Jackie Jenkins, an introduction

This is my introduction to the forthcoming book Single White Who Fan, from Hirst Books. It’s a collected volume of Jackie Jenkins’ diary columns from Doctor Who Magazine (with five new diaries entries that bring her story up to date). For more information, and to order, go here. It’s out next month, the publisher tells me.

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‘The Wilderness Years’. That’s what some now like to refer to the time – the 1990s and early 2000s – when Doctor Who wasn’t being made for television. A bizarre description. It’s certainly not how it looked from where I spent a good chunk of that period: the editor’s chair of Doctor Who Magazine. What I saw was a time of unprecedented creativity as fandom rushed to fill the refreshing vacuum with comedy and commentary; with articles, comics, books and audios. At DWM, it was enormous fun to help lead the conversation, without having to worry about set visits, actor access or cross-platform brand synergy. The lunatics ran the asylum, and we partied till the new dawn.

Before my time, DWM had, in the main, been in the business of ‘facts’, of interviews and archives. It was all brilliantly done, but it became clear that we already knew everything that was to known about Doctor Who – or, at least, it was clear that what we didn’t know was now such a vanishingly small commodity that it couldn’t fuel a monthly magazine. Instead, what came to fascinate me more were DWM’s own readers: Doctor Who fans. This was because, in my experience, if you chose two readers at random and put them in a room together to discuss what they liked about the programme, there would be blood up the walls before an hour had passed. (I’m speaking figuratively, of course. No actual fans were harmed in this thought experiment.) But – and this is what nagged – these readers should surely have so much in common. They would have done so many of the same things, at the same time, perhaps without knowing it. They’d have learned how to spot a Target Books logo at 50 paces. They’d still experience a Proustian rush at the smell of cheap white chocolate, thanks to childhood over-indulgence in Doctor Who Candy Favourites. They’d be able to list each and every time a trivial family event – the funeral of a parent or some such – had caused them to miss an episode of Doctor Who.

The wonderful – still never-bettered – fanzine Skaro was already tapping into this shared experience and celebrating the ties that bind, so I shamelessly set about stealing my favourite of their writers – Matt Jones, Dave Owen, Vanessa Bishop. They brought fresh vim and vigour to DWM. Matt’s bold and confident Fluid Links column was designed to engage with the happy/sad of what we might call “the fan experience”, but when that had run it course, I knew it was time to go deeper. What DWM needed was a plucky reporter out in the field, a brave soul who could send back blood-stained letters from the trenches of Doctor Who fandom. DWM needed a war poet. It needed Jackie Jenkins.

I first met Jackie in the bar at a Panopticon convention in Coventry. (The most committed of fans spent an altogether unnecessary amount of time in Coventry in the 90s). She was sat, brow furrowed, between two handsomish boys, who were arguing furiously across her. I couldn’t catch what the discussion was about, but Jackie suddenly held up one hand and said, loudly and firmly: ‘Insect movement by Roslyn de Winter!’ Both boys silently nodded their acceptance of this vital point, their debate at an end. Intruiged, I engineered an introduction, and Jackie soon proved herself witty and wise beyond my all hopes. And later, she showed she could write. Boy, can that girl write.

To my mind, Jackie Jenkins is greatest writer about Doctor Who there has ever been – the cleverest, the wisest, the most honest. And so, the book you are holding is, quite simply, the best book ever written about the dark art of Doctor Who appreciation. It’s a bittersweet love letter to fandom that celebrates our strengths but doesn’t shy from naming our weakness. It’s also the funniest book ever written about Doctor Who. We’re laughing at ourselves as we laugh at Jackie, Chas and Nigel. They’re so perfect a team that if they didn’t exist, and you tried make them up, no one would believe you.

And there’s a thing… Writing for DWM brought certain pressures to bear upon poor Jackie. As a beautiful woman – probably – with an understanding of the subtleties of UNIT dating, she attracted, as you might expect, her share of admirers. And by ‘admirers’, I mean stalkers. It all became difficult for her – all that being followed around WHSmith – until my very clever successor as DWM editor, Alan Barnes, had a brainwave. In a moment of genius he claimed, in an editorial, that Jackie was a fiction, that we made her up! It was a gamble, but it worked, and Jackie found some peace again. But now, for the record, I’d like to tell the truth. Jackie Jenkins is real. (Alan Barnes, however, is entirely fictional.)

