If you’re a Doctor Who fan, you really should be listening to the Reality Bomb podcast. It earned a spot in my must-listen playlist right from the first episode. The monthly news magazine format and high production standards makes RB easy to like on first listen, but it’s the moving, emotional, thought-provoking writing that made me fall in love with it.
This month’s episode starts off with a great autobiographical piece by host Graeme Burke, in which he looks back over his 30 years as a Whovian. Graeme is Canadian and a little bit older than me, but we have one thing in common: we both can pinpoint the exact day and episode that made us a fan. Yes, we are both here in fandom because of “Pyramids of Mars.”
Inspired by Graeme, here’s the story of how I became a Whovian.
It was September 6, 1986. Even though it was still sweltering outside, the summer break from school was officially over. I had just entered seventh grade. I looked back at my diary, but couldn’t find any hints about how I was feeling at the time. My guess is that I was feeling quite depressed. Back then no one seemed to talk much about the damage that bullying does to kids, but I didn’t need someone to tell me what it was like. I knew. Sixth grade had been the worst year of my life, marked by almost nonstop torment from other kids in my class. The summer break offered an escape from the situation, but only until the fall. I don’t remember the beginning that school year, but it must have been really scary and painful to face the same kids again.
So that day, I probably felt a bit fragile. The car races that my parents and I went to at a local dirt track on Saturday nights in the summer were over for the year. Mom and I were at home, hanging out on her bed. She had a small TV in her room and we were channel surfing through our couple dozen channels at some point after 10 PM.
::click:: ::click:: ::click::
Wait. What’s that? There’s a woman with brown hair and an English accent wearing an old Edwardian style white dress. She’s clearly standing around in a Victorian drawing room, but she’s talking about modern science. What’s this about? I had stumbled upon the omnibus version of “Pyramids of Mars.”
To understand why that white dress made me put down the remote control, we have to go back a bit and talk about my home town, Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is a smaller, insular city in the Southern United States with an unhealthy obsession with its checkered past. It was almost impossible for a bookish kid like me to grow up here without being interested in history. I’d spent most of fifth and sixth grade reading everything I could lay my hands on about local history, so when I saw Sarah Jane wearing that old-fashioned dress, I put down the remote.
By the end of the show, I was a believer. It had everything. There was Sarah Jane, a spunky young woman who had a hairstyle like my Mom’s and a roundish face like mine. She was with a mysterious Doctor who had odd hair and an insane scarf. Even though everyone else in the story had died, Sarah and the Doctor had used their wits, not brute force, to protect our version of 1980. I appreciated the claustrophobic, theatrical beauty of BBC interior set design of the era and I loved its haunting electronic incidental music. Most of all, this show had a time machine, a way for Sarah and the Doctor to escape for good after they had defeated the bad guy. For a 12 year old who had spent a year as the butt of every possible joke but still had to return to the same school day after day, the Doctor’s TARDIS was a miracle.
Only one problem: I didn’t realize that it was an actual TV series. At least, not right away.
A few Saturdays later, I was channel surfing and ran across Sarah and the Doctor again. Could this thing possibly be a TV series? The next morning, a quick dig through the TV listings revealed the name of the show about Sarah and her strange time traveling friend:
“What??” I thought. “It’s called Doctor WHO?” I can still feel the pit of my stomach clenching. “That’s….that’s a stupid name. Oh my God. Now I have to tell people that I watch. Doctor. Who. They’ll make fun of it. They’ll use it to make fun of me.”
So I didn’t tell anybody. It was my show, my secret that I wasn’t going to share with anybody else. I was sure nobody else had ever heard of it, so I just kept it to myself. Within a couple of weeks, I watched Sarah Jane bundle up her tennis racquet, suitcase, stuffed owl, and potted plant then walk away whistling from the TARDIS at the end of “The Hand of Fear.” That was the first time that the show made me cry. She was my companion, a writer like I wanted to be. Sarah Jane was brave and kind just like people should be but so often aren’t.
The next week was exciting: the Doctor was traveling back to his home. Gallifrey! It was so exciting to see where the Doctor was from, to unravel his mystery a bit. By this time, I was watching every episode on the big TV in the living room. This is significant because the living room is where our VCR lived. During “The Deadly Assassin” when the Doctor announces his intention to go into the Matrix, I scrambled to find a blank tape. I slapped it into the VCR and hit record just in time for him to wake up in yet another chalk quarry that was meant to resemble a WWI battlefield hidden in the Matrix. I let it record to the end of the show. I had the Matrix on tape.
Looking back on it, it’s odd that I didn’t think to record the show again the next week. Doctor Who was still my strange solitary obsession, so it never occurred to me to keep taping it. Oldsters like me will remember that 1986 was still the era of one-and-done television, where you had that one Dallas or Miami Vice tape that you used over and over and over again to watch that one episode on a different day that week. Reruns were in the summer and were boring. I didn’t think twice about this practice until my first Pledge Drive.
