Nov 23

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Fifty Years and Counting…

So.  Saw the seven-minute prequel thing to the Dr Who 50th Anniversary Episode a few days ago.

I don’t know how many people who read this blog saw it, not least ‘cos I’m not sure what it’s distribution was like, but I think… and I’ve been wondering about this a fair old while… but I think it might have been awesome.

Although curiously, I now want to find a violin to play.

Let me explain why….

The first time I encountered Dr Who was on holiday in Italy.  Once every two years, my parents and a bunch of eight to ten mates would rent a house somewhere in the middle of the Italian countryside.  My Dad was the only one who owned a car, so he did a lot of driving, which suited him fine as he hated the walks up mountains and through sun-soaked valleys that was the purpose of the expedition.  I liked going to the medieval cities and looking at ramparts and weapons, but regarded cathedrals merely as a place to get out of the sun, and my quiet attendance within as something I could later barter for ice cream.

I was also the youngest person there by at least 40 years.  And this was ok – I kept myself occupied with playing a lot of chess, and by the age of 10 was consistently beating all but my Dad, who was a frighteningly good player.  I also started writing a lot, and these holidays began the time when I couldn’t really be pulled from pen and paper.

There was also one house in the middle of a forest where they had a couple of Dr Who books.  There was a lot of other reading matter there, but once you’ve got through the complete Lord of the Rings and it’s still three days to go before the train home, what’s a girl to do?  So I started reading.  And they were rip-roaring harmless fun that passed the time, and came in my mind to be associated with warmth, a low orange light from the sunset through the window, and those big-eyed green lizards that crawl along the walls of Mediterranean farmhouses.

And, being a girl who basically didn’t do TV, I just assumed that was what they were – quirky old books in a farmhouse.

Then I started learning the violin, and the glory and the wonder that was the Barbican Library was opened up to me.  It is a hopefully heartening truth that the single proudest moment of my entire writing career was finding copies of my books in the fantasy section of this library.  Friends have sent me photos of my works from shops in Kuala Lumpa and Canberra; I’ve been to Cape Town and Paris to talk about them, received nominations for stuff and met some of my greatest literary heroes, but none of it comes quite up to that moment where the bookshelf that defined your entire childhood, that was the centre of your cultural world for the most formative years of your life, suddenly has something you wrote on it.

Also stocked in the Barbican library, were a lot more Dr Who books.  The best thing about these, I found, was that they were just short enough that they could be read in that dead period between the end of school and the start of music lessons – they slotted in perfectly.  So I read the lot, and now the association became between these slim volumes and the feeling of the E string on your little finger in third position as you try – and in my case, fail – to produce the dulcet sound of celestial music while wondering if your hand’s going to drop off.

A little time went by, and I was promoted to the adult section of the library, receiving my own Grown Up library card that I treasured in the back of my travelcard wallet.  Here I read the entire turny-shelfy-section (fantasy didn’t have it’s own wooden shelves then, just a plastic turny-thing) from Adams to Zelazny, and when that was done, wandered round a bit bewildered before stumbling on the VHS part of the library.  It was still VHS then, but only just, and amongst the many things contained in the stacks by the check-out counter I was absolutely astonished to discover TV episodes of Dr Who.

TV?  The idea seemed absurd.  More absurd still, how old some of this stuff was.  (To a teenager born in 1986, anything older than… oooh… 1992… seemed ancient.)  I looked for the most recent thing I could find, and found by chance a 1996 movie of Dr Who.

I must admit: I thought long and hard before borrowing it.  Sure, I was known as a nerd in the library already, and could be found sat cross-legged on my violin case by the fantasy shelf without fail every Wednesday afternoon.  But I’d never borrowed a film, let alone a film that had an air of geek about it, and on £1 pocket money a week, a 50p investment was not to be taken lightly.  Rather like a dubious gentleman with questionable taste in magazines, I was half-tempted to borrow a history book or a revision guide as well as the film, to prove that I wasn’t just some reprobate science fiction geek, but that I was a Responsible Adult, worthy of my Grown Up library card.  As it is, I don’t think I did – I just borrowed the film, and stuck it in the bottom of my bag along with the piles of sheet music that would promptly be mangled on the 6th floor of one of the Barbican’s many towers.

