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Doctor Who: The Missing Generation

This is a post I wrote for the apparently defunct ‘Sidekickcast’ website, back in 2012. I’m reposting it here, partly because there’s a current ‘controversy’ going around about younger people having opinions on Doctor Who. Whilst it doesn’t directly address that, it does wonder about the role of the so called ‘missing generation’ in fandom.

You can blame Doctor Who for a lot of things in my life, least of all the job I’m in now. It all started in the early nineties, when, in the build up to the show’s thirtieth anniversary, the Museum of the Moving Image hosted an exhibition called ‘Behind the Sofa’. Unfortunately, MOMI, as the museum was nicknamed, is no longer there, its place now taken by the British Film Institute. But the exhibition sparked an interest in the show for me, which, despite the programme being off the air at the time, was more than quenched.

Look at most interviews with people involved in the show today, or more generally in society at large, and the overwhelming consensus is that Tom Baker was by far and away the best actor to play the part of the Doctor. Similarly, a kind of shared national myth has grown up around his tenure in the role – almost as if to be a fan of the show, to any degree, you must have grown up in the seventies, watching from ‘behind the sofa’, with Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen as your friends wandering through time and space.

The question “Who’s your favourite Doctor, then?” has always baffled me, therefore. Just as 2006’s School Reunion seemed to take on an extra weight of importance because of the return of Sarah-Jane Smith, the nostalgia factor has never really rung true with me. We speak a lot about the difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Who fans, with the assumption being that the former grew up when the programme was on the air. But there’s a missing generation in between. A generation who never really had ‘their’ Doctor.

Growing up as part of this ‘missing generation’ has been a blessing in disguise, I’d argue. For starters, shortly after the exhibition at MOMI, the fledgling satellite channel ‘UK Gold’, still in existence today, albeit with a baffling acronym retro-fitted, began showing the entire run of the ‘original’ series. Every single story that wasn’t missing, presumed wiped, from 1963 to 1989, was shown, generally an episode a day, with a re-run of an entire story on the weekend.

Suddenly, this show which was most definitely not going to be made anew in my formative years, was available in a way that those who had grown up watching the show had never experienced. Whereas those fans had lived through the various incarnations of the Doctor, the show aging at the same pace as their own lives, those of us who hooked on to UK Gold’s transmissions, were immersed in the equivalent of speed reading the complete works of Charles Dickens.

Over the course of about three years, therefore, we were able to assimilate almost thirty years worth of episodes. For me, this meant that it became the most consistent programme on television in my childhood – a story every week, only really stopping to catch its breath at Christmas and New Year – far more regular than during the original run.

It also meant that there was no particular emotional attachment to any of the characters. Perhaps that’s a shame, but I think it meant that we were able to appreciate and enjoy the contributions of all of the Doctors, companions, guest appearances and so on, on an equal level. It also meant that the prevailing mood in fan circles during the mid-nineties, which was one of general stoic acceptance that the show probably wasn’t returning, along with an affectionately humorous critical approach to the show’s past, chimed particularly well with me. It was a shame that it wasn’t coming back, but as a body of entertaining, imaginative adventure fiction, it was up there with the best.

Of course, during those ‘missing’ years, the fans kept the flame of the show alive. So called ‘false dawns’ such as the two BBC radio plays starring Jon Pertwee, the various online animations with past Doctors, and of course the 1996 television movie with Paul McGann, were incredibly exciting, because they were the nearest we were going to get to having ‘our’ own Doctor. Which is why it’s still fascinating, and brilliant, to me now that the show is regarded as such a hot property – this show was dead as the proverbial parrot – but no longer. That doesn’t mean we can’t be critical of the new episodes. Indeed, I would hope that the rapid deep dive of the mid-nineties helped fans take a step back and both appreciate the wonders of the modern series, as well as constructively critiquing its occasional flaws.

But what’s the future for Doctor Who? In 2013, it will be the show’s fiftieth anniversary. It’ll be approximately twenty years since I first encountered the TARDIS. Those who kept the flame alive during the mid-nineties were in their twenties and thirties, starting out on their careers, and are now running the show. As fans, and writers, they’ve combined the best of their craft with the love of the show, to make something, on the whole, excellent.

Russell T Davies pointed out in an episode of Doctor Who Confidential, that now that the show had returned successfully once, it could do the same again, forever more. That isn’t to say it’ll run continuously. Indeed, another rest might need to happen. Those who are growing up watching Eccleston, Tennant and Smith, will hopefully be inspired in the same way that Davies, Moffat, Gatiss and so on have been.

But in between the current writers, and those who are watching now, that missing generation still lurks. Once Steven Moffat and his generation of fans have moved on, will the show be as good in the hands of those who are excellent at producing television, but weren’t around for the UK Gold repeats? Will it be better for that separation? Or will the ‘missing generation’ take its place and provide the continuity between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’? Time will tell. It always does.

The Future is Now

I will be watching Back to the Future Part 2 tonight. Because the film means something to me.

When I was about five or six years old, I had a cassette player, and a tape with an abridged audio book of Back to the Future – with a storybook of photos and captions from the film to accompany it. I adored it.

I enjoyed the story for the time travel, but mainly for the sheer adventure of it. But the second film, although regarded not as favourably by others, was the one I fell in love with.

My brother informs me that we watched the second film on VHS from Blockbuster video, in preparation for the release of the third film. This was my Star Wars – a film series that I was just the right age for, exploding my imagination.

It was almost certainly the first story I encountered with time travel and paradoxes. The way it revisits the events of the first film, putting a different spin on it, but throwing those events into jeopardy – that sense of danger and narrative complexity, of truly riffing off of established events, making a sequel which is so much more than ‘just another film in the series’ – all of this has had so much of an influence on what I enjoy.

It could even be considered the most formative influence in terms of the kinds of narrative, and adventure stories, I like – predating my first exposure to Doctor Who by a number of years. It definitely shaped my status as a fan not of sci-fi in general, but of that core of adventure, and enjoyment.

But the thing that grabbed me – that still makes me punch the air – is that ending. The cliffhanger, the way it propels the action forward, at a point when you think it’s all been solved. Yes, the first film has “…where we’re going, we don’t need roads..”, but that’s merely a “..and here’s what happens next..”. This cliffhanger is “we’ve just solved everything – but now everything you know has been thrown for a loop”. There’s a sense of real, traumatic danger, which you’d probably only otherwise get, perhaps at the end of the third act, normally.

And then the ‘coming soon’ – again, probably my first, accompanied by the fact we’d see the conclusion in the cinema!

Today has significance, as one of those days where the lines blur between fiction and reality, and you think – but what if?

It’s what fires my imagination, keeps me wanting to write – it shapes our culture.

Which is why it’s saddening to see so many hollow references to the films over social media today. As if merely the shallowest of links to the iconography of the series will somehow ‘engage’ people. It’s tasteless, really. Even the appearance of the Delorean car, seemingly everywhere, totally ruins the magic.

So you can keep your snark and your promotional, opportunistic tweets. I’ll be watching the film again, and when that music plays, I’ll be a grinning six year old, all over again.


A photo posted by Paul (@r4isstatic) on