Saturday, 3 April 2010

The Doctor & I

Was inspired to write a wee bit on my own history with "Doctor Who" by a Den of Geek blog post listing the top 10 producers as well as, more obviously, the return of the rejuvenated programme tonight.

If we go right back to the very beginning, in November 1963, I wasn't around (though my conception was imminent) and I didn't see the very first story, "An Unearthly Child" until it's repeat in 1981. It's mostly pants after the groundbreaking first episode by the way.

So William Hartnell could never have been 'my Doctor'. In fact, even if I'd been of a susceptible age, I'm not sure grumpychops would have endeared himself.

My first Doctor was Patrick Troughton, who arrived in the role when I was two and left when I was four. Not surprisingly I don't have any specific memories, just know it was a Saturday teatime ritual for me. Perhaps oddly, the netherside of the sofa never appealled as I don't remember being scared of anything in it. Must have been because I didn't fully understand it.

Because one thing I vividly remember was the first Saturday of the 1970s and Jon Pertwee's arrival in "Spearhead from Space". I was totally freaked out and actually couldn't watch the programme for nearly four years. It can't have been the colour that got me as we only had a black and white TV set - I think it was the complete absence of familiar characters (the Doctor and his companions had left at the same time 6 months earlier) and the realisation of the concept of 'evil-doing'. I had started school between series.

So the golden age of the UNIT 'family', the Delgado Master and action by HAVOC largely passed me by, though it was all common currency in the playground so I didn't fully lose touch. I was getting my fantasy fixes from ITV with "Timeslip", "Ace of Wands", "UFO", "Freewheelers" and "The Tomorrow People". I remember being slightly lured back on a couple of caravan holidays in the spring of 1973 as I can remember bits of "Planet of the Daleks" and "The Green Death" being on in the TV room at Grannie's Heilan' Hame in Embo. Crucially I also bought the infamous Radio Times Tenth Anniversary Special, which seemed hugely expensive when I was eight.

So comes December 1973 and the proper start of my long relationship with "Doctor Who". Ironically, this was the first time I'd seen it in colour as we'd just got a new fangled set. "The Time Warrior" also boasted a fantastic new opening credits, introducing the diamond logo, and a fantastic new companion in the shape of Sarah Jane Smith, who has always remained 'my companion'. In hindsight, it's probably one of the weaker Pertwee seasons, but it roped me in for good and, in June 1974 I finally had 'my Doctor' as Tom Baker faded in on the floor of UNIT HQ.

One thing the Den of Geek article highlights is how much the actual producer of "Doctor Who" makes a difference, even if unknown to the vast majority of viewers. Tom Baker's mammoth seven year reign had four of them who took the show in completely different directions and so my inner fanboy was formed over this era.

Barry Letts only produced Baker's debut story, "Robot" (arguably one of the worst debut stories, given the pedigree) though was also credited on Baker's last season as "Executive Producer". Screen-wise, from "The Ark in Space" episode one in January 1975 to episode six of "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" in April 1977 we have the god-like Philip Hinchliffe in charge, aided and abetted by script-editor Robert Holmes. Even the bad times are good, things like adding two extra episodes (and an extra Krynoid pod) to "Seeds of Doom" because of a dropped six parter. We had to say bye-bye to Sarah (thankfully the same month Purdey arrives on ITV to console me) but we got Davros, Sutekh, Zygons, Harrison Chase, Morbius, the Voc Robots, the best version of Gallifrey and the lovely secondary console room. They also really upset Mary Whitehouse more than ever before, which is a sure sign all is well.

Sometime during season 15 I remember cross-referencing the programme's "Radio Times" credits with my 1976 copy of "The Making of Doctor Who" and having a lightbulb moment. Yes, the first time I noticed the 'producer effect' - I'd wondered why the programme had been getting gradually shittier. It was most probably spurred by "Underworld" (just out on DVD folks!). Graham Williams had taken over that season from the blessed Hinchcliffe in a slightly forced job swap brought on by the Whitehouse assault. Tasked with lightening up the show and challenged by rampant inflation and the "Star Wars" influence he really had been given a poisoned chalice, while Hinchcliffe was wasted on "Target". And Tom Baker started playing up too.

But I had no sympathy then, and still don't have a great fondness for Williams' three seasons (yes even for "City of Death"), though I do actually like K9, who is rather emblematic of that era. Williams also garnered the highest ratings for classic who, though he only had BBC Two as competition for that feat. "Doctor Who Weekly" and conventions also first appeared under Williams tenure, so the past started regularly impinging on the present for the first time. And famously, Williams' era limped to a end with the cancellation of "Shada" which should have climaxed season 17 in January/February 1980.

