Friday, September 28, 2012

The Wormhole Water Wheel

This week, I start a fight with physics.

"The First Law of Thermodynamics is, you do not talk about thermodynamics. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is, you do not talk about thermodynamics." - John-Luke Roberts.

We can be sure, at least, that wormholes work. Which is to say, we can be sure we won't look stupid if we bring them up in conversation. We know this because Carl Sagan told us so. Needing a way to bring humans and aliens into Contact, and not wanting to resort to anything silly like spaceships travelling faster than light in real-space, he concluded that the most feasible method of travelling bbbillions and bbbillions of miles in order to meet one's own dead dad was to interpret General Relativity in a rather dynamic way. This idea wasn't new, and the w-word had been used by a rather apologetic John Wheeler in the '50s, but it's informed every generation of nuts-and-bolts sci-fi since 1985. Nobody has yet proved wormholes impossible. In theory, they're still the fastest way to get from A to A-but-on-the-other-side-of-space.

Note the sentiment buried in that logic, though. It's a sentiment - perhaps in more than one sense of the word - that's found even in Sagan's own musings. Not wanting to resort to anything silly like faster-than-light travel. Current Scientific Thinking is an awkward, chimerical thing, always slippery, always mutable, but mutable in surprising ways. Thankfully, and despite the best attempts of creationists to suggest otherwise, it's well aware of its own nature: yet even so, there are principles for which even the most flagellantly self-analytical physicist feels an attraction stronger than reason. You don't mess with the speed of light, even if the Standard Model is incomplete. And you don't try to outwit the Laws of Thermodynamics, especially not the second one.

This last point is interesting for historical reasons. On the surface, the nineteenth century was "just" another era in which science continued to get the upper hand over slack-jawed dribbling assumption, as were the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the early Industrial Revolution (divide those up into smaller mecha-geological periods as you see fit). The difference is that all of these previous movements had put the Arts Scientifick within a Christian framework, or a Muslim framework if you consider what the Islamic world was up to while we were getting medieval on each others' asses. During the 1800s, science realised / was permitted to point out that no monotheistic God was influencing the equations, let alone marking anyone's homework. The most profound effect of this wasn't the rise of atheism, the decline of religion, or some Dawkinsian crusade towards a definitive post-sacred Truth: in a way, quite the reverse. A much more fundamental result was the sensation, now so common that most of us take it for granted, that nobody had prepared a finale.

Consider the consequences. Before the age of Darwin and Maxwell, even science had a millenarian approach to the universe, a belief - never fully defined, never fully formulated - in some carefully-arranged end point. The appropriately God-awful phrase "intelligent design" would describe most scientific thought before the twentieth century, far beyond mere biology. Famously, the Whig model of human existence took it for granted that every epoch was an improvement on the last, and Whig history went hand-in-hand with the notion of scientific progress even as late as the 1960s. We were definitely heading somewhere, towards an inevitable New Jerusalem, if not exactly the New Testament version then certainly a guiding light at the end of time.

And then, within a generation, it transpired that we weren't. Evolution may not have been an entirely random process, but the understanding of natural selection showed that nobody was making plans. It was as if the cosmos had left us at a motorway service station with £3.50 in sandwich-money, then driven off into the night (a suggestion there of abandonment by parents, but we'll come to that). And if evolution was bad, entropy was catastrophically non-catastrophic. The Laws of Thermodynamics had become formalised by the mid-1800s. Not only did we not have a final destination, but everything was falling apart faster than it could be repaired. Creation was grinding to a halt, and despite what many of us may have picked up from "Logopolis", it wouldn't make a groovy green CSO effect before it went.

One might think that by embracing the Second Law more passionately than any other principle, the physicists of the world are at worst obsessed with the absolute extinction of all life, at best just very intelligent goths. In fact, the acceptance of entropy is what finally freed science. It must have occurred to the majority of people reading this blog that those with the most apocalyptic religious beliefs, those who both expect and eagerly await a final judgement on Goodies and Baddies, just seem to want their dads to step in and sort everything out. To accept that you're going to die is a form of maturity; to accept that everything dies, but to continue to care about it anyway, might arguably be seen as the greatest achievement of either an individual or a culture. You see what I mean about scientists having a sentimental attraction for certain parts of the cosmic model. Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington described entropy as holding "the supreme position among the laws of Nature". It's impossible to frame this in a context without some sense of emotion.

"There is something lamentable, degrading, and almost insane in pursuing the visionary schemes of past ages with dogged determination... the history of Perpetual Motion is a history of the fool-hardiness of either half-learned, or totally ignorant persons." So wrote Henry Dircks, as long ago as 1861, after he'd made a survey of all those who'd tried to produce infinite work / energy in clear breach of the Laws. Those who've attempted to build a perpetual motion machine, to violate the greatest of inviolables, have traditionally been seen as not only misguided but... delusional. Childish, even. And we have been, of course. Millions, literally millions of human beings since the nineteenth century have attempted to build such machines, not all of them adults. Kathy Sykes, the televisual physicist, admitted that she spent much of her childhood trying to do it with Lego. Leaving aside the point that this clearly makes her the ideal woman, she can hardly be alone.

This in itself tells us something interesting. When grown-ups try to make devices that effectively generate something out of nothing, we can assume they generally do it because some entropic instinct is telling them that FOR CHRIST'S SAKE, I DON'T WANT TO DIE IN THIS INCREASINGLY COLD AND ULTIMATELY FUTILE UNIVERSE. It's hard to imagine a six-year-old having the same impulse, although H. P. Lovecraft may have come close. It seems likely that there's an element of challenge involved here. Tell a child to do anything and they'll do the opposite. Tell an intelligent child that something is impossible - an intelligent child like, ooh, maybe the kind who used to watch Doctor Who when it was about things - and they'll try to prove that it isn't. But even beyond that...

All right, let's ask the question, and let's answer it with our instincts. Pretend you've never heard of thermodynamics; pretend you don't know that Maxwell's Demon is as much a product of superstition as every other kind. Why can't you build a perpetual motion machine?

After all, so much in nature's universe tempts us to believe that it's not just possible, but inevitable. Newton showed that an object set in motion, if left unmolested by gravity, atmosphere, and all those other nuisances of friction you find on Earth, should carry on indefinitely. Sadly those nuisances of friction include any machine you might build in order to exploit the process, but nonetheless, the subconscious message we're given is that Things Go On Forever. All schoolchildren are, or were, taught that if you push an object in outer space then it'll keep moving. Often provoking awkward questions about what happens when it hits the edge of the universe, questions which may be even more tangled now. (I'm not a racist, but do you remember how neat our galactic neighbourhood was before all the dark matter moved in and started overcrowding it? I've heard you can get up to 1.898E27 kilograms of superdense material into one council flat.) With true-but-misleading lessons like these found in most childhoods, is it honestly so ridiculous for someone to believe they can construct a device that literally gives 110%...? Efficiency, that is.

Six years ago, I designed a perpetual motion machine of my own. I didn't actually set out to do this: I was watching a documentary about water wheels (look, I'm Homo BBC4, all right?), and found myself niggled. Two sets of facts, both of which had been explained to me as "true", seemed to contradict each other. The result apparently went against Maxwell's equations, so something was clearly wrong somewhere.

My machine was purely theoretical. It couldn't be constructed on present-day Earth, because it relies on the ability to artificially engineer wormholes. But nobody's ever proved that to be impossible, and if Carl Sagan can accept it as the basis of an argument, then I'm sure you can.

Here's the diagram. And I've already copyrighted it © 2006, so hands off.

It's really very simple. The core of the device is a vertical tube, within the gravitational field of a planet (or any other sizeable body). A projectile, let's just call it a metal ball, is dropped into the tube. It turns the "water wheel", and the energy is stored in whatever medium suits you. After that, the ball falls to the bottom of the tube and enters your wormhole. The wormhole has been arranged, and space-time carefully folded, so that the "exit" of the wormhole is at the top of the tube. Travelling from bottom to top without actually being lifted, the ball begins its journey again. The wheel keeps turning. Infinite energy is produced.

No, I couldn't see the problem either. But I'm one of the half-learned.

The obvious difficulty - I say difficulty, not flaw - is that entropy strikes at the heart of the machine. The ball will wear down the wheel; the machinery will fall apart. But this ceases to be a problem when you realise the vast amounts of energy being produced out of nowhere, more than enough to fuel a self-repair system. Vast energy permits the replacement of matter, so it's an engineering problem, not a problem with the physics. (And if you're prepared to countenance the wormholes, then something clever involving nanites is probably going to be on the cards.) This aside, it all looked moderately rational.

Given my background, however, it seemed... a little unlikely that I'd found a way of punching entropy in the face. I took it to a few of my more academically-scientific acquaintances, and asked them what the problem was. Now, this may be a constant peril when laypersons ask questions about theoretical physics without a BBC2 voice-over to hand, but their answers weren't terribly illuminating. Among other things, they speculated that the gravity would in effect "run out": a difficult proposition for me to grasp, given that every model for gravity I've seen (or do I mean metaphor for gravity...?) has presented it as a side-effect of the nature of space-time, not a finite quantity. I couldn't really worm a de-vagued version out of anyone, and my elementary research into gravitational potential energy didn't help much. The suggestion was also raised that the engineering of wormholes might in itself require infinite energy before infinite energy could be generated, although if you're going to assume that the universal rules re: the warping of space-time have been deliberately fixed in order to protect the Laws of Thermodynamics, then you might as well just write GOD SAYS NO on the diagram.

A few weeks later, I was invited to a book-signing in London. Not just me, natch, since my own gravity isn't yet sufficient to pull in a crowd on my own. I was there signing (among other things) About Time; seated next to me was the author of The Science of Doctor Who, the sort of book that everyone had been expecting for ages, but apparently rushed into production after the 2005 series bulldozed everything else in broadcasting while standing on ITV's throat. I was, I admit, rather unfair that afternoon. As you may know, The Science of Doctor Who was a rather - ahem - svelte book, whereas About Time eventually took up six volumes and increasingly felt as if it were made of dwarf-star alloy. Its multi-million-word bulk had already covered most of the pop-science areas in The Science of, and this allowed me to show off like nobody's business. "Oh, so you've gone for quantum entanglement as the most likely answer to teleportation?" I'd say. "We discussed that possibility in the essay under 'Nightmare of Eden', but we concluded that..." And so on.

Nevertheless, my neighbour during that signing was a proper science writer (and, later, the author of How to Destroy the Universe... I don't think I was that mean to him). At the end of the day, I drew my design on a piece of paper - I remember it being a napkin, but probably only because it's always a napkin in these stories - and asked him why it didn't do what I thought it did. He frowned a bit and made some interested "mmm" noises, but ultimately agreed that he didn't know either. He took it away for further analysis. I never heard from him again.

