Doctor Who: I Remember...
50 Years of Doctor Who
By Adam J Purcell
What Doctor Who means to me...
Did Doctor Who (and Star Wars) make me a Science Fiction fan or did I become a fan of these because, on some fundamental level I had the Science Fiction fan ‘gene’, for want of a better term?
Doctor Who was part of my childhood, part of all of our childhoods. It was always there. For the younger me, until probably nine or ten, Star Wars reigned over Doctor Who. I had lots (and I mean lots) of the Star Wars action figures and spacecraft. It was all action and adventure but, unlike Who, I didn’t get to see it regularly. We didn’t have our first video recorder until I was nine, in 1983. The films were fuzzy memories, at best. The only original trilogy Star Wars I have any certain memories of watching at the cinema is Return of the Jedi in, again, 1983. And I hated the ending, they killed off my favourite character.
By comparison Doctor Who had far fewer toys. I owned some of the Denys Fisher figures, the Fourth Doctor, the nosey Cyberman and the accompanying ‘magical’ TARDIS that you put a figure in and, with a twiddle of the police box lamp, they disappeared! My favourite Doctor Who toy was probably the Palitoy talking Dalek (‘Attack! Attack! Attack!’). I was also the proud owner of an early 80s Dekker TARDIS play tent. All good fun but in those younger days, mainly before Return of the Jedi, it was the Star Wars toys that tended to win out - you can’t underestimate the importance of toys to trigger a child’s imagination and I had a lot more Star Wars toys.
But then we get to The Five Doctors. It was the first Doctor Who story I videoed and that must have been several crucial years before I owned the Star Wars films on tape. Doctor Who was not only on TV regularly but now I could rewatch my favourite stories whenever I wanted. This is probably the start of my true appreciation for the series, this was when liking it transformed into being a fan of it.
My actual memories of Doctor Who go back several years earlier, with my first certain memory coming from the 29th of September 1979 (I was five) for episode 1 of City of Death - Count Scarlioni ripping his face off. It must have frightened me at the time to remember it so vividly but I don’t recall any emotions, only that image. I have garbled and impossible memories from earlier, probably mainly from just the previous story, of Daleks and Cybermen battling (probably Movellans rather than Cybermen in reality), the ‘cybermen’ on a rising platform lift and, perhaps from way earlier and somehow conflated, a Cyberman having his hand cut off by a closing door (when the Robots of Death aired I was just coming up to 3 years old!)
Blank video tapes were expensive in the early to mid 80s (Betamax in my case with our first video recorder) and my pocket money didn’t stretch very far. It wasn’t until January 1985 that I began to record every Doctor Who episode routinely, starting with the first story of Season 22 - Attack of the Cybermen (and I have never missed one in the intervening 28 years!) Perhaps this starting point explains why I like Attack of the Cybermen so much - it was the first new Doctor Who story I could rewatch over and over since The Five Doctors, a little over a year earlier (and a year is a long time for a ten year old!) Attack also goes down in my personal history as not only the first multi-episode story but also the only one I truly botched up - my maths failed me and the shortness of Betamax tapes meant that I ran out of tape something like ten minutes from the end of episode two, the final episode. In a panic I anxiously waited for the automatic rewind to finish (tapes were very slow to rewind, especially in those days!) and then with no other tape to call upon, promptly hit record again to capture what I could of the end by wiping over the beginning of episode one! Somebody in the BBC archives would have been proud of my destructive policy, I’m sure!
That time was formative for my interest in Doctor Who and the ramifications continue to this day. Middle school started for me in, I think, autumn 1983. A year that just keeps coming up in my personal history. That new school saw me remeeting someone I knew from pre-school (we had parted ways for different primary schools), my now oldest (but not eldest!) friend Ian McArdell (who has also given his thoughts on 50 years of Doctor Who here). He was a much more established Doctor Who fan than I was at that stage and his enthusiasm was infectious. Add in the wonderful Radio Times 20th Anniversary Special (why didn’t they do a 50th?!) and a fellow pupil (I sadly cannot remember his name) who was selling his complete Target Doctor Who book collection to us and there really was no going back.
