Doctor Who: A Personal Journey Through 60 Years of Time and Space

Reading Time Approx: 14 minutes

Introduction

Many millions of words have been written on the subject of which raises the question what is there really left to say. However, as we approach the 60th anniversary of the show, I feel compelled to write about my own connection with the show, a connection that goes back over 40 years now.

If there is such a thing as a tv show that is part of my identity and core to my life, then Doctor Who is that show. It has been there for the entire of my life and it has been a regular fixture throughout that time. The show is also unique on in many ways and deserves to be celebrated for that.

Early Memories

My earliest clear memories from Doctor Who come from the Season 16 story The Androids of Tara. Memory being the unreliable thing it is, I find those memories blend somewhat with my memories of the BBC’s 1984 production of The Prisoner of Zenda. Not exactly surprising considering the obvious inspiration for The Androids of Tara.

I would have been 6 at the time that episode aired and likely had been watching Doctor Who for a little while already. My memories of seasons 16 and 17 are all just jumbled snippets of things rather than memories of whole stories: The Doctor meeting the White Guardian in The Ribos Operation; The time loop in The Armageddon Factor; The (very 70s) Movellans from Destiny of the Daleks; K9 being swarmed by sentient tumbleweeds (yes I know they’re called wolf weeds but… they aren’t fooling anyone) in The Creature From the Pit. This is the time frame when watching portions of the show from “behind the sofa” was a real thing for me. Not the whole show, just the moments that got a little too scary.

I think I may have been the perfect age for K-9 too. The impression I get is that many feel the character is a bit childish and unquestionably the design has huge limitations. But for me… it’s a talking robot dog with a laser gun. How cool is that?

It’s not until Season 18, by which point I was a very mature 8 (well I thought I was anyway), that my memories solidify into whole stories and plots. I’d say this is the point where I went from being a child who watched the show to a fan of Doctor Who. Of course even as a fan, there was no guarantee I would see every episode. Watching TV in the 80s was a very different experience to now. In our house there was just one tv, which sat in the living room and if adults wanted to watch something else, then they got to watch something else. There were also virtually no repeats of Doctor Who ever. Until The Five Faces of Doctor Who in 1981, maybe a couple of stories from the current season got repeated each year and that was it. Seeing earlier Doctors was simply not a thing that happened.

That was a revelation. By this point, I knew that the Doctor changed. I’d seen him change from into Peter Davison (something that, as an 8-year-old, I just accepted without hesitation). But actually seeing previous Doctors, that was mind-blowing. If I wasn’t already a fan, that clinched it for sure.

Favorite Doctor(s)

It’s a popular fan past time to rank best and worst, to list favorites. I don’t really do that, though perhaps I did when I was younger. The idea of having a singular favorite or that the ranking wouldn’t change on an almost daily basis just seems uncomfortably limiting to me. While some only take to a particular incarnation of the Doctor and others struggle to accept the regeneration, I have greeted each one with at a minimum interest, if not outright enthusiasm. I’ve also never been let down. Tom Baker suggested that the role is “actor proof” and he may be onto something.

Obviously Tom Baker’s is at the foundation of my fandom. His mop of curly hair, the infectious grin and that effortless charisma is hard to resist. But each Doctor brings their own unique flavor to the part and I love the variety. Patrick Troughton’s childlike Doctor was a revelation even if The Krotons is an unexceptional story overall. Similarly while I found Carnival of Monsters quite pedestrian, Jon Pertwee’s Doctor commanded the screen and captivated my attention.

Subsequent Doctors had a lot to live up to but who could fail to appreciate the quiet sadness of Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor. Someone how tried so hard and yet the universe always seemed to let him down. For me Warriors of the Deep, while not the best story of its era, very much encapsulates the 5th Doctor. “There should have been another way.”

