On Target with Terrance

 

From youtube.com

 

If you were to draw up a list of great children’s authors of the 20th century, you’d no doubt end up with names such as Roald Dahl, Alan Garner, Tove Jansson, Clive King, C.S. Lewis, Astrid Lindgren, A.A. Milne, Philip Pullman and Rosemary Sutcliffe.  But you probably wouldn’t think of including Terrance Dicks, who passed away late last month at the age of 84.

 

Dicks made his name on television as a scriptwriter and script editor.  He was involved in TV shows like The Avengers (1961-69), Moonbase 3 (1973), Space 1999 (1975-77) and ITV’s dreadful but (almost) never-ending soap opera Crossroads (1964-88) and also a raft of TV adaptations of classic literary works that the BBC broadcast on Sunday evenings and included Great Expectations (1981), Beau Geste (1982), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1982), Oliver Twist (1985), David Copperfield (1986-87) and Vanity Fair (1987).  But his most famous TV work was with the BBC’s long-running science fiction / fantasy show Doctor Who, which kicked off in 1963 and is still with us today – though it had a 16-year hiatus between 1989 and 2005 – and is now a massive franchise on par with Star Wars and Star Trek.  Yet I suspect it was as a writer of books, not TV shows, that Dicks left his greatest legacy.  He had a huge but unsung influence on the reading habits of British kids during the 1970s and 1980s.

 

Dicks served as script editor on Doctor Who from 1970 to 1974, when the title character was played by Jon Pertwee as a gloriously imperious, pompous, vintage car-driving, cape-and-bowtie-wearing, karate-chopping man of action, and also contributed the occasional script to the show during the tenures of Pertwee’s immediate predecessor (Patrick Troughton) and successors (Tom Baker and Peter Davison).  However, it’s for his role as novelist-in-chief for Target Books’ Doctor Who series that perhaps Dicks is most important.

 

© Target Books

 

The Target series turned most of the Doctor Who TV adventures from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s into neat, collectible paperbacks, with attractive and colourful covers that were often courtesy of fantasy-artist Chris Achilleos.  Now if you were a Doctor Who fan back then, as I was, there were no such things as whole-season box sets, Internet streaming or BBC iplayers, or indeed, DVDs or even video cassette tapes, to allow you to catch up with missed episodes: ones you’d missed recently because you’d been doing something else at the time – the show was broadcast early on Saturday evenings, which always made it a bugger to catch up with – or ones you’d missed because they’d been broadcast before you were born.

 

Also, the BBC was decidedly uninterested in repeating past episodes of Doctor Who. In fact, the corporation had wiped many of the early episodes featuring the first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, assuming that the tapes served no financial or cultural function and only took up unnecessary space in their archives.  Considering how the BBC has made millions since then selling the show and its memorabilia to worldwide audiences, they must be really kicking themselves about that act of brainless destruction now.

 

So, in those days, if you were a ten-year-old wanting to experience past adventures with past Doctors, your only option was to buy the Target novelisations, the majority of which were penned by Dicks in his simple, no-nonsense, fast-moving prose.  Admittedly, I think their quality tailed off a bit in later years as demand for them increased, and the backlog of un-novelised adventures grew greater, forcing Dicks to churn them out at a faster rate, but the some of the ones he wrote in the 1970s were great and, even without the TV show behind them, would have stood up as excellent children’s books in their own right: for example, The Auton Invasion (1974), The Abominable Snowmen (1974), The Terror of the Autons (1975), The Three Doctors (1975), The Genesis of the Daleks (1976) and The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977).

 

© Target Books

 

The only problem with Dicks’ books was that they made the stories seem much more spectacular on the page than how they’d appeared on the screen.  Actually, one of Dicks’ paragraphs, coupled with a child’s imagination, could make them seem very spectacular indeed.  What in the books were teeming utopian cities, vast gladiatorial arenas and huge bustling spaceports were on television poky little BBC studio-sets – bare, blank, shaky, obviously low-budget.  Meanwhile, immense alien deserts, wastelands and battlefields were invariably a big quarry outside London where the show seemed to do 80% of its outdoor filming.  So years later, when you finally got to see those old TV episodes that you’d previously only known through reading the novelisations, they were inevitably an anti-climax.

 

At ten years old, and as a budding writer, I decided to follow Dicks’ example and write my own Target Books Doctor Who novelisation.  I made up my own TV adventure in my head and then wrote it as a book, by hand, in a hundred-page jotter.  I even added my own black-and-white illustrations every dozen pages or so.  The cover (again drawn by me) showed a giant, gauntleted fist grabbing hold of planet Earth.  The book was called Bloodlust of the Sontarans.  (The Sontarans were war-like, potato-headed aliens who at that point had appeared on the show a couple of times to menace Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s Doctors.  When it was relaunched in 2005, the Sontarans were reintroduced during the Doctor-ship of David Tenant and one of them, played by Dan Starkey, even became a semi-regular character while Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi occupied the lead role.)

 

Two years later, I decided to produce my second Doctor Who novelisation, and for this one I became positively hi-tech.  My parents had given me a typewriter for Christmas, so with that I banged out about 130 paperback-sized pages and then taped them together.  There were no illustrations in this volume, but I drew a vivid, hopefully Chris Achilleos-style cover showing Tom Baker getting his head fried by a futuristic brain-washing machine.  This I titled Destruction of the Daleks and, yes, it featured the show’s number-one villains, the demented, eye-stalked, kitchen-plunger-waving, pepperpot-shaped space-Nazis, the Daleks.  The premise of my novel was that the Daleks had started to be killed off by a newly evolved virus and were going to extreme lengths to locate a cure for it.  I was rather peeved when, several years later, the BBC seemed to nick my idea and used it as the basis for an official Doctor Who TV adventure, Resurrection of the Daleks, which starred Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor.  I should have sued.

 

© Target Books

 

As I said, I’m positive Dicks’ books got a lot of kids (who otherwise would have been glued to their TV sets all the time) reading, even if it was the TV connection that got them to open the books in the first place.  And as I’ve suggested in the previous two paragraphs, he was also a big influence on kids who wanted to become writers themselves.  Decades later I still write stuff, and get the occasional thing published, and when I use certain words I’m reminded of Dicks, who originally showed me how to use those words in certain ways.  For example, ‘croak’ used instead of ‘said’, as opposed to just describing the sound that frogs make – that came from Dicks using it in reference to the Daleks.  (Predictably, the word that the Daleks were croaking was “Exterminate!”)  Or ‘wheezing’, to describe a peculiar type of sound, not just people with a bad cold – that adjective Dicks commonly used to evoke the noise made by the Doctor’s space / time-ship, the Tardis, when it was materialising or dematerialising.

 

I ended up with an impressive, colourful row of Target / Doctor Who novels on my bookshelves.  I assumed it was just me who was geeky enough to possess such a collection, but then one day in the late 1980s I happened to be in the Edinburgh flat of one Dougie Watt, whom I knew fairly well back then and who is now an established novelist and historian, and I noticed a similar row of Target books on his bookshelves too.  However, as Doctor Who was definitely not considered cool at that point in time, and labelling yourself a Doctor Who fan was about as damaging to your street credibility as announcing that you took a shower once a month or your all-time favourite musical act was Rick Astley, I tactfully pretended I hadn’t noticed them and avoided Who-shaming my friend.

 

With its relaunch in the 21st century, Doctor Who – suddenly cool again – has had many writers of books, comics, television and films falling over themselves to write either TV-show episodes or spin-off novels for it: for instance, Dan Abnett, David Bishop, Eoin Colfer, Jenny Colgan, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Paul Cornell, Neil Cross, Richard Curtis, Neil Gaiman, Mark Gatiss, A.L. Kennedy, Jamie Mathieson, James Moran, Patrick Ness, Kim Newman, Simon Nye, Robert Shearman and Toby Whitehouse.  In addition, the three ‘showrunners’ who have helmed Nu-Who so far, Russell T. Davies, Stephen Moffat and, currently, Chris Chibnall, all made their names as writers originally.  So it’s a writers’ show through and through.  And I suspect a good number of these people were influenced, at least in part, in finding their calling as writers by reading Terrance Dicks’ books back in their childhoods.

