The Feast of Steven

A review for Doctor Who Magazine, Christmas 2015.

Down the years, great minds have pondered at length the unsolved mysteries of literature. Did wily Heathcliff, late of wiley Wuthering Heights, murder the brother of his beloved Cathy? Who would Dickens have fingered as the killer of Edwin Drood, if indeed he was killed at all? And, in James Joyce’s inimitable Ulysses (“an oddball romp, 6/10”), who is the enigmatic ‘man in the macintosh’ who looms as 13th mourner at the funeral of Paddy Dignam? Theory upon thesis upon treatise have hazarded an identity for this brooding, brown-coated figure. It’s like UNIT dating for literary wonks. Is he a physical manifestation of grief? Is it Joyce himself, haunting his own story? Anything is possible. As the novel’s sometime protagonist Leopold Bloom muses, peering through the grey air of the graveyard: “Always someone turns up who you never thought of.” 

This observation is no less true of Doctor Who. The 1965 episode The Feast of Steven even has its own ‘Man in Mackintosh’, who turns up with his own unfathomable – indeed, almost unbearable – engima. Man in Mackintosh is named as such in the credits of this demented seventh episode of the 1965 serial The Daleks’ Master Plan, which we’ve gathered to discuss in this festive DWM thanks to its status as the first episode of Doctor Whoto be broadcast on Christmas Day. And as this Dalek-free instalmentself-consciously stands apart from the other eleven-twelfths of the Dalek epic, it can be also be described as Doctor Who’s first ever Christmas special. Indeed, if Russell T Davies hadn’t got his arse so spectacularly into gear in 2005, it would have proved Doctor Who’s only Christmas special.  

’Tis the season and all that, but Man In Mackintosh is not feeling particularly jolly as he pitches up at a provincial police station somewhere in the north of England. “They keep movin’ me ’ouse…” he groffs, jowls presumably a-wobble, to the Duty Sergeant. “Me green’ouse!” Our raincoated chum then adds, in a conspiratorial tone, a further cryptic detail: “It’s the revels.” These ‘revels’ perhaps hint at some callous Bullingdon Club-style bacchanalia, but beyond that we know nothing. The riddle of exactly whochose to hide Mackintosh’s greenhouse – along with how and where and why– will forever remain, unlike the structure in question, entirely opaque. And here’s another question. Are we supposed to be entertained by this? The greenhouse business is structured vaguely like a joke, and certainly played as if it’s meant to be amusing – but it simply isn’t. The whole episode suffers the same fatal flaw. The Feast of Steven is a shaggy dog story told by someone who doesn’t quite know how to be funny. There are punch lines of a sort, but they serve as a cue for tumbleweed, not laughter. You keep wanting to ask our storyteller “And then what happens?”, in hopeful anticipation of some pay-off that never comes. 

So eager is our episode for a titter or two, it even attempts a metafictional turn when the Doctor bumps into Mackintosh at the police station. “Haven’t I met you somewhere before?” harrumphs the Doctor, before the penny drops. “Ah yes! The marketplace in Jaffa!” It’s a reference to the fact that the Mackintosh actor, Reg Pritchard, also appeared in Doctor Who nine months earlier as market trader Ben Daheer (which is not, by the by, a name to be shouted out in polite company). The camera script for The Feast of Steven credits Terry Nation,but switches to a different typestyle for this brief exchange, one of many late rewrites that were likely made by director Douglas Camfield, who cast Pritchard in both roles. And it must be said that, as a writer, Camfield does indeed make an excellent director. Like the episode as a whole, it’s clearly meant to be funny but it merely grazes the lower limits of charming. It also raises the question of why the Doctor doesn’t similarly recognise his own travelling companion Sara Kingdom, whose face he also saw in Jaffa – and far less fleetingly – worn by Princess Joanna, the all-too devoted sister of Richard the Lionheart. 

Having once been a cast as a princess, actress Jean Marsh makes Sara Kingdom Doctor Who’s poshest ever companion. Her accent is so cut and polished it could substitute for a segment of the Key to Time. She’s a top agent for the Super Special Space Security Service, presumably having taken the traditional route for fastidiously-reared Central City gels of the year 4000, via Space Rodean and Space Swiss Finishing School. Sadly, Sara is not long for this world – or any other – and will die while in the Doctor’s care, just five episodes later. (At this point in the series, he’s having a bad run of that sort of thing.) Happily, actress Jean Marsh has since returned to the role of Sara for Big Finish, fetching up unexpectedly reincarnated as a big old house in Ely; a most fitting fate for the co-creator of Upstairs Downstairs.

No stranger to either Jean Marsh’s upstairs or downstairs is Peter Purves, who plays the Doctor’s other companion, Steven. Purves boasts in his autobiography that he enjoyed a fling with his co-star while they worked on The Daleks’ Master Plan. Perhaps their wrestling with the lifeless script of The Feast of Steven spilled over into a post-production tumble. In which case it’s nice to know that at least two people got a thrill out of it.

While Purves may have been quite the Lothario, Steven Taylor is a tough man to love. Catch him on a bad day and, well, you’ve met actual wasps that are less waspish. On a good day he’s merely a pompous nag. He replies to the Doctor’s orders with a respectful “Yes sir”, but you hear enamel grinding from gritted teeth. Steven is a top pilot and a bit of a dish – in a generic kind of way – so he’s not short on ego, and while he defers to the Doctor as his senior officer, you sense that Steven feels that he should be the star of his own story, and is waiting for a chance to dispatch the old bugger on a one-way trip to the planet Dignitas.

The Feast of Stevenfalls into two sections. Act One brings the TARDIS to the aforementioned police station, where, on venturing outside the ship, the Doctor is arrested for vagrancy and taken to the Inspector for questioning. Our hero is in a whimsical frame of mind, and gives us the episode’s best scene when he’s asked if he’s English, Scottish or Welsh. “You really must think in a far bigger way than that!” the Doctor giggles. “Your ideas are too narrow! Too small! Too crippled!” “What are you then?” asks the inspector, his patience at an end. “I’m a citizen of the Universe!” chirrups the Doctor, “and a gentleman to boot!” He’s showing off, but in retrospect there’s something sweetly understated about the Doctor seeing himself merely as a citizen of the Universe. These days, he’s a hot mess of survivor guilt, self-regard and oh-poor-me-and-my-burden-of-wisdom – blub blubsquish squish. And he’s become entirely insufferable because of it. But back then, the Doctor saw his responsibilities as no more those of any other civilised citizen: to play his part; to do his bit; to do no harm. While this all seems so sweet and innocent in retrospect, the scene also shows how far the series has come since its first episode, just two years earlier. Then, the Doctor was whipped into a fury by the fear that his secrets would be discovered; that a policeman might question him. Here, he cheerfully spills all to the rozzers about what his Police Box really is, and what it can do. “E’s a nutter!” scoffs one copper, and the Doctor seems delighted. “Are you imputing that I am mentally deranged? Hmm? Heh!” The scene is intended as a joke, of course. What would it be like if the Doctor just told the truth for a change? And to policeman?! Ha-ha! But this subversion of the show’s rules proves so appealing that it immediately establishes itself as the norm. 

All this whimsy clearly delights our star William Hartnell. We find him here, this Christmas Day, at the zenith of his success as Doctor Who. The character may have grown out of what was gifted to him on 35 pages of pastel Foolscap each week (like Hartnell himself, the Doctor was by turn flinty and frivolous, a man of quicksilver mood but essentially benevolent) but by this point in his Doctor Who journey the actor had experienced, in a very real way, the true Pied Piper power of the Doctor. During recording of the previous serial, our star had been flown from London to RAF Finningley, near Doncaster, to take part in the annual air show. In surviving silent cine film we see Hartnell in full costume waving from the back of a jeep, like a Pope blessing the faithful. The air show soon comes under attack from some uncharacteristically zippy Daleks made from modified go-carts. Jolly fun it may be, but we can only guess at the fierce pride felt by former Private Billy Hartnell – invalided from the Army after a nervous breakdown – when the moment came for him to call down an air strike from a Vulcan bomber, before being driven back through a crowd of adoring children for lunch at the Officers’ Mess. And we might also think of his delight when the script for The Feast of Stevenarrived and there was, within, not a Dalek to be found. This Christmas Day, Bill will be the star of his own show. No wonder he’s having such a good time.

In this spirit, you feel that the Doctor might cheerfully chat the whole night away with the police. Unfortunately, Steven – having stolen a police uniform – comes to his rescue. For some reason, he adopts a full ‘dey do dat doh don’t dey’ Scouse accent. When challenged by the Doctor, Steven explains: “Everyone else is doing it!” Trouble is, they’re not. There’s range of northern accents to be heard, covering Bolton to Bradford, but Steven is the only Liverpudlian. We know that this episode was originally intended to feature the cast and sets of the hit police drama Z-Cars, which ended its first life as weekly drama just four days before transmission of The Feast of Steven. The Z-Cars production team swiftly arrested this development, but Steven’s jokey accent surely stems from the fact that Z-Carswas set on Merseyside. The only other lingering ghost of the original idea is a reference by one policeman to the New Brighton Ferry. (Oddly, in the script, this is “the Brighton Ferry”.) All this confusion only adds to the sense that, after the Z-Cars pastiche/crossover was lost, nobody knew quite what to do with these 10 minutes of TV. Without its cast of famous faces, we’re left with four rambling policemen and a possible flasher who can’t find his greenhouse. 

Meanwhile, Sara is crawling about on top of the Tardis – off screen, unfortunately – trying to fix “the scanner eye”. Her woolly jumpsuit is admired as fancy dress by another copper, who then – as she slips off into the ship – wishes her “a swinging time”. With Peter Purves on board, that’s guaranteed. Back in the relative sanity of the control room, our heroes pause to recall the wider context of their current adventure. “Is the Taranium safe?” asks the Doctor, reminding us that they have recently filched an ‘emm’ of Taranium from the Daleks, destined to fuel the terrible Time Destructor. (Emma Taranium is one of the great Doctor Who drag names. Along with Madeleine Cluster and Carmine Seepage, she buys her gowns at Tracy’s of Lucanol.) “The Daleks!” gasps Sara. “I’d forgotten them!” Which is a bit rum given that, just a few hours ago, Sara was hoodwinked into murdering her own brother as part of a Dalek scheme. She was clearly raised not to brood on such minor inconveniences. For the patient viewer, mention of the Doctor’s great enemy raises the hope that they might soon crash this moribund Christmas shindig. Alas, what awaits us is something more terrible than even the Dalek conquest of all time and space.

In a sawmill somewhere, a damsel is in distress. We soon join her. Blossom – a face of tear-streaked slap – is threated with imminent bisection by D’Arcy, in derby hat and wicked moustache. “My sawmill will take care of you!” vows d’astardly D’Arcy. “And my secret will be safe forever!” Once again, we never learn the nature of this secret – perhaps he revels in the moving of greenhouses – because the action is interrupted by the arrival of the TARDIS crew, who give the rascal a sound thrashing. A wider shot reveals that we are on the set of a movie, and that Blossom and D’Arcy are merely actors in a film directed by the bullish Steinberger P Green, who conducts all conversation at demolition decibels. This pull-back out of fiction to reveal fact is the same gag Terry Nation used with the haunted house in The Chase, but here the TARDIS crew at least get to be in on the joke.  

The BBC junked its video recording of The Feast of Steven long ago. Today, only the soundtrack of the episode and twenty smeary off-screen photos of this second act remain as record. The irony is, for an adventure set during the age of silent cinema, it makes a right old racket, bordering on the unendurable. The Doctor and his companions run hither and yon, yelled at by all and sundry. Sexy Sara is hassled to join a Shiekh’s harem in the latest exotic epic from arty director Ingmar Knopf (‘Ker-nerf! Ker-nerf!’), Steven’s police uniform has him dragooned into the Keystone Kops, even though a BBC budget means that the troupe’s famous exploding car routine takes place off screen, with a cheapskate sound effect and cloud of dust. The Doctor quickly loses patience with the whole sorry affair. His response almost makes you glad the episode isn’t around to be GIF-ed: “This is a madhouse!” he wails to Sara. “It’s all full of Arabs!” The line isn’t in the camera script, so one wonders if it was a Hartnell addition. 

Looking back from a distance of 50 years, a police station and an old Hollywood studio may seem peculiar choices of setting for a Christmas edition of a show that considers all time and space its playground. But when we consider what else was on TV that Christmas Night, we better understand the context of it all. Doctor Who was broadcast at 6.45pm. Earlier in the afternoon, BBC1 viewers enjoyed an episode of warm-hearted police drama Dixon of Dock Green – which would have looked very like the first half of The Feast of Steven. Over on BBC2 at 6.30pm, When Comedy Was King consisted of a compilation of clips from the greats of the silent cinema – which would have looked very like the second half of The Feast of Steven. The Doctor’s Hollywood caper incorporates mentions of Keaton and Fairbanks, and even a brief appearance by someone we’re expected to recognise as Chaplin. It concludes with the Doctor listening to the woes of a sad clown who plans to give up comedy for singing. The joke comes when he tells the Doctor his name. The big Christmas Day movie on BBC1 – one hour after Doctor Who– was Road to Bali, starring Bing Crosby.

So it is that, even without the Z-Cars cast, The Feast of Steven works as a BBC Christmas 1965 mash-up, just about. It’s less what we now recognise as a Doctor Who Christmas episode than it is a Children in Need sketch. Indeed, its closest Doctor Who DNA match is the ne plus ultra of telly crossovers, Dimensions in Time

But if you’re looking for something closer in tone to a modern Doctor WhoChristmas special, then such a thing could also to be found in the festive season of 1965. Issues 732 to 735 of TV Comic saw Doctor Who banter with Santa, battle deadly snowmen, and ride a giant squirrel through the sky. Keep Santa and the snowmen, but swap the flying squirrel for a one-shark open sleigh, and you’ll find much of the flavour of the Moffat era Christmas special – all snowy rooftops and Victorian fairytale. It’s a Christmastown more familiar from the feats of Steven than anything in The Feast of Steven.

There’s not a lot of Christmas to be found in Doctor Who’s first Christmas episode. There’s some brief carol singing and a few decorations at the police station, and then nothing in the second act. But it comes spectacularly good on its festive promise in the end. Having left Hollywood, the Doctor does something wholly unexpected. He produces a bottle of champagne and three glasses, and then peers straight down the lens of camera two to wish “a happy Christmas to all of you at home.” It’s dazzling in its chutzpah.

Happy Christmas to you too, Doctor Who! Just don’t get too mashed on that champagne and go moving any greenhouses now, will you?

An Adventure in Space and Time

A set and location report for DWM. Published November 2013.

7.00am. Sunday 17 February 2013. 

It’s that moment in the morning when everything is blue. The air itself is blue. The River Thames, at the turn of the tide, is an unblemished mirror. Viewed from the southern bank, every detail of the Palace of Westminster is perfectly doubled in its reflection. It’s a frozen, bewitching moment… Until the silence is broken – respectfully – by Big Ben chiming out the hour.

And then, right on schedule, the Dalek invasion begins.

A large white van pulls up on Westminster Bridge Road, and the Daleks are hauled from the back of it, each in several pieces, and carefully assembled on the pavement. It’s immediately clear that they are the perfect Daleks for the day: from the silver balls of their eyestalks down to the thick black rubber of their dodgem-car bases. Freed from their reliance upon the static electricity of their city on Skaro, these Daleks draw power via a satellite dish mounted on their backs – or so the story goes. In reality they are driven by the scrabbling plimsolls of their eager human operators, now hidden within, twitching and spinning the machines into sinister life.

“A wondrous sight, isn’t it?” says Mark Gatiss, his breath frosting. Clearly a man with experience of night shoots and dawn calls, he’s wearing a heavy coat and fur hat, as if he’s just slipped away from the Siege of Leningrad. As the four Daleks fall into line, Mark’s heavy sigh of satisfaction fogs the air around us. The sight of Daleks gliding over Westminster Bridge is a potent image for any Doctor Who fan, but has an even deeper resonance for Mark.

After all, he’s been here before.

8.00am Sunday 31 October 1993. 
Westminster Bridge, London.

Doctor Who is gearing up to celebrate its 30th birthday. The series itself may be four years dead, but the fans remains as loyal as ever – and one, Kevin Davies, is preparing a celebratory documentary for BBC One: 30 Years in the TARDIS. The highlight of today’s filming is a recreation of a key scene from the 1964 serial The Dalek Invasion of Earth, for which Kevin has assembled a slightly ragtag troop of homemade Dalek casings. However, the Dalek operators are required to be members of the actors’ union Equity, so suitably qualified fan friends have been drafted in; among them Barnaby Edwards and Nicholas Pegg – for whom Dalek-ing will ultimately become something of a vocation – and the 26-year-old Mark Gatiss.

