Doctor Who 50th Anniversary – 50 Years Behind The Sofa

Doctor Who

The following article is by Scott Fellowes and can be found in the MCM Birmingham Comic Con November 2013 Booklet.

 

“It all started out as a mild curiosity in the junkyard and now it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure.”  The Doctor, “The Sensorites”

 

Hey you! Yes you. Do you really know what it means to be wearing that fez, or scarf, or even those Converse trainers? Do you have any idea of the legacy behind your costume choice? Well pay attention geeks as I am about to share my world with you.

I am a Doctor Who fan and I’m PROUD of it! But for a show with a history spanning half a century, where do I begin? It’s not just a TV show anymore. Okay, let’s start with the basics – Bigger on the inside, Exterminate!, reverse the polarity, would you like a jelly baby?, fantastic!, don’t blink, allonsy, fezes are cool!

Surely everyone here has at least a general working knowledge of the show. You may even have your own favourite Doctor – crotchety old man, cosmic hobo, dandy man of action, boggle eyed bohemian, youthful old man, loud coat and voice, universal chess player, renaissance man, leather jacketed northerner, pin-striped spaceman, madman in a box.

But the fact is that Doctor Who is bigger than any one era or incarnation. It’s more than Daleks and Cybermen and Weeping Angels. It’s more than just a telly show!

March of the DaleksIt all started at 5.16pm (and 20 seconds) on 23rd November 1963. A police box in a junkyard, a schoolgirl who knows more than her teachers and an old man who is much more than he seems. The original idea was that the Doctor, assisted by his granddaughter and two English school teachers, would roam through history in a way that would appeal to “intelligent 14-year-olds”, the show having an educational brief back then. That all went out the window when the Daleks rocked up in the second story, plungers waving and the show never looked back. Dalekmania gripped Britain for several years and the metal meanies are still menacing the Doctor even now, 50 years on. The show itself has evolved greatly from a children’s programme that the BBC had little faith in, through the audience highs of Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, to the embarrassing campery of Who in the eighties.

The following years were lean indeed with a definite wilderness feel, the flame of Who only kept alive by magazines, novelisations, audio tapes and a single telemovie. But the second coming finally happened in 2005 when the show, regenerated by Russell T Davies, came crashing back to our screens with a serious actor (Christopher Eccleston) and high production values in tow (crikey, did we feel spoiled!). Now Doctor Who is the jewel in the Beeb’s crown and has been restored to its rightful place as a family show for Saturday teatimes.

But why is Doctor Who one of the most popular programmes on the planet (or any planet?) and why are we still celebrating it? I’d like to illustrate four reasons why I love this show (and you should too).

 

1. The Greatest Show Format in the Galaxy

Doctor Who boasts the greatest format ever. Fact! It’s an idea without limits as stories can happen anywhere, anyhow and anywhen. It’s a format that has endured and changed along with fashion, political climates and pop culture revolutions. It’s watched and loved by children of all ages, whether you’re a scientist debating time travel, the university student enjoying Tom Baker’s undergraduate humour or the five year old modelling his first fez. It truly is bigger on the inside! 

There isn’t any genre that the show hasn’t touched on – gothic horror, techno-thriller, morality play, historical drama or comic farce to name a few. It’s also a show that is entertaining. That may seem obvious, but no show lasts for 50 years by being rubbish no matter how good the format. Okay, Who has had its share of rubbish moments but more on that later.

It may be hard to identify with a central character who is a 900 year old alien from a far off galaxy, so we share his adventures through his (mostly) human companions, their lives enriched by travelling with this mysterious old man in a telephone box. That’s why when the series returned in 2005 with “Rose”, the show was more concerned with telling her story than the Doctor’s. But whoever we share the Doctor’s adventures with, the adventures will continue, on television, in print, on audio, in fact in any kind of media you can think of. It’s such a flexible format that the programme has outlasted the central star, eleven times so far, the concept of regeneration becoming standard nowadays. And with each new Doctor, a new direction. The future is so brimming with potential that even after 50 years we are still finding new things out about the Doctor, (spoilers, sweetie!). Doctor Who will never end as long as we possess an imagination and we still keep asking the question: Doctor Who?

2. It’s as cosy as tea and crumpets 

Dr Who : S5 : Ep7 : Amy's ChoicePeople of this country be proud. Britain just wouldn’t be the same without it. Doctor Who is an institution, a way of life and it has even changed our cultural vocabulary in ways nobody could ever have realised. Surely everyone in this country knows what a Dalek is (look it up in the dictionary under “Dalek”), or recognises a police box even if it’s as a TARDIS rather than a proper police box (“TARDIS” is also in the dictionary). As a symbol for the show, it doesn’t get more iconic than that blue box. Even the term “hiding behind the sofa” is a kind of shorthand for a million different memories of growing up with the programme.

Okay, I admit the fact that it’s made in the UK accounts for a show where the hero has adopted British eccentricities and a sense of fair play; his companions are mainly British, he works for a secret British institution, aliens always land in the home counties, etc, well, you get the picture. But it’s a show that displays charm and whimsy alongside extermination and warfare, a show that doesn’t shy away from the consequences of violence but shows us that a peaceful solution can always be found. The Doctor never uses a gun, he uses his wits, likes a cup of tea and dresses in tweed. Can you get any more British than that?

