Doctor Who: I Remember... "Frightening Old Grannies"
By Adam J Purcell
Forty years since the crotchety old Doctor first appeared on television screens. Perhaps the most worrying fact is how quickly the relative gap between the age of the good Doctor (well, his TV series, anyway!) and mine is evaporating... I'm told I was born in 1974 and I take their word for it, I certainly can't remember that far back and the photos of a toddler in dungarees may or may not be authentic (I'd like to think not!) Equally, I'm told Doctor Who was born in 1963 and I have to take their word for that too. There are plenty of embarrassing moments of Doctor Who, too, but I found those were obvious not in retrospect but at the time!
What are my earliest memories of Doctor Who? You know, I'm not sure. Unlike a certain other regular contributor to Staggering Stories (cue heavenly choir for later mentions of the eighties!) I don't look back, or live, in the past. The future is where I belong but that future is always just beyond the horizon.
Of the TV series itself I have some vague memories of Tom Baker's tenure. There is some vague memories of a story that had both Cybermen and Daleks, fighting I think. Tom's Doctor and his female companion (couldn't tell you which) jumped into a lift and a 'Cyberman' tried to grab them through the closing doors and had his hand chopped off. Now, I know this never actually happened. Sounds a little like Robots of Death, a quick check shows me it was aired about three months before my third birthday. Don't know where the Daleks came into it, though. Perhaps it is some strange twisted memory from Destiny of the Daleks, from when I was more like six years old, but as I don't know for sure if I have ever seen that episode I can't say for sure.
To be honest, and don't tell my rabid Who fan friends this, I was always much more of a Star Wars fan. Who wouldn't want to be an Imperial? Their wonderful armour and big guns, incredibly massive Star Destroyers and causing fear throughout the galaxy..! But enough of my ambitions. Darth Vader was always my favourite, along with the ridiculously easy to kill Fett (and Lucas still hasn't learnt his lesson on that one!). It was perhaps the disappointment I felt after watching Return of the Jedi that really pushed me toward the good Doctor. It wasn't the triumph of those do-gooder rebels but the bitter disappointment that they killed Vader, Fett and, well, the entire Evil Empire. Those rebels had no sense of humour, yes?
I think it was 1983 that we got our first (betamax) video recorder. One of the first things we videoed was The Five Doctors. At the time I thought it was amazing but then at nine years old I was at the right age for pantomime. I imagine I've still got that video tape somewhere, 10 seconds of Songs of Praise accidentally recorded over a section when I can only assume I had been meaning to rewind or play the tape! That and the memorable video corruption that distorted the picture and, especially, sound over the 'Beware of the Dog' sign closing the poor K9 out of the rest of the story. I can't watch The Five Doctors without thinking of those, given that at one point I must have watched that old Betamax tape several times a week! (For quite a while I had the same thing with Star Wars: A New Hope, over the end credits some announcer was plugging an upcoming showing of 'Scarecrow and Miss King'!) This also all brings to mind the fate of my Attack of the Cybermen tape. I'd rather misjudged the length of tape required and toward the end of the story had to hastily rewind the tape and rerecord over the beginning so as not to lose the end! It was many years before I ever got to see the beginning of that story again.
If you have an image of someone rubbing their temples attempting to summon forth a salient memory then you have a pretty good picture of me right now. Here's some odd memories for you. Picture a young boy in primary school chasing after people saying 'I am the Giant Robot!', a story I couldn't possibly remember but I was so inspired by the picture of the toy figure on the back of the box my Tom Baker figure, Cyberman figure or TARDIS (which makes those figures magically dissappear when you put them inside and rotate the oversized Police Box light). My favourite, even more so than the slightly flimsy cardboard sided TARDIS, was the talking Dalek. "Attack, attack, attack!" was, for me, the most memorable of its phrases. I also had the K9, a little later though I think, and it was for some reason on a completely different scale to the other figures. Sadly I never did get a Giant Robot or a Leela but that didn't mater to me. No, it was the Dalek that I really treasured. I quickly lost the eye stalk, gun and sucker arms but it didn't matter, it said "Attack, attack, attack!" It was the Buzz Lightyear of its time.