There are two notable points here, which between them mean that the Wormhole Water Wheel has done its job, at least as a personal thought-experiment. Firstly: though I still don't know exactly what's wrong with it, it doesn't immediately look stupid to people who know a lot more about physics than I do, which is more than you can say for most perpetual motion machines. Secondly: it's raised questions in my own mind about the very nature of "stupid", and the way sentimentality - or, if you prefer, basic human need - influences our sense of speculation even when we think we're being wholly scientific. More than once while I was touting my impossible machine, I was left with the sense that the explanations as it Why It Didn't Work were based on the assumption that It Can't Possibly Work, even that the universe required safety protocols to ensure its failure... meaning, they weren't exactly explanations.

A third and incidental point is that the diagram would make a really nice T-shirt.

As adults, the contempt we feel for perpetual motion is as instinctive as our childhood belief that it must surely be possible. Often, such designs have been the symbol of absurd, irrational folly: I particularly like their status in Vonnegut's Hocus Pocus, his almost dinosaur-like description of them as the fossils of doomed ambition. Yet it takes an above-average understanding of physics to spot the hitch in the Wormhole Water Wheel, whatever the f*** it is. The very concept requires wormhole engineering as well as conventional Newtonian physics. Might we not at least speculate, then, that some even more exotic and unlikely combination of not-impossible elements might do exactly what the Water Wheel is intended to do? Ultimately, the Laws of Thermodynamics are considered unbreakable for two principle reasons. One is that no observation has ever been made which contradicts them, although this is possibly the most contentious area it's possible for a human being to enter. (Which is to say, the question "when has something ever come out of nothing?" could well be answered with the question "what are you currently standing in?". It's not unreasonable to suggest that "universe" and "a breach of the Laws of Thermodynamics" are synonymous... not unreasonable, but unprovable, at least for now.)

The second reason has less to do with observation than with history. Culturally, we need entropy: without it, we become children again. This is why, like the offspring of an abusive parent, we're inclined to defend it even though we secretly want it to go away and stop hurting us. It's not that we have a death-wish, it's just that our awareness of our own ultimate doom is what stops us behaving as if we can expect the Rapture at any moment. This doesn't mean we should consider its inviolability to be "true", nor should we deny the possibility that one day a Wormhole Water Wheel 2.0 will actually turn out to be workable, if only as a theoretical possibility.

Then again, I would say that. Because I don't want to die. And because I still find it perfectly acceptable - this time for reasons that are political as much as historical, or at least grounded in a sense of human creativity and human compassion - that there might be an Omega Point waiting for us at the end of time, a light at the end of a near-total darkness. A light of our own making.

None of which has very much to do with Doctor Who, at least not directly. Unless I'm a splinter of a Jagaroth whose future incarnation is trying to push you juuust a little bit further.

Friday, August 31, 2012

That is all.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


To be accurate, this is from the American colour reprint of 1980. The only version where it's actually purple.

Secretly, this is about my cousin. His name is Steven, and he's now a doctor of cybernetics. This could have been predicted by anyone who'd witnessed even a fraction of his early life. In 1979, when I was seven and he was sixteen - he having been born in 1963, a trait of many notables in this chronology, from Tat Wood to Jarvis Cocker - he was the first person I knew who owned a home computer. The machine was a NASCOM-1, a conglomeration of boxes, cables, and sharp-toothed circuitry which just two ZX-years later would have all the cutting-edge appeal of a Spinning Jenny. The more remarkable point is that when he was in his seventeenth year, an age at which you and you and you and I were all watching pop videos and doing terrible things to our own bodies, my cousin Steven built the NASCOM-1 himself out of its component parts. This wasn't necessity: in that early period, computers came in kit form or complete, the latter being slightly less affordable. Like me, Steven had a fundamentalist middle-class upbringing, though he lived in a nicer house. I'm fairly sure his family, sensing as all parents did that computers were the Coming Thing, would have been happy to chip in the extra in order to fast-track him towards the inevitable future of AI-run governments and chunky digital lettering.

No. Steven had the kit-form NASCOM-1 because he wanted to put it together himself. He wanted to solder the chips to the boards, the boards to the framework, to understand how exactly what was happening in its electro-guts when the lurid green hexdecimal began to fill up the screen. I have profound memories of his hunched, athletic form (because I fear that the "geek" stereotype had no meaning in 1979, my cousin being a Sports Day champion, as well as an individual whom a girlfriend of mine - twenty years on - would describe with the single syllable "mmMMmm"), poised with a soldering iron in his hand as if he were a Soviet figurative sculpture of the microchip age. Over a period of weeks, I watched the Black Box of the CPU take shape in time-lapse, until the day came when he could switch it on. It worked without hitches or glitches, which is perhaps the least likely thing in this whole narrative.

This is supposed to be about Doctor Who, though. So given all of that as a prologue:

October, 1979. I'm with my mother in the newsagent's between home and school, between here and elsewhere, the suburban middle-ground into which I'm forbidden to journey alone. She's popped into this shop for... oh, God knows what. This is the time of Wavy Line and MacFisheries, and the rules of corner-shopping are different. Something, however, catches my eye on the sort of wire-frame rotating rack that may or may not still exist in your century. A comic... no, it's a magazine. Or...

"Oh!" says my mother, following my eyeline and seizing it from its nest. "It's a Doctor Who Weekly. There are free transfers, look."



A year earlier, I'd bought (very well.. I'd been bought, I was six and I shouldn't be embarrassed about my lack of financial independence) Star Wars Weekly, at least until the comic-strips based on the actual film had dried up and they'd started printing some blather about Jabba the Hutt being a chimpanzee. Star Wars Weekly had been a top seller at the time, getting its own TV ad with C-3PO explaining its benefits, in preparation for his Currys work thirty years later. Off-screen sources were as important for Star Wars as The Making of Doctor Who - with its definitive list of all stories up to "The Hand of Fear", priceless at this stage - had been for those of us who believed we were representing the Old Religion as well as the New. With hindsight, yes, it was the success of the Star Wars title that led Marvel Comics' UK wing to think it could copy the format for Doctor Who. Modern fandom appears to have brushed this aside, as if a Doctor Who publication were an inevitabiliy, and therein lies the source of my surprise. I had no warning that such a publication had been launched, and therefore...


I knew, even then, that Doctor Who had been around for sixteen years. And as I'd never been permitted to investigate this particular shop before, I naturally assumed that a weekly treasury of posters and parallel-adventures had been in existence for ages, but that I was only now eligible to read it. Then a little red-and-yellow bubble in one corner informed me, in the sort of writing I now associate with Jack Kirby, that this was the first issue. I honestly believed it had to be some sort of mistake. This can't be the first issue, can it? My cousin Steven collects Marvel comics. Some of his are quite rare, I'm told. Should we inform him of this? It must have been sitting in the rack for years. In reality, we must be up to issue #1,000,000 by now.

You may notice a certain increase in enthusiasm since 1978. This is largely because Doctor Who had come back to TV in September 1979, on a shockwave of publicity, and... had done everything right.

It's not in my nature to describe the Terry Nation landfill of "Destiny of the Daleks" that way, especially when its disco-wig androids made the gap between Boney M and Outer Space seem narrower still. As I've suggested before, what's weak with the eye of hindsight may have been startling at the time, or at least perfectly-camouflaged for its own historical environment. "Destiny of the Daleks", in so many ways an archetypal (or my archetypal) sterile, cardboard-flavoured Graham Willaims story, did its job beautifully. It brought back Daleks, for those of us who had no living memory of them but somehow knew exactly what they sounded like, a knowledge passed down to us like an older sibling's clothes. It put the Doctor in the middle of a war between two inhuman factions, dead on-key for the cinematic SF of the time, but also suggestive of the news stories that even us young-'uns had seen about Idi Amin in Uganda or the "unpleasantness" in Iran. It regenerated Romana in a way that, first time around, seemed too bizarre to be silly. Then it put her in a slave-camp, let her feign her own death in order to dig her way out of a shallow grave, and dumped her in a plastic explodo-tube as a cliffhanger. It strapped yellow canisters to Dalek suicide bombers and showed us Daddy Cool robots being confused by rock-scissors-paper. It ended with Davros on ice.

No other story I can think of looks so crass now, but seemed so clued-up at the time. No other story so divides my childhood self and grown-up self. I was obsessed with it. Later I was obsessed with the Target novelisation of it, even noting the minor differences in the Doctor's "all elephants are pink" schtick. It renewed my interest in TV-Doctor Who, as nothing in what we now call Season Sixteen could have done. Maybe because, despite all its in-jokes and Douglas Adams' best attempts to make the series swallow its own tail, so many people on-screen were treating the story as if it actually mattered (Tyssan was yet another Terry Nation / Gerry Anderson hybrid, a crash survivor of the XL-5, but this time he looked as if he'd just made it out of a concentration camp). By the end of this year, that wouldn't be the case.

But then there was "City of Death".

The most obvious thing to say here is that it had the highest ratings of any Doctor Who story, not Morecambe and Wise-level but certainly in the same league; the second-most obvious thing to say is that this was due to a strike at ITV. Many claims and counter-claims have been made as to whether this strike was actually in progress during the transmission of episodes X, Y, Z, and N, but I believe I speak for everyone who saw it on first broadcast when I say that I don't care. "City of Death" was right, from first to last. Matt Irving's modelwork in the opening scene, a spider-engine crouched on a cracked prehistoric landscape, a spaceship as singular as those in Star Wars were dynamic. The beautifully-costumed thing in the cockpit, seaweed with a sense of space-chic. The seemingly unconnected first episode, criticised for its "running through Paris" sequences now, but so unlike what we'd come to expect (pre-'80s, going to France was as exotic as scuba diving) that even the clumsy crack-in-time sequence seemed enticing and mysterious. Then, finally, the cliffhanger. Also much-derided with hindsight, also fantastic when you don't know how these elements are meant to fit together. Oh, I see! He's the thing from the opening sequence? Right, got it. Cliffhanger not just as set-piece, but as narrative turning-point, the way it's meant to be.