 

Meanwhile, Chris Chibnall, if you’re reading this and fancy commissioning a script for the next season of Doctor Who with the title Bloodlust of the Sontarans, give me a call.

 

© Target Books

 

Britain’s number-two pub argument settled

 

From camannwordsmith.com

 

Tom Baker.

 

There.  That’s conclusively settled an argument that flares up regularly in pubs the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, especially after the participants have sunk a few pints.  And after they’ve had their first big argument, about who is the best James Bond.  (I sorted that one out a few months ago.  It’s Sean Connery.  See here: http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6620.)

 

The argument this time, of course, is: who is the best Doctor Who?  Incidentally, I suspect it’s been raging a lot lately, stoked up by news that the most recent incumbent in the role, Peter Capaldi, has decided to call it a day and the BBC have started looking for a replacement to play the much-loved TV Time Lord.

 

It’s a tricky question.  There are essentially three types of Doctor: the crazy, eccentric ones (Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Matt Smith), the stern, grumpy ones (William Hartnell, Jon Pertwee, Colin Baker, Christopher Eccleston, John Hurt, Capaldi) and the swoon-some pretty-boy ones (Peter Davison, Paul McGann, David Tennant).  And as people are naturally inclined towards one of the three groups, the crazy, the stern or the swoon-some, it’s difficult to judge all 13 contenders without bias.

 

Anyway, here’s my ranking of the actors who’ve played Doctor Who, from best to worst.  This is strictly an official list and I’ve avoided folk who’ve played the Doctor in projects outside the TV-show canon like Peter Cushing, Trevor Martin, Richard E. Grant, David Warner, Geoffrey Bayldon and Rowan Atkinson.

 

In descending order, we have:

 

Tom Baker

Matt Smith

Jon Pertwee

Patrick Troughton

Peter Capaldi

John Hurt

Christopher Eccleston

William Hartnell

Colin Baker

Paul McGann

Sylvester McCoy

David Tennant

Peter Davison

 

© BBC

 

To be honest, in my opinion, anyone who doesn’t think that Tom Baker is the best Doctor Who needs his or her head examined.  He came crashing into the series in 1975, with his mellifluous voice, wide eyes, curly hair, toothy grin, wide-brimmed hat and super-long scarf, and made the role his own.  When The Simpsons do a Doctor Who gag these days, it invariably features Baker’s fourth Doctor.  And when the show celebrated its 50th anniversary in November 2013 with a feature-length episode called Day of the Doctor, it was Baker who appeared as the show’s sole representative from the old days.  Actually, there was no way they could not have got the mighty Tom involved in the show’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

 

© BBC

 

Number two in my list is the second-most-recent Doctor, Matt Smith.  I have to say that back in 2009, when it was announced that Matt Smith would take the role over from David Tennant, my expectations weren’t high.  Largely this was because Smith was only 26 years old at the time, which seemed ridiculously young for any actor attempting to play the Doctor.  However, I was pleasantly surprised because I thought Matt Smith’s Doctor was delightful.  He managed to be endearingly clumsy and child-like, yet also serene and wise; compassionate and yet plausibly alien.  Smith’s unusual physique, with a face that looked like it’d been chiselled by an Easter Island stonemason, helped greatly.

 

The third actor in the list is also the third actor to play the Doctor chronologically, Jon Pertwee.  Among Who fans today Pertwee is a divisive figure.  His detractors accuse him of turning the cerebral and pacifistic Doctor into a swanky action hero.  He attired himself flamboyantly in a velvet smoking jacket, frilly shirt and cape.  He had a Jeremy Clarkson-like predilection for driving fast, if vintage, motor cars.  And he had no qualms about thumping anyone who antagonised him – which was Jeremy Clarkson-like too, come to think of it.

 

To those allegations I can only reply, who cares?  When I was a kid during Pertwee’s tenure in the early 1970s, his impact was immense.  For me and my school-mates and probably everyone else in Britain under the age of the twelve at the time, he was the Greatest Bloke in the Universe.  Not only was he unafraid of alien monsters, but he karate-chopped the bastards – wow!  (Though technically speaking, the martial art he was adept in was really an alien one called Vensuvian Aikido.)

 

He was also equipped with marvellous eyebrows that became prominent at the point in each serial when the latest, hideous alien monster revealed itself.  Pertwee would customarily respond to it with a splendid reaction shot, eyebrows climbing off the top of his forehead.  Like so:

 

© BBC

 

Next comes Patrick Troughton, who as well as being the much-admired second Doctor was also a long-serving character actor, often in British horror films like The Curse of Frankenstein (1956), The Phantom of the Opera (1963), The Black Torment (1964), Scars of Dracula (1970), Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973) and The Omen (1976).  In that last one he played a priest who got skewered by a lightning rod falling off a church, a moment that still chills me.  Movies where Doctor Who gets killed I always find hard-core.

 

Troughton’s Doctor was impish and dishevelled, part hobo and part hippy, with a fleeting resemblance to Mo in the Three Stooges.  His influence on subsequent doctors (especially Matt Smith) has been considerable and it’s just a pity that many of the episodes featuring him have been lost.  Before 1978 the BBC had no policy about archiving the tapes of its old shows and as a result they wiped much of the early Doctor Who.  Stupid sods.

 

Then we have the current but soon-to-depart Doctor, Glaswegian Peter Capaldi.  At first I struggled to accept Capaldi in the role.  His abrasively Scottish take on it put me in mind of Malcolm Tucker, the ferocious and spectacularly foul-mouthed spin doctor he played in the satirical comedy show The Thick of It (2005-2012).  Indeed, it was difficult to think of him as anyone other than Tucker.  However, in 2015, I saw him give a tour-de-force performance in an episode called Heaven Sent.  It was so good it finally purged me of all memories of psychotic profanity-spewing Caledonian spin doctors.  And on the strength of that I’ve bumped him up to number five in the list.

 

© BBC

 

Long-term fans of the show often grump about how the modern, revived version of it has cast younger actors in the title role.  But Nu-Who, as it’s nicknamed, has actually featured two older Doctors: the 58-year-old Capaldi and my sixth-favourite Doctor, John Hurt, who alas passed away last month at the age of 77.  In 2013 he turned up as a surprise version of the character called the War Doctor whom nobody had known about.  Until then, the Doctor had kept this incarnation of himself secret because the War Doctor had done something very un-Doctorly.  He’d saved the universe by ending the most cataclysmic war it’d ever known, between the Daleks and Time Lords – but in doing so he’d had to commit genocide and wipe both the Daleks and Time Lords out.  As well as being a bad-ass Doctor, Hurt, who appeared in 2013’s Day of the Doctor alongside Matt Smith and David Tenant, was amusingly curmudgeonly and he kept berating the modern Doctors Smith and Tenant for being young, silly, flirty and frivolous.  In other words, writer / showrunner Stephen Moffat made Hurt the mouthpiece of all those grumpy long-term Doctor Who fans.

 

© BBC

 

The next-best Doctors, in my view, are the two who kick-started the show in its modern and original forms: Christopher Eccleston, who took on the role when the series was revived in 2005; and the venerable William Hartnell, who played the Doctor when it debuted in 1963.  Dour, northern, working class, basically the Ken Loach Doctor, Eccleston gave the character some much-needed street cred and it’s a pity he didn’t remain with the show for more than one season.  That said, he never looked comfortable with the comedic elements of his scripts.

