Tuesday, 26 November 2013



A personal view of the anniversary jamboree celebrating the most famous time traveller of them all.

The two weeks running up to Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary were surreal for a dyed-in-the-wool fan like me. From something in the late 1980s that no-one would admit to liking unless held at gunpoint, in the 21st century my favourite old show has become a world conquering, multi-media behemoth. Unless you approached recording everything on offer in the anniversary run-up with military precision, you really had no chance catching all of the programming. So, here’s my personal review of what I managed to catch.

THE HOME FRONT I went back to my parents for a few days the week before last as I’ve had a bit of an emotionally exhausting time of it lately. This meant watching the telly with Dad who, I have to say, has never been a Doctor Who fan. As he growled at another of the trailers for ‘The Day of the Doctor’, I reflected that nothing had changed in our respective views of the show in 50 years, though to my Dad’s credit he did buy me ‘Tricky Action’ toy Daleks and took me to the Doctor Who exhibitions at Longleat and Blackpool when I was small – that’s parental love for you. He was also indirectly responsible for my young niece Sian getting into the show: banned from the front room on the day of Doctor Who’s return in 2005, Sian was out of the dining room door as soon as the Auton turned its head, but was hooked from then on. The show still worked!

VINDICATED! Matt Smith saying on something that ‘the geeks are inheriting the Earth’: 94 countries would be watching ‘The Day of the Doctor’. It just didn’t seem possible, but I’m delighted it was.

YOU, ME AND DOCTOR WHO: A CULTURE SHOW SPECIAL I have to say I wasn’t that impressed, because I know presenter and writer Matthew Sweet can do better. He said this programme would tell us why Doctor Who was so culturally important but this intention got lost somewhere along the line. All the ingredients were there – iconoclastic young guns trying to make their mark with a programme very different from anything else on BBC Television, the use of avant garde music, the importance of Doctor Who in helping to make gay and bisexual people widely acceptable, to the point of civil partnerships, in straight society – but the definitive, cumulative statement never came. And the time spent on 1980s producer John Nathan Turner’s homosexual conquests with younger fans seemed out of place and offensive in a celebratory documentary; it looked for all the world like an apology by the BBC to pre-empt any possible legal action. (To be fair, Sweet did give JNT credit for being the first BBC executive to see all of Doctor Who as a brand, before such a marketing term had even been invented). In the end, it was left to Sweet’s closing dialogue to try and make the point that his documentary had failed to.

THE GRAHAM NORTON SHOW I know it was probably done in the name of harmless fun, but it was obvious he’d set up the fans he ‘interviewed’ to look silly and weird, and it was a shame David Tennant and Matt Smith had to play along... OK, grumbling over.

GOOGLE Doctor Who on the Google home page?! I have no words.


BBC NEWS Pleasingly, there was a Dalek on sentry duty in the BBC News Channel studio and regular reports from the huge three day event at the ExCel Centre. As I didn't have a ticket, I was rather envious of the queues and queues of people waiting to go in.

Tom Baker was interviewed, airing his customary views on Doctor Who – it’s not really an acting part, he was happier being the Doctor than being Tom Baker – but, as was the case at the BFI earlier this year, you could tell his sentiments were genuine and rather humble.

THE PARTY On my way to J. Jeremy Bentham’s anniversary party near the Excel Centre, the climax of which would be the screening of ‘The Day of the Doctor’, I had a stirring thrill of anticipation as my train approached London Bridge: suddenly, it did begin to feel like a special day.

My enthusiasm was dampened slightly by not being able to find the venue for the best part of two hours. I walked past it three or four times, before I realised what I thought was a private party for the guests was where I was supposed to be going.

The lovely Zoe posing by Chris Petts' magnificent
TARDIS console. (Image: Mike Kenwood)
Once ensconced in the warm with a pint, I reflected that, as has often been the case this year, the Doctor Who gathering seemed a bit like This Is Your Life, as it was full of fellow fans I’ve known both for years and from the recent past. There was stand-up comedian and all-round decent bloke Toby Hadoke; Gary Hopkins turned out in an immaculate Nehru suit just like Roger Delagado’s Master; friends Mike Kenwood, Zoe Ridey, Richard Berry and his girlfriend Maria; party organiser JJB, complete with fez, and Mr Chris Petts, architect of the superb, replica William Hartnell-era TARDIS console that you could have your picture taken with for the price of a small donation to charity. As well as these familiar physogs, there were a hearteningly young cross section of unfamiliar faces I’d never seen before, who’d been at the ExCel event all day.

THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR It’s fair to say that I’d had a few ales by the time ‘The Day of the Doctor’ started, but it was just enough for me to really luxuriate in this once in a lifetime experience. Lest we forget, this was a production being shown globally so it had to be world class. And it was, presenting a story full of modern Doctor Who’s blockbuster special effects, but at its heart a story about three dimensional characters you cared about, which has been the case since Doctor Who’s first episode.

The production was full of Steven Moffat’s trademark ‘timey-wimey’ complexity, set against two parallel stories that anyone could follow about a Zygon invasion (complete with UNIT) and the Doctor’s worst ever day. ‘The Day of the Doctor’ paid tribute (unintentionally? I wonder...) to the original reunion story ‘The Three Doctors’ by basically casting the excellent John Hurt as first Doctor William Hartnell, grumbling about the ‘mid-life crisis’ of his future selves and wondering if there was a lot of snogging in his future. For fans of the Tenth Doctor, it was like David Tennant had never been away, and his scene with the rabbit told you all you needed to know about why his incarnation of the Doctor was so successful.

What I particular loved about ‘The Day of the Doctor’ was the reuse of elements from the past in unexpected ways. Yep, Billie Piper was back, but as the ‘Bad Wolf’ conscience of a super weapon taking the form of Rose Tyler, who the Hurt Doctor had yet to meet and the other two couldn’t see. The best, punch-the-air example of this approach was where ALL the Doctors got to save Gallifrey, allowing brief cameos from Hartnell through to Christopher Eccleston, and it goes without saying what a crowning glory the final shot of them all (courtesy of stand-ins and CGI-amended faces) was. It was also a great touch getting Tom Baker, as the eldest surviving leading man of the series, to interact with his future self, even if he wasn’t the Doctor. Or was he…?

The double-punch-the-air moment, which got the biggest cheer of the night where I was, was the brief glimpse of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, the first time a Doctor has appeared in the series before his official debut. We even got to see Hurt begin to regenerate into Christopher Eccleston, though I have to say that the character of the Ninth Doctor would have been significantly different after the re-writing of his past, and it’s probably best not to think about how different ‘The End of Time’ would have been either. Has the Doc created a paradox out of his own timeline? Questions on a postcard to Mr S. Moffat…

From Hartnell to Smith: the gang's all here. (Image: BBC)
AFTERMATH Following the screening people gradually began to drift away, as Doctor Who Live: The Afterparty played on the TV screens in the background. I couldn’t quite believe it had everyone from One Direction to Kylie queuing up to say happy birthday, but, in a way, such a bizarre item was the fitting end to such a valedictory evening. Before we went, myself and Richard chatted briefly to a young, Patrick Troughton-costumed feller who became a fan after watching the 1996 Paul McGann TV film and had never looked back. Great to think that the Next Generation Express continues to roll.

Then myself and Zygon Curry (not his real name, just so you know) had to strike out for London Bridge. He had a spare ticket for Sunday’s third day of the ExCel event, but I turned down his generous offer as I just couldn’t afford it, though I’d loved to have gone. Instead, I picked up a few groceries, and, eating a late-night snack, reflected on the overall importance of my favourite old show in my life. I certainly wouldn’t have been inspired to go into the creative arts if I hadn’t started out writing and drawing my own Doctor Who adventures when I was a child, just like the media heavy hitters Steven Moffat, Russell T. Davies, Mark Gatiss did who’ve helped mould the series in the 21st century. 

I’ve made life-long friendships through Doctor Who, too. A couple have sadly fallen by the wayside, but among many others Mr Berry and Mr Kenwood are still there, and myself and the latter gentleman have worked on numerous TV and film-related projects together – another indication of how Doctor Who continues to inspire creativity.

So, happy 50th birthday Doctor Who – really, it was everything we could have hoped for.

Friday, 15 November 2013



NFT1, 8.20pm, 12 November 2013

The Hartnell era lives again in Mark Gatiss's delightful salute to the early days of Doctor Who. 

Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) and William Hartnell (David Bradley).
(Image: BBC)

Throughout these reviews of the BFI's Doctor Who at 50 events, I've reflected on how various periods of the series resonate with significant moments in your life. The last few weeks couldn't have been more significant for me as I came very close to losing my home. So, I arrived at the BFI on Tuesday night rather shell-shocked but victorious, as I'd managed to sort out the situation. My frame of mind seemed curiously appropriate, because, among other things, Mark Gatiss's film An Adventure in Space and Timis all about people triumphing over adversity. In years to come, I know the overriding feelings I'll have about the night I first saw this wonderful piece of faction, will be a surge of nostalgia and affection (rather than worries about housing).