In retrospect, the plot of "City of Death" makes less sense than any story since "The Wheel in Space". It's a children's-hour version of the universe, where a space-monster makes a time machine by keeping a scientist with a funny accent in his basement, where events are only linked by monstrous coincidences, where the shock of seeing Scaroth in the Renaissance blanks out the numerous questions as to how the Hell this could possibly work. But if we cared about reason, none of us would like "Genesis of the Daleks". Twelve years later, teen-me would have a 'phone conversation with teen-best-friend (one who watched Doctor Who as a child, but not obsessively), and tell him I'd got that story on video. You know, with the one-eyed seaweed-monster...? He'll be non-plussed, and at that moment, my mother will walk past me in the hallway. She'll say: "Tell him it's the one with the six Mona Lisas." I will. He'll immediately respond: "Oh, that one!"

Y'see, it's not always the monsters that stick.

I fear this can't last. Both the collective memory of fandom and the column-inches of the Sun would come to reinforce a banal vision of the programme in this phase, a version in which children mainly watch the show for K-9. Yet these two stories, most precisely-targeted of their era even if one of them looks a dance-off in a gravel pit, don't feature a functioning K-9 at all. The next story will, and many of us will grow bored with it after episode one. The same will be true of "Nightmare of Eden", in which only the weirdness of Mandrels' legs will keep us watching, however good the premise looks on paper. "The Horns of Nimon"... for me, its greatest contribution was the presence of its lead monster at an exhibition in Madame Toussaud's, the following year. It lurked in the darkness, but lit up and bellowed when my mother walked past. As I believe I've mentioned, she had a deep-rooted psychosexual horror of / fascination with minotaurs. Hilarity ensued, at least for me.

The story itself, when broadcast, merely matched "Underworld" in taking a primal, terrifying myth and turning it into a gutless circuit-diagram of grey corridors and demi-science. Worse, it wasted Graham Crowden's one shot at Doctor Who. Soldeed's pop-eyed madness at the end of episode three genuinely bothered me, as a stoic seven-year-old, and remains the only part of the story to provoke any response at all. Other than irritation.

Funny. I never met my father, and I was uncommonly hairy even before puberty. I was just thinking about Pasiphaë, and... no, it's not important.

But these betrayals were yet to come. In the middle of "City of Death", Doctor Who Weekly appeared, and this was a bigger shift of expectations than anything the BBC could provide. In the texty middle-layer of DWW, we were given weekly breakdowns of what had happened in every Doctor Who story, beginning at the beginning. The Making of Doctor Who had compressed these legends of the ancestors into a single paragraph per story code, but now there was a blow-by-blow reconstruction which didn't claim that Ian and Barbara met in the fog on Barnes Common before immediately embarking on a trip to Skaro. Yeah, I'd got wise to Target's trickery. On either side of the "historical" matter (and a regular page inspired by Ripley's Believe It Or Not, in which we were informed of Tibetan yak-butter tea... not something you can simulate with margerine, I discovered), there were the comic-strips. Of vastly more weight than those in TV Comic or the insipid annuals, purely because they were created by the champions of the bloody-snouted 2000 AD generation. "The Iron Legion", the alter-universe epic that ran from #1 to #8 and has been reprinted in endless forms since, was by Pat Mills, John Wagner, and Dave Gibbons. The creators of Judge Dredd and the artist of Watchmen. It was a masterpiece.

Early instalments of "The Iron Legion" accompanied "City of Death", and these two conflicting versions of the Doctor Who universe co-existed beautifully. Even then, we had a sense that nothing shot at TV Centre could actually show us an army of Roman Legionnaire robots in full battle-mode, but that didn't matter: instead it gave us the close-up conflict of the Doctor and Scarlioni, Tom Baker and Julian Glover. "City of Death" works, for all the yawning improbabilities, because the lead characters form a gravitational system of their own. Time Lord and Jagaroth, circling each other like suns about to collide, with Romana as the major planetary mass (never mind accurate, is it even legal to describe Lalla Ward as a gas giant...?) who might swing the balance. In the end, it's the tiny moon of Duggan that makes a difference. Matt Irving's effects are lovely book-ends, but not the main attraction, as they might be post-CGI. This isn't an epic, and doesn't try to be. "The Iron Legion", that's our mythology in epic form, with at least as much wit, invention, and humanity as what we considered "real". Before this point, no off-telly vision of Doctor Who could have claimed to be neck-and-neck with the BBC's. "The Fishmen of Kandalinga" would be a let-down even compared to the weakest of Hartnell serials. Now that had changed.

So when "Nimon" shrank the format back into Doctor, monsters, and corridors... you can see the problem, I think. We'd already witnessed the villainy of General Ironicus, the giggling weirdness of the Ectoslime, and the imperious horror of the Malevilus (the latter echoing the psychic pterodactyls of At the Earth's Core, which doesn't exactly bring us full-circle, but does create a pleasant link to Peter Cushing's battle-cry of "you can't hypnotise me, I'm British"). Tom Baker slouching around yet another tinfoil planet, treating the monsters-of-the-month with such contempt that they never seemed any threat at all, was a poor substitute. These days we know the original script was a worse proposition still, the Nimon (or Nimons, the plural remains contentious) removing their horn'ed masks and revealing themselves to be poxy mini-aliens dressing up as minotaurs in order to scare the natives. Even those who claim this story was a witty, ironic attempt to offload all the clichés of Doctor Who - and it wasn't - can't escape the accusation that it felt like a stab in the back even at the time of broadcast, yet the Scooby-Doo ending would've put the series on a permanent cartoon footing. "It's a MisterJenkinsonoid, the caretaker-race from disused planet Fairgroundus 6!"

This is, as you'll gather, purely a description of the early phase of the Doctor Who Weekly / Monthly / Magazine comic-strip. Beyond the mid-'80s, it was devised by fans or friends of Gary Russell rather than comic-book people; even Paul Cornell, now arousing more of my jealousy than almost any other individual by being safe in the bosom of DC, couldn't match the intensity of the early issues. Alan Moore's back-up strips were an obvious influence on both Marc Platt's view of ye olde Gallifrey and my view of its future ("Alien Bodies" shares 95% of its DNA with its closest relative, "4-D War"). Abslom Daak was created by a writer who had a general contempt for Doctor Who but liked anti-heroes with chainsaws, effectively Moffat with a better sense of what would work visually, yet even he supplied enough Dalek-rending action to become legendary. If we'd begun to suspect that Doctor Who existed far beyond the transmission, then here was the proof in literal black and white. 1979 showed us everything the TV series could do, and everything it should stop doing; hinted at what the Doctor might get up to when removed from the studio floor, and reminded us that we still needed a baseline that didn't involve Han Solo substitutes cutting Daleks' heads off, fun as they may be in the short term.

It seemed only natural, at the time, that this new weekly link to Doctor Who past and future should come from Marvel. The Marvel universe was my third-favourite mythology. Throughout the '70s, my cousin had read everything from Spider-Man to the much-undervalued Warlock, and had kept older oddities like the Marvel series based on 2001: A Space Odyssey (drawn by Kirby, one issue concluding with the fabulous caption "NEXT: VIRA THE SHE-DEMON!", something that surely would have been featured in the movie if Kubrick had thought of it). He'd taught me the canon without really intending to. I've never read a comic that features Annihilus, but I know exactly who he is and what he did to earn that manner of Villain Name. I went with Steven to meet Stan Lee at the Roundhouse in London, in... ohhh, 1976 or thereabouts. The Roundhouse staff had plastered the restaurant area with pages from Marvel back-issues, just as I'd plastered my own bedroom with pages from The Doctor Who Monster Book, heavily-muscled butterflies pinned to walls that sweated grease. I remember being fascinated by this, far more than by the weird man with the moustache who talked to my cousin for a bit and may have signed something.

A shared universe. An ever-growing pantheon. Did my cousin teach me that, deliberately or otherwise? Was my own internal Doctor Who pounded into shape by the mighty fist of Marvel (Excelsior!), or specifically by stories like "The Iron Legion", "City of the Damned", "Time Witch", "The Dogs of Doom", and - most interesting of all, since it not only understood the nature of Doctor Who far better than the programme's lead actor did, but even resembles the 2005 version if you can imagine it updated with mobile 'phones and a token reference to Chavs - "Star Beast"?

Steven also taught me how to program computers. This has proved a worthless skill in itself, since computers in our epoch don't like being programmed directly, and their complexity relies on strata of pre-existing code to which I've never been formally introduced. Programming is, however, a worthwhile lesson in logic. Not enough logic to stop me having my suspicions, mind: his first, middle, and surnme each have six letters, he was born on the sixth day of the sixth month, and he refused to let me check his scalp for the tell-tale birthmark after I'd seen The Omen. Now he has his PhD in Artificial Intelligence, he may still prove to be the Anti-Christ by building Anti-God. In which case, fair play to him. One of my twelve historical fragments still regards him with some resentment, since members of my family have long used him as the yardstick by which to measure my own development, and I definitely couldn't build a computer by the time of "Remembrance of the Daleks". But overthrowing the natural order of creation would be a significant result for him.

And he taught me about Dr Octopus. That's as important as your dad showing you how to shave.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

1978: The Shield of Time

This is all your fault, you big-nosed bastard.

And then, at some point before my sixth birthday, I stopped watching Doctor Who.

So far, there's been a question hiding in every year I've unravelled (or do I mean ravelled...? The ball of yarn only becomes complete on your way out of the labyrinth, and memory works in much the same way). This question seems the most baffling of all. I've been responsible for no end of awful, embarrassing, and ill-considered things, and a fully-collated list of my character defects would be its own Monster Book, yet no-one would ever call me flighty. I was never a child of fashion, never prone to crazes, despite pretending for some weeks to be a fan of the Bay City Rollers - I'd never even heard any of their records - purely so my she-cousin would allow me to wear her commemorative tartan scarf and hat. I liked the bobble on top. "Ehh, I'm bored of Doctor Who, I'm into cars now" is not a sentence one can imagine me saying even in the most slippery and grotesque days of my adolescence.

Nor, on the face of it, was this a time when anyone would expect a child to be driven away from the series. 1977 had been the year of "Face of Evil", "Robots of Death", and "Talons of Weng-Chiang" in quick succession, all of them flash-freeze-memorable to the soggy childhood mind, and in two out of three cases for reasons that had nothing to do with monsters. I didn't remember Weng-Chiang had a giant rat, until the Target novelisation was presented to me during a week in an isolation ward, and Jeff Cummins' version was shown looming over the story like the hairy descendant of the Skarasen. The imagined Skarasen, that is, although the on-screen specimens may also have been related. On TV, the Doctor, Greel, and the face-off with Li-Hsen Chang in the music-hall had been more than enough.

