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Finally, I'm on board the Tardis

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Frank Cottrell Boyce, a lifelong 'Doctor Who' devotee, describes the magic of writing for the show

All beautiful art, wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, begins with gratitude. I'm grateful to Doctor Who for a long list of things - my first crush (Katy Manning who played Seventies companion Jo Grant), my first delicious experience of inconsequential fear (the Cybermen), the way in which it made my family feel a bit better after not winning the Pools on Saturday night.

The first piece of electronic music I ever heard was Delia Derbyshire's eerie, indelible arrangement of the theme tune. I'm willing to bet it was the first piece of electronic music that Brian Eno or David Bowie or the members of 808 State heard, too. So it may be that we have the Doctor to thank for ambient, house and electropop.

Definitely I have to thank him for one of my best ever days out. When I was asked to write an episode for the latest series of Doctor Who, the only question I asked was: "Do I get to take my kids in the Tardis?"

"Yes. Now with regard to..."

"I'll do it."

"And that," says the producer, Brian Minchin, "is how that conversation always goes."

On the train down to Cardiff, I explained to the children that the Doctor would be too busy to talk and the Tardis would be off-limits during filming. We were, however, allowed to look around it while it wasn't in use. As we climbed the steps to the entrance, I felt like a nature guide.

"Yes, this is the Doctor's habitat. Look, there's his screwdriver and here are his footprints, but you're not going to see the creature itself because this is the wrong time of..."

We gasped. There, on the bridge, impossible and glorious as a rhinoceros grazing the veld was Peter Capaldi. He was "just getting used to the Tardis". Doctor Who himself was going to give us a guided tour.

What is it about the Doctor? When friends and neighbours ask me what I'm doing, they normally respond with polite interest or mild bafflement. When I tell them I'm writing for Doctor Who, they congratulate me. It's not so much a job as an accolade. I can't imagine how it feels for Capaldi.

The morning after we visited the Tardis we queued for the Doctor Who Experience, just along the dock from the studios. The composition of the crowd reminded me of a church congregation. Here were cradle Doctor Who fans, passing the faith on to their children or grandchildren. There were those who took it a tad more seriously - deep in scholarly dispute about the Cult of Skaro. Fundamentalists strolled around wearing velvet jackets and long, woolly scarfs in imitation of Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. Recent - probably temporary - converts were buying up everything in the gift shop.

The exhibition makes it clear that part of the magic lies in the way the familiar elements are always the same, but also changing. The Tardis is always the Tardis, but in the Sixties her interior was all hard edges and Bakelite - an Apollo module, powered by a lava lamp. Now she is lined with shelves of leather-bound books (Herman Melville's Typee was open on the console when we visited). Today's Cybermen - with their war cry of "Delete! Delete!" - seem to embody some fear of a rogue and rampant technology, but the faces of the earliest Cybermen weren't metal at all. They were covered in bandage like burn victims. They were mutant humans forged in a nuclear radiation nightmare.

The most important of these variable constants is, of course, the Doctor himself, always the Doctor but now on his 12th version. The idea of a periodic regeneration meant that the show was never dependent on its star, but also meant that you could never go back and "reimagine" old stories the way they have done with Spider-Man or Star Trek. Actors don't play the Doctor, they incarnate him. That's why it's so much more exciting to meet Capaldi than, say, Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch is only pretending to be Sherlock (the real Sherlock is in a book), whereas Capaldi actually is the Doctor, who dies and is reborn on television. Perhaps part of the show's deep appeal is that it offers this possibility of renewal, of starting again. The Doctors are like the trees in Philip Larkin's poem, which BURMISTON RAY BBC/ "die too" but whose "yearly trick of looking new / Is written down in rings of grain". "Last year is dead, they seem to say / Begin afresh, afresh, afresh."