“The early 90s was a dark time for Doctor Who,” recalls Mark. “At that point, I really didn’t think it would ever come back. All you could do was try to keep the flame alive in whatever small way you could. And so when Kevin was looking for Daleks to be in his documentary, I jumped at the chance.

“I remember trundling along the bridge, with fibreglass splinters in my neck, and thinking: ‘This is really difficult!’ It was barely-controlled chaos, and kids were running about behind us, shrieking with delight. 

“But then one little boy came right up to me and tugged at his mum’s sleeve and said: ‘What are they, mum?’ And my heart sank. How can anyone say ‘What are they?’ about the bloody Daleks? And I thought: ‘This is it, the world is starting to forget. This is how it ends.’”

8.30am. Sunday 17 February 2013. 
Westminster Bridge, London.

Word has got round that the Daleks are in town, and a huge crowd has gathered across the street, snapping away with cameras and smartphones. Tourist buses pass at a crawl, allowing their passengers to enjoy the spectacle. Pictures have already been tweeted and retweeted around the world.  Everyone loves the Daleks.

Doctor Who fans have been waiting for a moment like this ever since the announcement that BBC Two would be marking the 50thbirthday of Doctor Who with a special feature-length film, telling the story of the creation of the show and the struggle to bring its earliest episodes to the screen. Today’s location shoot is the first chance fans have had to appreciate the true ambition of the production.

“It’s over a decade since I first pitched the idea to the BBC, for the 40thanniversary,” explains Mark – writer and co-executive producer of An Adventure in Space and Time. “I’ve been back and back to it over the years. I talked to Steven Moffat about doing it when Matt Smith took over, as a way of reminding the audience that there had been other Doctors before David Tennant. But he said – and I agreed – that it was better to save it for the 50th. At the time it felt like years away, but then: ‘Oh no! It’s here!’ 

“It’s a great, compelling story – but honing in on the best way to tell it has been the challenge. But I always knew I was going to get the Daleks out on Westminster Bridge again.” 

Only a short sequence is to be to be filmed this morning, but a challenging one. With artful instinct, a thin mist gathers along the Thames, lending a dreamlike quality to the scene. The traffic is stopped at both ends of the bridge, and an uncanny silence falls as the Daleks glide across, casually inspecting their latest real-estate acquisition. One camera frames the familiar shots from 1964, while another, high up in a window of the old County Hall, captures a brand-new perspective.

Then: “Cut!” But this is not the voice of Terry McDonough – director of An Adventure in Space and Time – but of actor Ian Hallard, who’s playing the cravat-wearing director of the original Dalek Invasion of Earth, Richard Martin. With perfect comic timing, one of the Daleks swings its eyestalk round to regard ‘Richard’ as it receives furious notes on its performance.

“I love it!” chuckles Mark. “That’s staying in! Now… I don’t suppose you know anyone with a Zarbi costume do you? Or a Voord?” 

I confess that I don’t, and Mark explains: “We have a tiny scene in the film where I need an unexpected monster. Someone’s told me there might be a Mechonoid in Sunderland, but our budget can’t stretch to the transport.”

11.00am. Sunday 17 February 2013. 
BBC Television Centre, London.

The Daleks are packed away again, and An Adventure in Space and Time moves back to TV Centre, where the unit has been shooting on location for the past week. Today’s scenes feature Jessica Raine, as Doctor Who’s first producer Verity Lambert, and Brian Cox as her boss, Sydney Newman. The pair hurry through the Stage Door reception area, which has been stripped back and polished to its gorgeous 60s best. Newman is explaining the idea for a new television series to Lambert. “They travel about in space and time, getting into scrapes,” says Newman, putting it in a nutshell. Cox looks the very image of the Newman: former BBC Head of Drama and one of the chief engineers of Doctor Who. With a cigarette holder clenched in his teeth, he squarks his dialogue from side of his mouth, like the Penguin from Batman. “And I want you to produce it, kid!” he tells Verity. “I need someone with piss and vinegar in their veins!”

It’s an unlikely catchphrase, and totally thrilling to hear Sydney Newman say it out loud.

Flashback. May 1965. 
BBC Television Centre, London.

19-year-old Brian Cox arrives at the studios to record his first ever TV. It’s a small part in a one-off drama, A Knight in Tarnished Armour, written by Alan Sharp and directed by John Gorrie for the prestigious Wednesday Play strand. Later that evening, in the BBC club, he is introduced to the man with ultimate responsibility for The Wednesday Play: BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman.

“He was quite a character,” recalls Cox. “Bear in mind that I was nobody, and didn’t know anyone or anything, and he was still very charming and very nice to me. But yes, Sydney was amazing character, and he really set the agenda for how drama was done on TV in the 60s, and that work still has a massive influence today. The Wednesday Play – along with Armchair Theatre, which he did for ITV – gave so many great writers and directors their first work. He brought people like Harold Pinter in to do TV. There was Dennis Potter and Tony Garnett and Ken Loach. He fashioned himself like one of the great movie moguls, like Jack Warner or Louis B Mayer. He had a great sense of showmanship, but also great integrity. He was very hands-on and very encouraging and very open. He was a true enthusiast, and Doctor Who was born from that enthusiasm.” 

Nearly 50 years later, Brian Cox CBE is now world-famous, thanks to a prestigious career with the Royal Shakespeare Company and a host of blockbuster films, such as Manhunter and X-Men 2. So does he think Sydney would approve of his big-name casting?

“I hope he’d be proud,” says the 67-year old star, laughing. “But I really don’t know. He might say, ‘Too Scottish!’ or ‘You should be more Jewish!’ Hopefully I’ve captured the spirit of the man. And I’m wearing brown contact lenses so I match up better. They were made for another part, but I brought them along today. I don’t think the director has noticed!

“When the script for this came through I jumped at it. It’s a great script, and really captures Sydney and Verity and how things were back then. And it was perfectly timed for me, as I’m doing a play in London. I thought it was a great way to pay tribute to Sydney and to work at TV Centre one last time.”

Sunday 17 February 2013. 
BBC Television Centre, London.

When the sun shines down into the rotunda of TV Centre at just the right angle, it is reflected and scattered by the wide circle of windows into a hundred diamond-shaped beams – which, in turn, reflect and scatter again. It works like a gigantic glitter ball. It’s the dazzle of pure showbiz, of a thousand stars. 

When the production team assembles under this golden glow – ready to film Sydney Newman’s first arrival at the BBC – the remaining working life of TV Centre can be measured in hours. An Adventure in Space and Time will be the last ever drama to be filmed at the studio.

“It’s so spooky that we’re here,” says Mark Gatiss, gazing up into the kaleidoscope of light. “Most of the fittings have been ripped out, and we’ve had to put the building back together again, just before it closes down. Frankly, it’s a national scandal that they’re closing it at all.”

Brian Cox agrees. “I worked here in the 60s, the 70s, the 80s and the 90s,” he says. “It’s so quiet here today – eerily so – but it used to be this incredible hive of activity. TV Centre was a greenhouse for creativity, providing the perfect conditions for talent to flourish, and for people to learn their trade. Designers and make-up people for example – the best you find in the movie business honed their craft here. And, boy, the make-up department Christmas party was the place you wanted to be, I can tell you. 

“All things must pass, of course,” he adds, “but you think, in closing TV Centre, maybe they’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater? It’s very sad. For me, this place is full of ghosts. Spirits walk those corridors.”

Filming pauses while a tour group passes through. Owing to the unique way the BBC is funded, An Adventure in Space and Time was almost prevented from filming at TV Centre at all. There was a concern that actual TV production would cause too much disruption to the tour schedule. 

“Have you seen upstairs yet?” asks Mark. “Have seen you what we’ve done?”

Summer 1973. 
Sedgefield, County Durham

Mark Gatiss is seven years old, and he loves Doctor Who. It’s been part of his family life for as long as he can remember. His mum does an excellent impression of a Fish Person from The Underwater Menace. His brother tells wondrous stories of when Cybots invaded the sewers of London. His dad’s tyre-pressure gauge is regularly pressed into service as a sonic screwdriver. Memories of Inferno mean that Mark lives in terror of the nearby gasometers.

1973 is the year of Doctor Who’s 10th anniversary, and Mark’s new favourite book is The Making of Doctor Who, by Malcolm Hulke. 

On page two he reads these words: ‘An idea as good as Doctor Who doesn’t just happen. Like building a bridge or a house, a great deal of thinking and work goes into a television series before you ever get to see it.’

2.30pm. Sunday 17 February 2013. 
BBC Television Centre, London.

The fifth floor of TV Centre has been dressed to recreate the 60s offices of Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert. Next door, the office of the design department, ready for scenes where Verity has to pester a begrudging Peter Brachacki to imagine her a TARDIS control room. 

The level of detail on these sets is quite astonishing. Copies of original BBC production paperwork cover the desks and walls. Even the sides of cupboards that will never be seen in shot are pasted with nuggets of Doctor Who history. ‘Design budget allotment for pilot episode: £291’ reads one memo. Another, from BBC Controller of Programmes Donald Baverstock tells Verity Lambert: ‘Following the viewing of episode seven today, I now agree to commit myself to accepting an additional ten episodes, making 36 in all… I hope that in these you will brighten up the logic and inventiveness of the scripts.” All this documentation is covered in familiar names: David Whitaker, CE Webber, Raymond Cusick, Terry Nation, Donald Wilson…

“I’ve been fascinated about this story – the creation – ever since I first read The Making of Doctor Who, which was like our Book of Genesis,” says Mark, perching on Verity Lambert’s desk. “The most difficult task has been to hone it down to something that will fit in a 90-minte drama. 

“I always knew I’d start the film with William Hartnell’s last day, but then spin back to the very beginning. The big challenge was finding a way to focus the story on, essentially, just four people. Bill Hartnell of course, and then Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert and Waris Hussein. Verity was the first female producer at the BBC, and Waris was the first Indian director, and also gay. Sydney had just come in from ITV, and was very much the resented outsider. So all of them represent change. They’re all a challenge to that rather fusty and old-fashioned way of doing things at the BBC in 1963. And all of them can drive this story in a unique way.

“I was talking to [Doctor Who historian] Marcus Hearn the other day, and he asked me who was playing Donald Wilson. And I had to say: ‘He’s not in it!’ Poor Marcus was dumbstruck. And I realised I was going to be spending the rest of my life having that conversation.

“The thing is, you just can’t include everyone,” explains Mark. “It’s not that I don’t understand or appreciate the scale of Donald Wilson’s contribution to Doctor Who as Head of Serials – or of David Whitaker as script editor, or Bunny Webber’s contribution to the format. In an early draft I had a scene where Sydney is barrelling down the hallways of TV Centre with about 30 people trailing behind him, all shouting out ideas, all with their names above their heads. Then gradually they’d disappear down to just Sydney holding the file that contains the first outline of Doctor Who. But in the end, I had to just pack away my inner anorak and think: ‘This is a drama.’ There’s lots of books and websites out there, and I’m not trying to rewrite history. In the end I went with a simple, single line from Verity to Bill Hartnell: ‘So many people have been in at the birth of this thing… we’d be here all day if I told you.’ Hopefully, the fans will appreciate the little wink there.

“It cuts both ways, of course. When, in 50 years time, they come to make the Benedict Cumberbatch biopic, and they do a little bit about Sherlock, I’m sure Steven Moffat and I will be merged into one character for dramatic convenience. If we make the cut at all!”

The conversation continues as we take the lift back down to Stage Door, to meet with one of An Adventure in Space and Time’s most special guest stars [see box out].

“What I hope to capture in the film is quite how young everyone was,” says Mark. “Waris and Verity’s careers had barely begun – she’d been little more than a secretary to this point. Sydney Newman wasn’t young, but he certainly felt like he was. Bill Hartnell is the anomaly, of course – though at 55 he was hardly ancient. But then he was so enlivened by this youthful company. It gave him a whole new lease of life. Bill was at a crossroads in his career, but the rest of them really had everything to prove and nothing to lose. And they end up creating, I think, great art. 

“It’s ridiculous really. You have an untried producer, a director with no confidence, a nervous star, a tiny studio… and a whacking great police box, of all things! But in this absolute hothouse of possibilities, in this potent primordial soup, there’s a flash of lightening and a miracle occurs.”

Mark is one of the hardest-working people in television. He’s on set every day for An Adventure and Space and Time, answering questions, making suggestions. After Adventure wraps, he moves on to Sherlock– for which he writes, produces and acts – while busily preparing a BBC Four documentary about writer MR James, to be shown at Christmas alongside a new dramatisation of one of James’s ghost stories, The Tractate Middoth – which Mark will both write and direct. And so – as actor, writer, director and producer – he must know the TV business of 2013 inside out… How different, then, is it to the BBC of 1963, and the struggles faced by Verity and Waris?

“It’s the same – but different,” he muses. “And now I’ll try to make sense of that! There are just as many lily-livered people around today, who don’t have the courage of their convictions, and are just waiting around for someone to tell them if a new project is a good idea or not. But every now and again you get someone as confident and enigmatic as Sydney Newman – or Russell T Davies, or Steven Moffat – who can say: ‘Trust me. We must do it my way.’ And those are the people who carry you through to huge success. 

“Equally, I think there’s also a great myth of a golden age of television. There’s always been lots of terrible stuff, just as there’s always been lots of great stuff. But I think something we’ve definitely lost is the room to at least risk failure, and therefore the room to experiment. It’s all down to ratings pressures, sadly. I think there’s less room today for a maverick to say ‘How about we just try this?’”

Mark phone rings. He answers, listens for a moment and promises immediate action. Pocketing his phone, he says: “Now, you’ll have to excuse me for a moment. I have to go back upstairs and urgently retrieve a photo of Douglas Camfield on his wedding day. It’s needed in make-up.”

Shooting in and around the rotunda and the scenery dock continues throughout the afternoon. And then, at 5.30pm – as the sun sets – it’s a wrap for BBC Television Centre.

8.00am Tuesday 19 February. 
Wimbledon Studios, London.

“Come with me,” insists Mark. “You must see it immediately.” 

He takes me by the hand and drags me from reception, past the production offices, and straight to the studio being used by An Adventure in Space and Time. I suddenly understand how it must feel to be the Doctor’s companion. Then we round a corner, and there it is… 

Mark watches for my reaction. I can only stare in slack-jawed wonder. It’s the TARDIS control room. The original. It’s there, and it’s real.It’s mind-bogglingly beautiful. And the shock of it will be quite undiminished when you see it on TV for the first time. It’s not merely a studio set from Doctor Who, it’s like someone has rebuilt a real but half-remembered place from your own life – your childhood bedroom, your first classroom at school – down to the last detail. The feeling is that primal.

Mark is still watching. I’m choking back tears. “Where shall we go?” he says impishly, skipping over to the console. The lights flash, the central column slowly turns. “The future? History? Or sideways?

“Oh, I know how you’re feeling,” he adds. “When I saw it for the first time, I had to stuff my scarf in my mouth to stop myself screaming.”

Walking slowly the console, I notice two brass pillars either side of the main double doors into the control room – huge decorative candle holders.

“But they can’t be…” I say. “Surely?”

“Oh yes they can,” says Mark. “Ha-ha! What have we done?”

Later that day.

I linger in the loading bay with production designer Dave Arrowsmith, and congratulate him on his magnificent TARDIS. 

“I think we’ve got it pretty much spot on,” he says. “We couldn’t find any plans for the console, so basically we just researched the hell out of it. I spent the Christmas holidays watching the whole of the first series with my 11-year-old son. Although he’s a fan of the modern series – he insisted I took the job, actually – I thought he would be bored by the 60s episode, but he loved it all. Especially the Dalek one. And that shows you how well it holds up even today. 

“So I frame-grabbed everything I could. Lucienne Suren, the art director, and I took measurements from objects that we knew the size of, and then worked out the proportions of everything else.

“This has been an amazing job, with so many different challenges. Bill Hartnell’s cottage, all the offices at the BBC, the junkyard, the planet Vortis, Kublai Khan’s palace… But the TARDIS was the biggest challenge. It took us about three weeks to build that set, and that’s with the help of modern tools. God knows how they managed it in 1963 with hacksaws and flat-head screwdrivers – it’s mind-blowing.

I ask about the brass pillars in the control room. 

