Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Pink Yeti

I would not care to read that book again.
It so exactly mingled with the mood
Of those impressionable years that now
I might be disillusioned.
         John Betjeman

I remember when Tomb of the Cybermen was lost. 

I also remember when Tomb of the Cybermen was found. 

I remember being surprised — disappointed, even — that it was released on VHS almost immediately it was rediscovered. Knowing it existed was one thing. Actually watching it was a step too far. Watching it on my little TV, sitting on my threadbare sofa, drinking instant coffee from my chipped Winnie-the-Pooh mug, aware that at any moment one of my flat mates might walk in on me was almost — I don’t know — a desecration. 

Ordinary people can now watch Tomb of the Cybermen. 

People who have not been through the purgatory of thinking that they will never see the greatest Doctor Who story of all can watch Tomb of the Cybermen. People for whom Tomb of the Cybermen is just a very old black and white television programme. 

I remember seeing a batch of old Doctor Who episodes at the National Film Theater in London. Someone wrote a letter to one of the fanzines, said the compère (Jeremy Bentham or someone of that sort) saying that it was all very nice for the BBC to have recovered parts 5 and 10 of the Daleks Master Plan but that wasn’t much use if we were never going to get to see them. Aha, he said, but tonight you are going to see them. 

And see them we did, with proper awe, up there on the big screen. I remember feeling sort of elated and sort of scared and sort of surprised that characters who I had read about for almost the whole of my conscious existence — Mavic Chen and the Meddling Monk — were there. On the screen. Characters played by actors. In what could only be described as an episode of Doctor Who. 

The problem was not that these stories were lost. It was more tantalizing than that. They existed, in a box in TV Center, but we would never get to see them because the actors union (not unreasonably, according to its lights, by the standards of the time, not knowing then what we know now) thought that endless repeats of ancient TV would put real-life actors out of work, and because the BBC (not unreasonably, according to its lights) didn’t think anyone was that interested in old black and white television anyway. (Everyone agrees that television was better in the olden days, and everyone wishes they would bring back Fanny Craddock and the Dennis Potter’s Wheel but everyone hates repeats.)  So between about 1963 and about 1981, characters like “Susan” and “Jamie” and “Zoe” and monsters like the Cybermen and the Yeti existed only in the collective memory and the collective imagination of fandom. Old fans remembered. Young fans fed off the memories of old fans. That was the natural order of things.

I wasn’t a great reader of the Target novels but I was a great devourer of Doctor Who Appreciation Society literature — Story Information Files (STINFOs), typed synopses of old stories you could buy for the cost of the photocopying. (Photocopying is a constant, like the speed of light. Wherever you are in the world, and whenever you lived, it is always exactly 5p a sheet.) I can remember sitting with a calculator trying to work out what it would cost to get the whole lot. Those early reference documents did not always tell you a great deal about the tone or genre of an episode: it was important that the Doctor had visited the Trojan War and that he had been present at the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, but not that the former story was very much a spoof and the latter story was a pretty serious and rather un-Who-like drama. “Sara Kingdom” and “Brett Vyon” and "The Monk" were the intersection of several sets of bullet points; the only companion ever to be killed; the person played by the Brigadier before he became the Brigadier; the first Time Lord apart from the Doctor ever to appear in the programme. 

It’s a bit like hearing that the physical remains of Richard Plantagenet might (or might not) have been dug up in a car-park. A collection of dates and principle events, yes; a set of lines made up by Shakespeare, obviously; but a bloke? With a skeleton? Not so much. As Protestants, we are supposed to think of the veneration of holy relics as graven images and taking other gods before God, or at the very least, something over-excitable Italians do and sensible Anglicans do not. Not that Richard the Third was a saint. I feel the same way about the photos of the dead Lenin and the dead Jesse James, embalmed and frozen. You mean they used to be people? 

Alas, poor Yorick. 

I remember Longleat, and the big excitement about Longleat was that there would be Old Episodes. In fact, when Longleat was first announced, it was said that they would be showing all the extant episodes, one after the other, for the whole of the weekend. Which made some of us think — is it going to be possible to attach ourselves to a viewing tent for 72 hours and just never leave? All of Doctor Who, in one go, finally. I remember about the same time one of those art house cinemas in London announcing that it was going to start with episode 1 of Flash Gordon and then show episode 2 of Flash Gordon and carry on through the night for as long as there was at least one awake person who wanted to see Flash Gordon. I saw all three Star Wars films in one go, twice. It’s what we did before boxed sets.

