Way, way back in 1995 – when I was editor of Doctor Who Magazine, and when Doctor Who had been off screen for six years – I decided to try a little experiment. I wanted to see how an old serial from the 70s would play to modern 10-year-olds. With the help of the staff of Ibstock Place School in South London, I found a suitable group of kids, and then wrote up their reactions to Terror of the Zygons. (In reproducing the article here, I’ve cut a load of self-indulgent waffle from the start, so we can get straight to good stuff, from the kids.)
It all seemed terribly worthy and bold at the time, talking to ‘a new audience’. Today, with Doctor Who a TV powerhouse, we hear young voices much more frequently. But I think Class 4G had some profound things to say about what Doctor Who‘s priorities should be, and those observations are as true today as they ever were.
These kids are now 26 and 27 years old. Some may well have kids of their own who will be eagerly awaiting Doctor Who‘s return in the autumn. Blimey.
A bit of trivia… It wasn’t appropriate to say at the time, but one of the kids, James, has quite famous parents.
The blurred swarm of children circulating around me eventually coalesces into ten discrete, smiling bodies, each of which settles on a chair, desk or patch of carpet as I call for their attention. All except Willy, who still buzzes around the back of the classroom – enthusiastic but hyperactive. I struggle to maintain some illusion of control as I ask the group to tell me their names (one of them, appropriately, is a Verity), and the names of their favourite television programmes. I invite them to use my first name, which I suspect is taken as a sign of weakness, and they begin chattering again. Their teacher, Miss Brooks, comes to my rescue with some well-chosen words and remarkable voice projection. I leap in and ask how many of them have heard of Doctor Who. All but one put a hand up. James is even able to tell me what the show was about.
“Doctor Who is a scientist sort of person who goes into space and then there’s all these monsters that come and get him.” Has he ever seen it? “Yes. About a year ago. It was on Channel Four.” For James, then, Doctor Who was played by Peter Cushing.
A voice from behind me adds: “He goes in a telephone box and travels to different places.”
I wonder if anyone can tell me how long it was on television for. Ben has an answer. “I think it was on for about half-an-hour.” There’s no arguing with that. But what I mean is: how many years was it on for? “Oh, about 50.” Other voices chime out around me. “60 years. 45! 55!”
I take a few moments to fill in a little background about Doctor Who. I then tell them that they’ll be watching a story called Terror of the Zygons, and give a little information about the Doctor, Sarah, Harry and the Brigadier. They show me how to operate the video and we settle down to watch the story.
I’d watched the serial the previous week with non-fan adult friends, who’d laughed heartily at the opening sequence which seemingly shows the destruction of a one-foot-tall model of an oil rig in a murky bath. My friends warned me that the demanding, wised-up, “ten-year-old-of-today” would be equally critical. However, my junior viewing companions are quiet throughout the episode, and there’s not a chuckle or even a smile as the huge bulk of Bonnie Prince Charlie rig crumbles into the vast expanse of the North Sea.
Some go on to laugh at the Brigadier’s description of the rigs as “three-legged spiders in wellington boots”. Some indicate concern at Sister Lamont’s assurances to Harry that “all his troubles are over”. All seem impressed as a Zygon makes its first appearance and Sarah’s scream slides into the closing theme. As the credits roll, I ask the group to think back to the opening sequence. Jo politely puts her hand up.
“When the man was just sitting there in the oil rig, and then it all fell down, it really brought you into the story,” she says.
Did anyone find the beginning boring?
“Yes,” says Duncan. “I found the end quite a lot more exciting, because the monsters came in and you heard all that funny noise, and you saw the big monster that was chewing up the oil rigs.”
I ask if there were any particular bits they didn’t like. James leans towards my microphone to make sure he’s heard. “It was a bit boring when the men were walking on the moor, it was like…” He searches for the right word and then settles for rolling his eyes and waggling his head in a bored way.