“Now that was a great find,” says Dave. “One of our art department took a trip to the BBC Archive near Reading, and discovered paperwork which revealed that props for the pilot episode where hired in from a company which still exists today. So we went along to their warehouse, and managed to find some of the same props – still there in storage and available for hire. And so, those brass columns in the TARDIS are the exact same ones that were in the TARDIS in 1963. What are the chances of that?”

8.10am Tuesday 19 February. 
Wimbledon Studios, London.

“Weird things like that keep happening,” says Mark. “I think we’re in danger of blowing a hole in the space-time continuum. On our first night shoot, we erected our police box on Wimbledon Common – it’s actually pretending to be a different London common in the film – and it was only later that we realised we’d put our TARDIS, quite by chance, on almost exactly the same spot as it stands when Dodo runs into it in The Massacre.” 

The studio is starts to fill with cast and crew. Today is perhaps the most challenging of the whole shoot, with scenes covering the recording of Doctor Who’s pilot episode.

David Bradley waits in the shadows beside the broad blue gates to 76 Totter’s Lane. In full Doctor costume – Astrakhan hat, cape, college scarf and all – he’s the next wonder in a day of wonders. As he waits for the lighting to be set for the day’s first scene, David taps a smartphone with a stylus, looking for all the world like the Doctor taking notes out in the desert of paleolithic Earth. To complete the scene, a caveman joins him, all ratty beard and animal skins.

I turn to Mark. “You have caveman at the recording of the pilot episode,” I say. He narrows his eyes. “You know what people are going to say about…”

“Yes. I’m braced for that,” he says. “But we’re creating a sense of the atmosphere of the time. I hope the most fervent fact checkers will appreciate that we need some artistic license. We have three years of Doctor Who to compress into 90 minutes.”

As the morning’s scenes are played out, it’s immediately clear that David is perfect as the First Doctor, stiff-backed and haughty, bright eyes dancing. 

“He was my first and only choice,” confirms Mark. “Who else could it be? David’s one of our very best actors, simple as that. He’s an absolute gentleman and an adorable man. And he’s completely embraced the idea of Bill Hartnell as a pugnacious little terrier, who is completely transformed by playing the Doctor. Bill Hartnell became the Doctor, I think. And David has absorbed all that meticulously.”

Working alongside David today, and no less striking, is Claudia Grant, who channels Carole Ann Ford’s distinctive, sing-song speech pattern as Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter.

“It’s a freaky thing,” says Claudia between takes. “My agent rang me to tell me I’d got the part, and she said: ‘I have to say, I really wanted you to get it, because I’m William Hartnell’s real-life granddaughter.”

Claudia’s agent is Jessica Carney, who is herself – as a little girl – a character in An Adventure in Space and Time. It’s a day for seemingly fated connections.

Summer, 1951. 
Alleyn’s School, Dulwich, South London

English master Michael Croft – who would go on to found the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain – stages a ground-breaking and critically acclaimed performance of Julius Caeser in the school grounds. Playing Mark Anthony is the 16-year-old Julian Glover. Croft invites his old friend William Russell to see the show, and give the cast a talk about the life of the professional actor.

1.30pm Tuesday 19 February. 
Wimbledon Studios, London.

“William Russell was only 10 years older than Dad at the time,” says Jamie Glover. “But he was this great, glamorous, grown-up actor that all of the boys at Alleyn’s wanted to be. Russell’s talk was a great inspiration to Dad. Of course, he worked alongside Russell, and Bill Hartnell, in the story about the Crusades. I know he was totally thrilled to do that.

“It’s a strange thing, isn’t it,” muses Jamie, “that I’m now playing William Russell, who was my own dad’s hero? Dad told me to send him his best!” 

Jamie is called away to join castmates David and Claudia – along with Jemma Powell, who plays Jacqueline Hill – as they gather with the director and crew around a MacBook laptop. This will happen every half-hour or so during the afternoon, as all assembled watch and re-watch the first TARDIS scene from the pilot episode – noting and practicing every gesture, every line stress. “What are you doing here?’ tries Claudia as Susan, then: “What are you doing here?”

Crowding into the TARDIS are both modern HD and vintage Marconi cameras. (The latter rented from a specialised company called Golden Age TV, whose senior operator – and we’re almost starting to take this weirdness for granted – is former Doctor Who Magazine cartoonist Dicky Howett.) The 60s cameras feed to equally vintage monitors around the set, and to the control-gallery set built to one side of the TARDIS set, occupied by Sacha Dhawan, who plays director Waris Hussein. Essentially, there’s a working 1963 studio built within a working 2013 studio, and this has inspired the production team to go for broke and shoot a lengthy TARDIS sequence in a single take, working to the original camera script – all the while trying to recreate the same mistakes the original cast made while taping that first episode. It’s as complicated, and challenging, as it sounds.

“It’s one of the hardest things to do,” says Mark. “Trying to make the mistakes not look forced, and like they are making them for the first time.”

The team go for multiple takes, as they try to get the details of recreation exactly right; such as how and when the TARDIS doors bang noisily open, or how David Bradley fumbles with the Doctor’s too-tight scarf.

The effort from all is tremendous, and the results, particularly when viewed on the 405-line monitor, are uncannily accurate. Finally, it’s all in the can, and it’s time to move on… Or maybe not. The first assistant director calls his boss’s attention to a playback.

Moments later, Mark gives his broadest grin and a rueful shrug. “The MacBook was left in shot on the chair at the back of the TARDIS… Oh, it’s splendid really – we’re so busy copying the mistakes of the past that we make our own! And it’s an utterly 21st-century mistake. They’re surely laughing at us from 1963: ‘It’s not as easy as you think, is it?’ There’s ghosts in this machine!”

Perhaps they should recreate more that the pilot, I suggest. What about all those missing Hartnell episodes?

“Don’t imagine I haven’t thought of that,” laughs Mark. “We have everything we need right here… Actors, TARDIS, a design department… Yes! Lock the doors! We’re going to make Marco Polo again!”

4.00pm Thursday 28 February 2013
Wimbledon Studios, London.

It’s a week later, the last day of shooting on the TARDIS set. A key scene from near the end of the film is being recorded this afternoon. Now, it’s important not too give away all the secrets of An Adventure in Space and Time, so let’s just say that this scene features David Bradley as William Hartnell and Reece Sheersmith as Patrick Troughton, and leave it at that. DWM archivist extraordinaire Andrew Pixley is a guest on set today, and earns his keep by providing the correct VT date for the prop clapperboard. “VT/4T/35067,” he says, without looking it up.

Throughout the month-long shoot, Mark Gatiss has invited a number of special guests to watch the filming, each of whom have helped him in some way during the preparation of the script. Sat at a monitor screen today are Jean Marsh and Anneke Wills, who played 60s companions Sara Kingdom and Polly. The scene about to be shot has special significance for Anneke, and she holds her hands to her face throughout, to stop herself – she explains later – from loudly gasping in wonder and ruining the take.

“I met up with as many people who were around during the Hartnell era as I could,” explains Mark. “Everyone was very helpful and generous with their time. I was familiar with most of the stories – as we all are – but it was nice to get a perspective on how people felt at the time. 

“There were a couple of nice little details I hadn’t heard. William Russell told me of a phrase that Bill used when he was celebrating their success: ‘Our arses are in butter!’ So obviously that went straight in. And while I didn’t get to meet Jeremy Young [caveman Ka from the first serial], Toby Hadoke sent me an interview he did with him. Jeremy remembered a production assistant from the time of live or almost-live TV, who, as the clock counted down to transmission time, would say over the tannoy: “Goodbye, real world!” Isn’t that wonderful? So I’ve given that line to Jacqueline Hill as she does her first Doctor Who press call, as that’s really what’s about to happen to them.

However, over on the TARDIS, it is the shock of a return to the real world that’s facing William Hartnell. Nobody, he has learned, is irreplaceable.

“There’s a real melancholy to this story,” says Mark, “of how Bill Hartnell was utterly spellbound by Doctor Who, but then was ultimately forced to give up this job he loved because of his illness. The hard work of it simply became too much for him. And David’s performance, as Bill comes to terms with that, will knock your socks off.

“And in that sense – that all things have their time – we’re telling a universal story. It’s life, isn’t it? The new people help change the old, and then they become the norm and have to be changed themselves.

“But where would Doctor Who be without change?” muses Mark. “It’s the great engine of it. And not one of us would be here without it.”

9.30pm Wednesday 9 October.

Eight months pass before I speak to Mark Gatiss again – and there’s certainly been change in the world of Doctor Who during that time. In June, Matt Smith announces that he’s stepping down as the Doctor. On 4 August, Peter Capaldi is unveiled at the Twelfth Doctor. 

It’s strange – I put it to Mark in October – that Steven Moffat has cast a famous 55-year-old actor as the Doctor, just as An Adventure in Space and Time tells the story of the casting of a famous 55-year-old actor as the Doctor. Yes, Doctor Who is all about change. But the more things change…

“It’s curious,” says Mark. “Bill Hartnell always felt and played old, of course, so this does feel different. But now, after two young doctors, it turns out that the radical thing is to go older. That’s fascinating, isn’t it?

“Peter Capaldi came down to the set in Wimbledon, you know,” adds Mark. “We’re old friends, and as he’s such a big Doctor Who fan, I knew he’d enjoy it. We stood in the fault locator looking out at the TARDIS, and we had this rather wistful conversation about how he thought, once upon a time, that he might have been considered for the Doctor – but that the moment had probably gone. But it turned out that quite the opposite was true.”

And it’s a beautiful thing to imagine: the unknowing future of Doctor Who gazing out, spellbound, at its glittering past, with the lights of the TARDIS column – rising, falling, rising – shining in his eyes. 

It is – by any measure – quite the great spirit of adventure.

A tribute to my dad.

My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2012, and was slowly whittled away by the disease until his death on 19th February 2020. I delivered this tribute at his funeral in Lytham St Anne’s on 6th March 2020.

One of the earliest photos we have of little Peter Stanley Gillatt shows him about five or six years old, standing outside his family house with his younger sister, Elizabeth — my Auntie Betty.

Can we see anything of the man he would become, in the face of that child? Perhaps.… He’s standing to attention and looking straight down the camera lens with a kind of… nervous confidence.  The gun holster cinched tightly around his little tummy suggests he’s poised to fight gangsters with Dick Tracy at a moment’s notice. And he’s clearly from hardy stock, wearing shorts despite an inch of snow on the ground.  One sock is pulled up to the knee while the other has slid down to his ankle — in possibly the first and last record of him ever looking less than immaculately turned-out.

Betty’s strongest memory of her brother as a child is that he was always freshly-washed, groomed and smartly-dressed. He was a choir boy at All Saints Church and a sea cadet — so he was clearly happy to be dressed-up and on parade. In a sense, he would be dressed-up and on parade for the rest of his life.

My Dad was born on the 2nd December 1930 at No. 72 Townley Road, Wakefield; a three-bedroom council house on a sprawling suburban estate. The house had been built just a few years earlier: a new home for a growing family.

Dad would prove to be the middle child of five, and the first son of Stanley and Marion Gillatt, taking his middle name from a clearly proud father.

Dad’s parents had married young.  Marion had fallen pregnant with her first child, also Marion, when just 19.  Stanley Gillatt worked about half an hour’s walk away, at Horbury Wagon Works, building rail freight wagons.  By all accounts he was a strong-minded and self-possessed man — a union man — who once smashed the high windows at the factory in a protest against the hellish temperatures in which his comrades were forced to work.

War was declared two months shy of Dad’s ninth birthday, and air-raid sirens soon became an everyday fact of life — though Wakefield would be spared the worst of the bombing, reserved for the steel works in Sheffield, 30 miles to the south.  A key memory from this time — which remained crystal-clear for Dad to the end, even through the fog of his Alzheimer’s — was of the family taking delivery of a prefab Anderson Shelter.  However, it seems that Stanley failed to follow the instructions properly, meaning that the Gillatt children would be woken in the middle of the night, rushed out into the garden and made to sit with their feet in six-inches of freezing water.  Maybe Dad’s own insistence, later in life, of always doing a job right was in reaction to this bodge.  Today — in the back garden of the family home — stands a garden shed poised to enter its fifth glorious decade; though admittedly only held together by 50 coats of paint and a prayer.

A welcome alternative to the swamp of the Anderson shelter was a community air raid shelter built under the local rec — just over the garden fence in fact — and Betty remembers running pell-mell through those tunnels with her big brother: sticking it to the Nazis, no doubt.

But while the war might have been a game to the very youngest Gillatts, it would soon change the destiny of the whole family.  And it’s why we’re gathered here in Lancashire, rather than Yorkshire.

Stanley wasn’t called into service, due to increasing deafness caused by long days operating the fearsome drop hammer at the Wagon Works.  Instead, in 1940, he was conscripted to work at the Vickers-Armstrong aircraft factory in Blackpool, which was already producing 100 Wellington Bombers per month. Dad and the older kids travelled by train to their new life in Blackpool, while his Mum followed in the back of the furniture van with little Alan on her knee.

The Gillatt family’s first Blackpool home would be a requisitioned slum on Caunce Street — where the rats outnumbered the people by a ratio of five to one.  “Even the cats were scared of them!” Dad would later tell me, with glee, whenever I complained about some trivial inconvenience at home, invariably adding: “And we had to smash the frozen water in the toilet with a broom handle!” In due course, the family would settle at a far more comfortable home on Wyre Grove.

As Dad moved into adulthood, his first job was on the railways, working as a cleaner and ‘bar-boy’ in the engine sheds of the old Blackpool Central Station.  This was unimaginably hot and filthy work — climbing inside the barely-cooled fireboxes of the steam engines to lift and change the cast iron bars on which the coal fire has stood, and to scrape down the soot and ash from the inside wall of the chamber. It was a job reserved for skinny boys, because only they could fit through the door of the firebox.

He also worked as a Driver’s Mate on the tough little Banking Engines, whose job was to help push the packed tourist trains up the long embankment out of Blackpool.  In an odd coincidence, 30 years later, he and his young family would move to a house just yards from the highest point of that climb, where the banking engines would release their burden and freewheel back to the station.

Of course, Dad dreamed of becoming an engine driver himself — and would surely have done so, were it not for one unfortunate incident.  He loaned his free travel pass to his mum, who was caught using it.  He then made his first trip to London — summoned to the head office of the LMS to be sacked.  (He was by no means the last Gillatt to be condemned to spend a despairing hour at Euston station.) His dismissal would prove a bitter blow, as he would cheerfully have spent the rest of his years working on the railways.  But it also prompted one of the defining decisions of his life.

On the 17th August 1948, Dad volunteered to join the Royal Navy, beginning his training in Chatham in October.  His sign-up papers record this 17-year-old’s fair hair, blue eyes and ‘fresh’ complexion.

Training, on land and at sea, took over a year.  By the time he qualified as a Stoker Mechanic — recommended for advancement — in early 1950, he had already been aboard his first ship, HMS Black Swan, for some months, working as a stoker and watchkeeper in the engine and boiler rooms.  These were perilous times.  The ship had only recently survived the famous ‘Yangzte Incident’ and, in the summer of 1950, as the Korean War was declared, the Black Swan joined British ships sent to support the US fleet in the Sea of Japan — mere inches of steel lay between my father and mine-infested waters.   On the 2ndJuly 1950, the Black Swan, in an allied flotilla, was attacked by four North Korean torpedo boats at what would be known as the Battle of Chumonchin Chan — with three of the four enemy ships sunk by the allies.

But to the victor, the spoils… For his service in the conflict, Dad received a ‘Korean Gratuity’ of £15 — just shy of £500 in today’s money.  Much of this, we can imagine, was spent in the drinking dens — and worse — of Japan, during his leave in 1951.  Photos in his album show the sights of Tokyo, Osaka and Hiroshima — plus a cavalcade of dancing girls and other denizens of the saki parlours.  He clearly played as hard as he worked — that complexion of his looking considerably less ‘fresh’ as you turn the pages.  Meanwhile, his arms crowded with seaman’s tattoos, made in the traditional Japanese style by hammering a needle-tipped length of bamboo.  To him, these were badges of honour and fellowship worn more proudly than any medal.  The Navy Hymn, which we’re soon to sing, was his principal request for today.

1953 and 54 were spent on the opposite side of the world, aboard the HMS Burghead Bay.  This was a relatively cushy number, if you ignore the punishing work in the boiler room, cruising the Caribbean as part of the West Indies Squadron, with shore leave on the likes of Bermuda, Trinidad, Haiti and countless others.  This trip would be another key memory Dad’s brain kept safe against the creep of Alzheimer’s.  In later life, no TV holiday programme, visiting any Caribbean island, would pass without comment that seen it all, and before a single hotel was built or cruise liner docked.

