Sunday, November 24, 2013

The magic of Doctor Who

[The Doctor Who 50th anniversary special was on BBC1 last night.]

I was eleven when I first saw Susan Foreman and her grandfather. 

Susan was a pupil at Coal Hill School in Shoreditch, and her teachers were worried about her because she had a strange take on the world. Almost alien, you might say. 

Coal Hill School was on television on Saturday night, watched by millions around the world. It’s the most famous fictional school in Britain, for Susan’s grandfather was William Hartnell, the original Doctor Who, and they had stopped off in Shoreditch while he was trying to fix a technical bug in their Tardis, which caused it to keep its shape as a London police box when travelling through time.

Which was a bit of an embarrassment when it turned up in medieval periods. But then Susan’s worried teachers found them inside the time machine, and they all went off together on a jolly trip to the stone age. 

50 years later, and that Tardis bug has still not been fixed. There were three police boxes lined up side by side in the National Gallery as three Doctors, Matt Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt, saved the universe and then whirred off into the future, or was it the past? 

I can’t describe myself as a Whovian, but I do vaguely recall that first series with grunting cavemen dressed in furry costumes (the climax was when the history teacher saved the stone age by teaching them how to make fire). 

And how could I forget that first, terrifying appearance of the Daleks the following year? Sure, the sets wobbled and sometimes collapsed, people fluffed their lines, the whole thing was generally abysmal, but for a child it was mesmerizing. I guess some became the obsessed Whovians of today. 

In the summer of 1971, during my student holidays, I worked at the BBC as a Trainee Collator in a little building called Threshold House. It was the home of Doctor Who. 

With a rubber thimble on my finger, my job was to put the pages of scripts into piles as they came off the Gestetner duplicating machine, and then rush up the row collating them into scripts. The storylines were deeply hush-hush, so I was sworn to secrecy. But I always managed to sneak one into my satchel and read it in the BBC canteen over lunch. I’m sorry I can’t claim more credit for the success of this global phenomenon, but I’m proud that I did get to know the storylines before the actors. 

A couple of years later, when I was a producer, I watched the Zygon episodes being recorded in Television Centre. The same Zygons who were resurrected in Saturday’s anniversary episode, one of whom was playing the part of Queen Elizabeth the First, who had just married David Tennant. Seriously stuff, this. 

The anniversary special was a magnificent romp of a television event. Moffat paid due homage to 50 years of the brand, with a brilliantly camp double act from David Tennant and Matt Smith, a cameo from my favourite doctor, Tom Baker, (and, separately, his scarf), plus a sneak preview of the next doctor, Peter Capaldi, whose stare was even more terrifying than Malcolm Tucker’s. 

Judging by the web response, it satisfied all the fanatics and, I have to admit, it made a very good 70 minutes of television drama. It was funny, and sometimes poignant and just a little thought-provoking. 

John Hurt (Doctor number 9 I think) had stolen a weapon of mass destruction with a conscience (played by Billy Piper, one of the doctors’ more glamorous assistants). If he pressed the button he’d wipe out the Daleks and save the universe, but in doing so he’d destroy Gallifrey and kill 2.47 billion people. Should he go ahead? 

It was the question they never asked before Hiroshima or Iraq. 

Sadly, Izzy is still too young to watch this nonsense. It’ll be a few years before she’ll be able to curl up with me and scream at a Dalek. 

But it doesn’t take a time lord to know that this is almost certainly what we’ll be doing most Saturday nights from about 2020 onwards. I can’t wait.

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