The first letter I ever wrote was in 1981. I was five years old.
I’m sure that had been thank you notes, greetings cards and whatnot that I had been coerced into scrawling by then but the first time I ever decided that I wanted to write a letter was in ’81. And it was to the BBC. I kept asking my mum when my second favourite (still my second favourite, after all of these years) TV show Doctor Who would be back on. She eventually said ‘why don’t you write to the BBC and ask them?’ So I did. She helped me compose and address the letter and we toddled off to the postbox at the corner of the street to send it on its way.
Doctor Who is one of my earliest TV memories, although the memories are quite indefinite. I know that we watched every week and I know that, as cliche dictated, I hid behind the sofa often. My memories are largely of Tom Baker, whom I adored. He was, I remember quite clearly, a silly grown up – and I really liked that. I was never much of a fun of ‘kids tv’ even as a kid, I knew what it meant to be patronized long before I ever heard the word and it never sat well with me. I was never one for cartoons (which I found frustratingly repetitive and protracted) or singysongy crap, I was more than content to observe adults and had far more interest in the things my parents engaged with. I did like The Muppets a lot, but if you watch them now, there was no patronizing crap in there and it is still hugely entertaining to an adult audience.
Tom Baker was a grown-up surrounded by grown-ups (all bit-part players back then seemed to be theatre actors in their late 50s) but he refused to behave as expected. I really remember loving that. and the monsters were amazing. I loved being scared by them. I loved looking at them and how exotic and exciting they were. I remember none of the stories, only the feelings. Tom Baker’s Doctor Who blends into the browns and beiges and dirty flickering super-8 and baked beans textures and emotions of being a toddler in the late seventies.
I do remember his regeneration, though. I remember him turning into Peter Davison because it blew my mind. I finally rewatched that episode again for the first time last year and was amazed how accurate my memory of that moment was. He’d fallen, as I remembered, from some kind of electricity pylon and lay on his back in the grass, he beckoned a strange ghost towards him, the ghost walked into him and then he turned into a cocoon and as the cocoon melted, revealed a new man. Peter Davison.
I liked Davison a lot. He was less anarchistic but more thoughtful, more emotional – nicer. I assume I wrote the letter following the regenration, maybe it was a year later after Davison’s first series. Either way, after long enough to forget having even written, the reply came in the form of a small but robust package from the BBC awaiting me after school one afternoon. I opened it up to find a wad of signed postcards from the cast of the show! The Doctor himself, Peter Davison scrawled in blue ink across a handsome shot of him outside the Tardis, then his assistants Nyssa and Tegan (wasn’t sure how to feel about these – not liking girls at the time), K9 and The Master – played at that time by Anthony Ainley. It seemed very out of character for The Master to have taken the time to be so generous and, to be honest, I was uneasy having it in my possession. Which didn’t last long anyway as Mum put them ‘somewhere safe’ and they haven’t been seen since. I remember being grateful for the pics but confused as to why they hadn’t actually told me when the show would return.
Return, it eventually did and I enjoyed Davison’s reign greatly. I half want to declare him ‘my’ doctor but Baker was my first and I remain loyal to him. Davison saw me through until I was 8 and then, disappointingly regenerated into Colin Baker. I didn’t like Colin Baker, he was arrogant and boorish and smug and a bit of a ponce. He dressed like a twat and – hey – aced like one. I lost interest. 1984 was the year of Ghostbusters and Gremlins and Indiana Jones and Tron and Transformers and everything that was exciting and captivating about America which bombarded us provincial suburban boys and tempted us away from our Action Men and Doctor Who’s and Dandy’s and Beano’s and Roys of the Rovers and all those precious things that were peculiar to being a little British boy that seem to be long gone now. I barely looked back.
I was curious enough to watch Colin Baker become Sylvester McCoy but I had always regarded McCoy as a twat and that’s what he seemed to bring to the role. The announcement of Bonnie Langford – the most detestable face of the 80s was the last nail in the coffin. Although I’d occasionally dip in towards the end of the run when my 13 year old libido was somewhat distracted by Sophie Aldred. I didn’t care, though. Doctor Who had become the naffest of the naff. Low budget, low ambition sci-fi which was embarrassing in the light of what American cinema was doing.
I don’t remember it being cancelled or particularly caring. I won’t pretend that Doctor Who was in any way a significant part of my life after the age of 8. In my first year at film school, they relaunched it – a TV movie starring Withnail & I’s Paul McGann who was obviously a hero to a student at that time. I was insanely excited. The previews showed it to be high budget, modern and exciting. They had listened to everything I had to say about it – this one was even set in America! I went with a friend to HMV on Princes Street at midnight and we scurried back to his place to watch it. It was terrible. Although The Doctor was still portrayed by a Brit, the americanisation of it all was unholy. Especially B-Movie rotter Eric Roberts as The Master.