In 27thAugust 1954, while ashore in Kingston, Jamaica, three of his ship’s company were killed when a truck taking them on a sightseeing tour plummeted down a ravine. The tragedy cast a shadow on the rest of the voyage.  This must have deeply affected Dad, as he kept newspaper cuttings reporting the accident tucked into the back of his paybook.  When I asked him about it, he explained that he had decided against joining that excursion at the very last moment.

In 1955, he was on the maiden voyage and sea trials of the navy’s first modern aircraft carrier, the HMS Ark Royal, around the coast of the UK.  The decade rounded out with short tours on a handful of other ships interspersed with training at Portsmouth and leave in Blackpool.

He left the navy on his 30th birthday, as an Engineering Mechanic First Class.  His Conduct Report gives the results of an annual assessment made by his officers at the end of every year of service.  And every year, his Character is described as ‘VG’ — Very Good, the top of four categories.  His grade for Efficiency is invariably given as ‘Superior’ — again the top rank.

In addition, his Certificate of Engineering experience, issued in 1960, comes with a brief character reference that surely captures my Dad in a nutshell — both then, and at any point in his life to follow.

“He can be fully trusted to do a job without supervision,” it says — though my Mum might quibble with that one.  Then: “Very quiet… And well turned-out at all times.” This second comment sums-up both his famous pride in his appearance — and also, I think, a measure of the shyness that was a key part of his character.

Back to Blackpool he went, with £130 end-of-service gratuity — basically three grand to spend in his new home-from-home… Not the Black Swan but the White Swan — the basement dive on Bank Hey Street known to its regulars as ‘the Dirty Duck’.

He was working as a delivery driver for the Royal Mail when his first son — also Peter (the Gillatts like to keep things easy to remember) — was born in 1962.  But the swift breakdown of his marriage would leave him, effectively, a single parent. That is, until 1966, when a fateful meeting — certainly fateful for me — took place in his front garden on Tarnbrook Drive; as a little beehive’d head appeared — just — over the front hedge.

Lucy — a feisty waitress with a young child of her own — needed somewhere to live and had been told that my future father needed someone to share his house and expenses.  It was all very above board.  And I’m personally very grateful that they agreed to give it a go.  To give a sense of that time, we chose the second picture of Dad on the front of the order of service to reflect how Mum remembers him at their very first meeting — cock o’ the walk; wearing big, black sunglasses and looking just like her hero, Roy Orbison.

In the picture he’s leaning on his old Standard Atlas van.  With typical ingenuity, this was fitted out with a table and benches, and would take the newly-minted family on day trips to the Lakes or the Trough of Bowland.  And not just the family.  Kids from around the neighbourhood would spy the van being loaded up with supplies and shout out: “Are you going out, Mr Gillatt? Can we come?” — and a rag-tag bunch would crowd in for the next doomed attempt to build stepping stones across the river at Dunsop Bridge.

In the late 60s, Dad began work as a driver for Mereside Mushrooms.  Another of his favourite memories — again, one that stayed sharp for him throughout his illness — was of making overnight deliveries, along pre-motorway roads, to the morning markets of Manchester.  It was a real family affair.  Little Peter was scooped-up straight after school; and David, then only two or three, would sit on Mum’s lap — by all accounts chanting ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ as they drove; the film was the Christmas must-see of 1968.  It was, perhaps, a life-changing experience, with David vowing that, when he grew up, he was going to be a ‘wowwy driver’.

Of course, this was all before I was born… But I’ve always found it touching to think of that patched-together family, hurtling through the night along unlit roads, but cosy in their mushroomy van as the darkness pressed around them — a little bubble of security and warmth to which even Dad’s failing mind could always, and would always, take him.

A second life-changing experience was triggered by Dad on a balmy August evening in 1970, when he took the then eight-year old Peter to see Blackpool FC play for the first time; the club having just made a return — albeit one that would prove brief — to Division One.  It was the first home game of the season, against Liverpool.  A nil-nil score line.  Mundane to some, perhaps, but up on the Spion Kop, young Peter Gillatt was hit by an emotional lightning bolt.  The pleasure centres of his brain fused tangerine, and his fate was sealed.

In a nice bit of mirroring, 40 years later, when Blackpool next made a return to the top echelon of English football — albeit one that would prove brief — it was Peter Jnr who bought the ticket for Peter Snr (along with Mum and a bemused younger brother).  It was a fine day out, to be sure, and prompted Dad, in his 80s, to become a season ticket holder once again.  Dad’s return to Bloomfield Road meant almost as much to Peter as Blackpool’s return to the Premiership.  It certainly lasted longer.

But Dad was always ready to support our adventures and enthusiasms.  In 1978, he drove a Transit van full of Peter’s mates down to Knebworth when Genesis headlined the rock festival.  A few years later, train tickets given away with Corn Flakes allowed him to take little 11-year-old me to a Bank Holiday Doctor Who convention at Longleat.  While I disappeared into a crowd of several hundred thousand lunatics, Dad — who had zero interest in listening to Jon Pertwee talk about Giant Maggots — had to occupy himself for two days straight.  Apparently, there’s only so many times you can visit a Doll’s House museum.

Back home, David’s obsession with trucks and trucking hit a new high with the release of the film Convoy, and I recall he and Dad becoming overnight experts in CB radios, illegal in the UK at the time, as they collected all the necessary kit from around the Fylde, and installed a suitably powerful antenna on the back of the house — all without getting a Smokey on their tail.

This sort of endeavour suited Dad down to the ground.  Having left the Navy an engineer, it’s no surprise that he loved a new gadget, especially something he could tinker with.  Back in the 50s, he returned from Japan with one of the very first Sony transistor radios. In the 70s, his massive model train set was thing of wonder.  And, a long time before home wireless networks, he drilled a web of cables that put a phone and TV in almost every room of the house.  In his seventies, the Microsoft Train Simulator game on the home PC finally allowed him to drive that steam train from Settle to Carlisle — without ever being called to head office for a bollocking.  He would later pester me and Peter for the latest phones and tablets — then immediately lock himself out of them by fiddling in the settings.  Even in his last months at home, he’d like to bark a bossy ‘goodnight’ at Alexa.

Of course, the technology that received his most loving attention over the years was his cars.  With a Haynes manual at his side, he could disassemble a knackered old engine to its component parts and then reassemble it, gleaming and new — with no more than half-a-dozen nuts and bolts left over.   All three kids were, at various times, press-ganged into joining in; dragged out of the house at all hours to sit in a freezing car, to help pump brake fluid or rev an engine. That said, David had it worst, as the only one of us ever to have the drive shaft of a Cortina Mark 2 dropped on his face.  Saturday afternoons would be spent wandering the scrap yards of outer Blackpool, watching Dad gleefully scramble up a pile of old bangers to pry an indicator bulb from a 1976 Humber Sceptre.

That’s not to say every project was a success.  When asked if he could install a new car stereo in Louise’s Escort, it was a typically breezy: ‘No problem!’.  And — indeed — when Peter and Louise returned later that day, there was the new stereo, snugly fitted into the dashboard. However, after driving off into the cold night, Louise soon found her windscreen fogged with ice, which wouldn’t clear even with the front blowers turned to maximum.  When later questioned, and asked if he’d fiddled with anything else, Dad replied blithely: “Oh, there wasn’t enough room for the stereo, so I cut a section out of the main air hose to fit it in.”

Once, he proudly pimped his old Humber with dashed ‘Go Faster’ stripes along the side, designed to give the illusion of a car moving at speed.  It was with some pleasure that I pointed out that he’d put them on back-to-front, and was now the proud owner of motoring’s only recorded instance of ‘Go Slower’ stripes.

As well as being a great mechanic he was a great driver, and in 60 years on the road he was never once involved in an accident that was his fault, and never once made a claim on his motoring insurance. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis was the immediate, enforced removal of his licence. He never quite recovered from that loss of freedom.  Though it did mean an end to his complaints about what he would refer to as: “My god, the traffic in this town today,” which meant anything more than one car waiting ahead of him at Waterloo Road traffic lights.

And if he wasn’t working on his car he’d be working on his garden.  The gardens at Loftos Avenue were his fiefdom, his pride and joy — and no small achievement. When he built the walls and raised flower beds, he not only laid the bricks, he made the bricks.  Each one of hundreds cast from gravelly concrete and left to harden under the baking sun of the long hot summer of 1976.  Then there were his rose arbours; the hedge cut into battlements (that would surely cause any psychoanalyst to raise an eyebrow); hanging baskets like supernovas of colour.  We’ve tried to capture some of that colour for him today.

And the lawn… Raise and nurtured more carefully, I think, than Iever was.  It was the only thing to be combed more often than his own hair.  In a shed full of tools and potions devoted to its upkeep, the machinery ran from his three mowers down to a pair of nail scissors — though the latter deployed merely to wind us up.  All this tittivating led to a well-remembered put-down, when his brother Alan once made a passing reference to his own lawn.  “Excuse me, Alan — your lawn?” huffed Dad.  “I have a lawn.  You have grass.”

I always thought Dad funny, with a fine, dry wit. When his nephew Norman popped back to Blackpool after just a few months living in the States, Dad was amused to hear him already speaking with a broad American accent, to which he huffed: “Well, I was in Japan for two years, but I don’t speak Japanese.”

He could find humour even in calamity.  Such as after the life-changing accident that forced him into early retirement in 1977.  At this time, he was a supervisor for Burton’s Bakers, and took a terrible fall in the loading bay, literally from the back of a lorry.  But it could have been worse — Dad said he almost pulled heavy trays of cakes down on top of him.  “Talk about meeting a sticky end,” he quipped.

This accident meant that Mum became the sole breadwinner in the house, and she and Dad took on a kind of parental shift system for cooking and chores and looking after the kids.

Perhaps this is not the time, nor is it my place, to comment on my Mum and Dad’s relationship.  But I can’t dodge it, because it was the single most important adventure of Dad’s life.  Suffice to say that you don’t celebrate over half a century together without forging an immensely strong bond — and strong bonds are forged in heat.  In many ways, I think Mum and Dad each gave the other what they most needed.  Mum’s Celtic fire would chivvy Dad out of his natural diffidence, while Dad’s practical nature provided a great feeling of security.  When all is said and done, they made an excellent team.

And I had a happy childhood, but not without its labours.  My job in the house was fourfold: To turn the heating up.  To turn the heating down.  To fetch 40 Lambert & Butler and the Gazette from the shop around the back.  And to attempt to answer my Mum’s age-old, unanswerable question: “What’s your Dad buggering-about at now?”

I’ve certainly inherited Dad’s inability to sit still.  I’ve also inherited his shyness, and a kind of clumsy self-consciousness when out in public.

A side effect of Dad’s reticence was a peculiar kind of attention-seeking.  A sort of vanity mixed with insecurity meant he assumed that, whenever he entered a room, all eyes were on him.  It also meant that if, say, you were walking alongside him and tripped over, rather than a quick “Are you okay?”, it was turned into a strange piece of street theatre. “What did you want to do that for, you berk?” he’d say, arms spread as if to welcome the widest possible audience, his voice raised in case a woman watching TV three streets away hadn’t yet heard you’d made a fool of yourself.  Even in his late 80s, if you took him out to dinner, he’d shuffle tentatively from the cab to the pub doors, but as soon as we were inside and in front of an audience, his back would straighten, and he’d begin a kind of show-pony trot.  Elton John made more low-key entrances at Madison Square Gardens.

This was all incredibly endearing.  But sadly, that same vanity would prove his undoing in the end. As his mobility decreased and his illness meant he was less likely to be up-and-about, the family tried to persuade him to start using a walking stick — but he would have none of it, even when I suggested we could get one with a sword hidden inside.  In his head, he was still the straight-backed young stoker bounding from the gangplank onto the dock at Hong Kong.  And so, when he suffered a relatively minor fall at the end of last year, dislocating his hip, he had no experience of using walking aids, or the wherewithal to start learning.  This meant a move to full-time care — something that was never going to sit well with his character.

And so, he did something about it.  He took control of the only thing over which he still had control.

The final music of today’s service, My Way, is to pay tribute to Dad’s strength of character — his fundamental bloody-mindedness.  This is a man who escaped Luftwaffe bombing and Korean torpedos.  He survived the scrubbing out of the bowels of steam engines, the fleshpots of Japan, and death by chocolate; not to mention 40 years of heavy smoking and sunning himself to leather in his garden.  In the end, only one force in the world would be strong enough to take him — and that was his own iron willpower.  As his character reference once said: “He can be trusted to do a job without supervision.”

It’s odd how, in those last months in hospital and care, the Alzheimer’s sometimes fell away, because we were dealing not with memories but his immediate day-to-day, minute-by-minute needs.  You could have conversations with Dad — short though they were — where he felt very present again.  And his primary concern was never for himself, but for who was looking after Mum.

On my last visit with him, it was just only the two of us. He was incredibly frail, his speech was slurred, but I could understand him.  I prattled on about the car I’d hired that weekend and an accident narrowly avoided the night before.  But as that tailed off, the radio in the room took its opportunity to fill the silence. The song was Photograph by Ed Sheeran. And as it played through, it felt particularly intense and relevant, and me and Dad just kind of stared at each other. “God, this is a bit too sentimental for the circumstances,” I said.  “Who is it?” he asked.  “Ed Sheeran,” I said — and Dad nodded as if he knew perfectly well, and checking if I was as up with the charts as him.  Christ, I thought.  Is my final conversation with my father going to be about Ed bloody Sheeran?

He dozed off, and after about 10 minutes I decided to leave him to sleep.  But the sliding of my chair woke him.  “You should go,” he said, taking charge again.  I kissed him clumsily on his forehead to imply, I hope, a general ‘thank you for everything’.  We’d never been terribly physical with each other, and this was no time to get started.

But as I turned away he said — clearly — “Good luck with whatever you do next.” We knew it was our last meeting — and even at the end he was wishing me well — wishing all of us well. 

And what did I say in reply? “And good luck to you too – whatever you do next.” He nodded, fully appreciating, I think, the dark humour of it.  We went out, in a sense, on a joke.  It was very ‘us’.

So here we are.  Dad has ‘crossed the bar’, in old Naval slang.

But, as I was once Petty Officer Gold — so camp!— in the Naval section of my school cadet force; I remain, in a sense, his ranking officer.  And so the duty falls to me today to update his Conduct Report.

Appearance? Impeccable. Efficiency? Superior. Character? Oh… Very Good.

Gary Gillatt, March 2020.

The Ultimate Foe

A short piece about the concluding episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord for Doctor Who Magazine: The Complete Sixth Doctor, from 2002.


Down the ages, countless philosophers have attempted to prove the existence of God.

One popular line of reasoning is the ‘argument from design’. This points out that if we look at any ineffably complex system found in everyday life — such as predictive texting on your phone, or ticket pricing on — we might reasonably assume that it could not have come about by mere chance and that it had been designed. And so, if we look at the universe as a whole, surely such an intricate mechanism — covering everything from the orbital resonance of the planets circling the sun to the ‘penis fencing’ mating rituals of hermaphrodite sea slugs — must also have been designed; and that designer must be God.

It’s a persuasive argument. I’m a steadfast atheist, but I recall sitting in second-year biology poking at the innards of a sheep’s eyeball with a scalpel — teasing ciliary fibres from vitreous humour — and thinking that such a delicate and functional structure couldn’t have come about purely by chance.

I still feel a shadow of that notion while watching The Ultimate Foe (or whatever you decide it’s called). You see, with most other Doctor Who you can clearly understand how it came to be the way it is. Be it shaped by the whimsical Whitaker, the horror-hunting Holmes, or the comics-loving Cartmel, you can discern a straight line from inspiration, through design, to realisation. But then you watch the crazy mess of ideas that is The Ultimate Foe and the mind can only boggle over how it came to exist at all. As fans, we are blessed with certain insights into the production process. We know that Robert Holmes died with only the first of these two episodes committed to paper. We know that Pip and Jane Baker had to dash off the second in the manner of some bizarre game of Consequences’; extrapolating as best they could from what Holmes had already written. We also know that the only person who might have been able to smooth the join, script editor Eric Saward, had already activated his ejector seat and shot-off through the ceiling of Threshold House, leaving behind on a tear-stained copy of The TARDIS Inside Out and a poisonous interview in Starburst magazine.