In the event, they had a set programme of viewings — Dalek Invasion Earth, Terror of the Autons, buggered if I can remember what else, I am sure I must have watched it. I still think that the scene in which Barbara pushes Dortmun through the deserted streets of London in his wheelchair is one of the most dramatic in the canon. But perhaps you had to be in a tent, in a safari park, with John Leeson reading out parish notices on the tannoy, to get the full impact. I think that was only the second Hartnell story I saw. I saw it with an audience, and they let members of the general public into Longleat, people who didn’t know that they were in the presence of something sacred and holy that I had waited all my life to see, and some of them laughed — laughed — when the Doctor threatens to smack Susan’s bottom which is NOT FUNNY, okay? 

I even remember an exhibition at the Science Museum. Not the special effects exhibition in about 1972 which had a TARDIS console and some monsters and badge saying "TARDIS COMMANDER" which I may still have and which is probably worth silly huge money; the exhibition about the history of television, from John Loki-Beer downwards with wall charts and interactive displays about photons. There were replicas of your typical English dining room from each decade from the 1930s to the 1970s, with a television set from each period in the corner, showing clips of typical TV shows from that decade — the Coronation of Muffin the Mule or Jim'll Fixit or whatever.  For the 60s there was a tiny little clip of the first couple of minutes of Episode I of the War Games and we went specially and stood and stared at it in wonder and let it loop over and over the first time Patrick Troughton had ever been a real person unless you count the Three Doctors and that was already a very long time ago. 

And, of course, above all, I remember Unearthly Child, shown at the first Doctor Who convention I ever went to, which was, I think, the second Doctor Who convention there ever was. And — I’ve written about this before — but the moment when Ian opens the door and says “but-it-was-only-a-police-box” and the moment when the TARDIS takes off and the programme itself appears to go completely bonkers for about three minutes is the moment when I became, irrevocably, a Doctor Who fan as opposed to a Tom Baker fan or a person who liked the Wombles, the Tomorrow People, Spider-Man and Doctor Who. 

And then video recorders transitioned from being strange, strange objects, owned by fabulously rich uncles and possibly the science department and became things which nearly everybody had one of. And there was a day when we first heard that someone had bought a copy of their favourite movie (Gone With the Wind, possibly) on what was quaintly called a pre-recorded tape for a fabulous amount of money, and we all said, however much you like the film, what would be the point of owning a copy of it, and gradually, there were shops which sold tapes and shops which rented tapes and you had to remember to rewind them. The first Doctor Who story was The Five Doctors, but then, quite early, they put out the original seven part Dalek story. From a strange, half remembered artefact hidden away in vault, to something which anyone could put on their shelf. 

Did it take the aura away? Did it take the magic away? Of course it did. Of course it did. Should we slightly regret the passing of those days and wonder if it wouldn’t be better is — just picking an example off the top of my head — Web of Fear stayed lost forever? 

There is no doubt that Jeremy Bentham had built up Tomb of the Cybermen to be some sort of transcendent classic; the best thing ever to appear on TV; on a level with Citizen Kane, if not the Ring Cycle. Once you actually see it, you discover that — however good — it is only a Doctor Who story, with silly cliffhangers and baddies who spik mit da zilly accent and men dressed up as monsters who menace pretty ladies in corridors.

Would it have been better to have seen that clip of the Cybermen defrosting and left it at that? Would it have been better to have read the novel; imagined the special effects in our mind; and never found out that at least one of the doors in the cybertomb seems to have been made out of cardboard and cooking foil? (It is not true to that the sets wobble. The sets do not wobble. The sets never wobbled. But cardboard and cooking foil to say nothing of bubble wrap and lava lamps; yes, quite often.) Would it have been better to have just had the factual bullet points to store away in your personal Who Canon: Twenty Third Century, cyber tomb discovered on Telos, cyber leader has new kind of handlebars on his ears? 

The people who I have the most sympathy for are the ones who were born in 1955; who were terrified to death by the One And Only showing of Web Planet when they were twelve and are afraid that seeing it again might spoil it all.

I remember the Tomorrow People. The Tomorrow People was a rather serious, scary TV show; in which older children got into genuinely frightening adventures in a complicated science fictional universe. A few years ago I watched a DVD of the first story. Only the first story. In the intervening years, everything had got smaller. The mature young people, so much older than me, were little kids who read out their lines in a style which made Matthew Waterhouse look like Ralph Richardson; scary alien robots looked as if they came out of Christmas crackers. Everyone had absurd 70s haircuts and jeans; and occasionally earnest discussions about war and peace and English education made you want to crawl under a chair with embarrassment. The title sequence is still superb; but someone had come and coloured it in; and the garish shininess was much less spooky than the atmospheric shades of grey. Something was also lost when the Clangers went from documentary grey to sherbet fountain pink. 