It made me really think about Who for the first time and realise how beautifully British it all is. Who is the very antithesis of what our transatlantic cousins look for in a hero. he is cerebral above dynamic, he revels in eccentricity, he sees beauty rather than threat, he is fallible and off-kilter, he is almost always odd-looking and a bit weedy. He solves problems through intelligence and diplomacy, he hates destruction and violence, he promotes humour and good citizenship yet is cynical, jaded and sarcastic. He is brilliant. He is absolutely the best of what this country represents yet could not ever be appropriated by the BNP.
I was somewhat intrigued, five years ago, when the BBC decided to give it another shot. Partly for nostalgia, partly because I thought Christopher Ecclestone could do something good with the character and partly because I very much respected Russel T. Davies as a writer – having seen and been impressed by Queer as Folk.
The problem with most sci-fi is that it’s written by sci-fi fans. Which might sound odd. BUt sci-fi is an odd beast. I see sci-fi as a mirror that you can hold up to society. So you use the future and other civilisations to subtly give the viewer some insight into their own world and culture. This is what sci-fi excels at. Sci-fi fans rarely get this nuance and instead think it’s about spaceships and explosions and aliens with funny faces. I wrote for a while on a TV sci-fi show called LEXX. When the show-runner, a brilliant lady who I still wish I worked with, first contacted me about writing for them, I told her that there might be a problem because I didn’t really like sci-fi. She later told me that that was a contributing factor in my getting hired since the worst sci-fi writers are those who are stuck in the genre rather than utilizing the form. So, yeah, the idea of a writer who had made his name in innovative gay and lesbian based drama taking on an iconic British sci-fi character was tremendously exciting.
I watched the first Ecclestone/RTD episode and thought it was ok. It was good, it was fine. I didn’t think it was special but I thought it very well done. I didn’t bother watching any more of the series until the regeneration into David Tennant. Tennant seemed fun but I was busy and didn’t catch much of his run. Then I heard that he was to be reunited with K9 and Sarah Jane Smith for an episode and I made a point of watching it.
It was one of the best episodes of any tV series that I have ever seen. Not only did it have a strong central story of a school being taken over by alien teachers but it beautifully weaved in this story that could have been gimmicky but instead was intelligent and sensitive. It’s easy and fun to say ‘let’s bring K9 and Sarah Jane back!’ but it’s a deft hand which does it for a distinct purpose. To uncover a depth previously ignored in the Doctor. To show the side of him he has always kept hidden, the compulsive need to move on, to keep going forwards and never look back because the pain of losing so many friends and seeing so much change would be crushing. From then on, I watched avidly. This became a central theme of Tennant’s Doctor, for the first time he cared about his assistants, they were his friends and his lovers and the pain of losing them and the loneliness of immortality was palpable and captivating.
Under RTD and with Tennant’s stewardship, Doctor Who has become something bigger and more wonderful than it ever had been previously. In this lamentable age of television made purely for cynical, greedy, immoral, profiteering reasons, Tennant’s four years have been a beacon to good-hearted, intelligent people. How wonderful it must have been for this generation to have him as ‘their’ doctor. He espoused all of the role’s traditional values and quirks whilst applying them to modern society. He told them it was ok to be different, ok to be unhappy, ok to be emotional. He also told them that was not ok to be cruel, or reckless or prejudiced. He took delight in the strange and lived up to his responsibilities.
The finale to season four was, I would say, some of the best writing I have ever seen on TV. Epic, multi-stranded and with the perfect bittersweet ending. Just as you thought everything had been tied up and everyone was happy, an unexpected, brilliantly painful fate for his final assistant and then, just minutes after being in the bosom of the family he had built around him over four years, there he was, alone again. In the rain. Grieving.
My mind says Tennant’s era should have ended there. The last year has seen four ‘specials’ which have played as either fairly mediocre series episodes or, as in his grand finale ‘The End of Time’ – slightly misjudged pomposity. I didn’t think they were so great. But I was happy they were made because as self-indulgent as they were, RTD, Tennant, producer Julie Gardner and the rest of the team deserved what this essentially was – a lap of honour. A final hurrah. I couldn’t begrudge them that, even if I had a right to.
On first viewing, I found Tennant’s final 20 minutes protracted and over emotional but on second viewing, quite the opposite. He’d brought the character so far and done so much more than just battle some rubber monsters and his final words “I don’t want to go” was his parting gift to ‘his’ viewers. A final message, after all he subtly taught them about the world, which told them that we get so little time in this world and we never know when it might suddenly end so it is to be appreciated and lived. Which is really the best advice there is.
I hope one day to be able to give both David Tennant and Russell T. Davies huge manhugs because I really feel they have given a culturally disenfranchised generation a huge gift. And because they took a five year old’s second favourite TV show, repaired it and gave it back to him at 33 in such good shape it might just become a family heirloom.