Let’s be clear… The climax of The Trial of a Time Lord remains an absolute joy — but whether that’s because of or in spite of the circumstances of its production remains a mystery. The evidence for the defence? Exhibit A is the unexcelled dialogue: “You’re elevating futility to a high art! and “Only by releasing myself from the misguided maxims that you nurture can I be free!” and “I’ve thrown a pebble into the water and killed two birds with one stone!” and more and more. Exhibit B is the remarkable plotting: this is, after all, a story whose climax involves the Doctor’s companion racing to tell some Time Lords to turn the telly off. Exhibit C is the single most impossibly naff/glorious moment in the history of Doctor Who: that final shot of Peri Brown and King Yrcanos framed in a big, pink heart. Aw! Love ya, you dirty old Warlord!

And so it is that, although no-one involved in the making of these episodes — producer, writers, script editors, stars — had the first clue what was going on, they somehow managed to conjure something perfectly sublime, utterly majestic and totally impossible.

But if they didn’t plan it this way, we can only reasonably conclude that there must be a far grander design at work.

The Ultimate Foe. So completely divine, it’s enough to make you believe in God.

Time Capsule: November 1977

At the time  – January 2017 – this seemed a fun idea for a new regular(ish) feature for Doctor Who Magazine. Alas, I hadn’t reckoned on quite how many words would be needed to cover, in reasonable depth – and with sufficient jokes so as not to bore everyone to death – even just a single month in Doctor Who history.

Time Capsule was designed to be ‘lavishly illustrated’. I’ll try to add some images to this slew of copy in due course!



Doctor Who is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think the wider canon of Western literature is big – but that’s just peanuts to Doctor Who.

We’re misquoting the great Douglas Adams – from the second episode of The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy – but there’s a truth to the joke. Over the decades, Doctor Who has been researched and written about in incredible and ever-increasing detail; to such a degree that, as Doctor Who grows and as we move in ever closer, we perhaps lose sight of the big picture: of the whole wild, whirling insanity of it all.

So, rather than looking at one single aspect of Doctor Who – the fact, the fiction, the production of a single story, the work of a particular actor or director – this feature is instead designed to take us on a trip through time. We’re travelling to a single month in the life of the series, to review everything that was happening, all at once, in the universe of Doctor Who.

Our first destination was chosen by our randomiser (asking someone in the office to name a month, then a year, off the top of their head) – but it’s a cracker. It’s a month where the Doctor and Leela battle Fendahl, Sontarans, Vrakons, Cycrans, Terry Wogan and the trades unions. It’s a month where the Liberator lands instead of the Tardis, Sarah Jane Smith loses her parents, and an anti-Dalek agent helps us to save money on cigarettes. Meanwhile, the Doctor meets Julius Caesar, sells baked beans and his sonic screwdriver, and renegotiates his salary. He avoids losing his head in Yorkshire, while holding on to something very precious in Los Angeles.

Welcome to our Time Capsule – and 30 crazy days in November 1977.


Nine and a half inches of pure pleasure

For the children of Britain in November 1977, their most thrill-packed, voraciously-devoured book was not some adventure novel – a Blyton or a Dahl – but the Autumn/Winter edition of the Great Universal Home Shopping Catalogue. Its 1,006 richly-coloured pages left you half-dazed with the stink of ink, and possessed a power more spellbinding than any silly old story. The book crackled with possibility and promise. Of course, the opening 932 pages – of “continental style” polyester blouses, terylene net curtains and Schreiber double-divans – were mere prologue. The real magic began on page 933, with the toys and games.

If you leaf through that catalogue today, you’re not only looking back through time, but directly into the dreams of the youngsters of Britain in November 1977. It’s a glimpse of every fantasy of Christmas morning, a sneak peek at every letter to Santa. Here’s Evel Knievel’s stunt motorbike. The Bionic Woman (“with mission purse”). Meccano. Jaws. Chemistry Set 3. Microscope Lab 2. And, grinning out from page 941, in hat and scarf, holding his sonic screwdriver like he’s about to sign an autograph for your Auntie Mabel, is a toy Doctor Who: “Intrepid explorer of the galaxies!” (£3.70, or 19p for 20 weeks.)

But this is not just any toy Doctor Who, this is the first toy Doctor Who.

In the 1960s, vast battalions of toy Daleks conquered the country – pursued by a few plucky Mechonoids – but Doctor Who would be 14 years old before the children of Britain could take the show’s hero on adventures of their own. And what adventures! This Doctor was small enough to hold in one hand, but big enough to fill the world.

The 9½-inch Doctor doll comes with fabric clothes, a plastic hat and plastic shoes. He accessorises with a ribbon of purple necktie and a matchstick sonic screwdriver. (The first item to be lost or broken by his enthusiastic owners.) The doll is also possessed of an irresistible smile. It’s a grin so wide, so white – so sincere – it can only belong to Tom Baker. Well, you’d think… But thereby hangs a tale.

It has been suggested that this first toy of the Doctor is, in fact, nothing of the sort. This isn’t Tom Baker, it has been claimed, but some smirking imposter. The book Doctor Who: The Seventies (Howe, Stammers & Walker, 1993) reported: “The head was of The New Avengers star Gareth Hunt. Between the prototypes being produced and the go-ahead by the BBC, the die [mould] for the Tom Baker head had been lost or damaged. Rather than go to the expense of creating a new one, the company went with what they had, namely Gareth Hunt.” We’ll return to this allegation in due course.

Multiplying the fun, our Doctor is just part of a gang, and travels with a dolly friend and a host of dolly enemies to defeat. These are the big, bold toys of a big, bold entertainment brand. They are promoted in the pages of popular comics, and seen at their best in a television advert for the new range, which aired throughout November 1977. The Doctor’s assistant Leela peers out uncertainly from under a wild fountain of hair; perhaps concerned with the effect her Mae West bosom and Margot Fonteyn feet are having on her centre of gravity. There’s a magnificent Giant Robot (who appears to be just on the verge of remembering something important), a baggy Cyberman and a trim Dalek with an angry red dome. And last, but by no means least, a toy TARDIS co-opts a mechanism designed for a popular Star Trek Transporter Room playset in the USA. This boxy blue shed contains a rotating vertical drum that, with a grinding kerchunk-thunk, helps the Doctor to ‘disappear’ in exactly the way he doesn’t on TV.

The Doctor Who range of dolls was produced by Denys Fisher Toys Ltd of Wetherby, North Yorkshire. The company was formed in the mid-1960s by Denys Fisher himself, a skilled engineer and mathematician who had developed timer mechanisms for bombs during World War II. He made his fortune with the drawing toy Spirograph; a set of fine-toothed plastic wheels and rings which allowed the user to trace out an infinite number of repeating mathematical curves – to beautiful effect, if you could keep a steady hand. Spirograph was named Toy of the Year in 1968.

“Denys was a huge, brilliant, eccentric man with an unexpectedly high-pitched voice who wore flip-flops mostly,” recalls Peter Viner, who joined Denys Fisher Ltd as a development engineer in 1969, and through the next decade worked his way up to Head of Research and Development. In 1970, Denys Fisher Ltd was bought by the massive US food combine General Mills, which was furiously diversifying. It snapped up a swathe of toy manufacturers, including Parker Bros and Kenner in the States, and Palitoy, Chad Valley and Denys Fisher in the UK.

“We operated independently, but each company was fed product from the worldwide group,” explains Peter. “Merchandise based on popular TV characters took over, and we inherited the Six Million Dollar Man range of toys, which was a phenomenal success, resulting in rapid growth… All too rapid, as it turned out.”

Imported TV action heroes The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman sold very well in 1976, but Denys Fisher Ltd was eager to find a home-grown hero, which is where the Doctor and his coterie enter the scene. However, whereas the ‘Bionic’ figures came to the UK fully-formed from Hong Kong – their US Kenner packaging replaced by Denys Fisher branding – the Doctor Who range was, at least in its details, a more British endeavour.

“The bodies for the Doctor Who dolls were ‘off the peg’,” explains Peter. (Indeed, young fans keen to explore the mysteries of the Gallifreyan reproductive system would eagerly divest the Doctor of his jacket, vest and slacks only to discover nothing more revealing than the message ‘(c) 1976 Mego Corporation. Made in Hong Hong’ across their hero’s skinny back. Mego, another major US toy manufacturer, provided the basic articulated doll that could be found under the clothes of many a licensed toy at the time, from Steve Austin to Starsky and Hutch, Captain Kirk to Cher.)

“The dolls were bought in, but we provided the heads and accessories,” Peter continues. “I commissioned a local guy called Colin Davidson to sculpt the heads, and my friend John Dockray in the marketing department recalls a very pleasant meeting with Louise Jameson. John’s auntie provided the scarf samples, and a local seamstress made the dolls’ outfits.”

And what does Peter say to the suggestion that this is actually a New Avengers doll in Doctor Who clothing?

“I’m sorry to dispel that conspiracy theory,” says the man who oversaw the development of the toy. “But it didn’t happen. I suppose it’s a reflection on people’s feelings about the accuracy of the sculpting. These days a face can be scanned and a much more accurate likeness achieved.”

Furthermore, in Denys Fisher’s earliest marketing material for the toys – prepared for toy business trade fairs in November 1976 and January 1977, when the manufacturers offered up their best prospects for the following Christmas – the prototype Doctor Who doll proudly wears the same face as the finished production doll. And it’s a face that captures the spirit of Tom Baker’s Doctor better than any scan or 3D printer ever could.

Sadly, even as the Denys Fisher’s Doctor Who figures lined up on the shelves of Britain’s toy shops in November 1977, the company fell victim to the fast-moving nature of character-based merchandise. The Leela dolls were released just as actress Louise Jameson announced her departure from Doctor Who. Meanwhile, the Doctor’s own popularity was in danger of being eclipsed by his newly unleashed robotic dog, K9. Denys Fisher added a cute, to-scale K9 figure to the range the following year, but by this stage the company was struggling to stay ahead of the game.

Star Wars was the big story coming up,” explains Peter Viner. “But that range went to our sister company Palitoy and we couldn’t find anything to compete. Denys Fisher Toys and Chad Valley were closed in 1979 and Palitoy inherited the valuable assets. I was offered a post at Palitoy but opted to go it alone. I launched my Design 4 Plastics company in one of the small buildings occupied by Denys Fisher Toys, and we’re still going strong to this day.”

Denys Fisher’s gorgeous, grinning Tom Baker did have a brief second life, however. The doll was repackaged and re-released in Italy in 1979 by the Italian toy company Harbert. When in Rome, the Doctor was “intrepido esploratore della gallassie!”, and the back of his box promised that he would soon be joined on his Mediterranean adventure by his companion “Lella” and the fantastici monstri “Super Robot” and “Cibernaini”. Alas, none of these other variants appear to have reached the shops of Milan or Turin; and given that Italy didn’t begin screening Doctor Who until 1980, perhaps that’s no surprise.

Star Wars – which opened in the USA in May 1977 – would not only change the business of movies forever, it would turn the licenced toy industry upside down. In just a few months, ‘big’ dolls like the Doctor and Leela and would look clumsy and old-fashioned. The future for action figures (and it would be a destiny shared by Doctor Who toys, eventually) would prove long and lucrative – but also less than four inches tall.


Astronauts ancient and modern

The four Saturdays of November 1977 thrilled to the transmission of the Doctor Who serial Image of the Fendahl – parts two to four – and the opening instalment of The Sun Makers.

Between them, these consecutive adventures contrive to cover almost the entire journey of human life through the fiction of Doctor Who: from a pit in Africa 12 million years before modern man, to a point in the distant future (“right through the time spiral” as the Doctor puts it) where humanity has been forcibly resettled to Pluto by a malevolent alien. However, even with this alpha-to-omega history as their backdrop, these stories address – for 1977 – distinctly contemporary concerns.

In Image of the Fendahl, the Doctor and Leela meet a team of scientists, of varying shades of sanity, who are investigating an ancient skull, at first sight human, found buried in volcanic sediment in Kenya. A potassium-argon test of the most excellent kind dates the sediment as having been laid down “eight million years before [the owner of the skull] could have possibly existed.” Musing upon this, one of the scientists, the benign Adam Colby, takes his dog Leakey for a walk. (“More bones is it? You old bone hunter you!”).

As well as being Doctor Who’s first joke about incontinence, Leakey the dog is named in honour of the famous husband-and-wife team of anthropologists, Louis and Mary Leakey, whose discovery of prehistoric bones and primitive tools in East Africa in the 1950s massively advanced our understanding of the ascent of man. Or, perhaps, Leakey is named for their son, Richard Leakey, also an anthropologist – and the cover star of the Monday 7 November 1977 issue of Time magazine, published during transmission of Image of the Fendahl.

On his Time cover, Leakey is seen crouching in the desolate Rift Valley in Kenya, alongside a querulous-looking Homo habilis; a two-million-year-old predecessor of modern man, but really a local volunteer in a latex mask. The mask is modelled upon a skull recently unearthed from nearby volcanic sediment by Leakey and his team. The discovery of Homo habilis challenged established scientific thinking on the origins of man. So when, in Image of the Fendahl, barmy scientist Dr Fendleman exults to Colby: “Your discovery could be one of the most important milestones in human development! Your work will fundamentally affect how man views himself!” it shows just how timely and ‘ripped from the headlines’ this Doctor Who story was. That said, Colby’s skull later proves to be an alien life form trying to reconstitute itself on Earth – which is just one of the many ways in which Doctor Who demonstrates its superiority to real life. The article in Time magazine sadly fails to detail any attacks on Richard Leakey’s excavation by a seven-foot tall and very hungry caterpillar.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the time spiral, The Sun Makers also lifted its story straight from the news, and the immediate day-to-day woes of its adult viewers, as the UK economy circled the plughole in the late 1970s. “We’re being taxed to death!” wailed one commentator in The Times newspaper of Wednesday 30 November 1977. It’s a figure of speech made flesh by The Sun Makers.

Given that its bleak tale of the knackered stragglers of humanity – banged-up on Pluto and drugged, overworked and taxed to near-extinction by rapacious aliens – The Sun Makers delivers more than its fair share of laughs. And its playful satire was certainly appreciated at the time. “Viewers warmly welcomed the more realistic, less fantastic nature of the theme (widely interpreted as an exposé of super monopoly capitalism),” noted a contemporary BBC Audience Research report. “It was, in their opinion, entertaining and even compelling viewing, which was ‘well up to the usual high standard of Doctor Who adventures’.”

Image of the Fendahl and The Sun Makers delivered high ratings and audience appreciation figures. The trio of Tom Baker’s virtuoso Doctor, Louise Jameson’s eye-catching Leela and the charming K9 (“The best innovation of the Autumn viewing season!” raved trade newspaper Television Today) proved irresistible. All four episodes of The Sun Makers made it into the national Top 50 programmes.

Doctor Who is at its best when its creators are at least as involved in it, in terms of imagination, as we are. This is not always the case. But in November 1977, a real sense of commitment in the writing and performance of Doctor Who lifted it to an imaginative peak. It may have been battling harder than ever for time and resource at the BBC – and those limitations may often have shown on screen – but Doctor Who was as spirited, intelligent and relevant as it had ever been, or ever would be.


On the other side

There were only three television channels in November 1977, but Doctor Who still had to fight for viewers. For a closer look at the competition, we’ll visit the Saturday night closest to the show’s 14th birthday.

On 26 November 1977, the majority of ITV regions pitched the talent show New Faces against the first episode of The Sun Makers. Judges Mickie Most, Terry Wogan, Jack Parnell and Shaw Taylor sifted through such acts as The Xhabo Puppets from Exeter and singer Terry McCann from Bloxwich in the vain hope that any offered greater mainstream appeal than Louise Jameson’s thighs over on BBC1. Elsewhere, four ITV regions – Anglia, Midland, Scottish and London Weekend – offered Giant, an episode of the US adventure series Man From Atlantis.

Man From Atlantis tells the story of Mark Harris, the last survivor of the fabled lost continent, and his adventures in the modern world, battling spies and suchlike. A prodigious swimmer, Mark can propel himself through water – arms tight to his sides, feet together – at tremendous speed, like an eel, or a particularly up-for-it sperm. Mark has webbed hands and feet, super-acute senses, gills, and needs to be dunked in the Pacific every 12 hours without fail. However, viewers are secretly pleased whenever Mark misses this deadline, which he does once per episode, because he turns a lovely shade of mauve.

To the ear of a Doctor Who fan, Mark Harris – as played by Patrick Duffy – has much in common with Leela. He is driven by his instincts and super senses. When speaking, he can not or will not use contractions. He parades about in a state of unselfconscious undress. If Leela was designed “to get the dads watching”, then it was the job of Duffy and his tailored shorts to detain the mums and the funny uncles. However, nothing makes you appreciate the skill of Louise Jameson’s characterisation of Leela quite like 50 minutes in the company of Mark Harris, who is less “noble savage” than nodding simpleton.