Do you not feel a swell of pride when Matt Smith is on the cover of Radio Times, or when the show wins award after award, or even just that it’s the centrepiece of family life on those dark Saturday nights? And not forgetting pride of place on Christmas Day? The show is so ingrained that when nine lost episodes were discovered recently in Nigeria, the news made national headlines. And although at one time it was an embarrassment to the Beeb, it now attracts the best writers, directors and finest actors working in the industry. Gone are the days of jokes about wobbly walls and Daleks fearing the stairs. Banished are the stupid rumours of the next Doctor being David Hasselhoff or Sylvester Stallone. It is now a national institution, event telly, creator of a million water-cooler moments.

The Doctor has not just saved our world, he’s changed it.

3. Fandom and the best fans in the world

If a Star Trek fan is a Trekkie/Trekker, what is a Doctor Who fan? Whovian? Whonatic? A Doc-Head?

When Paul McGann had his first encounter with Who fans he said, “The anoraks have landed.” It is a sad fact that the media have always tarnished us as a bunch of sad pathetic losers conforming to a trainspotter cliché, (sorry trainspotters!). Obviously you get the odd one or two fans who admit to wanting to name their child Nyssa or Strax, but on the whole I’ve found Who fans to be the most welcoming and inclusive of people (though there was that one incident when police were called to break up a ruck between Doctor Who fans and Star Wars fans at an event in Norwich). Unlike Star Trek fans who sent death threats to Malcolm McDowall for killing Captain Kirk (Malcolm’s character that is, not Malcolm himself), Who fans tend to be more stable and understanding of a show which in its time has been cursed with low production values and death threats of its own by one-time Controller of BBC Michael Grade (definitely not a fan). I think Who fans got the last laugh with that one though!

You young fans today have it easy. Doctor Who is now available in every conceivable media via downloads, Facebook, DVDs, magazines and a hundred other ways. When I started out as a fan there weren’t even videos of the programme (remember them?). Some of you old enough may feel nostalgic for the days of pirate videos when some comic shops did a roaring trade of under-the-counter copies of grainy episodes that had been taped off the telly years before. We only had Doctor Who Magazine and an army of Target novelisations to keep us happy. And we were happy. Fans kept the faith through conventions such as Panopticon where we could meet our heroes and drink with them in the bar (mines a pint Nick Courtney), listen to anecdotes that we all knew off by heart (“They were all wearing eyepatches!”), and get all our autographs. Although things have shifted slightly toward bigger signing events, it’s still possible to meet actors and production staff from various eras. 

It was the fans that supported the show through its toughest times, those rubbish moments such as the action man tank in “Robot”, the Bertie Bassett villain in “The Happiness Patrol” and Bonnie Langford. The disappointing memories of the 30th anniversary still haunt me. “Dimensions in Time” anybody? These were the times before SFX and Eaglemoss collectible partworks, when fanzines were produced by the hundred. With titles such as “Sutekh’s Bum”, “The Toilet of Rassilon” and my favourite, “Auton” (not for kids!), these were usually produced on A5 paper and photocopied. Some were serious but most were just fun fan-produced rags with release dates as reliable as a Cyberman in a magnet factory. It’s a shame that the rise of the Internet has meant a decline in these fan mags but if you can find any it can give you a peek into the world of fandom that no longer exists.

Nowadays the fan experience is worldwide. With social media anybody on the planet can join a forum and slag off the latest episode, buy merchandise, exhibit artwork, anything. In fact Doctor Who isn’t just for fans, it’s such a global phenomenon that really it belongs to the world. So now that we’re all Who fans, welcome to the party, for some of us it’s already been going for many years.

4. Merchandise or “The Tat of Rassilon”

Doctor Who MerchandiseIt may be sad but I can confirm that fans WILL buy any old tat with the Who logo on it! It’s true because I’ve done it. My spare room is stuffed with Target paperbacks, models, DVDs, picture books and over 50 different TARDISes (TARDI?). Who memorabilia now encompasses just about anything you can wave a plunger at or stick a diamond logo on. With that in mind I’d just like to share a few examples with you.

Before action figures were available with laser like accuracy we had Dapol. This was a company that sold action figures that weren’t just bad but hilariously inaccurate. You could buy the scarfless Fourth Doctor, who could pilot the TARDIS with its fivesided console, who could then battle the two-armed Davros. Terrible! To make matters worse they released two versions of Bonnie Langford. Now that is scary. And if you liked music whilst you played how about picking up a copy of “I’m Gonna Spend My Christmas With a Dalek”? A 1964 record by The Go Gos that featured the lyrics, “And when we both get up on Christmas morning / I’ll kiss him on his chromium-plated head / And take him in to say hi to Mum / And frighten daddy out of his bed!” How it didn’t get to number one is anybody’s guess.

One item I used to own was a Dalek baseball cap. This was a cap with a large eyestalk on the front and two foam lights on the side. Suffice to say I only wore it once. It was so embarrassing that it self-disintegrated! For many fans each Christmas would bring a Doctor Who annual by World Distributors. These were thin volumes filled with space facts and trivia completely unrelated to the programme along with badly illustrated stories. One example being “The Sweet Flowers of Uthe” in which the Doctor waits outside the TARDIS for Romana to finish in the bathroom. Worryingly, K9 knows exactly what she is doing and how long it will take for her to finish! And this is just the tip of the sonic screwdriver, to say nothing about the Cookbook, Dalek Skittles, the Pattern Book (dress your Action Man as the Doctor!) or Tom Baker underpants.

You may think a lot of merchandise is rubbish (and you may be right) but I’d rather it be available and not want it instead of the other way around. Coronation Street has been going for as long as the Doctor and what did they get out of their anniversary? A board game and some hard-backed books. Who fans have never had it so good!

 

So thank you for everybody that made the programme what it is and thank you to all the fans that have loved and supported it. Here’s to the next 50 years of hiding behind the sofa. 

Happy times and places everyone.

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