A brief personal history of time travel

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radiotimesMy apologies, it’s been a bit quiet on the review front – for the simple reason that I haven’t been watching, reading or otherwise partaking of anything that warrants a review. It’s just been that sort of start to the year. Hopefully things will pick up as we approach Easter.

In the meantime, to keep the blog ticking over, a little diversion in content. Regular readers will know that I’m rather partial to the series Doctor Who (it’s also pretty obvious from one glance at the site tag cloud!) so I thought I’d do a short-ish piece on my personal history watching the show. Anyone not interested in Doctor Who should probably look away … now.

Jon Pertwee was ‘my’ Doctor back in the early 70s, but rather frustratingly I’m not entirely sure precisely when I started watching the show. I know it wasn’t Pertwee’s first season, which isn’t surprising as I would have only been three at the time; nor do I have any memories of watching his second year in the role, although it’s possible that I caught at least a few episodes.

Instead, my first clear recollection is associated with the start of the series’ ninth season in 1972, because I vividly recall the fantastic Frank Bellamy Radio Times cover that the magazine ran to mark the return of the Daleks to the show after a five year hiatus. It’s quite possible that the Daleks (and that magazine cover) were what made me into a regular viewer. I have hazy memories of the second story in that season (“The Curse of Peladon”) but a very strong impression of being genuinely scared by “The Sea Devils” stalking a dark and deserted sea fortress which was the next story (although it’s possible that such memories were reinforced by the BBC running an omnibus repeat of the story two years later.)

The other big thing about that time was that it was coming up to the show’s tenth anniversary. Yes, incredible though it seemed, here was a show that had run ten whole years! Who could imagine such a thing? The aforementioned Radio Times even produced a special anniversary magazine that you could send off for, which included all the usual features and interviews together with a “Make Your Own Dalek” school project feature – and a full episode guide of stories to date.

rt-specialI was stunned to learn about the existence of all those previous stories. And previous Doctors as well? That old guy and the funny clown were Doctors too? (It was later proven beyond any doubts that I might have had by the official anniversary story, “The Three Doctors”.) I read and re-read the short synopses of the old stories and tried to do my best to recreate them in my head, since they would clearly never be available to me to actually watch – once broadcast they were gone, right? But then the Target book imprint started producing novelisations of those old stories and I really was able to ‘see’ them again, in my mind’s eye at least. It was an early lesson in the power of storytelling that fuelled my development as a lifelong book reader.

As far as I was concerned at the time, the TV series hit an all-time high with “The Green Death” and the giant maggots; my young self saw nothing wrong at all with the FX of “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” and I loved that story too. And “Planet of the Spiders” was also great, because spiders are so scary in the first place, right? But hang on, what’s happening here … The Doctor’s not looking at all well. He’s lying on the lab floor. Everyone’s looking sad. And the Doctor’s growing all blurry …

I did not take well to my first exposure to the process of regeneration. I knew about the previous incarnations of the Doctor, but to actually lose my Doctor was quite another matter. The charismatic, authoritative, stylish (hey, I was only six or seven at the time; plus, it was the 70s!) Pertwee was replaced by a bulging-eyed loon playing everything for laughs. He was ruining the show! I wanted the real Doctor back!

I staggered through Tom Baker’s first season, thought “The Ark in Space” was actually pretty good, “The Sontaran Experiment” was just weird, but was wowed enough by “Genesis of the Daleks” to buy the vinyl LP of the cut-down soundtrack (pretty much the only way we had then of getting a recording of the show pre-VHS.) But “Revenge of the Cybermen” was undeniably weak, and than the rival ITV network distracted me away with gaudy baubles like the high-budget Space: 1999 or later the American Buck Rogers in the 25th Century which contained added traces of Erin Gray DNA, and somehow I lost touch with the Time Lord. For the next four years, the Tardis travelled on without me.

bellamyIt was the Daleks – yes, them again – that tempted me back into the old neighbourhood in 1979, but what a sad state the place seemed to be in. It looked old and tired, cheap and tatty, everyone playing it for laughs now. It came over like a bright, cheap and garish pantomime, especially compared with the science-fiction films flooding into the local cinema in the wake of Star Wars. Things did pick up with “City of Death” thanks to all that Parisian location filming and a script that even I could tell fair crackled with ideas and intelligent humour (even if the name Douglas Adams wasn’t attached to it on screen), but even so the season was still a huge disappointment that ended in the ignominy of “The Horns of Nimon,” which might very easily have ended up being the last straw for me.

I only watched the first episode of the next season because I’d heard the show had been given a makeover and I was curious to see if it had really changed. And boy, hadn’t it just! Everything was different – it was more modern and stylish, there were some impressive Quantel electronic paintbox FX, the music was all cool and modern (yes folks, mass-market synthesizers had landed in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) and moreover it was all being played seriously. So much so that even the sight of Tom Baker as a walking cactus wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounded on paper. Alas there were no Daleks this time, but the return of the Master was almost as good.

Producer John Nathan-Turner catches a lot of flack for his tenure on the show, but I have to say that his first season in charge was what re-engaged me properly with Doctor Who. If it hadn’t been for his first season reboot then I doubt you and I would be having this chat here and now, for I would probably not be a Doctor Who fan today. I know it went wrong later on – we’ll get to that in a moment – but thank you, JNT, for making the 1980 Doctor Who one that I could fall in love with all over again. (And thank you, too, to Barry Letts – not only the producer of my beloved Pertwee seasons but also the executive producer supporting JNT though this first ambitious year of comprehensive change.)

