At the end of this month, we’re going to be publishing an expanded edition of Behind the Sofa, a collection of celebrity memories of Doctor Who. All the royalties will go to Alzheimer’s Research UK, as co-ordinator Steve Berry’s chosen charity, and the book also includes a foreword from Terry Pratchett. We have another celebrity memory to share today from Gollancz author Ben Aaronovitch, and if you missed Neil Gaiman’s memory you can catch up here.
Don’t forget to sign up to our Gollancz Geeks newsletter for a chance to contribute your own memories this week, with a grand Gollancz/Who prize for a lucky winner.
Author and screenwriter
Could not bring himself to kill off Brigadier Lethbridge- Stewart in the TV story, Battlefield
“The Doctor gives himself licence to upturn people’s lives.”
Doctor Who arrived in my life as a fragmented series of monochrome images — here a terrifying robotic figure, or sinister shape, there a screaming girl running through an endless labyrinth of tunnels. In my memories these fragments suddenly coalesced into the horrific… “figure” is not quite the right word… form of a giant maggot.
The story was Malcom Hulke’s searing indictment of late stage capitalism, otherwise known as The Green Death. My parents couldn’t afford a colour TV back then and I think that helped disguise the terrible CSO (colour separation overlay). In my dreams, of course, there were no dodgy special effects. As Stephen King points out in his book, Danse Macabre, in our nightmares we never see the zipper up the monster costume’s back.
Then all at once, in my memories at least, it’s as if the complete understanding of the show had been downloaded directly into my brain. When the next series started I understood it perfectly.
There was this guy who, with his friend, got into a blue box called the TARDIS and went places and did stuff — exciting stuff. It really was that simple.
In format, Doctor Who most resembles the classic detective: he, or (possibly, by the time you’re reading this) she, arrives at a location and proceeds to deal with difficult and interesting situations. The Doctor gives himself licence to upturn people’s lives, ferret out their deepest secrets and ignore their social mores — all in the name of bringing order from chaos. Whether that is solving a murder mystery on a Sandminer or preventing the Daleks from conquering the galaxy (again).
Unlike most characters in modern drama, the classic detective rarely undergoes the dreaded “character development” so beloved of executives with no actual feel for story. The detective acts upon the world, not the other way round. Morse starts his career as a lonely, over-educated, opera loving snob and remains like that until he dies. Poirot does not change, nor does Frost, Dalgleish or Charles Paris. The Doctor is the same. Once he has regenerated he retains that personality until he regenerates again. To my mind his lack of character development is a feature, not a bug.
But Doctor Who, the TV series, had two major advantages over even the most beloved of all the classic detectives. One: the fact that he can regenerate means that the series constantly refreshes itself. The Doctor remains, to use another word beloved of executives, relevant. The Doctor never becomes a relic of a bygone age — he is always of the now. He does not so much conform to the zeitgeist as help shape it.
The second advantage Doctor Who has over even the most fanciful detective (I’m looking at you, Sherlock) is the TARDIS. The TARDIS is more than a time machine, it is a delivery mechanism of unparalleled power. It can take your main character and his trusty companions and literally send them anywhere in time and space that your budget will allow.
No other series on television grants its writers this breathtaking scope for action. It is a great and terrifying prospect and one to be seized with both hands.