Sunday, January 14, 2024

Norwegian Blue

The Wolves of Eternity by
Karl-Ove Knausgaard

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. - Trad.

Some years ago, there was a TV series called Heroes. The first episodes followed the apparently unrelated life-stories of several super-powered characters. Gradually, over slightly too many episodes, we started to see how their lives were connected; until by the final instalment, they all turned out to have been part of a single story. Someone certainly had to save the cheerleader. Because it was about a network of overlapping relationships it was called the first popular drama of the Facebook era. By me, if by no-one else.

Social media makes a difference. Past Lives, a film which somehow didn't excite me quite as much as it excited everyone else depends on Facebook for its central premise. It would have been quite impossible, prior to 2005, for two people on two different continents who were sweethearts at the age of twelve to reestablish contact at the age of twenty four. Not without private detectives, or a gigantic coincidence involving handbags and strawberry marks. You may remember how Rustum (a father who long ago lost contact with his son) and Sorhab (a son who was raised entirely in ignorance of his father's identity) inadvertently killed each other in single combat. That sort of thing used to happen all the time in the days before Twitter.

Alan Moore's Watchmen, which came out as early as 1986, is another story in which multiple narratives about disparate characters gradually converge, until we perceive that, from a certain point of view, everything is connected to everything else. Moore's Ozymandias sits in front of a huge bank of television screens, randomly changing channels, in the belief that this will somehow enable him to perceive the Big Picture. Nowadays he would spend all day on Twitter. Come to think of it, he would probably own Twitter.

Conspiracy theory thrives online; and conspiracy theory, almost by definition, involves drawing lines between things which are not connected. Until 2022, the titular head of the United Kingdom was called the Queen. One of the Queen's children is alleged to have links to Jeffrey Epstein. Jeffrey Epstein was accused of sexual offences. Men who wear extravagangtly feminine clothes as part of a theatrical performance are sometimes referred to as Drag Queens. This proves...

But Alan Moore came to believe that ritual magic and creative writing were both equally about creating new connections between unconnected things.  All stories are true.

I wonder if the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- and the various franchises which have so far entirely failed to emulate its success -- are knock-on results of the ubiquity of Twitter? We're disinclined to see stories as lines and more inclined to see them as webs.


In 2012, someone called Helge listens to a record that they used to like when they were eleven.

"The cover alone sent a tingle down my spine. The image of the world, shining in the darkest firmament, the band name in electric lettering and the album title underneath in computer script–wow! But it didn’t really knock me out until I pressed play and started listening. I remembered all the songs, it was as if the melodies and riffs hidden in my subconscious came welling up to reconnect with their origins, their parents, those old Status Quo songs to which they belonged. But it wasn’t only that. With them came shoals of memories, a teeming swathe of tastes, smells, visions, occurrences, moods, atmospheres, whatever. My emotions couldn’t handle so much information all at once, the only thing I could do was sit there trembling for three-quarters of an hour as the album played.”

Well, quite. Frenchmen often have that kind of experience when they dip little cakes in their tea. One thought leads to another and suddenly Helge remembers something very odd that happened to him in 1977. It's all over and done with in six pages and I don't think we hear another peep out of him for the rest of the very long book. 

The second section, amounting to a longish novel in its own right, is about a second character, named Syvert. It's 1987 and Syvert has just come home from his national service (which is, or was then, a thing in Norway). He was a cook in the Navy and is rather good at it, although he doesn't want to go into the restaurant trade as a career. He doesn't know what he does want. Gradually, some facts about his life unfold. He lost his father a decade ago; his mother is seriously ill (he finds blood in the washbasin and then a bloody tissue in the bin). He has a younger brother who has been having vivid dreams about Dad. Almost without us noticing, a plot starts to happen. Syvert finds some of his father's old papers, which include letters written in Russian. He didn't know his Dad spoke Russian. He becomes curious, and gets them translated. Meanwhile and in passing he visits the local Vicar. It seems that everyone is automatically confirmed in the Church of Norway by default, and has to pay tax to the church: they need a signature from a clergyman if they want to opt out. The Vicar is very nice about it, but half-seriously asks Syvert to return the favour by reading Crime and Punishment. Dostoyevsky is the most Christian of writers, he says, more Christian than Jesus. Syvert is not only an atheist, but quite right-wing, although this only manifests as occasionally having unkind thoughts about people he assumes to be leftists. When he finds the only Russian speaker in the village to translate his dad's letters, they recommend Dostoyevsky to him as well. He rejoins a football team, develops a crush on a girl he has never met, unwisely gives an interview to a local newspaper and finds a temporary job -- as an undertaker's assistant.

After four hundred pages of this, we switch to Russia, where a lorry driver named Yeygeny Pavlovich is robbed by thugs and then wrongly arrested by the police. And then a new, long section about Alevitina, a Russian academic. She's lecturing in biology and becomes quite irritated by a student who tries to quote Intelligent Design texts at her. 

"The kind of reductionist materialism you all stand for can only point to physical and chemical laws, but there’s nothing in those laws that can explain how life arose out of non-life. Is that science? And as for the theory of evolution, is it able to explain how the genetic code emerged, not to mention how it’s actually read? The theory has to be able to do that in order to be valid. Only it can’t. Is that science? Or is it orthodox faith?"

There is a very long flashback to when she was an graduate student; she was briefly interested in "biosemiotics"; the idea that if trees can at some level pass information to other trees, and if there are extensive networks (networks!) of fungi beneath the earth, forests could be complex enough to possess something analogous to consciousness. This led her into thinking about shamanism, and a brief experiment with magic mushrooms. 

And thence to a whole chapter of a work in progress by her friend Vasilisa. It deals with similar themes and is, of course, entitled The Wolves of Eternity. 

The starting point of Fyodorov’s philosophy is that death belongs to nature and life belongs to humans. Nature is a destructive force we permit to control us. Death is a result of our passivity towards nature: we allow nature to kill us. But this is by no means a necessary outcome. Whereas the forces of nature that tear everything asunder are blind processes taking place according to laws and systems of which nature itself is unknowing, we human beings possess consciousness, will and emotions.


How does Karl-Ove Knausgaard do it?

This is the sort of eight hundred page novel which you devour in hundred page chunks. It's the sort of book which leaves you breathlessly on the edge of your seat, waiting to find out if Syvert and his kid brother Joar will have a nice time at the swimming pool; or if Syvert is going to extricate himself from talking to a couple of over-chatty tourists without undue embarrassment. It's the kind of book you find yourself reading, if not quite from behind a sofa, then at any rate with mounting nervousness, almost afraid to get to the end of the chapter. If Syvert goes on the date with the girl he's been obsessing about for the past hundred pages, and leaves Joar home alone, will something terrible happen? Will his mother look at him in a judgemental way? Will he say exactly the wrong thing and ruin the date?

