In 1988, Doctor Who turned twenty five. Though you would have been forgiven for not noticing.
Having tried and failed to quietly cancel Doctor Who in 1985 for reasons that were as much to do with internal politics as they were the quality or otherwise of the programme itself, the BBC were in no mood to make a big deal of the occasion. Newspaper columnists who had discovered that making badly punctuated sneering jokes about rubber walls and cardboard monsters bumped their wordcount up hardly helped matters, and the average viewing public couldn’t have cared less although they liked it when it was Tom Pertwee and the lizard man or something. Even a sizeable proportion of Doctor Who‘s own fans had lost patience with a show that, for various reasons including a handful that were actually rational and mature too, they felt was no longer being made for them; apparently the only appropriate response to this was to call for it to be, erm, cancelled. Doctor Who in the late eighties was, in the well chosen words of Paul Cornell, a ‘bullied programme’. It had never been lower in public or private affection and if you were amongst the dwindling number who thought that maybe everyone had been throwing its pencil case to each other and laughing for long enough now, the opportunities to throw a big massive silver jubilee bash right back in their faces were not exactly arriving by the Sandminer-load.
In the closest that anyone actually came to any variety of an official celebration, BBC Records And Tapes released The Doctor Who 25th Anniversary Album, a glittery-sleeved collection of soundtrack music from recent television episodes alongside all of the various permutations of the theme music; incidentally you find much more about the story behind The Doctor Who 25th Anniversary Album in Top Of The Box Vol. 2, a complete guide to every album released by BBC Records And Tapes which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. Prolific author of hefty glossy hardback coffee table genre histories Peter Haining weighed in with Doctor Who – 25 Glorious Years, built around a decent enough for the time history of the show interspersed with equally decent enough features on Doctor Who in comic strip and spin-off merchandise form, an at least amusingly off-script lament for the missing episodes apparently based entirely on excitable assumptions based in turn on excitable reports from excitable fans, and a fold-out full colour ‘ready reckoner’ featuring some of the series’ female co-stars in conspicuously best-features-forward poses. It may have become the default setting to sneer at Peter Haining’s efforts now, but in fairness somebody had to go first, and it’s likely that nobody doing the sneering ever experienced the sheer thrill of Doctor Who – A Celebration landing very heavily in your hands on Christmas Day, plus above all else my copy of Doctor Who – 25 Glorious Years is signed with ‘Acest Wishes’ by Sophie Aldred. Yes, and by David Banks, Stephen Gallagher, Victor Pemberton, Nicholas Courtney, Dick Mills and John Nathan Turner as well, but it was Sophie that really mattered back then. Never you mind why.
Radio Times apparently felt that the best way to mark Doctor Who‘s twenty fifth anniversary was by putting The Chronicles Of Narnia and something called ‘Rally Quest ’89’ on the front cover – it was still 1988 – but they did at least find enough room for a lightweight two-page overview of twenty five years in time and space, inevitably accompanied by a full colour full page montage of TARDIS-travelling lovelies with a couple of the bloke ones thrown in at the middle in a bid to discourage teenage fan misappropriation, and a ‘My Kind Of Day’ interview with Sylvester McCoy. Apparently he would spend it not actually doing stuff and then eating mash. It was left to hapless old Doctor Who Magazine to step in and cover for what the BBC were singularly failing and/or refusing to do without in any way drawing attention to the fact that this was they were doing. The Doctor Who 25th Anniversary Special Souvenir Issue was a sterling card-covered effort boasting fascinating analytical features by the likes of Andrew Pixley, Stephen James Walker and Richard Marson, and two lighthearted efforts that pointed the way forwards for Doctor Who coverage – David J. Howe’s exasperated catalogue of some of the weirdest and shoddiest items of merchandise ever to have the words ‘Doctor’ and ‘Who’ idly slapped on them in the hope of fleecing a couple of pound coins out of obsessive fans, and one ‘Cartwright Roper’ wearily and comically recounting an adolescence spent trying to balance a love of Doctor Who with a desire to actually meet and speak to girls, which apparently also involved something about Heavy Metal fans falling over.
Meanwhile, the BBC put their full unconstrained effort into bigging up the actual twenty fifth anniversary itself by introducing the ‘Tonight… on BBC1!’ rundowns with a clip from, erm, The Web Planet from 1965, but would they broadcast the action-packed attention-grabbing American ‘New Season’-style trailer that series producer John Nathan Turner had arranged for the press launch? No they would not. Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred did their best by hauling themselves in costume around the daytime magazine shows – usually accompanied by Jon Pertwee, who deflected any question relating to his opinion on present day Doctor Who by claiming that he hadn’t seen it because he had been ‘very busy working on another show called Worzel Gummidge‘ – but it was hardly a tickertape parade with Raymond Cusick and A Voord toasting the crowds from an open-topped car. Somewhat less intentionally – although arguably the strongest cause for celebration of the lot – episodes one, four, five and six of the missing 1967 story The Ice Warriors, only really known to the majority of fans at that point as a handful of eerie publicity photos, were discovered during clearance work at BBC Enterprises’ former offices in Villiers House. Sadly, this news emerged too late for Peter Haining – bless him – to report that they had been discovered in a set of cutlery drawers that had been forgotten about when another separate set of cutlery drawers had been constructed over the top of them.