Overall, Man From Atlantis suffers a fatal lack of conviction. The drowned continent of legend was surely sunk by the dead weight of these scripts. (“I think this whirlpool might be artificial!” “You mean man-made?” “Whoever made it, it could create tides the like of which… Well, I don’t have to tell you.”). Any viewer who might consider Part One of The Sun Makers to be far-fetched needs to check out Giant; especially the scene where, in a parallel dimension, Mark has to battle through a raging torrent of invisible water – as the show clearly couldn’t afford to provide actual water. Your heart goes out to poor Patrick Duffy. It’s little surprise that Man From Atlantis was cancelled after four TV movies and 13 episodes, but Doctor Who is still with us today.

Meanwhile, if any Doctor Who fan had lingered on BBC2 in the hour before The Sun Makers, they would have been rewarded with a glimpse of the future – or rather, a snatch of the sound of the future. Horizon: The Case of the Ancient Astronauts put forward the theories of cult 70s author and pseudo-scientist Erich von Däniken, who argued that extraterrestrials had visited the Earth throughout prehistory and influenced the development of man – though he unaccountably failed to mention the Fendahl. The distinctive electronic score for this documentary came from Peter Howell of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who would go on to help define the sound of Doctor Who’s next decade. The Astronauts was released as the B-side to Howell’s sensational 1980 version of the Doctor Who theme.

Anyone on the look-out for visiting aliens on the night of 26 November 1977 would have been better served by tuning in to the early evening news in the Southern ITV region. At 5.10pm, the sound was interrupted by a buzzing noise and a distorted voice claiming to be an ambassador for an “intergalactic association” and warning that mankind must change its warlike ways or face punishment. Exactly what form the punishment might take was not revealed, but viewers tuning in to The Sun Makers later that evening would reason that relocation to Pluto and the enforced wearing of ill-fitting tabards might be involved. The perpetrator of the Southern TV alien ‘hoax’ remains unknown to this day.


Genie in a bottle

The USA, Australia, Canada, South Korea, Saudi Arabia – and possibly the United Arab Emirates – also broadcast Doctor Who episodes during November 1977. One screening, however, would prove to be of crucial importance.

When British fan Doctor Who Ian Levine heard, from his American fan friend Tom Lundie, that the Jon Pertwee serial The Daemons was to be shown in an omnibus form by TV station KCET in Los Angeles, he took immediate action. In a stroke of luck, Tom’s cousin Mike Lundie lived in the KCET broadcast area, and Ian paid for Mike to rent a Betamax video machine to record the story, along with two one-hour tapes.

15 years later, this recording provided the Doctor Who Restoration Team with the vital colour signal they needed to re-colourise the BBC’s surviving black-and-white copy of the story. So, next time you enjoy The Daemons in colour, it is because that colour was captured, like a genie in a bottle, by a fan’s friend’s cousin in the city of Garden Grove, California – just a few miles from Disneyland – on the evening of 19 November 1977.



Tales from Tardis

The tidily typewritten pages of the November 1977 issue of Tardis, the magazine of the one-year-old Doctor Who Appreciation Society, offers us an insight into the hearts of Doctor Who fans at the time. The leading lights of the Society, many of whom had been watching since the show’s first episode, when aged eight or nine, had grown up to become Doctor Who first generation of angry adult fan commentators.

“The production team seem convinced that Dr Who really is a kids show,” complained John Peel at the top of two paragraphs of block capitals. “Despite superficial glitter, The Invisible Enemy failed miserably as entertainment.

“Continuity was slaughtered,” continued Peel. “Did Leela really fly the Tardis? What happened to Isomorphic Circuitry, Mr Holmes? You invented it, so you stick to it. Anyone who recalls the ‘Watcher’ series in the far off golden days will remember that removing the dimensional control unit results in the ship’s innards shrinking – though now it seems it merely prevents the ship from taking off. (But how?)”

However, Peel reserves his most fiery fury for the Doctor’s latest companions. “He now has a mechanical pet to go with his savage. With stories like this one and ‘Fang Rock’, why not a new time slot as well? Straight after ‘Watch with Mother’. (This programme is going to the dogs!)”

DWAS President Jan Vincent-Rudzki also had reservations about recent episodes. “So far I have thought this season very strange,” he wrote. “‘Fang Rock’ was a good story and basically ‘Invisible Enemy’ was too, even though there were a number of errors and blunders in it. What has surprised and almost shocked me is the terrible way the programme is made, and particularly directed. The camera work is very primitive and unimaginative.”

For many readers of Tardis, however, the most attention-grabbing item was to be found on page two. “Raffle of props from Doctor Who. Tickets (as many as you want) 20p each.” The list of prizes on offer quickens the blood, even 40 years later… “Jon Pertwee has kindly donated some props from Doctor Who actually used in the filming.” These include: “A Mutt mask (The Mutants). A Maggot (The Green Death). Stun Gun (Invasion of the Dinosaurs). A Giant Spider. Tardis control panel. The Sonic Screwdriver.” It all adds up to a mental image of Jon Pertwee gleefully motorbiking home from each day’s filming on Doctor Who with a sidecar full of swag. But it’s all in a good cause. Pertwee’s beloved Grand Order Water Rats – a fraternity of performers and charitable organisation – was the beneficiary.

Also published by the DWAS that same month was The Companion Volume (40p, “featuring the research and documentation facilities of the DWAS Reference Department”). This was a collection of ‘biographies’ of the Doctor’s friends: a mixture of information given on screen and some well-meaning extrapolation by writer Jeremy Bentham. It’s notable, however, that one of the pieces, the Sarah Jane Smith biography, was later adapted by Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner into the ‘series bible’ for the spin-off special K9 and Company, and from there influenced the back story of The Sarah Jane Adventures. It was The Companion Volume which first introduced the notion that Sarah was an orphan raised by her Aunt Lavinia.

So rest in peace then, Sarah Jane’s poor mum and dad. Murdered by Jeremy Bentham in November 1977.


Thank Jupiter!

Young fans could enjoy further adventures for the Doctor and Leela in the pages of Mighty TV Comic (Polystyle, 10p). In the concluding episodes of The Devil’s Mouth, the Doctor goes hunting alien Vrakons down a pothole in middle England. Our Time Lord is in a belligerent mood, and doesn’t even engage the visitors in conversation before he slaughters them, blows up their spaceship and seals the cave with concrete. Doctor Who and the Silurians this is not.

The next story, The Aqua-City, would have proved just the ticket for fans who enjoyed Doctor Who but craved some of the fishy flavour of Man From Atlantis. It sees the Doctor battle the robot Cycrans, the vengeful former servants of the undersea ‘Antlanteans’, who cannot remain out of water for long. You can’t say that TV Comic wasn’t keeping up with the times.

The scripts for these stories, by Geoff Cowans, capture the gusto of Tom Baker’s performance as the Doctor, although the habit of other characters to refer to him as ‘Dr Who’ does bring you up short, as does the Doctor’s unlikely catchphrase of ‘By Jupiter!” or “Thank Jupiter!” – an early precursor to the likes of “Fantastic!” and “Geronimo!”.  Leela cuts a rather more fashionable figure than on TV; in skinny jeans, kinky boots and a knotted blouse that lays out the whole shop front. The new look was the work of the artist, John Canning, who clearly enjoyed his job. His style may seem a little old-fashioned today, but, thanks to the exuberant line work and loose ink washes, Canning’s Doctor Who has a unique pell-mell joi de vivre all its own.

The strips of TV Comic were certainly a step up from other spin-off adventures available at the time. The Dr Who Annual 1978 (World Distributors, £1.35) was on sale at all good bookshops in November 1977. Inside, the Doctor is accompanied by an unrecognisable Sarah in a series of text and comic strip adventures that verge on gibberish. It’s a bleak thought that, given the popularity of the TV series at this time and the massive print run for this annual, these grim stories likely stand as some of the most widely-read Doctor Who spin-off fiction ever written. The high point of the book is the comic strip The Traitor; the artwork for which, by Paul Crompton, has a dreamlike, expressionist quality.

The Dalek Annual 1978 (World Distributors, £1.35) also offered a mix of text stories and comic strip – the latter thanks to a reprint of a vibrant TV21 comic from 1966. A factual feature muses upon the possibility of a ‘missing’ fifth planet between Mars and Jupiter, but this would have been old news to viewers of Image of the Fendahl. A puzzle page relates a personal crisis faced by Anti-Dalek Force agent Kel Moran, as readers were invited to work out how many extra cigarettes he could roll using the scraps of tobacco left in 25 fag ends. Useful information for all younger readers there.

Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang (Hardback from Allan Wingate, £2.95. Paperback from Target Books, 60p)  joined the range of novelisations of TV adventures available in November 1977, just over seven months after the story’s transmission. A straightforward, no-frills adaptation, Terrance Dick’s lucid prose nevertheless has the power to replay the serial for readers as accurately and vividly as any DVD.

Two further Doctor Who adventures were published in November 1977: the second and third volumes of the educational Doctor Who Discovers… series (Target Books, 75p). Doctor Who Discovers Space Travel has a beautiful cover by Jeff Cummins, but the cover artist for Doctor Who Discovers the Conquerors sadly remains unknown. The books were written, it is presumed, by the range’s editor Fred Newman and illustrated with stills of Tom Baker’s Doctor and assorted stock library illustrations.

In Discovers the Conquerors, the Doctor spends 16 years living in the court of Alexander the Great, before going on to encounter Julius Caesar, Charlemagne and Richard the Lionheart, the latter without letting on that he’d done so before. (“And who are you?” roared the King. “Dr Who,” replied the Doctor. The King’s face turned red with anger. “Tomorrow we do battle with Saladin. Give this Who a sword and let him fight too.”)

Space Travel takes our Time Lord to 1957, where the TARDIS is almost hit in orbit by an early satellite – something that would also almost happen on TV in 1987’s Delta and the Bannermen – and then on to witness the Moon landing and Skylab. Readers at the time would have been particularly taken with the book’s trips to the future. The Doctor travels to 1985 and marvels at a Space Shuttle launch (in 1977, the orbiter was undergoing its earliest tests). In the 21st century, the Doctor visits a 20-mile long Earth-orbiting space station, with farmland and forest tended by several million inhabitants. “The Doctor wanted to discover more about the 21st Century. He could only wonder at what other great feats men would accomplish.” Well, here’s hoping.


In the can

Crosse and Blackwell foods ran a major Doctor Who promotion in the autumn of 1977. Families were invited to swap labels from cans of ‘Doctor Who Baked Beans’ (plus a fee) for a range of booty: an electronics kit, a chemistry set and a Doctor Who colouring book.

The book, with a Police Box cover, offered a series of scenes to colour – including a surreal moment in the TARDIS where the Doctor ponders a giant can of baked beans on scanner – which then folded out into 3D ‘pop-up’.

Crosse and Blackwell would prove something of a fair-weather friend to Doctor Who, turning out only when the series is doing particularly well. In 2009, their cans of ‘Doctor Who Wholewheat Pasta Shapes’ would include little pasta faces of a child wearing a gasmask.



Rub-bish! Rub-bish!

Some strange mutation has befallen the Doctor; some ineffable biological meta-crisis. In his latest incarnation, our Time Lord has regenerated a large blue bird, and has to be carried everywhere by his obliging assistant. Happily, our hero’s intellectual powers are undimmed, as he effortlessly defeats a second invasion attempt by his most implacable foe: the Deadly Dustbins.

The Return of the Deadly Dustbins was the second Doctor Who sketch written by Australian comedian and puppet master Rod Hull, for an episode of the third series of Emu’s Broadcasting Company – broadcast on BBC1 on Monday 14 November 1977. For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, Emu was a TV megastar of the 1970s and 80s, known for his sudden infatuations with leading celebrities (“Oh, he likes you!”), and equally sudden physical assaults upon on the same. (“Emu! No! Gerrof! Emu!”)

Emu’s Broadcasting Company, a teatime comedy show for kids made by BBC Manchester, ran for five years and was far smarter than in needed to be. Rod and Emu hosted their own TV channel, EBC1, with the help and hindrance of their cameraman (variety star Billy Dainty), their tea lady (actress Barbara New), and Emu’s naughty baby nephews (Denys Fisher Toys, £6.99). EBC1 presented well-observed spoofs of TV shows, including Grandstand of Sport, hard-hitting documentary The Searching Beak of Emu, historical drama The Emudin Line, and – on two memorable occasions – Doctor Emu.

In their first adventure, in 1976, Dr Emu lured the Deadly Dustbins to their seeming doom at the town dump – but now they are back! Emu and friend arrive in their red phone box TARDIS just in time to see a Deadly Dustbin wriggle to the surface and swallow its first human victim. The creatures then run amok in a town centre before Dr Emu cunningly lures them to a nearby canal, and tips them over a lifting bridge.

Yes, it sounds like nonsense, but the remarkable thing about this pastiche is that it is better-made, more stylish – and more scary – than any episode of the season of ‘proper’ Doctor Who being transmitted at the time.

The Return of the Deadly Dustbins is shot on film, with a wonderfully creative mixture of shots and angles. After a Dustbin eats a worker on the rubbish tip, we cut to a flock seagulls exploding into the sky. As the Dustbins advance over the canal bridge, there’s a moody, low sunburst from behind (a shot for which The Ambassadors of Death is much praised). There’s no dialogue, bar the Dustbins’ indistinct bleat of “RUB-BISH” and “DIS-POSE!”, and the soundtrack creates an unsettling, uncanny atmosphere. In this way, it evokes the same tone of bleak ‘rural horror’ as the film sequences in Doctor Who and the Silurians and Terror of the Zygons. The score uses, in part, the electronic music of Delia Derbyshire, and so channels the spirit of Doctor Who in a peculiarly primal way.

“It was all filmed in one day, as I recall,” reveals Peter Ridsdale Scott, producer of Emu’s Broadcasting Company. “And looking at it now, you can see the change of light through the day. That’s why the sunlight is very low in the final scenes.

“Working with Rod Hull was a real privilege,” continues Peter, who prior to EBC1 had written, directed and produced episodes of Play School, and would go on become Commissioning Editor for Independent Productions at BBC Manchester – giving the green light to, amongst many other shows, Red Dwarf. “Rod Hull’s act with Emu was stunning. Emu felt very much like a character entirely separate from Rod – it was down to that very clever way Rod could look in another direction and appear unaware of what Emu was doing. So very, very funny.

“The BBC poached Rod and Emu in 1976, and I was asked to help him develop this new series at the Manchester studios. Rod wrote everything, and thanks to his own background as a TV producer back in Australia, he knew exactly what he wanted, and so as long as I got him the right locations and creative staff, he could practically direct everything himself as well. We worked closely together that way, and with the film cameraman. But Rod instinctively knew what worked.

“The Deadly Dustbins episodes look so good because of Rod’s incredible attention to detail, right down to the graphics. We had a lot more freedom because we were in Manchester, and a very small crew worked very hard. There was no special effects budget for location work. It would have been nice to go for a cup of tea and leave the special effects to do the Dustbins, but that wasn’t possible. In fact, I’m inside one of the bins, dragging it along. That’s how we had to do it.

“The fact that it is appreciated today is testament to the hard work of that Manchester crew, and to Rod Hull’s genius,” concludes Peter.

But just how influential did The Return of the Deadly Dustbins prove to be? In the Doctor Who episode Rose, a malign plastic dustbin attacks Mickey Smith and swallows him whole. It would prove one of the most talked-about scenes from Doctor Who’s big return to TV in 2005. Was this a tribute to Dr Emu’s lid-flapping foe? We asked Rose writer Russell T Davies to comment…

It’s funny,” says Davies. “I don’t remember seeing it, and it’s so memorable and beautifully directed, I’d have thought that would lodge. And I would definitely have been watching Emu – I always watched that sort of thing.

“But still, maybe I did see it, and maybe it made its mark. We can’t know how things sink in without us realising. They’re not memories or homages – they’re deeper than that, they become instincts… So I wonder!”

Alas, this was to be the final adventure for Dr Emu. Rod Hull was tempted back to ITV (where he would develop the anarchic Emu’s World and Emu’s All-Live Pink Windmill Show) in 1981; just as the Doctor crossed paths with a different kind of quarrelsome flightless bird from Australia.


