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Sci-fan?
You'll
have to
see the
Doctor..





I spent the Easter weekend at the Eastercon. Or the 62nd British National Science Fiction Convention to give the event its formal title. Or Illustrious 2011 to use the other option. As you can tell from the ordinal number, this is a long-established bash and I’ve been to several in my time although not for a few years, what with raising The Boy and all that.
       Eastercon is a traditional, old-fashioned sci-fi convention. It isn’t one of those big commercially-run events where actors from TV shows stand on stage answering inane questions about their characters and then charging ten quid a pop to sign photos. Nor is it one of those big memorabilia fairs where dealers sell overpriced, authorised toys, T-shirts and other tat (while actors from TV shows charge ten quid a pop to sign photos). On the other hand, it’s not a serious academic conference. It’s somewhere inbetween all three.
       Each Eastercon is run by a committee composed entirely of volunteers, and any profit is carried over into the next year’s event. There are several streams of programming, much of which is discussion panels where authors and fans debate issues of relevance to science fiction (and, to a lesser extent, fantasy and horror). Although it tries to be all things to all people, there is inevitably a very strong literary bent to proceedings. Many authors attend as ordinary members and indeed there are those who started out as fans and have seamlessly segued into being professional SF novelists.
       But there’s also plenty of fun and games, discos in the evening, stuff for the kids, and a dealers room packed with secondhand paperbacks, two-headed teddy bears and little statuettes of dragons. Nevertheless most of the discussion concerns fairly serious matters of fantastic literature. You’ll hear things like 'The powerful tropes of Fred Pohl’s work are evident in his short stories as well as his longer works'. and 'It’s very impressive the way that CJ Cherryh creates these believable characters'. and 'Let’s face it, Asimov milked the Foundation trilogy till its udders squeaked'. And similar serious amateur-but-erudite lit-crit analysis of the genre. Except, this year, at six o’clock on Saturday April 23, when all these serious-minded readers revealed their true selves, their inner ten-year-olds, by squealing: 'Ooh, ooh, ooh! Doctor Who’s on! Doctor Who’s on!'
      There were 850 people at Illustrious and about two-thirds of them queued in a massive line that snaked throughout the Birmingham Hilton Metropole, doubling back on itself where necessary. All waiting to watch the first episode of the new season of Who, fortuitously scheduled for the Easter weekend, on a big screen in the main hall. There was nothing opposite this in any of the other programme streams. No point. The Boy, who is quite alarmingly obsessive about the series, swapped his earlier knight costume (it being St George’s Day, beside everything else) for a smart jacket, bow tie and sonic screwdriver. 'We’ve got a mini Matt Smith here,' observed a chap in the doubled-back queue whose name-badge identified him as none other than Doctor Who scriptwriter Paul Cornell, and who gamely posed for a snap with Simpson Jr.
       Time passed. The queue lengthened. At least, I assume it did - we were relatively near the front and couldn’t see the back which was probably somewhere in NEC Hall 5 by then. People fidgeted and glanced at their watches. Would there be enough time to get hundreds of people into the hall and seated before the programme started? If we missed the first few seconds, there would be a riot. Sod CJ Cherryh’s characters and Frederick Pohl’s tropes, this was serious. Those who were actually staying in the Hilton Metropole were frantically considering alternative viewing arrangements: did they have enough of a window to hurtle back to their respective rooms in time to watch ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ on their own tellies?
      In the main hall, unbeknown to us, convention volunteers and hotel staff were desperately trying to get a freeview box to work. It had been bought new, specially for this one programme. It had been repeatedly tested and it repeatedly worked. Then, at 6:10, very much in the manner of my grandfather’s clock, it stopped dead, never to go again. And since a freeview box is basically just a plastic container with a couple of lights, a couple of SCART sockets and no moving parts, it was impossible to work out what was wrong. Every possible changeable cable and replaceable plug was changed and replaced to no effect. With seconds to go, as the impatient throng of serious science fiction fans poured into the room, an executive decision was made to connect the television projector to a PC and watch the programme over the web. (I’m told that at the closing ceremony, the recalcitrant freeview box was given a ceremonial public retuning with a large hammer.)
      Which brings me - eventually - to my topic this month. Doctor Who is, well, it’s Doctor Who, isn’t it? But its death and its renaissance (regeneration, I suppose) was an extraordinary thing which may be soon forgotten, just as people have largely forgotten the way the BBC used to treat Star Trek (I’ll deal with that another time). A quick trip to Wikipedia reveals that the last ‘old school’ Who series was in 1989, a whopping 22 years ago. For younger viewers like The Boy, who was 17 months old when we sat him down to watch the first Christopher Eccleston episode, the show’s hiatus is ancient history.