 

Hartnell’s Doctor was starchy, cranky, patriarchal and hard to like.  Yet there are moments from his grainy black-and-white tenure, such as the farewell speech he gives to his granddaughter Susan – “Yes, I shall come back.  Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties.  Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine” – that still raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

 

© BBC

 

And now it’s time to take a deep breath.  For I’ve put Colin Baker at number nine in the list, and not last at number thirteen as most people would – just as George Lazenby regularly finishes last in lists of favourite James Bonds.  I’ve always felt the second Baker, and sixth Doctor, had an unfair rap.  When he arrived in the mid-1980s he had some dire scripts to contend with, but those weren’t his fault; and he deserved credit for trying to steer the character back to the irascible one played by William Hartnell.  Unfortunately, for many fans, Colin Baker’s Doctor was a non-starter because of his costume.  For some unfathomable reason the then-producer, John Nathan-Turner, decided to tog him out in an awesomely repulsive multi-coloured coat – probably the worst decision in the show’s history.  Adding insult to injury, poor old Baker then had to suffer the fallout of the second-worst decision in its history, again made by Nathan-Turner, which was casting the ghastly Bonnie Langford as his travelling companion.

 

© BBC

 

Next comes Paul McGann, who played an agreeably Byronic Doctor.  Alas, with only two appearances in the official show – the lame 1996 TV movie that tried to relaunch the series for an American audience, and the 2013 ‘minisode’ Night of the Doctor, a taster for Day of the Doctor, which showed how McGann’s eighth Doctor turned into Hurt’s War Doctor – he didn’t get much chance to make an impression.

 

After McGann comes his predecessor in the role, Sylvester McCoy.  I like McCoy as an actor, but his efforts with Doctor Who in the late 1980s were scuppered by the scripts he got, which were the show’s worst ever.  Indeed, it was around then that I gave up hope and stopped watching it.

 

And now many female Doctor Who fans will shriek in horror because at a lowly twelfth place in my list I’ve put… the gorgeous David Tennant!  Yes, I know that when Tennant played the Doctor the show reached levels of popularity it’d never reached before (and probably won’t ever reach again).  Not only did he have every teenaged girl in Britain tuning in to watch, but he probably had all their mums tuning in too.  But I found much of Tennant’s portrayal annoying – not just the lovey-dovey stuff that he indulged in with his travelling companion Billie Piper (and seemingly with the main female guest star in every other episode), but also the self-pitying whininess that increased the longer he was in the role.  No wonder cynical fans started referring to him as ‘Doctor Emo’.  It’s telling how the episodes of the show that got most acclaim during his reign were the ones he was hardly in (Blink) or the ones where he played the Doctor out of his usual character (Human Nature and The Waters of Mars).

 

© BBC

 

In bottom place I have Peter Davison, the fifth, early-1980s Doctor, whom I just found young, bland and ineffectual.  At the time he was best known for playing Tristan Farnon, one of the vets in the wholesome Sunday-evening drama All Creatures Great and Small, and once he stepped into the Doctor’s shoes he sneeringly became known as ‘the Vet in Space’.   No offence to Davison – I’ve seen him, middle-aged, in more recent shows like The Last Detective (2003-2007) and Matt Berry’s hilarious Toast of London (2012-present), and thought he was good.  Back then, though, Davison was simply too young to give the role much gravity.

 

And there ends my ranking of the 13 Doctors, which has been scrupulously fair and unbiased.  Even if I did stick all the pretty-boy ones at the bottom. 

 

Scary telly – ten favourites

 

As promised in my previous blog-entry, here are my ten favourite memories of the golden age of scary British TV – back in the 1970s and early 1980s, a period when UK programme-makers seemed to have no compunctions about frightening audiences.

 

Journey to the Unknown (1969 – Matakitas is Coming)

At the end of the 1960s, Hammer Films – Britain’s premier studio specialising in horror films – tried its hand at television.  The resulting series, an anthology one called Journey to the Unknown, differed from the studio’s usual output in that it eschewed gothic costume-dramas like their Dracula and Frankenstein movies and placed its stories in contemporary settings.  The show was short-lived and variable in quality but, when it was repeated on late-night TV during the 1970s, it impressed me with this instalment about a woman (played by Psycho’s Vera Miles) doing research in an old labyrinthine library about a serial killer who operated during the 1920s.  As night falls, she inadvertently gets locked inside the library and, as she tries to escape, she discovers that, somehow, the city outside has shifted four decades back in time to the 1920s.  And worse, she isn’t actually alone inside the library…

 

Journey to the Unknown also sticks in my mind because of its opening credits sequence, whose images were set in a deserted, night-time fairground and accompanied by a haunting, whistled theme-tune composed by Harry Robinson.

 

The Stone Tape (1972)

The output of Manx writer Nigel Kneale could easily provide material for a top ten of scary TV moments in itself, from his Quatermass serials in the 1950s through to the adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black that he did for ITV in 1989 (two decades before Hammer Films got their hands on the property).  The Stone Tape is perhaps his most unnerving work.  An example of Kneale’s fondness for blending science-fiction elements with the supernatural, it’s the story of a team of scientists with hi-tech monitoring equipment investigating an old, supposedly haunted house that has the psychic memory of some hideous, malevolent thing imprinted in its stonework.  This one-off play is in fact an early exploration of the ‘residual haunting’ theory – that ghosts are echoes or recordings of past events somehow stored in their physical surroundings – and so influential was it that the theory is now sometimes called the ‘Stone Tape theory’.  The play was directed by Peter Sasdy, who was responsible for several of Hammer’s better later horror films, and among its cast was the distinguished Scottish actor Iain Cuthbertson, who will appear again in this list.

 

Doctor Who (1976 – The Seeds of Doom)

There are two things that Doctor Who has always done well – mass killing and body horror.  The Tom Baker-era story The Seeds of Doom – which is about alien seed-pods that germinate, infect human beings and transform them into grotesque, meat-eating plant-monsters – has both things in spades.  One pod becomes the possession of an insane millionaire plant-lover called Harrison Chase – played by the underrated British character actor Tony Beckley – and he gets it to germinate, using one of his own employees, a luckless botanist called Arnold Keeler, as bait.  Episode 4 of this serial, wherein Chase chains the slowly-transforming Keeler to a bed, ignoring his pleas for help and trying to speed up the metamorphosis by feeding him pieces of raw meat, was the stuff of nightmares when I was 11.

 

(c) BBC

 

A Ghost Story for Christmas (1976 – The Signalman)

Unlike other instalments of A Ghost Story for Christmas, this was based not on a story by M.R. James but on one by Charles Dickens and it is perhaps the fondest-remembered of the lot.  Dripping with oppressive atmosphere – most of the action is set in a remote, lonely signal-box, located at the bottom of a deep cutting and before the mouth of a tunnel – it features Denholm Elliot as a harassed signalman, convinced that (a) he occasionally sees a spectral figure wailing and gesticulating in front of the tunnel and (b) whenever that figure appears, it is the harbinger of a deadly accident about to happen on the line.  Particularly spooky is the ghostly vibration that emanates from the signal-box’s bell, as a forewarning that the ghost is about to manifest.  The script was by Andrew Davies, who later become British television’s leading adaptor of classic literature.  And Denholm Elliot ended up doing a lot of this stuff.

 

Beasts (1976 – After Barty’s Party)

By the mid-1970s Nigel Kneale had become disillusioned with the BBC and turned to rival channel ITV, for whom he would pen the final Quatermass serial in 1980 and The Woman in Black in 1989.  Before those, however, came a short anthology series called Beasts in 1976.  No doubt the ITV programmers expected an old-fashioned horror show that was packed with monsters – but what they got from Kneale was entirely different, a series of plays called Beasts that paradoxically didn’t contain any beasts (or at least, didn’t show them).  Kneale described the episode After Barty’s Party, about a middle-class couple whose home is invaded by a swarm of noisy, hungry but never-seen rats, as an attempt to remake Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds “without the birds”.  Its low-key, leave-everything-to-the-imagination approach, with the rats represented only by sound effects, didn’t exactly scare me as a youngster but it certainly unsettled me.  And it has stuck in my head ever since.