In fact, the answer to these kinds of questions is almost always "no".  A really, really bad thing did indeed happen in Syvert's family before the book started; and if the book has a single theme, it's Syvert's gradual realisation of what that bad thing was. But the bad thing happened a very long time ago, and the repercussions are not especially dramatic. But we keep reading. Karl-Ove's books grip us like nothing else. We apply words like "compelling" and "addictive" to them. One reviewer said correctly "even when he is boring, he is interesting." 

How does Karl-Ove Knausgaard do it? 

Some people might say that the question is really: how does Karl-Ove Knausgaard get away with it?


Knausgaard's fame chiefly rests on having written a four thousand page fictionalised autobiography, from the point of view of a writer whose chief claim to fame is having written a four thousand page autobiography. Naturally, it was entitled My Struggle. The book is quite aware of its own cheek, or provocation: a book about the trivia of daily life comparing itself with the most infamous and egotistical autobiography of the twentieth century. If I'd been doing it, I'd have probably gone with The Greatest Story Ever Told, which wouldn't have been nearly so clever. There is a three hundred page digression about Hitler in the final volume, which, treated as a sub-book in its own right, is genuinely interesting and informative.

My Struggle ended with Knausgaard declaring that he was no longer a writer; but in fact he followed his huge autobiography with a huge work of fiction. The Morning Star was a montage of first person narratives connected by the fact that a new star has inexplicably appeared in the sky; and that dead people are equally inexplicably coming back to life. When you have written four thousand pages about the minutiae of your own life, I suppose there is nothing much to do but write about the minutiae of other people's. 

The Wolves of Eternity is a sequel to the Morning Star, although even saying that amounts to a kind of spoiler. Two more connected volumes have already been published in Norwegian: the title of the third book in the series, Det Tredje Riket arguably translates as The Third Reich.


It would be misleading to say that the Wolves of Eternity reads like a soap-opera; but the Wolves of Eternity does read a little like a soap-opera. It would also be unfair to say that it reads like a writers' workshop exercise or an RPG scenario; but it does somewhat resemble both of those things. Here are two major characters and three minor ones: can you think up reasons, thematic or narrative, that their lives are connected? 

In a sense, it would be better to go into the book not knowing that it is a sequel to the Morning Star -- or perhaps we should say, that it is part of the Morning Star Extended Universe. The ideal reader would be following the ins and outs of Syvert's and Alevitina's lives and be surprised on page 700 (or thereabouts) when the grown-up Joar, now an astrophysicist, appears on TV trying to explain the sudden appearance of the new star.  "Aha, they would say: not only are the five characters in the Wolves of Eternity obliquely connected; but they are obliquely connected to the seven or eight we met in the previous volume."

I am, though, trying to avoid spoilers. The book doesn't contain a particular Astonishing and Surprising twist. But I would say that when I spotted the connection between Syvert and Alevitina -- and the reader works it out slightly before the characters do -- I said "Aha!" Syvert and Alevitina's meeting also reveals how Helge of the first chapter is linked to Syvert, albeit in an indirect way that neither of them are likely to ever discover. That also made me go "Aha!" "Aha!" is probably the correct reaction to the works of Karl-Ove Knausgaard.

But the book isn't about the characters or their interconnections. Beneath all the trivia, Knausgaard is really interested in huge philosophical questions. He gets through the entire book without saying "quotidian" once.

It's breathtakingly erudite, although there are some signs of authorial contrivance. The central four hundred pages we spend with Syvert only cover a few days of his life: but when we rejoin him thirty-five years later, we find that all the important things in his life depended on those four days. He married the girl he had the crush on, stayed with the undertaking firm (and now runs a chain of four funeral homes) and is still concerned about the context of Dad's letters. 

The Wolves of Eternity, like all Karl-Ove's books, is about Death. (I think of the interviewer who asked William Golding why all his books were about the Fall of Man. "That's a bit like saying all my books are about people.") Both volumes carry epigrams from the book of Revelation. The Russian lorry driver, who doesn't otherwise intersect with the story, is sent to a remote location to pick up what appear to be very large fuel tanks. When he delivers them, he learns that they actually contain...cryogenically frozen heads and bodies. At the end of his chapter, he mysteriously hears banging -- from inside the tanks! Towards the end of Syvert's second narrative chunk, he is getting confused messages from the staff of his funeral parlours saying that, so far as they can tell, no-one has died in Norway for the past three days. 

While Alevitina was researching the consciousness of forests, she became interested in a (real) Russian philosopher, Fyodorov, who believed that it was possible, and indeed imperative, to resurrect dead people. He believed that Science! ought to be able to reassemble the actual atoms that the deceased were originally made up of and reconnect them with their souls, which must logically still exist somewhere. He also believed in aliens. Big Name Russians like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky took him seriously. Fyodorov's "cosmism" naturally makes one think of contemporary theories about transhumanism and the singularity which flourish because social media has made it so easy for crackpots to link up with other crackpots.

So perhaps, while praising the book for its erudition and fractal complexity, we need to lightly chastise it for its slightly clunky artifice. Syvert gets a job in the death industry while finding out about his dead father and confronting the mortality of his mother; meanwhile other characters discourse on the philosophical nature of death and the plot arc carried over from the previous volume suggests that death may literally be coming to an end. Or perhaps we are merely gob-smacked that the poet laureate of  prawn sandwiches is telling something with the general shape of a story?


There's no doubt that the writing style is odd: even Knausgaard's advocates smile at the endless cups of coffee and showers. A reviewer in, I think, the Washington Post prefaced his positive remarks with "if Knausgaard is your thing..."

The characters all speak in the same register: it always sounds to me, slightly, as if a patient primary school teacher is addressing a bright but obstinate child. 

‘Have you got any music?’
‘My record player’s in my room. I don’t think you’ll like my records much, though.’
‘Don’t underestimate me, thank you very much. What do you listen to?’
‘Heavy metal.’
'Is that all'
'You don't look the type if you ask me.'


‘Listen,’ she said, ‘I’m sorry for being so presumptuous. I’m a bit drunk, you see. Well, more than a bit, actually. I’m very drunk.’
‘Some people get happy when they’re drunk,’ I said.
‘I know. I do sometimes as well. Only not tonight, it seems.’
‘That’s OK. I accept you as you are,’ I said. She laughed. I laughed too.

There is a sometimes self-conscious frankness; characters are a little too inclined to say things like "I put the beers and cokes in the fridge, the crisps in the cupboard, then went to the toilet for a shit, only there was someone in there". It isn't entirely clear who these detailed first person narratives are spoken to: perhaps everyone in Norway now writes incredibly detailed auto-fiction. Christos Tsiolkas also has a tendency to follow his characters into the bathroom: it may be the price we pay for living inside their heads. And, of course, we're reading a translation; it may be that Norwegian has a formality that doesn't quite have an English equivalent. When Syvert (Norwegian) and Alevitina (Russian) finally meet, it isn't immediately clear that they are conversing in English. A couple of times, I wondered what Norwegian quirk the English was representing: for example, when Syvert's girl-friend is surprised by his use of the word "flabbergasted".  Everyone uses "loo" for "toilet".