Gallifrey, Surrey

Behind the scenes of Doctor Who in November 1977, the programme was in serious trouble. The six-part serial poised to go before the cameras, The Invasion of Time – in which the Doctor would return to Gallifrey to claim the presidency of the Time Lords – would prove to be the series most turbulent production to date. The script, a last-minute replacement, was almost impossibly late, with later episodes delivered to the director and creative departments scene-by-scene. The money was running out, and what was left was, thanks to a high inflation rate, diminishing in value by the day. Furthermore, strike action at the BBC meant that Doctor Who was about to be cast out of Television Centre altogether, and left to fend for itself in the wilds of Surrey.

With annual BBC pay negotiations taking place in the autumn, producer Graham Williams had been braced for strike action during the final months of production of the 1977 series. On 14 October, the Association of Broadcasting and Allied Staffs – the union which represented over half of the BBC’s 25,000 employees – voted to reject an offer of pay increases up to 15%. There was widespread unrest at the Corporation regarding the decline in BBC wages relative to those earned by production staff in the commercial sector. Moreover, there were concerns regarding predicted job losses in the wake of BBC plans to bring in new, lightweight video recording equipment. The first ABS-organised blackouts affected outside broadcasts, news and sport, and their most political move involved blacking-out the Queen’s Speech on Thursday 3 November. The Nine O’Clock News that same evening was replaced by the ‘Potter’s Wheel’ interlude film.

Soon, strike action also affected studio recording and transmission. Part Four of Image of the Fendahl was lucky to see broadcast as scheduled on the evening of  Saturday 19 November. That night, BBC1 was blacked-out from halfway through transmission of the next programme, Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game. This wasn’t some arbitrary target, but the most-watched programme of the week, with an estimated 19.5 million viewers that night.

The Invasion of Time was able to hold on to one of its three-day studio sessions – from Sunday 6 November to Tuesday 8 November – which was primarily used for taping scenes on the story’s large Panopticon set, which was also repurposed for the open space where the TARDIS lands. This included the scene where Leela bids farewell to the Doctor, in favour of a life of romance on Gallifrey. Graham Williams was keen to keep news of Louise Jameson’s departure under wraps until the New Year, but news leaked directly from the set and into The Times on Monday 7 November.

For the rest of the production, the crew was forced out on location. The ABS strike was primarily over wages, but given that one of the secondary bones of contention was the use of lightweight video equipment, there is some irony to the fact that the same strike forced Doctor Who to complete the balance of scenes for The Invasion of Time using outside broadcast equipment on location.

Studio space at Television Centre was allocated to less adaptable productions. One such programme was Blake’s 7, the BBC’s new science fiction drama series aimed at a more adult audience than Doctor Who, which had begun filming in September. On Monday 21 November, the vast creaking interior of Blake’s spaceship, the Liberator, was raised up in the warm and welcoming interior of studio TC3. Meanwhile, Doctor Who was out in the cold – quite literally – as the interior of the TARDIS took the form of a disused hospital in Redhill, Surrey. Conditions on location were challenging to say the least. Shots were abandoned due to train noise and revving car engines in the hospital car park. In one scene in the Space Traffic Control Room on Gallifrey, the actors’ breath can be seen frosting.

Meanwhile, star Tom Baker was in the midst of renegotiating his contract for the coming year. This might explain the story on the front page of the Daily Express on Saturday 5 November.

“Actor Tom Baker is set to quit as TV’s Dr Who,” reported Christopher Jones. “‘I’ve had enough,’ [Baker] said yesterday. ‘I think I’ve done my bit.’ [He] plans to devote himself to serious acting.”

Perhaps Baker was indeed craving a return to the stage after several weeks recording on CSO backdrops for Underworld, or maybe this was mere sabre-rattling. The actor signed a new deal and a new contract – for the next 26-episode series of Doctor Who – on Friday 25 November. It was a great result for both series and star. After all, if Baker was looking to “devote himself to serious acting”, what could possibly be more serious than a search for the Key to Time?

For, despite Doctor Who’s current production difficulties, Graham Williams was already hip deep in planning the next series. The six stories of the 1978 season would have a linking theme, and in November 1977 he issued notes to prospective writers outlining his idea of the Doctor’s quest to find the six segments of the Key to Time. One of those writers, a newcomer to the series, was Douglas Adams. He had received his formal commission for Doctor Who in October, just a few weeks after a commission for a complete series of his radio comedy series, The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy. Through November 1977, Adams was weeping into his typewriter, struggling to complete both projects. He had no way of guessing how influential and well-loved his work on either series would prove to be.

“Space is big – really big,” observed Adams in his script for the second episode of Hitch-Hikers, recorded on Wednesday 23 November 1977. However, by this point the writer was painfully aware of the fact that, while Space may be vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, Time would forever be in painfully short supply.


With thanks to Richard Bignell, Guillaume Brocart, Russell T Davies, Graham Kibble-White, Jack Kibble-White, Ian Levine, Alistair McGowan, Paul Lang, Tom Lundie, Richard Molesworth, Jonathan Morris, Steven Murphy, Nicholas Pegg, Andrew Pixley, Jon Preddle, Paul Scoones, Peter Viner, Peter Ridsdale Scott, and Martin Wiggins.

The Daemons

Squabbling Rubber

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2012. (Sadly, there was no room for my theory that Bok is the Master’s Tardis. A glow-eyed, peripatetic statue, like a mini Melkur. At the the end of this story, it sits there, cross-legged, in the churchyard, waiting for the Master to escape from prison.)


There comes a point, in the final minutes of The Daemons, when the Doctor inches perilously close to losing our goodwill. He’s locked horns with the alien Azal – 20 feet tall in his stockinged hooves – regarding the creature’s interference in the development of our race. “Thanks to you, Man can now blow up the world,” our hero heckles. “And he probably will.” Probably? Well, thanks for the vote of faith, mate. Who’s spat in your coffee today?

The Doctor has a chip on his shoulder throughout The Daemons. “I’m…

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Review: The Power of the Daleks. Animated version.


“Nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future,” observed art critic Robert Hughes. He was discussing the architecture of the modernist city of Brasilia at the time, but it’s a truism that holds for many a Doctor Who adventure.

The Power of the Daleks takes us to the Earth colony planet of Vulcan in the far-flung future of 2020; at least according to the serial’s original TV trailer – broadcast 50 years ago to the day. Vulcan is a world where men are men, and a woman is called Janley. It’s an ascetic, cheerless place, patrolled by jack-booted guards and seething with fear and mistrust, devoted to scientific study. It’s a time when humanity has mastered the secrets of interplanetary flight, but not yet found a cure for male pattern baldness. It is a world of mercury pools and widow’s peaks.

In November 1966, when The Power of the Daleks was broadcast, the year 2020 was a place of fantasy. Here in 2016, it’s just over the brow of the next hill. If we’re lucky. And so today, our dreams for 2020 are more modest. Perhaps the BBC might manage to produce a new series or so of Doctor Who by then. Sure, we’re short on rocket ships and alien colonies, but we can confirm that the first three minutes of the newly-animated version of The Power of the Daleks will be livestreamed on Twitter. ’Tis a brave new world indeed, forged in the white heat of social media marketing.

In the past this viewer has expressed reservations – in the reviews section of Doctor Who Magazine – regarding the value of presenting lost Doctor Who episodes with as animation. The Reign of Terror DVD gave us a nightmare vision of William Hartnell as a talking onion. Six months later, The Ice Warriors took a step forward, but struggled to depict its characters moving in a naturalistic way. The Power of the Daleks takes another step, capturing excellent likenesses of its characters, and the quirks of their facial movements. The cartoon Patrick Troughton is especially persuasive. The animators have captured the way the actor talked from the side of his mouth, as if sucking Popeye-like on a pipe. Troughton’s little black tooth is lovingly rendered. Once you notice it you won’t be able to stop looking at it.

This production is clearly a labour of love (certainly, no one has ever worked on Doctor Who spin-offs for the money) and the production team have given it their all. And that little bit more. At the press screening for the first two episodes – which is all I am able to review here – producer Charles Norton looked ready to slide under his seat with exhaustion. When recalling a particular scene from Episode 1, he couldn’t quite reach the words to describe it, but the shot number came immediately to his lips. He looked haunted, like a soldier stumbling wounded from a harrowing battle. “It’s a triumph!” the gathered civilians assure him, but our producer can, for the moment, only recall the suffering and loss.

The shortcomings of The Power of the Daleks – as has often proved the case with Doctor Who since ever Doctor Who there was – can be ascribed to lack of time and lack of budget. The artwork is exemplary, and some shots are of frameable beauty. But it’s clear that compromises have had to be made to get the job done on a BBC Store/BBC Worldwide budget. Most frames are kept to mid close-up, to avoid having to animate too many arms or legs. It takes a little while to get used to, but you do get used to it. You’ll be won over by the time of the big argument in Episode 2 – where the Doctor tries to convince scientist Lesterson about the dangers of the Daleks – if not before. This scene works especially well thanks to the fast dialogue, which requires frequent changes of shot.

It’s only when characters have to move about in silence that the spell dissipates. If a character has to walk across a room, we will see them bob almost comically across the screen. Every so often, the view will cut to a shot of their feet but, sensibly, we rarely see the whole figure move at once. This puts one in mind of The Sooty Show or The Muppets, when you would sometimes glimpse Sooty or Kermit’s little feet scampering along.

(All of which raises a question in the mind of this viewer. Is 2D animation the only way to recreate these lost episodes? I’d pay good money to see A Very Muppet Evil Of The Daleks. Just think of it. Fozzie as the Doctor. Kermit and Miss Piggy as Jamie and Victoria. Bunsen and Beaker would share the role of Theodore Maxtible. And, on Skaro, the Great Gonzo would be Emperor of the Daleks. No, not Daleks. Chickens. The Doctor must defeat his plan to spread The Chicken Factor through the history of the Muppets. In the final shot, looking down on Gonzo’s burning shed, our hero would utter those immortal words: “The final… end… Wacca wacca wacca.”)

But let’s get back to the matter at hand. The animated Power of the Daleks gifts us a little pre-credits treat of the regeneration sequence from The Tenth Planet, which is practically pornography for fetishists of the TARDIS console. You heart lifts at the simple pleasure of peering deep into the central column, right down to the slotted plastic colander that Rassilon, in his ineffable wisdom, decided was just the thing to restrain the awesome power of the TARDIS engines. When our new adventure begins proper, you recognise some of the colossal challenges of animating old Doctor Who. Patrick Troughton’s first scene contains a good minute of rattling about in a cupboard, and nobody scripting an animation from scratch would ever include a sequence like it. Weirdly, what the new pictures do at times like this is really tune you in to the sound. When this scurrying gerbil of a new Doctor Who barks a sudden “Come here!” at his travelling companions, you sit up in shock.

In retrospect, it’s no surprise that Patrick Troughton was keen to move on from Doctor Who after only three years. He’d long since done everything he could with the part, given that he completely nails it within his first 20 minutes on screen. Because Troughton pulls off this first (and incredibly risky for the programme) regeneration with such seemingly effortless skill, it might be tempting to conclude that the role is actor-proof. But history has proved that not to be the case. Here, even as a line drawing, you feel the full force of Troughton’s charm – a charm that Peter Capaldi, after two years in the role, transmits only in brief, if dazzling, bursts.

The other Power performance you appreciate anew thanks to this animation is Robert James as Lesterston, the scientist obsessed with reactivating the strange machines he has found in a capsule dragged from Vulcan’s mercury swamp. James clearly understands his character. The jealous, insecure scientist is a core Doctor Who archetype, but Lesterson is surely the best of them. There’s a nice subtlety to the way he momentarily resists using the word ‘Dalek’ to describe the alien machines, because he knows it surrenders just the tiniest bit of control of the situation to the Doctor. The animators clearly relish James’s performance too, as Lesterson seems to receive special attention. There’s a nifty shot in Episode 2 where his face is reflected, distorted, in a Dalek’s shiny dome.

The rest of the colony is, at least in the first hour of this story, something of a confusion of middle-aged men. It’s long faces all round on Vulcan, especially in scenes where Lesterson lines up with deputy governor Quinn and chief-of-police Bragen. Here, the animation caused this viewer to appreciate the text in an entirely new way. With their twitching lips and frequent sidelong glances, a powerful homoerotic tension simmers between Bragen and Quinn. Speaking of his troop of manly guards, Bragen boasts: “I pick them for their physical fitness”. “I thought it wasn’t for their IQ,” Quinn cattily replies. Later, the Doctor greets Bragen with the words “A-ha! Fruit!” This kind of language might have been acceptable in the 60s, but now is frowned upon in our polite society of almost-2020.

The Power of the Daleks truly takes flight once dormant Daleks are – and never was the word more appropriate – re-animated in Lesterson’s lab. You truly appreciate the genius and potency of their design, and those voices. As the Dalek eyeball begins to glow; as the gun arm begins to twitch; as Lesterson and his team’s voices rise with delight and anxiety…. This is when you will, if you haven’t already, forget that you are not watching this story in its original form. This ability to mesmerize, across all times and all media, is the true power of the Daleks.

The Dalek voices, when they come, are just a part of a rich soundscape that’s heightened further by Mark Ayres’ gorgeous restoration and remastering in 5.1 surround. Composer Tristram Cary’s atmospherics and jarring metallic clangs come straight from the soundtrack to a nightmare. The scene towards the end of Episode 1, where the Doctor breaks through to the inner chamber of the seemingly empty capsule, may be a steal from Quatermass and the Pit – complete with its sudden, shocking moment of movement – but you can’t watch it without holding your breath. And it’s Cary’s music and Brian Hodgson’s sounds that make it so especially potent.

Of course, the fact that we can hear this story at all is the great miracle of The Power of the Daleks. We must express all gratitude to fan Graham Strong, who wired up his tape recorder to his TV set and bottled this magic for us all to enjoy half-a-century later. This wonderful, fastidious recreation – and surely many more to come even better than this – could not exist without him. And so to Graham… Thank you.

Nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future – or so they say. Well, it depends how you look at it. This new Power is being released in daily instalments on the BBC Store, beginning at 5.50pm on Saturday 5 November – exactly 50 years to the minute from its original transmission. This means that Episode 5 will be available for download on Wednesday 9 November: the day after the US presidential election. Episode 5 of The Power of the Daleks tells the story of a colony taken into the control of a bitter, vengeful fascist.

Hopefully, in this case, fiction will prove to be stranger than truth. If not – then somebody, please, send for the Doctor.

The Power of the Daleks will be available on the BBC Store from Saturday 5 November.


Squabbling Rubber

A review of the DVD, from 2011


“Let me show you how we smooth our walls, Doctor,” gushes the Gravis, queen of the Tractators, his flippers flapping with girlish glee. It’s one of the odder things ever to be said by a Doctor Who enemy, but at least he’s up front about his passions in life. Other monsters clearly harbour a passion for decor and design but – to protect their forbidding reputations – wisely keep schtum. Hidden deep in the mighty Cyber Empire is the mighty Cyber Graphic Design Department; responsible for logos and stencilling. And there must have been a moment in a planning meeting for the new Dalek paradigm when Scientist narrowed his iris at a Dulux ‘New Season Brights’ colour chart, sceptical of Eternal’s assurance that Sunburst Yellow would be “quite slimming”.

But we get ahead of ourselves. The Tractators don’t appear until the second…

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The Trial of a Time Lord

Squabbling Rubber

A review of the DVD box set for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2008. (The David Tennant/Catherine Tate season had just been broadcast, if that helps you see what I’m trying to do with the opening paragraphs!)


As a recipe for success, the list of ingredients is sound enough. There are certainly some big ideas in the mix… Earth is torn from orbit and dragged across space. Brain surgery turns aliens into slaves. A mystery story, inspired by the work of Agatha Christie, has our heroes hunting a killer. We meet an alternative version of the Doctor, lifted from a point between two incarnations.

Script all this with skill, cast it well, produce it with care, and you can win yourself millions, billions, koquillions of viewers. Back in 1986, they took the opposite approach, and the fourth episode of this season earned a rating of only 3.7 million and an…

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The Green Death (Special Edition)

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013


UK GreenDeathSE DVD-2DLet us take a moment to grieve for Tom the Sea Captain, long since mouldered under the Glamorgan sod. “Who?” you will surely cry, for such is his tragedy. And what of Mrs Cartwright’s ginger cat; nameless and unmourned these last 40 years? Both cat and Captain died a gruesome death. A green death. Each was a victim of the callous indifference of a so-called, self-styled ‘Doctor’. Their blood is on his hands, and it is long past time he was called to account. What he did, he may have done in the name of peace and sanity. But it was not – we can be sure – in the name of Mrs Cartwright’s pussy.