This was all a long time ago, of course, and it’s been a perfect pleasure to catch up with Jackie again after so many years. We lost contact when she moved to America with that awful Darren, and by the time she returned I had left DWM and drifted to one of the colder extremes of my own eternal, elliptical orbit of Doctor Who. And a lot had happened since her last diary for DWM, back in 2004. The Doctor Who universe has expanded beyond measure – whole eras have come and gone – and there are now fans without number, of all ages, in all places. The world teems with them. It’s impossible to hear the whole conversation any longer.

But some things remain fundamental to the fan experience. Fans will still share the frustration at a Doctor Who news story misheard from the radio and garbled by well-meaning parents – even if they now rush to the internet rather than to Ceefax for the truth. Fans will still scour shops for favoured collectibles – even if now for a Genesis action figure set rather than a Genesis novelisation. And all minds will surely boggle that the credit: “JO JONES: KATY MANNING” can appear on TV in 2010.

So while we will never agree on a list of the 10 best Doctor Who stories, you and I, or even the 10 best Doctor Who logos, let us instead stop to celebrate the million things we have in common – the million uniquely fannish pleasures and pains that unite us, whether we’re a Jackie, a Chas or a Nigel.

This book is a reminder – should any reminder be needed – of what a wonderful thing it is to be a Doctor Who fan.

Here, in these pages, is the truth of it.

The Brain of Morbius

A DVD review for DWM

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A joy from start to finish, The Brain of Morbius is the quintessential Doctor Who story. If someone – perhaps a Stargate fan with a Guinness Book of Records in his bag and a chip on his shoulder – took a match or a big magnet to the BBC Videotape Archive, and only The Brain of Morbius survived the apocalypse, then future generations could easily extrapolate everything that’s important about Doctor Who from these four episodes alone, so neatly is the show’s entire DNA coiled into every second. The product of a deliciously twisted imagination, bursting with quotable dialogue and wholly committed performances, these 100 glorious minutes would tell a curious historian all he needs to know about our preposterous programme.

In 2004, when Doctor Who was announced as being on its way back to our screens, the favoured press release slogan for the new series was “full-blooded” – suggesting both great energy and a steadfast refusal to compromise. It’s exactly the right adjective to describe Doctor Who at its best; and when selling that future, we can be sure Russell T was remembering The Brain of Morbius. The plot may be basic – famously a reworking of Frankenstein, as the Doctor battles to stop an evil genius transplanting the brain of his Time Lord master into a new body – but it’s made special because everything is taken to such glorious extremes. Philip Madoc gives one of the all-time great guest turns as mad-as-a-mooncalf scientist Solon. His castle laboratory is as creepy as heck and a triumph of production design, with something bubbling in every corner. Even the body Solon assembles for his hero is made out of the best bits of other monsters. In short, The Brain of Morbius is as full-blooded as it gets. It’s Doctor Who turned up to 10.

Looking at that mish-mash monster, it’s a credit to the costume designer that the creature remains scary despite looking hilarious. This new Morbius may be proud to have the lungs of a Birastrop, but he also has the face of a cross-eyed Dalek and a backside like two sacks of soil. There’s a cute moment when he spots his reflection for the first time, and puts a hand to his absent mouth in shock. “What the hell do I look like?” he’s clearly thinking – a reaction many of us will have shared with the bathroom mirror on a morning after a night pickling our brain.

While the brain of Morbius may hog the title of this story, it’s his left hand that really matters, as it ultimately brings about his downfall. Solon has callously thieved the arm from his servant Condo in a display of unfeeling arrogance that karmically comes back to bite him. When Condo discovers what’s now attached to the sticky end of his long-lost limb, he turns upon his master and – in a cunning bit of writing – what has seemed no more than an entertaining subplot becomes the engine of the story. If Solon hadn’t been so mean then Condo would have remained loyal to the cause, and there would be no reason to rush the transplant of Morbius’ fundamentals into a fruit bowl. After that disaster, the already doolally Time Lord goes completely nuts.

Even then, that arm continues to hog the limelight. When the creature is up and on the lurch, its left hand takes on new significance as the only part of actor Stuart Fell that can be seen by the audience. And you can’t take your eyes off it. With his arm giving its all, Morbius’ gestures become delightfully showy. “My brain functions perfectly!” boasts the creature at one point, and Fell’s forefinger whips up to point helpfully at the organ in question, in case we’ve lost track of it in all the fuss.

First hindering and then helping the Doctor, as he wrestles the arm of Morbius, is the Sisterhood of Karn. They’re the highlight of the story for this reviewer – thanks to wonderful performances by Cynthia Grenville and Gilly Brown – and without doubt the campest troop ever to follow the Doctor into battle.