Jo speaks up again: “In some bits I found it hard to follow, but when you keep on watching they explain a lot more about what’s happening.”
If they turned on their TV on a Saturday evening at 6.30pm and watched that episode, would they tune in the following week to see more?
“Yes,” several say. “Definitely!” “Of course!” come the cries of others. I point out that The New Adventures of Superman is now shown at the time when Doctor Who used to be shown. I ask Jo – who had told me it was her favourite programme – why she likes it. “I think it’s very adventurous. I like adventurous stories, and I like the character of Lois Lane. I’ve seen the movie, but I didn’t like it nearly as much as the TV show.”
No-one has listed Star Trek – traditionally seen as Doctor Who’s rival in popularity – as a favourite programme. I mention this, but Karri is quick to point out that he enjoys it. “I like the way they have all the mechanical stuff in it,” he says. “I like the make-up they use as well.”
I observe that one of the main differences between modern Star Trek and Doctor Who is that the American series rarely has monsters in it. Karri argues the point – “They don’t have monsters, but they have aliens from all kind of planets” – and someone else shouts out, “But they all look the same!”
I wonder what they thought of the special effects in Doctor Who. What about the appearance of the Zygon at the end of the episode? Duncan is the first with his hand up. “The monster is all warty and different colours and it’s got a massive great head that’s all green.” But was it a good monster? “Yes, in Star Trek you have all these different aliens and they’re, like, deformed – their ears are spikey or something – but most of them just have different clothes on, which makes it a bit boring.” He takes a breath and plows on. “Doctor Who monsters are totally different to Star Trek ones because they’re really strange aliens who can do better things.”
Changing the subject, I ask about the actors in the episode. No-one thinks the episode was badly acted, but there are a few comments on the lead character, who they find difficult to warm to. “He’s really weird,” says Ben. “He wasn’t listening to everyone else. He was just playing with his radio or whatever – his jamming thing.” Why was that? “It’s cos he’s not bothered. He came, like, 296 million miles just to deal with oil rigs falling down. He wasn’t very happy about it. He’s more used to worrying about monsters and the Daleks and things like that.”
Jo says that she didn’t like the Doctor. “His hair really gets on my nerves,” she says. “He’s got too much hair.”
“Yeah,” chips in Duncan. “He could be one of the monsters. He sits there with his massive great eyes staring at a blank wall. He’s like a zombie.” Willy disagrees. “I think the way Doctor Who acted was good, because he made it realistic. He was quite a weird person so he was interesting as well.”
It’s time for another episode.
The group is rowdier this time, more confident, and more inclined to make comments while viewing. When two Zygons drag Harry before their leader, a voice out of the darkness exclaims, with barely-surpressed awe: “There’s millions of them!” I smile to myself. The production team could, in fact, only afford three costumes, so the other 999,997 are likely to stay in the next room. Partway through the episode, Willy realises that Huckle, the oil company official, is supposed to be American, effectively condemning actor Tony Sibbald’s performance to that point. Very politely, many of them also fill me in on the goings-on in the part of the episode I miss when I pop outside to check my tape-recorder.
Then, just as Sarah follows Zygon-Harry into the darkened barn, Karri quietly says “Uh-oh,” and moves to watch from underneath his desk, through the legs of the chairs. If there was a sofa in the room, he would be behind it. However, my warm feeling of “Ah, perhaps some things will never change…” is brutally dispelled when ‘Harry’ thrusts a pitch-fork at Sarah and Willy gleefully shouts “Stab her!”
After the video is switched off, I ask them when they think the story was made. 1955, 1950, 1960, 1960, 1962, 1961, 1962, 1974, 1962, 1968 are their answers. Wondering what made them choose those years, I pick on one of those who said 1960. “The colour of the thing makes it seem a lot older that it probably is,” says Ben. “It didn’t have much colour in.” “And the way it was filmed,” Willy adds. “Like when he was being chased by the Loch Ness Monster and he looked one way and then the other. That was old fashioned.”
