In some ways, I am still a teenage Doctor Who fan: there is nothing that connects me more directly to the feeling of being eleven yerars old than the first Tom Baker title sequence (see above) and the slightly modified Delia Derbyshire arrangement of the Ron Grainer theme tune with its whooping screams and juddering bassline. But I was a teenage Doctor Who fan, something that until around 2005 I was slightly embarrassed to admit. And by Doctor Who fan I mean a serious Doctor Who fan: I joined the Doctor Who Appreciation Society at a point when membership was barely in double figures; I recorded and repeatedly listened to stories that I'd recorded on sound cassettes; I went to conventions; I started a Doctor Who society at my school; I ran three fanzines (Vortex, Demnos, and CVE, since you ask); I had all the Target novelizations. I wrote impassioned analyses of stories in other journals, interminable think-pieces about whether the apparent continuity errors across the show's then-twenty-year history could be reconciled, and debated the merits of different Doctors with an intensity that in a less stable society would have spilled over into civil unrest.
It's hard to explain exactly why Doctor Who so captured my imagination, though I am currently so far from being alone, it doesn't seem something that requires explanation. In a way, it was accident. For various reasons, my parents didn't buy a television until 1976: in fact, not until the 31 January 1976, when we sat down with our new portable black & white TV and watched the first episode of The Seeds of Doom. The magic of that story was heightened by the magic of watching our first television. What if we'd bought a TV a month later? Would I have been so enthusiastic to start a story halfway through? What if we'd bought our TV during the summer break? What if we'd bought our television to coincide with The Horns of Nimon? Perhaps my enthusiasm would have been stillborn. But instead, we sat down to watch one of the great classic-era Doctor Who stories, a Quatermass-inspired epic about a man who turns into a giant carnivorous vegetable (trust me, it's still really great). I loved that first episode and had nightmares for a week. I was sufficiently scared in episode 2 to be stopped from watching it while it was still on. I didn't see episodes 3 and 4. In consolation for an accident at a swimming pool, where I slipped on the steps and cut my chin (yeah, I still got the scars) I was allowed to watch episode 5 and then it was my birthday party for episode 6 and my mum bowed to the clamour of all us seven-and-eight-year-olds to watch the show. And I watched it ever after.
It was, I can say now with the benefit of perspective, a pretty great time to start watching Doctor Who. Tom Baker was a pretty great hero for a kid to have: astonishingly eccentric, all teeth and curls, taking everything as seriously as a child and with a child's fearless levity. After the rather establishment figure of Jon Pertwee, this was a bohemian, morally ferocious, disrespectful of authority, tall as a bus, with the best costume in the world. When this Doctor Who got scared, you knew you were in trouble. The Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes (producer/script editor) era was, by common consent, the finest period of the programmes history, productive of stories that you can still show to people without mockery. In the gap between The Seeds of Doom and the next season's The Masque of Mandragora the BBC repeated The Planet of Evil and the winter break gave us edited versions of Pyramids of Mars and The Brain of Morbius, two solid-gold scary-brilliant classics. The next season brought us such joys as The Deadly Assassin, The Hand of Fear, and Robots of Death. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be watching Talons of Weng Chiang was very heaven. The Hinchcliffe/Holmes era worked by taking classic horror, thriller and science fiction stories and re-working them in the Doctor Who universe: Pyramids of Mars is a 'Mummy Returns' story; The Brain of Morbius owes a great deal to Frankenstein; The Deadly Assassin nods to The Manchurian Candidate; Robots of Death is basically an Agatha Christie locked-room whodunit with robots (a genre for which the phrase 'what's not to like?' might have been created).
Doctor Who went slowly downhill from there. The era of producer Graham Williams had some high points (The Horror of Fang Rock, the Key to Time season, City of Death) but it suffered from the BBC's insistence that the scariness be toned down and from the growing uncontrollability of Tom Baker. The high points were in the writing: Douglas Adams's City of Death is a terrific script, immensely clever and very funny ('What a wonderful butler: he's so violent!' 'You're a beautiful woman, probably'); I still maintain that Robert Holmes's script for The Ribos Operation is the most beautifully-written classic series stories: the heist idea is brilliant and the dialogue between the two con artists is wonderfully funny, the Graff Vynda K backstory is compelling, if you can watch the story of Binro the Heretic without welling up, you're a sterner man than I. By the time we get to Creature from the Pit and Horns of Nimon, the show is in serious need of a refresh. John Nathan-Turner's first season was superb, horribly spangly new titles and arrangement notwithstanding, with a newly serious, brooding performance from Tom Baker and several tremendous stories that genuinely bring you into fuly-realised other worlds: Full Circle, Warrior's Gate, The Keeper of Traken are all pretty great bits of TV; State of Decay pulls off a Doctor Who vampire story very effectively and the first episode of Logopolis is one of the best starts to a story I can remember (though rather let down, I think, by the rest).