 

Supernatural (1977 – Countess Iliona / The Werewolf Reunion)

From its foreboding church-organ music, to the images of stone gargoyles that adorned its credits sequence, to its premise – people try to gain membership of a decadent Victorian society called the Club of the Damned by telling them stories based on their terrifying real-life experiences – to the fruity acting by guest stars such as Jeremy Brett and Denholm Elliot (again), Supernatural was as gothic a show as you could ever expect to get on TV.  Slow-moving, extremely stagey and resolutely keeping most of its horrors off-screen and in the viewers’ imagination, it’s the sort of show that would never be made today.  Indeed, I don’t think it’s been repeated since the 1970s.

 

The Supernatural story that scared me most when I was a kid was the two-parter Countess Iliona / The Werewolf Reunion.  This stars Billie Whitelaw (then wife of the show’s writer Robert Mueller) as a woman who during her youth was used and abused by a series of powerful men and eventually, to spare them embarrassment, ‘married off’ to a brutal aristocrat living in a remote mountain castle.  After the aristocrat dies mysteriously, she invites those former beaus who’d mistreated her – played by Edward Hardwicke, John Fraser, Charles Kay and the great Ian Hendry – out to her castle.  What they don’t know is that the aristocratic husband didn’t really die, but got infected with something that leaves him hairy and bloodthirsty when there’s a full moon.  And his wife now plans to use him, like a deadly attack dog, to right a few wrongs.  We never see the werewolf or the havoc it wreaks but the final scene, where the shadow of something advances on the final, quaking victim, is chillingly effective.

 

Children of the Stones (1977)

It wasn’t just the adult TV schedules that were awash with scares during the 1970s.  BBC and ITV programmers also crammed them into the children’s schedules as well, with shows like Sky and The Changes – both of which were ostensibly science fiction, but being a sensitive child I found them supremely creepy – and the anthology show Shadows.  But The Children of the Stones is regarded as the scariest British kids’ show of the lot.  It’s fashionable now to describe it as a children’s version of The Wicker Man, but with a story incorporating a megalithic stone circle, a druidic cult of brainwashed villagers, ‘time rifts’ and an attempt to harness the power of a black hole, it was rather trippier than Peter Schaffer’s celebrated horror movie.  People remember it for its spooky atmosphere, its distinguished cast (Gareth Thomas, the ubiquitous Iain Cuthbertson and the wonderful Freddie Jones) and, most of all, its music, which involved weirdly chanting voices swirling in and out of audibility.  In fact, so disturbing was that music that I’m sure the show had given many kids nightmares even before they’d finished watching its opening credits.

 

 

Tales of the Unexpected (1980 – Royal Jelly)

Tales of the Unexpected, which for its first couple of seasons drew its stories from the works of Roald Dahl, was the most famous anthology series of the time, although I wasn’t a big fan of it.  Too often I found it stagy and cheap-looking.  Its budget seemed to be mostly spent on its casts, which were genuinely impressive, ranging from big British names like Michael Hordern, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, John Mills, Derek Jacobi, Robert Morley, Anthony Quayle, Anna Massey and Denholm Elliot (him again) to big international ones like Joseph Cotton, Rod Taylor, Eli Wallach, Telly Savalas, Jennifer Connelly, George Peppard, Brad Dourif, Sondra Locke and Frank Sinatra – that’s Frank Sinatra Junior, admittedly.

 

However, the episode Royal Jelly, based on the Dahl short story of the same name, was memorably freaky, thanks largely to a performance by Timothy West as an aging beekeeper who consumes vast quantities of royal jelly in order to make himself virile and able to impregnate his young wife (played by Susan George).  It has the unedifying side-effect of turning West into a hairy human bee who goes ‘Bzzz-hzzz-hzzz!’ whilst chuckling about how clever he’s been.

 

The Hammer House of Horror (1980 – The House that Bled to Death)

At the beginning of the 1980s, with the British film industry all but extinct, Hammer Films turned its attention to television again and has a second go at mounting a horror anthology series.  The result, The Hammer House of Horror, was as variable as its predecessor, Journey to the Unknown, but the best episodes have lingered in people’s memories ever since.  (The series started off being sexually and bloodily explicit by TV standards of the time, but the producers toned the sex and violence down when they realised that a good part of the audience they were attracting was made up of children.  It didn’t occur to them that the sex and bloodshed was probably why so many kids were tuning in.)  And Denholm Elliot – yes! – appeared in one of the stories.

 

 (c) Hammer Films

 

The episode The House that Bled to Death was inspired by the allegedly true-life, much-disputed events of the Amityville haunting in the USA.  It has a young family moving into a house that was the scene of a gruesome murder and engineering a series of fake supernatural happenings to make it look like the house is haunted.  Then, colluding with their estate agent, they become millionaires by publishing a bestselling book about their experiences – though things don’t go quite as they’d planned.  A scene where a pipe bursts in a living-room ceiling and, instead of spewing water, spews blood down onto a group of children enjoying a birthday party provided The Hammer House of Horror with its most notorious moment.

 

The Nightmare Man (1981)

The four-part serial The Nightmare Man was a collaboration between Robert Holmes and Douglas Camfield, who these days are regarded as the greatest writer and director respectively to have worked on the original series of Doctor Who.  Based on a novel by David Wiltshire, it was set on a Scottish island where locals and tourists are gorily falling victim to a mysterious thing and it had a wonderful cast – James Warwick, Celia Imre, Tom Watson, Maurice Roeves and James Cosmo.  However, it was cheap (it was actually filmed in Cornwall, not in Scotland at all) and I suspect that if I saw it now it would look very dated.  Even at the time, the final episode with its denouement about what was really happening, involving a Cold War plot and a malfunctioning cyborg, struck me as a big anti-climax.  But for me in my impressionable youth, during those earlier episodes where animalistic sound effects and Camfield’s subjective camera represent the monster as it stalks unseen through swirling island fog, the show was perfect.

 

As I said previously, the British TV ghost-and-horror craze was over by the early 1980s.  Suddenly, this sort of show stopped being made.  Maybe it was a coincidence, but the disappearance of the genre from British screens coincided with a broadcast of a TV play that, although it wasn’t about the supernatural or the conventionally macabre, managed to be the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen on television.  1984’s Threads, written by Barry Hines (of Kes fame) and directed by Mick Jackson, shows what happens in Sheffield when nuclear war breaks out between the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries.  A nuclear strike on the city and its immediate aftermath are depicted with a series of unforgettable images – a woman wetting herself on a street when she sees a mushroom cloud rising above the rooftops, milk bottles melting on a doorstep, a charred cyclist on a blackened bicycle entangled in the branches of a burning bush, a gagged patient screaming mutely on a table in an anaesthetic-free hospital while surgeons saw off his leg, blood running down that hospital’s steps – and Hines and Jackson don’t flinch either in showing what comes later, with the advent of a nuclear winter and Britain’s descent into dystopian hell.

 

After the very credible horrors that were presented by Threads, I’m afraid, no amount of TV ghosts or monsters were ever going to frighten me in the same way again.  So maybe it was just as well that the golden age of scary British television ended there.

 

Have I got Whos for you 2

 

 (c) BBC

 

The 1980s began with Doctor Who regarded as a much-loved and popular British institution.  By the end of that decade, it had the reputation of being a sad and embarrassing joke, watched only by the sort of male fan-geek who still lived with his parents, had personal hygiene problems and had never kissed a girl.  Many lay the blame for this at the door of John Nathan-Turner, who became the show’s producer in 1980 and stayed in the post for the next nine years.  Nathan-Turner certainly made mistakes, though it’s arguable that by keeping the show in the headlines – he had a great talent for publicity stunts and gimmicks – he helped it survive longer than it otherwise would have done.

