Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

Under Doctor's orders

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I AM in Edinburgh, home to our Parliament - grey, sunless Edinburgh. Harris, I gather, in one of its tactical jokes, celebrates my absence by basking in a heatwave. On the phone I listen sulkily to accounts of ravishing sunshine and prodigious hauls of fish.

Never mind. I am well placed for a bout of retail therapy and in an hour or five I shall have found, bought, and viewed The Monster of Peladon. I shall conquer a lingering childhood trauma and end a quarter century of suspense.

The Monster of Peladon, as every sad person knows, was Jon Pertwee's penultimate story as Dr Who. The six-parter was broadcast in the spring of 1974: a gripping tale of aliens, the hairy beast of the title, vapourising death rays, and corrupt inter-planetary politics. Wide-eyed and thumb-sucking, the small Macleod watched - entranced - each episode, early each Saturday evening, as a final indulgence before a dose of shorter Catechism and a scrub in the bath by hands without mercy.

Episode five ended in absolute cliffhanger. The Doctor and Sarah Jane were cornered by the Ice Warriors. There seemed no conceivable escape and something horrid was about to happen. Howling theme tune; end of episode.

Slowly the next week crawled. There came Saturday again and - at quarter past five - the manse had unexpected visitors. Who were asked to stay for tea. And did the wretched people not accept? And was high tea not served in the kitchen, where the TV was, and was it not an absolute rule of our mother that the TV was never, never watched when we entertained visitors?

As ashes in my mouth was that meal (not least because, in company, I had to use both items of cutlery) and, as Coleridge lamented the man from Porlock, so - decades down - I have excoriated those innocent visitors.

Now we are in the world of the deal, and shops selling Dr Who videos, and out there, somewhere, is the Monster of Peladon. And I'm 33 years old, and I'm going out there to find it, and no-one is going to stop me.

Dr Who was one of the longest-running series in television history. It was first broadcast on the morrow of the Kennedy assassination, in November 1963, and the last episode was broadcast in October 1989. It owed its longevity to a remarkable capacity for self-renewal. Over the years seven different actors played the doctor: William Hartnell; Patrick Troughton; Jon Pertwee; Tom Baker - and, less happily - Peter Davidson, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy. Paul McGann? Paul McGann doesn't count.

Each brought his own dimension to the character. The Doctor was first a mysterious traveller in time and space. Over the years we learned he was a renegade Time Lord, one of a strange, haughty race who had cracked the secret of time travel. In the Pyramids of Mars (October-November 1975) he let slip he was 750 years old.

The Doctor had two hearts, a respiratory by-pass system, an unusually low body temperature, and the capacity to regenerate (with consequent change of appearance and, to a degree, personality) when badly hurt. He was not immortal; but he was jolly hard to kill off. He faced a multitude of alien nasties with nothing more deadly than a 14ft scarf and a sonic screwdriver.

Though a decade off our screens, the series has enduring appeal to lonesome, nerdy, inadequate small boys of all ages. There remains a lucrative Dr Who industry. Novels of all the broadcast stories are long since in print; no publishers issue new Dr Who tales by ardent fans. Obscure actors, "resting" since playing, say, some screaming mince-for-brains companion in 1972, get fat cheques for attending Dr Who conventions. There are videos, toy monsters, and so on; since 1979 there has been a well-selling Marvel magazine.

The abiding charm is hard to analyse. There was the integrity of the character. Dr Who was always on the side of the angels. He was brave, witty, and kind. He carried no gun. He was asexual. He did not drink, swear, or smoke. He did not glamorise war, and detested evil in every form, especially if it was scaley.

I suppose there was also the fantasy of escape. The lot of small boys is not always agreeable. You are under authority, perhaps the victim of bullies, you creep unwillingly to school. The dream of flight - to anywhere in time and space; out of your humble wee world to wreak heroic good in distant galaxies - was enchanting.

When Tom Baker quit the role in 1981, Dr Who went into remorseless decline. The BBC made bad mistakes. The series lost its hallowed Saturday night night slot; it ended up, catastrophically, showing opposite Coronation Street. The scripts became incomprehensible: too clever by half. The show went all out for laughs and became less and less scary, though it is really quite good, in a safe environment, to be scared. Fatally, the character of the Doctor was debased. By Colin Baker's time we watched, aghast, as the super hero smothered one enemy; hurled a guard into an acid bath. More, as the Star Wars boom revived hi-tech science fiction on the big screen, BBC production values could not compete

We have come of age, small boys of the seventies, and now there is a new pleasure; reviewing old programmes and finding Dr Who so good precisely because, in many ways, it was so bad. The dire special effects; the hammy acting; the dialogue disasters - "ah, doctor, we meet again!"; "We're heading for the biggest bang in history" - and gaping holes in the plot - all are mercilessly exposed on re-wound, re-played videotape.

In a story like Genesis of the Daleks (1975) Dr Who touched greatness. A fine cast of actors played a complex story with such weighty moral issues as genetic engineering, fascism and race murder. The very next story, Revenge of the Cybermen - has won a place in our hearts for the opposite reason. It was probably the worst Dr Who story ever screened, from a plot-line that strained credulity to the high fashion of the eponymous monsters. "The cybermen appear to be smiling," write the authors of the Dr Who dis-continuity guide, "probably because of their flares".

Well, I am away in pursuit of The Monster of Peladon. It has just dawned on me, though, that this is Victoria Day and an Edinburgh public holiday. Everything will be shut. That rather mucks up my plans to conquer the universe.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Macleod, John (1999-05-18). Under Doctor's orders. The Herald p. 17.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Macleod, John. "Under Doctor's orders." The Herald [add city] 1999-05-18, 17. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Macleod, John. "Under Doctor's orders." The Herald, edition, sec., 1999-05-18
  • Turabian: Macleod, John. "Under Doctor's orders." The Herald, 1999-05-18, section, 17 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Under Doctor's orders | url= | work=The Herald | pages=17 | date=1999-05-18 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 June 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Under Doctor's orders | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 June 2024}}</ref>