Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

Doctor Who'd have thought it?

From The Doctor Who Cuttings Archive
Jump to navigationJump to search

2015-03-15 Mail on Sunday.jpg


My earliest memory of Doctor Who is of watching it from a cushion fort behind the family sofa. This was the safest place from which to watch, and its construction began from the moment that theme tune began to play - a theme tune that even now elicits a kind of Pavlovian response, a tribute to the evocative powers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop; they managed, through music and sound, to invest those wobbly sets and low-budget monsters with a genuine sense of dread - to the great disapproval of my mother, who disliked sci-fi and horror, and who feared the show would give me nightmares.

It did - but that never put me off. Like so many children, I was fascinated by monsters. Why? Perhaps because we sense that they can somehow help us articulate hidden fears and anxieties that we are not able to express for ourselves. To me, Doctor Who was less like sci-fi and more like Grimm's Fairy Tales in space, with science taking the role of magic, but with the same dark stories, the monsters, the lost children, the enchanted forests and giant spiders. And, in spite of the terror, it had the same redemptive message: that kindness and intelligence can sometimes win over violence, and that the universe can sometimes be saved by one individual's courage.

My monsters of choice were the Daleks - closely followed by the Autons. In both cases, it was the fact that these beings were not simply monsters but machines that I found most disturbing. There is no possibility of reasoning with a machine. A machine has no empathy. And to my four or five-year-old self, it seemed more than likely that these machines might secretly be in league with the everyday technology that surrounded us - and might one day somehow conspire to emerge from the television screen and into the real world.

I too have faced my own monsters and travelled through time; I've told my own stories, and now even written a novella for Doctor Who, commissioned last year by the BBC as part of its Time Trips series. These short books, written by authors who had also been fans of the show, first came out individually, and now as part of a collection, and I approached my contribution both with excitement (who wouldn't, faced with writing about one of their childhood heroes?) and a certain apprehension - the Doctor Who fan-base is nothing if not discerning, and I didn't want to let them down.

My story, The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Time Traveller, is at the same time a journey into the past and a nod to the solitary child I used to be. It's a story about coming to terms with death - both for the Doctor himself, dying from a dose of lethal radiation from the blue crystals of Metebelis III - and for another character, who, being human, has no chance of regeneration.

I have a few fond, early memories of Patrick Troughton's Second Doctor, but for me, it was Jon Pertwee who represented the 'real' Doctor Who and I wrote my story with my favourite third Doctor in mind. It was also probably because of him that my mother never banned me from watching the show: the screen presence of an older man, with a scientist's gravitas, seemed to give authority to what she saw as a trivial (perhaps even dangerous) subject. In any case, although she disapproved of the cushion forts (and later of the endless Dalek games, involving a cardboard box and a toilet plunger), I managed to keep watching. There was something uniquely compelling about that ceaseless journey through space and time in an old police box - confronting enemies, solving crimes, picking up companions. A solitary child, I perfectly understood the loneliness of the Doctor and his need for human friends, and although I liked the companions - Sarah Jane Smith especially - in my games of make-believe, I was always the Doctor.

When Pertwee left the show, I remember a strong feeling of antagonism and resentment towards his successor, Tom Baker. Like a new step-parent, trying to take the place of a beloved relative, I neither liked nor trusted him - a sentiment initially shared by the Doctor's friends, the Brigadier and Sarah Jane - although in the end I grew to like him as much as I had his predecessor. A testimony, perhaps, to Tom Baker's eccentric charm, and also perhaps to the ingenious (and practical) concept of the Doctor's regeneration, which has allowed the show to retain the same central character while casting some very diverse actors. As it happened, I'd lost my grandmother the year the Third Doctor succumbed to radiation, and to a child brought up with no formal religious belief, the idea of regeneration, like that of reincarnation, was both comforting and strangely logical. The death of a loved one - and the fear of our own death - is also a kind of monster, which we can confront in stories. In my case, fiction gave me the chance to examine that first experience, and to understand that I wasn't alone.

My enthusiasm for Doctor Who was not always shared by those around me. I went to a girls school, where sci-fi in general was thought of as weird, unfeminine and uncool. That was OK - I too was weird, unfeminine and uncool. I had a small group of geeky friends who also preferred sci-fi to horse programmes and fashion parades, and together we discussed Doctor Who, played poker for Jelly Babies and knitted Tom Baker scarves as our Domestic Science project.

Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor lasted until I left school, to be replaced by a number of (I believed) lesser incarnations. I never warmed to these Doctors much, or to their assistants. It seemed to me that someone, somewhere, was trying too hard to appeal to a juvenile audience, and like a lot of adolescents, I felt patronised by their efforts. I still watched the show, but not with the same devotion (I'd lately transferred my allegiance to Blake's Seven, which seemed so much fresher and more character-led). And when it petered out at last, I assumed it would never return. My brother was a fan, though, especially of the older Who. And together we built up a library of Second, Third and Fourth Doctor episodes, which we watched together (no cushion forts, this time, but Mexican food and cocktails).

As I began my writing career, those early influences started to show. My first novel was a horror story (perhaps in defiance of my mother's ban on monsters), and although I write in several genres, some of the themes of Doctor Who are never very far away. The theme of the outsider, the idea that one individual can make a difference to a world, the recurring theme of the traveller, unable to settle in one place. And, of course, the monsters - although mine were sometimes less easy to spot than the Doctor's. But monsters come in many forms. And at the heart of every good story lies the fact not just that monsters exist - but that they can be defeated.

When my daughter was a child, out came the box sets of classic Who. I found my daughter loved them; we built cushion forts together, moving on to the Mexican food and cocktails as she grew older. To my surprise, the monster that fuelled her early nightmares was The Hand Of Fear, possibly the least frightening monster in all the Doctor Who canon, a black hand in a Tupperware box, like the Thing from The Addams Family. But fear is very personal - my triggers (thanks to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) are mostly auditory, while my arachnophobic daughter must have seen that black hand as a kind of spider.

Later, when Russell T Davies revived Doctor Who for the 21st century, my brother, my daughter and I watched the process together, first with doubt, and then with joy. The writing was crisp and lovely, the casting terrific, the delicate balance between old and new perfectly executed. Gone too were the wobbly sets and 'quarry planets', and there were special effects designed to appeal to a new generation.

Since then, I've had a few reservations about the direction it seemed to be taking, but nevertheless I'm delighted that Doctor Who is still with us, 50 years on. The show feels like an old friend. It has seen me through school and university, through 25 years of marriage, a child, the deaths of many loved ones. It has always managed to re-invent itself in new and interesting ways, so I haven't given up on the idea of seeing a version of my story on screen - and perhaps even with a female Doctor. Why not?

And even now, when I hear that theme, I still feel a shiver go down my spine and I sometimes find myself checking whether, if the worst should happen, I have enough cushions to hand.

'Doctor Who: Time Trips (The Collection)' featuring a short story by Joanne Harris is out now, published by BBC Books, £20

Who-dunit: Joanne Harris's favourite episodes

Terror Of The Autons (1971) Shop dummies come to life and invade the city streets. A bit like London Fashion Week.

Planet Of The Spiders (1973) Features a marvellously baroque collection of Earth cultists, holy innocents, mysterious glowing crystals and telepathic spiders from space.

The Hand Of Fear (1976) A quarry turns out to contain a relic from an ancient civilisation. Worth watching for the gender-fluid, silicone-based villain Eldrad.

The Empty Child (2005) An emergency call lands the Doctor and Rose in London in 1941, where a lost child calling out in the fog turns into something genuinely unsettling.

Blink (2007) The first episode to introduce the Weeping Angels - hostile aliens masquerading as statues. Since then I see them everywhere.

Caption: Left: Jon Pertwee. Below: Elisabeth Sladen in Hand Of Fear. Opposite: Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman

Disclaimer: These citations are created on-the-fly using primitive parsing techniques. You should double-check all citations. Send feedback to

  • APA 6th ed.: (2015-03-15). Doctor Who'd have thought it?. The Mail on Sunday p. 16.
  • MLA 7th ed.: "Doctor Who'd have thought it?." The Mail on Sunday [add city] 2015-03-15, 16. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: "Doctor Who'd have thought it?." The Mail on Sunday, edition, sec., 2015-03-15
  • Turabian: "Doctor Who'd have thought it?." The Mail on Sunday, 2015-03-15, section, 16 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Doctor Who'd have thought it? | url= | work=The Mail on Sunday | pages=16 | date=2015-03-15 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=20 June 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Doctor Who'd have thought it? | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=20 June 2024}}</ref>