Ten Things I Hate About Who

Way back when Doctor Who still looked as though it was never likely to find its way back on to the small screen, I had the genius idea - thanks to a certain film that's a lot better than the average Doctor Who fan would doubtless presume it to be - for an article entitled Ten Things I Hate About Who. This, as you've probably already worked out, would have taken the form of a tongue-in-cheek yet still mildly vitriolic look at a list of things about the show, its fans, and the ephemera surrounding both of them that either bored, annoyed or just plain puzzled me. However, at that stage it really was difficult to find anything 'new' to say about 'old' Doctor Who, unless you were a dedicated researcher with access to previously unknown BBC Soup Machine records, and as the list involved little more than a handful of already well-worn personal obsessions the idea was put quietly to one side.

Then, of course, Doctor Who came back, and suddenly there was a whole new set of bugbears to add to the list. So I duly wrote it, and sent it to a prominent fanzine editor who I'd kept on writing Who-related things for during the 'wilderness years'. And he sent it back to me, explaining that - and this was quite understandable at the time - in the throes of the post-relaunch excitement he wasn't sure that the tone of the piece really fitted with the direction he was trying to take. So I tried a few more fanzines and websites. And still the rejections came back, invariably with polite comments along the lines of "um... erm... hmmm... well it's not quite right for this publication's audience if you see what I mean, nice though the abbatoir is etc etc". Believing it both to be quite good and not quite as frothing-at-the-mouth negative as everyone else appeared to think, I did keep hawking it around every so often, and indeed it made the shortlist for my book Well At Least It's Free, only edged out at the last minute by an overwhelming volume of other and much better Doctor Who-related stuff.

Anyway, here - with only slight modifications to bits that are no longer relevant or even in some cases comprehensible - is that contentious Too Hot For TV article in full...

...Ten Things I Hate About Who!

He's back... and it's about time. Again. Yes, Doctor Who is back at the top, with plaudits aplenty and viewing figures that leave Celebrity Goat-Defrauding On Ice languishing in the doldrums, and everything is how it should be. The new series has critics raving and is depleting stock at awards ceremonies left, right and centre. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, The Ghosts Of N-Space is number one in the Hit Parade, and even scowling curmudgeons can at least join in the jubilations via The Unquiet Dead. Things genuinely haven't been this good since Sylvester McCoy appeared on But First... This to talk about writing letters to a rock.

But can it really be true? Has Doctor Who - a programme that even at its many and varied zeniths was always accompanied by apathetic BBC 'top brass', lunatic fans, pointless merchandise, baffling pop singles by cast members, and people at school who thought it was the height of sophisticated wit to mock anyone who watched it by sarcastically and tunelessly yodelling "ah-oooo-weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-ooooooooooooooo" - finally managed to shake off all of its tedious, irritating or just plain pointless baggage in a whirl of CGI Tardises and Billie Piper's pants?

Of course not. The show itself may well be meeting with its most favourable public reception since the dim and distant days of the UNIT 'Family' and badly-done Colour Seperation Overlay, but Doctor Who has always been, and will most likely always be, surrounded by all manner of ridiculousness, whether bafflingly incomprehensible or downright infuriating. From Jon Pertwee's hilarious mis-spellings of his name that weren't, to humourless bile-fuelled letters page arguments about which continuity slide was used the most often in 1977, to fan-written and published multi-Doctor 'reunion stories', to the still ongoing obsession with how the Cybermen came to have a photo of the Fourth Doctor, this nonsense will insidiously fill your head if you display the merest flicker of interest in Doctor Who, whether you like it or not. And let's face it, for most people, it's most definitely 'not'. In honour of those selfsame 'most people', then, here's a quick rundown of the ten most loathesome, annoying and just plain bewildering phenomena associated with Doctor Who. And it doesn't even mention the 'Time War'...

10. Thieving Fans

A bit of clarification's needed here; this does not refer to anyone who's shoplifted the odd Target novel. That's a matter for their own conscience, and indeed the courts. And, if it was Turlough And The Earthlink Dilemma, their own sense of taste and smell. This refers instead to those shadowy individuals who take it upon themselves to walk off with something that is part of a private collection, or at the very least notionally 'belongs' to everyone, and hide it away for their own exclusive enjoyment.

For sheer chutzpah and apparent lack of sanity you have to grudgingly admire whoever it was that broke into the Longleat Doctor Who Exhibition in the late eighties and stole a Sontaran collar; above all else it's interesting to ponder on why they ignored the more easily removeable helmet and head, and whether they subsequently ran down the street dressed as their hero Weam Styre. Yet the cold hard fact remains that they selfishly stole something that should have been everyone's to enjoy, even if exactly how a Sontaran collar could be 'enjoyed' is a logisitical puzzler best explored another time.

