the sprout-eating contest was for Dawn French in the Christmas episode of The Vicar of Dibley – during filming, James Fleet and Gary Waldhorn would repeatedly (and deliberately) mess up their lines, forcing endless retakes and more and more sprouts for the unfortunate French. I’m told, in fact, that Matt Smith ate eleven fish fingers when they were shooting the sequence in Amelia Pond’s kitchen, and enjoyed every one – symptomatic, perhaps, of an actor who’s every bit as youthful and fun-loving as the character he portrays. And that has to be a good thing.
My other half and I tend to watch these stories together. Emily’s never quite shared my passion for Doctor Who but she has always endured it willingly and without complaint and usually enjoys what she sees (and, when she doesn’t, always finds some way to elegantly take the piss out of it). She’s therefore a necessary ingredient to any Who story I’m experiencing for the first time; it keeps me from pitching over the edge of the fanboy abyss into unequivocal adulation.
My friend Gareth refers to this one as ‘Solon, and thanks for all the flesh’, which is both pithy and accurate. There’s the usual structure – layered antagonists, with henchman-works-for-boss-who-is-assisting-incapacitated-mastermind – and the Doctor and his companion held prisoner on suspicion of murder (in this case, before the fact). ‘The Brain of Morbius’ doesn’t pretend to be anything other than Frankenstein in space, and it doesn’t suffer for it. We have:
‘The Brain of Morbius’ opens with a mysterious death on an alien planet. The TARDIS materialises nearby, the Doctor berating the Time Lords for, apparently, pulling them off course. This ambiguity is curiously unresolved come the end of the story: we are led to believe that the Sisterhood of Karn has pulled in passing ships to protect the elixir, but engaging the Doctor in a covert operation to depose the nearly-resurrected Morbius is exactly the sort of thing that the Time Lords would get him to do, and we still don’t know for certain that they didn’t.
It was Emily who suggested that the Sisterhood resembled a futuristic W.I. This theory was vindicated when Maren (or Ohica) remarked “nothing changes!”. They’re perhaps a little more hostile than the cast of Calendar Girls but there are definite parallels. “And it would explain,” said Emily, “why she’s wearing a cake on her head.”
Over in the aforementioned Gothic castle, pioneering surgeon Solon is trying to stitch together a new body for Morbius, a renegade Time Lord now reduced to a brain-in-a-jar cliché. Solon’s played by Philip Madoc, a recurring Doctor Who actor but one whom I knew primarily for his turn as the U-boat captain in Dad’s Army. Solon epitomises the nasty genius – cruel, devious, manipulative and self-obsessed, while Condo is the obedient sidekick, who you know will eventually try and do the right thing and come to a bad end.
The Doctor is rescued, thanks to the intervention of Sarah Jane, who has sneaked in wearing a disguise that frankly wouldn’t fool a six-year-old. Luckily the Sisterhood, who are completely wrapped up in their sacrificial ritual, don’t appear to notice.
The Doctor: [Opens eyes] Hello, Sarah! Nice to be seen again!
Sarah: Oh, Doctor!
The Doctor: You thought I was dead, didn’t you?
The Doctor: You’re always making that mistake.
And you’d think that by now, she’d have learned…
Years ago, there was a joke doing the rounds:
Q. How many Doctor Who fans does it take to change a lightbulb?
A. None – they just sit there and hope it’ll come back on.
Post-2005, of course, this doesn’t work (although it’s still funny, if you know your history). But I had to change it:
Q. How many Doctor Who fans does it take to change a lighbulb?
A. Thirty – one to change the bulb and the remaining twenty-nine to rant about how much they preferred the other one.
Actually, the twenty-nine is probably misrepresentative: there will be a fair few who will argue vehemently that Russell T Davies was the best thing to happen to the show in its fifty-year history, that the soap aspects humanise the show, and that there was a reason Doctor Who was cancelled. They’re right about the last part – the rose-tinted spectacles are out in full force when it comes to classic Who, and I think we let it cloud our judgement. I’m abivalent about much of new Who, but when it comes to comparisons with the old stuff I do confess to seeing both sides of the argument, and am therefore, as Oscar Wilde once said, a man who can’t actually see anything at all.
But that’s a whole other blog post that I will eventually write. To summarise just here, the digital age has brought about a new wave of critique and online commentary that can be as acidic as it can be sycophantic. There are few shows that are subject to as much critical scrutiny as Doctor Who, and I can think of no other programme – in the UK, at least – that is grilled, dissected, torn to shreds, hung, drawn and quartered by the people who profess to be its fans. We’ll justify our behaviour by claiming that we love the show for what it once was, or what it could be, or what it should be, or what it…never won’t be…sort of thing. All the while we’ll ignore the little voice inside that says “It’s back. And you always wanted it back. Isn’t it better to have it like this than to not have it?”. (For some reason, mine always sounds like Patrick Troughton.)
