Doctor Who is Fifty Years Old today. Don’t know if anyone’s mentioned that.
At 5:16 this evening, 26,298,720 minutes will have passed since the opening bars of Delia Derbyshire’s realisation of a certain Ron Grainer composition first crept into the nation’s front rooms. And 154 minutes after that, the 799th episode of Doctor Who, The Day of The Doctor, will be creeping, nay, exploding into front rooms, bedrooms, mushrooms and cinemas in 94 countries Worldwide.
The story of my own love affair with Doctor Who is an odd thing. Grab a hot drink, find a comfy chair, and I’ll tell you all about it.
I was approaching my eleventh birthday when Season 26 ended in December 1989, and so I was part of what was arguably the last generation that remembers ‘Classic’ Doctor Who.
At least, I should be. I definitely have memories of watching the Seventh Doctor and Ace. And before that, I vaguely remember Bonnie Langford being in it. And I can kind of remember Colin Baker’s tenure as The Doctor. But no specifics. In fact, the only thing I could really remember about Doctor Who was the theme music. We had (and I still possess) a 7″ single of the 1980 arrangement of the theme. The sleeve had Tom Baker (in his burgundy phase), staring at me, rather frighteningly, with his wild eyed grin. When I first became familiar with it, probably around four or five years after it’s release, the final ‘boom!’ at the end of the theme frightened me even more than Uncle Tom’s manic grin.
Now, of course, I’ve got most of 80s Who on DVD or VHS (still missing Davison’s Snakedance and McCoy’s Paradise Towers – I’m not made of money), I’ve seen all the stuff from my childhood, which makes it harder to remember if I watched it first time round. But I’d probably say that Sylvester McCoy was ‘my Doctor’. I’ve got a fair amount of 60s and 70s episodes, too – Tom Baker, is, of course, brilliant, and I’m a particular fan of The Second Doctor, too – great to see more of his episodes being recovered recently.
Of the stories currently available on DVD, I’m only missing 29, although I have four of those on VHS.
I fancy I caught Dimensions in Time when I was 14, too, but thankfully, it didn’t made too much of a mental scar, and the first time I remember showing a particular interest in Doctor Who, being properly excited about it, was in 1996, at the age of seventeen, with Paul McGann’s turn as The Doctor. I cut out the main picture from the cover of the Radio Times (an unthinkable act now – I save whole issues if they contain Doctor Who pictures, articles, synopses, and often buy more than one issue if there are a couple of different covers – though the prospect of paying the necessary £19.20 for all 12 alternatives of this week’s issue was beyond even me. I’ve settled for the Sixth and Seventh covers.), and still have a brown clipboard/folder containing that, the pull-out section from the centre of the magazine, a Doctor Who Magazine Movie Special, and the first two or three months’ worth of the Radio Times Sci-Fi page, which launched the week The TV Movie aired, and featured a half-page comic strip every week. I collected the first two full stories, which each stretched over a few weeks, before giving it up.
But despite my enthusiasm for The Eighth Doctor’s debut, I still don’t think I was a massive Doctor Who fan. My big fan obsession is Red Dwarf, always has been. but in 1999, BBC2 had a Doctor Who night, and something kinda [no pun intended] clicked.
I taped it. I rewatched it. I recorded the Jon Pertwee repeats on weeknights (which obviously didn’t get the ratings the Beeb were hoping for, as, after The Third Doctor’s second story, they inexplicably jumped forward five years to Tom Baker in Genesis of the Daleks, after which the repeat run ended, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was probably shoved back into the teatime slot), and I started getting the odd second hand video. I couldn’t tell you which I got first – Probably The Five Doctors or something. Whatever the stories I saw were, I was starting to enjoy them.
In the summer of 2003, I read an article in the Daily Mirror about unusual degrees and University courses. There was a course available down in Wales, which was for a BSc in Science and Science Fiction. I liked Science Fiction, and I’d got two GCSEs in Science (grade C’s) at school eight years previously. This was obviously the course for me.
I started my course at the University of Glamorgan, in Trefforest, Pontypridd,that autumn. Around that time, of course, the BBC press engine was making plenty of sounds about Doctor Who‘s forthcoming 40th Anniversary. I’d just got my Student Loan, so obviously, I started buying assorted Doctor Who books, convincing myself it was for my studies. Doctor Who: The Legend, a magnificent tome covering the previous four decades, came out around this time, and I duly bought that (leaving my wallet a whole lot lighter than the book itself was), along with a slim (and substantially cheaper) volume by Mark Campbell, a ‘Pocket Guide’ sort of thing, with a short precis on each story, and a mark out of 5. As my video collection was pretty Who-light, I used these ratings as a guide when I regularly visited a lovely little SF stall in Ponty market. I’d see second-hand DW vids on the shelves, consult my handy book and, whichever story available had the best ratings would accompany back to my room. Mark Campbell gave The Gunfighters a very respectable 4/5, so I jumped at the chance to grab that when I saw it in Ponty.