Knausgaard's second book, A Time For Everything, included a huge long section about a relatively normal family doing relatively normal Knausgaardian things, but as the section rolls on, we realise that they are contemporaries of Noah, and the point of the section is to imagine what a literal global flood would be like, and how it might have been perceived by its victims. (Which, come to think of it, recalls Jesus' words about people carrying on living normal lives right up to the moment when Noah went into the Ark.) My guess is that the Morning Star quartet is going to turn out to be Knausgaard's take on a literal, Biblical apocalypse -- Lucifer and the resurrection of the dead and all -- from the point of view of ordinary people on the edge of it.  A secularised Left Behind, if you will.

One could imagine Ray Bradbury, say, dispensing with the rising of Lucifer and the resurrection of the dead in three florid pages. Someone like Salman Rushdie would have taken six hundred pages in three languages, implied that the whole thing is a metaphor and offended two major religions in the process. Knausgaard just tells it, takes it for granted; as if it's not even the most important thing that happened. (I often imagine how the news media would cope if there ever was contact with aliens or a major nuclear exchange. "But now, in other news...") It's not magical realism, but it's not really science fiction, either. It's happening in a world where you have to change babies' nappies and check with the hospital morgue about the paperwork and decide what you're having for dinner. A world where a cancer diagnosis is necessarily followed by a discussion of whether it's better to take the train or the coach to the hospital. Syvert realises that he has promised to visit his maybe terminally ill mother on the same day that the girl he has developed the obsessive crush on has asked him for a date. Which is very much how life is. The big stuff is enmeshed in the small stuff; the small stuff is what we see the big stuff through.

It's compelling and gripping and several of the characters feel real in a way that fictional characters hardly ever do. It's eight hundred pages long and I wish I read Norwegian so I could plunge straight into volume three.

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Thursday, January 11, 2024

Nothing At The End of Lane [complete]

Part One

Part Two

Part Three


Doctor Who Sixtieth Anniversary....

I do understand that some people think that what I am doing is worthwhile but can't commit to a monthly Patreon Payment... so I've put all the recent Doctor Who essays (the ones about the Sixtieth Anniversary, and the extended piece on An Unearthly Child) into a little PDF book. It's available on the Ko Fi page. 

Patreon would have paid around £6 for these pieces, but I've set it to "pay what you like".

Much thanks for your ongoing interest. (The Tom Baker retrospective will go into a different book, at some stage.)

Nothing At The End of the Lane (Appendix)


While Sidney Newman and Verity Lambert may have come up with the word TARDIS; it appears that the writer of Unearthly Child came up with the idea of it standing for Time And Relative Dimension In Space. It is not referenced again until the Time Meddler, by which time the word Dimension has been pluralised.

Susan says she coined the name: which would make a great deal more sense if we assume that "TARDIS" is the personal name of this particular vessel -- along the lines of "Enterprise" or "Liberator" or "Shippy McShipface".

For many years, Coal Hill School would have been a pub quiz answer for obsessives. Then Sylvester McCoy went back there for an anniversary story. More recently, wonderful Clara became a teacher there; and there was a pointless spin off about the place. An easter egg implies that Ian Chesterton is one of the governors.

In the pitch documents, fog was a significant plot device: Ian and Barbara walk Susan home because it is foggy; or else find her and her grandfather lost in the fog. It is still foggy at the beginning of the pilot episode; but the fog clears. In the transmitted episode it has been downgraded to potential fog.

Pilot episode

SUSAN: I rather like walking in the English fog. It's sort of mysterious.

BARBARA: You say that as if...

IAN: Then we won't deprive you of that romantic pleasure.

BARBARA: Well, hurry home, Susan. And be careful, the fog's getting thicker.


IAN: The fog's cleared. We're lucky.

Transmitted Episode

SUSAN: I like walking through the dark. It's mysterious.

BARBARA: Be careful, Susan, there'll probably be fog again tonight.


IAN: We're lucky there was no fog. I'd never have found this.

It may be that we are supposed to infer that the fog we see in the opening sequence (when the policeman is checking out the junkyard) is unnatural fog; fog produced by the Ship in order to disguise itself. By 1963 the clean air act would have meant that the thick London smogs you could get lost in were receding into folk memory.

Ian is usually said to be a chemistry teacher: so why is he setting a Fifth Form / Year 11 class elementary geometry? (The pitch says that "Cliff" taught applied science at a Secondary Modern.) Similarly, if Barbara is a history teacher, why has the subject of English currency come in one of her lessons?

In the pilot episode, the blackboard very clearly has a note on it that says:

America 100 c = 1 $

England 20 /- = 1 £

Which suggests that she must have reacted to Susan's error by writing the true state of affairs on the board; which wasn't a particularly kind thing to do.


The story opens with a policeman checking the gates of the junk yard. In the pilot episode; Barbara notices that there is a policeman standing outside Totters Lane, suggesting that their arrival follows straight on from the pre-cred and that the school scene is a slight flashback.

When the Doctor realises that Ian and Barbara are teachers, he says "not the police then..." as if he was concerned that the officer in the pre-cred was coming to ask him questions. Shortly after they enter the junk yard, Barbara says she is going to fetch a policeman; then Ian tells the Doctor that he is going to find one; and then the Doctor dares him, twice, to do so. But no policeman appears after the opening scene.

Note that they are referred to as "policemen" throughout as opposed to "the police", "coppers" or "cops."

In Episode 2, the Doctor and Susan express surprise that the TARDIS has not changed. This is not remarked on in Dead Planet or Marco Polo.

The image of the displaced Police Box at the end of Episode One brilliantly conveys the premise of the show: an ordinary thing ending up somewhere extraordinary.

It is sometimes said that the TARDIS being fixed in a single form was a late addition to the mythos, when it was realised that creating a new prop in each story would be too expensive; but this makes very little sense. But surely it would have been easier to say that some haystack or a postbox that would have been part of the setting in any case was this month's TARDIS?

The idea that the ship was some mundane object seems to have been part of the premise at quite an early stage: it is more likely that the "stuck camouflage device" was an after-the-fact rationalisation.

The TARDIS was police-box shaped in pitches and synopses prior to An Unearthly Child. It is sometimes said that Sydney Newman proposed that it should be night watchman's tent; but in fact, he gave that as an example of one of thing it definitely shouldn't be. But there is a persistent oral tradition that the author of the first story was the person who proposed the Police Box shape.

