Why I Like… Doctor Who

It starts with a trip down a rabbit hole — a weird, angular, metallic rabbit hole that keeps changing the shape of its iridescent walls as you fall. Meanwhile, there’s a distant alarm going off — either that, or someone’s trying to shoot you with a ray gun. From the echoing bass rattle you can hear, you might be surrounded by miles of distant, faulty plumbing. If so, someone’s emptied a boxful of pins into the system, because you keep hearing these wooshing washes of tinkliness pass by. Then up from the darkness looms an enormous face. Tom Baker, eyes agoggle. There for a moment, then he’s gone, dissolved into many colours like a prismatic ghost. And still you keep falling.

Doctor Who is weird.

The first episode of Doctor Who I saw was from Tom Baker’s introductory adventure, Robot. As that was broadcast between the end of December 1974 and mid-January 1975, I must have been three and half years old at the time, which means that seeing the programme is one of my earliest memories. (Sitting in a bath watching my chicken pox peel off comes a close, but not so fondly-remembered, second).

I pretty soon wanted to be the Doctor. (I don’t mean I wanted to act the part. I mean I wanted to be the Doctor.) But it was the monsters that most fascinated me. The two are, of course, inseparable. The Doctor is the corrective called for by the imbalancing evil of the monsters; the monsters are the shadow cast by the heroic light of the Doctor. It’s why the Doctor always has an intuitive knowledge about the enemy he faces, often before he sets eyes on it/them — as soon as he steps out of the TARDIS he knows, like he can sniff it in the air, something’s afoot. And he often knows the sort of something it is, as well as the sort of foot, sucker, or pseudopod it’s afoot on. The reason for this is that the Doctor and the Monsters are one. They’re part of the same psychological picture.

Looking over the first few seasons of Doctor Who that I saw — seasons presided over by the dream-team of Philip Hinchcliffe as producer and Robert Holmes as script-editor — there’s a lot of blurring the line between men and monsters. In The Ark in Space, the far-future human Noah turns by painful stages into an insectile Wirrn (courtesy of a generous helping of green plastic bubble-wrap). In Genesis of the Daleks, Davros, already half robot himself (the other half a distinctly withered Mr Potato Head), fast-forwards his people’s evolution into slug-like creatures encased in “Mark III Travel Machines” (banality-of-evil-speak for Daleks). There’s the Jekyll & Hyde Professor Sorenson possessed by anti-matter in The Planet of Evil, and Marcus Scarman with his mind taken over by the evil alien Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars. There’s the humanoid androids all set to take over the Earth in The Android Invasion, and a man turning into an alien plant-monster in The Seeds of Doom… Virtually every story has men turning into monsters or monsters masquerading as men. (With some, such as the Cybermen, the process is complete before the story begins.)

The Doctor and the Monsters, like Angels and Demons, are opposing absolutes. The real story takes place in between, in the human realm. Here, there’s the constant threat that you, a human being, might turn into a monster. And not just a green bubble-wrap one. There are far more insidious forms of human monster. That first season of Doctor Who I saw (the twelfth since the show began) was particularly full of fascists, cold intellectual elites, and power-mad scientists — all ways in which people can really become monsters.

To the child I was, unable to understand any of this consciously, having that inner battle between humanity and monstrosity spelled out in such clear, vivid, excitingly fantastic terms was, I think, a vital part of the appeal of watching the programme. It also perhaps explains why I felt so disgusted when Colin Baker began his tenure as the Doctor by attempting to strangle his companion. That was 1984. Dark heroes were very much of the times (Watchmen was only two years away), but I couldn’t see the point in a Doctor indistinguishable from the monsters he was supposed to be fighting. Having watched every episode since Robot with almost religious devotion, I gave up. There are still some Colin Baker stories I haven’t seen, and never will.

But Doctor Who had done its job.

