I was delighted to be asked during 2013 to make a couple of appearances at the National Film Theatre on the South Bank as part of the British Film Institute’s year-long celebration of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary.
For the Fifth Doctor event, Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton, the director Graham Harper and I shared a terrifically enjoyable panel (I thought so anyway) after a showing of that astounding serial The Caves of Androzani. The Robots of Death was the chosen story for the Fourth Doctor, and though I loved seeing this again, there was no point in me being on the panel because I had nothing to do with it! The organizer Justin Johnson asked me instead to give a little introductory talk. I’ve recently found the notes I made for this, so, for those who were not at the NFT and are interested, here is what I said:
Thanks so much to Justin Johnson for inviting me to introduce this diamond of a Dr Who story –I didn’t know I would be in London this weekend so it was very last minute and I’m delighted to be here.
Well, 50 years of this extraordinary series, this strange, wildly inventive, colourful, funny, scary, sublime series! I have been associated with it for well over half my life, and because I found myself on a set for the first time with my hero Doctor Who when I was only only 18, all my adult life. I will always be the boy from Dr Who, even when I’m 80 – the oldest Dr Who boy in Equity.
I’d grown up watching it too, knew it well, long, long before I received a script.
One way or another, it has been lodged in my imagination all my life. The first actor I knew by name was Patrick Troughton. I can’t remember I time when I didn’t know the TARDIS set, imagine myself on it. It’s the same for you, I’m sure.
Then, in 1974, out of the blue he appeared, Tom Baker, strangely alien and completely unexpected and unlike anything we’d ever seen before. We’d never heard of him and neither had our parents. Our parents had at least vaguely heard of the earlier Doctors – “Oh yes, Jon Pertwee, he does funny voices on the wireless” – but Tom, to we who loved him it was as if he existed only to be the Doctor – one day he wasn’t there and the next he was incredibly there, and for those of us who loved his Doctor, (he and his Doctor, they were one to us.) went to the heart of our imaginations.
We were fascinated by him and we wanted to be him, We wanted to stalk about the place saying things like, “would you like a jelly baby?” and “what’s the point of being grown-up if you can’t be childish some of the time.” We played with our yo-yo in the school lunch break. I had an official Doctor Who yo-yo with a picture of the Daleks on the side, which got rubbed away with long use. We had posters of Tom and Louise on our bedroom walls. We were in love with Leela – Even if we were gay we were in love with Leela. We wanted to be regarded as eccentric and a little mysterious by our friends. Though our intellectual capacities were limited, we identified ourselves with the cleverest man in the universe, which suggests a hint of ego-mania, or at least a lack of self-knowledge. Of course we wanted to wear a hat and a very, very long scarf. I have tried to think of another really famous fictional scarf and I can’t recall one – The Fourth Doctor’s scarf is simply the most famous imaginary scarf in this universe. When I was making Dr Who, I found that if I wore a scarf, and I don’t mean a long multi-coloured scarf, I mean an ordinary studenty purple scarf, on the reasonable grounds that it was the middle of winter and freezing, the chances of a child stopping me and asking for a signature increased discernibly. If someone saw my face and wondered if that was the boy from Dr Who, the scarf seemed to confirm it for them.
We’re going to watch one of the Fourth Doctor’s most unforgettable adventures now. The Robots of Death, with its air of mystery and murder and threat and those robots with their utterly impassive sarcophagus-like faces was a story so vivid no Dr Who enthusiast ever forgot it. This was a story we all talked about at school, every Monday morning after each episode, puzzling over the mystery as it thickened. I suppose there are very few people in this room who have not seen these episodes, – if there are any, they’re in for a treat – but the rest of us have never seen them on a ginormous screen at the National Film Theatre. I’m really looking forward to this. It’s going to be fun! Doctor Who – the Robots of Death.
The vibe at these BFI events so cool that, when I was back in the UK a couple of months later, I took up the invitation to see the Seventh Doctor’s really splendid story, Remembrance of the Daleks, and later a special showing of Mark Gatiss’s brilliant and sad play about William Hartnell, Adventures in Time and Space. The culmination of the anniversary itself took place at the NFT too: that’s where twenty Doctor Who actors watched the 50th anniversary episode, ten minutes ahead of the rest of planet earth! That’s where the ‘after-show party’ was broadcast from.
It’s fair to say that the 50th anniversary would have been a lot less fun without the support and interest of the BFI.