One of the other major factors which played against the Williams era for me was the simultaneous broadcast of "Blakes 7", which, though far from perfect at times, showed what could be done (and they'd inherited their budget from "Softly, Softly"!). Really wish "Doctor Who" had got David Maloney (he left after the third series so you can see the producer difference there too!).

When John Nathan Turner was announced as the new producer in early 1980, I took notice for once. Just as Tom Baker entered his seventh and last year in the title role we get a producer that would last even longer, until 1993 in fact! Even though we start season 18 with the same Doctor and companions as "Horns of Nimon", everything else is a massive change, which continues to divide opinion.

Apart from the major 'cosmetic' changes to the theme tune, opening titles, logo and the Doctor's costume the main thing apparent is the humour, or rather the lack of it, and the prominence of science in the science fiction (actually I don't think "Doctor Who" is really science-fiction any more than Harry Potter or James Bond is). This was down to the new script editor brought in by JNT - Christopher H Bidmead. More than JNT himself, he'd hated the comic direction the show had taken, especially in season 17 under Douglas Adams, and wanted to inject serious scientific concepts into scripts.

Though I think Bidmead took it a tad too far in the other direction, he was probably correct to rebalance the humour, which I too didn't appreciate as an earnest 15 year old fan. By 1980 I had a fellow fan to pontificate with (and we still do) and we both agreed then and now that season 18 was a return to form. In sheer production terms it really is a triumph, especially as it was two episodes and one story longer than was the norm then, though "Meglos" appears to be the runt of the litter somewhat. From "Full Circle" and the start of the E-space trilogy you have a solid run of five really good stories, climaxing in Tom Baker's departure in "Logopolis". It's probably the best of JNT's nine seasons, even though it gives us Adric. Looking back, "Logopolis" ushers in elements that come to be seen as weaknesses of his era - too many people having too many scenes in the TARDIS, a returning classic baddie and flashback segments but it all seemed fresh and charming then.

Because it's so long, JNT's era has to be broken down to be judged correctly. Not so much by his four Doctors, but by his four script-editors. As Baker hands over to Davison we are still in the first phase, though season 19 is juggled between two script editors, Antony Root and Eric Saward, with the latter becoming the eventual incumbent for most of the 80s. Like JNT, Saward starts strongly, with huge appreciation of his authored stories in season 19, "The Visitation" and "Earthshock". "Earthshock" alone has two of the most shocking moments in the history of the programme - the episode one reveal of the cybermen and the death of Adric at the climax. Though there had been two companion deaths before I'm not sure they counted as much as Adric's demise, marked with special silent end credits for episode four.

Season 20 is probably my favourite of Peter Davison's seasons, particularly "Mawdryn Undead" and "Enlightenment" which start and end the Black Guardian trilogy and bring us the wondrous Turlough. Mark Strickson caused me much Kleenex use and even influenced my choice of outfit when I lost my virginity in February 1983. It was also the big anniversary year marked with a huge event at Longleat (which I attended) and a really rather good multi-Doctor episode, "The Five Doctors" in November. It also marked the first video release - "Revenge of the Cybermen". Oddly, they didn't think of releasing the current series in those days.

Sadly, it all started to go wrong the next year. The Doctor and both his companions left in three consecutive stories and we end up with Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor, accompanied by Nicola Bryant as Peri in the crud that is "The Twin Dilemma". I liked neither, and the costumes for both were spectacularly bad for completely different reasons. Even though it was back on Saturdays in 1985 and 1986, it was the most troubled of times and hugely dispiriting. Saward went a bit heavy on the shock factor and Colin's Doctor just wasn't likeable, thanks to the characterization they gave him, founded on a sniping relationship with his whining companion. To be honest I really wasn't that upset when it was put on hiatus - it rather deserved it. I was more let down that when it came back it was half the size and no great lessons had been learnt. Bonnie Langford joined, Colin was sacked and Eric Saward resigned on bad terms between work on the two final episodes of the largely woeful "Trial of a Timelord" season.