 

Nathan-Turner’s initial instincts were sound enough, which were to tone down the amount of comedy in the show and get rid of horridly-cute robot dog K9.  He also employed a new script editor, Christopher H. Bidmead, who was keen on using stories that both explored new developments in science (e.g. tachyons) and were imaginative – indeed, one of Bidmead’s scripts was inspired by the M.C. Escher picture Castrovalva.  Mind you, on his watch, the scripts got a bit too earnest.

 

However, the list of things that John Nathan-Turner got wrong is a long one.  He scrapped the show’s wonderfully eerie theme music (which was still recognisable as the one fashioned by Delia Derbyshire and the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in the early 1960s) and replaced it with a snazzy 1980s-style version that today sounds dated in the way that only 1980s music can.  The show’s incidental music also became dinky and garish in a peculiarly 1980s way, to the point where, nowadays, there are episodes from that era available on youtube that I can’t stomach because they’re so unlistenable.  Also, fatally, at a time when TV drama was becoming increasingly flashy-looking and cinematic, he left the filming of the show to a number of bog-standard, old-school TV directors, with the result that it often looked very flat and stagy indeed.

 

But for me Nathan-Turner’s worst mistake was to make the show more for its hard-core fans than for a mass audience.  It always had dedicated fans who bought all the memorabilia – in my childhood I owned Doctor Who annuals, models, painting kits and most of the novelisations of past adventures published by Target Books; I even pestered my long-suffering grandmother into knitting me a Tom Baker-era Doctor Who scarf.  But the show was massively popular among casual TV viewers too.  In fact, during the 1970s, while Star Trek fans gathered in huge conventions and acquired their own nickname (‘Trekkies’), Doctor Who fans were a much less visible, much more underground tribe.  The show had an official fan club, but it was run from a bedroom in Edinburgh by a lone teenager called Keith Miller, who managed to knock out an occasional Xeroxed newsletter.  (Miller has written two memoirs about his experiences as club organiser and, amusingly, he mentions that a young, rival Doctor Who fan in Glasgow kept trying to wrest control of the club from him.  The name of this Glaswegian would-be usurper was Peter Capaldi, of whom we will hear more later.)

 

Aware that by the 1980s Doctor Who fandom was taking on the trappings of a cult, Nathan-Turner increasingly tailored the show for those fans.  At every opportunity he popped in fan-pleasing references to past Doctors, companions, monsters and storylines – often things that only diehard fans could remember.  Thus, the programme became increasingly impenetrable for non-fans, even though they made up the majority of the TV viewing audience.  And, consequently, high ratings became a thing of the past.

 

After one year with Nathan-Turner at the helm, the mighty Tom Baker left the show and was replaced by Peter Davison, who’s probably my least favourite Doctor.  Baker was always going to be a hard act, if not an impossible one, to follow, but I couldn’t understand why his replacement should be someone as young and bland as Davison was at the time.  He was best known for playing Tristran Farnon, one of the vets in the wholesome Sunday-evening drama All Creatures Great and Small, and once he stepped into the Tardis he quickly, sneeringly became known as ‘the Vet in Space’.   (No offence to Davison – I’ve seen him, middle-aged, in more recent shows like The Last Detective and thought he was good.  He was just too young in 1981 to give the role much gravity.)

 

(c) BBC

 

In 1984 Davison gave way to Colin Baker, whom I thought was a far better choice.  For one thing, the second Baker tried to steer the character back to the abrasive and irascible one played by the original actor in the role, William Hartnell.  This approach worked well in dark, satiric adventures like Vengeance on Varos (a commentary on the then-topical ‘video nasties’ scare, written by Philip Martin, who’d been responsible for the surreal crime show Gangsters) and Revelation of the Daleks (a reworking of the Evelyn Waugh book The Loved One, which for a change was shot by a talented director, Graeme Harper).  Unfortunately, my positive opinion of Colin Baker is a minority one and most people regard him as the worst Doctor ever, the George Lazenby of the franchise.  What ruined his portrayal was the decision – another misjudgement by John Nathan-Turner – that he should wear a multi-coloured and jaw-droppingly ugly overcoat.  This was intended to make him appear more alien, but it had the result of making his Doctor very hard to take seriously.

 

Meanwhile, the BBC’s upper echelons were getting sick of the show.  Michael Grade, BBC1’s Controller during the 1980s, made no secret of his loathing for science fiction in general and Doctor Who in particular and he did his best to sabotage it – cutting its budget, taking it off the air for an 18-month hiatus, ordering it to tone down its violence (Mary Whitehouse had been complaining again) and making Nathan-Turner sack Colin Baker.  He also moved the show from its traditional Saturday-teatime slot and broadcast it on weekday evenings, where it ended up against Coronation Street, rival channel ITV’s über-soap opera.  Coronation Street, in fact, was the Death-star of ITV programming.

 

By this time I was at college.  I, and a number of my (male) friends, still watched the show, partly out of nostalgia for how good it’d seemed in the 1970s, partly because there was still the occasional, decent story, and partly – brace yourselves for a sexist confession – because we fancied the Doctor’s female travelling companions.  Feminists derided Doctor Who because, traditionally, the female supporting cast had existed only to look pretty, scream at the monsters, twist their ankles whilst running away from those monsters, listen to large amounts of plot exposition and tell the Doctor how clever he was.  From the mid-1970s, though, the producers had tried to introduce female companions who at least walked a line between being eye-candy and being characters who matched, or nearly matched, the Doctor in terms of intelligence or attitude: the much-loved Elisabeth Sladen, who played the smart and sassy journalist, Sarah-Jane Smith, and then actresses Louise Jameson, Mary Tamm, Lalla Ward and Janet Fielding.  By the mid-1980s, the companion was the super-bosomly Nichola Bryant.  I didn’t like her much because she was a throwback, wet in manner and screaming a lot, but her physical attributes at least kept the Dads and male students watching.

 

Unfathomably – another disastrous Nathan-Turner miscalculation – the next companion was comic actress Bonnie Langford, best known for playing shrill obnoxious schoolgirl Violet Elizabeth Bott in a 1970s TV series based on Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories.  When she joined Doctor Who, Langford’s persona was still shrill and bratty and, thanks to her stick-thin frame, she remained child-like in appearance.  All those Dads and lads switched off forever.

 

In 1987 Sylvester McCoy, the first Scottish actor to take on the role, became the seventh Doctor and at this point I gave up.  McCoy is another actor I like, but with the grating Bonnie Langford sharing the Tardis with him, with the budget now apparently non-existent and with the stories appallingly written and going for a camp approach – I don’t mean ‘camp’ as in ‘flamboyantly gay’, but ‘camp’ as in ‘so-bad-it’s-entertaining’, like in the old Batman and Wonder Women TV series – I found the show too painful to continue with.  People tell me that later the show improved, with a feisty new companion (Sophie Aldred) replacing Langford and a new script editor, Andrew Cartmel, hiring talented writers like Ben Aaronovitch, future author of the Rivers of London novels, and the Scottish playwright Rona Munro, but I’d had enough.  When the BBC cancelled the show in 1989, I didn’t even notice.

 

Incidentally, one person who’s a big fan of the seventh Doctor is Peter Jackson, New Zealand director of the Lord of the Rings movies.  Rumour has it that Jackson owns his own seventh-Doctor costume and he made a point of casting McCoy as Radagast the Brown in the Hobbit trilogy.  Jackson has even offered to direct an episode of Doctor Who, provided the BBC give him a Dalek as payment.  Nothing has so far come of Jackson’s proposition – maybe the parsimonious BBC can’t spare the Dalek.

 

(c) BBC


Ironically, just as the BBC was pulling down the shutters on Doctor Who, another big TV science-fiction franchise was returning to the small screen.  In the USA, twenty years after Star Trek had first appeared on American television, Star Trek: the Next Generation made its debut with a brand new cast.  Such was its success that it spawned three further Star Trek series, with three further casts, which extended the franchise into the 21st century.  Once Doctor Who’s blood had been wiped off the BBC’s floorboards, executives there must’ve begun to wonder if they’d actually killed a potential cash-cow – and indeed, if there was not some way that cash-cow couldn’t be revived, and of course, milked, in the not-too-distant future.  The problem was finance.  A big TV sci-fi series in the 1990s required convincing, i.e. expensive, special effects, which was going to be a problem for the always cash-strapped BBC, whose low-budget special effects for Doctor Who might have been serviceable in the 1960s and 1970s but looked positively embarrassingly by the 1980s.  If the BBC was going to re-launch the show, it would have to do so in partnership with someone who had money.