All in all, the entire ‘occasion’ was tantamount to being grudgingly handed a slice of Battenberg on a serviette that sort of stuck to it when you very politely pointed out that it was your birthday and nobody had actually forgotten but they just hadn’t been bothered to do anything about it. The fiftieth anniversary celebrations, of course, took over the entirety of ExCel London with the attendees split roughly equally between annoyingly attention-seeking over-excitable types cosplaying as Matt Smith and leaping up whooping and waving Sonic Screwdrivers at the merest hint of the letter ‘D’, and annoying humourless proprietary old-skool fans with their arms folded harrumphing at a volume too quiet for the Matt Smiths to hear but loud enough for the fellow old-skool fans who ‘get’ ‘it’ that if he waves that Sonic Screwdriver again he’ll be waving it from somewhere he can’t wave it from despite the fact that they would be incapable of issuing a convincing threat to, well, a slice of Battenberg with some serviette attached to it.
As for Doctor Who itself, John Nathan Turner was never one to pass up the opportunity to throw a party, even if there was nobody else in the room and everyone else in the entire known universe had obtained a court order preventing him from issuing an invitation to them. Unfortunately the actual anniversary story ended up being Silver Nemesis, which in a burst of celebratory enthusiasm ended up overrunning so drastically that more or less an episode’s worth of material had to be excised, apparently at random and on the narrative advice of a goose, ending up as a confused mess which possibly has something to do with The Cybermen, a fugitive Nazi and a Seventeenth Century sorceress all vying for possession of an ancient Gallifreyan statue but is entirely swamped by cameos from musical theatre ‘legends’ nobody had ever heard of, Cybermen with wiring junction clips on their sleeves, unfunny social satire with unconvincing ‘skinheads’ and Anton Diffring declaiming ‘I hoff ze bow!’ in an even more preposterous manner than you are imagining.
Whilst scarcely celebratory, The Happiness Patrol was a scathing satirical attack on any and every authoritarian regime in operation across the globe at that point with strong and clear references to Apartheid-era South Africa, Augusto Pinochet, and The USSR and a man made of sweets, headed by a staggering performance from Sheila Hancock that in no way whatsoever was directly analogous to one Margaret Hilda Thatcher. Although the story is pretty much Bernard Levin’s quote about being simultaneously banned from entering the Soviet Union and South Africa made heavily stylised three-part drama serial, a particular strain of bewilderingly furious gentlemen only seem to ever actually notice the Thatcher angle, which is apparently both too childish and too over the heads of the target audience at the same time. The Greatest Show At The Galaxy, on the other hand, had a go back at Doctor Who‘s snorting detractors, smug rivals and entitled fans, using the cunning disguise of being set in a sinister circus straight out of some unmade episode of The Prisoner written while Patrick McGoohan had locked himself in the Kosho Room set and was communicating by pushing drawings of coathangers under the door so that nobody would suspect a thing. What’s more, when production was halted due to the discovery of asbestos in BBC Television Centre, John Nathan Turner refused to admit defeat in truly staggering and indeed swaggering style and remounted the recording in an actual circus tent in a BBC car park. You didn’t get that with Degrassi Junior High.
For the real anniversary thrills, though, you had to look for the first story of that run – Remembrance Of The Daleks. Set around and adjacent to the events of that very first episode from November 1963 – with a couple of in-universe references to the BBC’s fifties Quatermass serials thrown in for good measure – Remembrance Of The Daleks succeeded in celebrating the past at the same time as embracing the present, seamlessly infusing thoroughly modern music, direction and effects and a great big whopping Special Weapons Dalek into a recreated early sixties world of old-skool schoolrooms, sad little men who couldn’t let their side losing the Second World War go, the aftermath of John F. Kennedy, forgotten doo-wop hit parade smashes and Davros looking scary on a black and white television, and indeed racist signs in boarding house windows which once again seem to upset a lot of inexplicably touchy individuals who appear to believe that such signs simultaneously both never existed and are being judged outside of their proper historical context. Although there is a nice moment of confusion about The Doctor not being ‘an old geezer with white hair’, there are no cameos from Ian, Barbara or Susan which may have felt like a bit of a missed opportunity at the time but in retrospect seems like entirely the right decision. Over and above all of that, however, there is one particular scene in Remembrance Of The Daleks that demonstrated beyond all doubt that, regardless of what the wider world and even some of the less wider world may have thought, there was still more to Doctor Who than cardboard monsters and rubber walls and, well, men made of sweets, and it wasn’t even the “All powerful? Crush the lesser races? Conquer the galaxy, unimaginable power, unlimited rice pudding et cetera et cetera?” rant.
