Doctor Who

by Andrew Crumey

Published in Product, Winter 2007


I must have been three or four years old when I saw it: a metal robot with knobbly round bits on its side and a sink plunger sticking out the front. It was going right in front of my eyes, and there on top of it was the Doctor. That’s right, my earliest memory is of seeing the Time Lord in person, in Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall in the early 1960s.

I suppose that puts me in the same category as several million other people whose sentient life began with Dalek-induced trauma. The only other thing I need specify is which Doctor: it was William Hartnell, looking even more like a dodgy old tramp in the flesh than he did on screen. His successors – Troughton, Pertwee, Baker – mapped out the remainder of my childhood, and by time the series got to Peter Davison I was already pretending I’d never watched it: Doctor Who was strictly for the Dungeons and Dragons brigade.

But as Buddha or Sylvester McCoy or somebody or other said: things come full circle. Made cool by being off air for nearly twenty years, the rejuvenated Doctor Who plays to a double audience of nostalgic parents and their terrorised kids, exemplifying what Mikhail Bakhtin (and perhaps Russell T Davies) called stratification: the ability of narratives to be read on many levels.

In the university English department where I do the odd bit of creative writing teaching, I saw a poster advertising an academic conference on Doctor Who. I was almost tempted to sign up until I thought of the sort of papers I’d probably have to sit through, deconstructing the social meaning of David Tennant’s hairstyle. That’s not the sort of semantic level I ever wanted to extract from what is, let’s face it, a kid’s show. If it’s po-mo TV you want, better try Basil Brush – another series that had a remarkable make-over, while still preserving the mythic elements that made it what it was. Yes, Basil still says boom-boom and calls the male adult guardian Mr Stephen – but the show has become so ironically intertextualised it leaves the Doc looking pretty tame, from an academic point of view.

When Christopher Ecclestone revved the Tardis back into action two years ago, I stayed away at first, still putting Time Lords alongside Eurovision song contestants as things best consigned to history. Nor did I let my kids see it, convinced it would be too scarey for them. But during the next season we all succumbed to the combined forces of peer pressure and curiosity, and ever since then I’ve enjoyed the curious pleasure of seeing my youngest hide behind a cushion, just like I did when I were a nipper.

And there’s no denying it, the latest series has been the best ever, fuelled by its Mr Saxon story arc. Even so, I can’t help feeling that something’s missing: the revamped Doctor Who’s touchy-feely emphasis has come at a cost. Forty years ago, sex was a dirty word and the Doctor-companion dynamic was strictly paternalistic. Nowadays the dirty word is “ideas”, and the paradoxes of time travel are an embarrassing inconvenience to be ignored like a grandmother’s farts. How different it was in the days of “classic” Who. In fact, rewatching some of those old stories – now that I’ve come out as a fan again after all these years - has made me realise just what a huge subliminal impact the show must have made on my own writing career. I get billed as a “novelist of ideas”, but only because I grew up watching TV with ideas.

We have to be careful with that term “classic”. E.M Forster said classic books are whichever ones we happen to read as children, and the truth of his insight can be seen in all those polls of “greatest books” in which Narnia, Hobbits and Catcher In The Rye always loom large. Classic Who is flimsy sets and awful hairstyles, and in many ways is total crap – but those old episodes shock in different ways too.

Take the Doctor’s first ever meeting with the Daleks, back in 1963. We learn that their planet has been devastated by neutron bombs, which destroy living things but leave buildings intact. I confess that at the age of 2 that particular plot subtlety must have passed me by, but seeing it again at 45 gave me a jolt, because when the episode was first made, neutron bombs had only just been invented – I don’t recall them becoming a familiar idea until the early 1980s when President Regan wanted to develop them. The special effects may have been ropey but the technology was pretty damn cutting edge. Almost makes you wonder if the Pentagon stole the idea off Terry Nation.

Even more disconcerting are the story lines. For years I have had fragmentary but vivid memories of a Patrick Troughton adventure called The Mind Robber. The Tardis blows up; one character gets his face stuck back on the wrong way. All very freaky: it’s the surreality of those old episodes that sticks in the mind. Seeing it again now, it’s more surreal than ever. The Doctor and his companions have wound up in a place outside time and space: big deal, happens all the time. But what exactly does it mean, to be outside time and space? It means you’re fiction: the Doctor and co meet Gulliver, Rapunzel and Medusa, and there’s a little machine ticking away in a room, printing out everything that’s happening to them. Now I confess that like most middle aged men, the thing I really remember most vividly about all this is Zoe and that sparkly skin-suit of hers – but revisiting The Mind Robber four decades on gave me a strange sense of déjà vu, not for the series itself, but for one or two plot-lines I subsequently used in novels of my own. All that story-within-story, reality versus fiction stuff - people are forever saying my books are like Borges or Philip K Dick. What about those mind-bending things my generation watched as kids? I reckon Doctor Who must be the biggest influence of all.

Not only Who, of course; there were also The Avengers, The Prisoner, and less well known gems like Adam Adamant (in which a Victorian man comes out of suspended animation in sixties London) or Escape Into Night, supposedly a children’s series, about a bedridden girl who draws pictures that come to life – and maims one or two of them when she crosses them out. It was bloody terrifying – and as with the old Doctor Who episodes, it was because of sound effects, suspense and the power of the viewer’s imagination, not the wizardry of computer graphics.

Sixties television was permeated with art-house surrealism: those were the days when audiences weren’t supposed to understand everything, and a degree of incomprehensibility tended to be equated with deep significance rather than cack-handedness. Alright, it resulted in a huge amount of pretentious rubbish – not least in the form of ponderous concept albums – but Doctor Who was part of that progressive, challenging tendency – complete with a theme tune whose original version still sounds futuristic, while its updated orchestration is simply bombastic.

Proust said that all writers should try writing voluntary pastiche so as not to spend the rest of their life doing it involuntarily, so perhaps the only way I’ll ever get Doctor Who out of my system is by writing an episode – and I know I’m not the only novelist who would dearly love to have a go. In the same way that celebs like Catherine Tait and McFly have been queuing up for guest appearances, I’ve come across quite a few folk in the book world who are waiting longingly for that phone call from Russell. It can only be a matter of time before we see a Christmas special penned by Ian McEwan or Alan Hollinghurst.

In the meantime I’ve been writing a novel about a child of the Hartnell-Troughton era (autobiographical? moi?) who dreams of being a spaceman and gets transdimensionally zapped into a parallel universe. Fast-forward to the present day, and a second-generation Who fan is befriended by a mysterious stranger claiming to come from another world. Cue that spooky music…


©Andrew Crumey