 

The first attempt at a revival came in 1996 with a one-off BBC-American co-production called Doctor Who – The Movie.  With committee-rooms of suited American executives clamouring to have their say about how the new Who should be, whilst knowing absolute zilch about the old show, it could have been abysmal.  I’ve heard rumours that Steven Spielberg, whose company Amblin International was involved at one point in the re-launch, wanted the Doctor played by Michael Crawford, famous in the US at the time for playing the lead in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musical version of The Phantom of the Opera.  In the UK, Crawford was known to everyone for playing the beret-wearing, dim-witted, effeminate and utterly disaster-prone Frank Spencer in the 1970s sitcom Some Mothers do ’ave ’em; and the sight of Frank Spencer emerging from the Tardis would surely have killed off the show for British audiences, forever.  The finished effort actually starred Liverpudlian actor Paul McGann as a melancholic-faced, Byronic-looking and fairly credible Doctor and it wasn’t that bad.  It managed to get respectable viewing figures when it was shown in Britain, but it failed to make a splash in America, which destroyed its chances of earning a spin-off TV series.

 

(c) BBC / 20th Century Fox

 

The mistake made by the makers of Doctor Who – The Movie was not, as might be expected, because it strayed too far from the show’s mythology, but because it stuck too close to it.  In its first minute a voice-over managed to refer to the Master, Daleks and Time Lords, which must have mystified those crucial American TV viewers, 99.9% of whom knew nothing about the original show.  Another well-meaning nod to continuity, to keep old fans happy, was that the movie started off with Sylvester McCoy still playing the seventh Doctor and had him regenerate into the eighth, McGann, twenty minutes in.  Any Americans still watching by that point probably switched off in bafflement.

 

Fortunately, when the next attempt was made to revive the series, the person at the helm was Russell T. Davies – a man who knew what the pitfalls were and knew how to avoid them.

 

To be continued.

 

Have I got Whos for you

 

 

As animals learn to recognise the sounds of danger and take flight on hearing those sounds, so when I was six years old I learned to take flight when I heard a certain sound coming from the television on Saturday teatimes.  It was a weird, pulsating sound that went diddly-dink, diddly-dink, diddly-dink and it was the start of the famous electronic music of the BBC’s flagship science-fiction show Doctor Who.  However, such was the monstrousness of the aliens encountered by the Doctor and his companions while they explored the universe in the Tardis, his police box-shaped space / time machine, that to me it seemed more like a horror show.  Legend has it that Britain’s entire juvenile population would take refuge from the show’s monsters by hiding behind their sofas, but I didn’t, because in our living room there wasn’t enough space to hide behind the sofa.  Instead, I’d run into the adjoining kitchen and sneak frightened glances back at the TV from the kitchen doorway.

 

However, like a character in a Joseph Conrad story, I eventually realised that the only way to conquer my fears was to confront them.  So I forced myself to stay in the living room when Doctor Who came on TV and watch it.  This was during the period when the Doctor was played by Jon Pertwee and, during his last couple of seasons, I did become reasonably immune to the show’s scary bits.  But then in 1974 a new production team took over and new Doctor, Tom Baker, inherited the lead role.  They decided to make the show as frightening as possible – well, as frightening as they could get away with on a teatime TV series watched largely by primary-school-age kids.  And suddenly I found myself watching it from the kitchen doorway again.

 

The show was long-running even then.  It’s far longer-running now and today, November 23rd, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of its first episode being broadcast in 1963.  Writer-actor Mark Gatiss recently wrote a TV play about how the show was created – courtesy of Sydney Newman, the BBC’s then head of drama, Verity Lambert, a young female producer, and William Hartnell, the flinty character actor who was the first person to play the Doctor.  Gatiss’s play, An Adventure in Space and Time, was shown on BBC2 two evenings ago and starred craggy Dundonian actor Brian Cox as Newman, actress Jessica Raine as Lambert and Harry Potter actor David Bradley as Hartnell.  An Adventure… nostalgically recreates both the tweedy boardrooms and the sweaty studios of the BBC in the early 1960s and is clearly a loving tribute by a massive fan of the show (which Gatiss avowedly is).  Also, it’s the best thing the BBC has done so far to celebrate Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary.

 

(Other celebratory items have included Doctor Who: the Ultimate Guide on BBC3, the corporation’s teen / twenty-something channel, which treated us to the opinions of such experts on the show as useless teenybop-rock band McFly.  There was also an optimistically-titled special called The Science of Doctor Who, hosted by Brian Cox.  That’s Brian Cox the famous physicist, not Brian Cox the craggy Dundonian actor.)

 

 (c) Royal Mail

 

William Hartnell was 55 when he took on the role in 1963, but if you’ve seen him in movies like Carry On Sergeant or Hell Drivers, you’ll know that he belonged to a wartime generation of British actors who seemed like tough, leathery old men no matter what their real age was.  Accordingly, Hartnell often played the Doctor as a cranky pensioner (although he mellowed later on).  Indeed, in the show’s early episodes, he’s quite unheroic.  He comes across as a devious old shite and on one occasion, when he picks up a rock intending to stove in the head of an injured man, seems almost psychotic.  I wish that in the show’s modern incarnation, where there’s much bleating about the Doctor’s pacifism and his unwillingness to use physical force, the programme-makers would cast their minds back to how the character behaved originally.

 

One nice thing about Gatiss’s play is that it shows the change Doctor Who wreaked in Hartnell’s life after 1963.  He’d become typecast as a hard-man character capable only of playing crooks and army sergeants, he wasn’t in the best of health and he was possibly at the end of his acting career.  Then he found himself in a wildly popular TV show, one unlike anything he’d done before, and suddenly he became an instantly-recognisable hero to the nation’s children.  Sadly, he didn’t have long to enjoy his fame.  After three years his declining health – he found it increasingly difficult to remember his lines, especially the show’s sci-fi technobabble – forced him to quit.

 

But it wasn’t Hartnell that made Doctor Who a huge success.  It was the saltshaker-shaped, croak-voiced and homicidal Daleks that trundled into view at the end of its fifth episode that sent ratings through the roof.  The Daleks were created by Terry Nation, who till then was known as a comedy writer.  Nation almost didn’t write for Doctor Who, as he was already lined up to work with the legendary TV comic Tony Hancock.  However, as happened so often with Hancock and his writers – see also Ray Galton and Alan Simpson – he and Nation fell out, and Nation accepted the invitation to write for Doctor Who after all.  Thereafter, Nation’s work was mostly fantastical – he worked as script-editor on The Avengers and in the 1970s created the shows Survivors and Blake’s 7 – and he became one of the most influential figures in British TV science fiction.

 

From www.millersantiquesguide.com

 

In 1966, with Hartnell unable to continue in the role, someone hit on the idea that the Doctor – a super-intelligent, centuries-old alien – should, once his current body had worn itself out, be able to regenerate himself.  This meant the show could go on with different actors inhabiting the lead role.  Each new actor would give the Doctor his own quirks, tics and gimmicks but he also had to persuade audiences that he was at heart (or hearts – the Doctor has two) the same character.