I really didn't know what to expect. No one in the auditorium had seen the film (as far as I knew) and it seemed all of the Doctor Who fraternity wanted to. Waris Hussein, the programme's first director was in the audience together with Carole Ann Ford (Susan), the first companion actress. Philip Hinchcliffe, Tom Baker's first producer, was sitting a few rows in front with his wife. I was in a companion sandwich, with Louise Jameson (Leela) on one side - sitting in seat K9, appropriately enough - with Anneke Wills (Polly) on the other. Further down the row was Sophie Aldred (Ace), so it was nearly a triple decker.

A valedictory introduction by Clare Hudson, Head of BBC Cymru, was followed by a a few good humoured words from Gatiss himself. He summed up the mood of An Adventure in Space and Time, and indeed all this year's BFI celebrations, with the comment that the original Doctor Who production team had set out to make some 'tea time telly, but instead created magic.'

The author in a companion
(Image: Richard Parker)
As much as I'd like to enthuse about individual moments I can't, as the film isn't shown nationally until next week. That's very frustrating, as I'd like to praise at length, and with various examples, the accurate recreation of the working environment and practises of 1960s television, as well as the loving attention to detail in remounting key scenes from early Doctor Who's production history and fictional story. What I can say is that Gatiss's statement that his film was 'a love letter to Doctor Who' comes across in every frame. What also comes over in certain scenes - in particular, the first time the Doctor and co are confronted by the Daleks - is how an under budgeted and unloved (within the BBC hierarchy at the time) serial set the imaginations of Britain's children flying. 

At it's heart, An Adventure in Space and Time is about four people: Sydney Newman (Brian Cox), the Canadian executive poached from ABC to give BBC drama some commercial zest and 'fun '; Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine), 'the pushy Jewish bird' who was Newman's assistant, promoted to Doctor Who's first producer; Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), the BBC's first Indian, and gay, director and William Hartnell (David Bradley), a grumpy character actor who 'drinks too much and smokes too much', in the twilight of his career. What's striking is that a TV series about an outsider was created by outsiders, a point made in various scenes that highlight, but don't labour, the sexist, racist and anti-commercial attitudes within the BBC at the time.

All the principals are good, particularly Cox, who's garrulous, let's-make-some-fun Newman you can just imagine winding up the stuffed shirts in the BBC hierarchy who were stuck in the 1950s. But Bradley is something else. He might not have Hartnell's curiously high pitched voice, but he totally inhabits the man's character through his mannerisms, attitude and body language, as both the actor and the Doctor. It's such a successful portrayal that Jessica Carney, Hartnell's granddaughter who was present for the screening, was literally moved to tears.

It's a very bitter-sweet story for Hartnell. A man who was fed up with playing crooks and shouty sergeants gradually comes back to spry life as a hero to millions of children, nicely shown through the ever improving relationship with Jessica (then called Judith) and in the wonderful scene in which he and his wife Heather (Lesley Manville) meet some young fans in the park. The downside for Hartnell was that people he liked and trusted kept moving on from Doctor Who and in his heart of hearts, due to his failing health, he knew he had nowhere to move on to. At times this didn't make him the easiest man to work with - and the film doesn't back pedal on showing how difficult he could be - but the scene where he's told that even he is replaceable is absolutely heartbreaking. However, rather than ending the film on a downer, Hartnell's belief in a character who is 'C.S. Lewis meets H.G. Wells meets Father Christmas' is validated by a completely unexpected moment near the end. You really won't believe it.

David Bradley is William Hartnell is
the Doctor. (Image: BBC)
It's not surprising An Adventure in Space and Time got a standing ovation. David Bradley, watching from the stalls with the rest of us, admitted on the panel that followed the screening to being 'overwhelmed' by the audience response. His sentiments were echoed by the film's director, Terry McDonagh - one of the directors on Breaking Bad, no less - who was delighted to have found the same 'magic in this film as I did as a kid in Liverpool' and to be in 'an audience so engaged with what they were watching'. A now composed Carney was also flushed with the surge of affection in the auditorium, praising the film as 'exciting, nerve-wracking and strange - William Hartnell would have been so thrilled.'

In the concluding open mic section, the last questioner summed up the whole evening with his remark that An Adventure in Space and Time was 'well worth the eight hours in the returns queue.' After the gale of laughter that followed, there was time for one celebratory pint before the train home (which was fortunately still there).

This film has made me realise that what's great about Doctor Who is that for all the behind the scenes tensions, difficult egos and creative compromises, the audience only ever sees the magic (when it all works). What's brilliant about An Adventure in Space and Time is that you're shown behind the scenes tensions, difficult egos and creative compromises and the simple, infectious joy children see in the end result. This production will be praised for a lot of things (and criticised - this is Doctor Who, after all), but this aspect of the ongoing Doctor Who saga is something Mark Gatiss's film conveys particularly well.

Thank you for your love letter to the child in all of us, Mark.