It’s impossible to extract myself from Doctor Who. It runs through me from childhood to today. It’s impossible for me to think of it as a television show that I like – instead it is something closer to a personal mythology. A series of fictions that evoke deep emotions. Nostalgia is a powerful drug. More than just a viewing experience, my living memory of it incorporates half-remembered children’s books, impenetrable audio plays, games played in playgrounds and parks (and alone in bedrooms), and piles and piles of writing. It’s a show that has been written about more than any other.
Two sides of watching the series exist in contention. Firstly, it is an archive television serial. Made in specific times and products of their particular concerns. It is a serial, episodic, and designed to be watched one episode at a time. On the other hand, it is freely available on shiny plastic discs, able to be digested in one sitting, surrounded by contextual documentaries and commentaries. Neither approach is correct. I watch Doctor Who one episode at a time. I understand that that is the rhythm of the series, and to see it any other way violates the working of the piece. But I cannot simply imagine what it is like to watch this programme in 1963 or 1976 or 1989. Those places are alien to me. We never ignore the trappings of the series; but to use them to condemn entire swathes of the programme is intellectually bankrupt.
Becoming a Doctor Who fan in the nineties was not that much different to being a fan in the seventies or eighties, except from the fact that we had no new Who. Not living in a household with access to satellite television meant that the parts of Who that were available to me were a small handful of VHS and the few stories that the BBC deemed to repeat. Most of my Doctor Who interest would come from the still pretty cheap Target novels that were still available in Smiths (the general public has their stories of hiding behind the sofa, we have Terrance Dicks adaptations.) A fraction of Who was a reality and the rest was a fantasy, an imagining of stories I would never see. It’s important not to forget how much Who was out of reach.
In 1992, the BBC decided to show a few stories on Friday nights as part of a repeat season leading up to the 30th anniversary. Surrounded by old ITC and Gerry Anderson shows it was the highlight of the week. Every show opened my eyes to other worlds and created a more vivid existence to my seven year old self, even when those shows were in black and white. The Sea Devils was watched in one part of the country, The Daemons watched in another after yet another move. The few friends who had shared my enjoyment of the show were no longer around. But I was obsessive even at that age, and I would keep wearing those Doctor Who t-shirts that I had been bought, no matter the ridicule. My family were Christians, and being mocked was part of life…
When we look back at 1992 it will always be skimmed over in history of Who. We were only just beginning the ‘Wilderness Years’, and production of the series was something that had only just been abandoned. Did people still believe in those days that the show was only on hiatus? No one had really watched the show for years. When out and about, it wasn’t other children who asked me what I was wearing on my chest, it was their mums and dads. “Who is your favourite Doctor?” would come the question that still follows me to this day. “Jon Pertwee,” I would respond.
I’m not sure why I loved that period of the show so much. One week I had been watching The Mind Robber episode five and the next Friday it was The Sea Devils episode one. It was violent transition that I hated at first. Black and white Doctor Who was something majestic, colour Doctor Who was of shoddy quality and windy. All I remember of that episode was that it was very, very windy. Therefore, I assumed, all colour Who would be performed in mild gales. The great storm of 1987 was a formative memory and one that was talked about with the reverence that we fans reserve for The Talons of Weng-Chiang (or used to. Now we think it’s racist.) But Doctor Jon grew in my heart. It was his stories that I bought on VHS. “Are you sure you want to buy that?” asked my Dad, as I clutched the chunky, plastic case of Day of the Daleks. “It’s got Jo Grant in it,” was my response that seemed to say that’s okay. In the nineties, it was the Pertwee era that was the good one.
Two years later, “It’s got Jo Grant in it,” would mean a very different thing when given a copy of Timeframe.
The veneer of cosiness of the Pertwee era is something that we often sneer at as we seek to prove our maturity in adulthood. But the fact that Doctor Jon was never alone, and surrounded by a woman who always helped him and some phenomenally useless soldiers (if they were that bad, but still soldiers, maybe it was okay that I was so horrible at football) was vital to my happiness. Maybe the fact that they were not alone made me feel less alone (I certainly understand that it was this emotion that led to a brief dalliance with Star Trek as a teenager.) The Pertwee stories manage to have it all, comedy and action and monsters and everything that you want from Doctor Who. When the DVD range came to an end, it was watching the last episode of The Mind of Evil that made me genuinely sad. Barring any missing episode recoveries, the was the last new old Who I would ever see.
