The Man the Doctor Built…

You know, when I think about it, the effect Doctor Who has had on my life is pretty damned substantial.

It was the first SF TV show to really grab my attention because it was so different to everything else I saw. It wasn’t slick looking. It didn’t have amazing effects. The people didn’t have that vaguely-too-good-looking-to-be-real-people thing that American shows are full of.

What it had were stories with quirky and interesting characters. And unlike so much television, the quirks came across as a natural part of the characters, as opposed to something deliberately written into the script to be oh-so quirky and odd.

The Doctor and his companions were smart, but capable of making mistakes. Fearless but still able to be scared and vulnerable. They were ready to fight and kill, but it was never the preferred option. The way to beat the villains wasn’t to have better weapons, or to be more violent, but to outthink them.

It was experimental and brave. A tale set in a Land of Fiction? A white void with lion people and time slips? A story were Earth’s original inhabitants want their planet back from the apes that have infested it? How many other shows would even have considered some of these stories?

Web Planet is an indicator of how insanely fearless the show could be. A planet without humans, populated by giant ants, moths, and grubs. The ants can’t talk, and the moths talk using odd hand guestures and a language that often resorts to strange phrasings and mispronouncations of the main character’s names.

The first time the Western world attempted to create a world this alien and different was when George Lucas made Star Wars. That was a feature film. Doctor Who was trying to do a the same thing twelve years earlier on a low budget black and white television show. It doesn’t matter what you think of the story in terms of on-screen realisation – no other series would have even thought about making something on the scale of Web Planet.

I first discovered the show when I was seven. I remember going to school the next day and telling the other kids about the great new show I’d found called Doctor Who. They all already knew about it, of course, and my immediate response was ‘Then why didn’t you tell me about it?!’

I was pretty much hooked from that first episode.

Because of the show, I started reading the books. I already liked books, but the novelisations are what gave me my real love of reading. My pocket money used to be a dollar a week, and the books were between $1 and $2.50, so it wasn’t too long before I had a reasonable collection. I read and reread them all on a regular basis.

It’s fair to say that Terrance Dicks was majorly responsible for my literacy, as he has been for literally thousands, if not millions, of others. His books were not only numerous, but they were easy to read in the best way. He added little touches and flourishes that stay with me to this day. His novelisation of The Unearthly Child at one point gives us the pespective of the tiger stalking our heroes, letting us see why it does things the way it does. It’s the sort of idea that actually adds to the story by explaining something that didn’t need an explanation, but is significantly better for having it.

I can remember at primary school when Mrs. Green gave us the home work of writing a story. Mine ended up being a Doctor Who one. It was dutifully handed in the next day along with everyone elses and we then got on with the other work while the teacher read and marked them. At some point she called me up to her desk.

“Danny, did you write this story?” I said yes. “Did your parents help you, or did you copy it from somewhere?” I started to get really upset. Close to tears I told her that I wrote it all. I got some ideas from Doctor Who, but the story was all mine. She told me she believed me, and when I got it back I’d gotten an A+ with the note ‘Excellent work.’

I was so proud of that.

I still have the story and it’s rubbish. A confused mess of influences that features the Doctor rewiring a Dalek bomb, the act of which inexplicably causes the Dalek control room to blow up. Hey, I was young, okay?

It’s not happenstance that my story was a Dalek story. The metal monsters fascinated me right from the first time I saw them. There has never been a creature quite like them. Who makes their monsters shorter than the heroes? And hell, until CGI became cheap enough we still had people in occasionally really dodgy humanoid monster costumes in major feature films. Now we get dodgy CG monsters in their place. But I digress.

I used to build Daleks using dad’s old saccharine tablet bottles, cardboard, and plasticine. I was forever drawing pictures of them in my schoolbooks, doing little cartoons and comics featuring them on scrap paper. Doctor Who encouraged my love of creativity and story-telling right from the get-go.

It also encouraged my interest in and love of… well… everything. The Doctor took us along and showed us things, taught us things. It made me want to learn, to discover things, develop new skills and to think in different ways.

I still remember the third Doctor telling the story about visiting an old hermit on Gallifrey during the worst day of his life, and how all the things he’d dismissed on the way up, he viewed with fresh eyes on the way down. Here’s a Youtube link to the scene.

That story stayed with me, bled through into my subconscious. It’s why I love the Nullabor trip. Many people tell me that it’s so boring and they don’t know why I like doing it, and all I can see is that it’s full of life and colour and beauty, if only you open your eyes. Same with most things – you can find the beauty there if you let yourself see it.