When Ian loses his torch, he says that he doesn't have any matches, which suggests that, unusually for the time, he is a non-smoker. ("I haven't got any" rather than "I just used my last".) The Doctor, smokes a big pipe, which may be why he keeps coughing.

Ian's lack of matches may be intended to foreshadow the storyline about the cave people who have forgotten how to make fire. 

The word "totter" can mean to stumble or collapse: however Totter is also an old English word for a trader; we still talk about "totting up" the days takings. There is an area of Bristol called Totterdown.

'76 was the year of the American revolution; Barbara of course gives Susan a book about the French Revolution of '89.

There is a real Totters Lane near Guildford and Basingstoke in Surrey.

If the Doctor wants to keep his existence secret, why has he allowed the school secretary to know the real address of the place he has hidden the TARDIS?

Nothing At The End of the Lane (3)

This is the first part of an essay on An Unearthly Child which has already appeared on my 

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And so, for many years, we fetishised An Unearthly Child. When John Nathan Turner took up the reigns of Doctor Who, he gave the Doctor three companions, instead of a single assistant. He made them bicker among themselves. He even made the Fifth Doctor a subordinate character in his own story. This was widely praised at the time because it was returning Doctor Who to its roots; which meant making it more like An Unearthly Child. It was almost as if the years between 1963 and 1982 had been one dreadful wrong turning.

I was delighted by an interview with Douglas Adams on the Wogan programme, in which he said that he and Graham Williams had taken the first four episodes out of the archive, intending to watch them in a spirit of ironic mockery. They were embarrassed to discover that 1960s Doctor Who was very much better than the 1970s version of the show. He added, not unintelligently, that it was the addition of colour had spoiled it. It is much easier to believe that jobbing actors in front of a painted backdrop are primeval cavemen when you are watching them in monochrome on a very small screen.

I was full of DWAS Story-Information Folders and CMS loose leaf essays and Radio Times specials. I knew all about the black and white era. But from Panopticon 2 until (I suppose) the National Film Theatre Doctor Who weekend, in or around 1987, Unearthly Child was the only black-and-white Doctor Who story I had actually seen. [*]

So the feeling developed: the Magic of Doctor Who was that quality which An Unearthly Child / Tribe of Gum possessed, but Deadly Assassin didn't. An Unearthly Child took itself seriously. Deadly Assassin did not. And the thing that Deadly Assassin was not taking seriously, the mythos -- Doctor Who's very identity -- was the very thing which An Unearthly Child worked so hard to establish. An Unearthly Child spoke the language of BBC naturalistic drama, and dropped cave men and time machines into the middle of it. An Unearthly Child was set in a gothic studio where everyone wore silly hats. An Unearthly Child was about the clash of fantasy and reality. Deadly Assassin was pure fantasy.

There is a fine irony in the fact that An Unearthly Child was transmitted less than a day after CS Lewis sadly died. It is, after all, the story of an adolescent girl named Susan, who is nearly old enough to be interested in boys. The marvellous device which takes her between the worlds is a wooden box; a wooden box which messes with time. Doctor Who is dressed up as Science Fiction, but it functions according to Narnian logic -- in fact to Looking Glass Logic. There's a magic kingdom in the bedroom closet, and a stone aged tribe in the phone box, and a set of homicidal playing cards at the bottom of the rabbit hole. 

Sydney Newman initially visualised the TARDIS as a kind of magic door between worlds. Magic doorways are a staple of children's fiction. An Unearthly Child is exceptionally successful because the outer world -- the fog and the bobbie and the notice board -- and the inner world -- the fire and the skulls -- are both treated with equal conviction. But before long there would only be a single world: the world of Doctor Who.

Ian refuses to believe in the stone age, just as Peter and Susan refuse to believe in Narnia. Lewis's Professor appeals to logic: you don't definitely know that cupboards can't contain magical kingdoms; but you do definitely know that your sister is not a liar. The Doctor accepts that the TARDIS defies logical analysis and doesn't try to prove it. It comes down to faith.

"I can't help it, I just believe them, that's all" says Barbara. But Ian, not unreasonably, demands proof.

"If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?" asks the Doctor. Ian concedes that it would.

Direct personal experience is not, in fact, sufficient grounds to believe the impossible. In the novel, Ian briefly considers that he is hypnotised, or drugged, or dreaming: which would, in fact be a more rational position. But maintaining that rational belief would really drive him mad. 

Blessed are they that have not seen, but have believed. Credo quia absurdum.

An Unearthly Child does what it does so very well that we are tempted to think that "what An Unearthly Child does" is what Doctor Who was always intended to do; and that everything since has represented a falling away from that platonic idea.

Fans were amused when a review from December 1963 came to light complaining that Cave of Skulls was not as good as An Unearthly Child: ho-ho, they said, people have been saying that Doctor Who is not as good as it used to be from before the beginning! But (assuming that the cutting is real) the journalist was in no way making a silly comment. You sold me on a mysterious story about a brilliant school girl and an alien hiding in modern London; and what you followed it with was a kids TV adventure involving cave men and spooky skulls. You offered me a well-drawn English science master and in twenty five minutes you turned him into Richard Hannay.

The scenes in the TARDIS follow directly on from Unearthly Child; the scenes in the cave are part of a completely different conceptual world. And it does seem very much as if An Unearthly Child and Tribe of Gum were conceived as separate entities. The exact process isn't known or knowable; but it certainly seems that CW Weber's lost script -- the one in which the heroes were going to be miniaturised -- began with Susan (or Sue, or Biddy) introducing Ian (or Cliff) and Barbara (or Miss McGovern) to her mysterious Grandfather. That script was rejected, not because it failed to capture the magical essence of Doctor Who, but because the BBC budget wasn't sure if it could run to Incredible Shrinking Man special effects. If we were living on another time-line, I might very well be saying that a Land of the Giants chase across Mr Chesterton's science desk was the exact and perfect way to begin Doctor Who. The familiar seen from a new angle: the ordinary made strange.

What is certain is that the writer of An Unearthly Child incorporated some elements of the CE Weber script, which were themselves based on Sydney Newman's pitch; into that un-transmitted pilot episode; and that that pilot was partially rewritten, probably by script editor David Whitaker. Changing "I was born in the fifty fourth century" to "I was born in another world, another time" would be a very Whitaker thing to do.

The impact of Unearthly Child is so great that we are tempted to pretend that, as a matter of fact, Doctor Who was always like this, right up until the moment when it wasn't. 