This thoughtlessness is best exemplifed by the back issues of Radio Times in public libraries. Pick a random date between, say, 23rd November 1963 and 19th December 1989, and chances are that you'll find that certain items in the listings and the odd accompanying article have been surreptitiously removed, often with hamfisted use of a craft knife that leaves big incisions on several surrounding pages as well. Some might argue that Radio Times clippings aren't really that essential to enjoyment of the series itself, and this is a fair point, but on the other hand it's just one illustration of the surprising number of fans who will help themselves to anything that isn't nailed down, all the way from original scripts to Raymond Cusick's old socks, and who's to say that a couple of them might not have made off with the odd reel of film or videotape here or there?

9. Tenth Planet Four Conspiracy Theorists

Let's get a couple of things straight here. In 1973, the Blue Peter production team borrowed film copies of several early episodes of Doctor Who from BBC Enterprises, who handled overseas sales of BBC programmes, to put together some clips to celebrate the programme's tenth anniversary. Amongst them was the fourth and final episode of the first Cyberman story The Tenth Planet, which featured the regeneration from William Hartnell into Patrick Troughton, and which is now missing from the archives.

Contrary to popular belief, the episode was not 'stolen by Blue Peter'. The cast and crew and indeed whatever Northumbrian Bagpipe-wielding primary school they were championing that week are all in the clear, as the film print in question was returned to BBC Enterprises immediately afterwards, who continued to offer the complete serial for overseas sales for some years afterwards. Although they did provide some other episodes (which we'll come back to later), the actual proper BBC Film Library were never involved, and indeed never had a copy of episode four to loan out to any production teams in the first place. That's all documented fact as verified by people who actually know what they're talking about, so any stories of the episode's existence that begin with mention of someone who liberated the print whilst it was on loan to Blue Peter in 1973 can be discounted straight away.

What happened to that print once it had been returned to BBC Enterprises is another question, but given that by the time that anyone started looking for lost episodes the overseas sales rights for The Tenth Planet had expired, and that most of the other black and white stories that had been held by Enterprises were either scheduled for destruction or had already been destroyed (including the two stories either side of it), it's not unreasonable to conclude that the errant fourth episode ended up in celluloid oblivion with Marco Polo and the rest. Yet it's still virtually impossible to move for authoritative-sounding proclamations made by someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who was shown the episode at a convention many years ago by a person they can't name who assured them that a secret cabal of fan 'luminaries' were conspiring to stop it from being rediscovered in the hope of keeping its black market value high etc etc etc. Possibly this also involves the Buzz Aldrin, a 'second' shooter, the cover of A Collection Of Beatles Oldies But Goldies and coded messages to Charles Manson, but nobody seems to be quite sure.

At the risk of raining on this heavily Kit Pedler-orientated parade, in order for any theoretically existing copy of the episode to have a black market value, there has to be a 'black market' for it to be sold on in the first place. The more people who have copies, the more copies will get out, and in a world where even colour-flickering picture-disco-dancing off-air copies of vaguely Doctor Who-related washing up liquid adverts screened in Australia in the seventies are common currency, then - black market or no black market - there's no way that its existence could stay unknown for long. If there is still a copy of the episode out there somewhere, then it's infinitely more likely to be in the possession of some ordinary film collector who has no idea how rare it is, rather than under the zealous guardianship of a well-connected 'superfan'. So stop making those weird allusive accusations aimed at John Noakes, Biddy Baxter, Jason The Cat or whoever - wishing hard enough is not going to bring it back. And anyway, we've got the audio, the telesnaps, the clips, the Target novel, the coffee mugs, the dinner jackets, the submarine...

Of course, one of the other episodes borrowed by Blue Peter in 1973 - 'The Traitors', the fourth episode of The Daleks' Master Plan - was checked out from but never returned to the BBC Film Library, despite reminders being sent out, and is the only one of the episodes officially held by the Film Library that remains unnacounted for. But for some reason, anecdotes about knowing of the existence of missing footage of Mavic Chen and the Varga Plants doesn't really have the same sort of fan-impressing currency.

8. Pointless Merchandise

Surely all Doctor Who merchandise is pointless, you're doubtless asking? Well, as undeniably devoid of point as they may have been, 'pointless' does not here refer to Doctor Who-branded merchandise of the 'classic' era such as Build The Tardis, Peter Davison's Book Of Alien Monsters From Outer Space or the official Target badge ("in three bright colours it will draw comments from all of your friends", though probably not exactly the sort of comments the publishers envisaged). No matter what heights of uselessness they may have scaled, they were all at least unashamedly cheap and cheerful, and intended for a limited market that was only too happy to snap them up, albeit in some cases with tongue very firmly in cheek.