We now know, of course, that those final stories of gothic-font Doctor Who had an unfair advantage. Hinchcliffe responded to his sacking by wilfilly pushing the series over-budget, hence the proto-Prisoner Cell Block H nature of Graham Williams' first season. But I was still too small-minded, in the only possible good sense, to care about budgetary limitations. The shonkiness of "The Invisible Enemy" or "The Sunmakers" wouldn't have been enough to turn me away, especially not when I had a small henge of Target books beside me.

No, really. I used to make them into henges.

Then why is it that by early 1978, I'd stopped watching the series that I'd come to think of as a kind of pulse? In later years, sci-fi police investigated, and immediately rounded up the usual suspect.

On Christmas Day, 1977, BBC1 had broadcast the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special. The 25th of December had already become an annual feast day of the Light Entertainment Saints, yet this is the one case in which nostalgia documentaries agree absolutely with anyone who kept their memory of the era in its original packaging: this single broadcast really was a Bigger Thing than we can now imagine. It was seen by more viewers than any other show in British entertainment history, either 21 or 28 million, depending on whose stats you believe. The latter would be half of the entire population, and bear in mind that infants weren't counted. Ratings are rarely reliable (as we'll see in future years), yet the nation held its breath for this programme, treated it as the axis of the Great British Christmas. I can report as a first-hand witness that the nation exhaled with some relief, not at all disappointed. Awkward as much of it may appear now (just like Doctor Who, in fact, and keen-minded readers may remember that Eric Morecambe and Tom Baker would later team up for a TV special of their own), pundits are in accord that this was both the apogee and the end of what they call the Showbiz Age of British Television.

The next day, Boxing Day 1977, Star Wars opened in the UK.

Astrology is a great thing: the difficulty is that many people believe it to be literally true, a complaint it shares with religion, economics, and the politics of fandom. Mapping arcane designs across one's own life is the source of an awful lot of human creativity (and, I'd argue, the root of most fiction), yet if you believe your own individual pattern of symbols and circumstances to be meaningful on a cosmic scale, then you're likely to be a bell-end at best or genocidal at worst. My own personal astrology sees Christmas 1977 as a major conjunction. It wasn't just Morecambe and Wise. The whole of the BBC was in the ascendant until that point, responsible for drama that was blatantly in a different league to the kind we saw in Hollywood movies (although I won't pretend that I had any grasp of I, Claudius at the age of six), responsible for comedy that was blatantly in a different league to anything on commercial television (The Comedians would literally be a crime these days). Then, overnight, the stars shifted.

Just before that Christmas - and aptly, while I was trying to watch the seasonal special of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em on a tiny, fuzz-riddled black-and-white television in an uncle's spare room - I was presented with an early gift. It was a ticket to see this new Star Wars ballyhoo, which had already been massive in America and which the grown-ups believed was obviously the future of spaceships, monsters, and suchlike. I regarded the ticket with a complete lack of interest, but took an immediate shine to the birthday-cum-Christmas card in which it had been delivered, a Chris Foss-era masterpiece of an albino wing'ed dinosaur ripping apart some poor bugger's star-cruiser. I'd seen SF films on television. They weren't as exciting as book covers.

Nostalgia-telly, even that made by the BBC, will still claim Star Wars to have been the big cinema event of 1977. This is twaddle, at least on this side of the Atlantic. I saw it in the still-mysterious heart of London, in the final week of 1977; given that the grown-ups considered the ticket to be in some way significant, I might even have been at the UK premiere. But films crept across the landscape like seasons. There were no cineplexes, no simultaneous releases. For England, then Wales, then Scotland, then Ireland, 1978 was the year Star Wars gripped us by the throat, Sith style.

Oh yes, it changed everything. To explain the effect it had, and what came after, would take a novella-sized essay in a place that's not primarily interested in Doctor Who. But it not only gave us our first all-encompassing universe (a fictional envionment in which every angle, every smallest detail of design and dialogue, seemed part of an ongoing and worn-in World of Worlds... George Lucas called it a "used future", inspired by footage of Apollo astronauts returning to Earth surrounded by food-wrappers and blown-out technology), it also introduced us to a wholly unfamiliar visual dynamic, a pulsing new-wave version of Space Opera that made it seem as though this story was both a thousand years old and happening now. Tat Wood, already pube-age and suitably crabby in 1978, has tried to argue that Star Wars was just a Doug McClure adventure movie on a bigger budget. Leaving aside the massive gulf in understanding between Professor Yaffle's childhood and my own, there's an obvious counter-argument. We'd seen big-budget McClure a year earlier: it was the (first) tragic remake of King Kong. Star Wars wasn't just a new species. It was a new genus. Even now, I regard it as the most creative film ever made, though not the best. In its construction, that is, clearly not in its plot.

So is that it? Is that why I drifted away from Doctor Who? Because Star Wars turned up instead?


They were never really in competition. Only adults believe that children can't follow more than one world at a time, and later, the ability of these two great science-fiction animals to drink at the same watering-hole would become clear. Julian Glover and Michael Sheard and Milton Johns would all play imperial officers in The Empire Strikes Back, and their performances on Hoth or Bespin would be of no greater or lesser importance than their appearances on Earth or Gallifrey (although Lucas would overdub Johns with a gruff American accent, rather charmingly because he felt that Englishman-as-imperial-villain had become a cliché, hilarious if you compare Our Milton's aside to Lord Vader with his rather fey villain in "The Invasion of Time"). Indeed, by 1980 I was so aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each that I found much of the latter half of Empire quite frustrating. You're running up and down corridors in Cloud City. Corridors aren't your job, yeah? At least when the Doctor does it, he's usually saying something witty and interesting at the same time. Go back to those huge walking robot things, you're great at that. Leave the close-ups to us, because you're just opening slide-doors and firing at Stormtroopers. What is this, the boring bits in "The Sun Makers"?

Two decades on, I'd finally see the surviving bulk of Doctor Who that hadn't been available to us in the '70s or '80s. I'd pass judgment on earlier stories, even stories I'd seen as a child, using the measuring-tools of the early '90s and without any thought as to how they would have been viewed at the time. Disappointingly, most reviewers on the internet still do this. The '90s was the age when science fiction drama first became obsessed with the ominous notions of "dark" and "adult", when story-arcs became more important than stories, when it was seen as a form of shame to have children amongst your audience. I was especially harsh on the Graham Williams years, simply and absurdly because his version of the series wasn't how this "cult" thing called sci-fi should look and sound. (I was even harsher on the '60s run. I once considered "The Ark" to be the worst Doctor Who story made. A terrible script, that much is true, but the visual ambition of it would have been striking even by the next generation's standards.)

The trouble is, even with the best of wills and knowing the scope of what Williams secretly had in the back of his mind, I still can't bring myself to like his reign. The ratings were perfectly sound, and would get better, for a variety of reasons we'll come to in 1979. But the rest of British culture was twisting out of shape: punk rock for the teens, bigger questions for the adults (even I, Claudius was met with angry complaints from viewers who thought Rome should sound like Shakespeare, while Verity Lambert's Rock Follies beat it to the BAFTA by being awkwardly political), and the start of a decade-long struggle over the question of what British Society actually meant. I had no firm understanding of any of this, yet even I could measure Doctor Who against sources like Star Wars and - this one's significant, given that it came directly from a non-mainstream place, and wasn't just anorak-fodder in its early years - 2000 AD.

Speaking of which, for the last six paragraphs, I've had the name "Big-Budget McClure" stuck in my head. He sounds like a cowboy who guns down dinosaurs for the reward money. Well, this is the age of "Flesh".

1978 began with "Underworld". This is roundly and rightly condemned as one of Doctor Who's most excrutiating moments, but for all the wrong reasons. The CSO'd caverns are a horror to behold, yet those of my age had been primed not to notice blue-screen lines, and adults were prepared to put up with much uglier technical glitches in much more conventional programmes. "Underworld" was banal, and this is the voice of a child who saw Greek as his second-most-familiar mythology. Monsters weren't necessary then, as they wouldn't be today if programme-makers hadn't become the pimps of CGI werewolves, but to turn Jason's dragon into a network of corridors is an insult to art as well as sense. Going back to "The Sun Makers", it seems incredible that any writer - let alone Robert Holmes - could devise a story based on tax rates, or that any audience could have been expected to care. I'd lost all awareness of the programme by "The Invasion of Time", to the point that when I learned of the story's existence some years later, I was astonished that I'd missed something so profound as the Sontaran Invasion of Gallifrey. Nobody could have called it "profound" if they'd actually seen it.

Graham Williams did something terribly wrong, I'm afraid. Not the "he ignored continuity" problem that Ian Levine would later use to gut-barge his way into the production office, not the "it looked cheap" problem that '80s and '90s viewers pointed out when slick was the order of the day, not the "Baker's just messing about now" problem that even children noticed by the end of the Williams run. Doctor Who is, at its best, the sardonic relative to the rest of television. The true meaning of "camp" isn't "a bit gay", but "knowing that the world is just a game of dress-up". Being the adventures of a pseudo-immortal who's only passing as human, the series follows fashion, then looks down at itself and says: "Hmmm... this frock coat is either too much or too little." Yet in order for this to work, it needs to go to extremes. Instead, as of 1978, it specialised in self-conscious self-parody. Occasionally bearing good ideas, but even then, marred by a blandness that tried to excuse itself by winking at the camera. The line between "camp" and "in-joke" is thin, but crucial.

If Star Wars distracted me from Doctor Who, then it wasn't because Star Wars was bigger, better, and more expensive, the conclusion that was wrongly and catastrophically drawn by the media from the '80s onwards. Looking back, I can see that what snagged me at the age of six was excatly what had snagged me at the age of five: the very possibility of elsewhere. Leela's planet was elsewhere. Weng-Chiang's House of the Dragon was elsewhere. So were Tatooine and the Death Star trench. The former two taught me investigation and sarcasm-in-the-face-of-adversity (you wouldn't believe how big the "deadly jelly-baby" line was at the time), the latter two taught me brilliance and dynamism. The drab space-installations of "The Invisible Enemy" and the sterile hospital-corridors of "The Sun Makers" were filler.

By 1978, I was living on a council estate, for practical reasons that aren't hard to work out given my previous one-parent-family angst. It was a brand-new estate, and we were the first to move in, if only because I needed a wee and my mother demanded the keys some minutes before all the other tenants were allowed to enter. It was, as I later discovered, a place where the council shovelled people who had nowhere else to go; its sense of anger, as other families were housed in the low-rent "maisonettes", became more overt over the years. This is why I'm not going to talk about it much from hereon in, and yet for all the sense of threat, it had one outstanding feature. There was a small plaza across the road from our new home, just as there had been in Walton. And as my site of pilgrimage in Walton had been W. H. Smith's, here it was a tiny family-owned toyshop, a narrow alley of shinyness between freshly-scraped monoliths of concrete. A toyshop which in 1978 sold Star Wars figures for 99p each, more than it sounds to twenty-first-century ears, but still within pocket-money grasp. I knew boys at school who'd spend more than that every week on white chocloate mice. Being diabetic, I had the biggest army of Stormtroopers in the county.