From there, a few years later (must have been late 1988), Ian and I set up a short lived DWAS (Doctor Who Appreciation Society) Local Group for Crawley. It remained the two of us for a few months but the local press interest was enough to get us noticed by another group of fans in the area and, in January 1989, we met up with many of the people that I am happy to still call friends almost exactly 25 years later as I write this (give or take a couple of months!)
Staggering Stories, as a web site and a podcast, really does all stem from Doctor Who and all these great people I know thanks to it. Doctor Who went away almost as soon as I met most of them but in some ways it didn’t matter, the bonds had been forged.
Without question that is the most important thing Doctor Who has given me and what it has most meant to me - lots of wonderful friends and all the great times we’ve had together (and will hopefully continue to have).
But what of Doctor Who itself? As I’ve said before, I never really believed it could come back. The McGann TV movie failed to generate a new series and I didn’t think they’d try again. When I last wrote one of these, for the 40th anniversary, we had just heard that they were to bring Doctor Who back. I thought it would fall between two stalls - too changed for the old fans to accept it and yet still seen as an uncool relic for everyone else. I’m so glad I was wrong.
In that last piece of mine I was quite dismissive of Doctor Who, I couldn’t even be bothered to watch Scream of the Shalka online. McGann aside, it had been gone for 14 years at that point. It was history. A fun little something that brought me to where I was but didn’t have much new to add. But then it came back and it was like I was a child again!
What a ten years it has been between the 40th and 50th anniversaries. It really has rekindled my enthusiasm, no, love of Doctor Who. The life long fans of the series have been let loose and now they run it! They’ve upped the drama and emotion of it, they know how to frighten without the violence and they’ve really shown the world what an incredible format Doctor Who is for bringing imagination to life.
Doctor Who is clearly a gruelling programme to make. Having just watched the wonderful docu-drama of its origins, An Adventure in Space and Time, it is clear that Doctor Who at its best demands everything from its cast, crew and production team. If you aren’t burnt out from doing Doctor Who for a few years then you are probably doing it wrong. Maybe that is why it burns so bright. All the more reason to give such heartfelt thanks to the likes of Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat, Chris Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith and so many more, past, present and future. Compare particularly Tennant and Smith at the beginnings of their tenure to the end - it’s as if they’ve given their very life force for the programme!
Few television programmes can draw on people so powerfully, let alone programmes that have been around fifty years. What is it about Doctor Who? Why does it mean so much to me and so many others? I don’t know. I look into myself and its a black box, I cannot see the workings but I can definitely feel the effects. Yes, clearly the inventiveness, the sheer scope of story telling possibilities are probably unsurpassable in anything else other than a proper anthology series (and those, I suspect, can never grab people in quite the same way, not having a through line of characters each week).
Does it speak to that childish part of me that wants to fight monsters and injustice - the part that is considered childish not because it should be left behind but because most people let everyday life just grind it away - and they shouldn't.
Is it that it has some kind of direct access to the core of my mind, having been ingrained over the decades - somehow able to bypass my normal barriers of cynicism and resistance?
Could it be that I look upon it, after all these years of it being part of my life, and I see something of myself reflected? Maybe what is reflected is not me but what I'd want to be (who'd turn down the opportunity to run around space and time, especially if you get to do so with the likes of Amy or even, yes, Clara!)
Perhaps all of that and maybe also something much simpler, it is exciting, funny, moving, thought provoking and, above all, fun. Not bad for a silly little family drama series designed to fill the gap between Grandstand and Jukebox Jury in 1963!
So, what does Doctor Who mean to me?
I don't really know why and I know that 'normal' people will consider this foolish, childish or 'sad' but Doctor Who means the world to me. No, more than that, Doctor Who means all of time and space to me; and I feel all the richer for it.