 

The second Doctor, Patrick Troughton (who in An Adventure… was played by Mark Gatiss’s old League of Gentlemen colleague Reece Shearsmith), was a long-serving character actor, often in British horror movies like The Curse of Frankenstein (1956), The Phantom of the Opera (1963) and The Black Torment (1964).  Later, he returned to the genre, with Scars of Dracula (1970), Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973) and The Omen (1976), in which he played a priest who got memorably skewered by a lightning rod falling off a church.  (That scene still chills me – films in which Doctor Who gets killed off always seem hard-core to me.)  Troughton’s Doctor was an impish and dishevelled character, part hobo and part hippy, with a fleeting resemblance to Mo in the Three Stooges.  Most subsequent actors in the role have named him as their favourite Doctor and some (including current incumbent Matt Smith) have borrowed from him.

 

(c) BBC

 

The producers during the Troughton years, Innes Lloyd and then Peter Bryant, abandoned the ‘historical adventure’ stories common in the Hartnell era, in which the Doctor met the likes of Marco Polo, Emperor Nero and the Aztecs and the only science-fiction element was the Tardis.  Instead, they pushed the show towards out-and-out science fiction and monsters.  They developed the Doctor’s second-deadliest enemies, the Cybermen, who started off as sinister gimp-like figures in silvery body-stockings and evolved into the hulking, blank-faced, handled-headed baddies that they’re familiar as today.

 

Also, the show featured more stories set on contemporary earth, for example, with Cybermen stomping down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral and, more incongruously, yeti marauding through the London Underground.  No doubt this was due to budgetary restrictions, modern-day earth (well, London) being cheaper to film than the historical past or the distant future.  But it was also due to the producers realising that audiences found it more unnerving when the Doctor’s monstrous foes popped up in settings they were familiar with.  Debuting during this time was the long-running and admirably unflappable army-officer character, Brigadier (initially Colonel) Alistair Lethbridge Stewart, played by Nicholas Courtney, who helped Troughton and four subsequent Doctors against invading aliens.

 

In 1969, Troughton quit too and the BBC had to decide whether to end the show after a respectable seven-year run or to continue it with a new actor.  It opted for the latter course but made changes to the format.  The Doctor’s race, the all-powerful and isolationist Time Lords, were introduced.  The Doctor, it transpired, had stolen the Tardis from his home planet and nipped off in it to see the universe.  Worse, he’d broken the Time Lords’ non-interventionist code by meddling in events (for the good, obviously) at every place he’d landed.  Troughton’s tenure ended with the Time Lords capturing him, exiling him to earth – with the Tardis disabled – and making him regenerate again.

 

Stranded on earth and played now by Jon Pertwee, the Doctor fell in with the Brigadier again and started working for his anti-alien military organisation UNIT (which stood once for the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce; though after the real United Nations complained, the programme-makers changed it to the United Intelligence Taskforce).  Much crap has been written about Jon Pertwee by the show’s more intellectual fans.  Although until then Pertwee’s background had mostly been in comedy, he stands accused of making the character too much like a straightforward action hero – his Doctor wore a cape and often overcame the villains by using on them a futuristic martial art called Vensuvian Aikido.  Allegedly too, he made the character right-wing and authoritarian by working for the military-industrial complex, i.e. the Brigadier and UNIT.  It’s even claimed he turned the character into a petrol-head because his Doctor had a fondness for driving vintage cars.  Pertwee’s real personality – from all accounts he was a bit of a prima-donna – probably hasn’t helped his reputation.

 

(c) BBC

 

To that I can only say that during his tenure from 1970 to 1974, Pertwee’s impact was immense on kids like me.  To us, he was The Main Man.  Every Monday at school would be spent discussing what he’d got up to – what alien or monster he’d karate-chopped – on the previous Saturday’s episode.  (These discussions required considerable play-acting from me, as I’d been too scared to watch much of the episodes.  But to preserve my reputation for manliness I had to pretend that I had.)  No doubt it did Pertwee’s considerable ego no harm to know that, for a large section of the British population, he was the Greatest Bloke in the Universe.

 

As the Doctor and the Brigadier were in a Holmes / Watson-type relationship, producer Barry Letts and script-editor Terrance Dicks gave them a Moriarty in the shape of the Master, another renegade Time Lord, one who was as evil as the Doctor was good.  Playing the Master initially was the excellent Roger Delgado, a Cockney in real life although Spanish and Belgian in his parentage, which gave him the necessary amount of foreignness to be a British TV villain at the time.

 

This was also when the show’s greatest writer, Robert Holmes, became prominent.  He was responsible for such traumatising stories as Terror of the Autons, which featured murderous sentient plastic in various forms: murderous plastic dummies, dolls, armchairs, flowers and telephone leads.  Also creeping me out during this period was a non-Holmes story called The Daemons, which had the Master unleash ancient and evil forces from an English country church and which was in the tradition of 1970s British folk-horror movies like The Wicker Man.  A sequence where a malevolent group of Morris Dancers try to suffocate Pertwee by pinning him against a maypole and wrapping him with the pole’s ribbons while they dance around him has left me with a lifelong fear of Morris Dancers.

 

This period also saw The Three Doctors, an adventure marking the show’s tenth anniversary in 1973.  It brought together all three characters who’d played the character by that point: Pertwee, Troughton and (a very ailing) Hartnell.  This set the style for future anniversary / reunion adventures such as The Five Doctors (1983), The Two Doctors (1985), Time Crash (2007) and one that’s being shown tonight, featuring the tenth and eleventh Doctors, Day of the Doctor.  In these, the Doctors assemble through some strange kink in the space-time continuum, bicker, get on each other’s nerves and insult each other’s interior-design sense in the Tardis control room.  (“You’ve done this place up.  I don’t like it.”)  The Three Doctors saw Pertwee and co save the Time Lords from destruction and in gratitude they lifted his exile, allowing him to go wandering again.

 

(c) BBC

 

In 1974 the Doctor regenerated again, Pertwee being replaced by Tom Baker.  Like Troughton, Baker had served time in British horror and fantasy films like Vault of Horror, Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Frankenstein: the True Story and the mind-boggling sleaze-fest The Mutations, and he was also a raconteur well-known for his drinking exploits in the less salubrious pubs of Soho with the likes of Francis Bacon.  Eccentric, wild-eyed, endowed with a voice and manner that made him seem like a Shakespearean version of Groucho Marx, and wearing the definite Doctor Who outfit of a wide-brimmed hat and super-long multi-coloured scarf, he became the franchise’s signature Doctor.  When The Simpsons do a Doctor Who gag these days, it invariably features Baker’s fourth Doctor.

 

With Baker as the definite Doctor, an ambitious young producer called Philip Hinchcliffe at the helm, and the show’s best writer, Robert Holmes, as script-editor, the next three years were the show’s Golden Age.  Hinchcliffe and Holmes borrowed ideas from all manner of British horror and adventure fiction, such as Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, Sax Rohmer, Agatha Christie, Frankenstein, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as well as from the Hammer horror films and Quatermass, and they produced a slew of classic (and, for me, terrifying) adventures: The Ark in Space, Terror of the Zygons, Pyramids of Mars, Brain of Morbius, Masque of Mandragora, The Deadly Assassin, Robots of Death and Talons of Weng Chiang.

 

During this era my all-time favourite Who adventure was broadcast, The Seeds of Doom, which concerned alien seed-pods that germinated, infected their human victims and then slowly transformed them into hideous, flesh-eating plant-monsters.  One pod falls into the hands of a crazed millionaire plant-lover called Harrison Chase – played by Tony Beckley, a familiar face from cult British movies like Get Carter and The Italian Job – and Chase wastes no time in getting it to germinate.  The scenes where slowly-transforming botanist Arnold Keeler is chained to a bed, futilely begging Chase to give him medical help, while Chase is more interested in aiding his metamorphosis by feeding him protein (i.e. slices of raw meat), is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever watched on TV.