Right at the beginning of this... what do I call it? Chronology? Auto-blog-raphy? Right at the beginning, I asked the question of how we come to call ourself fans, when in some cases we only enjoy a nouvelle-cuisine-sized portion of the television series. What remained unsaid, or only implied, is that the television series is only a fragment of the whole of Doctor Who. Think of it as a visible extrusion of a massive multi-dimensional body, because you know we've always liked that metaphor. Nor are we simply considering the mass of physical bumf that's now become mishandled and mislabelled until it's simply "merchandise". It's true that this was always part of the experience, at least for the early viewer-generations. TV21 was closer to the way '60s children liked to imagine the Daleks than "The Chase"; readers of Malcolm Hulke's Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters still tend to forget that the broadcast version doesn't give names to the Silurians or that Major Baker's experiences with the IRA are never mentioned, while those who'd read Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon before TV Gold repeated "Colony in Space" in the early '90s are still convinced that the text version is the "proper" one. But...

It's not just about the tie-ins. More than any other series ever created, Doctor Who suggests the existence of environments we've never seen, an unlimited potential beyond the homeworld of the television series and the frontier colonies of (say) the TV Comic strip. Actually, the multiple slightly-wrong versions of the Doctor in comics, annuals, and such might be seen as alternative takes on something with uncertain boundaries. Even Star Wars is limited by its own rules. No, more than that, those rules are the reason it succeeded. Doctor Who demands a constant re-thinking of rules, invites us to query how each new time and place actually works (a factor absent from many Williams-era and most Moffat-era stories, both marked by a Doctor who automatically knows everything without having to ask questions, both marked by scenarios that are venues for set-pieces rather than functioning worlds). You used to write your own stories, didn't you? Perhaps you still do, although these days they may be more likely to involve sex between cast-members. When you had enough story ideas, you may even have turned them into your own Alternative Season. I still do this now, and could easily write down a complete episode list for the season that began with "The Book of the World".

"Could", he says...

Doctor Who is a mind-game that asks you to play at home. Which is, if nothing else, polite of it. Just because I stopped caring about what was on television in 1978, that doesn't mean I left it behind. I still made offerings at Targethenge. It might once again seem berserk that anyone could support the Home Side while failing to watch a single match, although I know of many fans who've found themselves in a similar position since 2010, and several others who were already suffering the symptoms in 2005. Yet this is the nature of Team DW. Things would improve in 1979, of course, or I probably wouldn't be here. As for 1980... opinions differ. Time heals all wounds, even wounds to the series. The promise of what it might be protects us from what it currently is. We hope.

But it is true that I could've bought at least one-and-a-half new works of the Terrance Dicks canon for 99p. Star Wars figures allowed me to engage in non-solitary games with the rough non-middle-class council-estate boys, which for me justifies George Lucas' existence in itself. Nobody collected toys for the sake of collecting, after all. This form of Star Wars allowed us to reconstruct, and then anagram, the struggle against the Empire in exactly the same way that Dinky's die-cast Gerry Anderson vehicles had allowed children to mess with Captain Scarlet half a generation previously. The fact that none of my new acquaintances really cared about Doctor Who can be interpreted in a number of ways, although the bigger point is that even the sloughed-off plastic skin of an idea can have an identity of its own. By the end of the year, I was confused and annoyed that you couldn't get 99p Doctor Who figures anywhere, even though (my exact thought, at the time) "Doctor Who has got loads of brilliant things in it".

One Christmas, possibly even Christmas 1978, I was given a Denys Fisher Cyberman. That's the way all action-figures had worked, just a few months previously: they were big, clunky, Action Man / Sindy-scale chunks of plastic in dramatically-illustrated boxes, the Sindy comparison being especially relevant in the case of Denys Fisher's Leela. They were things you were given as gifts, not things you could afford to take down from the shelf and up to the counter on your own. If this sounds an overly cynical and consumer-driven sort of democracy, especially from someone whose tongue turns to aspic when using the word "merchandising", then remember that we took them out of their plastic bubbles and rammed them against each other in order to re-arrange universes. Not as subtle or as limitless as the great game of Doctor Who, but a form of storytelling, nonetheless. I have lingering doubts that Character Options' "Exploded Cassandra" or "Old Woman with No Face" figures have been used in quite the same way. Bonus points for the Drashigs, though.

We needed pocket-money pocket-sized Doctor Who figures in order to remake our own favourite universe. Instead, I got a twelve-inch Cyberman with a nose. The TV series had let me down badly, and now even the dolls were being embarrassing.

Oh, one more thing. Many of you may think of Star Wars as a sci-fi film; some of you may feel that it was always, at heart, a children's story; those of you who follow Simon Pegg's path will pretend it's an adolescent geek's film, and that Han Solo was always the important one. But in 1978, when it came to Britain, a major part of its appeal was that it swashbuckled. Our parents loved it too, because it was as if Errol Flynn had finally got to play Flash Gordon.

The sleeve-notes on the BBC video claimed that the opening scene of "The Invasion of Time" was a nod to Star Wars, even though this would barely have been possible given the timeline. Memos of the era show that Graham Williams specifically wanted the Megara in "The Stones of Blood" to be as un-robot-like as possible, so that nobody would compare them with droids: the first demonstrable influence of the film on Doctor Who, albeit a negative one. I put it to you that the earliest positive result of Star Wars on the broadcast episodes was "The Androids of Tara" (yes, they do have an actor in common, shush). True enough, every word of the script could have been written one or two or five or ten years earlier, the plot being based on The Prisoner of Zenda and the dialogue never challenging the principles of BBC pretend-historical drama. But that year, "Tara" got it absolutely right, for the parents if not for the children... swashbuckled. With electric swords.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

1977: The Foe from the Future

An illustrated text.


Home. Home and safe.

At least, until that autumn. No: let's use the True Calendar. This is where I lived until episode four of "Horror of Fang Rock". The last darkened ritual in that front room (never "lounge", for we were of Northern blood) was lit by the nite-lite glow of the Rutan Host, then by the flash of a lighthouse-turned-laser. Leela lost her contact lenses while the Americans were listening to Crystal Gayle's "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue"; Top of the Pops would take some time to catch up. Leela herself was already our new best friend, but then, a cavegirl would seem a wholly reasonable sidekick to a generation whose cinematic hero was Doug McClure in At the Earth's Core. Or, for the more intellectually-aspirant, Peter Cushing in At the Earth's Core.

Ten years earlier, the license-paying public had been perfectly at ease with point-of-view characters whose ranks included a Highland warrior fresh from Culloden and a girl genius from the pretend-future who couldn't understand candles. Later, they'd look just as kindly on a 126-year-old aristocrat and a robot dog. The idea that an audience needs a mouthpiece from Right Here, Right Now would have been considered silly, then: we don't tend to notice how far the mass-marketing of pop culture, in all its demographical correctness, has made us intolerant of protagonists who aren't exactly like us. Those of the '70s litter were better-prepared to side with outsiders, since everyone knew we'd be meeting all manner of peculiar people in the future, even if it was only the pretend-future. Tomorrow was the ultra-jet-age, after all, and there wouldn't be a Wimpy Bar waiting for us when we flew our autogyros to Timbuktoo. We were too familiar with television to believe we might see TV's Doctor Who in the real world (although there was that window cleaner... wait, we'll come to this). But Leela walking along Walton high street, in animal-skins rather than twentieth-century drag, seemed less ridiculous then than it would now.

Just let that name loll around your mouth for a while. Walton... on... Thames. The sound of a second Trumpton, a middle-sized middle-class Middlesex town where nothing bad ever happens. Walton, as in Isaac Walton, fisherman friend of the Doctor (q.v. "The Androids of Tara") and a man whose very name suggests lazing on riverbanks on summer weekends. A Modernist Trumpton, though: high-rise blocks in triplicate and jagged-edged car parks, quarantined by patches of fresh green grass and the sort of social planning that's meant to invoke the medieval village market. I remember my hometown as sunny, due to extenuating circumstances as much as longing. It had been twin-suns-sunny the previous year, though I assume that idealised childhood memories don't always involve graveyards of the insectile dead. I've been back there as an adult, several times; it was sunny on every occasion. A heat-barrier of nostalgia.

Walton would seem irrelevant, if it weren't for the fact that despite lacking any glamour of its own, it was always in the company of showbiz. The celebrity hanger-on of towns. It was, and logically still is, just a catering-van's drive away from Shepperton: Shepperton, as in Studios. Ergo, the tower-blocks were Sweeney-age scenery for anyone in film or TV who needed that post-'50s suburban look. When you see high-rise flats in Monty Python or an early-'70s British B-product, that's likely to be My Block of Flats, a few years either way of my birth. Though the best cinematic usage of this slabscape is 1971's Psychomania, in which a specifically English colour of Hell's Angel - or a mannequin thereof - leaps from an upper floor of My Block of Flats in order to die and be reborn as an indestructible walking corpse. Elsewhere in the film, the zombie bikers penetrate Walton's aforementioned plaza, and prove their contempt for all human law by knocking over some bread.

I wondered if this sequence might be anywhere on YouTube. In fact, not only had it been neatly sliced and packaged before uploading, but it was filed under the title PSYCHOMANIA / WALTON-ON-THAMES. Seems almost providential; Piggie58 knows his bacon.

Jesus! I was being conceived while all that was going on.

I reiterate... the bikers here are already undead. Their riot amongst the shopping-trolleys would be impressive enough, for an unkindness of Motorhead fans on a pissed weekend out. But they committed ritual suicide in order to indulge in these shenannigans. In Walton, it takes a necromantic resurrection before anyone would do anything so appalling as mess around with other people's umbrellas. Doesn't it?

There's something more extraordinary still about Walton's place in the annals of cinema, though I didn't learn that until much later.

Oh yes, the window cleaner. There had to be one in this genre of memory, since it's the reign of Robin Asquith, and we're on his patch. A shockingly tall, stunningly curly-haired man would sponge and scrape his way down the wall of our tower-block, stripped to the waist and never thinking to make eye-contact with those of us inside. I was convinced he was Tom Baker. He had Tom Baker's hair, Tom Baker's height. Tom Baker's face, as far as a child can appreciate faces. You think this is so unlikely...? To Hell with you. In later years we learned that Baker was working on a building-site when the Doctor Who offer came through, though admittedly I now find it hard to justify his temping between "Talons of Weng-Chiang" and "Fang Rock". I merely suggest that the concept isn't as absurd as I was made to feel by my mother, that's all.