Far more pointless in any context are the 'mass appeal' items - or, in 'old money' (which you usually need a disproportionate amount of to buy them), run-of-the-mill consumer goods that have nothing to do with Doctor Who, science fiction, television or even the Shrivenzale, but which still get the programme's title and logo slapped on them in the hope of fleecing obsessives with more disposable income than sense. These started to appear in earnest while the show was off the air, and if anything have actually increased in number and indeed price tag since it came back. They're always 'collectable' and 'exclusive'. And, though the adverts never mention this, 'codswallop'.

Take The Danbury Mint Tardis; one hundred pounds (actually twice that now, as it's been discontinued and is only available from second hand sites that emphasise, you've guessed it, the 'collectability' angle) gets you four inches of heavy unpainted metal that may be an accurate representation of a Police Box but is arguably a less appealing one, and certainly a less functional one, than the old Dinky/Denys Fisher toys, or the new Character Options ones, or indeed the various pencil case, ceramic moneybox and bafflingly purpose-free 'all-purpose' storage tin variations on the design that have appeared over the years. And at least most of them had the decency to get the prop's dimensions slightly yet appealingly wrong and not charge you eight hundred and forty three million dollars for the privelege. And that's just the pewter-sculpted tip of a limited-edition numbered iceberg - recent years have seen a flood of phonecards, chess sets, replica award certificates, terracotta Derek Martinus vases, photographs of Peter Davison's shed, lifesize model frogs that croak the words 'Doctor Who - The Hartnell Years' and lord knows what else, all of which seem to have no reason for existing other than to persuade someone to part with a lot of money.

You'd expect that, much like people baulked at the prices of the early BBC Video releases and refused to fork out for them until the cost was nearly halved, common sense would persuade the majority to stay away from such expensive and useless items. The fact that this kind of garbage continues to be released, though, would suggest otherwise. Oh yes, you may well scoff at someone who thought nothing of blowing twenty notes on a mint condition copy of the 1965 Century 21 Daleks EP, but at least they'd never dream of buying the Doctor Who Car. You know, that car he's always driving around in. With his name and face on the side. Presumably that's what makes it 'collectable'.

7. JNT-Bashing

John Nathan-Turner's tenure as producer of Doctor Who - by far the longest and straddling three changes of lead actor - is always going to be a thorny subject for fans. He managed to pull off a brilliant reinvention at the turn of the eighties, but seemed to lack the courage to make any similar changes in later years, even when they were clearly desperately needed. He succeeded in getting the show back in the public eye, but seemed unable to make the distinction between capitalising on milestone anniversaries on the one hand, and tacky tabloid fodder on the other. He fought back against the BBC's plans to 'rest' the series, putting his own job at risk in the process, but didn't seem to learn an enormous amount from the threat of cancellation. He made pioneering use of new technology, but never quite knew how to respond when other more fundamental production changes were imposed on him. He produced The Caves Of Androzani and Remembrance Of The Daleks, but also produced The Two Doctors. JNT was simultaneously the best of producers and the worst of producers, and the mass of contradictions inherent in his legacy has certainly given fandom something to chew over.

Except that most of them refuse to chew, and opt instead to spit their food all over the table like a petulant toddler. Visit any online Doctor Who discussion form, skim through a fair proportion of fanzines, even peruse the letters pages of Doctor Who Magazine and you will find the same mantra being repeated time and time again - that John Nathan-Turner 'ruined' the series, that everything produced during his tenure was 'pathetic', and that he reduced Doctor Who to the level of 'pantomime embarrassment', the latter of which isn't even their opinion (that's assuming that the others could actually be classed as opinions) anyway, as it's an ongoing hand-me-down phrase that no doubt originated with a single reviewer's summation of a single story back in the eighties. Some of the 'braver' practitioners of the art also throw in a few swear words and what practically amount to accusations of blasphemy, and if he hadn't already passed away at far too young an age it's a fair bet they'd be wishing that on him too.

For all his faults, or to be more accurate the faults of the programme while he was in the producer's chair, it's hardly as if John Nathan-Turner was a war criminal. Some of his work was atrocious, some of it was very good indeed, and all of it is worthy of more analysis and discussion than just shouting any mention of his name down. Yes, even Meglos. Maybe.