When I was ten or eleven, I started going into the city once a month to visit the museum. It was free back then, and the tram fare was pretty cheap. I got to go out for the day on my own, read quietly on public transport, spend a few hours looking at all sorts of interesting stuff, and have a good read on the way home.

The old Melbourne Museum rarely changed very much between visits, but I liked going all the same. There was always something I had missed other times.

In 1979, I discovered Space Age Books on Swanston St. It was quite close to the museum, but I always had my nose in a book, so I’d never noticed it previously. It was cramped and full to the brim of books and magazines, all science fiction and fantasy. And naturally there were Doctor Who books, and a Doctor Who magazine!

I joined the Melbourne Science Fiction Club soon after. I was twelve and it was on Friday nights, but I was allowed out until around 8:30pm. The club started at 7, so I’d get around an hour there, then get the tram back home. Everyone there was older than me, but welcomed the shy kid. And of course, many were fans of DW. They also had two hardcover copies of Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks. Years later during one of the first library culls, I was offered the chance to buy one, which I happily did.

A short time after joining the MSFC, I found a flyer for the Doctor Who Club of Victoria in the back of one of the novelisations I bought from Space Age. They met one Saturday each month at the Richmond Rowing Club. The MSFC had been good to me, showing me there were other fans of science fiction and helping a shy kid discover that he could go to these things and be welcomed. The DWCV gave me that welcome in spades and got me involved. Not in the running, but in the social side.

I soon had a fair sized group of friends of both genders, all around my own age. Russell T. Davies showed the true beauty of fandom in his story Love and Monsters. In it, a bunch of people fascinated by and curious about the Doctor form a group that has regular meetings, but those meetings quickly become less about the Doctor and more about sharing other loves and talents.

The DWCV was the same. It was there I learned about shows like Sapphire and Steel and books like The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. I learned how to make video clips (the kids these days call them songvids, I hear) using two VCRs hooked up together. I even did some art. But I’m jumping ahead of myself a little.

Suddenly my every weekend was full. I had friends to see every week. And there was a certain amount of bleed-through as DWCV members became MSFC members and brought the club new life. In a short time the MSFC went from something that merely existed to a vibrant and growing organisation. The newsletter started to come out and I started to write and occasionally even do art for that.

Over time I built up skills, friendships, and relationships. My first fannish girlfriend was a Doctor Who fan who had, and still has, the most magnificent mind. One of the things that I quickly learned in fandom was a real appreciation of clever people in general, and smart women in particular. The majority of my female friends were people able to talk intelligently about all manner of subjects – a far cry from the ones I grew up around who only seemed able to discuss popstars and soap operas.

Being around educated women who know how to present an argument also helped shape me. I grew up in a household that was a very traditional ‘men work, women raise kids’ type. The culture my family was a part of was one that at best didn’t value women, and at worst was openly and aggressively misogynistic.

While I’d always found that attitude not quite right as a youngster, in my teenage years I got a weekly dose of female Doctor Who and science fiction fans who it was easy to respect, who respected others, and who were respected by male fans. Oh, there was always a people of both genders who didn’t fit that description, but they were in the minority and, more importantly, their disrespect of others was frowned upon by the majority.

Doctor Who drawing me into science fiction fandom made things happen. I got involved, as I mentioned earlier. I got positive feedback for writing, video clips, and art. Even got some awards for my clips, which was a nice bonus. Being a Doctor Who fan kept making me want to stretch in new directions.

I learned how to do some basic special effects make-up tricks just so I could do costumes. This led to me doing humourous sketches, because my costumes were never that good, and becoming more comfortable in front of a crowd. A (non-DW) fanzine I worked on with others got nominated for an award, and so my friends and I drove to the Media Natcon in Canberra, and then on to the Lit Natcon in Perth a week later. My first Nullabor crossing, and so cementing in me not only a love of the Nullabor trip, but a love of travel/driving in general.

I started doing panels and even running conventions. I once ran a Doctor Who one-day mini-convention with Sandra Reid, designer of the original Cybermen, as a guest. The kernel of what would become Continuum began with me learning about con-running through Doctor Who and science fiction conventions.

Years later I got into 3D computer graphics. Naturally I started out building police boxes, daleks, and eventually an entire Hartnell console. Learning those skills meant I got to do the opening video for the 1999 Australian World Science Fiction Convention, which I eventually won an award for.

The 3D graphics also gave me the opportunity to work on an animated Doctor Who pilot when the BBC Wales Research and Development Department approached Who3D, started by the wonderful Cliff Bowman. I actually ended up doing all the scripting work. It eventually died, as we expected, but for a while I was head writer on a version of Doctor Who, for the BBC!