Duncan has something to say about the Skarasen. “Well, Jurassic Park basically copied him completely. It was a massive, fat, big, scaly dinosaur.” What did Duncan think of Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs compared to that one? “Jurassic Park’s are much better,” he says, with a smile. But could he believe in the Doctor Who monster? “Oh yes…” he says. “Just”
Some are unhappy with it: “I thought it was totally unrealistic.” “It was just like an overgrown tortoise.” But James is more tolerant. “Back in the 70s that was the best you could do, –you couldn’t get much better than that.”
What about the Zygons?
“I thought they were very realistic,” says Jo. “The way they talked – the whole of their cheeks and everything moved as they talked which made them look very real.” James agrees: “I thought they were really good. I liked the way their spaceship wasn’t a big metal thing and was like them – all squidgy and bloody.” (The space-ship interior had gone down very well. During the episode, they had all mimicked Broton at the console when he ordered “total dispersion” of Madra – frantically waggling imaginary controls. )
Jo liked the scene that caused Karri problems: Harry’s pitch-fork attack on Sarah in the barn, a scene which was trimmed on the serial’s video release in order to secure the tape a PG certificate. I told her that in the seventies, people thought that scene was too scary for children. She shrugs. “It was quite scary, but it wouldn’t make you have nightmares.”
Willy expands on the point. “It depends on how old you are. If you were six or something it would be too much. It’s okay if you’re 10, but at 12 or 13 you wouldn’t be scared at all. I scare easily, but I didn’t get frightened by that.”
The episode passes almost without comment. The audience seem enraptured. During the end credits, I ask for any general observations. Jo, however, wants to get specific. “When the nurse had been shot as a monster and then changed back into a nurse, the blood on her arm was very fake. It looked like it had been moulded in plasticine or something.”
Verity is generous with her praise: “I thought it was all really, really good. Especially when the spaceship came through the water.”
Willy, once again going against the flow, is pessimistic. “I think the end of the last episode is going to be really bad. Like most things, the end is going to be all sloppy, and that’s no good if it’s built up for four episodes.”
Everyone agrees, however, that sinister Sister Lamont is very unnerving. In fact, almost all of the group can already do a passable imitation of her, hissing: “It’s alright, you’re going to be just fine,” or “It’s just a scratch.”
Erin knows what makes a monster disguised as a nurse more scary than the monster itself: “She’s scary because she’s real. You’re going to be scared when you go to the doctors.”
Alex makes an unexpected comparison. “I didn’t like the nurse because she had that horrible stare, a really glassy stare. Just like Doctor Who himself.”
I ask them to compare what they’re watching to their usual television diet. Willy chooses Power Rangers as his reference point again and says, “Doctor Who spends more money on the storyline than on special effects.” Which is more important? “You can forgive a bad special effect but you can’t forgive a bad story. The effects have only got to be good enough. In some programmes they take too much time on the effects. They work out the story, but then they think: ‘Oh we’ll get the story done quickly so we can start working out special effects to make it look that we’re bothered about more than just good special effects.”
Ruby also thinks Doctor Who has its priorities right. “It’s good that they spend as much time getting the clothes and acting and everything right, as they do on the effects.” But some of the boys seem slightly alarmed by this line of thought, and signal caution. “If you have really rubbish special effects then you can get bored. You do want something really massive to blow up every now and again.”
I promise to arrange a really big explosion for Part Four.
Willy neatly demonstrates how Doctor Who’s five-year absence from our screens, barring the odd repeat, has given his age-group a strange view of the series’ nature. “The thing I hate most about Doctor Who,” he says firmly, “is that in each story, whether it’s four episodes or whatever, there is a different Doctor Who. There’s this one we’ve watched with the big hair, and there’s the other one who just wears the hat. It’s always different.” I wonder if he could possibly remember Sylvester McCoy, before asking the group if anyone has seen another actor playing Doctor Who.