We shall address this lamentable affair in due course. First, we need to get our bearings.

The Green Death is among Doctor Who’s most admired adventures, and rightly so. It’s wildly entertaining, and, as a deft pulling-together of the key themes of its era, it packs real emotional punch. Furthermore, its value has only increased with time. The Green Death is a seed with all the ambition and potential of 21st-Century Doctor Who coiled within, like the infinite whorl of a fractal. And, back in the summer of ’73, that seed fell on fertile ground. In Swansea, it took root in the imagination of Stephen Russell Davies, age 10. In Paisley, it tendrilled through the brain of 11-year-old Steven Moffat And just along the Glasgow Road, it coiled thickly about Peter Capaldi, 15. It would blossom, decades later, with astonishing vigour. Truly, all of modern Doctor Who – a decade of glory, a potent future – is the fruit of The Green Death.

This one story has such significance because it is not just one story – it is three. It’s a love story. It’s a monster story. It’s a ‘message’ story, built to tell us something about how we live our own lives. And if we take some time to tease these stories apart and consider them in turn, we can see that all three have something to say about Doctor Who as it is written today.

“You’ve got all the time in the world,” says the Doctor to his assistant Jo Grant, as he senses that their journey together may be coming to an end. “And all of the space,” he adds, sweetening the deal. “I’m offering them to you.” This sense of the Universe as the Doctor’s gift – something that he might offer to the talented, the blessed, the especially sassy – was, in 1973, something new. Today it is Doctor Who’s main engine. Each new protégée comes to understand, as Jo once did, that she cannot wander forever. She must, in the end, take charge of her own destiny. Generally by sticking her tongue down its throat.

For Jo, destiny takes the dishy form of Professor Clifford Jones, six-foot-something of Nobel laureate: proud and passionate, with a flowing mane, like Aslan trained to walk on his hind legs. From the moment the camera tracks in for his first ‘hero’ close-up, Cliff is presented to us as a god among men. It’s the kind of shot that normally finds and favours the Doctor, but not here, and with good reason. It is often said that women fall in love with men who remind them of their fathers. We know nothing of Jo’s biological father, but there’s no doubt that the Doctor has been emotionally in loco parentis for the past three years. Now, as Jo resolves to travel to Wales to meet Cliff – whose politics she admires – the Doctor says mournfully to himself, “So, the fledgling flies the coop.” It’s clear that he sees himself as a nurturing parent.

p01bqlzbA great joy of The Green Death is quite how brazenly it presents the crusading Professor Jones as a younger version of the Doctor, and then propels him into a karaoke of the Doctor and Jo’s own greatest hits. Their first meeting, over a wrecked science experiment, is a note-for-note encore of that first encounter in Terror of the Autons, but it’s a later duet which proves the sweetest cover version. Famously, Jon Pertwee would lobby his script editor to provide his Doctor with ‘moments of charm’, quiet little scenes where he would be at his most comforting and paternal: a call to a companion’s inner courage perhaps, or a Platonic musing upon the beauty of “the daisiest daisy”. But here, it’s Cliff who gets the goods. Following the death of a coal miner called Bert, Cliff comforts Jo: “You shouldn’t feel ashamed of your grief,” he says, his voice a lulling Welsh sing-song. “It’s right to grieve. Your Bert, he was unique. In the whole history of the world, there’s never been anybody just like Bert. And there’ll never be another, even if the world lasts for a hundred million centuries.” What he’s really saying is that Bert was ‘the Bertiest Bert’ – and Jo is a sucker for precisely this kind of blarney. While the rest of us struggle to keep down our lunch in the face of such nauseating flannel – this moment of smarm – Jo laps it up, and Cliff makes a confident and unchallenged move to first base. Sadly, we’ll never know how much further Cliff might have got that night, with his skilful playing on Jo’s grief. The Doctor harrumphs in and, equally expertly, sabotages any further tangling on the tufted Wilton; perhaps less irritated by Cliff’s theft of his girl than by his stealing his best material.

23But Jo isn’t mere guileless prey in all of this. There’s another neat reminder of how far she’s come, when, trapped up a slag heap with an unconscious Professor, and beset by beasts, she produces a screwdriver and rewires a broken radio, just as she’s seen the Doctor do. It’s a shame the script doesn’t gift Jo the leaving present of allowing her to make the big intellectual leap which saves the world this week; a luxury still reserved for the Doctor. That said, it’s Jo’s ambition to save humankind that ultimately leads her to leave the Doctor for Cliff, and a trek through the Amazon to find a high-protein fungus to feed our teeming billions. But why go such a long way? She should ask at the nearby chemical factory. After all, Quorn was developed by ICI.

When the end comes, it comes suddenly, as true endings are wont to do. Jo is swept off her feet and the Doctor is left – one can’t help but feel – gulping back his tears. Their parting is perfectly shot and perfectly played by Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning. It’s a triumph of understatement, and has, in four decades, not lost a scintilla of its bittersweet magic.

Modern Doctor Who, while well-seasoned with the bittersweet, regularly reassures us that love conquers all. It’s also ringingly clear in its thesis that when the Doctor’s friends leave him, and he travels alone, bad things happen. This we also see demonstrated for the first time in The Green Death, when Jo chooses Wales over a jaunt to the Acteon galaxy’s famous blue planet.

The Doctor is so desperate to see Metebelis III that he’s wired the coordinates into the TARDIS’s steering circuit. (If he’d also wired the pronunciation into the telepathic circuit, we might all have been saved significant later grief.) It proves to be a quite hilariously anti-social destination – the Malia or Faliraki of intergalactic holiday resorts – thrashing him with rocks, spears and tentacles. Never has a planet had it in for the Doctor more than Metebelis III. And like all that’s best in Doctor Who, it’s roundly ridiculous and squarely entertaining at the same time. You have to admire the gusto and creativity with which director Michael E Briant and his team deploy their limited resources. As mayhem rages around him, the Doctor escapes with a precious blue jewel. It’s a bit of souvenir collecting that will ultimately prove the death of him, but one does feel that the production team misses a trick here. In the Third Doctor’s final adventure, we’re told how an ordinary spider is believed to have come to Metebelis in a rocket from Earth as an unseen and accidental passenger, and grew to awesome size and intelligence thanks to the planet’s uncanny radiation. Well, that’s the legend. Surely, instead, that spider was merrily spinning its web around the TARDIS lamp in UNIT HQ, and was actually delivered to Metebelis by the Doctor himself. That would make him in every way the architect of his own downfall.

Giant spiders haunt the Doctor’s future, but it’s giant maggots that await him in Wales, when he joins Jo, Cliff, the Brigadier and his crew. The Green Death is an excellent love story, but it’s an outstanding monster story. “Good grief!” cries the Doctor when the creatures first squirm into view, and you can’t blame him. The maggots are wonderfully realised and repellent to almost all our senses at once, with their greasy bloat, malicious hiss, and – as Jo puts it – “that smell… like something rotting.” Trapped down a coal mine, the Doctor and Jo have to punt a mine cart through a lake of green ooze squirming with a million maggots. And while the special effects deployed may be, well… less than wholly convincing, the twisted brilliance of the idea – and the wild ambition – make the heart sing. Doctor Who might sometimes fail, but it does so in areas where others don’t even dare to try.

Escaping the mine, the Doctor and Jo head to Professor Jones’s gaff clutching a trophy: an egg as big as your head. Later that night it hatches, and the baby maggot – like Cliff mere minutes before – makes straight for Jo’s temptingly creamy neck. However, it’s distracted by a passing villain, bites him instead and makes off into the night. “The egg!” wails the Doctor, on hearing the tale. “It must have hatched out!” Goodness. Who’d have thought? It seems that dumping the egg in Cliff’s post tray was not, after all, the most responsible way to deal with it. The maggot is now on the loose in Llanfairfach. “It can’t be helped,” huffs the Doctor – when it really can, perhaps by organising a search party. The next day, an unsuspecting local milkman complains about the Brigadier’s fixation with the coal mine: “But what about Mrs Cartwright’s ginger cat? It’s at death’s door it is, poor dab! Not to mention Tom the Sea Captain!” The Brigadier ignores him, but with Jones the Milk and his ailing, failing Captain and cat, it’s practically Under Milk Wood. Clearly, the escaped maggot has nibbled them in the coal-black, sloeblack night, and now they’re dying a sea-green, pea-green, mean, gween death. We never hear of their fate, but as a cure for maggot bites is still two episodes away at this point, they’re surely doomed. And it’s entirely the Doctor’s fault. What a git.

So much for The Green Death’s tales of love and loss. What about that ‘message’? While Cliff Jones is the Doctor’s mini-me, he’s also the avatar of Doctor Who’s producer – and the co-writer of The Green Death – Barry Letts. A 1972 issue of The Ecologist magazine, subtitled A Blueprint for Survival, had left Letts boiling with righteous fury. This closely-argued polemic predicted that human civilisation had only a short time left, and that it will all be over by, well… roughly ten years ago. If A Blueprint for Survival doesn’t quite suggest that giant maggots will spew from the rotting carcass of the Earth, it’s certainly forthright in its view that a happy ending is rapidly slipping away out of our grip.

The Professor speaks straight from Letts’ heart, as he condemns the dirty practices of the Global Chemicals facility in Llanfairfach (“More muck! More devastation! More death!”) and the skewed priorities of modern society in general. A Blueprint for Survival makes several references to “a green revolution”, years before ‘green’ was adopted in the mainstream as a shorthand term for environmentalist politics. So, while it’s easy to see The Green Death as one of Doctor Who’s most deliciously basic and lurid story titles – green is the colour of monsters, after all – might it also be a smart play on words by Barry Letts?

The Green Death’s ‘message’ ends up a trifle muddled, however. Quite why the goo being pumped out of the Global Chemicals refinery causes maggots to swell to the size of spaniels is never made clear. The whole operation, we learn – in a left-field twist – is run by a crackpot computer called BOSS, who shares a kind of symbiotic relationship with the managing director of Global, Stevens. It’s a right old laugh – thanks to brilliant playing by actors Jerome Willis and John Dearth as man and mainframe – but even the Doctor doesn’t seem to take it entirely seriously. BOSS is defeated using the blue crystal that the Doctor happens to have just collected from Metebelis III. The maggots are killed by the particular fungus that Cliff happens to have stockpiled in his shed. Rather brilliantly, the writers hide the second of these outrageous coincidences in plain sight, with much talk of ‘serendipity’ – a rarely-heard word that’s simply a poetic way of saying ‘outrageous coincidence’. It does, however, bring home the other great lesson that modern Doctor Who has taken from The Green Death: if you get your romance right, and your frights, then your story will be remembered and lauded forever. It really doesn’t matter if your plot doesn’t quite tie up, or if your resolution relies upon coincidence, or the pressing of a great big OFF switch, or Deus himself leaping gaily ex machina. When all is said and done, it’s the love and monsters they’ll remember.

The words of Professor Jones echo on, however. “Who does like the petrol-stinking, plastic-wrapped society we all live in?” we hear him rumble. It’s a question we may ponder as we peel the polyethylene covering from our Special Edition DVD of The Green Death; or later, when we fail to find a local council with the recycling facilities to process the silver polypropylene box from the 2003 DVD that’s now surplus to requirements. “A thick sludge you can’t break down in any way,” is how Cliff sees it all ending. The only sensible response, of course, is for us each to gift our original DVD to a charity shop, or to an eager relative; a boy or girl aged around 10 or 15 would be ideal. It’s a blueprint for survival. The green life. Plant a seed. Let it grow.


DVD Extras

The%20Green%20Death%201And, yes, this new edition is definitely worth your investment. The Restoration Team has worked uncanny magic upon the extensive film footage, leaving it fresher and sharper than one would have imagined possible. In addition, there are excellent new commentaries and ‘info text’, and a wealth of interesting new extras crowd out a packed second disc.

What Katy Did Next is a compilation of clips from a 1973 arts and crafts magazine programme hosted by Katy Manning called – for no clear reason, but with surely ultimate serendipity – Serendipity. And it’s pulse-quickening stuff. “We went to a beach in Lowestoft,” our host tells us, cueing a location film, “where I found out how exciting and easy pebble collecting can be.” It turns out to be precisely as easy and exactly as exciting as you might think. Trudging across a gloomy bank of shingle, Manning peers myopically into the distance, perhaps in hopeful expectation of Axos. Then it’s back to the studio for an item on carving, which has her prodding gingerly at a chunk of polystyrene. A dour sculptor asks of the ertswhile Miss Grant: “If I gave you only an old screwdriver and a file, could you make a dog?” She can’t, of course – but she certainly knows a man who can.

The crafting fun continues in a short documentary about the visual effects of The Green Death, brought over from the original DVD release. “I’m chamfering and shaving the bulbous foam mouth parts,” says visual effects designer Colin Mapson – for the first and last time in the entire history of mankind – as he shows us how to build a giant maggot of our very own. Mapson has the soft voice and hangdog expression favoured by former BBC staff designers, but is adamant when expressing his pride for his work on Doctor Who, and the giant maggots in particular – and rightly so. To make a maggot, Mapson explains, one must begin with a plastic weasel skull. That’s all very well, but there’s no clue offered as to how we might first catch a plastic weasel.

In a pleasing new production documentary, The One With the Maggots – which sounds like a rather outré episode of Friends – the creatures become a prism through which we might view the glamour and cruelties of showbusiness. Karilyn Collier, assistant floor manager on The Green Death, tells us of being tasked with collecting maggots (real ones, that is, not chamfered weasel foam) from London Zoo. “It was was a battle to keep them all in one pot to get them back to TV Centre,” she tells us. “Maggots go as fast as anything!” Now, while it’s easy to be wise 40 years after the fact, one feels that some kind of lid might have helped Karilyn there. These eager little wrigglers were to be background extras for crowd scenes, and perhaps dreamed of making it big at the BBC. But when the director called ‘cut!’, it was the last trump for our long-shot larvae. “We popped them with blow lamps,” chuckles Mapson, “and some were put out in the recycling.” Non-speaking artistes the world over will nod in recognition and sympathy.

This new DVD also invites us to revisit Global Conspiracy, again from the original release. It’s a witty mock-documentary investigation of “the Llanfairfach incident”, written by and starring Mark Gatiss, which outclasses anything else of its type attempted by the range; most notably in its brilliant pastiche of the 1970s current affairs series Man Alive. While it’s a wry look back the anxieties of yesteryear, the film also highlights its writer’s own concerns – at which we might now, ten years on, also take a wry look back. The sketch ends with BOSS and Stevens now in charge of the BBC, demanding “efficiency, productivity and profit” and “an orderly TV schedule.” It’s a dig at the Beeb’s lack of imagination, and desire to play it safe. But the script was written in the summer of 2003, mere months before the announcement of Doctor Who’s return to TV, and Gatiss’s own commission to write The Unquiet Dead. A decade on, there’s nothing Doctor Who fans would like more than “an orderly and productive TV schedule”. Thirteen episodes a year and a Christmas special – that sort of thing.

Chiming in with perfect resonance, the behind-the-scenes story of that second coming is told by Russell T Davies and Jane Tranter in Dr Forever! It’s a first-class documentary from James Goss, though many of its treats have been roundly gazumped by DWM, thanks to great minds thinking alike and going in search of the same story.

While we like to think it a truth universally acknowledged that Doctor Who was always fated to return to TV in one form or another, it’s here, listening to Tranter and Davies tell their story, that it becomes clear that it’s only thanks to their immense willpower and enormous personal integrity that the programme came back as any kind of worthy successor to its former self. Perhaps the most telling revelation is of how Doctor Who’s extraordinarily profitable revival was almost stymied by BBC Worldwide, who argued there was no ongoing interest in the show. Some time in the future, a member of the BBC Worldwide marketing team will stumble upon the secret of time travel. Voyaging back through the years, he will make it his mission to assist with the press launch of Doctor Who in 1963. However, due to the misreading of a vital memo, he will instead accidentally assassinate John F Kennedy.

Finally, all our threads come together thanks to the apt bonus inclusion of The Death of the Doctor, the two-part Sarah Jane Adventures serial which saw Jo Grant – Jo Jones – meet up with the Eleventh Doctor and Sarah Jane, her successor in the role of sorcerer’s apprentice. It’s an exquisite script – so smart, so funny – by Russell T Davies: a love letter to his own childhood.

Even here, the story continues. As Jo wobbles off toward new adventures, Sarah’s young protégé, Clyde, comments to his friend Rani: “That’ll be us, one day.” And he’s right, you know. Everything comes back.