      I was never a Whovian, never joined DWAS or bought Doctor Who Magazine, but I watched the show every week. In fact my earliest memory of anything at all is watching the last Patrick Troughton episode, which is why my favourite Doctor was always Jon Pertwee. For years I had assumed that Pertwee must have been the Doctor in the mid-'70s as I was born in February 1968; I grew to love the show during his era of dashing excitement and was disappointed and annoyed by the buffoonery of Tom Baker. So it was quite a shock when I actually bothered to check the dates and discovered that Pertwee’s first episode was nearly two months before my second birthday. Baker’s fourth Doctor took over when I was six, by which time I knew every aspect of the series. And I continued to watch it faithfully right up to that last Sylvester McCoy episode (apart from some of the ones when Bonnie Langford was in it because, dude, there’s a limit).
       It’s a truism that everyone’s favourite Doctor is the one that introduced them to the show. That’s why Tom Baker has always been so popular: he played the role for the longest period and it was also his episodes that were the first to be given serious exposure in the USA. (I remember being in Florida in 1979 and finding an American Doctor Who paperback which, utterly bizarrely, had an introduction by Harlan Ellison!) Peter Davison, who had the thankless task of following on from Tom Baker and thereby tended to get somewhat overlooked, like a Gallifreyan equivalent of The Avengers’ Tara King, has been re-evaluated because he was the favourite of some of the folk behind the revised series, which suggests they started watching the series somewhat later than me.

      I recall, a few years ago, being at a Quantum Leap convention and chatting with a well-known Brummie SF book-dealer who couldn’t stand any TV sci-fi at all. 'What about Doctor Who?' I suggested. 'You must like Doctor Who?' He turned to me and said, quite emphatically: 'I remember watching the very first episode of Doctor Who when it was first broadcast in 1963. I thought it was the biggest load of rubbish I had ever seen so I turned it off halfway through and I haven’t watched it since!'
      So anyway, the series disappeared from our screens at the end of the 1980s and settled into the file marked Fanboy Wish-Fulfilment. It was always, rumours claimed, on the verge of returning, just like Hammer Films and Indiana Jones. The first issue of SFX in 1995 (which opened its news pages with the headline query ‘Why is there so little SF on British TV?’ - good grief, how times change) had a 9-page feature on what had happened to Who in just the six years since it had disappeared. A few months later came the announcement of the Paul McGann telemovie, which frustratingly we could only cover at one remove since the BBC decided to allow a single freelance journalist on set who could then sell his coverage to all the interested mags.
      As it happens, this too debuted at a convention. The Whitsun bank holiday weekend was, for a while, a regular date for some very silly conventions, a few of which I helped to run. When the telemovie was broadcast on the Monday evening, most of the attendees at Incon V: Inconsistent had left the Quality Scotch Corner Hotel (it’s not on a corner, it’s not Scotch and its quality is debateable), leaving the committee and assorted hangers-on to cram into one bedroom and slake our Doctor Who thirst for 90 minutes. Then it all went quiet again.
      From 2000-2002, I studied on a part-time Masters Degree in Scriptwriting at De Montfort University, a course notable for some great industry speakers, and one of my abiding memories is of a lady from the BBC telling us that they still received a constant flow of spec scripts for Doctor Who even though they had long since stopped the programme and had absolutely no intention whatsoever of bringing it back. It was dead as a doornail. Except that back they did indeed bring it, and with a level of success that absolutely nobody could ever have predicted. I mean to say, it’s just been phenomenal, hasn’t it? The programmes, the awards, the merchandise, the spin-offs. We went to see Doctor Who LIve last year. Not an exhibition, not a dodgy stage play like Seven Keys to Marinus or whatever that swiftly-forgotten nonsense was, but an honest-to-goodness arena show with legions of monsters from the TV series stalking around, accompanied by live music and a loose (but canonical!) narrative starring Nigel Planer. It was what the young people call awesome.
      In the run-up to that first episode, I made a special point of avoiding all spoilers. I figured that part of my original enjoyment of the series was that I knew nothing about what was coming up beyond the listing in Radio Times. So apart from the casting of Mr Eccleston (who I had once interviewed over the phone) and Miss Piper, I knew absolutely zip. To the extent that, when the episode ‘Rose’ finished its story after 45 minutes, I was caught off guard because I expected them to drag it out for another three episodes like the old series.
      My personal opinion is that ‘NuWho’ is generally great. I think Tennant was fantastic but I think it really needed that first year with Eccleston to ground the series. I have enjoyed all the companions, even Catherine Tate, whose comedy makes me cringe. That said, I’m of the opinion that it went downhill when Russell T Davies handed the reins to Steven Moffat (who ironically was also a guest speaker on my MA course). It’s all got a bit silly and chaotic and self-obsessed recently and, although I really like Matt Smith’s Doctor, I’m left cold by the irritating Scottish girl and her bland boyfriend.
      But what the series has made me realise is something which I’ve left right to the end of this column because it’s a wee bit contentious. You know the old series, the one that I watched slavishly for two decades? I’ve rewatched a few of them and, well, if  you wipe away the veil of nostalgia and look at them objectively as family TV drama then I’m sorry but... they really are rubbish.







      (Some of the images for this Blog were kindly supplied by Doctor Who expert and fan, Marcus Hearn - Ed.)

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.