“There’s this other story where the Doctor is really, really grey and he’s an old grump.”
When I ask if anyone has seen the Daleks, almost all respond positively, and several start chanting “Exterminate! Exterminate!”
“Are they the ones that go round on wheels?” asks Jo.
25 minutes later, the Zygon invasion has been repelled, the Skarasen is back in Loch Ness and the Doctor and Sarah are off on another adventure. And Verity is the first off the blocks. “I thought that had a really good ending.” She’s almost drowned out. “It was great!” “The explosion was brilliant!”
I invite them to put a hand up if they were disappointed by the ending. Only Duncan’s hand goes up. “They killed everyone on the spaceship just like that,” he says, clicking his fingers. “And they found the right place in London just at the right time.”
James defends the plotting. “It’s because they had the proof already.” Looking like she is about to burst, Jo is keen to be heard. “There’s only one thing I can really say about that movie and it’s that I think it was just brilliant!”
Ruby is unsure of a few things – she’d had to leave during Part Two to attend a music lesson. “I don’t understand how the last Zygon survived and got to London.” Everyone helpfully explains about the true nature of the Duke of Forgill, and how he left the ship before it exploded. Ruby nods. “I didn’t understand that.”
Back to our favourite subject: special effects. What did they think about the Skarasen’s final appearance? Someone shouts “Wicked!”, but Jo is more damning. “I thought it was really funny.” Verity agrees. “It was so unrealistic.” But Erin doesn’t want any aspect of the serial to be criticised. “I thought it was all brilliant,” she says.
Ruby is still having problems. “But what was the actual aim of the monsters doing what they did?” James neatly summarises the plot for her, without a pause for breath. “Their planet got muffed up or something and they went to Earth to try and take it over using humans as slaves so they could recreate their world… Basically.”
I offer them a chance to make any final points.
Alex: “I loved the film, but the dinosaur wasn’t very realistic.”
Ruby: “If somebody asked me what my three favourite programmes were now, like you did, then that would be one of them.”
Verity: “I thought it was really good, but it was a bit slow at the beginning.”
Ben: “I liked how they had it in four episodes.” I explain that normally the story would have been shown over four weeks, so it would have taken a whole month to see how it ended.
Willy: “I disagree with Ben. A month is a long time to wait to see the end of what is just a two-hour film.”
Jo: “I would watch that. It’s one of those films that I would want to watch on a rainy day.”
James: “I thought it was quite good. I wouldn’t mind having to wait for the next episode. It makes you want to watch it.”
Karri: “I thought the whole thing was good. The special effects aren’t as good as Star Trek, but it didn’t matter because the acting and the story were so good.”
Ben: “I really liked all of it. I loved the fungi in the spaceship. Like Ruby said, if I had to do a list of my best programmes, I’d probably put it as my second-best programme.”
So, after four episodes, what have we learned from Class 4G? Their response to Doctor Who has been enthusiastic and almost overwhelmingly positive. They have championed the importance of a good story above all other factors, including special effects. Most importantly, my new friends have highlighted what a short-sighted decision the cancellation of Doctor Who has proved to be. The series may have lost its primary audience in its last years, but it remains as relevant today as it was on the afternoon afternoon of Saturday 23 November 1963. Its ability to engage the imagination, to excite, to frighten and to thrill is undiminished.
All Doctor Who needs to do upon its return is to rediscover its roots and the few key concepts and ideas upon which it was built. Poor special effects can be forgiven, as long as they are dictated by an ambitious and imaginative script. Doctor Who is so well-loved because it never let its vision be dictated by the limitations of its budget.
Finally, I ask the group perhaps the most important question of all… If Doctor Who came on next week, who would watch it? They all put a hand up enthusiastically. “I’ve got two hands up!” “I’ve got a leg as well!”
Willy, however – always keen to go against the grain – is more reticent.
“It depends what else is on,” he says.