6. 'New Who' Hardliners

And what goes hand in hand with blanket dismissal of virtually every last second of Doctor Who made during the eighties? Blanket praise for the revived series, that's what.

Let's be absolutely clear about this from the outset - since Doctor Who came back in 2005, it's been utterly thrilling stuff for a significant majority of the time, and has certainly consistently urinated on The Armageddon Factor from a gigantic height. Even those who aren't quite sold on it must at least have enjoyed the odd episode here and there, and if they haven't then it's not like there isn't a huge library of 'classic'-era DVDs for them to fall back on. Curmudgeonly atmospheric disturbance-occasioned raining on the parade of those who've found themselves harmlessly swept up in the excitement would be churlish to say the least.

But then... there are those who take it just that bit too far. Beyond the massed ranks of viewers who enjoy a good Saturday teatime thrill and purchase the occasional 'I Saw The Moxx At Alton Towers' car sticker but still know a below par episode or two when they see them, there are those whose enthusiasm takes on a more religious and even quasi-fascistic zeal. Few would deny that there have been at least a couple of moments when the revived series didn't quite hit the mark, but for those few who would deny, there is nothing to criticise, and no episode that deserves less than seven out of ten (if you go by those sodding 'My Scores For This Series' things they keep posting everywhere). It's the best thing since the reinvented sliced wheel, and woe betide anyone who ever disagrees. Not that there's any need for them to provide any reasons, though - it's everyone else who's in the 'wrong'.

Part of the joy of being a fan of something is the ability to discuss and debate it at great length, pondering over what makes it work and conversely what doesn't. Glance through the average printed work on the series, particularly pre-internet photocopied fanzines, and you'll see that this is something that Doctor Who fans arguably did better than anyone else. Passionate debates were always raging about individual stories, and it wasn't unusual for an article praising or slating one to be followed by a response-written counterargument in the next issue, and another in turn in the one after that.

And that's precisely the point - there were always those who were prepared to go against the prevailing opinion purely because they disagreed with it. There were those who would controversially offer an apathetic shrug in the direction of City Of Death or The Caves Of Androzani, and those who would passionately argue that positive re-evaluation was long overdue for The Underwater Menace or The Space Pirates (well, apart from those film trims), and entire fanzines were once founded on a resentment of the general assumption that the Pertwee era was the best of the show's history. Anyone who's up for a bit of a verbal exchange in the age of Matt Smith, though, is set for a bit of a rough ride, as any hint of dissent amongst the somewhat overdone jubilation is curtly shouted down, particularly in the murky realms of Internet discussion forums. If those doing the shouting down don't happen to agree with the detractors, the fence-sitters or even the 'good rather than the best progamme ever made in the history of ever!' brigade then that's fair enough, but all the same it does seem more than a little suspicious when few will even hear a word said against The Long Game. And anyway, if they like the new series that much, you'd think that they'd at least be capable of coming up with a couple of interesting and well-argued reasons why.

5. 'Canon'

To some, the word 'Canon' will mean nothing more than the tradename of a well-known printer and photocopier manufacturer. Others might well be reminded of the fat lumbering TV detective played by William Conrad. To fans of Doctor Who, however, 'canon' is quite possibly the most contentious word in their lexicon (and bear in mind that's a pretty extensive lexicon that also includes 'crochety', 'emblazoned', 'telesnap' and other words that are seldom if ever used anywhere else in the real world).

While few seem to be quite as keen on debating the merits of the actual episodes of the revived series, endless brow-furrowing drags on and on over whether assorted spin-off novels, audio adventures and fan-produced balloon-modelling events can be considered part of the official continuity of the series itself. And here's the cold, hard and no doubt much-dreaded answer that they've all been searching for; they can't. Well, technically they can, but logic dictates that if one thing is in, then anything similar has to be in too, and it's pretty much certain that most of those doing the brow-furrowing wouldn't be keen on that. If the latest swanky sophisticated spin-off is 'canon' then so are the TV Action strip with those 'Blaxploitation' companions, Doctor Who And The Pescatons, and those men with hoods from the cover of the K9 Annual. You want Benny and That Other Girl from the New Adventures novels considered part of the series itself? Fine, but then you'll also have to have Frobisher and that robot who went "me'll have a gusher, these days, these days". And what about when Jon Pertwee met the cast of The Tomorrow People in costume? Do you really want Kenny involved??

Meanwhile, to suggest that unoffical fan-made efforts, however good they may be, should be incorporated into continuity proper just smacks of arrogance - nobody would consider a tape of some Rolling Stones fans jamming to be authentic Stones material, would they? Keep enjoying this stuff - and a fair amount of it is worth enjoying - but just don't get worked up about where it fits in between televised adventures. Because even Big Finish supremo Gary Russell doesn't do that!

