Thursday, 23 November 2017

Oh, Doctor Who

Oh, Doctor Who. So much of my life has been bound up with you.
Twenty years ago, when most of the world thought you were sleeping like King Arthur under a mountain somewhere, I was one of those strange people trying to keep you alive by still writing stories about you… It was the late 1990s and I was writing my first original Doctor Who novel.
I was doing – at the age of 28 – just the same thing I had been doing when I was twelve, and making up the loopiest adventures I could for you and writing them out in longhand.
            I’d been a very quiet Doctor Who fan. I know many people now who went to conventions and were involved in fandom-type things from a very early age. Will you understand when I say that was never my kind of thing? It was all happening Down South or Abroad, that kind of get-together type of thing. My fandom took the form of running as fast as I could up the carpeted stairs of WH Smiths, tearing into the book department and hunting out the last of your novelizations.
It involved waiting for the paperboy to deliver Doctor Who Monthly (always late, always dropped in a puddle). It involved cutting out articles from the Radio Times. It involved recording the soundtracks of your episodes with my cassette player jammed against the speaker of my portable telly.
And – that whole time – it involved a slightly surreptitious, slightly shameful feeling. You’re something I should have grown out of in about 1982. Perhaps just as they started talking about the coming Twentieth Anniversary. But my enthusiasm waxed when it should have waned…  and1983 was a bumper year of Special Books and Special Shows and Special Visits to the Exhibition in Blackpool.
            Everything to do with you was Special.
            When I went to college my post from home included cassette tapes of the 25th season’s episodes. My poor mother was recording them with the tape player in my absence and popping those tapes into envelopes for me. When I should have been reading Iris Murdoch and Tom Stoppard I was sitting in headphones trying to work out just what on earth was happening in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks.’
            And as my college years went on… my love for you dipped more than it ever did, before or since.
            It only came back with the end of you on TV and the start of your Wilderness Years. I threw myself whole-heartedly into your Virgin New Adventure novels. The very idea that each new story was portable and already a novelisation was wonderful to me.
            That enthusiasm lasted a couple of years… but I started to drift. I fondly imagined I was maturing. I drifted away… So much so that, by 1995, when I was having a pizza in Manchester with Russell T Davies and we were meeting about something not at all to do with you, he asked me: ‘Are you a Who fan?’ out of the blue. I denied that I was anymore, and so did he. We were both in a stage of horrid denial.
            I think I was cross because people I had known were part of the in-crowd writing for your book series. Out of sheer coincidence, people who I was at school with, or at college with, were part of that set. I wished that I’d pushed more, or joined in with fandom, or been part of the crowd. I longed to be writing my own Doctor Who stories…
            And so, eventually, I did.
            And, little by little, I found myself drawn into the real world of Doctor Who. And I have so much to be grateful for. Getting work, and doing good work – all that’s fantastic. But mostly, the biggest thing is to do with making friends. Making friends can be even better than writing. Who knew?
So many of my really good friends came into my life because of you, Doctor Who.
            And so many of my life’s more surreal moments have come about because of you, as well.
            I once sat in a studio in Soho overlooking autumnal skies and rooftops and Tom Baker was saying to me: ‘Well, Paul. You might choose to use your TARDIS to go and look at real historical events and to solve great mysteries of the past. But, these days, I’m happiest taking my TARDIS off to look at animals in the wild. Parrots, and things like that. That’s what I like.’
            We were having coffee, first thing in the morning, and talking, quite naturally, as if our TARDISes were entirely real.
            I sat in a science fiction bookshop in Norwich once with Elisabeth Sladen and K9, interviewing her in front of an audience. She said, ‘I must go and see what I’ve still got in the attic. I gave away such a lot of momentos over the years. You must keep everything, you see… because you never know when your glory years will end. You know when it is they’re happening, but you never know when they’ll end…’
            And I’ve sat in many places with Katy Manning, but right now I’m thinking about being on a plane with her and arguing like mad about feminism and politics. She’s got three chocolate mousses that the air stewardess has saved up for her and I’ve got a bottle of red wine. Then we talk about the time we did an event at a convention aboard an actual double decker bus that was hired for us. Chaos seems to erupt whenever we appear at an event together.
            And I’m thinking of seeing Terrance Dicks in a Manchester pub and saying: ‘Just about all the best stuff in Who… you and your lot invented on the hoof, didn’t you? You just kept on making up one amazing thing after another, week after week…’ And he twinkled at me over his pie and chips, saying: ‘Oh, yes. We made it all up! Everything!’ And there was something strangely benign and godlike about the way he said that.
            I’m thinking tonight about all kinds of silly, surreal encounters and fun moments – things that never would have happened without your being on TV.  
Even when I was a kid and you were just a TV show and maybe a jigsaw and an occasional comic… I thought you were so wonderful and real that I felt I was a part of your stories even then.
You invite us to take part.
You’re about everyone taking part.
So many people writing stories, acting them out, making the scenery, building monsters, constructing story arcs, sewing sequins, gluing bubble wrap, painting pictures, doing photoshop, taping soundtracks, making lists, figuring out continuity, getting up on stage and somehow taking part in it all… all this fabulous activity, going on all the time.
            Thank you, on your 54th birthday, Doctor Who. I say it every year and it’s worth saying again – you’ve made my life better than it would have been without you.
You’re an endless compendium of stories branching off all over time and space. And you’re a good friend.
How many times – faced with an awful quandary – have I thought: ‘What would the Doctor do..?’
It just makes me happy to think of you.
You make me want to put on a long coat, wrap a scarf round my neck and
jam a shapeless hat upon my head.
You make me want to go stomping off on a long autumnal walk in search of mystery, thinking up new adventures for us to share.

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