And maybe that was even sometimes a little bit true. When I first saw the Aztecs (at the BFI) I could certainly convince myself that the proper grown up characters from the first episode were now enmeshed in a proper grown up historical drama. Dalek Invasion of Earth has quite a lot of silliness in it; but what we remember is its Orwellian, dystopian vibe: the two London school teachers carried sideways into a world where outer-space Hitler won the war. But the idea that An Unearthly Child was a tonal template could only be maintained when the black and white era was substantially lost or mislaid. It can't survive an encounter with the Sensorites or the Web Planet or the Keys of Marinus. Good stories; good Doctor Who stories; good Saturday evening telly: but much closer to Flash Gordon than Play For Today. (Not that there is anything wrong with Flash Gordon.)

Unearthly Child wrote cheques that the series itself was unable to cash. It sets up a question: who is Susan? who is the Doctor? -- to which the series never properly returns. Ian asks "who is he -- Doctor who?" but immediately loses interest in finding out the answer. The words "doctor who" became taboo; not spoken on screen for many, many years. No serious clues as to the Doctor's identity were laid down. A mutter about him having been a pioneer at the end of the Daleks, some boilerplate about alien planets in the Sensorites, and the arrival of a second time traveller in the Time Meddler, which is played for laughs. That's about all the follow up we get.

CE Weber's early treatments say that the Doctor stole his time machine (okay) and that he is being pursued by the police from his own time (makes sense) but nothing ever comes of that. You might have expected the Monk to be a central plank of the show, rather than light relief: in fact the idea of "the Doctor, but evil" doesn't occur to anyone until the second season of the colour era. The Time Lords are finally unmasked in the War Games but by then Unearthly Child is long forgotten. No-one mentions the Monk, or Susan, or the Doctor's kids, or Mrs Who. For the majority of the first ten stories, Susan is simply a kid, whose function is to scream and say things like "what is this, grandfather?" (She never calls him Granddad or Grandpa or Gramps.) The ending of Dalek Invasion of Earth -- where the Doctor kicks her out of the TARDIS to marry a mortal -- is problematic in many ways. But the big disappointment is that the two genuinely unsettling aliens have in one year turned into a generic teenager and her embarrassing Dad.

What would the time line have looked like if Charlotte Bronte had died on the eve of World War I, her early forays into romantic fiction eclipsed by a half century of mighty novels? But it is of course equally possible that a Charlotte who survived consumption would have become a dull Victorian moralist whose evangelical temperance tracts caused her promising juvenilia to be forgotten. No one is ever told what would have happened. An Unearthly Child might have been followed by a serious, cerebral piece of science fiction with heavy religious overtones, and thence into Marco Polo. And on that timeline we might be celebrating sixty years of challenging Wellsian science fiction. And if Luxormania had replaced Dalekmania perhaps the idea that science fiction is mostly about silly spaceships and silly monsters would never have taken root, and we would live in a more humane, literate world. But equally, if Sydney Newman had been less flexible about his original vision, Doctor Who might be an interesting science-and-history show that ran for 52 weeks from 1963 to 1964 and is now remembered only by TV historians.

An Unearthly Child could even be seen as getting the series off on the wrong foot. Some of the characterisation from the first story is carried over into the Dead Planet; but Edge of Destruction largely reboots the set-up. All the hostility melts away and everyone agrees to be friends. Marco Polo, probably the only story which ever got within striking distance of Newman's original concept has been inconveniently erased, and the record resumes with everyone being sent on a "collect the set" treasure hunt by a malevolent computer.

Four friends going on adventures in time and space. There is really no need for an origin. Even at the beginning we are in the middle: the TARDIS has been a sedan chair and a Greek pillar and they nearly lost it four or five journeys ago. The loss of An Unearthly Child episode is not a disaster. The Dead Planet is as good a jumping on point as any other.

[*] Full disclosure. They reshowed Unearthly Child at Panopticon 3, followed by all three Cavemen episodes: some Americans tried to take flash photography of the screen. There was a very short BFI film clip from Dalek Invasion Earth which I assume copyright applied differently to. The BBC showed Unearthly Child and Krotons as part of a retrospective, directly before Peter Davison's first appearance. Excerpts used to appear from time to time on Blue Peter; and there was a TV documentary called Whose Doctor Who? which included a few clips.

if you enjoy this kind of thing, there is more of it here 

Nothing At The End of the Lane (2)

This is the first part of an essay on An Unearthly Child which has already appeared on my 

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0.0 - 0.28

The wavy line; like a rocket trail or an oscilloscope.

What is surprising is how consistent the title sequence remained for so long. The words “Doctor Who” forming as if from the ripples in a space-pond. The diamond shaped waves; the lava-lamp shapes; the coffee cup-swirl: these were part and parcel of the show until the big blue space tunnel came along in Jon Pertwee’s last-but-one season. That was also when the coloured triangular logo came in, replacing the words Doctor and Who in plain white-on-black type-face. A show that had long since lost its high seriousness.

It’s the boom dubba bom/boom dubba bom over the vapour trail that gives us notice that this is not a normal theme tune and this is not a normal TV show. Each subsequent version made the tune grander and louder and less unearthly. Some versions want it to be a march. They give undue prominence to the “bom-diddy/bom diddy-bom” that plays over the closing credits—the one part which sounds like normal, human, hum-able music. That is not the sound which defines the show.

The music continues to play over the first scene: intrusively, surprisingly. In the seventies, there was a clear demarcation between the opening credits and the story itself. Doctor Who. Death To The Daleks. By Terry Nation. Part One. The boundary was marked by a whoosh or a howl or a budda-budda-budda. But in the ancient black and white universe the title of the episode and the name of the writer appear over the action in plain, ordinary, white on black writing. Like any episode of Crossroads or Blue Peter. As if Doctor Who doesn’t yet know it is Doctor Who.

It was supposed to be transmitted at 5.15pm. It was followed by the Goons and Juke Box Jury and then, at about 6.30, by Dixon of Dock Green. “The story of a London policeman on his beat.” The very first person to appear in Doctor Who, as everyone knows, is Reg Cranfield. Unnamed and uncredited. A London policeman. On his beat.

A coincidence, probably. But as a matter of fact, ownership of Saturday night was about to move on. Jack Warner must decrease while William Hartnell must increase.

We move from the abstract title sequences to a point of view shot. Someone is looking at the policeman, and we are looking through their eyes. That someone opens the gates, and walks through the junk yard to the police box. It’s a standard horror trope; one that Doctor Who will use many, many times. Show us what the monster or the murderer sees without showing us the monster or the murderer.

But it means we open with a question. Who has just waited for the policeman to leave and entered the dark junk yard?

The unearthly music has stopped. The title card appears on the screen. An Unearthly Child by....some writer whose name escapes me.

A child? What child? We haven’t seen a child?

The viewpoint character advances to the door: looks at it.

Is presumably about to go through it.

And dissolve to:

2.00 - 4.36
A noticeboard: Coal Hill School; very much the kind of place where you would expect to find children, unearthly or otherwise. It’s a modern school. There is a bell and a blackboard and a house system, but the children aren’t wearing uniforms, although the boys seem to have jackets and ties.