Even the bombastic Sixth Doctor had his moments on screen and the Machiavellian 7th Doctor of Sylvester McCoy proved to be an amazing revitalization of the character with stories like Remembrance of the Daleks and The Curse of Fenric as well as less popular but memorable outings like The Happiness Patrol and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. I couldn’t wait to see what would come next…

I AM The Doctor?

It is received wisdom that in Doctor Who the companion exists to be the viewers representative onscreen. I presume that’s the case for many people, but it was never true for me. I always identified with the Doctor. It’s less that I wanted to be the Doctor and more that I related to the character more than I did to any of the companions.

Of course the companions were mostly human and they asked the questions that the viewers needed answering, but the Doctor was the problem solver. Violence was a secondary, if not tertiary option and in most incarnations he was not much of an action hero. Yes Pertwee had his Venusian Aikido and Tom Baker engaged in a bit of swashbuckling, but for the most part the Doctor’s power came from intelligence and knowledge. As a rather clumsy and not physically impressive at all child, I liked that.

Unlike other fans I’ve heard talking about it never dreamt of being in the TARDIS for real. I had a firm grip on fiction vs. reality from fairly early on and no desire for adventure. I didn’t want to be the Doctor, but I wanted to be like the Doctor. I wanted to know things, to be able to figure things out and to fix things. The Doctor was those things but he did them without being nerdy in the old-fashioned and negative use of the word. Now that’s aspirational.

Life Lessons

I’ve never been one for role-models because I’ve never particularly felt like I needed one. I’ve always known the sort of person I want to be, it’s just something I absorbed from my family growing up. That said, if I was going to pick a fictional person to be a role model, the Doctor would certainly be that person.

Not only is the Doctor a problem solver by nature, he has an insatiable curiosity about the why of things and an open mindedness to the new that, let’s be honest, most of us lack. The show has always embraced change, exploration and learning. Beyond that, there’s a positivity to it that is quite uncommon on tv and, as the years go by, has become even less common. It is old-fashioned in the best of ways, giving us a hero who wants to do the right thing simply because, it is the right thing.

Modern writing looks to give characters much more nuance than tv shows used to do, but in pursuit of that nuance they have focused heavily on the flawed heroes and anti-heroes. People who are driven more by their selfishness than anything else and who are defined by their failings. Doctor Who, even in it’s modern incarnation, stands largely apart from this nihilism (most incarnations of Star Trek would be another exception).

It’s not that things always work out in Doctor Who, the body count in many of the classic stories is huge, but the Doctor is always trying to do the right thing and in most cases he succeeds. There’s so much darkness in the real world that I firmly believe in shining some light.

The Wilderness Years

I was 17 when Doctor Who went off the air. I wasn’t involved in fandom (I’m still not really) and while the internet technically existed it wasn’t something the public had access to, so the news trickled out slowly. I’m not sure exactly when it sank in that nope, the show is gone but it definitely took a while. In many ways though it’s those wilderness years that have turned Doctor Who into the cultural phenomenon that it is today. Of course Who already had a place in the culture of the UK, but it was a very narrow picture of what Who could be.

Fans didn’t just cling on to Who, they embraced and expanded it. Of course fandom had been doing some of this for years, but now with tv gone, it was the only way to experience the show and they flocked to it. Not only did fanzines up their game and production values but soon Virgin Publishing was getting in on the act with their New Adventure line billed as stories “too broad and too deep for the small screen“. The veracity of the claim is up for some debate. I eagerly purchased quite a few of those and the early releases were certainly longer and edgier but the quality varied considerably (much like actual Doctor Who really). In the end it’s a line that went in directions that didn’t interest me so much. Still, the Doctor kept finding a way to make his presence known to the public.

The BBC was happy to get in on the act too, despite not wanting to air any new episodes. They had been releasing VHS tapes for several years and that ramped up with Who off the air so that multiple tapes came out every year. At one story per tape it was an expensive business so I had to pick and choose which ones I got, only favorites and ones that were said to be classics. As a result stories like The Aztecs, Talons of Weng Chiang, Ghost Light and a handful of others got watched many, many times.

