Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Growing up with the Doctor - Part 5

Growing up with the Doctor - Peter Davison (1981-1984)

"A man is the sum of his memories you know, a Time Lord even more so." (The Five Doctors)

At the start of Peter Davison's tenure as the Doctor, I was back in Jersey, doing accountancy preparation, which then mostly involved analysis of cheque stubs, manual trial balances, and the use of a calculator on which you entered numbers, cranked a handle, and watched a paper roll emerge.

I was also involved in typing of minutes (when the regular typists were off ill), and setting up our magnificent computer, the DEC PDP 11/03 to deal with the Annual Company Returns. This was a machine the size of a filing cabinet, with two large circular disks about a foot in diameter, one with the program, one with the data. And they held a whopping 3 MB of data. It was the computer age!

But the hard science of Chris Bidmead's time as script editor was fading, one last gasp of glory in the first Davison story "Castrovalva", which explored recursion, M.C. Escher, and the idea of space folding in on itself. After that, the stories become more straightforward adventure narratives, with the exception of Kinda, a wonderful exploration of the unconscious dark side of human nature. Although the next season would have the excellent Snakedance, and Enlightenment, two stories which explored inner space as much as outer space.

Snakedance explores the lust for power, and how when we externalise evil, we forget it originates within our own psyche. Enlightenment has a space race with sailing ships, and a race to obtain "enlightenment" which it turns out is a choice, and not a thing. Alongside that sat Maudryn Undead, with split time zones, and the return of the Brigadier, an excellent story, with a short flashback sequence that was a wonderful surprise; alas, the production team did not realise the value in a glimpse of the past was successful because it was unexpected, and instead began to generate flashbacks and continuity references to the detriment of the stories.

Peter Davison was the youngest ever Doctor, almost my own age, and I was also re-inventing myself. I had a longish gold coloured coat, not unlike his, and for about a year I died my hair blonde like his. What those about me must have thought, goodness only knows! Fortunately, no men in white coats came to take me away to the home for mostly harmless Geeks. There's even a photo of me at my god-daughter's christening with blonde hair. Clean shaven, of course, like the Doctor. And fortunately, the only photo of me in my Geek phase.

The Tardis now had a computer screen whose pixels rather resembled something out of the BBC micro. There was a massive surge in home computers of all kinds, but those of the BBC Micro, Acorn and Clive Sinclair's ZX81 dominated the market. And then, in 1981, IMB launched its first personal computer, and things would never be the same again.

I remember going round to the States fledgling IT department, and hearing that the latest strategy was to put the DEC PC onto every civil servant's desk. They thought the DEC Rainbow would be around for ages, and could have done with a Tardis to avoid making what must have been an expensive mistake.

Around the end of Peter Davison's second season, I decided to place an advertisement in the personal column of the local newspaper. In pre-internet and mobile phone days, this was in fact one of the ways that people got to meet and date other people.

I seem to remember the advert was suitably quirky; I believe it had "Dislike of discos and Dalmatians" which I rather liked because not only was it alliterative, it also was a good conversational opening. I have around five replies, mostly from women who didn't like discos, and the opening question was usually to ask what I had against Dalmatians. I had nothing against Dalmatians; I just wanted to see if it would spark curiosity, and it did.

At least my girlfriend Marilyn, whom I met as a result of that advertisement, did not have to put up with blond hair. By this time it was long but brown, but I had taken up learning the recorder (a trait of the second doctor), so she had to suffer some of my playing.

For my part, I had to enjoy watching Boy George and Culture Club singing Karma Kamelion on Top of the Pops, while they glided down a river on a barge. It was I suppose marginally better than the robot Kamelion in the Doctor Who story "The King's Demons" which was a rather dire two part quasi-historical story. Having lost K9, John Nathan Turner was keen on the latest gimmick, a robot programmed to speak, but not, unfortunately, act.

Marilyn also had to endure "The Five Doctors", which was not bad as an anniversary story, but had some remarkably bad lines, delivered without the slightest attempt at mitigation. The Castellan shouting out "No, not the mind probe" sticks in the memory. On the other hand, when I went round to her parents' house, I had to watch Jim Bowen and lots of rather obese men throwing darts in the game show "Bull's-eye" and Ted Rogers and Dusty Bin in the game show "3-2-1". I've never liked games shows much, and those didn't cause me to change my mind.

Doctor Who itself under Eric Savard as script editor was something of a mixed bag. The final season had risible stories like "Warriors of the Deep" in which Ingrid Pitt gives a karate kick to a monster that looks to all the world like a Doctor Who monster version of a pantomime horse. Even the Dalek story was incoherent, and had a long very self-indulgent fan flashback sequence of all the companions. The continuity of the programme was beginning to overbalance it.

There were good stories lurking there - Christopher Bidmead's Frontios, and Peter Davison's swan song - the Caves of Androzani by Robert Holmes. But the series was becoming more of a cult status, more appealing to its fan base than trying to reach the general public.

The Caves of Androzani was partly about power politics, and the economics of greed. It was a very suitable mirror to the deregulated society of laissez faire capitalism of Ronald Reagan in America and Margaret Thatcher in Britain, and the rise of the yuppie (young upwardly mobile person), and the emergence of the rich bankers and stock market managers with their bonus culture.

And so Peter Davison's era came to an end at a time when the miners were striking in the coal industry. The miners were no longer to be seen in Doctor Who, which had lost touch with stories with an edge, a moral comment on society. Instead, the strife in the Tardis was mostly from disputes amongst the crew and the Doctor, first with Tegan and then Peri. Long time script writer Terrance Dicks had revealed in a documentary that he often used short quarrel scenes when he had to fill a bit of extra time. Unfortunately, Eric Saward took this very much to heart, and instead of the odd argument, the Tardis would become the scene of endless bickering, which had about all the subtlety of painting a picture with a large broom.

Despite the glimpses of greatness, Doctor Who seemed to have withdrawn from real world issues, and become more self-indulgent, losing its way. It was, unfortunately, to lose its way even more with the next Doctor.

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