The first audible words identify the eponymous character: “You can wait in there, Susan” says an older woman, obviously a teacher. But in fact, if we strain, the first words may actually be “Goodnight, Miss Wright.”

Television is artifice; but it has ways of conveying “realism”. Terry Nation’s Survivors (for example) doesn’t depict a plague attacking modern England so much as a plague attacking the world of BBC situation comedies. Safe, suburban, C&A blouses and Peter Bowles. The opening moments of Doctor Who don’t feel like Doctor Who because there is no Doctor Who for them to feel like. But they don’t feel like children’s TV. No-one is talking down to anyone else. Almost, slightly, they feel like a documentary. It’s not a school-story, but an actual school. Reality as mediated by BBC drama. It’s not Saint Trinians or Tom Browns Schooldays or Whacko. It’s certainly not Grange Hill. I would say it felt like Play For Today if I had ever seen an episode of Play For Today.

Sydney Newman understood television. His first series for ITV laid out the new medium’s credentials very succinctly: Armchair Theatre. Unearthly Child is best thought of as a stage-piece: very deftly and skilfully constructed. We meet the characters in reverse order of importance. First, we meet Barbara; Barbara goes to see Ian. Ian and Barbara talk about Susan and then they talk about the Doctor. And then they have a scene with Susan; and then they have a scene with the Doctor; and then the four principles come together for the big final scene.

I am not knocking it. It is very well done. The classic rep theatre mystery begins with the Butler standing upstage and telling the Housekeeper that he supposes it all started with the reading of the late master’s will. Doctor Who begins with two teachers. The male teacher is worried because a student seems cleverer than he is. The female teacher is worried because the same student’s guardian won’t allow her to have extra tuition at home; and because the home address seems not to exist. We, watching from our armchairs, were given the solution on our way in: the child will turn out to be unearthly. It’s a set up, an info dump, bringing us up to speed about the basic situation. But it very skilfully and delightfully sets up the characters of the teachers. I wonder if any two characters have ever been more economically introduced than in those first lines of Doctor Who.

MAN: Not left yet?

WOMAN: Obviously not!

MAN: Ask a silly question...

WOMAN: I’m sorry.

MAN: That’s all right. I’ll forgive you this time.

The woman talks in a severe “teacher voice” all the time: if anything, she is more informal with her pupil than with her colleague. The man is light-hearted and ironic; but relapses into schoolmaster mode when in the presence of the girl. The woman is Miss Wright first and only subsequently Barbara; the man is introduced as Ian but then called Mr Chesterton. Ian washes his hands carefully at the end of the day (he teaches chemistry); Barbara tells him to pay attention; he indicates that he has been.

Who are the two girls in the school corridor? What is the paper they are looking at? Who is the boy? Why does he tease them? What impact does their acquaintance with Susan have on the rest of their lives? Spin-offs have been built on flimsier questions.

4:36 - 6.20

Why is Susan so clever? Why won’t her grandfather allow her history teacher to give her extra home tuition? Why does her address not exist?

In the second scene we meet the mysterious girl. And she doesn’t seem very mysterious at all, which is the most mysterious thing about her. She has a posh accent and likes pop music. She prefers to walk home than take a lift with her teachers. And she spots a mistake in her teacher’s history book.

She is listening to the music on her own. She is not pretending to be normal for Ian and Barbara’s benefit. Maybe the hand-jive is meant to seem a little bit alien; I think it is just meant to look “with-it”. I have heard it said that she looks elfin; that she looks like a younger Audrey Hepburn. But most people would surely look at her hair and think of John, Paul, Ringo and George.

With the Beatles, with the monochrome Hamburg portraits on the cover came out the day before An Unearthly Child, November 22nd 1963. The date was overshadowed by another event. A month before, in October, Bob Dylan had told the straights that their sons and their daughters were beyond their command.

Susan is an alien teenager; but all teenagers are alien. It is 1963 and children are by definition unearthly.

6:20 - 9:38
Scene 3: Ian and Barbara have followed Susan to her mysterious home, and they continue to talk about her. The three flashbacks don’t take us very far. Ian is astonished by her advanced knowledge of chemistry; Barbara is astonished that she doesn’t understand the English currency system; Ian manages to confuse her with a very simple geometry question. “You can’t solve the problem using only three of the dimensions!” sums up the tone of the show about as well as anything could.

Barbara snaps “don’t be silly”. Ian ironically breaths “with time being the fourth, I suppose?” The past is a foreign country. Sarcasm in the classroom will not be stopped for a few years yet.

“I feel frightened” says Barbara “As though we were interfering with something that is best left alone”. Not, perhaps, the subtlest lines ever written. And suddenly, we get a glimpse of Susan; already in the junk yard. She pops something into her mouth. (A gobstopper? A jelly baby? An alien food tablet?) And we catch a glimpse of a manikin; possibly a shop window dummy. It’s head is smashed in, and it is hanging by what can only be described as a noose. And we flash back to Ian and Barbara. “Lets get it over with” says Ian, as if he were about to ingest some unpleasant medicine, or maybe punish one of his pupils.

9:38-11.38Scene 4. Ian and Barbara walk around the junkyard. We see the hanged manikin again. We see the police box. It is humming: buzzing. It has never hummed or buzzed since. The humming and the buzzing clues us in that it is perhaps an unearthly police box. And (this is a little clunky) it provides a pretext for Ian to walk around it.


“A little more than kin, and less than kind.”

“I perceive that you have been in Afghanistan.”

“Gosh, uncle Ben, you're worse than a room full of alarm clocks.”

A world historical moment. An old man appears. He is coughing. We don’t know his name, and we never will.

“What are you doing here...What do you want?”

He has come on to the stage, and will never vacate it.

When George Lucas first shows us Yoda, he is an annoying sprite who knocks things over. If we were one of the very few people who saw Empire Strikes Back without spoilers, there would be a fairy tale unmasking. The smurf who won’t tell Luke where Yoda is turns out Yoda himself to be.

Ian and Barbara have followed Susan home. They encounter an annoying, patronising, condescending old man. He is Susan’s grandfather; and Susan’s grandfather is the Doctor Who of the title. But Ian and Barbara somehow do not make this connection; they somehow imagine that the old man has locked the young girl in the police box—slightly kinky for Saturday night, but not remotely meeting the facts as they know them. Susan comes to school every day, well dressed and well fed, so she can hardly be spending the evenings locked in a cell.

If there wasn’t sixty years of Doctor Who lore weighing us down; we might think that the junk yard was part of the mystery: that the old man collected junk and the police box emerged from his collection of hanged manikins and dusty picture frames. At any moment Prof Yaffle might step down from his bookend and we will put the police box in the shop window in case whoever lost it should happen to pass by.