1987 is probably the biggest watershed of the JNT era, though it was forced on him, and he had tried to leave the show himself after the previous series. In comes Andrew Cartmel as script editor and another new Doctor, Sylvester McCoy. The first story of the run, "Time and the Rani" is notable for the only enjoyable thing in it being Kate O'Mara impersonating Bonnie Langford's Mel and her classic opening line. The seventh Doctor also fares least well with the question mark motif in his costume. While Tom, Peter and Colin just had to suffer it on their shirt collars had a question mark laden jumper and umbrella handle. Just too much to take seriously. It's probably true to say though that Cartmel doesn't really get into gear until the season closer, "Dragonfire", which replaces Mel with Ace and first hints at a grander plan.

The 'Cartmel Masterplan' comes to the fore in seasons 25 and 26, where it is hinted that the Doctor is more than just a mere time lord, but the series is taken off air in December 1989 before a proper conclusion is given on screen. It's a shame - I wasn't sold on the idea particularly, but you have to admire Cartmel for giving the programme back a sense of direction and an air of mystery. That last season particularly was really giving me back a sense of enthusiasm and excitement about "Doctor Who" that I hadn't had in years, despite the fact that I'd gone all independent and sophisticated by moving to London the week after "Dragonfire" aired. Both the seventh Doctor and Ace were to depart in a never made 1990 series, but in fact they continued as possibly the longest running TARDIS crew by default in books and comics.

In the Virgin New Adventures from 1991 to 1997 they kept the flame burning brightly, though almost resigned to the TV series being dead by taking things in a very adult direction which included companions being raped or having gay sex, the Doctor taking drugs and some graphic body horror. And Lawrence Miles. It was far from cosy teatime fare, but showed how the format could be expanded. Writers included Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts and one Russell T Davies. One of the last books, "Lungbarrow" finally gives us the pay-off of the Cartmel Masterplan, which is certainly interesting, if not actually canon.

The BBC siezed back the flame in 1996, taking over the book range and, more importantly, bringing the show back to TV with the help of American partner, Universal. The first 20 minutes or so of the May 1996 TV movie are great, with the seventh Doctor (never better than here) felled by bullets and regenerating into Paul McGann. The theme tune is orchestrated and money is lavished on an epic TARDIS set and CGI effects. But it fails in the USA, and fan reaction is lukewarm to the americanisation evident in the latter parts. However, the BBC remained wedded to the idea that a film or American tie-up was the way to go for the franchise.

As with Sylvester McCoy's Doctor in the New Adventures range, Paul McGann's eighth Doctor is kept alive in the BBC book range and then, from 2001, in audio plays by Big Finish (also heard 'officially' on BBC7). In fact Big Finish has kept Doctors 5-8 alive to this very day in something of a timey-wimey phenomena, that caused a remade "Shada" with McGann and Lalla Ward to become the official BBC version! Lately even Tom Baker has come back to the role in audio form.

We then reach September 2003, when the Whoniverse was elated to hear that the BBC had finally given up on the US tie-up idea and was to return the programme to the small screen themselves. It was given to Russell T Davies, lured from the commercial channels by his boyhood love.

Many thought the Russell and the BBC were raving mad, and even us fans could see the risk involved.

18 months later, on 26 March 2005, it was back and it was a huge immediate hit. Not just with the self identified fans but with the general public who made for big ratings. And in no time we had countless "Radio Times" covers, awards, two spin-off shows and a regular place in the Christmas Day schedules. Even girls liked it!

Personally I didn't warm to "Rose" as much as I did with the following episode, "The End of the World" where we left Earth for the first time and got a dose of Britney Spears and Soft Cell into the bargain. RTD had distilled the best of the classic series, brought it up to date and gave it a heart and a proportionate sense of humour.

It's good that RTD decided to go after four years though. His big failing was throwing too much in and going for spectacle over reason, especially obvious in all the finales and most of the Christmas specials. I also really didn't go for John Simm's 'bonkers' Master which spoilt all the stories he's in for me. I don't resent what some see as the soap opera element of adding emotion and attachments - it was a glaring omission in most of the classic series (and is why the closing moments of "The Green Death" stand out). Many of Russell's other stories show how capable and ingenious he is though - "Gridlock", "Tooth and Claw", "The Waters of Mars" "Turn Left" and "Midnight" especially. In the modern era kudos must also go to the other producers of his time - Phil Collinson and Julie Gardner whose input and support was crucial.

As is the way, I'm looking forward to the Moffat years (or should that be the Moffat/Wenger/Willis years?) - he was the obvious choice after his stories in the last few years garnered the shows only Hugo awards.

My review of "The Eleventh Hour", the first episode of the new era follows tomorrow.

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