Well, this is awkward. It’s a well-known fact amongst the team here at the DWAS office that I know the least about Doctor Who out of any of us. I didn’t watch it religiously growing up. I watch the new series but have only seen a tiny minority of classic episodes. So while I’d love to do a page or so for Grant on what Who meant to me growing up, it does come at the cost of some fear of embarrassment when I turn out to have got all the details wrong.
So what do I know for sure? I know that the last episode of the classic series was Survival, broadcast at the end of 1989, when I was not long nine. I can’t be certain that I watched it. I know I saw some of Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor in action. I know that he is the only Doctor I watched on screen first time round (possibly having been judged too young beforehand). I know, horrendous cliché though it is, that I hid behind a cushion at the end of the first episode of Remembrance.
That’s everything I know about the first time I watched Doctor Who. If you’re here for the objective facts of the matter then well done, we’ve finished early.
If you don’t mind sitting through something a bit more subjective then I’ll tell you what I didn’t know. I didn’t know Nicholas Parsons was a game show host. I had no idea his main purpose in life was to be the butt of Kenneth Williams’s ranting. I thought he was a priest. No, that’s not right; I knew he was an actor, because I was nine, and kids aren’t stupid, regardless of what Mary Whitehouse’s dead-eyed spiritual descendants would have you believe. But I thought he made a good failing priest, and I’m pleased to see, on rewatching Fenric these days, that he did indeed acquit himself well in the role.
Now I’ll tell you what I remember. I remember a weak and frightened man in a graveyard, in the pouring rain. I remember the desperation rising off him like steam, this liar, this hypocrite, surrounded by his useless symbols as he mouthed his meaningless phrases. I remember the monsters who knew he was nothing and came for him, clawed fingernails raking at the air, came for him out of the mist. I remember how quickly they broke him.
I have never been scared of the sea, or of vampires, or even of fingernails. But at ten years old, to the horror and excitement of several members of my junior school class, I was a firm and unshakeable atheist. Correlation is not causation; these two recollections could well be unrelated. That’s just how things happened, and the rough order they happened in.
Of course, I remember the Doctor. I know that a lot of people who have watched a lot more Doctor Who than me will tell you Sylvester McCoy was not the greatest actor ever to take the role. Well, maybe they’re right. Maybe they are right. Except…I remember the Doctor. I remember him terrified, trapped in a dark basement, in the sights of a murderous Dalek. I remember being so scared for him. I remember him the next week, casually tossing a broken baseball bat over his shoulder, using even that flippant gesture to impart a vital wisdom: “weapons – all useless in the end”.
I remember what happened, there at the end. I remember Davros begging for mercy. I remember the Doctor mocking him, ridiculing him, I remember how he scorned and belittled Davros even as the axe fell. If we fight like animals, we die like animals. The Seventh Doctor proved that; everyone who stood in his way died like an animal. The Daleks. The Cybermen. Lady Painforte. He broke Ace McShane into pieces and put her back together in the shape that suited him – and she was on his side. Pawns, puppets, chessmen; expendable, disposable, cheap. And behind them, an unknowable alien with an agenda you could never follow, never comprehend. Dark eyes leading into nothing, and when he stood still, when he forgot to guard his expression, a hint of something cold, something that has lived amongst humanity for centuries and never been touched by it.
When I was ten my dad gave up on taking me to football matches because I would sit there and read a book throughout the game. Sport is boring; arbitrary stuff happens and then you impose a narrative on it. Even I can see that’s just theology in shorts instead of a dress. Books and stories – that’s where the action is. A football game ends one of three ways, none of them a real surprise. A novel ends somewhere you can’t see until you get there and then you realise the narrative was dragging you there the whole time, like a lethal undertow, like the chains wrapped around the ghost of Marley. A good book, a good tale, is like history: it’s an inevitable chain of logic, a line of dominoes collapsing into tragedy. Or comedy – as if there’s any objective difference.
Oscar Wilde said, in different words and for different reasons, that fiction means the good rejoice and the bad suffer. If that’s the case then there was less fiction in Doctor Who in those days than in most kids’ shows then or since. Childhood matures when we realise that morality and mortality do not tidily coincide. That’s a gift that Doctor Who can give, certainly the gift I think it gave me: dark-adapted eyes. A sense of shadow. Drama or comedy, life or art, give it to me black and curdled with a sharp undertone of copper.
That’s a big gift. Because it’s a transition, really, isn’t it? We all go through it or, at least, those of us who don’t grow up sick in the head go through it. When you’re a kid you believe in monsters and villains and heroes. In order to become an adult, to survive in the real world, you need to learn about grey areas. You need to learn about duress, and corruption, and how good people do bad things for good reasons. Or even for bad reasons, like “it was the only option” or “it seemed like the thing to do at the time” or “those were my orders”. Parents, a reminder: when the truth hurts, it’s doing us good.
So that’s what I remember. I remember fragile and venal authority figures who pretended to understand the world but couldn’t even see what was in the mirror. I remember heroes who were hypocrites. I remember an unreachable depth to a pair of cold, alien eyes, and whenever I hear a lesson taught or a promise made or a pithy, wise little epigram, I remember to think but what are you trying to excuse?
Healthy paranoia. That’s what the Doctor gave me. That’s what the Doctor can help teach you too. Fox Mulder said “trust no-one”, but we were supposed to trust Fox. That stuff’s for babies. If you’re ready for the real world, if you’re ready to take that breath and step between the falling dominoes, if you’re ready for the inevitable reality of the good suffering while the bad rejoice, then come this way – try to keep up – and let me introduce you to Sylvester.
Oh, and by the way: good luck.