À la recherche du temps perd-Who
Doctor Who Live
Review by Paul Kirkley
Of the many things my teenage self – heavy with the burden of carrying a torch for Doctor Who through its darkest, most unloved days – would struggle to believe about the impossible riches to come in the new century, it’s fair to say a sequel to Carnival of Monsters at Wembley Arena would be pretty high on the list.
A couple of weeks after its debut in north London, I watched that sequel unfolding in a similarly cavernous tram shed in Manchester. But before the show had even started, it was obvious I was living in a much changed world from the one where the 17-year-old me and my Manchester-based pen friend Stuart Mitchell (we’d met several years earlier through the DWAS, bonding over an ardent fascination for Nicola Bryant’s chest) had watched Jon Pertwee take a valedictory turn as the Doctor at a considerably smaller theatre in the same city.
For a start, the train my nephews and I rode across the Pennines from Leeds was like the Doctor Who Express: a Smilers mask here, a bow tie and tweed jacket combo there; Dalek rucksack to the left, sonic screwdriver to the right. And then there was the giddy thrill of taking our seats in the tiered terrace of the MEN and looking down at the thousands – thousands – of excited faces waiting expectantly for the afternoon’s adventure to begin.
And that’s why, when the band struck up their rendition of the Who theme – the soundtrack to my life, essentially - and the series five titles burst into flame on the big screen, and the kids cheered and whooped, I had to fight back the overwhelming urge to burst into tears.
This is clearly A Bit Silly, whichever way you slice it. But no-one who lived through those wilderness years, when the biggest thrill you could hope for was Who getting the lead feature on John Craven’s Back Pages, could fail to be moved by the sight, and the sound, of all those children in absolute thrall to our hero; by the sheer scale of this thing. By the crackle of energy created by 10,000 people all in love with the same idea. I guess it’s what football fans must feel most Saturday afternoons.
And, like many a dreary mid-table clash, you could argue the anticipation is better than the reality. Because some of the criticisms levelled at Doctor Who Live are valid: yes, much of this show’s two hour running time is taken up by Nigel Planer introducing some monsters, said monsters coming out and running about a bit, and then going back inside again. Which is fine if you’re lucky enough to be sitting in the front stalls – where, unforgivably, all the audience interaction takes place – but a bit meh if you’re stuck in the cheap (i.e. still hideously expensive, but further away) seats.
But, for me, that wasn’t really the point. The show’s whole USP may have been Doctor Who Live but, as far as I was concerned, all the best stuff (music aside) was taking place on screen. And I’m not just talking about the brilliantly inventive use of a digital Matt Smith (who totally nails it, as ever): I’m talking about the clips and montages playing out behind Ben Foster’s terrific band: the thrilling canter through series five to the sound of the Eleventh Doctor’s trademark battle march; Amelia Pond’s impossible journey with the mad man in a box soundtracked by the haunting strains of Amy’s Theme; a nostalgic canter through the Doctor’s first 10 regenerations (only another 497 to go, eh?). It's like all the best bits of Doctor Who, neatly packaged up and fired straight at your temporal lobe.
And I know that’s a bit soft, cos I’m talking about paying 40 quid to watch clips of programmes I already have stashed away on my DVD shelves. But it’s all about the context: the communal experience of enjoying Doctor Who in the way, a long time ago in an Odeon far, far away, we once enjoyed Star Wars – pretty exciting if, until recently, your only experience of Who on the big screen was several hundred saddoes sitting about watching The Daemons in a hotel in Coventry.
I ran into my old friend Mark Wright, who I hadn’t seen for years, by the merchandise stall (£25 a pop for the series five vanilla DVDs, since you ask). He’s now something big in Big Finish, and has Katy Manning on speed-dial. 20 years ago, when we’d been teenagers and Doctor Who was marginally less popular than Pages from Ceefax, we were part of a loose collective of fans who used to meet on Sunday afternoons in the West Yorkshire Peace Centre.
“I think I even spent Christmas Eve there once,” Mark lamented.
“It wouldn’t have been so bad if we'd actually been using the Peace Centre to do something to help world peace,” I said.
“No,” he sighed. “We were using it to watch The Keys of Marinus.”
Now family men, we both boggled at how an event like today’s could even exist, agreeing that, while Doctor Who Live is what it is, anyone who’s ever cared about this daft old programme really should make the effort to go, just to experience the electric thrill of what it means to live in a world where the Doctor is not just popular, but loved.
Later, I thought that maybe my urge to cry wasn’t so silly, after all. Because how many other shows, how many other things, allow you to plug directly into the same evolving narrative that existed in your childhood? Anyone who watched the return of Jo Grant to our screens this week must have felt that same, undiluted Proustian rush. And some horrible, cynical people try to give the things that produce that rush reductive names like “fanwank”, as if to imply they’re too restlessly innovative and forward-looking to wallow in the past like the rest of us, and that Doctor Who should only ever keep driving ever onwards, never looking back. Which, for a show with a near half-century legacy, is preposterous: you might as well ask your parents never to discuss your school days.
And when I’m plugging into the narrative of my childhood, I’m plugging into a maelstrom of other complex memories and emotions. Like the days when my Dad, who I miss every day, used to take me around different Leeds city libraries to find Target novelisations I hadn’t read, or the days when I’d watch Doctor Who at my Grandma and Grandad’s, or a hundred other precious moments that might otherwise be forgotten, if I wasn’t there, sitting in the dark, one of 10,000 pairs of eyes turned eagerly towards the hero who has been a constant throughout my whole life and who now, against all odds, appears to have become the world's most unlikely rock star.
Do the child you used to be a favour, and take him to see Doctor Who Live.