Anyway. The fans were out in force yesterday afternoon over the announcement that Doctor Who is “to be made into a feature film”. There’s no script, no cast information, no story, no release date and no production crew. That didn’t stop the Guardian readers launching into a passionate debate about the whys, wherefores and whethers. Suffice to say that the article and subsequent commentary tell us nothing that we didn’t already know, except that Dan Martin is an idiot (but I knew that already) who knows bugger all about Doctor Who and will fill his columns with provocative puff pieces that serve only to fan the flames, rather than support the cause of decent, constructive journalism. I have stayed firmly out of this debate – I have nothing to add to it and no firm opinions either way (what’s the point of speculating about a film that hasn’t been cast or scripted and for which even the tone and context has yet to be announced?). And it’s curious, because staying out of the Doctor Who debates always leaves you with one of those Naked Lunch moments where you suddenly stop and wonder what on earth you’re actually doing with your time, and what the point is, so I read the first few comments and then abandoned it completely, so as to avoid winding up thoroughly dispirited with my wasted life.
It’s not as if the series’ planned jaunt to the cinematic format is new. Only yesterday I mentioned the rotten 1996 TV movie, clearly pitching (unsuccessfully) at a different target audience and changing the very essence of Doctor Who in the process. It’s not so much the inconsistencies (Paul McGann’s revelation that he was “half human on my mother’s side” had the fanboys tearing up their parents’ basements in anger, but anger is only there if you choose to believe him, because “rule number one: the Doctor lies”). It’s the whole tone of the piece that’s wrong: Eric Roberts is hopelessly miscast, the new TARDIS’ interior seems unnecessarily elaborate, and the story is tedious and meandering. It’s a shame, because with a little more effort it could have seen the start of great things for McGann, who has had to be content instead with his radio work – which, while admittedly prolific, is scant compensation for the screen time that the eighth Doctor really deserved.
But what I want to talk about today is the 1965 production, Doctor Who and the Daleks – the first of two jaunts for Peter Cushing, playing a wholly human, non-canonical and quite different Doctor. The film has a TARDIS (homemade, and lacking the definite article), and Daleks, and the Doctor has a (human) granddaughter, and supporting characters who share the names of the television Doctor’s first companions, but that’s about the end of the similarities. This adventure sees Dr. Who (as he is named, which is a less rare occurrence than you might think) set off on an adventure after Roy Castle falls on the controls.
Undaunted, the gang travel to a retroactively named Skaro to oversee the end of a conflict between the Daleks and the Thals. Searching the plastic jungle for the
McGuffin mercury they need to repower TARDIS, the team find themselves captured by the metal monsters. After several futile attempts to escape their prison cell, the Doctor finally twigs as to the reasons for their lack of success, rising from his seat and seemingly breaking the fourth wall. “There!” he cries triumphantly. “That’s how they know what we’re doing!”
Right, so that’ll be the really really big security camera, then.
The gang eventually escape by insulating a Dalek and then removing its brain from the casing, allowing Roy Castle to climb inside. Handy, this chap.
A single protruding fin gives the only clue as to what’s hiding beneath that blanket.
Meanwhile, the other Daleks don’t suspect a thing.
We start here:
Because that’s where I started. Sort of. There’s a reason memory doesn’t begin at birth. The trauma, I’d imagine, is too much. There’s this sensation of floating, perhaps a little cramped, perhaps with the muffled thrum of the outside world poking through, but still warm, safe. Foetal. Then there’s the sense of movement, and then a wall – a wall you must pass through, somehow, against all odds. Perhaps it’s like trying to get a really tight jumper over your head. They talk about the pain of childbirth, and having seen it first hand on three occasions I’m personally rather glad it’s something I will never have to go through myself – but I suspect it’s no picnic for the baby either. Then, once the pushing and squeezing is done, there’s the sense of breathing, really breathing, great big lungfuls of something that’s no longer liquid, but gaseous, and cold, and the overwhelming instinct to draw as much air as you can into those tiny, newborn lungs before expelling it out with the loudest noise you can make.
But perhaps life’s a little like that. You begin with the safety reins and then learn to walk the tightrope. And sometimes you fall, and perhaps knowing you might is as much a reason to keep going as it is to stay on the ground. Still, perhaps we block out these early encounters because it’s easier than having to remember what they were actually like.
It must be said that the death of a companion is a hell of an introduction to a classic series, but perhaps (paradoxically, given what I’ve just written) that’s the reason I remember it. Because I’m sure that it wouldn’t have been the first story I watched; it’s just the first one I remember. Love him or hate him (and a great many did), the departure of Adric was my first real brush with death – more real, and more tangible, somehow, than the untimely death of my beloved but barely remembered grandmother just a few months earlier. Adric’s death was solidified, visible – that broken badge still haunts my sleep – and more to the point, they never tried to bring him back. (And no, ‘The Boy That Time Forgot’ doesn’t count.)
