When was Dr Who good?
This seems to be a question with several possible answers, and with the recent upturn
in the programme's ratings and the increase in interest in Dr Who, now may be the time to
put some of them on paper.
One of the first things that ever frightened me was when I was five years old. It was
the last episode of 'The Tenth Planet' and I thought that the Doctor was dead! Hysteria
reigned for several minutes while my mother patiently explained that he wasn't dead; he
was coming back but he'd look different. It's important to note that at no time did she
try to persuade me that it was only pretend. At that point I think my world would have
ended if she'd dared to suggest that the Doctor was anything else but real!
When I was six
When I was six, Patrick Troughton was in full swing, as was the infamous fifth season.
It's tragic that so much of this season was destroyed - it remains my absolute favourite.
Thirty-four weeks of monsters galore!
The beginning of the season was landmarked by my mother threatening to stop allowing me
to watch it. Why? Not because I was frightened, but because thanks to my infinite
imagination and powers of persuasion my sister was convinced that there was a Cyberman
under her bed (a silver gloved hand just poised to grab her ankle should her foot dangle
from beneath the covers during the hours of darkness). Mother was succinct : "Stop
frightening your sister or else!" The threat worked. She used the same tactics on my
father, who took to impersonating Ice Warriors as a means to gaining silence when his
favourite programmes were on!
But for all its monsters, Yeti, Daleks, Cybermen, the one story that frightened me, the
one that really had me worried, was 'Fury from the Deep'. I remember giving the gas cooker
in our kitchen a very wide berth for several weeks after that one. And to this day I'm not
really happy around large collections of sea-weed on the beach!
When I was nine and a bit
When I was nine and a bit, Jon Pertwee had already established himself as the Doctor
and his second season got under way. I'm not going to rant on and on about 'Terror of the
Autons'; it's enough to say that it was an awesome way to start a season and the rest of
the season lived up to expectations.
The UNIT personnel became a very important part of Dr Who and I know there are fans
that think the programme could benefit from having them back. But they belonged to
Pertwee's era. As did the Master. Who would have thought that the villain of the piece
could become as popular as the hero. The Doctor's sparring sessions, both verbal and
physical, with the Master were an integral part of the show's appeal and things were never
quite the same after the sudden and unexpected death of Roger Delgado.
UNIT's inability to actually inflict much damage on any of the invading aliens didn't
seem to matter - they cheerfully shot away at Autons, devils and Omega's blobs of jelly
When I was thirteen
When I was thirteen a wondrous event occured - we got a colour television. No, Dr Who
was not the first thing I saw in colour - that distinction goes to Rupert the Bear! Tom
Baker was, however, the first Doctor I saw in colour and it seems fitting, as he was such
a colourful character. I've never been able to forget the expression on the Brigadier's
face when the Doctor marched out of the TARDIS in full Viking regalia! Priceless.
Doctor Who continued to be part of a cosy Saturday evening ritual. It was the only
night of the week that Mother would allow us to eat in front of the telly. The lights were
dimmed, the volume turned up, and a cushion grabbed for use in case of any dodgy moments!
I suppose Season Fourteen is the Tom Baker one that was the most memorable. The robots
from 'Robots of Death' were so chilling because of their cultured voices and their creepy
faces. Even when they went beserk they did it with style and I really hated Taren Kapel
for changing their programming. 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' is another story that's hard
to forget. The style was almost like a 'Hammer Horror', and to this day it still makes me
From then to the end of Tom Baker's tenure my viewing was sporadic. I had a job on
Saturday's and I invariably missed at least one episode of each story. At the same time it
was discovered that there was life on other channels on Saturdays. Doctor Who was no
longer that cosy ritual. An era was gone. Mother told me it was time I grew up.
By the time Tom Baker's last season was being shown, I was living away from home and
was subject to the whims of the majority in a communal TV room where Dr Who did not,
I was home on holiday for the last episode of 'Logopolis' and watched it with dismay. I
was confused. I didn't know what had been happening, I didn't know any of the companions.
There was someone else playing the Master. I felt as if I'd lost a childhood friend and I
wasn't sure I wanted to watch Dr Who anymore.
When I was twenty
When I was twenty I bought my own TV. Freedom, at last, to watch what I wanted to. I
hadn't planned to watch 'Castrovalva', but you know how it is. You hear that music and
I continued to watch Dr Who, but with a certain degree of detatchment; I kept waiting
for something to happen that would once again glue me to the TV set. It's not Peter
Davison's fault, he is a fine actor, I admire his work. Perhaps he was too well known as
other characters before becoming the Doctor.