If anything ever began afresh, it was this show. Dropped from the schedules in 1989 by Jonathan Powell, then controller of BBC One, the flame was kept alive by enthusiasts, writing books and audio scripts and holding conventions. These were Space Jacobites dreaming of the return of the king. In science fiction the relationship between the audience and the writer is blurred. Fans are part of the process. I think the series' secret power is that the show runners and major writers were all fans first. Russell T Davies, who brought the show blazing back to life in 2005, wrote a novel for the Virgin New Adventures series (original stories about the Doctor which were published when the show was off air) as did most of the series' best writers - Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. That's why it has none of the contempt for the original material that you feel, for example, in the recent Star Trek movies. In an age of irony, Doctor Who means every word. For all its intelligence, it is never smart-alec.

The consequences of this were obvious when I went to the Doctor Who Experience. In a society fractured into marketing demographics, here were parents, grandparents and children, equally delighted and engaged. The only absence is what Steven Moffat calls the "lost generation" - those in their 20s and early 30s who grew up while the show was on hiatus in the Nineties.

When I sat down to write the Doctor Who script, I had that same feeling of being simultaneously a child remembering and a grown-up plotting - a fan and a dad. (And while we're on the subject of bringing people together - if the Better Together campaign ever gets around to looking for a positive image of the Union, it could do worse than point to the Doctor - reborn in Wales, fuelled by English eccentricity, and talking with a Scottish accent.) This makes Doctor Who unusually intimidating to write for. You have to produce a script that respects the past, but offers something new. And you know that immediately after transmission, your script will be subjected to the minute scrutiny of those hardcore fans. So I asked Steven Moffat for advice.

"Easy," he said. "Just give the Doctor the very best movie idea you ever had and he will chew it up in 40 minutes."

If Moffat had taken his own Weeping Angels idea to Hollywood, he could have milked a franchise out of it. But that's another of the Doctor's secrets, of course - he eats stories very quickly. In the space of a few weeks in 2007, he encountered those Weeping Angels, Shakespeare, Daleks in Thirties Manhattan, outerspace police force the Judoon and the Family of Blood, green telepathic creatures who had infiltrated a boys' public school on the eve of the First World War.

My daughter found me some more encouraging words when she asked Russell T Davies one of the great questions. How could the handsome immortal Captain Jack (played by John Barrowman) also be the Face of Boe - a massive head in a jar who died by giving his life energy to the plague survivors of a futuristic New York? With typical passion Davies sent her three pages of theorising before going on to say: "But that's just my take. Everyone owns these stories. Everyone. You own it just as much as I do, and if you think it's impossible... then it is. And that's when you start writing your own Doctor Who."

There's an old Italian saying - the tale is not beautiful until you add to it. The truth about Doctor Who is that over the years we have all added to it. It belongs to all of us. And now it's time to add my bit and if I say nothing else I'll say thank you.

Doctor Who begins tonight on BBC One at 7.50pm. Frank Cottrell Boyce's episode, In the Forest of the Night, will air towards the end of the series' run

We gasped. There, on the bridge,was Peter Capaldi about to give us a guided tour

Everyone owns these stories. Everyone. You own it just as much as I do

GRAPHIC: 'Delete! Delete!' Cybermen on the Tube

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  • APA 6th ed.: Boyce, Frank Cottrell (2014-08-23). Finally, I'm on board the Tardis. The Daily Telegraph p. 6.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Boyce, Frank Cottrell. "Finally, I'm on board the Tardis." The Daily Telegraph [add city] 2014-08-23, 6. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Boyce, Frank Cottrell. "Finally, I'm on board the Tardis." The Daily Telegraph, edition, sec., 2014-08-23
  • Turabian: Boyce, Frank Cottrell. "Finally, I'm on board the Tardis." The Daily Telegraph, 2014-08-23, section, 6 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Finally, I'm on board the Tardis | url=,_I%27m_on_board_the_Tardis | work=The Daily Telegraph | pages=6 | date=2014-08-23 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=22 July 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Finally, I'm on board the Tardis | url=,_I%27m_on_board_the_Tardis | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=22 July 2024}}</ref>