I never really trusted Mark Campbell’s story ratings again after that.
The Legend, meanwhile, had lots of nice photos on large, glossy pages, with a section about each Doctor and the actor who played them. The First Doctor, played by William Hartnell…The Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker…The Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann. And then, The Ninth Doctor, Richard E. Grant. After all these years, The Doctor had returned for a new generation, in animated form, on the internet, in Scream of the Shalka. The era of the Ninth Doctor had begun…
All the fuss about Richard E. Grant taking up residence in the TARDIS was, of course, blown out of the water just a couple of weeks later by the announcement of Doctor Who‘s long awaited return to television.
At this point, everything started to slot into place. Here I was, studying Science Fiction in South Wales, just a few miles from where a brand new series of a SF legend was being produced. That was quite a time. A friend of mine, Peter, from my course, was a massive Doctor Who fan. He was a mature student at the age of 50 (Hell, I was termed a ‘mature student’, despite being a mere 24 years old. Oh, happy day…), and I often used to remark how amused I was that he was ten years old when the show started, and I was ten years old when it ended. It’s never taken much to amuse me.
And so, at that time, it was impossible not to get caught up in the general sense of enthusiasm and pride of Wales as NuWho (as it was, somewhat pathetically termed at the time) entered production. I was watching more Classic Who, and my visits to Ponty Market and regular chats to Peter started making me the person I am today. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is for you to decide.
I started to toy with the idea of buying an issue of Doctor Who Magazine, but decided against it. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know my Sutekh from my Scaroth, my Peri from my Polly – a hardcore fan mag was not going to suit me.
2004 seemed to whizz by. A short, but badly timed bout of illness meant that I hadn’t passed my first year at Uni, and so I was repeating the first year. However, my appetite for Doctor Who was increasing. I was lapping up the BBC local news reports as filming started, and even started buying DVDs (Pyramids of Mars was my first). By the end of the year, I decided I would start buying DWM. I made it a (quite sad, really) New Year’s Resolution, and bought issue 352 in January 2005. By a fortunate coincidence, that month saw a ‘Regeneration’ in the design of the magazine, too, with a new logo and glossier pages. I purchased the magazine in WHSmith’s, on Queen Street in Cardiff, where the shop assistant happily told me that he’d served Christopher Eccleston just the previous day.
March arrived, and my housemate Gwen managed to download me the copy of Rose that had leaked onto the net the week before the episode aired. It was a rough cut, and had the 1970s theme over the title sequence, although, hilariously, I remember not realising, and waxing lyrical about how ‘the new theme was faithful to the original, but with a fresh spin,’ or words to that effect. As I watched that first saturday, I thought Christopher Eccleston was perfect, and imagined the days when we’d be seeing The Eccleston Years retrospectives in the shops. Of course, all that was ruined the following week when the papers all revealed that Eccles would be leaving at the end of the series.
This caused me to write a rather embarrassing letter to the Ninth Doctor, near begging him to reconsider. Luckily, I didn’t keep a draft, nor can I remember what exactly I wrote. I just know that I sounded rather more desperate than a 26 year old really should.
I always thought that if the BBC had told the press that Chris Eccleston was just doing the one series, and placed some kind of embargo on the news…oh, that fantastic series would have been even better than it was. Those thirteen weeks had everything a new series of Doctor Who should have – The Doctor, the TARDIS, Daleks and, to top it all off, a Regeneration. Imagine being a kid, coming afresh to this series your parents used to like, falling in love with this brilliant man in his box, spending three months thinking he’s the best thing since sliced bread, then you see him explode in the last episode and turn into some skinny bloke. What a magnificent introduction to Doctor Who that would have been. Of course, a lot of the younger audience wouldn’t have had any idea of the casting change, or of what was coming up, but for the rest of us, what would have been the best surprise EVUR, was spoilt just a little bit. David who?
Fast forward a few months. Thursday 17th November, 2005. The big Cardiff Christmas Lights switch-on. And this being Cardiff in 2005, the only choice for the switch-on was a Time Lord and his companion, David Tennant (who was still to make his proper debut as The Doctor) and Billie Piper. The lights were due to be switched on around 6:45pm, with entertainment due to start an hour earlier. So naturally, I turned up about 4pm. I was going to stand at the front, no matter how long I had to wait. And wait I did. Pretty much alone for an hour or so, as the stage was set up, and the sound system checked, and other such boring tasks.
