Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

It was the 2nd of November 1981, I was 10, and I was upstairs in our house when my dad shouted up the stairs to me.



“Do you want to watch Doctor Who?”

You know, actually yes, yes I did want to watch it. Today was the day they were re-running the very first episode from 18 years ago. I wasn’t massively into the show (actually I’d always found it quite boring), but I didn’t want to miss what at the time I thought would be my only chance ever to see the very first one.

And, thanks entirely to my dad, I didn’t miss it.

25 monochrome minutes later I was hooked.

More than anything else I was hooked by the idea of the TARDIS – particularly that it was bigger inside than out.

How did that work with the doors? I mean, on the inside the doorway was quite wide, but on the outside the doorway was much thinner. If you were very fat (like a sumo wrestler), could you get stuck in the outer doorway, whilst still having space on either side of you when viewed from the inside?
Subsequent repeats did much to set me thinking also, and it’s for this reason that the show’s thought-provoking ability has always struck me as one of its key secrets of success.

Over the next few years I bought as many of the novelisations as I could find, audio-taped the episodes off the telly, bought Doctor Who Magazine and – importantly – wrote my own Doctor Who stories.

But alas, secondary school was looming its head, and with it my peers’ mystifying desire to appear older by shunning everything from the past. Of course I did the same thing in my own way, but I saw good stuff as being my aim, rather than merely new stuff. It made me so angry that my friends would judge a TV show by the timeslot it was in (ie. the age-group they thought watched it) rather than by measuring how good it actually was.

And Doctor Who was an utterly unique show. I’ve never heard of another series that would happily make a sequel to an episode that was 19 years old, black-and-white and wiped. (Attack Of The Cybermen) You certainly couldn’t aim such a story at kids under 19, and indeed Doctor Who, contrary to popular belief, had never been a children’s show. It had always been made by the BBC’s adult drama department, never been scheduled with children’s programmes, and had always been aimed at everyone, which happened to include kids as well as adults. Anyone who didn’t believe me really just needed to look at all the complaints the show regularly got about violence.

For example, the 1985 story Vengeance On Varos was about a TV station that incarcerated real people and forced them to endure tortuous ordeals for entertainment. Remind you of anything this decade?

And it had always been high-quality too – I knew because I’d read the books, and actually watched old episodes from throughout the show’s run – very special occasions before video.

In 1983 I went to a convention and sighted 3 Doctors in person – Peter Davison, Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee. (the last of whom accidentally trod on my foot)

I won 2 fancy-dress competitions as the fifth Doctor.

It was a wonderful legend for a 12-year-old to dream, and write, about. It even got me recording my scripts, with full sound-effects, which later on probably got me interested in radio.

Then, on 27th February 1985, it all very suddenly began its horrible and painfully long drawn-out end.

The show's cancellation was so unexpected that it headlined the national TV news. When does that happen even today?

The then BBC1 Controller Michael Grade initially said he was dropping the show to save money, however coming months would see this reason flick between (erroneous) low ratings, too much violence, and a tired format, each time claiming that a whopping 18 months off the air was needed to fix the issue. (Personally, I think these issues could have been addressed by just having a coffee with the producer)

Instead the production team was kept idle for a whole year, tantalisingly on full pay, and when it finally did quietly return, for only half a series, BBC heads cut from the scripts anything that was deemed either too adult, or too childish.

The result was a terrified shadow of the show’s former freedom.

This time Grade incredibly blamed the expense, ratings, violence and/or programme format on… wait for it… the lead actor.

Whu…? In retrospect, I can see that we just weren’t being told the truth here. What was actually going on with this supposed public-service broadcaster? Perhaps Grade was just following orders that he himself couldn’t find a credible reason for. Still, nearly 20 years later in 2002 Grade proudly boasted his real (or maybe just his latest) reasons on BBC-2, saying…

Grade: “I thought it was rubbish. I thought it was pathetic.”


