Sunday, July 22, 2012

1978: The Shield of Time

This is all your fault, you big-nosed bastard.

And then, at some point before my sixth birthday, I stopped watching Doctor Who.

So far, there's been a question hiding in every year I've unravelled (or do I mean ravelled...? The ball of yarn only becomes complete on your way out of the labyrinth, and memory works in much the same way). This question seems the most baffling of all. I've been responsible for no end of awful, embarrassing, and ill-considered things, and a fully-collated list of my character defects would be its own Monster Book, yet no-one would ever call me flighty. I was never a child of fashion, never prone to crazes, despite pretending for some weeks to be a fan of the Bay City Rollers - I'd never even heard any of their records - purely so my she-cousin would allow me to wear her commemorative tartan scarf and hat. I liked the bobble on top. "Ehh, I'm bored of Doctor Who, I'm into cars now" is not a sentence one can imagine me saying even in the most slippery and grotesque days of my adolescence.

Nor, on the face of it, was this a time when anyone would expect a child to be driven away from the series. 1977 had been the year of "Face of Evil", "Robots of Death", and "Talons of Weng-Chiang" in quick succession, all of them flash-freeze-memorable to the soggy childhood mind, and in two out of three cases for reasons that had nothing to do with monsters. I didn't remember Weng-Chiang had a giant rat, until the Target novelisation was presented to me during a week in an isolation ward, and Jeff Cummins' version was shown looming over the story like the hairy descendant of the Skarasen. The imagined Skarasen, that is, although the on-screen specimens may also have been related. On TV, the Doctor, Greel, and the face-off with Li-Hsen Chang in the music-hall had been more than enough.

We now know, of course, that those final stories of gothic-font Doctor Who had an unfair advantage. Hinchcliffe responded to his sacking by wilfilly pushing the series over-budget, hence the proto-Prisoner Cell Block H nature of Graham Williams' first season. But I was still too small-minded, in the only possible good sense, to care about budgetary limitations. The shonkiness of "The Invisible Enemy" or "The Sunmakers" wouldn't have been enough to turn me away, especially not when I had a small henge of Target books beside me.

No, really. I used to make them into henges.

Then why is it that by early 1978, I'd stopped watching the series that I'd come to think of as a kind of pulse? In later years, sci-fi police investigated, and immediately rounded up the usual suspect.

On Christmas Day, 1977, BBC1 had broadcast the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special. The 25th of December had already become an annual feast day of the Light Entertainment Saints, yet this is the one case in which nostalgia documentaries agree absolutely with anyone who kept their memory of the era in its original packaging: this single broadcast really was a Bigger Thing than we can now imagine. It was seen by more viewers than any other show in British entertainment history, either 21 or 28 million, depending on whose stats you believe. The latter would be half of the entire population, and bear in mind that infants weren't counted. Ratings are rarely reliable (as we'll see in future years), yet the nation held its breath for this programme, treated it as the axis of the Great British Christmas. I can report as a first-hand witness that the nation exhaled with some relief, not at all disappointed. Awkward as much of it may appear now (just like Doctor Who, in fact, and keen-minded readers may remember that Eric Morecambe and Tom Baker would later team up for a TV special of their own), pundits are in accord that this was both the apogee and the end of what they call the Showbiz Age of British Television.

The next day, Boxing Day 1977, Star Wars opened in the UK.

Astrology is a great thing: the difficulty is that many people believe it to be literally true, a complaint it shares with religion, economics, and the politics of fandom. Mapping arcane designs across one's own life is the source of an awful lot of human creativity (and, I'd argue, the root of most fiction), yet if you believe your own individual pattern of symbols and circumstances to be meaningful on a cosmic scale, then you're likely to be a bell-end at best or genocidal at worst. My own personal astrology sees Christmas 1977 as a major conjunction. It wasn't just Morecambe and Wise. The whole of the BBC was in the ascendant until that point, responsible for drama that was blatantly in a different league to the kind we saw in Hollywood movies (although I won't pretend that I had any grasp of I, Claudius at the age of six), responsible for comedy that was blatantly in a different league to anything on commercial television (The Comedians would literally be a crime these days). Then, overnight, the stars shifted.

Just before that Christmas - and aptly, while I was trying to watch the seasonal special of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em on a tiny, fuzz-riddled black-and-white television in an uncle's spare room - I was presented with an early gift. It was a ticket to see this new Star Wars ballyhoo, which had already been massive in America and which the grown-ups believed was obviously the future of spaceships, monsters, and suchlike. I regarded the ticket with a complete lack of interest, but took an immediate shine to the birthday-cum-Christmas card in which it had been delivered, a Chris Foss-era masterpiece of an albino wing'ed dinosaur ripping apart some poor bugger's star-cruiser. I'd seen SF films on television. They weren't as exciting as book covers.