Walton was also home to the Walton Hop, just over the road from our movie-star estate. Even half a decade later, the notion of a nightclub called a "Hop" would have seemed hilarious, but this was youth-culture in the time of Showaddywaddy. Those who believe that every Trumpton has its cynical, pox-riddled underbelly will be delighted to hear that in the era of which I speak, the Walton Hop was where celebrity pederast Jonathan King went stalking for his pubescent prey. An occasionally-successful songwriter of the era lived across the hall from us, and I'm informed that as a five-year-old, I once careered into King's legs in the foyer while he was visiting and I was being some form of fast-moving android. I have no memory of this. My half-brother, staying with us while on leave from university, was an eager musician in his teens who briefly mingled with King's set. The answer to the unspoken question is that I don't know, and I'm fucked if I'm going to ask him.

Yet the Living Heart of Walton, from my low-angle perspective, was across the plaza and around the next corner: a trifle to a grown-up, but like the Hajj to me. It was W. H. Smith's. Which stocked Target novelisations, and was thus inevitably a site of pilgrimage.

Why did these books mean so much to us, we who searched every possible shelf for the elusive Doctor Who and the Daemons before the meaning of "out of print" had been explained to us? The answer's simple, and has been repeated many times. "In those days, there was no video. The Target novelisations were our sole way of re-experiencing stories that had existed only for a fleeting moment. By reading them, we could enjoy the thrill of the adventure over and over again." There: simple. Also, like most simple things, largely wrong. Incomplete at best.

Because I remember the moment in W. H. Smith's when my mother - in the belief that I was clearly capable of reading above my age, that literary skills would clearly be of the highest importance in the pretend-future, and that this was clearly the ideal subject matter - asked me whether I'd like to take one of these books home. I chose Doctor Who and the Green Death. The cover was the main attraction, quite naturally, but there were also the illustrations. The illustrations were terrible; that wasn't the point. The illustrations added nothing to the text; that wasn't the point either. I simply assumed (wrongly, as now we know) that the pictures were reflections of the "true" televised event, crude court sketches of a reality that only made absolute sense in light and movement. The book was never quite an adventure. It was a historical document.

Hicks the security guard plays with his Jon Pertwee action figure. (Trad.)

The first thing to notice here is that I didn't seem to care for reading. I chose that book, RRP 40p or 45c in Malta, for what it represented. I could read above my age, but didn't necessarily want to. I found books... no, not boring, never that, but static. This is still the case. Doctor Who and the Green Death was a beautiful, even fetishistic object, a relic of a past I'd never witnessed. Again, the idea overcomes the actuality. Giant maggots? A whacking great car-eating insect, in what I now recognise as Peter Brooke's quasi-comic-book style, framed against that stark white background...? Five-year-old me will treasure this paperback. Fourteen-year-old me will eventually read it, and be surprised by the overtness of the ill-fitting Hitler analogy. Research has found that a great many writers do very little actual reading, and perhaps they feel the same way, that the promise is greater than the present. Perhaps they just don't want to be disappointed. Or perhaps they're worried about feeling outclassed.

This would be the first of many Target books, natch. My favourite (as object, rather than text) remains Doctor Who and the Carnival of Monsters, not only because of the daring yellow surround, but because the plesiosaur has such a pronounced human expression that it's surely either modelled on a friend of Chris Achilleos or his own self-portrait in lizard form. Though like all my kind, I retain a soft spot for the back cover blurb of Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters, and the "40 ft. high Tyrannosaurus Rex, the biggest, most savage mammal which ever trod the earth!"... a line criminally absent from the modern reprint. I should also mention that I wrote a special code inside the cover of every Target relic I acquired, and that looking at them as I write this, I have no sodding idea what they mean.

Always the archivist, never the archaeologist. But more telling still is that Doctor Who and the Green Death, in this earliest and most glorious form, features a cover image of the Pertwee Doctor as the fly's intended soup-course. I accepted that on first sight, even before I'd read the warning on the title page. THE CHANGING FACE OF DOCTOR WHO. The cover illustration and others contained within this book portray the third DOCTOR WHO whose physical appearance was altered by the Time Lords when they banished him to the planet Earth in the Twentieth Century. Almost a legal disclaimer, even specifying "altered his physical appearance": regeneration still had yet to become an all-purpose explanation for the occasional warping of actor, and for the general public, the word was mostly associated with starfish. Yet I knew, with no memory of any Doctor other than the window-cleaner Doctor, that this was perfectly within the parameters of the saga.


I'm unsure, and I don't understand why that might be. Since this is a kind of Little Death, let's raise this to the level of sixth-form. Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead asks a question so obvious that it's creepy: why can't you remember the moment you realised you were going to die, when it must surely have been the most traumatic point of your young life? I find this as difficult to answer as a forty-year-old as I did at seventeen, but it's still less nettling than the question of why I treated THE CHANGING FACE OF DOCTOR WHO as if it were a known law of the universe. I've already described Doctor Who as an ongoing mind-game, and having one's appearance altered by the Time Lords was in no way cheating.

"We could show you a photo. But it wouldn't have magic hands."

The chronology is uncertain here. Even geology can be fragmented, or in our case fragmentised. I think - I think - this meta-knowledge of the game's rules may have come from The Doctor Who Monster Book. This was an invaluable item, so naturally, I'd fondly dissected it and sellotaped its innards across my bedroom wall. Anxious Sensorites watched over me long before I understood that it's more usual to set pop stars or footballers to guard one's sleep. With the Target novelisations (and most especially the Target covers) so blissfully confident that they were producing a higher form of Doctor Who than the BBC, there was a whole double-page spread of Achilleos' Omega with his talons extended into the Three Doctors' foreheads. Is that when I learned about the Doctor's "biological kabuki", then? Because if so, I would've expected to remember the shock of having it explained to me.

But this is how I mark out my early life. A wall of scraps and monsters; a private empire of paperbacks, not all of them read, and not all of them by Terrance Dicks; the last Saturday in Walton before we moved away, into a sterile new space where the clammy arms of "The Invisible Enemy" were waiting to greet me. I was five, and had no say in where I lived, any more than I had a say in the shift from the warm darkness of Victorian London and Edwardian lighthouses to the cold, cardboard-smooth walls of control rooms and space-corridors.

I learned, as a grown-up, that Walton-on-Thames was home to the first film studio on Earth. It's true: in 1899, with audiences growing bored of films about trains drawing up at stations, Cecil Hepworth saw the advantage in a specific, permanent base of operations for the shooting of one-reelers. "How It Feels to Be Run Over" and "Baby's Toilet" are no longer considered classics even by the standards of his age, yet the earliest British blockbuster was his 1905 meisterwerk "Rescued by Rover" (re-shot several times, as the constant copying of the negative always led to its destruction... and we thought '70s television was transient). You'd imagine that this at least would deserve some recognition, even if Psychomania is unlikely to earn the town a blue plaque.

The truth is less pleasant. Because there's no such town as Trumpton, and the future refuses to let any territory be mapped out in sunlight and children's books. Walton-on-Thames is now known for one thing only, a form of horror that would have seemed infeasible in "my" 1977, the consequences of which are - thanks to NewsCorp - still haunting us now.

This is the digital age. This is the actual future.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

1976: The Enemy Within

What I definitely couldn't have by the end of 1976.

December. Night comes in early now. See me there, four years old and therefore this tall, standing on a similarly dwarfish example of Habitat furniture and tacking tinsel to the wall at a level which I naively consider to be Quite High Up. My mother - my only co-habitant in this flat, in a building that 2012-me would describe as a product of Modernist utopianism ruined by mid-twentieth-century politics and lifts that never bloody work - is doing the same. I'm helping, in a way that only children fully understand. This home is harsh and angular and green-grey, a period green-greyness that belongs in the 1970s and absolutely nowhere else. There are orange-and-brown curtains elsewhere in these rooms, as per. But right now there's also tinsel on the walls. Hah! Purple wins the day. A last-minute victory for Glam before we all slide into the sludge of MOR.

At this exact moment, there are two things on television. At the same time, on the same channel. One is the pre-Christmas edition of Top of the Pops, which sees Boney M performing "By the Rivers of Babylon", but also - by a further splitting of universes, which even the CEO of an American comic-book company would find hard to sell - perfoming "Mary's Boy Child" simultaneously. The other programme is the festive repeat of "Pyramids of Mars", being delivered in one large seasonal package instead of the original four. I'm not consciously aware of this last fact, of course, but I can hardly ignore the thing whose gaze now takes in the whole of this living-room from behind the glass. The dark and - yay! - purple-tinged god. Eyes lighting up in a horror of turquoise. I knew Sutekh before I even knew what Egypt was.

Egypt. Babylon. Gods. Christmas. My first memory was of a giraffe, and it taught me fear, embarrassingly. Sutekh doesn't scare me. Sutekh is fascination.

Last Christmas, "Bohemian Rhapsody" was number one, and on Top of the Pops every week forever. At my grandparents' house (once again), I was so appalled by this clutch of chanting, illuminated heads that I ran into the kitchen and barricaded the door with my tiny body until I received assurances from three impartial grown-ups that it was over. Queen was fear. Doctor Who was compulsion. Those who talk about "behind the sofa" moments tend to be children of the '60s, when 405-line monochrome was blurry enough to give you a sense of something terrible lurking behind the (often deliberately-employed) fuzz. Children of the '70s, watching the same series shot on then-hi-def, then-ultra-sharp video... many of us didn't even know we were meant to be scared, until nostalgia programmes started telling us so, ten years later. Perhaps the occasional episode would hit on a specific personal phobia, be it spiders, living statues, or in my mother's strangely Freudian case, men with the heads of bulls; however, the ideal of Doctor Who as an all-purpose Engine of Terror disappeared in 1969, and wouldn't be forced back into existence until the twenty-first century.

"The Wheel in Space" scared four-year-olds. "Revenge of the Cybermen" never could, not even if you still had a black-and-white TV. As my grandparents did until 1980, although retrospect still guarantees that I remember both My First Sontaran and "Bohemian Rhapsody" in colour... strange. This had never occurred to me before. Black-and-white sets were so common in the mid-'70s that you were trained, unconsciously, to fill in the pictures for yourself. Perhaps we thought that was the point of the ad-breaks on ITV. A pause for what we'd now call "rendering".