They also provide much food for thought. We learn that the Sisterhood has an uneasy pact with the Time Lords, with whom they share the product of their fountain of youth: the precious pentapeptides of the Elixir of Life. But come on… there has to be more to it that that. At this point, we’ve seen Gallifrey as a planet occupied solely by men. And here is Karn, world of the women. One imagines a bitter divorce back in the day, with the Sisterhood winning their sacred flame in the settlement, and the Time Lords keeping the secret of putting big boxes inside little ones. They’d have much more fun if the boys and girls got back together again. Ohica could flash her eyes at Castellan Spandrell across a crowded Panopticon. High priestess Maren could melt into the manly embrace of Cardinal Borusa. With eternal youth and infinite life on their side, they could party the Universe away.

Actually, Maren already seems to have an eye for the Doctor here, discreetly shedding her Black Forest gateau of a hat for his second visit to her shrine, and letting her hair down. The old flirt. Even her whiskers seem more glossy and manageable.

DVD EXTRAS

Settle down to enjoy one of the finest commentaries yet. All the key players are present – producer Philip Hinchcliffe; director Christopher Barry; and stars Tom Baker, Lis Sladen and Philip Madoc – and it’s a pleasure to spend time in their company. The mutual appreciation is constant – Tom compliments Lis, Lis congratulates Chris, Philip applauds Philip, and Philip praises Philip in return – but hey, they all deserve it. In the gaps between back-slaps they get down to the nitty-gritty, pointing out little flourishes of production you might not have noticed, and even throwing in a concise history of film and TV lighting that’s more interesting that it may sound. And Tom’s obviously enjoying himself – especially when the pretty girls of the Sisterhood are spinning across the screen. “Look at all that panting crumpet,” he sighs, probably recalling a happy day on the job.

If you ignore the clumsy narration from Paul McGann, then the production documentary, Getting A Head, is a definite hit. Philip Madoc’s here again, looking more the mad scientist than Solon ever did. He clearly adores these episodes, and gleefully quotes his favourite lines. As he does, one wild, glinting eye seems to follow you around the room. Then it follows you out of the room and into the kitchen. It’s scary stuff. Cynthia Grenville is similarly intense when she recalls how Tom Baker was almost burned to death in studio – though not, as you might expect, consumed by the flames of his own ardour.

Production values on the documentary are commendably high. If you’re of an age to remember when ‘green screen’ was called ‘CSO’, and only worked for viewers with a congenital squint, you’ll find yourself staring in fascination at Grenville’s frizzy hair. Or rather, you’ll be staring through Grenville’s frizzy hair to the computer-generated shrine beyond. This may seem a trivial detail, but it’s a big deal for those of us who’ve been waiting more than three decades for them to crack it.

And speaking of whizzo technology, those CG recreations of the sets are certainly pretty to look at, even if they don’t serve much practical purpose. They’re like something from an unreleased Brain of Morbius computer game. Imagine that on the Wii. You could go looking for Condo’s arm, build a monster out of alien entrails, or wave the controller around your head and dance with the Sisterhood. Casualty departments across the land would be full of Doctor Who fans who’d got dizzy chanting “sacred flame, sacred fire”, and brained themselves on the sideboard.

‘Bred for War’ DVD box set

A DVD review for DWM

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One potato, two potato, three potato, four… If there‘s one thing you can count on with Sontarans, it’s that no two members of the race will ever look, sound or act the same. Odd that – considering they’re clones. But it means this box set of their 70s and 80s adventures offers plenty of variety.

It all starts well. 1974’s The Time Warrior is a little masterpiece, because Sontaran Linx – struggling to return to his fleet but constantly pestered by dimwit humans and a nosey Gallifreyan – is a very funny character. Through this impatient and irritable individual, we see the Sontarans as beings utterly convinced of their own superiority, even if the rest of the universe is sniggering behind their backs and poking twigs in their probic vents. It’s the whiff of Captain Mainwaring and Victor Meldrew about Lynx that makes him seem so real.

Sadly, this entertaining aspect of the Sontaran psyche is then forgotten about until General Staal’s petulant bellyache about not being allowed to play in the Time War, 34 years later. The other stories here bring steadily diminishing returns, with the Sontarans often just stomping and shouting. And as time passes, their looks fade along with their spirit. Linx is sensational – give him a Radio Times cover shoot and he would still turn heads today – but by the time we reach The Two Doctors, Group Marshal Stike appears to be an orange balloon with a face drawn on it.

So clones? No chance! Perhaps this is just a fib Sontarans hide behind because they get embarrassed discussing – y’know – s-e-x. (“Well, Steev, what happens is… Daddy touches mummy’s thorax in a special way, and nine months later a clone is delivered. Honestly.”)