 

Alas, all good things come to an end.  By 1976 Britain’s self-appointed moral guardian Mrs Mary Whitehouse was on the warpath about the show’s horror and violence – she was particularly upset by an episode of The Deadly Assassin that seemingly ended with Tom Baker being drowned.  So the BBC took Hinchcliffe off the show and instructed its next producer, Graham Williams, to tone things down.  Consequently, Williams’ era is seen as the start of a long period of decline for the show, the stories being pitched at a much younger audience and Baker being encouraged to play up the Doctor’s comedic aspects.  Most painfully, a cute and intensely annoying robot dog called K9 was added to the cast.  One of the creators of K9 was writer Bob Baker, who since then has co-written the Wallace and Gromit films with Nick Park.  I can only say that, as heroic dogs go, K9 is not fit to sniff Gromit’s bottom.

 

(c) BBC

 

That said, I still found some of the Williams-era Doctor Who entertaining.  This was largely because towards the end of it the great Douglas Adams, of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, was appointed script editor, which upped the level of wit in the writing.  Also, Tom Baker received some good dramatic support, both from his regular cast (which included Lalla Ward, now better known as Mrs Richard Dawkins) and from his guest stars, which included such classy characters actors as Iain Cuthbertson, Valentine Dyall, Peter Jeffrey, John Woodvine and Julian Glover.  Glover, in fact, was the villain in the best adventure of this period, The City of Death, which was set in Paris and co-written by Adams.  At one point The City of Death managed to attract some 16 million viewers, showing that, even if the show was declining in quality, the Great British public was still watching it in droves.

 

A year later, however, another new producer arrived and a terrible thing happened.  For the first time, Doctor Who became conscious of its fans.

 

To be continued.

 

Writers of Doctor Who

 

(c) Target Books

 

Despite the fact that most big science fiction franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars leave me cold, or at best lukewarm, I have a great deal of affection for Doctor Who, which this coming Saturday will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its first episode being broadcast.  I suspect the reason is because Doctor Who is essentially a writer’s show.  Among its fans there’s as much discussion of the people writing the scripts as there is of the actors playing the Doctor, and indeed, these days, the name of the ‘show-runner’ (invariably a writer) is almost as well-known as the name of the lead actor himself.  And the show’s premise, whereby a renegade character, devoid of personal ties and expelled from his own culture, wanders around in a miraculous space / time machine that can visit anytime in history and anywhere in the universe, is so loose that it allows writers to let their imaginations off the leash and write about practically anything.

 

Among the people who over the years have written Doctor Who episodes, or associated media for the show such as novels and comic strips, are: Dan Abnett, Douglas Adams, Ben Aaronovitch, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, Robert Banks Stewart, Christopher H. Bidmead, David Bishop, Chris Boucher, Chris Chibnall, Eoin Colfer, Jenny Colgan, Paul Cornell, Neil Cross, Richard Curtis, Russell T. Davis, Neil Gaiman, Stephen Gallagher, Mark Gatiss, Brian Hayles, Charlie Higson, Don Houghton, Malcolm Hulke, A.L. Kennedy, Philip Martin, Pat Mills, Steven Moffat, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, James Moran, Grant Morrison, Rona Munro, Terry Nation, Kim Newman, Simon Nye, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, Dennis Spooner and Toby Whitehouse.  All right, there are at least two names on that list whose output I think is absolutely dreadful (clue – their surnames both begin with ‘C’) but between them these writers are responsible for a vast amount of significant cultural material over the past half-century: everything from Anno Dracula and Artemis Fowl to Wallace and Gromit and The Watchmen.

 

But there are two Doctor Who writing names who, in my opinion, tower above the rest.  In the 1970s and early 1980s, Robert Holmes was the scriptwriter responsible for a number of stories (Spearhead from Space, Terror of the Autons, The Ark in Space, The Deadly Assassin, The Talons of Weng Chiang, The Caves of Androzani) whose images seared themselves on my youthful brain and have lurked there ever since.  Those images range from the sequence in Spearhead from Space where plastic shop-mannequins come to life, smash their way out of shop-windows and slaughter passers-by, to one terrifying scene in The Ark in Space that ended with an infected space-station crewman removing his hand from his pocket to reveal it’d turned into a knob of slimy green alien flesh.  All right, that alien flesh was actually made of green-painted bubble-wrap, but back in 1975 bubble-wrap was a new invention and I didn’t know what it was.

 

Terrance Dicks, meanwhile, served as scriptwriter and occasional writer on the show during the 1970s.  But it’s for his role as novelist-in-chief for Target Books’ Doctor Who series, which turned most of the TV adventures from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s into neat, collectible paperbacks with attractive and colourful covers (often courtesy of fantasy-artist Chris Achilleos) that Dicks deserves the greatest praise.  Back then, there were no such things as whole-season box sets, Internet streaming or BBC iplayers, or indeed, DVDs or even video cassette tapes, to allow people to catch up with missed television.  Also, the BBC seemed distinctly uninterested in repeating past episodes of Doctor Who – indeed, the corporation had wiped many of the early episodes featuring the first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughon, assuming that the tapes served no financial or cultural function and only took up unnecessary space in their storerooms.  (Considering how the BBC has made millions since then selling the show and its memorabilia to worldwide audiences, they must be really kicking themselves about that act of wanton destruction now.)  So, in those days, if you were a ten-year-old wanting to experience past adventures with past Doctors, your only option was to buy the Target novelisations, which were invariably penned by Dicks in his simple, no-nonsense, fast-moving prose.  In fact, I suspect that Dicks did nearly as much to get folk my age reading books in the United Kingdom as, say, Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton.

 

The only problem with Dicks’ books was that they tended to make the stories seem a lot more spectacular on the page than how they’d appeared on the screen.  In fact, one of Dicks’ paragraphs, coupled with a child’s imagination, could make them seem very spectacular indeed.  What in the books were teeming utopian cities, vast gladiatorial arenas and huge bustling space-ports were on television poky little BBC studio-sets, bare, blank and a bit shaky.  Alien deserts, wastelands and battlefields were inevitably a big quarry outside London where the show seemed to do 80% of its outdoor filming.  So years later, when you finally got to see those old TV episodes that you’d previously only known through reading the novelisations, they were inevitably an anti-climax.

 

At ten years old, and as a budding writer, I decided to follow Dicks’ example and write my own Target Books Doctor Who novelisation – I made up my own TV adventure in my head and then wrote it as a book, by hand, in a hundred-page jotter.  I even added my own black-and-white illustrations every dozen pages or so.  The cover (again drawn by me) showed a giant, gauntleted fist grabbing hold of planet Earth.  The book was called Blood-Lust of the Sontarans.  The Sontarans were those war-like, potato-headed aliens who at that point had appeared on the show a couple of times to menace Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s Doctors.  They were a sort of middle-ranking monster – I suppose in the league table of great Doctor Who villains they were the equivalent of Newcastle United.

 

A year later, I decided to produce my second Doctor Who novelisation, and for this one I became positively hi-tech.  My parents had given me a typewriter for Christmas, so with that I banged out about 130 paperback-sized pages and then taped them together.  There were no illustrations in this volume, but I drew a colourful, hopefully-Chris-Achilleos-style cover showing Tom Baker getting his head fried by a futuristic brain-washing machine.  This I titled Destruction of the Daleks and, yes, it featured the show’s number-one villains, those demented, eye-stalked, kitchen-plunger-waving, pepperpot-shaped space-Nazis, the Daleks.  The premise of my novel was that the Daleks had started to be killed off by a newly-evolved virus and they were going to extreme lengths to locate a cure for it.   I was rather peeved when, several years later, the BBC seemed to nick my idea and they used it as the basis for an official Doctor Who TV adventure, Resurrection of the Daleks, which starred Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor.  I should have sued.

 

People often scoff at the phenomenon of fan fiction, but I should point out that that was precisely how E.L. James, the immensely popular, if hardly-critically-respectable author of Fifty Shades of Grey, started out – she originally wrote fan fiction about Bella and Edward in the Twilight series.  Though I have to say that unlike Ms James, my ten / eleven-year-old self was at least writing fan fiction about something that wasn’t complete shite.

 

Stand by for another Who-related post over the days to come…

 

(c) BBC