Doctor Who is the ultimate science fiction gateway drug.
What is it about Doctor Who? What isn’t it about Doctor Who? Doctor Who is the ultimate science fiction gateway drug. I mean, I kind of consider my book to be the same kind of thing on a sort of literary level. There’s a nice piece by Craig Ferguson, who’s probably laughing his arse off right now because he was in a punk band with Peter Capaldi in the seventies: Capaldi was on vocals, Ferguson was on drums, and of course he’s now the king of late night TV in the States. I bumped into him a few times in the very early nineties when we were just briefly doing standup in Scotland around the same time. But he’s a big Doctor Who nerd and he was trying to describe it to a perhaps disinterested American crowd and he described it as “the triumph of intellect over brute force and cynicism” and I thought, yeah, that’s it.
I mean, I fell in love with Doctor Who in the seventies when it was Tom [Baker]. Tom was my Doctor, he’s from Liverpool, he shares my birthday, so there’s an affinity right there. But what I loved about the Doctor, and Tom’s Doctor in general, is that he triumphs by being cleverer and funnier than the bad guy. That’s how he wins: he’s cleverer and funnier than the bad guy and that’s how he wins. He’s not a better shot, he’s not tougher, he’s not a better driver, he doesn’t triumph over them as appears to be the way in a lot of Amercian TV shows purely by being better looking than the bad guys, ‘Oh, we quail before your incredible beauty!’, you know. And he was a big, shambling, bug-eyed freak, as I was, and still am, but he was the hero. He was a complete misfit and, you know, motormouth verbal diarrohea odd ball, but he was the hero, what’s not to love about that? So, I fell in love with it at that age and I love the fact that it’s been restored to its rightful place in the British cultural canon, if you will. I like going to the toy shops at Christmas time and seeing the wall of Who and going, yes, children of Britain, this is your own pop mythology, embrace it, immerse yourself. It’s extraordinary, the ballyhoo surrounding the 50th anniversary, some of the old-school fans are a bit uncomfortable about it. I’m like, suck it up, because some of us remember the 40th anniversary which was a repeats weekend on UK Gold, not even on the BBC, it was a repeats weekend on UK Gold. This is better!
My oldest, Greta, is just getting into it now, I’m introducing it to her and she’s absolutely lapping it up. I love the idea that it’s mainstream, and that’s the important thing to remember with Doctor Who: it was done right in the seventies, it was mainstream, it was for everybody. I remember the last time it was anything like as big as it is now, which is basically the mid-period Tom Baker era, and you went into school on Monday morning and everybody had seen it. Now some of them had shut up about it by Wednesday, unlike myself, but everybody had seen it. It was not a cult show, it was not Babylon 5, it’s not even…it was absolutely mainstream. And when it’s done right, it is. And I love the idea that something which is proper sci-fi – proper alien planets, time travel, spaceships, lasers and robots sci-fi – is completely embraced by the mainstream. I love that…it seems to have transcended that dread hand of snobbery which gets kind of, er, ‘science fiction, it’s all a bit silly, it’s all a bit made up’; yeah, we know, that’s what fiction means. That’s implicit in the word fiction, not the science part, and you know what, all those other things that pretend to be set in the real world, they’re all made up too. You know that, right? Downton Abbey is every bit as made up as Game of Thrones, you know that, right?
Favourite Doctor Who moment
The bit with John Cleese in City of Death is pretty good, which is one of the two that were actually written by Douglas Adams. He was script editor for a little while in the late seventies and he actually wrote two but they went out under pseudonyms, Pirate Planet and City of Death. City of Death is very fondly remembered, it had completely coincidentally the highest ratings ever for Doctor Who, but that’s because ITV was on strike at the time and it was actually the only thing on. But there’s this very funny moment in an art gallery which has this bizarre cameo from John Cleese and Eleanor Bron.
From the new series, I just watched it again with my little girl. The end of Army of Ghosts, which is a two-parter in which Rose leaves, and you have all these ghostly figures appearing all over Earth and it turns out that they’re cyber men trying to break through from another dimension. Then in the last five minutes, the cyber men do break through from another dimension, and also the Earth scientists who have been trying to crack the mysterious alien sphere that they’ve captured, it finally opens and Daleks burst out of it. It’s just the most, it’s all kicking off moment in science fiction history, I remember watching it thinking, ‘Oh you crazy sons of bitches, I can’t believe you’re actually doing this!’ And it was wonderful, it’s just the sheer insane energy of it was so infectious. And there’s an absence of cynicism in it, it treats its audience with intelligence. And, you know, my doings with the British television industry have been occasional over the years; I’m fairly well bedded in in radio but, you know…and one thing which you do get a lot of is this withering contempt for the audience. So much TV is made from the premise that the audience are all worthless bastards, you know what I mean, they’re all thick, they’re all stupid and they don’t deserve anything better than the crap we’re going to throw at them. You sense this withering disdain from TV being made by people who think they’re very clever and their audience is very stupid, they think they’re way cleverer than the audience. Doctor Who is made by people who think their audience is pretty much as clever as they are, even the ones who are seven or eight years old. That’s important. I think that people are way cleverer than the media gives them credit for; I think that, by and large, people are smart.