Nostalgia-telly, even that made by the BBC, will still claim Star Wars to have been the big cinema event of 1977. This is twaddle, at least on this side of the Atlantic. I saw it in the still-mysterious heart of London, in the final week of 1977; given that the grown-ups considered the ticket to be in some way significant, I might even have been at the UK premiere. But films crept across the landscape like seasons. There were no cineplexes, no simultaneous releases. For England, then Wales, then Scotland, then Ireland, 1978 was the year Star Wars gripped us by the throat, Sith style.

Oh yes, it changed everything. To explain the effect it had, and what came after, would take a novella-sized essay in a place that's not primarily interested in Doctor Who. But it not only gave us our first all-encompassing universe (a fictional envionment in which every angle, every smallest detail of design and dialogue, seemed part of an ongoing and worn-in World of Worlds... George Lucas called it a "used future", inspired by footage of Apollo astronauts returning to Earth surrounded by food-wrappers and blown-out technology), it also introduced us to a wholly unfamiliar visual dynamic, a pulsing new-wave version of Space Opera that made it seem as though this story was both a thousand years old and happening now. Tat Wood, already pube-age and suitably crabby in 1978, has tried to argue that Star Wars was just a Doug McClure adventure movie on a bigger budget. Leaving aside the massive gulf in understanding between Professor Yaffle's childhood and my own, there's an obvious counter-argument. We'd seen big-budget McClure a year earlier: it was the (first) tragic remake of King Kong. Star Wars wasn't just a new species. It was a new genus. Even now, I regard it as the most creative film ever made, though not the best. In its construction, that is, clearly not in its plot.

So is that it? Is that why I drifted away from Doctor Who? Because Star Wars turned up instead?


They were never really in competition. Only adults believe that children can't follow more than one world at a time, and later, the ability of these two great science-fiction animals to drink at the same watering-hole would become clear. Julian Glover and Michael Sheard and Milton Johns would all play imperial officers in The Empire Strikes Back, and their performances on Hoth or Bespin would be of no greater or lesser importance than their appearances on Earth or Gallifrey (although Lucas would overdub Johns with a gruff American accent, rather charmingly because he felt that Englishman-as-imperial-villain had become a cliché, hilarious if you compare Our Milton's aside to Lord Vader with his rather fey villain in "The Invasion of Time"). Indeed, by 1980 I was so aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each that I found much of the latter half of Empire quite frustrating. You're running up and down corridors in Cloud City. Corridors aren't your job, yeah? At least when the Doctor does it, he's usually saying something witty and interesting at the same time. Go back to those huge walking robot things, you're great at that. Leave the close-ups to us, because you're just opening slide-doors and firing at Stormtroopers. What is this, the boring bits in "The Sun Makers"?

Two decades on, I'd finally see the surviving bulk of Doctor Who that hadn't been available to us in the '70s or '80s. I'd pass judgment on earlier stories, even stories I'd seen as a child, using the measuring-tools of the early '90s and without any thought as to how they would have been viewed at the time. Disappointingly, most reviewers on the internet still do this. The '90s was the age when science fiction drama first became obsessed with the ominous notions of "dark" and "adult", when story-arcs became more important than stories, when it was seen as a form of shame to have children amongst your audience. I was especially harsh on the Graham Williams years, simply and absurdly because his version of the series wasn't how this "cult" thing called sci-fi should look and sound. (I was even harsher on the '60s run. I once considered "The Ark" to be the worst Doctor Who story made. A terrible script, that much is true, but the visual ambition of it would have been striking even by the next generation's standards.)

The trouble is, even with the best of wills and knowing the scope of what Williams secretly had in the back of his mind, I still can't bring myself to like his reign. The ratings were perfectly sound, and would get better, for a variety of reasons we'll come to in 1979. But the rest of British culture was twisting out of shape: punk rock for the teens, bigger questions for the adults (even I, Claudius was met with angry complaints from viewers who thought Rome should sound like Shakespeare, while Verity Lambert's Rock Follies beat it to the BAFTA by being awkwardly political), and the start of a decade-long struggle over the question of what British Society actually meant. I had no firm understanding of any of this, yet even I could measure Doctor Who against sources like Star Wars and - this one's significant, given that it came directly from a non-mainstream place, and wasn't just anorak-fodder in its early years - 2000 AD.

Speaking of which, for the last six paragraphs, I've had the name "Big-Budget McClure" stuck in my head. He sounds like a cowboy who guns down dinosaurs for the reward money. Well, this is the age of "Flesh".

