Tuesday, July 17, 2012

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.