I followed along closely with news of the re-discovery of Tomb of the Cybermen, a story that of course I had no memory of, just caught up in the excitement of missing episodes and naturally bought it on VHS as soon as I could in 1992. Well worth the purchase in my view as it is an excellent story and got added to my regular re-watches.

1993 was of course the 30th anniversary of the show and again the BBC was happy to cash in with amongst other things a couple of Third Doctor radio stories that I enjoyed enough to buy on cassette. The less said about Dimensions in Time the better. But I did watch it.

And then the rumors, the hope, the excitement. Doctor Who was coming back, but in America! Could that work, certainly a lot of people doubted it and in the end of course we just got the TV Movie. A fun, terribly 90s feeling and slightly Americanized Doctor Who that ultimately went nowhere. But it did prove that in the UK at least, the audience was still there.

But the chances of it ever returning dimmed steadily as the years went on and of course my life kept going. I was an adult, I was expected to hold down a job. My priorities and interests evolved. I quickly felt out of love with the New Adventures series which was going in a direction that I wasn’t interested in. I kept re-watching my VHS tapes (and even boxed them up and shipped them over to the US when I moved here in 2000) but I stopped paying attention to the fandom complete. I wasn’t even aware when Big Finish started publishing Doctor Who Audio plays, something I might very much have enjoyed at the time.

Things end, and you move on, right?

Its Back!

But then the rumors started. I had moved to the States by this point, I was an adult, I was married. I spent a lot of time on the internet and on message boards soaking up and discussing every rumor. To my shame I recall being a proponent that Doctor Who become more adult and take on a darker tone. What can I say? I was young and foolish.

Every little detail was dissected. Would the logo work in print as well as on screen. What about the font choice? The excitement was palatable but also the pedantry. Still, I was eagerly anticipating this new version of what was still my favorite show of all time. When Doctor Who went off the air I had been a teenager and still at school. By the time that Rose aired on March of 2005, I was married, a father to twins and had moved countries. My life was very, very different and yet there, still, was that one constant thing.

I didn’t have any easy way to watch the show. Of course there were no streaming services, but also There was broadcast of these episodes in the States until March 2006. So I put on my pirate hat and torrented them. But I didn’t want to watch them on my computer, I wanted to watch them on tv, the way I had always watched Doctor Who. Consider the time frame, there’s no Roku, no Amazon Fire Stick, no Apple TV. The only way to do what I wanted to do was to individually burn each episode onto a DVD so that I could watch them.

So I did.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect when I watched Rose and it’s fair to say my initial reactions were mixed. Seeing the Autons again was so cool and I immediately warmed to Eccleston’s new Doctor. There was a raw enthusiasm to his Doctor, combined with a brusqueness that was really engaging. Rose was fine, remember I’m not a Companions person. The iffy special effects that triggered a lot of reaction didn’t bother me in the slightest, that’s never been what I’m watching Who for. But the pacing was odd, not what I was used to, and the plot was… basic? The DNA was there though, it was almost what I wanted. The End of the World gave us a tantalizing tease about a large backstory which certainly peaked my interest.

I think it took until The Unquiet Dead before I felt completely at home with the new series though. Which is perhaps not that surprising because that episode is probably the most traditional Who episode of the whole season. Then of course we had the re-introduction of the Daleks with what remains their strongest story in NuWho and then with The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances a story that almost perfectly encapsulates what I love about this show. That mixture of growing tension, fear, joyful optimism and anarchy which permeates the best episodes of the show. You both don’t know quite what you’re going to get and yet also do know.

And so just like it was in my childhood, the show has been with me as my children have grown up. They are now older than I was when the show went off air. One has little to no interest in the show, the other has watched every single episode of the show (new and old) with me. I have greeted the return of the Cybermen, Ice Warriors, Sontarans and so many other creatures. Each of the eras, (RTD, Moffat and Chibnall) has had it’s own unique feel and taste adding to and enriching the blend of what is Doctor Who.