Interviewer: “When it was axed, it was beating Match Of The Day and Wogan at the time in the ratings.”
Grade: “Was it really.”
Interviewer: “You don’t care do you?”
Grade: “No.”

So much for giving the public, including kids like myself, what they enjoyed. Just what was his job again?

Incredibly, the show limped on for 3 more awful years of deadness, years that saw the programme shrink away from its adult storylines, and simplify itself down for children.

In our house, it actually became known as “The Awful Programme”, as one at a time, we all just gave up hoping any more, and switched off.

And there it was. The BBC had ruined the show to the point where a fan as loyal as I was had actually stopped watching it. Why didn’t they just leave such a successful and well-loved show, that had been consistently popular for over 20 years, well alone?

Eventually, in 1989, the BBC announced that the show was temporarily on hold. They never actually used the word “axed” – they knew from experience how many complaints that would get. As a result of this equivocation, it was years before fans who had been talking about when the next series would “come on,” sadly began talking about when it would “come back.”

And yet, although utterly defeated, these very same fans refused to let the show they loved die.

Some of them employed the original actors to shoot their own mind-blowing stories, and publicly released them on VHS, carefully not mentioning the characters’ names to avoid copyright issues.

One fast-talking fan rang up several BBC departments and successfully convinced everyone that his 90-minute 30th anniversary script had been green-lit for production. With the BBC now behind him, his brilliant ploy only failed when the actors complained that his script was so poor.

Then, in 1995, a US fan got the rights to make a pilot movie for a new series. Incredibly, I was in Canada when it was on, and actually found myself watching it on the telly in Penticton, with absolutely no idea that it was Doctor Who. I thought I’d come across another cheap X Files rip-off. I can still remember my thoughts to this day: “Hmm, he looks a bit like Paul McGann. That thing he’s holding looks a bit like the sonic screwdriver. (and after 10 whole minutes of innocence…) Hold on - there’s a police box! (beat) Oh.”

In 1999 still another group began making a new episode every week on CD, again employing all the original castmembers. Over 80 CDs later, they’re still releasing them to this day. (More details here.)

Finally, in 2004, the BBC got its act together, and on 26th March 2005, the full-length new series promised over 20 years ago in 1985 finally began, and once again its return was down to a fan – Russell T Davies. This time, there was a good budget. This time, there was a lot of publicity. This time, it would be good.

I however, was over 10,000 miles away in New Zealand watching the wrong show!

Still, on 7th July the show began here on Prime, and I was determined not to miss it.

So I caught the bus home at Britomart and anxiously watched a guy dressed in orange having some long exchange with the driver for a whole FIFTEEN MINUTES, before we finally pulled away and trudged slowly through heavy traffic at Newmarket. When I eventually got home, I had missed the start, but flatmate Neil had come to rescue, and was taping it for me!

That evening my other flatmate David and I sat down in front of the projector, pressed play on the video, and eagerly watched a lot of recorded static. Oh dear, wrong channel.

(it's painfully ironic to note that, just as the very first episode on November 23rd 1963 had been pre-empted by the assassination of JFK, so the show's return in NZ coincided with the 7/7 London bombing)

No matter, the following day when I caught my flight back to the UK, and I discovered that Air New Zealand were showing the first 2 episodes… but not on my flight.

A few months later I returned to New Zealand with Singapore Airlines… who were only showing episode 2. (I really wanted to watch these in order)

Fortunately, this time I was bringing with me tapes of most of the series.

Alone in my flat one evening, I tried to connect up the video-projector to watch the first episode in style, but discovered the hard way that I had absolutely no idea how to do this. David has half a dozen remote controls for a start.

And then finally… tonight.

David set up the projector. I went out and bought a celebratory pizza. This may sound silly – I even said a prayer.

Finally, with a clear head, I sat down, turned off the light, picked up a slice of pizza, David pressed play… and suddenly I was watching Doctor Who again.

And I still owe it to my dad.

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