It wasn’t one of the big dog-and-pony-show drives that you sometimes had when money was especially tight or fan groups or special celebrities were there to beg for more money. What this Pledge Drive had, though, was astounding. What it had was a bombshell. It had this:
Until I saw “Doctor Who’s Who’s Who,” I thought Doctor Who was just a little show that I liked to watch on Saturdays, something that would run out of episodes soon and disappear without a trace. You know, something like Children of the Stones, The Tomorrow People, or Black Beauty, all of which I’d watched on Nickelodeon before finding Doctor Who. In just under one minute, I discovered that there was something called FANDOM. There were books, and merchandise, other assistants besides Sarah and Leela, and oh my God, other Doctors, too! There were even conventions somewhere in the US full of people screaming at Tom Baker on stage like he was a rock star. In one moment, I found out that I wasn’t weird–or that if I was weird, it didn’t really matter because I WAS NOT ALONE.
I began to keep every show that I taped and rewatched them all the time. I started to poke around the adult SciFi/Fantasy and Biography sections at Waldenbooks and B. Dalton at the mall, looking in vain for a copy of Moon Boots and Dinner Suits by Jon Pertwee. One day, I turned a corner at the end of an aisle and found an endcap full of Target novelizations and Peter Haining hardbacks. My Mom rolled her eyes so hard that you could practically hear it, but she bought me some of the books that day. And again the next time we went to the mall for several years. We even ordered boxes full of them from a remaindered book mail order catalog. Mom believed that kids can never have too many books, and I took full advantage of her generosity.
The Peter Haining deluxe hardback books were another revelation. They turned me into a nerd’s idea of a nerd. My nose must have literally touched the stitching in their gutters because in my memory, their pages fill up my peripheral vision. I used tracing paper to copy out the best fan art, which I then recolored with cheap nail polish. The books helped me make lists of episodes and books I had consumed versus the ones I hadn’t yet found. I labeled my growing Doctor Who off air recordings collection with their production codes. (“Spearhead from Space” is AAA. “Robot” is 4A. These two facts will go with me to my grave, apparently.) I bought a scrapbook and began to make a page for each month, pasting in the descriptions of that month’s episodes and decorated them with the recolored tracings of fan art.
I even saw a tiny clip of a Sylvester McCoy interview during another pledge drive, and was super excited that I had seen the new Doctor. I filled the months before we got to see some of his episodes on SCETV by writing down story ideas of my own on index cards and filing them in a little metal box. As I saw or read about stories that used some of “my” ideas, they were shifted behind a tab labeled “Good – Used.” I filled up drug store notebooks that had dreadful airbrushed unicorn covers with snippets of dialog and stage directions for my stories. One of the best was set here on a plantation in Charleston where the Doctor and Romana II faced an evil vampire slave owner who wore white linen suits just like the White Guardian’s in “The Ribos Operation.”
I even copied a slip from the back of a Target novel and got a subscription for Doctor Who Magazine. DWM and the Virgin New Adventure novels would carry me through what Whovians call the Wilderness Years, the time after the show was canceled in 1989.
As sometimes happens when you get out of college and enter the real world, you drift away from the passions that consumed you as a young person. I didn’t love the show any less. Far from it! There was simply too much going on to focus on it like I once did. Between graduate school, work, friendships, and dating my soon-to-be-husband, I barely had time to eat and sleep, let alone rewatch episodes I could recite from memory.
And then, one day, one amazing, beautiful, glorious day, my fiance Terry said, “Hey, did you hear that they’re bringing Doctor Who back?”
“What? They who?”
“The BBC. Here’s an article,” he said, and got out of the computer chair in his bedroom so I could take a look.
“BBC Wales? What the heck is that? Shouldn’t it be made at Television Centre?” I said.
I reserved judgement. After all, we’d had it “back” once before and it didn’t go anywhere. This comeback could go nowhere, too. Then the BBC released a clip of Murray Gold’s new arrangement of the theme music. From the moment I heard it, I knew.
Doctor Who was back and it would be better than ever.
Although I believed that the new series would be successful, I never could have predicted that we’d be where we are now. Whovians the world over marked the show’s 50th anniversary with a 3-D multi-Doctor special simulcast in movie theaters around the world. Unthinkable! And yet it happened.
Today, everyone seems to have heard of Doctor Who. New fans appear on the scene all the time. Doctor Who conventions are springing up again all over the country, and there is more high-quality merchandise available now than ever before. It’s an absolute miracle of endurance for a television show.
It’s all that, yes, but it’s still the weird little show that drew me in because a girl with hair like my Mom’s was wearing an old-fashioned white dress and talking about radio telescopes. Doctor Who can still teach you the most valuable of lessons: that you’re never alone and that the best people in the world “are never cruel or cowardly.”*
That’s the story of how I became a Whovian. So what’s your fandom origin story? Come on, I know you have one. Share it in the comments!
* The Making of Doctor Who by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke, p. 23. The whole quote reads:
“Much has changed about the Doctor over the years, but much has remained the same…. He is still impulsive, idealistic, ready to risk his life for a worthy cause. He still hates tyranny and oppression, and anything that is anti-life. He never gives in, and he never gives up, however overwhelming the odds against him.
The Doctor believes in good and fights evil. Though often caught up in violent situations, he is a man of peace. He is never cruel or cowardly.
In fact, to put it simply, the Doctor is a hero. These days there aren’t so many of them around….”