Near the start of the second episode of Remembrance Of The Daleks, just after Ace takes out a Dalek with an Anti-Tank Rocket (“I aimed for the eyepiece!”) and following a flourish of incidental music straight out of an early sixties Ron Goodwin movie soundtrack, The Doctor calls in on his favourite café in search of a late-night ‘mug of tea’ after all that excitement. Proprietor Harry is off visiting his missus in hospital, and the café is being looked after by John – whom eagle eyed viewers might notice is played by Joseph Marcell, later to find greater recognition as Geoffrey in The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air – and after exchanging pleasantries about the miserable weather and throwing around a few casual spoilers regarding Harry’s imminently-arriving offspring, they get down to the condiments of the situation. John offers The Doctor some sugar, which causes him to ruminate on whether this decision would actually make any difference; John suggests in a famously imitable intonation that ‘it would make your tea sweet’, but suggests that beyond that it would have very little effect. The Doctor counters that if he could decide that everyone would decline sugar en masse, it would make a literal world of difference – positive and negative – for those who produce, distribute and sell it, upon which John is moved to reflect that if the sugar industry had never got off the ground in the first place, his entire family history – as a descendent of a slave – would have been different. Presumably with reference to his decision to conceal The Hand Of Omega on Earth rather than the opening titles of Ever Decreasing Circles, The Doctor frets that “every great decision creates ripples, like a huge boulder dropped in a lake – the ripples merge, rebound off the banks in unforeseeable ways… the heavier the decision, the larger the waves, the more uncertain the consequences”, to which John can only offer a breezy “life’s like that – best thing is just to get on with it”. Given that their disarming little chat is immediately followed by a Dalek transmatting its way into Coal Hill School, you could probably make a good case that they were both right.
The ‘bullied programme’ never quite did escape the unwanted attention of Imelda Davies and Booga Benson, and almost twelve months to the day from that distinctly muted anniversary hoo-ha, Doctor Who quietly slipped out of production as Sylvester McCoy mumbled something about how the tea’s getting cold unless it isn’t, and the BBC announced that they were ‘committed to taking Doctor Who through the nineties’ which it soon became apparent didn’t necessarily involve making any more of it. That could easily have been that, but even then, suitably strange events were already happening of their own accord. Regardless of the merits or otherwise of much of the rest of Doctor Who in the eighties, few would disagree that the twenty fifth anniversary season was the moment the production team turned the ship around, and the following year’s set of adventures actually made some progress – albeit hardly hurtling at a rate of knots – back towards shore. During 1988, the KLF – or, to be more accurate, The Timelords – had topped the charts with Doctorin’ The Tardis, now dismissed by some as an annoying novelty record despite the fact that it was at least fun and likeable and more importantly marked the moment where Doctor Who began a slow and gradual reversal of public fortune as it started to be viewed with nostalgic fondness rather than sniggering about megalactic scarves. A younger generation of comedians and writers who had grown up getting the Target book of Doctor Who And The Abominable Snowmen out of the local library, from Harry Hill and Lee And Herring to Caitlin Moran and Andrew Collins, began to reference the show as something they liked rather than laughed at, and by 2005 the moment was right to bring Doctor Who back. It was brought back by some of those selfsame fans who had refused to give up on it and had been inspired to try their own hand at writing, acting, directing, producing, composing, designing and everything else, and it’s a fair bet that if you collared any of them they’d be able to recount this charming scene tackling racism, guilt, unpredictability and optimism in an almost offhanded manner word for word and even vocal inflection for vocal inflection, although rumours that there are some out there who can even mimic the wailing dockland foghorns in the background at the right moments will never stand up in court. Even those touchy gentlemen don’t seem to mind it too much. One of the best scenes in Doctor Who‘s long history was broadcast while nobody was really looking, but those that were looking – probably with the tape stopped in the middle of Drinksmat Dawning and with a bookmark crammed in to remind them that they were up to Stories Of Intergalactic Guest Stars – knew exactly how they should drop that huge boulder in that lake, and if you so much as thought it was good when it was Matt Tennant and the statues or something, you have a good deal to be grateful to them – and to John and his bowl of sugar – for.
Sometimes, you don’t need a big flashy celebration. You don’t even need a barely edible slice of Battenberg. All you really need is a mug of tea.
Buy A Book!
You can find the full story behind The Doctor Who 25th Anniversary Album and many other Doctor Who-related long players in Top Of The Box Vol. 2, the story behind every album released by BBC Records And Tapes. Top Of The Box Vol. 2 is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
There’s a lot more about what it was like to be a Doctor Who viewer in the late eighties at a time when nobody else was watching – and in particular my insistence that Time And The Rani is good, not bad like you and Ikona thought – in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Yes I know it should be a mugofteeeee.
There’s more about yet another Doctor Who story that seems to cause an immense amount of bother to those unreasonably exercised gentlemen in Doctor Who And The Rosa here.
If you want to hear me chatting with Emma Burnell and Steve Fielding about politics in Doctor Who, you can find that in The Zeitgeist Tapes: Dr. Pod here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.