I think I must have started watching the film at 6.10 a.m. the following day.  My commute to school involved getting from Hackney to Hammersmith, and for an 8.40 register call I would usually leave my house at 7.10 a.m..  Coming back, I’d get in maybe 5.30 p.m., by which time I’d have to do homework and my parents would be watching the evening news.  Finding time to watch a film, therefore, was tricky, and my viewing history tended to happen in the wee hours of the morning, as the only quiet time I could find.  (I should add, as a theatre technician I now find the concept of 6.10 a.m. ridiculous.  Even though I remember those mornings clearly, I cannot quite imagine it was me that wandered through them.  Equally, I suspect, teenage-me would find the notion of working until 10.30 p.m. on a regular basis, laughably obscene.)

I don’t remember much about the film.  I remember enjoying it immensely.  I remember it opening up my eyes to a whole world I hadn’t really known about.  I remember being aware that there was a lot about Dr Who that was patently bad; I remember not caring.  I kept my interest quiet, since there were only 3 of us in my secondary school who could be classed as science fiction geeks, and we had a fiendish survival tactic of don’t ask, don’t tell.  Writing the books helped a bit, as there’s nothing quite like receiving financial reward for your efforts to elevate it from ‘nerdy interest’ to ‘interestingly nerdy’ – but I still kept myself to myself.

Then at LSE I heard that Dr Who was being revived, and cautiously asked my Dad if he knew anything.

“We’re watching!” he exclaimed, with a forcefulness that amazed me.  Had my Dad also, all this time, been a closet Dr Who fan?  Then, as we did indeed watch the very first episode of the new series, “It’s not rubbish!” he exclaimed.  “My god, it’s actually not total rubbish!”

After that, Dr Who night became something of an established rule in the household, and I’d scamper back from uni whenever work permitted to watch it, preferably with curry.  I also became aware, every now and then, of episodes on the radio, though by then I was so exasperated with the presenters on BBC7 (as then was) and the endless, endless melodramatic repeats of badly written drama, that it’d take great provocation to send me to its airwaves.  Radio, at its best, can do things with a few words and some foley that TV budgets can’t do.  At its worst, it is a slave to exposition, and Dr Who has always walked that fine line anyway.

Now, of course, Dr Who is having it’s 50th anniversary, and I’m writing this quite deliberately a few days before the episode to celebrate the same is broadcast.

I’m not gonna pretend that I’m a proper nerd.  I enjoy watching and I like it when episodes are good.  They are something I’ll always keep an eye out for and if I’m in on a Saturday night, and it’s on, I’ll sit there in reverend attention, woe betide anyone who gets in my way.  When it’s bad, it’s pretty bad – when it’s good, it’s flippin’ brilliant, and the build-up to this anniversary has, if nothing else, reminded me of the many many years of association that Dr Who has built in my mind.  Chess on a kitchen table in Italy… the squeak of the rubber on the ramps up through the Barbican library… the greyness of spring light at 6.10 a.m…. and the very dodgy sound of my attempting to play a violin….

Permanent link to this article: http://www.kategriffin.net/2013/11/23/fifty-years-and-counting/


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  1. AdrianH

    And now, having watched it?
    I’m a VERY long-time Dr Who fan, although there was a big chunk that passed me by, the Peter Davidson/Sylvester McCoy years, partly because I worked Saturday afternoons, selling audio gear, and partly because it was just too cheesy for me. Tom Baker was the last Doctor I enjoyed.
    To give you some idea of my rather advanced years, which might surprise you a bit, having met me a couple of times, I remember the very first episode of ‘An Unearthly Child’, broadcast fifty years ago yesterday!
    It was shown again on Beeb 4 during the week, along with the following three episodes, and I hope you get a chance to watch it.
    Everyone has ‘their’ Doctor, and favourite Companion; William Hartnell was ‘my’ Doctor, and Susan ‘my’ Companion, to a nine-year-old boy, she made quite an impression!
    Then there was Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds…
    My SF Geek started very young.

  2. MidwestJoe

    Well nice to see that we’re part of the same ’86-ish generation, so YES anything older than 1992 was kind of old-ish but stories and books never reveal their age unless you purposely seek out the copyright date and even then that’s kind of cheating because you can really tell the age of the book by the attitudes found in between the lines of text of the stories themselves and looking at that date in the front is just cheating and where’s the fun in that….annnnd forgot the point I was trying to make….right DOCTOR WHO!