It is a scene rich with potential. It is the last time we don’t know.

The mystery narrows. “Who is Susan?” has contracted to “what is the police box?” The old man is the answer to both questions, but his very name is a riddle. A riddle that will never be answered.


And suddenly, the universe changed.

This is the scene I remember from Panopticon. This is I suppose the scene which made me get up out of my seat and go to the front and kneel down and give my life to Doctor Who.

You can’t fit a skyscraper in a sitting room; but you can fit a TV into a sitting room and you can show a skyscraper on a TV screen. So you can fit a skyscraper in a sitting room after all.

How does this help? Those sheep are small; but those sheep are far away.

What does the Doctor suppose he is saying? Is the idea that when you step through the doors of the police box what you perceive is merely an image of the interior, transmitted from somewhere else, like the image of Dallas, Texas watched on a screen in Barnet, Hertfordshire? The early pitch documents speak of a ship which projects the characters into other modes of being.

Or is he saying that when you watch TV, you don’t perceive William Hartnell to be a Lilliputian figure barely six inches tall: your imagination turns him into a full sized man. So perhaps the TARDIS interior is very small, and Ian and Barbara’s imagination is making it seem enormous.

There is a TV in the TARDIS. We see London; and then we see the Stone Age. On the TV on the TV. And then the doors of the TARDIS open, and we see the image and the screen through the doors. And Ian and Barbara step through the doors, into the image.

We are watching Doctor Who, on TV. From the armchair, or maybe even from behind the armchair, in one of our smaller sitting rooms. TV can take us anywhere. The TARDIS is a metaphor.

By 1978 it was an in-joke. Bigger on the inside than the outside. Why is a mouse when it spins? What colour is the square root of Wednesday?

Why is it bigger on the inside?

Because it is dimensionally transcendental.

What does dimensionally transcendental mean?

It means it’s bigger on the inside.

It has become a proverb. Used by people who had never even seen Doctor Who. The oppositions motion is like the TARDIS. My granny’s cupboards were like the TARDIS.

Barbara walks through the police box door. The camera is behind her. We see her walking away from us.

Barbara walks through the TARDIS doors. The camera is in front of her. We see her walking towards us.

A reaction shot: a close up of her face.

Ian stumbles in after her: looking confused.

A quick pan around the TARDIS interior.

And pull back to see the four characters assembled in the large control room.

In my head, I was convinced that I had gone through the doors and seen them expand, and experienced knowledge-by-acquaintance of the TARDIS interior dimensions. I now see that the magic was achieved with a very quick cut. But the scene grew in my mind. It defined the magic of Doctor Who. It was bigger in the inside of my head than it was outside on the big screen.

But that was 1978, not 1963. I was not, in fact, surprised that the TARDIS was b.o.t.i.t.t.o.

But I was surprised that it was surprising. I was surprised that it had once been surprising. And I believed, for many years, that that surprising-ness was a thing that could have remained; that should have remained; that the TARDIS ceased to be surprising because later writers did not respect The Magic and that The Magic could, in theory, be brought back.

14:44 - 20:26
Scene 5. The cast is assembled. And there is nothing, in fact, left to happen.

The premise of the show is that Biddy and Cliff and Miss McGovern and Dr Who should travel through time and space and have adventures. Sidney Newman described a first episode in which two teachers walk their student home through the fog; are surprised to find that home is a police box, and are invited inside by a confused, lost, possibly quote senile unquote old man. Another early internal pitch says that once the teachers are inside the Doctor’s ship, someone accidentally presses a button and causes the ship to “slip its moorings”. This is very much what happens in the Peter Cushing Dalek movie, in fact.

But Unearthly Child, as we have it, offers a much more interesting set up. It generates actual hostility between the principles. Not only between Ian and Barbara and the Doctor, but between the Doctor and Susan.

Ian and Barbara are convinced that the TARDIS is an illusion. “A game you and your grandfather are playing, if you like”, says Barbara. The Doctor says the box can travel in space and time; Ian has a moment of wonder but rejects it as ludicrous. The Doctor retains some of the attributes of the old man in the junkyard: he fusses over a broken clock in the same way he fussed over an ornate picture frame. But he is largely in control: dominant, a wizard in his magic domain. Ian and Barbara decide to leave; but the Doctor won’t let then. He says that if they leave, the TARDIS will have to leave as well. Susan says that if the Doctor leaves earth, she will stay there. There is a brief fractional moment which should have defined her character for ever afterwards, when she is torn between her grandfather and her teachers. The Doctor over-rides her choice. He pretends to open the door, but in fact he sends the TARDIS travelling in Time. Susan is at that moment as unwilling a traveller as the two humans; although that will soon be forgotten.

In the untransmitted pilot version of the story, there is a science fictional motivation. The Doctor thinks that mere knowledge of the TARDIS will change history or violate the timelines. Barbara in particular is dangerous because she seems to believe. “My dear child, you know very well we cannot let them possess even one idea that such a ship as the TARDIS might be possible” he says to Susan. “I can’t let you go” he says to Ian. “You and your companion would be footprints in a time where you were not supposed to have walked.”

After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

But this idea more or less drops out of the transmitted version. The Doctor is simply worried about being made into “a public spectacle”. The dialogue about giving humans anachronistic knowledge (which makes the Doctor and Susan one smidgeon more alien) is replaced by Susan asserting her love of 20th century England. A canny move: a theoretical argument has been replaced by a very human piece of drama.

20:26 -23.00
We see an image on the TARDIS monitor—on the TV within the TV. A London scene: but it is clearly not a view of Totters Lane. Could it be—could it possibly be—the BBC television centre?

It shrinks and recedes and is replaced by the wibbly wobbly wavy lines we saw in the opening seconds. The whirling line, the ripples; super-imposed over each characters face in turn. It takes more than a minute. For a second, there is jaunty electronic music, giving the unfortunate effect that the characters are dancing; but rapidly an extended dematerialisation sound effect kicks in. The same sound effect would be in use sixty years later. That and the police box and the word TARDIS are the only things which survive.

Ian and Barbara are unconscious. The Doctor looks uncertain. We see a sandy desert through the TV within a TV; and then we go outside. The viewpoint has changed: we are seeing what the characters cannot yet see. The police box is in the middle of a desert; and a shadow of something unpleasant falls across it.

In 1978, Time Travel was entirely ordinary: the Doctor lounged in his ship playing chess or chatting about going on holiday and then typed coordinates into the console. In this first story, Time Traveller is scary and awesome and surreal. A bit of a wrench. I read this back into the future of the series. Every TARDIS trip should have been like the first TARDIS trip and someone had somehow allowed the Magic to lapse.

And yet it was clearly the mundanity and silliness of Tom Baker that had won my heart.