Perhaps the reason I can still remember this now, just shy of thirty years after the fact, is significant. Perhaps we latch on to one death in particular – the first time it means something – and that’s the death that stays with us. It would explain why, when reading The Hobbit to my eldest son (who figures quite a lot in this narrative), he burst into tears after I’d recounted the Battle of Five Armies. It’s not as if he’s never seen death before. I was expecting trauma after The Lion King, which he survived without a single sniffle (unlike his father, who was in tears). When he was two we took him to see our beloved cat put down – it’s not as if it was a family excursion, but we thought it was for the best, some sort of closure. For years he’s been comfortable – I thought – with death. Then I read him the account of Thorin’s passing and his grief was tangible and thus as upsetting to me as it evidently was to him. This happened to him because over the weeks we’d spent reading the book I’d had time to build up a portrait of Thorin that you seldom get in the space of an hour or so of screen time. So it was effective – but for a while there, I felt like the worst father in the world.
My encounters with Doctor Who began round about here. I cut my teeth on Davison. When he eventually regenerated, my parents were less likely to have it on in the evenings, as neither of them were keen on Colin Baker – despite his possession of the same sort of blustering arrogance that my father so admired in Hartnell, his own favourite. When Baker became McCoy I jumped back into the swing of things and devoured every story, despite the fact that many of the early ones were dreadful. Then it was cancelled. A few years later they brought it back, in the form of a television movie that we don’t talk about in the circles I inhabit. There was much to admire about McGann, but the rest of it merely sullied fond memories.
By the time Doctor Who was resurrected some six years ago, I was married and about to become a father. Watching the show now has taken on a curious duality, as I’m able to view it from the perspective of the critical adult viewer who laments that its occasional childishness is symptomatic of a show that’s past its best, and simultaneously the child who is entering the Whoniverse for the first time and experiencing the wonders of the groaning TARDIS with fresh eyes. Joshua grew up knowing the characters from infancy (at the age of three he could pick out Dalek Sec in a lineup) but it wasn’t until Easter this year that I first introduced him to the television series. We started with Eccleston, which is as good an introduction to the show as I can think of for someone his age (at least until I get round to buying the Beginning box set) and as I write this we’re working our way through Tennant’s run with Piper (two episodes away from ‘Doomsday’).
I hadn’t intended to turn this into an autobiography, so this might be a wise place to stop: I simply wanted to give you some context for this blog, which is something I really should have started a while ago. I’m not – and have never been – an obsessive fan of the show; my experiences are confined to the TV series and the occasional comic story, and I do not own a single novel or Big Finish production. (A friend of mine has been trying to get me to listen to ‘Spare Parts’ for the past couple of years, and one of these days I swear I’ll get around to it.)
I tend to view Doctor Who from a writer’s perspective – I look at the structure, I look at the narrative, I look at the characterisation. I blanched in horror when the Doctor abandoned the TARDIS in ‘Curse of the Black Spot’ – it seemed such a pointless, out-of-character thing to do for the sake of confining him to the ship (even though it could have been justified with one simple change to the narrative). At the other end of the spectrum, I thought ‘Blink’ was the best forty-three minutes of television I saw in 2007, and some four years later I’ve yet to see the show do anything that surpasses it.
Away from the new episodes, my other half and I have been trawling through the archives and discovering Tom Baker, of whom I was always aware without really knowing him. We may therefore divide this blog into three main categories – thoughts on the classic series; retrospectives on the post-2005 episodes as I watch them with Josh; and anything else, including all the new stuff. It won’t be this clean-cut; the ambiguities and crossovers are as big a part of my writing style and approach as they are to the show in general. But that’s sort of how it’s going to work. My guess is that you’ve Googled for something else and just stumbled in here – in which case, welcome, and pull up a chair. Sorry I’ve eaten all the biscuits.
This will be part information dump, part pretentious meandering – inconsistent, schizophrenic, perhaps with an inflated sense of its own importance, much like Doctor Who itself. That isn’t intentional; it’s just me. The simple truth is that it’s been a big part of my life, on and off, for some thirty years – and if I spend much of my time (like many fans) simultaneously loving and hating it, it’s taught me a lot about a lot of things, and it’s rich with analogy and goodness, even within the confines of a prime time family show. It is when it is at its darkest and most unpleasant that the beauty of the show is at its most luminous: we spend our lives behind the sofa but we cannot resist peeping out because that’s when the best, most interesting stuff is happening. You have to pass through the darkness to reach the sun coming up, and sometimes bathing in the darkness is the only way to grow. And it’s curious, perhaps, that as a closing thought I should turn to the words of Elton Pope – protagonist of ‘Love and Monsters’, one of the worst New Who stories in the canon – who nonetheless, in this oft-quoted monologue, had one interesting thing to say:
“I’ve had the most terrible things happen, and the most brilliant. Sometimes, well, I can’t tell the difference. They’re all the same thing. Stephen King, he once said, ‘Salvation and damnation are the same thing.’ And I never knew what he meant. But I do now. ‘Cause the Doctor might be wonderful, but thinking back, I had this great thing going that was destroyed. And that’s not his fault. But maybe…that’s what happens when you touch the Doctor. Even for a second. When you’re a kid, they tell you it’s all…grow up. Get a job. Get married. Get a house. Have a kid, and that’s it. But the truth is the world is so much stranger than that. It’s so much darker. And so much madder. And so much better.”