1978 began with "Underworld". This is roundly and rightly condemned as one of Doctor Who's most excrutiating moments, but for all the wrong reasons. The CSO'd caverns are a horror to behold, yet those of my age had been primed not to notice blue-screen lines, and adults were prepared to put up with much uglier technical glitches in much more conventional programmes. "Underworld" was banal, and this is the voice of a child who saw Greek as his second-most-familiar mythology. Monsters weren't necessary then, as they wouldn't be today if programme-makers hadn't become the pimps of CGI werewolves, but to turn Jason's dragon into a network of corridors is an insult to art as well as sense. Going back to "The Sun Makers", it seems incredible that any writer - let alone Robert Holmes - could devise a story based on tax rates, or that any audience could have been expected to care. I'd lost all awareness of the programme by "The Invasion of Time", to the point that when I learned of the story's existence some years later, I was astonished that I'd missed something so profound as the Sontaran Invasion of Gallifrey. Nobody could have called it "profound" if they'd actually seen it.

Graham Williams did something terribly wrong, I'm afraid. Not the "he ignored continuity" problem that Ian Levine would later use to gut-barge his way into the production office, not the "it looked cheap" problem that '80s and '90s viewers pointed out when slick was the order of the day, not the "Baker's just messing about now" problem that even children noticed by the end of the Williams run. Doctor Who is, at its best, the sardonic relative to the rest of television. The true meaning of "camp" isn't "a bit gay", but "knowing that the world is just a game of dress-up". Being the adventures of a pseudo-immortal who's only passing as human, the series follows fashion, then looks down at itself and says: "Hmmm... this frock coat is either too much or too little." Yet in order for this to work, it needs to go to extremes. Instead, as of 1978, it specialised in self-conscious self-parody. Occasionally bearing good ideas, but even then, marred by a blandness that tried to excuse itself by winking at the camera. The line between "camp" and "in-joke" is thin, but crucial.

If Star Wars distracted me from Doctor Who, then it wasn't because Star Wars was bigger, better, and more expensive, the conclusion that was wrongly and catastrophically drawn by the media from the '80s onwards. Looking back, I can see that what snagged me at the age of six was excatly what had snagged me at the age of five: the very possibility of elsewhere. Leela's planet was elsewhere. Weng-Chiang's House of the Dragon was elsewhere. So were Tatooine and the Death Star trench. The former two taught me investigation and sarcasm-in-the-face-of-adversity (you wouldn't believe how big the "deadly jelly-baby" line was at the time), the latter two taught me brilliance and dynamism. The drab space-installations of "The Invisible Enemy" and the sterile hospital-corridors of "The Sun Makers" were filler.

By 1978, I was living on a council estate, for practical reasons that aren't hard to work out given my previous one-parent-family angst. It was a brand-new estate, and we were the first to move in, if only because I needed a wee and my mother demanded the keys some minutes before all the other tenants were allowed to enter. It was, as I later discovered, a place where the council shovelled people who had nowhere else to go; its sense of anger, as other families were housed in the low-rent "maisonettes", became more overt over the years. This is why I'm not going to talk about it much from hereon in, and yet for all the sense of threat, it had one outstanding feature. There was a small plaza across the road from our new home, just as there had been in Walton. And as my site of pilgrimage in Walton had been W. H. Smith's, here it was a tiny family-owned toyshop, a narrow alley of shinyness between freshly-scraped monoliths of concrete. A toyshop which in 1978 sold Star Wars figures for 99p each, more than it sounds to twenty-first-century ears, but still within pocket-money grasp. I knew boys at school who'd spend more than that every week on white chocloate mice. Being diabetic, I had the biggest army of Stormtroopers in the county.

Right at the beginning of this... what do I call it? Chronology? Auto-blog-raphy? Right at the beginning, I asked the question of how we come to call ourself fans, when in some cases we only enjoy a nouvelle-cuisine-sized portion of the television series. What remained unsaid, or only implied, is that the television series is only a fragment of the whole of Doctor Who. Think of it as a visible extrusion of a massive multi-dimensional body, because you know we've always liked that metaphor. Nor are we simply considering the mass of physical bumf that's now become mishandled and mislabelled until it's simply "merchandise". It's true that this was always part of the experience, at least for the early viewer-generations. TV21 was closer to the way '60s children liked to imagine the Daleks than "The Chase"; readers of Malcolm Hulke's Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters still tend to forget that the broadcast version doesn't give names to the Silurians or that Major Baker's experiences with the IRA are never mentioned, while those who'd read Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon before TV Gold repeated "Colony in Space" in the early '90s are still convinced that the text version is the "proper" one. But...