    I came across Doctor Who back in the mid-90s…there was some sunday morning tv special about the longest running tv shows yadda yadda yadda and Doctor Who came up and sure enough “Doctor who? Who’s that?”…and then my two favorite words showed up…time travel….for I too at the time was busy ransacking the fantasy/scifi section of my local public library from A-Z and when I had started…H.G. Wells had been the first author I devoured like a fine wine…ok so I started in the W’s…no one said I was methodical in my literary ransacking…so, time travel! After that little program all I could think about was “ok so he travels in time, he can’t really die, and he saves people in a police box….what kind of deus ex machina…still, time travel, cool”…I tried to find a few books or videos but it was all kind of…in bad shape, I got tidbits here and there and sometimes BBC America Radio would broadcast something on the Doctor but I never got a complete picture of him.

    Cut to a few years later when we got our first computer and internet connection when search engines like dogpile and yahoo and askjeeves started showing up and typing in “doctor who” produced a veritable junkyard of information that made me Squeeeeee like Cookie Monster from Sesame Street being given free reign of the Keebler Elves magic oven….I hope that makes sense….

    Sadly, not all the info I wanted and needed to have was out there. There were brief synopsis of the stuff and sometimes notes about conventions and MSN Groups and Yahoo Groups pertaining to it but…I wanted another library to devour…but in the small midwest city I had grown up in, scifi wasn’t exactly the…soup of the day…so I had to wait…the Doctor waited…so could I. High school shows up and Wikipedia rears it’s rather pleasantly attractive and addictive head…odd mental image…like a never ending gobstopper lollipop, hey that sounds good, no one tell Gene Wilder…and Doctor Who was thus opened up to me. I read about every doctor, every TARDIS, every episode, every movie, mostly every comic, and tried to work out every odd paradox or alternate timeline I encountered. This incidentally coincided with my interest in quantum mechanics, quantum physics, my various papers on cosmic rays and black holes, and my continuing love affair with time travel and cosmology. The Doctor was awesome, could do anything, go anywhere, go any when, no one could beat him, and he always got the girl…or robot…or zygon…could you ask for a better Hero? Annnnd then the reboot came!

    I remember being in my freshmen year of college, my roommate having left for the night, I tuned into the Scifi Channel, ordered some pizza, and held my breath…And It Was Awesome! The opening credits were cool, the TARDIS was still the TARDIS, the new doctor looked like a badass, and who didn’t love that new sonic screwdriver? I giggled like the little boy I used to be…who upon discovering the adult section of the library, asked the librarian “I can read all of these?” who replied with a simple smile…not unlike the one the Doctor gives to the poor souls he just saved from…*brow furrow*…radioactive pineapple powered Daleks….hey it could happen!

    Last night I tried in vain to find a way to see the 50th Anniversary Episode…but NADDA here in the states….*sigh*…annnnd then someone over in the UK in a very friendly chat room mentioned that someone had recorded it in high def and had posted it on a questionable website…upon posting this link….every Whovian across the pond screamed out in joy and spent the next two hours waiting for the official version to be posted on a reputable site…and totally not pirating it…..

    I loved it though…and I loved the line…”You know the sound the TARDIS makes? That wheezing…groaning. That sound brings hope wherever it goes..”…and it does…whenever I hear it on TV or see a TARDIS Cookie Jar or…or…or just whenever I feel broken and shattered by something I saw at work at the hospital…I just..think to myself and whisper “What would the Doctor do?”…and it’s kind of why I work in my lowly pays next to nothing leaves me feeling like crap at the end of the day job…because if the Doctor can deal with the Daleks, the Time War, the Cybermen, and Moffett only knows what else…and still have the desire to wake up the next morning and do it all over again and keep bringing hope to people…

    …then I can too….then we all can….we can all be a little bit more brave…a little bit stronger…a little bit more generous and forgiving…a little bit…better than we are :)

    Long Live The Doctor, safe paths Ms Griffin.

  3. AdrianH

    That’s a really great post, MJ, glad you got to see the 50th Anniversary programme.
    There are some lovely references to the past, which you may or may not have picked up on. Have you seen the very first episode, ‘An Unearthly Child’? If not, the opening scene with the policeman walking past the wall and sign is a direct reference to the original opening scene, and the name of the headmaster is that of the schoolteacher who goes looking for his errant pupil, Susan, the Doctor’s Granddaughter.
    Of course, you may well already be familiar with Hartnell’s Doctor, and the very first episodes, in which case I apologise for being presumptuous. I still think he was a pretty scary Doctor, not someone you’d want to turn your back on!

  4. Larry P.

    Tom Baker in the end as the care taker. Great. I watched it in the seventy’s. Here in Iowa on PBS, Red Dwarf. Not Science Fiction, but zany, Red Green.

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