Whenever I read about the formative influences of my favourite writers & artists, there’s usually a point where they discover a cache of story — a collection of myths and legends, a book of fairy tales, a copy of The Arabian Nights. Doctor Who was my story-cache, and that weird, down-a-metallic-rabbit-hole theme tune was its “once upon a time”. (The TARDIS, bigger on the inside than the out, is the through-the-wardrobe portal to the only thing that is truly bigger on the inside, the imagination.) In its gleefully pulpy way, Doctor Who regularly plundered myth, fairy tale, popular entertainment, literature, history and science for ideas and storylines. (The Hinchcliffe-Holmes era had a particular penchant for Gothic Horror, Hammer style.) As such, it was the ultimate all-in-one cultural education for the final quarter of the 20th century.

That and Blue Peter, anyway.

Me & Horror: Why I didn’t read it

I didn’t read any horror fiction till I was about 16 or 17. The reason for this was simple. I’d had enough of nightmares.

In a sense, we’re all consumers of horror fiction, if only of the nocturnal, self-invented kind. And in an odd reversal of BBFC guidelines, we usually get the strongest dose in our youngest years. Never mind the sight of blood, violence, torture or mutilation, nothing compares to the experience of being alone in the dark with the weird creations of your own head, all perfectly tailored to terrorise you and only you. That’s 18-certificate stuff, but nature doles it out at 18 months, not 18 years. I still remember quite vividly nightmares I had when I was four, five or six, even though I now have difficulty remembering what it was I was dreaming when I woke up this morning.

When I was about five, we lived in part of a large house (now demolished, and turned, Nazareth Hill-style, into flats). The bedroom I shared with Garen at that time would have once been the servants’ quarters. It was on the first floor, but had its own staircase, with a rope bannister (which you could burn your hand on if you ran down too fast), and was isolated from all the other rooms on the first floor. I had repeated nightmares about that staircase, about being dragged up it, or down it, (whichever way the dream set up as being away from my mother and brother), by a host of ghouls, ghosts and goblins. Meanwhile, the bedroom itself had a cupboard which never closed, and from whose dark night-time interior I was sure a vampire was waiting to emerge. Each morning, with the dawn, a face appeared in the pattern of the curtain, which I always told myself was caused by a tree pressing close to the window outside, something I later realised was impossible for the tree that was actually there, because it was too far away. We only lived a short while in that house, but I came away from it with a host of remembered nightmares, and a number of fears, including such venerable classics as fear of the dark, but also some new, rather specific ones, such as fear of being upstairs on my own.

All excellent reasons, then, for not scaring myself silly reading horror fiction. I was, even without the nightmares, quite capable of scaring myself silly on my own. I remember, having once caught a glimpse of a trailer for a TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, with its Nosferatu-like vampire, using that face to scare myself whenever I was in the house alone. For instance, I’d need to go to the bathroom, but as I was on my way there, I’d suddenly think: what if I opened the bathroom door and saw that vampire face on the other side? As I approached the bathroom, it started to seem all too possible. More than once I decided to wait till someone else came home before I went to the loo!

The odd thing was that, at the same time, I was lapping up Doctor Who, which was going through its most horror-inspired phase, with the likes of The Brain of Morbius, The Pyramids of Mars, and The Horror of Fang Rock. (All favourites still.)

I didn’t read any horror fiction until the latter part of my teens, when I started lapping it up. But that’s for another post. One thing about those early nightmares which has always struck me as odd, though: the monsters which infested them were all so cartoony. Ghosts that looked like white blobs of sheeting with black O’s for eyes; tiny little fellows more like garden gnomes than evil goblins; and muppets. Yes, muppets. I distinctly remember a dream in which I was terrified by muppets.

It went like this. We’d been on a school trip that day, to a ruined castle (which turned out to be nothing but a few fragments of walls). Somehow, in the dream, I found myself left behind, still at the site of the castle, with night coming on. As it got dark, I became aware of a light coming from a door in the ground. Thinking it was better to find some light than stay outside in the ruins all night, I opened the door and went down some steps into an underground chamber. It was a banquet hall, with a long table laden with food. Sitting at the table were muppets. Not Kermit and Miss Piggy, but the big, shaggy ones you always knew weren’t proper puppets but men in suits. As soon as I saw them, they all stopped eating and turned to look at me. They had a very hungry look.

And then, as they say, I woke up.