“Spoil” is an interesting word. I know that I was scared and moved by the Tomorrow People when I was eight. But seeing it again may force me to change “The was this scary moving TV show called the Tomorrow People” to “When I was small, even something as ridiculous and amateurish as the Tomorrow People scared and moved me”. I suppose that’s the fear: you thought that Web of Fear had a warm, magical glow; and it will turn out that everything had a warm, magical glow because you were pointing a torch at everything. It is, I suppose, a good argument for only doing everything for the first time. 

Does this happen in other fandoms? Are there people who think that if you were overwhelmed by the Choral Symphony when you were fourteen, you should never listen to the Choral Symphony again? There are certainly people who think that you should only listen to Sgt Pepper on a scratchy, dusty, mono vinyl.

Time changes texts. Wallpaper that you didn’t even notice in 1970 becomes literally the only thing you can see in 2013 — “oh my god did even little old ladies decorate their houses like hippies back then”. Hamlet didn’t sound evocatively grand and olde worlde when Shakespeare wrote it — it sounded daringly contemporary. The meaning of Web of Fear will forever be bound up with its having been shown once and then not seen for nearly fifty years; just as the meaning of Amock Time is bound up with our sense that in the 1970s and 80s, television consisted of nothing but endless bloody Star Trek reruns. 

If you are a little boy, hunched over the STINFO files, regarding the Cybermark Services loose-leaf part-work as holy writ, then there is perhaps no question. Doctor Who episodes, like Doctor Who annuals and TARGET novels, are basically a source of information about the Doctor Who universe. I remember seeing Dead Planet for the first time (also at the N.F.T, I think) in a state of heightened awareness, trying to take in every detail, because I had previously read about Skaro and now I was observing it first hand. The point about seeing the tentacle at the end of episode two or possibly three was not that was a fantastically dramatic cliffhanger — it was that I was getting a hint, maybe my only hint, about what the Daleks creature actually looked like. 

I remember seeing Tomb of the Cybermen for the first time, and the experience was only slightly disappointing, and part of that disappointment was “I will never be able to see it for the first time again.” (This is why some fans want to have parties and conventions and bottle of champagne for Day of the Doctor, so the moment of the 50th Anniversary will always be important in their head; while others are almost inclined to go to a concert on Saturday night and slink back and watch it quietly by myself, not because we don’t think the 50th Anniversary is important but because we do.) I was surprised that the opening scene of the explorers and the space ship and the quarry seemed quite gritty and serious, like proper TV drama, more like Blake's 7 than Doctor Who, and I admit that if Blake's 7 was my touchstone for proper TV drama there was probably not much hope for me. And the big scenes in the Cybertomb did and do pack a punch: there seems to have been a point in Season 6 where the Doctor Who crew had nailed the Great Big Set Piece, whether it was Dalek factories or a million cyberboots tramping over the moon. The defrosting of the cyberpeople felt big in a way that Doctor Who hadn’t felt before and rarely felt again. On the other hand, I sat through episode 1 and 2, the slow exploration of the Tomb, the slow exposition of not very interesting puzzles, and thinking was THIS the context in which all those great clips happened? And I still don’t see what’s so great about Michael Kilgariff as the Cybercontroller, apart from his being tall. In the end, it’s the atmosphere which carries the story: the skull like face of the Cyberleader with the frost still on him; the Cyber-Symbol on the doors. The Old Fans told us that the Cyber-rats were the most terrifying thing ever; but they weren’t. 

One thinks of Mr C.S Lewis’s idea of “plot” being only ever a net in which you try to catch an idea or an atmosphere. There were and have been other stories about scary silver robots with handlebars on their heads; this is the one that seemed to catch the idea of the cybermen.

But what I took away from the story was the scene I didn’t even know was in it: the Doctor comforting Victoria, whose father died in the previous story (killed by “those horrible Dalek creatures), and opening up to her about his own family, in a way that he rarely had to any other companion. So much of it is a character piece — the Doctor being kind to Victoria; the Doctor taking the mickey out of Jamie; and indeed the Doctor’s big scene with Eric Clegg ("Oh, so you are completely mad, I just wanted to make sure”). The Troughton Era, by which we really mean the Troughton/Hines era is about the chemistry between those two actors, on that stage, at that time, recorded for us, to watch us often as we like. In particular, it’s about Patrick Troughton, over a period of three years, figuring out who the Doctor is and setting down the template which his nine successors have pretty much stuck to. And I didn't even know that was there. It isn't the sort of thing which shows up in summaries and bullet points and fan histories of the Cybermen, jolly though they can sometimes be. But it is very nearly the whole of what Old Who (Real Who) was – indeed of what Television was, for half a century. 

Your memory of being scared by the yeti was never real; and even if it was you can’t get it back; the actors acting was and you can. 

So, in short. I’m waiting for the DVD and a remake of the Clangers is the worst idea I’ve ever heard.