It's not just about the tie-ins. More than any other series ever created, Doctor Who suggests the existence of environments we've never seen, an unlimited potential beyond the homeworld of the television series and the frontier colonies of (say) the TV Comic strip. Actually, the multiple slightly-wrong versions of the Doctor in comics, annuals, and such might be seen as alternative takes on something with uncertain boundaries. Even Star Wars is limited by its own rules. No, more than that, those rules are the reason it succeeded. Doctor Who demands a constant re-thinking of rules, invites us to query how each new time and place actually works (a factor absent from many Williams-era and most Moffat-era stories, both marked by a Doctor who automatically knows everything without having to ask questions, both marked by scenarios that are venues for set-pieces rather than functioning worlds). You used to write your own stories, didn't you? Perhaps you still do, although these days they may be more likely to involve sex between cast-members. When you had enough story ideas, you may even have turned them into your own Alternative Season. I still do this now, and could easily write down a complete episode list for the season that began with "The Book of the World".

"Could", he says...

Doctor Who is a mind-game that asks you to play at home. Which is, if nothing else, polite of it. Just because I stopped caring about what was on television in 1978, that doesn't mean I left it behind. I still made offerings at Targethenge. It might once again seem berserk that anyone could support the Home Side while failing to watch a single match, although I know of many fans who've found themselves in a similar position since 2010, and several others who were already suffering the symptoms in 2005. Yet this is the nature of Team DW. Things would improve in 1979, of course, or I probably wouldn't be here. As for 1980... opinions differ. Time heals all wounds, even wounds to the series. The promise of what it might be protects us from what it currently is. We hope.

But it is true that I could've bought at least one-and-a-half new works of the Terrance Dicks canon for 99p. Star Wars figures allowed me to engage in non-solitary games with the rough non-middle-class council-estate boys, which for me justifies George Lucas' existence in itself. Nobody collected toys for the sake of collecting, after all. This form of Star Wars allowed us to reconstruct, and then anagram, the struggle against the Empire in exactly the same way that Dinky's die-cast Gerry Anderson vehicles had allowed children to mess with Captain Scarlet half a generation previously. The fact that none of my new acquaintances really cared about Doctor Who can be interpreted in a number of ways, although the bigger point is that even the sloughed-off plastic skin of an idea can have an identity of its own. By the end of the year, I was confused and annoyed that you couldn't get 99p Doctor Who figures anywhere, even though (my exact thought, at the time) "Doctor Who has got loads of brilliant things in it".

One Christmas, possibly even Christmas 1978, I was given a Denys Fisher Cyberman. That's the way all action-figures had worked, just a few months previously: they were big, clunky, Action Man / Sindy-scale chunks of plastic in dramatically-illustrated boxes, the Sindy comparison being especially relevant in the case of Denys Fisher's Leela. They were things you were given as gifts, not things you could afford to take down from the shelf and up to the counter on your own. If this sounds an overly cynical and consumer-driven sort of democracy, especially from someone whose tongue turns to aspic when using the word "merchandising", then remember that we took them out of their plastic bubbles and rammed them against each other in order to re-arrange universes. Not as subtle or as limitless as the great game of Doctor Who, but a form of storytelling, nonetheless. I have lingering doubts that Character Options' "Exploded Cassandra" or "Old Woman with No Face" figures have been used in quite the same way. Bonus points for the Drashigs, though.

We needed pocket-money pocket-sized Doctor Who figures in order to remake our own favourite universe. Instead, I got a twelve-inch Cyberman with a nose. The TV series had let me down badly, and now even the dolls were being embarrassing.

Oh, one more thing. Many of you may think of Star Wars as a sci-fi film; some of you may feel that it was always, at heart, a children's story; those of you who follow Simon Pegg's path will pretend it's an adolescent geek's film, and that Han Solo was always the important one. But in 1978, when it came to Britain, a major part of its appeal was that it swashbuckled. Our parents loved it too, because it was as if Errol Flynn had finally got to play Flash Gordon.

The sleeve-notes on the BBC video claimed that the opening scene of "The Invasion of Time" was a nod to Star Wars, even though this would barely have been possible given the timeline. Memos of the era show that Graham Williams specifically wanted the Megara in "The Stones of Blood" to be as un-robot-like as possible, so that nobody would compare them with droids: the first demonstrable influence of the film on Doctor Who, albeit a negative one. I put it to you that the earliest positive result of Star Wars on the broadcast episodes was "The Androids of Tara" (yes, they do have an actor in common, shush). True enough, every word of the script could have been written one or two or five or ten years earlier, the plot being based on The Prisoner of Zenda and the dialogue never challenging the principles of BBC pretend-historical drama. But that year, "Tara" got it absolutely right, for the parents if not for the children... swashbuckled. With electric swords.