Friday, 15 November 2013

Growing up with the Doctor: Part 1

When I was six, I was entranced by a new series for children on the BBC. I'd watch the endless interminable football scores, read out line by line, and then a camera would swing round, the jaunty music would start, and it was the end of Grandstand. And in a few minutes, I would be watching Doctor Who.

My memories of the earliest Dr Who episodes are rather hazy, as I suspect would be the case for many 6 year olds. Of the first story, I remember very little, but I had an Armada paperback which covered the story. I learned to read by the time I was seven, and read avidly. Struck down with mumps for what seemed like most of a school term, there was little else to do, and I enjoyed reading Malcolm Saville, and my latest book on Dr Who.

I remember the opening scenes, the crash on foggy Barnes Common, the mysterious Doctor with his everlasting matches, his granddaughter Susan, and Ian and Barbara, and their first exciting adventure on the planet Skaro, with the Daleks. It was called "Dr Who: An Exciting Adventure in Time and Space", written by David Whitaker, and I still have the battered old paperback, price, if I remember right, two shillings and six pence. I liked the story, but I never quite liked the first person narration. I wanted to be the Doctor, not Ian Chesterton.

Of course, none of that happened! The story starts in Coal Hill school, and the teachers go to where Susan lives, which turns out to be a junk yard, and they are whisked away by the Doctor, with Susan, to the Stone Age, where a tribe has lost the secret of fire. The Daleks don't pop up until the next story.

The mind plays tricks, and in the absence of modern DVDs, perception is shaped by how one reads the stories and recaptures the moment. It was, as John Nathan-Turner said, a case of "the memory cheats". But the memory did more than that; it substituted a false memory from the paperback in place of the original narrative. But the paperback was my way of recalling the story, of how I could remember it, and I read it many times.

The same happened, to a lesser extent with a hardback book by Bill Strutton that I borrowed with enthusiasm from the library - "Dr Who and the Zarbi", with the thrilling end, in a crescendo of pulsating rotating light from the creature known as the animus. It never happened with such good special effects in the TV version!

The third book I had was the Dr Who and the Crusaders, also written by Whitaker, but of the original story I remembered nothing; it was a cracking good story, and I enjoyed it very much, but the historical stories I remembered very little about. Even now, re-reading it, it is a superb piece of writing.

I've changed my mind on the historical stories. The adult can enjoy levels of story and drama that the child cannot, and watching "The Aztecs" on DVD brought it home how excellent the historicals could be. For a six or seven year old, I was very much the "whining school-boy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school" as Shakespeare put it, except that I did enjoy school. I had a satchel though, for my books. I wonder when they went out of fashion and were replaced with today's back-packs?

Most of my memories were Daleks, of course. An enduing image is Dalek doors, sliding up and down, and Daleks coming through. And I remember the playground at school. For a while, cowboys and Indians were put away, and we were Daleks and humans. To be a Dalek was easy. It was exactly as described in the later book "The Making of Doctor Who" by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke. You held one arm with the elbow against your left side, the other extended fully - the weapon arm and the sucker arm. And you moved in a jerky fashion, and spoke in the clipped staccato tones of the Dalek - "Exterminate". To be the Doctor was just as easy. You grasped the lapels of your school blazer, and said "Hmm. Hmm."! You wanted to be the Dalek or the Doctor. Not Ian Chesterton, teacher, I'm afraid. In fact, while the teachers Ian and Barbara were supposed to be typical teachers, they were nothing like the ones we had, men who often smoked pipes in those days, and were bald and old ex-army types. The female teachers at my first school seemed ancient, and were more like Peggy Mount in "George and the Dragon". Later teachers were sweet old dears, on the verge of retirement, so must have been late 50s. There was no one like Barbara.

I do remember some of the more memorable other monsters. I have no memory of the Sensorites, but the Mechanoids I remembered, even though they scarcely appeared in more than one episode. And the Web planet seemed to go on for a long time, the Zarbi trilling, the Menoptra, and the Venom Bugs of Vortis; that was full of strangeness and wonder. I had, of course, little idea of what the story was about at the time.

And then there were the Daleks at the Cinema, on the big screen, "in colour". People forget now how TV was a grainy 425 line black and white box, which took time to come on when turned on, as the valves warmed up. Turn it off, and it would diminish to a small white dot, which would take ages to vanish. Against this background there was Dr Who and the Daleks at the cinema - in colour. It is worth remembering that not all cinema films were colour. I saw "Carry on Cabby" and it was black and white.

