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….