My Who: Daragh Carville
The playwright and author chooses the Who stories that made his world spin.
The first Doctor Who story I (kind of) remember:
I was four years old in 1973, the same age as my daughter Aoife is now. Aoife isn't allowed to watch Doctor Who, not yet, it's too scary for her. But my folks obviously had no such qualms, because I have a clear memory of The Green Death. It's a single image, almost like a movie poster, of the Doctor and Jo Grant hiding in a cave – they're on the left of the picture – while behind them – on the right - giant maggots creep up on them, out of the darkness. I can see it now, clear as day.
Only problem is, when I actually rewatch the story now, that image is nowhere to be seen. There are similar scenes, but never that single shot. Somehow my memory has assembled that image itself, cutting and pasting it from different impressions, different moments in the story.
Which is fine, because after all it's only a fleeting memory of an old TV show, right? But then you think, hang on, what if my other memories are like that too? All those childhood memories of holidays and relatives and friends, the key earliest memories that ground you and earth you and make you who you are. What if they're just cobbled together too? Does that make them any less true?
The problem is, in 'real life' there's no way of cross-referencing the reality of things with your memory of them: you can't get DVDs of your childhood, complete with commentaries and production notes. I wish you could.
But one of the things I love about Doctor Who – one of the reasons it's so much more than just an old TV show - is that it helps connect me back to that childhood, back to that child, watching giant maggots creeping up on an unsuspecting Doctor and his best friend.
See, that's the thing about Doctor Who: it's a show about time travel that actually allows you to travel in time.
The first Doctor Who story (I really) remember:
Still on the subject of memory: one of the things being a lifelong Doctor Who fan enables you to do is precisely date certain memories. I remember very clearly episode two of Death to the Daleks. Our cousins were visiting and we watched it together and were absolutely terrified by the sequence where the Daleks do battle with the Exxilons. So much so that hiding behind the sofa wasn't good enough: we actually hid in another room, watching the telly from the doorway to the
scullery, squealing in absolute terror and absolute delight.
A quick search on Google tells me that must have been on Saturday, March 2, 1974, about a month before my sixth birthday. Eliot's Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons. I measure mine in Doctor Who episodes. (I so win.)
The Doctor Who story that scared the bejesus out of me:
When it comes to scariness, though, Death to the Daleks was nothing compared to The Ark in Space. I remember the smell of that story, or rather the smell of what we were having for tea at the time, fish fingers I think, and baked beans, a very seventies smell. (The seventies were brown and smelt of fish.) That smell is mixed in with the eerie atmosphere of the story, the deserted ark, the white sets, the Wirrn in the cupboard. We didn't even have the comfort of a familiar Doctor: Tom was still new to us, still strange and alien and forbidding.
I said we shrieked in terror and delight at the Exxilon attack in Death to the Daleks: well, we screamed the bloody place down at The Ark in Space, especially at the sight of the mutated half-man, half-Wirrn form of Noah. At the point in the story where he's seen properly for the first time, we were in such hysterics that my dad actually turned the telly off, which only prompted still more agonized protests until he gave in and put it on again.
It not only scared me, The Ark in Space, it scarred me. Even years later, when I was reading every Doctor Who novelization I could get my hands on - those beautiful big hardback editions from W.H. Allen with their gorgeous covers by Chris Achilleos et al - I always steered clear of The Ark in Space. I loved Doctor Who but The Ark in Space was a step too far. The Ark in Space was hardcore.
The Doctor Who stories I watched way too much:
By the time of the fifth Doctor we were into the age of the video recorder. I still read the Target novelizations of course, we all did, but now it was actually possible to tape Doctor Who off the telly and rewatch it as many times as you liked. Well, it was possible if you had a video recorder. Only we didn't. And we didn't know anyone who had. But then by some stroke of fortune my friend Colm's Uncle Desso got one. So me and Colm used to spend days on end at his uncle's house, watching and rewatching stories from seasons 19, 20, 21.
I very rarely watch stories from that era nowadays, but then, I don't need to. They're deeply ingrained in me. When I do occasionally catch clips from those stories, Kinda, say, or Frontios, or Caves, I actually find myself pre-empting the dialogue, or murmuring along with it. 'You can't mend people!' 'You have the mouth of a prattling jackanapes, but your eyes – they tell a different story.'
It's not my favourite era - Doctor Who should be funny, and these stories were rarely that – but that suited us at the time, me and my friends, in our very nineteen-eighties teenage earnestness, all long coats and Smiths albums. Doctor Who wasn't a kids show anymore, it was all serious and grown-up – and so were we.
My favorite Doctor Who story:
I stuck with the show right through to the bitter end and beyond, past university, through years living abroad. Throughout the long hiatus I kept the faith, always trusting that Doctor Who would be back one day, because how could such a brilliant, beautiful idea ever die? And then it did come back and I loved Paul McGann's Doctor and was happy to overlook all that was wrong with the TV Movie because he was so very right.
And then there was the news – on the newfangled internet no less! - that Russell T Davies was bringing back Doctor Who, for six, no 1, brand new episodes.
I didn't think it was possible to become more of a Doctor Who fan than I already was. But it turned out it was perfectly possible. Because when RTD's first season happened, I fell in love all over again. The new series had everything I'd loved about the original show – all of the icons, the TARDIS, the console, the music – and so much more, so much heart and drama and complexity. Above all it had, for the first time, real three-dimensional characters you could believe in completely.
The first season of the revived show is my favourite season – and Bad Wolf / Parting of the Ways my favourite story in all of Doctor Who. At the time, some old-school fans criticized the new series for its focus on earthbound stories but for me RTD was absolutely right to ground the show in an immediately relatable world of chips and shops and pubs. But in any case that's not the whole story. There's an epic scale to that first season, culminating in the space battles of Parting of the Ways. But the point is, the show only earns that scale because it keeps returning us to the small, ordinary human world we all live in. Alien space battles in the far future mean something to us because of what they mean to Rose, an ordinary girl who works in a shop and has a crap boyfriend.
I love – and I must say I miss – the humanity of Russell's writing, that way he has of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, the strange in the everyday. And isn't that what Doctor Who is all about? The shop window dummy that becomes a killer, the wheelie bin that will gobble you up, and the ordinary, old-fashioned police box that can take you anywhere in time and space.
Daragh Carville is a playwright and screenwriter. His radio play about Doctor Who fandom, Regenerations, featuring Tom Baker and Sophie Aldred, is included on Doctor Who at the BBC: The Plays (BBC Audio). His episode of Being Human Season 5 is currently in production.
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