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.