Next Episode: The Cave of Skulls
Some people find the cavemen dull; some people even advise newbies to skip episodes 2-4 and rush on to the Daleks. But I think that the cavemen are an intrinsic component of the emerging myth. No-one planned them as such. But I don’t think you can experience the full joy of the scary alien robots if you haven’t followed Ian and Barbara through the primordial desert.

The end of Unearthly Child changes the viewpoint; we are outside the TARDIS, looking at a shadow falling across it. The Cave of Skulls continues this counter intuitive narrative strategy. We don’t go back to our heroes in the strange chrome room. We go first to a cave, where a modern stone age family talk articulately about losing the secret of fire and choosing a new leader before we return to the action of the first instalment. It ratchets up the dramatic irony in the next scene. Ian obstinately refuses to believe that they have travelled in time, but we, in our armchairs, in our smaller sitting rooms, know that they have.

The Doctor says that year-o-meter is broken: not calculating properly—because it says that they have gone back to Year Zero.

But Year Zero is exactly where they have gone. Before the decade was out, another science fiction epic would be opening with the Dawn of Man.

Nothing At The End of the Lane (1)

This is the first part of an essay on An Unearthly Child which has already appeared on my 

Patreon: A way of supporting web writers who you like. You promise to pay me a small amount, typically a $1/£1 each time I write an article. You can set a maximum, so if I am unexpectedly prolific one month you won't get stung by a bigger than expected bill.

It's my Patreon supporters who enable me to spend some days each week writing. 


Time worked differently in those days. The world had only recently changed to colour and pictures from the previous decade came from a different dimension. They still called it the generation gap. Teenagers grew up in a different world from their parents. I don't know if the Beatles were literally bigger than Jesus, but history was certainly divided into Before Beatles and After Beatles.

I measured out my life in annuals. I could wind back through 1977, 1976, 1975 by looking at increasingly dog-eared Blue Peter presenters. Time stopped in 1968, Book 5. Peter Purves topless and Valarie Singleton wrapped up like an eskimo. Before that there was only Magic Roundabout and Pippin Fort.

So, in August 1978, it seemed like a very big deal. Panopticon Two, the second ever Doctor Who convention. The centrepiece: the very first episode of Doctor Who. Unseen since 1963. Fifteen whole years.

The very first episode of Doctor Who. I came on board at the same time Jon Pertwee left. The Sugar Puffs Doctor turned into the One With the Scarf. Oh, it is such a cliche to talk about "my Doctor". I think Colin Baker started it. Tom Baker was the Doctor, the only Doctor I properly knew. Jon Pertwee was a huge foundational myth from the primeval junior school era. The First and Second Doctors were as remote and mysterious as the Garden of Eden and Uncle Mac.

It was 1978 and Doctor Who wasn't as good as it used to be. The special magic had departed and even the president of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society didn't know what had happened to it.

Facebook insists I look at forums about old television programmes. There is a widespread agreement that television ceased to be funny when It Ain't Half Hot Mum and Robin's Nest came to an end. There is no excuse to ever watch anything apart from reruns of Fawlty Towers. We have moved from an age of gold into an age of brass. When King Arthur comes again, Wagon Wheels will return to their proper size and comedians will appear on television in black make up. Women will smoke during pregnancy. There will be lots of beatings.

Everyone's age is a golden age; but it is factually true that the middle 1970s produced a lot of very funny TV shows. Older comedians who had learned their trade in the last days of variety and rep were still working; but the alternative circuit hadn't yet made comedy the new rock and roll. No, we can't have Carry On back because Carry On came out of a particular moment in time and time doesn't go round and round in circles but just moves on.

I was lucky enough to have been twelve when Star Wars happened. I don't know if I'd swap that for being a generation younger and living through Beatlemania and the second folk revival.

The very first episode of Doctor Who. The BBC didn't do repeats. Not what they called "out of Doctor" repeats, anyway: when Baker assumed the throne they were reluctant to show old Pertwee episodes and certainly nothing earlier.

When this newfangled idea of showing pictures on the radio first came in, actors and writers were worried. If we're not careful, they said, the BBC will build up a library of plays and comedians and jugglers and never need to employ another one ever again. What chance for a young actor who wants to essay the Dane if the BBC already has a definitive version of Hamlet in their magic box? So agreements were made with trades unions and Actors Equity. The BBC had to go on making new TV; and very, very little old TV could be shown each year; and then not without the original actors' and writers' permission.

The Beeb was surprisingly sportsmanlike about this. They took it for granted that they had to check with Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln each time the Brigadier appeared on screen, because the Brigadier first appeared in a story wot they wrote. I suppose the DWAS had to get clearance from Equity and the Beeb. Or maybe a few hundred people at a con counted as a private showing.

An episode of Doctor Who, on the big screen. A black and white episode: the very first.

Some people can't separate Doctor Who from the night John Kennedy died. Some people can't separate it from that unseasonably cold winter. I believe my Mum and Dad were already living in the family home, two years before I materialised. They owned a black and white TV. I was the Doctor Who fan but they had actually watched Doctor Who on their TV when the world was black and white and cold and foggy.

But to me the alpha version of An Unearthly Child -- and therefore the primary experience of Doctor Who -- is the great hall at Imperial College looking at a life sized TARDIS and a life sized Dalek with a packed lunch and a tube ticket clasped to my breast. Your mileage may vary.

I don't know how many times I have watched it in the intervening decades. I saw it the following year, at Panopticon 3. I saw it in the Five Faces Of Doctor Who season on BBC 2 during the Baker-Davison interregnum. I saw it on my own TV when VHS tapes first became affordable. I saw it a few years back when I tried to watch right through the whole canon. I watched the first dozen episodes on Britbox with Sofa-Buddy during lockdown.

I know it as well as I know anything.

Someone from Sons of the Desert once said that he'd seen all the Laurel and Hardy films so many times that he no longer laughed at them: but he still watched them because he wanted to spend time with Stan and Olly. What is left of the first two seasons of Doctor Who aren't as scary as they used to be; they very probably never were. But they have that quality that CS Lewis probably did not call Donegality. The sense of time-and-place.

The ship. The stone age. The radiation needle turning to critical. A vanishing EnglandLondonBritain that had flown forgotten as a dream before I drew my first breath. An umbilical chord back to my thirteenth year; when testcard, ad-break and Radio Time were still apparelled in celestial light. Just barely.

I knew that Frankenstein was the name of the creator, not the monster. I knew that Doctor Who was the name of the series, not the character. Having seen Unearthly Child gave me one more thing to be a purist about.

Nineteen sixty three. Fifteen years ago. As far removed from me then as Blink and Last of the Time Lords is from me today.

Nineteen seventy eight. Forty seven years ago. As far removed from me now as Charlie Chaplain was from me then.

What has happened to the magic of Doctor Who?

It came true. You're looking at it.

if you enjoy this kind of thing, there is more of it here