40. The Regenerations of Doctor Who

A Fascinating Fact about me hitherto known only to my immediate family is that when I was 10 years old I won the top prize in a schoolchildren’s public speaking competition, by dint of a 15-minute address I delivered on the history (to that point) of BBC TV’s Doctor Who: ‘the most successful science fiction series in television history’, according to them that know. So, for sure, I knew a good deal about Doctor Who up until, say, 1981? But, obviously, the termites have been dining out on my memory ever since. I remember liking the show hugely. I actually remember watching bits of it (per legend) in great consternation from ‘behind the sofa.’ That said, a lot of what then seemed to me scary/memorable has lived mainly in my imagination – which is, perhaps, the way things ought to be for childish viewers.
For instance, in setting the chapter of The Possessions of Doctor Forrest entitled ‘A Mermaid’s Tale’ in Dungeness on the Kent coast, I was certain I was paying a sort of homage to some Jon Pertwee-era episode of Doctor Who wherein the Time Lord fought off a horde of sea monsters who emerged from the tide in front of the Magnox reactors. The first time I visited Dungeness in person in 2005 I was yet more certain this was what I had seen on telly. But, I’m wrong. Apparently the Who show I was thinking of could be The Claws of Axos (1971). But I never saw it, it was before my time. Undoubtedly I read Terrance Dicks’ Target novelisation, because I read all ‘the Doctor Who books’: they were the primary reading experience of my childhood. And Dungeness just seemed – seems – very Who, as did a fair bit of the landscape of Britain back in the 1970s.
So, no joy there. And yet, then again, through a certain glass, and darkly at that, Possessions of Doctor Forrest could be seen as one big extended tip of the hat to Doctor Who. How so? Well, let me beckon the past come in…
The first of the Doctor Who serials I actually saw was Planet of the Spiders (1974), which would have tended to impress itself on young minds – involving, as it did, large evil super-evolved and shrill-voiced spiders who leap onto people’s backs in order to control their minds. Moreover this 6-parter also concluded on one of the Doctor’s periodic ‘regenerations’ – whereby some injury that would have been fatal to a mortal simply causes the Doctor to transform by jiggery-pokery into a renewed and healthy corporeal form, i.e. a different if not necessarily younger actor.

By these means the quasi-Edwardian Jon Pertwee became Tom Baker: he of the slouch hat, trailing scarf, and mischievous-uncle manner for whom, I’m sure, I have the same fundamentally warm feeling as a million other men of my age (and this despite having come to clock Baker in later years as one of those blokes who actually like to drink at the Coach and Horses). But at any rate, this notion of regeneration, of the same person ported into successively different envelopes of flesh, with all the attendant difficulties of psychological continuity… I think (well, I know) this had a huge effect on my young imagination.
There’s more to it than that, I should say. To wit, the Baker-era episodes of the show that have survived best in my memory are The Talons of Weng-Chiang, set in Victorian London (Baker in Holmesian deerstalker!), and The Terror of the Zygons with its Loch Ness setting and shape-shifting alien villains. So, put together gothic Victoriana, misty macabre Scotland, ‘regeneration’ and, well, there you have it: voila Doctor Forrest
The BBC’s revival of Doctor Who c. 2005 must rank among television’s greatest successes of the last decade. The show seems to appeal right across the board, from school-kids to university students to pensioners to high-browed politicos whom I follow on Twitter, such as the MP for Glasgow South Tom Harris and the Independent’s chief political columnist John Rentoul. My elder daughter is just about old enough to watch the new show and, occasionally, seem to enjoy it. But, to my shame, if I look in on proceedings I generally just find it really hard to understand what’s going on… The permitted permutations of time and space and creative means of tinkering with same only serve to remind me why I stopped studying physics at the age of 14.
And then The Doctor (like most policemen I see these days) just always looks too young to me… Of course, the plain fact is I’m too old. The one moment in New Doctor Who that I stumbled on and got quite enthused by was when ‘The Master’ – classic saturnine arch-enemy of Pertwee and Baker from my childhood – was resuscitated (through quite a brilliant conceit that even I could understand) in the form of Derek Jacobi, with his cold eyes and professorial jowls and juicily virulent tones. I was genuinely gripped, for about five minutes… whereupon the show revealed that it had yet more advanced plans for the Master’s new identity, these doubtless to the delight of the show’s ardent younger demographic. Still, in this clearly deeply felt YouTube critique an unseen American Doctor Who fan says pretty much what I, too, was thinking.

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