This season was helped by a certain injection of cash. John Nathan-Turner hoped these rises would be continued but the BBC executives were not willing to give it, despite the enormous sums that Doctor Who brought in from overseas sales and merchandising. As a result, despite the embrace of new technology, Doctor Who's advances were much slower than the science fiction around it (Star Wars, ET, etc.) and it started to look stale. The rubber monsters and wobbly sets that hilarious people always like to claim Doctor Who was filled with date from this era, with minor atrocities like Warriors of the Deep's Myrka from 1984, basically a pantomime horse that even the cameras seem reluctant to look at.
A note on this though: when people worry about rubber monsters, there's a case to be made that they are being anachronistically literal. Kinda (1982) is a very good story, a strange Buddhism-inspired tale about posession, colonialism, Janovian therapy and the dark sides of one's own mind. At the end of the story, the 'monster' emerges: the Mara. And the Mara turns out to be a gigantic pink inflatable rubber snake (left). No, it's not particularly well realized but in 1982, on Doctor Who's budget, in fact on most people's budget, it was never going to look that great. But I don't remember being mortified by the effect when it appeared on my TV. On the DVD of this story, Rob Shearman (writer of Dalek ) makes the very good point that before CGI, we didn't necessarily expect that what we were seeing was supposed to literally be what the fictional world looked like. We saw the effect, I think he suggests, and imagined the Mara. Television in the 1970s and 1980s was, as is well known, very theatrical in the way it was shot: in a studio you effectively created a theatre set, with the cameras in the audience positions, and you videoed scenes, rather than took individual shots. It was the emergence of lightweight cameras that allowed film language into television. And that in turn allows a much broader sense of realism, much more intimate performances, and so on. In the theatre, we are very used to understanding what we're seeing as a version, a notation of a fictional world; there's the theatre architecture, the lights and blackouts, and one's fellow audience members that you have to ignore for starters. Perhaps, the rubber monsters were fine because we just saw the monsters and imagined them as much more terrifying.
But the show was going downhill. John Nathan-Turner, as the recent biography by Richard Marson makes movingly clear, was desperate to shore up the programme, despite the beginnings of multi-channel broadcasting that would see ever-dwindling audiences and diminishing will from the BBC to support this rather expensive old embarassment of a show. He particularly enjoyed getting guest stars; his business logic was that a household name would possibly get Doctor Who some column inches in the press which might, in turn, lead to higher ratings; his personal logic seems to have been that he was a vaudevillian at heart and genuinely did not see any harm in casting, say, Bonnie Langford as a companion. Some of the guest stars, to be fair, were perfectly good: Nicholas Parsons has a very creditable role in The Curse of Fenric (1989). But it can sometimes look like outright sabotage when an excellent story like Earthshock (1982) has to accept Beryl Reid as the captain of a space freighter. Ironically, JN-T was helping to bring the programme into the new television world where film rather than theatre was the model, yet he cast Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, both excellent actors but very theatrical figures, seemingly unable to underplay. When the camera crash-zooms into Colin Baker's face - as it always seemed to do at the end of an episode - I always feel I want to sit a few rows back to get the proper effect. Doctor Who wanted people to hide behind the sofa, but not for this reason.
The scripts suffered as well. I have sometimes reflected that had I been the age I am now in 1985, it would not have been that hard to get a writing gig on Doctor Who. Frankly, if they hired Pip and Jane Baker (authors of the terrible Rani stories and the idiotically-named Terror of the Vervoids, a title which sounds like Doctor Who in self-parody mode but sadly was meant seriously), I'd surely have stood a chance. Season 23 was a murderously poor idea: a 14-week single story in which the Doctor is on trial by the timelords and we are shown four stories that somehow form part of the evidence. What the charge was, how the evidence was supposed to fit, and what actually was going on was left risibly undercooked (I have had the Valeyard explained to me a few times, but I am none the wiser); the trial story frame slackens our grip on the four adventures, and the adventures make us resent the absurd frame. Illnesses, serious fall-outs, and the participation of Pip and Jane Baker meant that the writing suffered badly. The last season showed a notable upturn but by that point it was too late and the show was cancelled.