Doctor Who, as a programme, as a fiction, exists in a constant state of time travel. Day of the Daleks was made in 1971, broadcast in 1972, watched on VHS in 1993 and watched on DVD again, for the umpteenth time in 2016. It travels throughout my life. I would walk up and down the stairwells in my school limping my wrist as I had seen Doctor Jon do in these episodes. My mum later told me to stop doing it as it would make people think that I was gay. The format I first watched it on, the world it depicts, many of the actors seen within it, are all long gone. But it is alive to me.
* * *
Is Doctor Who directed?
Directors of Doctor Who outside of Douglas Camfield and Graeme Harper barely get a mention. Katy Manning will be considered a greater creative force on this episode than Paul Bernard. When this programme was being produced in the sixties and seventies, television in England was a genuinely distinct art form – an authored, performed live/or as-live on videotaped, three-walled, four-camera interiors and 16mm exteriors. It looks like nothing else, and led to visual language of storytelling that has been abandoned nowadays (television broadly looking like shit movies). But Bernard is making distinctive choices in this episode to show how time travel causes reality to fracture and disintegrate.
We’ve already seen the intrusion of the title music and sequences into the very fabric of the episode itself. The boundaries between what is the fiction of the story and the reality of a produced television show start to break down as time is disrupted. When the Controller talks about growing up in a Dalek occupied society, he is talking about decades of imagined history. His life is not limited by these twenty-five odd minutes. He feels real, despite the heightened performance given by Aubrey Woods. In this story, everyone (apart from the Daleks) are defined by their mutability, their changing minds. Fascists and rebels both reject ideology when presented with the reality of their actions, and the compassion continually shown by the Doctor.
A huge benefit of entering an altered timeline is the uncertainty that the Doctor has. It is not until this episode that he figures out what is going on. Doctor Who is always best when the Doctor doesn’t have a clue. As much as we seek to simplify Doctor Jon by his brashness, his Venusian-aikido authoritarian streak, he is the most vulnerable of Doctors. He is haunted by mistakes, played as a puppet, and here, beaten and broken. The fan conception of him is as the Tory Doctor. Chummy with the corrupt, appallingly behaved to those around him. But there is little of him that seeks to conserve what is around him. The Doctor remains as disruptive as ever. Even the violence that the Doctor dishes out is understandable. Spending years on Earth would take an awful lot out of you. The Doctor is not perfect; consistently he is presented as a vain man, and when condemned to live in the seventies or eighties, he loses his love for humanity. He moves closer to Quatermass in behaviour and manner, and that movement enters the programme itself via plot points.
Using a distinct depth of frame, Bernard ensures that multiple levels of action are happening at once, with different characters having different knowledge of events. He cross-cuts scenes, allowing for traditional moments of exposition and intellectual exploration to not bog down the flow of the episode. Occasionally he will switch a performance from full screen into a report on a video screen. These moments remove the viewer from the occasional staginess of the story and give an aura of verisimilitude. As the episode moves towards its action-packed finale, Bernard chooses to present moments as if they were live newspaper reports. He is aware of a family, sitting and watching BBC1, unable to change the channel.
Doctor Who a programme amongst many becomes a show of many programmes. The time travel has disrupted the narrative. A story about guerrillas travelling back in time to prevent a dystopian future is infected with the trimmings of a Terry Nation style Dalek invasion. The familiarity, cheese-and-wine eating Doctor Jon becomes entwined with a callous action man, prepared to shoot any beast. Day of the Daleks represents Doctor Who at its finest because it is a story that so clearly reveals many hands at work. Doctor Who is not authored; it is a collaboration/contradiction. This is present from its inception to its present day, and it is at its greatest when it brings the many different voices of multiple writers, directors, actors and producers to forefront, and presents a show that is dangerous, and confused and a little bit messy. Time travel would be like that.