I bring that one up from time to time, partially because it still seems vaguely unreal, and partially because I’m bloody proud of it.

When a dear friend of mine got the chance to write for a Doctor Who short story collection for Big Finish, he very generously asked me if I’d like to co-write it with him. I loved working with him, and at the same time I got to work for one of the best editors it has ever been my privilege to deal with. It was my first professional sale. I still have to get the Seal of Rassilon tattoo I promised myself for that achievement.

Then I had my stroke. While I think my own nature helped me deal with that fairly well, some of the coping mechanisms came from all I had learned directly and indirectly from my favourite show. It was a hard time, made worse by not knowing what had happened for the first ten months. I found myself having increasing difficulty walking, and no longer able to work a job, write fiction, or even just read.

Rather than wallowing in self pity, though of course I did have my wallowy days, I started looking at ways to fight issues or work around them. At the point when my mobility was reaching its nadir, I started jogging, using a walking stick. I couldn’t write fiction, or even read terribly well, but I could write lengthy opinion pieces on LiveJournal, so I did. I couldn’t work in a regular job, but I could buy and sell Doctor Who toys and DVDs on the internet, because I could limit the work to those periods when I was up to it.

When I started trying to read again, I kept failing. I simply didn’t have the concentration. It was frustrating and disheartening. It took a very long while and a lot of failures before I hit on the idea of rereading some of my old Terrance Dicks Doctor Who books. They were stories I knew, written in an easy to read style. And it’s mostly worked. I can read again, not just Doctor Who books but other stuff as well. Terrance Dicks has impacted my life twice, I only wish I could meet him, shake his hand, and say thank you.

Loving Doctor Who also taught me to embrace people, to show them just how awesome they really are, to try to let them see themselves as I see them. Most people are amazing, but either haven’t realised it, tested their limits, or have listened too often to those telling them they are not.

In recent years I’ve been surprised by some of the fans who I not only think of as fantastic individuals, but as people who I aspire to be like, who have turned around and told me that it was because of my faith and acceptance that they’ve done the things they’ve done. That’s heady praise indeed, and all In can think is I learned it from a great fictional teacher.

These days I’m a father and husband. I’m not perfect at either, I’m a grumpy, messy, Hartnell-esque old bugger, but my love of the world, of new experiences and learning, of creating, building, exploring… these are things I share with my gorgeous wife and that I’m (hopefully) passing on to my children.

I’m perfectly happy to stop in the middle of chopping wood or mowing the lawn to go get my kids so they can see a cool insect. My son has helped me drill holes, hammer nails, and put things together since he was two years old. Admittedly it’s been with a lot of help (and mostly internal swearing) from me, and his assistance slows every job to a crawl, but he’s been involved. He’s been in the roof with me, wandered bushland, and I’ve tried to pass on a basic respect for life, no matter the size or type.

And my daughter will be getting that same education, in fact, I’m looking forward to her helping to make every job glacial and harder. Also worth noting that one of her godparents is a dear friend and massive Doctor Who fan who I met all those years ago at the DWCV. Oh, and she’s named after no less than three female companions.

For me, it all comes back to Doctor Who. Oh I know that I couldn’t have done any of this without my own determination, spirit, ideas, talent, love… But time and again, Doctor Who has directly or indirectly planted the seeds, given me a reason to try this or that, got me moving, or helped me to meet people who inspired me. The fact that I’ve also inspired one or two others, well that’s just the icing on the cake.

So thank you. Thank you to Verity Lambert, Sydney Newman, Mervyn Pinfield, Rex Tucker, Peter Brachacki, Anthony Coburn, Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire, David Whitaker, Barry Newbery, and Derek Ware.

Thank you, William Hartnell, Carole Ann Ford, William Russell, Jacqueline Hill, and Fred Rawlings.

Thank you Raymond Cusick and Terry Nation.

Thank you to everyone who worked on the series, original and new, both in front of and behind the scenes.

And most especially, thank you Terrance.

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2 thoughts on “The Man the Doctor Built…

  1. Such a fantastic and heart-warming story! It’s always great to read about how the show has affected others – especially for me, when it didn’t really impact me until I was into my teenage years, and we have the Internet as a ‘go to’ place rather than meetings and clubs and libraries etc.

    I’ve also read many of your LiveJournal posts and you’ve been quite a big inspiration to me with your writing 🙂

    On a side note, have you heard about ‘You and Who’? If not, it’s a book (with a second volume upcoming) containing a lot of fan-submitted essays about how they got into the show and how it’s affected their lives, and I urge you to at least check it out and maybe submit a piece: http://youandwho.weebly.com/index.html

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