I'd left it behind by then. The last story I can remember watching and enjoying was The Caves of Androzani, a beautiful, strange, sinister story with some terrific performances and an inspired - though apparently unintended - use of direct address to camera. I didn't watch Colin Baker's stories when they went out and caught only a couple of random Sylvester McCoy episodes. When the show's cancellation was announced, I felt a flicker of sadness, but probably felt that given how badly it had lost its way, that the act was a kindness. In 1996, when an attempt was made to bring the show back, I watched, fearing the worst and found all my ferars confirmed, as a misshapen story unfolded that seemed wholly unsure whether it wanted us to participate in a festival of nostalgia or a contemporary drama. (In doing so, I evidently watched it much less perceptively than Russell T Davies, who saw in the TV Movie several very good ideas that I did not detect and incorporated them into his mid-2000s reboot.)
But something else was happening. When I was growing up, the previous episodes were things of mystery. I had a copy of The Making of Doctor Who by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke which included the (inaccurate) titles and (tantalisingly brief) descriptions of all the former stories. There were the Target novelizations which offered a way into those stories, though they were still very cautious about eelving too much into the past while I was an active fan. That we might ever get to see the old stories seemed unthinkable. When the Doctor Who Monthly Winter Special of 1981 published its interview with Sue Malden, revealing just how few of the Hartnell/Troughton stories still existed in the archives, it was like being bereaved of a relative you'd never met. The magazines and fanzines published photographs of stories and more detailed plot summaries, so gradually one could build up a bank of knowledge, but it was all like the Buzzcocks bootlegs I used to buy from Portobello Road market: they were all hiss and crackle will some vague intimation that music may have taken place at one time if you listened hard enough (this experience became Static, by the way). It seemed to my young mind that Doctor Who had in insurmountably vast history that I could never hope to know. It shocks me slightly now, in the 50th aniversary year, to think that I joined Doctor Who only 13 years into its history and have travelled with the Doctor for 37 years.
Video recorders became fairly common in the early eighties but Doctor Who didn't seem high on the list for release. The first story released on VHS was the perverse choice of a rare Tom Baker dud, Revenge of the Cybermen, and it was priced at £40 (which is something like £120 in today's money) and thus completely beyond the pocket of me or any of my friends and so we didn't see it. However, around the time the show was cancelled, the stories started to come out on VHS and the price came down and, glory be, some of the missing episodes started showing up: The Tomb of the Cybermen in Hong Kong, most of The Ice Warriors in a cupboard at the BBC (and, only this year, two almost complete stories in a television relay station in Nigeria). I bought a couple of these as they came out. Some others I caught on cable TV, where they'd become a popular time-filler for UK Gold. But at the very end of the decade, the stories started coming out on DVD, starting, again unpropitiously, with the misconceived 20th anniversary special, The Five Doctors. But thanks to the immense diligence of the Restoration Team, the classic-series DVD releases soon established themselves; each one with immaculately restored picture and sound, and bolstered by hours of accompanying documentaries, production notes, contextual materials, Easter Eggs, interviews, and features - my favourite (for some reason) being 'Now and Then' which visits the locations of the stories to juxtapose how they looked in the broadcast stories and how they look now. The DVDs are remarkable; they are like the Arden editions of Doctor Who.
I bought a couple. Then a couple more. And soon my teenage Doctor Who completist attitude kicked in and now I have a hall cupboard filled with an absurd collection of these DVDs. I found myself watching the blogs as blogs came into being with the result that when the return was announced in 2004, I was as giddy with excitement as if I'd still been 12. And I've watched it ever since, this time with, it seems, the entire rest of the world.
What did Doctor Who give me? I think that immersion in a massive ongoing story with details and evidence and legends and myths was a tremendous preparation for being an academic. I think the intense immersion in story shaped some of my love of narrative writing. And the luck of coming to the programme during Tom Baker's era gave me a love of irreverent humour and a certain political nonconformism. The Doctor and his companions dropping in and out of many worlds offered a reassuring vision of alternative families that overwhelmed any attachment I might have developed for the conventional unit. Baker's eccentricity seemed to me, as a boy, a pure good, valuable in its own sake, thrilling when exerted against the military mind, from the Brigadier to Davros. I would be a quite different person without Doctor Who in my life and I love that, in its fiftieth year, it's still around for us to make a fuss of. It represents something of the same progressive Britishness as the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics.
Mind you, I bet David Cameron grew up with Jon Pertwee's Doctor.