As criticism of the show mounted online, I found myself withdrawing even further from fandom. I’ve never been one for crowded conventions, or meeting strangers so while I consider myself a fan I don’t really see myself as part of fandom in any meaningful way. I had, however, been interacting online with other fans. I do that much less. Partly it’s just my general growing dissatisfaction about social media, but also it’s an active dislike of what fandom chooses to focus on. The trivia and facts and lore are fine (I’ve got the encyclopedias too) but they’re just that, trivia. They don’t make the show for me and their certainly not why I watch. Similarly the endless focus on what is wrong and what people don’t like is like a vampiric drain on my enjoyment.

At the end of the day there is very little bad Doctor Who and almost all of the televised adventures are enjoyable to me. Well okay The Twin Dilema, Sleep No More and Legend of the Sea Devils may have really pushed that statement to its limits but even then I’d rather just move on and talk about the stuff I like. There’s been so much over the years from the return of Davros, to Peter Capaldi just acting everyone off the screen, the 50th Anniversary with Day of the Doctor. For others, I know, a large part of fandom is the people they’ve met but for me it’s very much the stories themselves.

Any time my fandom has waned, there’s been something that pulls me right back to it again. In 2013 watching the show as routine but it didn’t feel particularly special until rumors of yet more missing episodes emerged and just like that I was sucked right back in.

The 60th Anniversary

So here we are, 60 years of Doctor Who and I’ve been around for 51 of them, aware of the show for at least 45. It is a show that has given me huge amounts of joy in that time. Something that lets me put aside worries, responsibilities and the mundanity of daily life to just let imagination run wild. I just finished a re-watch of Jodie Whitakers run as the Doctor and had a blast doing it.

My son and I also just finished watching More than 30 Years in the TARDIS, Talking Doctor Who and An Adventure in Space and Time. So yeah, I’m completely wallowing in nostalgia at the moment. But we also have three specials to look forward to for the 60th, although given that features David Tennant returning as the Time Lord, there’s a fair amount of nostalgia involved there too!

My bedroom door is painted to look like the TARDIS complete with signs (courtesy of my Wife). I’ve got a display box that contains multiple Sonic Screwdrivers. I have posters and clocks and Funk POPs. I’m not a collector, but Doctor Who is everywhere in my life. I freely admit I have some reservations about what seems like a step backward with a previous Doctor and a previous showrunner, but I cannot wait to watch the specials.

So of course I’ll be watching on the 23rd when the BBC shows a colorized and edited version of The Daleks, and I’ll be watchin on the 25th for The Star Beast, and then on the 2nd for Wild Blue Yonder and of course on the 9th for The Giggle.

Conclusion

It was there at the beginning, I fully expect it to be there at the end. Doctor Who is not a single plot nor is the Doctor a single character. Part of the beauty of the show is that it can adapt to the times and be so many things to so many different people. You don’t need to have watched a single other episode of Doctor Who in order to sit down and watch the show now.

The show is a jumbled mess of contradictory ideas and statements. It features a character whose personality changes every few years, has no overarching plot or end point and adventures that could occur anywhere or at any time. It is an anthology series in all but name. New stories, new characters, new actors, new writers, new directors and new showrunners. Constant change. It defies classification. There isn’t another show on tv that can mimic what Doctor Who is.

And it’s not done yet. Already excitement is building over what Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor’s will bring. We’re told his second season is filming before we’ve even seen the first. The future looks as bright for Doctor Who as at any time in its past and the possibilities remain unlimited.

I’m reading through this article and thinking about how much is still missing from it despite its length. In the end you can’t really condense so many things into such a short number of words and I notice I haven’t even managed to mention Matt Smith at all, which does him an injustice. But in the end it’s not about facts and lists, it’s about memories and pure enjoyment, which Doctor Who has brought me so many of.

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