My Who: Andrew Harrison
Q magazine's editor chooses the Who stories that put a fizzle in his shizzle.
The first Doctor Who I saw:
Weirdly, just like Nicholas Pegg said in this column, it's The Sea Devils. Whether it was the original broadcast or repeat I can't remember, but I can clearly recall having to psych myself up for the experience. I knew the show was supposed to be too frightening for kids my age (I was five or six). My cousins, who were braver than me, talked about it in hushed voices and grown-ups kept worrying about whether it was "suitable". Doctor Who was something you had to face, which meant it was exciting.
The abiding memory is of a Sea Devil looming out of the dark wielding one of their
horseshoe-shaped guns, and of the responsible adults - the Doctor and Jo - under real, mortal threat. I'd never seen anything like it before. The show seemed to come out of some dark unknown where anything could happen. I've never lost that feeling that Doctor Who is at its best when the floor drops from beneath you and you've no idea what's going on. And I've never watched from behind the settee. It was the crack in the door for me. The sofa was too close to the telly.
Why Sontarans are made of peanut butter:
I can remember precisely what I was doing on 15 December 1973, at the end of Part One of The Time Warrior when Linx removes his helmet: eating peanut butter on toast. We must have been at my nan's because nobody else would have risked "ruining the kids' tea" like that. (She had her priorities right: nothing must interrupt Who.) At we now call the Big Reveal, at the exact moment that the stocky, grunting knight from the stars unscrewed his helmet to show his monstrous countenance, I bit down on my toast and saw that Linx's repulsive, slobbering head was actually carved from the same peanut butte. To this day I can't eat it without thinking of Sontarans, and I can't see a Sontaran without thinking of peanut butter. Obviously if each new version doesn't look sufficiently peanut-buttery (hello The Invasion Of Time) then they're not real. NB visual evidence suggests that Sontarans are the smooth, not crunchy variety.
Why longer is better:
The Daleks' Master Plan and The War Games are the K2 and Everest of old school Who. You need training and acclimatisation. But I wish I'd plunged into them earlier. Master Plan is so routinely described as an epic that we forget just how epic it is. Multiple worlds, real danger, real deaths that shock and terrify, high stakes... It's Who's only real space opera, and even better it's a tragedy not a romance. (Would any contemporary producer dare leave their leads as exhausted and traumatised as Hartnell and Purves are at the end?). I actually think it's better on audio only. Twelve episodes on TV is a long haul but put it on the iPod and you're done in a week of commuting.
As for The War Games, this is supposed to be the ponderous, repetitive one where everyone just captures everyone else and then escapes repeatedly over ten weeks, is it? That's not what I saw when I finally got round to the DVD. Yes, the pacing is deliberate and but only to drip-feed us information in the most tantalising manner. In the meantime you've got the iciest, none-more-60s performances from the unnamed Aliens, Edward Brayshaw depicting the War Chief in the style of a malevolent George Michael, a pop art space dictatorship, and the glory that is Philip Madoc for dessert. Hindsight has its benefits: that first, quiet mention of the Time Lords now resonates like a depth charge. Either of these supposedly padded-out tales would make a season arc today. Now there's a thought.
The one to force-feed to non-fans:
We went on holiday to Cornwall with friends a couple of years ago and their kids - two full-on new generation Eccleston-Tennant fiends - asked for some old Who on DVD in case of a rainy night in. Two pre-teens who are completely on board for the show; their parents, old enough to feel generally warm towards Tom Baker but not exactly committed; and a wife who positively detests the new series. What do you go for? Got to be City Of Death, not for fan appeal but because light comedy and horror - Scaroth's face, his callousness, poor Dr Kerensky - have arguably never been better balanced in Who than here.
City Of Death is just pure delight, 100 minutes of wandering around Paris with instantly likeable characters and a time twisting conspiracy to fill in the hours before its time for a nice bowl of bouillabaisse (I always preferred the Doctor as wandering cosmic connoisseur to the intergalactic super-Jesus version). The Mona Lisa/da Vinci business is almost a sideshow. Baker was out of control by this point but the script cleverly transforms his refusal to take the whole thing seriously. The Doctor is actually taking it very seriously, hiding his hand the way he conspicuously doesn't in the rest of this dog-end of a season. And there's the weirdly comforting Triangle/Howard's Way/Allo Allo/Secret Army flavour imparted by Tom Chadbon as two-fisted detective Duggan (what's he there for, anyway?) and all those scenes in Parisian cafes. Losing interest? Here's John Cleese and Eleanor Bron. I'm watching a classic time-twister; the kids are filling in the blanks in their Who-ology; but the agnostics are realising how quietly brilliant TV used to be when all you had was character actors, a rubber mask and a cheap weekend in Paris.
My six degrees of Doctor Who:
I used to work on the monthly rock magazine Select and discovered, years after I left, that the picture editor's dad had directed The Stones Of Blood. Also my friend's ex-girlfriend's father played Irongron in The Time Warrior.
What everybody gets wrong about Russell T Davies:
Davies deliberately ignored the fans when he brought Who back, which was exactly the right thing to do. The show had already choked to death on its own continuity once and didn't need to do so again. But for all the farting Slitheen, soapy plot devices and gallons of tears, nobody seems to get how dark, how pessimistic his Who was. This time the destruction of a planet wasn't a distant abstract, it was genocide, warping your life out of shape - and that's only what happened to the hero. Later we travel to the end of reality itself and find that afterwards there is nothing at all, just endless darkness closing in the last, degenerate remnants of humanity. Is this what the Doctor saved over and over again? What was it all for, then?
Lucy Saxon saw the same thing, and for my money the look on her face is the most horrifying sight in all of Davies's Who. She hasn't just experienced an authentic loss of hope, seen that nothing ever mattered, and understood that everything is and always was futile. She's become lost in the idea, and is half in love with it. In the rattling junk-box of bizarre ideas that is The Last Of The Time Lords - some brilliantly audacious, some among the most embarrassing ever seen in Doctor Who - she's the most chilling picture of a completely broken human being that I've seen on TV.
It puzzles me how people miss this thread in Russell Davies's Doctor Who. It's a dark, dark place. Once he moves into gear, and gets comic turns like Margaret Slitheen or Cassandra out of his system, he creates some of the most existentially disturbing villains the show has ever seen. Davies's best monsters aren't power-mad or greedy. They're nihilists: the nameless thing in the planet Midnight; the new Master, a fiend so irredeemably sadistic that he inflicts the second Scissor Sisters album on his victims; the best Davros we've seen since 1976; even Maureen Lipman's grossly underrated electrostatic phantom The Wire... There is no reasoning with these creatures. They just want to pull the wings off the world. Put that in your lightweight EastEnders-in-space argument and smoke it.
Andrew Harrison is a journalist and the current editor of Q magazine. You can follow the fella on Twitter here: @Nndroid
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