It was that scary place, middle-school, where Doctor Who really took off in my life. That was where I re-met an 'old' friend from playgroup who was by now a big fan of the Doctor's travels. In fairness he was always a slightly bigger fan than I and I can't help wondering how much of my own 'obsession' with the series was down to a certainly friendly rivalry. That rivalry was put to the test when a kid at the school, a year or two above us, had decided to sell his vast collection of Target Doctor Who novels. Goodness knows what his motivation was for this liquidation (probably to fuel a sticker album addiction, as was the rage at the time) but it created a feeding frenzy between the two of us. My father was very generous and financed my purchase of at least half of the books (slightly more than half, I think, but that could be the memory of wishful thinking). Suddenly my collection of Target books started from nothing to having around half the range as it then stood. Not that I've actually read most of them, even now with what must be nearly two decades later. They are still proudly on display in one of my bookcases of my living room, however, and along with my always expanding collection of books I promise I will read them some time. If not sooner then when I'm retired and have nothing better to do. Not that I plan to retire. Like the Doctor I think I would get too bored if I stopped for even a moment.
What other disjointed memories can I dredge up from my hippocampus? The great Harwich-Hook of Holland Ferry convention (a quick look at another 'I Remember...' suggests that was in 1987). That was my first convention and the first time I had really seen fandom. Can't say I remember much about the panels but I do recall the dealers, the Three Doctors playing through the night as I desperately attemped to keep my eyes open, my autograph book being in the hands of other people more than my own and spitting some of the Hook of Holland's foulest milk into a convenient plant pot at some foreign cafe (I think it must have been goats milk or something!) Wherever it is now my autograph book contains a few 'stars' of Doctor Who along with, for reasons that now escape me, those from most of the DWAS exec and a strange bloke from one of the Ferry bars who saw us with our autograph books said 'I was in Doctor Who' and signed himself 'Richard Burton'. I don't think he was quite who he claimed to be..!
It was a year or so after this that we decided to claim ourselves (myself, my school chum and, if I was so ordered by my parent's at that moment, my younger brother) the Crawley Area Local Group of the DWAS. We registered ourselves as a local society at the Library and waited for the membership to rise. It never did. That was despite large articles in at least three of the Crawley local papers (back at that time there were at least five, I think, if you include the newsless Weekend Herald advert rag).
In retrospect the coverage was surprisingly good, perhaps an indication of too many 'column inches' devoted to the vibrant but far from enormous Crawley. The pictures are more than a little cringe inducing looking back at them, too! They did have one effect though - they prompted a small group of like minded friends to contact us and invite us along to 'roleplaying'. This was actually late January 1989, I believe, so a few months before my fifteenth birthday I was introduced to these people, most of whom where then in their early to mid-twenties. They didn't turn out to be the sort you might worry about given the ages involved (or, at least, they are hiding it well after almost 15 years of knowing them now!).
Roleplaying wasn't an entirely new concept at this stage thanks to a box-set of the FASA RPG courtesy of mail order firm John Fitton. Still, it was rather different to play with these odd people, the 'Schizoid Squad', than just the two (or three if so compelled) of us that comprised the Crawley Local Group. They also mainly played Star Trek. I didn't really know Star Trek but what I had seen I'd hated (it's strange how these things come full circle!), it was that rubbish boring programme that my father watched on BBC2 sometimes. Even now I can't stand TOS. But this is all incidental. I was suddenly introduced into fandom. No longer was I looking in upon it from outside as I felt I had on that ferry.
There was the 'perusing rockiness' of their fanzine 'Channel D' and the two conventions they organised, Carousel '89 and '90. Suddenly it was passe to ask for autographs, my new friends were calling these actors directly to arrange convention bookings! No more asking DWAS execs for their autographs either (though, ironically, some of those are arguably now autograph fodder given how many are now being asked as guests to conventions!). There was the fun of dressing up as a Voc or a Sea Devil. Those few times I got to wear these old Doctor Who costumes (and most were really from the programme itself, not recreations) and scare the crap out of people. There are few things quite as fun as standing absolutely still in a Doctor Who monster costume, waiting for some curious person to come over and take a look thinking you are a manequin and suddenly springing into life and chasing them down East Ham high street!
So what does 40 Years of Doctor Who actually mean to me? Well, not much, to be honest. In many ways it was never about Doctor Who, it was about meeting people of like mind and having a good time. Unlike some of my friends I cannot put my Target Doctor Who books into series chronological order. I have not watched every existing Doctor Who story, even though they are readily available on UK Gold. I can't be bothered to collect all the merchandise. I haven't even felt all that compelled to watch Scream of the Shakla, even though it is just a couple of clicks away. No, the series is just a vehicle. To the BBC a vehicle to make money and to the fans a vehicle to a good laugh with your new found friends on a Saturday night. Long live Doctor Who!