Barriers were duly erected,but I was still at the front. The entertainment started. I was still at the front. And then, around twenty past six, we were all pushed back around 20 feet as a school’s worth of children arrived and sat cross-legged on the floor in front of us. And then we were urged back further as the wheelchair users took their place at the front. (I know! What a cheek..!) So, although I’d been there two and a half hours later, and, indeed, ‘at the front’ of the regular folks and families, we were still all a fair distance from the stage.
It was very cold that night. being out in the freezing Cardiff weather for three hours had done my complexion no good whatsoever. I stood there, in a long woolly scarf and hat, unable to feel my hands, trying to take photographs of the stars as they took to the stage (via TARDIS, obviously),and were introduced to the crowd by the local TV weatherman. I took some photographs, but none of sufficient quality to post here (though I have trawled the BBC archives, and found you the report of the evening, and a picture gallery of The Doctor and Rose ‘switching on’ the lights. Do enjoy the links to the assorted rumours and news stories of eight years ago at the side of each page).
A little later, as the event wound down, and people started wandering off, I did contemplate whether to try and get to the portacabins at the back of the stage, try and grab an autograph or photo. But there were cars and security, and I figured David and Billie had already buggered off, and it would be a waste of time. Plus I was absolutely freezing, and turning an interesting shade of purple.
It was at this point I turned around and saw a big man laughing. There was Doctor Who lead writer/Executive Producer Russell T Davies, with Producer Phil Collinson. No-one else seemed to have noticed them lurking. So over I went and got their autographs instead.
I managed to get a photo, too, although a cock-up at the chemists meant that when the photo was developed, the photo was sans me. We did get it sorted out, though it does look like I’ve been stuck on as an afterthought.
Which of course, I effectively had been.
As I have no letters after my name, it will come as no surprise whatsoever to you that I didn’t graduate from University. After failing the first year of the S&SF course again, I moved onto a year of Drama, which I loved. I was a little frustrated that it turned out that no less than four of my coursemates over the three years made appearances in Doctor Who (including Peter, who played a scientist in Dalek). One of them, Rachel, who’s now a fairly successful author, appeared in close-up in not one but two episodes. She’s the one whose ear David Tennant stares into whilst standing in the street in Rise of the Cybermen, if you’re interested. Anyway, though my practical work was fine, but I was no good at writing essays. Ironic then, really, that I’ve already written over 2,500 words in this blog post alone. With another year failed, I returned to Sheffield.
My time in Wales was an exciting time to be a Doctor Who fan. Lots of fun was had when watching episodes, spotting which areas of ‘London’ were in Cardiff city centre. There was more frustration, too – as I left Trefforest in 2006, the Doctor Who production team moved to Upper Boat studios, literally up the road. Scenes from the first episode of series three were filmed, very obviously to my trained eye, in the University buildings, with Market Street in Ponty town centre housing both the pub where Martha’s family gathering is taking place, and the alleyway where the TARDIS awaits Ms Jones as she goes off on her travels. Sitting back in Sheffield, watching those scenes in Spring 2007, recognising those places, was buttock clenchingly agonising.
The intervening years have seen me build up a sizable collection of Doctor Who books (around 90 or so) and DVDs (probably a good 70% of those available). I own a fair few toys – a few Daleks, Sonic Screwdrivers, TARDISes and action figures. I’ve been subscribing to Doctor Who Magazine since my return to Sheffield in 2006, and as the series has gone from strength to strength, so too has my love for The Doctor.
As I write, we’re less than four hours away from The Day of the Doctor. I’ve watched teasers, trailers, videos and previews online and on the Red Button, recording them where possible. My heart did somersaults when Paul McGann returned as the Eighth Doctor last week. I got giddy at the cameos and knowing nods in An Adventure in Space and Time on thursday night. My Sky+ box is full of manual recordings (set to catch the gap between Strictly and Atlantis on a saturday night, just in case we get anything new) and everything the BBC has thrown at us over the past week or two – Blue Peters, One Shows, Dodgy Monsters and Villiains shows. And the last six weeks on Watch have been brilliant, too – shows made for the American market, but thankfully without the American talking heads that have appeared on some of the BBC America-produced efforts that have appeared as DVD extras in the last couple of years. The Doctors Revisited series has been the highlight of the past few weekends.
But I’m going to leave you now. I’ve got a 50th Anniversary Special to prepare for, an Afterparty to watch, a spoof Red Button feature to record.
Happy Birthday, Doctor.