The news that he was leaving after only three years was a surprise. I think we were all
very spoilt by Tom Baker's seven year stint. However, he did manage to glue me to the TV
for 'Caves of Androzani', and that made me angry. Why the hell had they waited until this
last story before allowing the Doctor to show us his full mettle?
* * * *
It's not that my age has stayed static since 1984, but there have been no real
landmarks to base my reflections upon since then, so I shall continue without categories!
I liked Colin Baker's Doctor: he was erratic, volatile and abrasive. Yanking the leash
and reminding us once more that the Doctor is NOT human and should not always be expected
to act like one. The one thing I would have changed, given the opportunity, was his
His all too brief tenure as the Doctor was marred by continually moving the programme
about in terms of time and the evening it was shown. The eighteen month break did very
little to boost viewing but it did at least show that there were people out there who
cared enough to deluge the BBC with letters demanding its return.
'Trial of a Time Lord' was nothing like as bad as some people make out, and the last
two episodes brought back a little of the magic and the unreality. It was with sadness
that I watched the credits roll after Colin Baker's last episode.
When Sylvester McCoy was named as the seventh Doctor I remember thinking to myself :
"Not the Grunda Hunter!!!"
I can't remember the name of the show, but back in 1984-5 there was a children's quiz
show on ITV. Three teams of kids faced questions from two aliens trying to determine how
intelligent humans were. One of the aliens was Sylvester. During the course of the show
was a round where the kids had to sit on one of those 'Bucking Bronco' contraptions which
was disguised as this thing called a 'Grunda'. They had a minute to answer questions asked
by Sylvester, who leapt around like a demented grasshopper on a pile of air-filled
"THIS was the new Doctor?? Aargh!!!"
Much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued as I envisaged the end of the series!
But ... then a wondrous thing occured. Purely by accident I was watching an afternoon
show on the BBC. The new Doctor Who was to be interviewed and I thought ... what the hell?
I'll watch. And there appeared this very animated, very witty little man and I felt
'Time and the Rani' has had so much flack thrown at it, it must by now resemble a swiss
cheese. It wasn't the best ever first story but neither was it the worst. And it really
isn't too bad if you watch it again after a few months! By the end of 'Dragonfire' I was
feeling, dare I say it, optimistic.
When the 25th season began and they changed the timeslot again I was sitting patiently
with my finger poised on the video remote when one of my house mates informed me we were
expecting some visitors from the States. So on that Wednesday evening there were several
people crammed into the front room ... the episode progressed ... we all semed to be
getting closer to the screen. I was think to myself: this is good, I don't believe it,
this is actually good!
At the end of the episode there was a universal shriek of "Run up the
stairs!" and a deafening silence as the Dalek followed. "Oh shit!" said one
of our colonial friends. "The little bastards have learnt how to climb stairs!"
The one thing that spoilt the Silver Anniversary year for me was that the BBC decided
to ignore what was happening. There was very little coverage and no repeats! God forbid
that EastEnders should last as long, but I remember the hulabaloo on their third birthday.
And Blue Peter at least got a mention on the news or its 30th birthday.
Dr Who has fended off competition from TV and cinema to remain popular; the latest
season actually doing remarkably well against Coronation Street. I think it stands up
remarkably well against its competitors.
As we head into the nineties I think the biggest threat to Dr Who is us the fans, who
continue to heap criticism after citicism on everyone connected with the show, from
writers through actors and especially the producer!
At this point it's probably worth reiterating what Gene Roddenberry has said about Star
Trek : "Star Trek is not made by a committee, someone has to have the final
say." The same applies to Doctor Who. As much as we'd like to, the fans do not make
the programme. I don't think all this continual demand for a return to the 'good old days'
is a healthy thing to do. I don't wish to go back to terrible CSO effects, really wobbly
sets or seeing the strings holding up spaceships. Yes, part of the programme's appeal is
based on this, but the audience, the fans of tomorrow, have been reared on Star Wars and a
host of other SFX movies and TV serials, and they are not going to be fooled!
I'm not condoning the way that the BBC treats Dr Who, which, let's face it, must make
them money or they wouldn't continue to make it! Part of the problem is they don't know
how to categorise it. Dr Who can no longer be classified as purely a children's serial:
the 7.35pm slot shows this.
So in conclusion, to finally answer the question : when was Dr Who good? My answer is,
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