I’ll be honest: I was still perfectly happy when I learned that Tom Baker was leaving the show. Like a sullen child faced with a nice but nonetheless unwelcome stepparent, I’d never forgiven him for replacing ‘my’ Doctor no matter how good he was in the role, whereas Peter Davison I could accept guilt-free with open arms. A good three years ensued with the Fifth Doctor at the console, and I was genuinely sad to see Davison leave – although by now I was much older and no longer inclined to take out my separation anxieties on his replacement. No, I was quite happy to give the new guy a fair chance.

Unfortunately Colin Baker arrived in “The Twin Dilemma”, arguably among the all-time worst Classic Who serials of all time. The next season contained another at least as bad in “Timelash”. Most of all, the Sixth Doctor was a thoroughly unlikeable personality, prone to temper tantrums and even physical assaults, and happily turning a gun on people to disintegrate them. And the less said about that ‘costume’ the better. This wasn’t just a case of it not being my Doctor this time – this was no one’s Doctor. Even to this day, I can’t actually select a ‘best’ Sixth Doctor story when asked to, as they’re simply all below the acceptable threshold for viewing.

None of which, I soon realised, was Colin Baker’s fault. A couple of years later I saw him perform at the York Theatre Royal in the lead role of Deathtrap, and he was quite a revelation: not just an assured actor in a tricky role but a charming and charismatic one as well. I utterly fell for him … Only to re-try his Doctor Who stories and find they were still unpalatable to me. The show had let down its lead actor badly and I could no longer watch it. I was nonetheless sad that the series ended up on hiatus and Baker fired; I tuned in to see what the new guy was like, but whatever Sylvester McCoy’s merits were as a mime performer on Vision On it seemed his talents didn’t much extend to acting. Eventually the show drifted away and was euthanised in 1989 by which time I’d long forgotten about watching it; just another show growing sepia-tinged in the memory.

The less said about the 1996 ‘TV movie’ the better. As it happened, my uncle Nick knew the producer of the doomed reboot attempt, Philip Segal, and if my memory serves then I actually leant him some of my old dusty collection of Doctor Who books in Segal’s early days planning the project. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit my tenuous culpability in the TV movie considering how it turned out, but I always thought that Segal’s attempt was sincere and well-intended (and Paul McGann has since been a brilliant Doctor in audio spin-off stories) but that the endeavour was simply derailed by the nature of the American co-production that fundamentally twisted the series concept out of all shape in its attempts to make it transatlantic instead of quintessentially British.

Despite the TV movie’s failure, perhaps it was this project that managed to rekindle the remaining glowing embers of my Who fandom. Or perhaps it was the emergence of satellite and cable channels such as UK Gold, with their schedules stuffed full of old BBC archive material including endlessly recycling classic Who serials. At first I was only interested in revisiting the fondly remembered Pertwee and Davison stories that I’d loved as a child; the former turned out not as good as I remembered, but the latter held up well. And then there would be the chance to see other stories such as the surviving William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton that as a kid I never, ever thought I’d get to experience outside the covers of a Target paperback. This was magical stuff and reconnected me right back to my childhood. I was hooked again, and as the stories started to come out on affordable DVD format I was picking them up just like I had used to do with each new release of the Target books as a child.

It’s only been since the late 90s that I’ve become the grown-up Doctor Who geek that I am today. Overall, my life with the show has been a patchy time, a rocky road and an off-on love affair over the course of nearly 40 years, but finally I’m locked in. Nothing will shake me out of the Who tent again as long as I live, no matter the ultimate fate of the new series that began with such unlikely success in 2005 that displayed such assured leather jacket-bound confidence right from the very first minutes.

In the meantime I’ve come to adore Hartnell and Troughton, reappraise Pertwee’s era objectively but still with huge love. I’ve finally seen the Tom Baker classics that I missed out on through my petulance – stories like “Pyramids of Mars”, “The Seeds of Doom”, “The Robots of Death” and “Horror of Fang Rock” – and now freely admit they are some of the very best the series ever did and thereby acknowledge Tom as the best Doctor of all the Classic stories. It might be three decades late, but I’m there now, ready to admit how wrong I was and kick myself for missing out. Although secretly, I’m actually a little happy that it meant I got to ‘save’ these extraordinary stories to enjoy years later when I could truly appreciate them as a grown-up.

While I’m afraid I still spurn the Sixth Doctor’s tenure, there’s certainly been a big change in my attitude to McCoy’s three years in the role. Okay, he’s still not great in his first season: but what’s extraordinary is the leap in quality in his own performance and in the show as a whole for his sophomore season. Once again, it took a Dalek story to open my eyes: ten years ago, I watched the DVD of “Remembrance of the Daleks” for the first time and did so with an open mouth, amazed at how good McCoy had suddenly got between seasons (as subsequently proven by his work on the stage with the RSC and now in The Hobbit films) and how brilliantly written and produced the show had become. Things had got to the point where the production team could pull off the practical effect of a full-size spaceship landing in a schoolyard and make it look good. Nor was this one lone highpoint among dross, as the final pre-cancellation season boasted the likes of the ambitious “Ghost Light” and the effective “Curse of Fenric”. I’d always believed that the original show went out on a whimper, a sad spent force with nothing more to offer; but finally I was able to appreciate that it actually went out on something of a high, a series cruelly interrupted in the middle of a strong creative renaissance.

Someone somewhere watched those final shows – of a newly mysterious, rather dark and angst-ridden Doctor joined on his travels by a capable, self-sufficient teenage companion from a South London council estate – and thought: you know what? That would make a damn good starting point for a 21st century family TV series for Saturday nights. It might even catch on.

3 thoughts on “A brief personal history of time travel

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