Top of the Pops and Doctor Who. As BBC4 will joyfuily demonstrate, after 1976, the former was a grunting cackspasm of adult-oriented rock and self-deluding DJs, with occasional grinning white boys attempting reggae. Yet alienness and Glam Rock had twisted themselves together in the years beforehand, even sharing the same BBC-issue visual effects. Later on, they'd join up again, but we'll come to that when "Ashes to Ashes" meets John Nathan-Turner and "Warriors' Gate" provides the missing link between Alice Cooper and Adam Ant. For now, we'll return to 1976, where we can say this for certain:

Rationally, there's no way these two BBC1 presentations can be broadcast at the same time. Boney M and the Eye of Horus can't co-exist on a single screen, not with this decade's technology. A conflated memory? Two types of spectacle on the same evening, or two events separated by months / years, linked by nostalgia rather than fact? Was "Pyramids of Mars" even repeated at Christmas...? There's a book on the shelf three feet to my right that would tell me for certain, but on this occasion, I'd rather not know. Nobody's narrative has to be that precise.

What's interesting is that by now, Doctor Who seems an accepted part of my life. "Interesting" because toddlers have no control over television. No, wait: had no control. I had no concept of regular schedules for programmes, no idea that this new mind-game was there every Saturday, for a pre-determined segment of the year. Television happened, like weather. Even adults tended to think of it that way, in an age of two-and-a-half channels and no remote control. If you creatures of the 1980s ever wondered why audience appreciation indexes were so much lower in the days of your forefathers, then it's simple: in your world of the future, if you don't like what you're seeing, you click. Here in 1976, if you're not one of the jet-set few to have a crackfizzling portable in the bedroom, then you sit through the show with the rest of your family and complain afterwards. You give yourself up to the sofa, become ensconced in whatever environment BBC1 or ITV chooses to create for you on this particular evening. Curiously, the holodecks and "Veldt"-style VRs of the pretend-future seem closer to the experience of Old Telly than the interactive age.

So I not only liked Doctor Who, I'd developed the concept of liking something as a long-term proposition. I'd been sure of this ever since the Best Thing Ever, the previous year. One image, solid in my squishy, unformed memory but still (with hindsight) massively inaccurate: people on a balcony, overlooking the same south-of-Watford overpass / underpass world I saw every day through the back windows of a Singer Chamois, except with a whacking great dinosaur-thing rising up in the background and seething at the traffic. Oh, and perhaps best of all, the people on the balcony not being particularly bothered.

I'm well aware that the bit with the Skarasen at the end of "Terror of the Zygons" is regarded as one of the leading visual abominations of its time. Not merely because of the Shonk Ness Monster, but also because of Douglas Camfield's bizarre understanding of CSO, the result of a great '60s stylist being terribly unprepared for the '70s. To a then-three-year-old, it was the thought that mattered, the very possibility of these things existing side-by-side. I suspect I may already have been aware of the King Kong / Godzilla axis, although in later years, it'd become more obvious that rampage-porn from Hollywood or Tokyo (often shown late-night on BBC2, since Channel 4 had yet to be invented) was obsessed with wreckage as a kind of glamour. King Kong has to climb the Empire State Building, it's the sexiest place in America. Godzilla has to be big enough to carry the burden of Japan's A-bomb angst. But the Skarasen came all the way down to London just to roar at the A302. Doctor Who does parochialism on a cosmic scale, and though much of "Terror of the Zygons" now looks like The Avengers with polyps, it still works on that level: the Doctor's contempt for the Zygons, camp in the truest sense of the word, stems from the notion that you've gone to all this trouble over an invasion plan, and now you're wanking about on the Thames?

Meanwhile, thirteen years in the future - God, is that all? - 1989-me is watching the VHS release of "Terror of the Zygons", and is oddly not disappointed.

But 1976, that was the turning-point. It was, as anyone British and over forty will tell you, the year of the great drought. Our summers are massively hotter in the twenty-first century, and our winters markedly less snowy; yet the temperature-spike of 1976 was such that when heat-holocaust deniers in the UK try to pretend things haven't changed, you can guarantee they'll invoke memories of that one exceptional, catastrophic season. The coast was infested with ladybirds, a swarm that turned beaches into black and red shingle. In the little shopping-plaza outside the flat where I lived (the full blue-plaque cultural signifiance of which will follow, come 1977), the slabs were pasted with the bodies of pedestrian-mashed stag beetles, freakish dark-shelled monsters as big as my fist. To me, they looked like the broken corpses of vampires, black husks with talons still extended.

The heatwave was especially problematic for me, because that summer, my pancreas stopped working as a knock-on effect of mumps. This is how I became diabetic, obviously type-one rather than type-two, since I didn't officially become That Fat One until some decades later. Type-one diabetics, being forced from an early age to adapt their body to mathematical systems not of their own making, are particularly prone to obsessive, compulsive, and obsessive-compulsive behaviour. George Lucas is a type-one diabetic, unsurprisingly. Doctors have always been superb at using guilt to keep young sufferers under control: imagine a form of Catholicism that believes cake to be worse than sodomy, but also has Henry Ford's eye for time and motion. As a child brought up by a control-freak mother, and a child who'd already decided that Doctor Who was probably the Best Thing Ever when it deigned to appear, I imagine this is the point at which I became damned.

However, on this occasion, my mother was not only right but right enough to save my life. That summer, I became very, very thirsty. This is the first sign that your body's short on insulin, and my mother made what turned out to be the correct diagnosis. The GP didn't believe her, on the (fairly understandable) grounds that it was the hottest summer in British history, wherein a gasping four-year-old isn't terribly surprising. She insisted on a second opinion. That sort of overbearing bossiness may guarantee a brace of personality problems for one's offspring in later life, but on the plus side, it also stopped me being either dead or blind.

So here's the nub of this particular year, the question I have to ask about my 1976. At some point, even if I didn't understand television scheduling and saw the Radio Times as something that happened to other people, Doctor Who went from occasional event to ritual. In the dark of that autumn, I huddled under a security-blanket substitute on the sofa next to my sole parent, in a room where the only light was the television screen. We watched the first episode of "The Hand of Fear" together, and LOOK, THE HAND IS ALIIIVE!!! We watched the last episode of "The Hand of Fear" together, too, and were both sad that Sarah-Jane was leaving. With an owl. (Our mutual feeling that Sarah's departure was a Bad Thing is striking. If I didn't watch Doctor Who regularly before this, because I didn't know what "regularly" meant, then at what point did I even acknowledge Sarah as a character? Did I accept her as what we'd now call "POV" based on her final story alone, even though she was possessed for most of it, acting as Eldrad's puppet and dressing like Andy Pandy just to underline the point? Even Liz Sladen wasn't that good, surely?)

The point is this. In mid-1976, I became locked into a pattern of obsessive behaviour as a result of what happened to my body. My life changed; my mother's life changed with it, as I went from "thing that gets left at the grandparents' house" to "thing that must be closely monitored at all times". Ritual became the biggest part of my existence, as it always will for the drug-dependent. Mere weeks later, myself and my Fixer find ourselves watching Doctor Who... ritually.

This may, of course, be a coincidence: as every child gets older, s/he notices more patterns in the world, develops more routines. But reason isn't strong enough to shake the feeling that Doctor Who might actually be a sign of something like a curse, wound into my biology as well as my memory. Virtually every story of this era involves people being trapped by something too big for them to understand, characters under the control of a power that reveals itself with tell-tale scars, or badly-phrased sentences, or the inability to remember that not all humans like ginger pop. From this point on, I'm a fairly convincing humanoid replacement which - on close inspection - can't eat chocolate and needs a special chemical in order to function.

But now it's nearly Christmas. I'm watching a programme called Doctor Who, and it's become a narrative rather than just flashbulb-pictures of something unfamiliar. And it seems perfectly normal to mix thoughts made of green-grey concrete with ideas that should, by rights, be unthinkable. I can even put up tinsel while I'm watching an Egyptian god wake up from his four-thousand-year sleep.

Now, you knew I wouldn't really be able to stop myself looking at the reference-book, didn't you? This memory is accurate, more or less: they did repeat "Pyramids of Mars", three-and-a-half weeks before Christmas 1976. In the year since its first broadcast, the Viking mission had spotted the Martian Sphinx.

Although it can't have been Boney M on Top of the Pops, as Wikipedia has just informed me. Rather impolitely, I thought.

1975: Genesis of Terror

Long neck bad, no neck good.

The past is never reliable. We remember our assumptions more than we remember what actually happened; we remember the stories we told ourselves more than the stories we were told. We can't tell the difference between what we know now and what we knew then. The memory cheats.

Fortunately for us, and unfortunately for John Nathan-Turner, we're of a different matter to most. Our memories are more likely to become fossilised.

My earliest memory is of being terrified by a giraffe. I remember being pushed around a place I now know to be London Zoo in a thing which I now know to be called a pushchair, shunted in front of four spindly legs which clearly belonged to an animal that didn't fit the cat / dog / cow / sheep pattern. I remember looking up, and up, and up, until I reached the end of this peculiar chain of bone and skin, to find THE SILHOUETTE OF A VAST HORN'ED HEAD, FRAMED AGAINST THE SUN, STARING DOWN UPON ME. And I remember thinking: surely, nothing should be this big?

Then shrieking. Possibly crying. Although I should point out that these days, I rather like giraffes.

But my second-earliest memory is of a Sontaran taking his hat off.

I know now, but couldn't then, that it was the 22nd of February, 1975. So: three weeks from my third birthday. I think I remember it precisely, although I've held on to the memory so tightly that I may have squashed it out of shape. I know I was in the chintz-cradle of my grandparents' house, where I was habitually put into storage while my mother went to Attend to Things on a Saturday afternoon (I'm the product of a single-parent, fatherless family, perhaqps the least surprising thing I could possibly tell anyone who knows me). I assume I was sitting in the tiny wooden rocking-chair that was My Chair, because my camera-memory of the event is shot from a low angle. I remember seeing the strangely-shaped tinfoil-man in his domed helmet, and when the similarly domed potato-face underneath was revealed, I remember my grandfather saying:

"Oh look! It's Humpty-Dumpty."

And I remember thinking: You daft git. Can't you see it's a space-thing?