I liked Roy Castle as Ian, but I was rather disappointed at the Doctor, or Dr Who, as he was here, as he did not look at all like the Doctor as I knew him from the TV show. And the story as well seemed to be a familiar one, the same one as my well loved and much thumbed paperback told, of the Daleks on Skaro; I had expected something different, a new story to be told. But it was a fun story, and the Susan in the story was much closer to my own age of 8- Roberta Tovey, who played her, was 10. I adored her. I was in love.

When I was 11, I went with my parents and sister on a cruise ship on the Mediterranean, and we made friends with a girl with blond hair of the same age as us, and her name was also Susan. She was, in an Adrian Mole kind of way, my first girlfriend, and part of the attraction was undeniably that her name was Susan, a name I had on my list of favourite names from Dr Who!

I never saw the second Dalek film until years later on TV, and I actually enjoyed it more than the first. It has a faster pace, and like the Yeti in Tooting Bec, a Dalek in what looks like almost contemporary London has a lot more impact. And of course Bernard Cribbins is wonderful, and virtually steals the show from Peter Cushing - except of course, when Philip Madoc, show stealer extraordinaire, pops up for a few scenes as a villain! It was wonderful to see, because when first shown on TV, there were no Videos or DVDs, no way to see the past TV episodes; this was as close as it got.

I had Dalek toys, of course. A plastic Dalek in black, which I still have, but minus (as happens) all the sucker arm, gun and eye stick. And the small Dalek roll-a-kins, with a ball bearing to move, are long gone. Once they disintegrated, the ball bearings went into my marble collection. They were more valuable in the strange world of marble games at school, as well.

And then there were the Cybermen, strange almost human beings, with their inhuman sing-song voices, and vast size. Monsters in Doctor who, with the notable exception of the Daleks and one or two others, are usually men in monster outfits. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't. The Cybermen invading the polar base worked for me. Part of that was probably the cracking good story, full of suspense, and also they are invading in the near future - 1983. Well, it was the near future back in 1966 when the serial first aired.

And of course, Dr Who also adorned the pages of TV Comic, where he had his two grand children , John and Gillian. I hated those grandchildren - they seemed so much like comic strip versions of the children you often found in films and TV of that time, who often couldn't act except in a very stilted British way, and who didn't seem like other children - my friends - at all. But the adventures were fun.

Meanwhile another comic, TV Century 21, as well as lots of Gerry Anderson comic strips - Thunderbirds, Fireball XL5, and Stingray etc - also had "The Daleks" on its back page. Here the Daleks were the heroes, and I remember being fascinated by the dome shaped Emperor Dalek. The TV versions, with an honourable exception in Remembrance of the Daleks, never came quite as close. And I liked "Zeg", the Red Dalek. On the TV show, Daleks never had names.

I only ever had one Hartnell Dr Who Annual, the first one. I could probably tell you the plots of the stories as I read and re-read it so many times. These were the days before the Target novelisations, so you read what you could on Dr Who, which was very little. The uncredited writer was of course David Whitaker, and unlike some later Annuals, his prose was excellent, and he could tell a story well. The rest of the time - back to Enid Blyton's Famous Five, or the science fiction of Captain W.E. Johns, who wrote space adventures as well as Biggles. Not a lot of people know that!

And suddenly the Doctor fell down, and changed. Once moment, he was William Hartnell, and the next, this strange much younger character. People say that sometimes they took time to get used to the change, but as a 9 year old, I just took it in my stride. After all, the Daleks were back again, and within a few episodes, I was used to the Patrick Troughton incarnation of the Doctor, and William Hartnell had been forgotten. Such is the fickle loyalty of youth.

But the image of Hartnell, and the power of his presence remained with me as a firm memory. And he would pop up in all kinds of unexpected films. A showing (I didn't see it at the cinema) on TV of "Carry in Sergeant", and there was William Hartnell, giving a brilliant performance, again as a Sergeant in "Private's Progress", and a somewhat younger Hartnell in the excellent "Murder in Reverse". And of course, Hartnell in chain mail, as Sergeant for the Army of the Grand Duchy of Fenwick, leading the attack on America with Peter Sellers in "The Mouse that Roared"

Now there is a new drama next Thursday, by Mark Gatiss, called "An Adventure in Time and Space" about the people involved in the origins of Dr Who, Verity Lambert, Sidney Newman, Waris Hussein, Jacqueline Hill, William Russell, Carole Ann Ford and of course William Hartnell. It looks like being a very well written drama, and also a compelling walk back down memory lane.

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