This is quite a complicated thought for a two-year-old to have, but then, I was sharper when I was smaller. If I'd retained the same intellectual capacity I had when I was pre-school, I would've been Tobias Vaughan or Captain Nemo by the time "Survival" was broadcast. The mind of a tiny human deserves further exploration, because once again, our memories won't be reliable. Tat Wood, my associate / sparring-partner on About Time, tried to explain the appeal "Carnival of Monsters" might have had for a young audience of 1973 by claiming that "every" child thinks there are Little People living inside the TV before they know better. I was told the same thing by schoolteachers in the 1980s (getting ten-year-olds on your side is easier if you compare them to even younger children, even if it's a case of "oh, do you remember when you thought...?"). But -

- no, I don't remember ever thinking that. If I was capable at Age Two of not only understanding telly to be a fictional broadcast medium, but understanding the notion of "space-things" despite my grandad's attempts to claim otherwise, then when the Hell did I think that Little People lived inside the set? I never once attempted to the scrape soggy Weetabix into the workings, as the stereotype suggests that all children should. Perhaps it's a generational question. Depending on age, our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents grew up with the radio. Believing in wee folk who inhabit the wireless seems somehow feasible, given the lack of supporting data one way or another. The generation sired in the late '50s and '60s - this would include Tat - grew up with a form of television in which clumsy cameras and a lack of video editing equipment resulted in long, locked-off shots, as if there might possibly be a stage-set behind the screen. But how can you believe in the Little People if the narrative switches between long-shot and close-up every few seconds? What, you think there are human beings in the TV, but that they instantly lop off the lower parts of their bodies and swell up to giant size whenever the audience needs a good look at the leading man's face...?

No child can believe in that sort of toyroom, even if I did originally assume that all TV broadcasts were performed live, including the adverts (those sorry, sorry actors on ITV, having to relive the same twenty-second tragedies over and over again). Video-age children probably wouldn't even take that much for granted.

I was born between episodes three and four of "The Sea Devils", by the way. Charmingly, this makes me a Pisces.

And that's it. That's exactly it, that ability to mark out my life according to the astrology of reptile-people and BBC schedules. Most people's memories, even the memories of their Road to Damascus moments, become uncertain when they have to be arranged into any kind of order. But we can date our big events with precision. If you're old enough to remember growing up with the Old Series, then there's a CSO clock superimposed over your life; if you're young enough to know only the New Series at time of broadcast, then I suspect you'll soon discover the CGI equivalent. We humans don't have built-in, biological chronologies, yet I can assemble randomly-remembered days from my childhood into something close to a narrative. Wny? Because I know, instinctively, that "The Leisure Hive" was two-and-a-half years after "The Sunmakers". The Norms - all of whom are, apparently, our enemies - can recall where they were when Kennedy was shot, or when Paul Gascoigne cried at the 1990 World Cup. Our version of the past is a little more hardcore. I know exactly what I did on the day that episode one of "Four to Doomsday" was broadcast, and that's not even one of the good ones.

The reference to football is less scathing than it may seem, because football fans also have this Aspergic mental upgrade. Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch will be readable to most Doctor Who fans, because it's a personal account of obsession rather than of football as a sport. And if nothing else, I recommend that you read the first page-and-a-half: you'll recognise yourself even if you have to replace Arsenal mid-fielders with Ice Warriors in your imagination. But football also becomes a useful compare-and-contrast tool when we ask ourselves this, the biggest question of them all:

How much do you like Doctor Who? Or at least... how much of Doctor Who do you actually like?

I mentioned Tat Wood, and his contribution is always invaluable, even when I want to hit him. Tat was born in 1963, and grew up with the genuine, palpable strangeness of Doctor Who in its '60s phase, present even in the days of the Lloyd / Davis monster-of-the-month technique. Season Six, underrated by those who see it from the point of view of an '80s childhood, was Tat's nursery. Tat hates the Pertwee era because, although he rightfully acknowledges Barry Letts' good intentions (fortunate, since the late Mr Letts flicked through the first printing of About Time Volume III and apparently nodded non-grudgingly throughout most of it), he sees it as ITC with spaceships. He dotes on the Hinchcliffe version, and I concur. He adores the Williams version, and I find that almost pathological. He despises almost everything over which Nathan-Turner ever presided, so much so that when forced to choose his favourite story for About Time Volume V ("Warriors' Gate", unusual but fair), he had to precede it with the words "for all its faults..."

You see the problem. Tat is a Doctor Who fan, who knows more about the cultural mulch that created this programme than anyone I know. He's wrong a lot of the time, but then, I would say that. A bigger issue is that out of the 26 old-school years of the series, he could only honestly say that he likes ten of them.

The calculator tells me that this is around 39% of all broadcast Doctor Who before its laser-guided resurrection. To be a "fan" of something, when you appreciate less then half of its mass, might be seen as borderline-incomprehensible. Star Wars fans who hate the prequels can at least shut off half of their universe with a single thought, and claim that they like about 85% of Star Wars because Return of the Jedi was a bit of a let-down. But to like 39%, and still to have a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of the 61% you don't like? Surely, this is a form of madness?

But there are more football fans than Doctor Who fans in the world, many of them regarded as sane. Their sanity is much the same as ours. Arsenal don't win the FA Cup (I will not refer to it by its sponsorship name...) every year, nor the European Cup, nor the Premiership. We sympathise, since we don't even come close to scoring in every match. Even if you're Tat, you can't claim that "The Android Invasion" is anything other than a home-draw at best.

Doctor Who, as I grew up with it, is not a great series... if you take "great" to mean that it always wins, that it always beats flashier monstrosities on the commercial channels, that it always impresses people with its power, intensity, and budget. But it's a great series... in that it's the home-side for ponderers, bookworms, nonconformists, and kids who not only know they want to be a paleontologist by the age of four but know how to spell it. Yeah, guilty.

BBC4, and occasionally BBC3, has chosen Mark Gatiss to be the in-house expert on home-grown SF matters (well, him and Kim Newman, who's potentially even worse). My dislike of Gatiss' output post-League of Gentlemen is well-recorded, and anyone familiar with this blog may have gathered that it all comes down to one thing, which extends from his documentary talking-heads to his scripts: he believes that the science-hating xenophobia of Quatermass and the romantic exploration-cum-experimentation-cum-messing-around of Doctor Who are somehow indistinguishable, even though Nigel Kneale described Doctor Who as "a damned stupid idea for a programme". But Gatiss said one thing in the course of his Confidential duties which is both true and telling. He described Doctor Who, and all that comes with it, as like "a skein of rock" running through his life.

Assuming he meant rock rock rather than the kind that's bright pink and has letters written through it (although that still works), he couldn't have put it better. Our fan-past is a geology as much as a memory. Depending on your age, it's a history of layers made from TV21 strips, Target novelisations, issues of Doctor Who Weekly picked up from jumble-sales, badly-packaged VHS tapes, copied-from-a-friend VHS tapes of episodes that haven't been officially released yet... and guidebooks. Lots of lovely guidebooks, many of them endearingly innacurate, revealing all the strata of this make-believe world from "An Unearthly Child" to (again, depending on age) "The Daemons" or "The Hand of Fear" or "Logopolis" or "The Twin Dilemma" or "Survival". From which we know that story Y came after story X - I meant that figuratively, although I instinctively know that these letters represent "The Celestial Toymaker" and "The Ark" - and from which we emotionally connect with the programme as a whole, because we know how we changed between those moments as well. Doctor Who is our native mythology.

Even so... we're continually forced to admit that an awful lot of it is rubbish. Tat, being a '60s child, bears the brunt of this: he remembers a more idealistic vision than any of us who turned up later, even if I do remember being here since the cliffhanger of "The Sontaran Experiment". I like rather more of the on-screen canon than Tat does, yet still, I'm aware that - especially now, especially given my feelings circa 2012 - this "skein of rock" isn't very solid. What is it that we're fans of, exactly? A programme which we know will disappoint us much of the time, just as a football team probably will? A kind of thinking behind that programme, an idea which we cherish for uncertain reasons, even though most of us weren't born when BBC designers and radiophonicists were forging the most experimental show on Earth? A principle for which it'll always stand, even thought it now blatantly doesn't (says me)?

Sexy modern-style flash-forward. It's 1999, nearly a quarter-century on from Styre removing his helmet, and "Interference" has just been published. A letter appears in DWM which makes me angrier than anything else ever, so much so that I spend the next thirteen years refusing to think about it, because I know I'll just start composing counter-arguments (problematic, since I tend to start speaking out loud without realising it, which is why I am effectively the mentler on the bus). The letter-writer complains that those penning modern Doctor Who novels seem to have a sense of contempt for the series, and that if they dislike it so much, then they should leave it alone. He cites the scene from "Interference" in which Rassilon, standing at the prow of a warship during the great vampire face-off, derides the thought that they've been using bowships to pierce the enemy's hearts: "Who's idea was that?", he snorts. But it's a very nice idea, says the correspondent. And if this Lawrence Miles doesn't appreciate it, then why is he here?

It makes me livid for three reasons. One: that scene in "Interference" is, expressly, a fictional propaganda scenario created by Faction Paradox to undermine both the story of Rassilon and the history of the Time Lords. It's meant to look like an attack on the Doctor's mythology, and my gut feeling is that if you can't even contextualise properly, then you should shut your gutter when it comes to literary criticism. Two: it's a contentious area, but "State of Decay" happens to be one of the Doctor Who stories I like. (If you're interested, the scene in "Interference" is set up as a parody of the Ancient Gallifrey sequences that were so common in the Virgin books, according to the Ben Aaronovitch / Marc Platt way of things. Ben always hated the idea of "bowships", and I deliberately channelled him there. Opinions expressed by Rassilon are not necessarily those of the author.) Three:

Three is the nub of it. Even if I did hate the bowships (my inner voice is still screaming WHICH I DON'T)... can you really object to someone who grew up with Doctor Who, someone whose view of culture, ethics, and engagement with the universe-in-general was profoundly influenced by it, simply because they don't like a bit of it? Again, an Arsenal supporter might at least be described as reasonably normal. An Arsenal supporter who believes that Arsenal are literally the most talented side on the planet, even when they lose 5-0 (our "Time and the Rani", if you will, or anything by Chris Chibnall in modern terms), might be considered sectionable. Before the Mark-Two series, we all felt the same combination of pride and embarrassment. We wanted to share this lovely, awkward thing with people who'd never seen it or didn't "get" it, but we only wanted to show them selected highlights. Even individual stories were always flawed. "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" looks like the best starting-point imaginable, yet we still felt we had to apologise for the rat. We didn't grasp that for a programme which has spent so much of its existence fiddling about with the rules, the flaws aren't just part of the "charm" but part of the point.

The fact is this: my memory is wrapped around a core of Doctor Who, and no matter how much I might try to distance myself from its occasional Dark Ages, that's not going to change without actual trepanning. It starts in 1975, with a stupid comment from my granddad, followed shortly by the Best Thing I'd Ever Seen as a three-year-old.

But we'll come to that in 1976.