4. The 'Real' Hartnell-Era Story Titles

Once, the Hartnell Era Story Titles - or at least what people commonly believed to be the Hartnell Era Story Titles - were exciting, evocative, and did exactly what they said on the film can. An Unearthly Child mirrored the spooky intrigue of that initial foray into an abandoned junkyard, The Edge Of Destruction promised edge-of-the-seat thrills that were amusingly at odds with the sedate wandering around roundel-festooned corridors, and The Massacre at least gave some indication of what the story might be about.

Then someone had the idea of actually going and checking BBC records (and it's worth emphasising at this point that we should be grateful for their efforts), and came up with the rather more unexciting list we all know and love - and on rare occasions even use - today. As boring and perfunctory as they may be, it's hard to feel any sort of resentment towards the likes of Doctor Who And 100,000 BC, Doctor Who Inside The Spaceship or Doctor Who And The Ridiculously Overlong And Historically Inaccurate Title (With Occasional Variations In Spelling), as they serve their purpose harmlessly enough and in any case their more cliffhanging counterparts are still in common usage.

There is one magnified fly in the DN6-tainted ointment though, and that is the supposed 'correct' title of Mission To The Unknown, 'Dalek Cutaway'. There are frankly thousands upon thousands of reasons why this should not be taken seriously as story title, and less than one to suggest that it should be. For starters, does it even look like a story title? Alright, so many of the 'proper' Hartnell Era Story Titles are bland and functional in the extreme, but this one is taking bland functionality to a whole new level. It's little more than a description, and the the way in which it was used on the few BBC documents it did appear on would seem to confirm that's all it ever was. Conversely, anything even vaguely official - including the document sanctioning the wiping of the master tape of the episode - used Mission To The Unknown. There's also the question of why a single-episode story whose episode title appeared onscreen would even need an individual story title, and the clincher comes with the Radio Times using Mission To The Unknown separately as both episode and story title (and yes, they did use those 'Doctor Who And' ones as the story titles on numerous other occasions). And - 'Excerpts From The Tardis Dictionary Disk' aside - what the Radio Times says, goes. And anyway it sounds stupid.

3. 'Grade Is A C---'

Yes, alright, so Michael Grade (briefly) cancelled Doctor Who in the mid-eighties. He also cancelled Crackerjack, Pop Quiz and many other shows, as good as cancelled Juliet Bravo, slashed available funding for children's programming (hence the afternoon Children's BBC slot containing little bar repeats of The Flintstones and Fame! for months on end), and insisted on a much smaller budget for Blackadder II. This was not out of malice or spite, but necessity; namely the need to make cuts to fund the expensive launch of a BBC daytime TV service. Anything that was underperforming with the audience was first on the list, and while his comments on Room 101 didn't exactly help his cause, in his autobiography It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time (which, incidentally, is great and you should all read it) Grade gives a good account of his actions. He was, after all, a station controller who'd watched in dismay as The Two Doctors drove huge numbers of viewers away from BBC1 on the key viewing night of the week. And, y'know, those are the sort of decisions their job requires them to make.

In that same book, you will find evidence aplenty that, far from being some cigar-chomping lizard-eyed profit-margin-obsessed mogul with a particular hatred for science fiction fans, much of Grade's career has been taken up by commissioning and supporting quality drama, taking incredible scheduling risks that often paid off in unexpected ways, and most importantly staunchly defending The Singing Detective - arguably the finest television series ever made - against detractors determined to denounce it as filth. You'd never get that in the age of 'compliance'. He's also on record as having said he loves the revived series and considers it brilliantly made, so now - finally - can we have a bit of hatchet-burying and a little less bile flung at one of the few 'good guys' in the television industry?

And before anyone chimes in about Chris Morris, Grade fought hard to get Brass Eye shown, only reluctantly pulling the original transmission when he discovered that some material would have placed Channel 4 in a legally dubious position, and he didn't really deserve to be insulted in such a childish and ungrateful fashion. The Paul Daniels interview was funny though.

2. Shhhhh! Spoilers!!

No, this isn't a rant about hating River Song - we'd need a whole additional top ten for that - but about actual spoilers. And those who trade in them, AND those who complain about them. Confused? You will be... (pauses while nobody notices the 'clever' metatextuality of that reference).

Remember waiting all week to see what The Destroyer looked like? And then finding out the answer was 'a bit rubbish'? Anticipating a new episode of Doctor Who used to be as exciting as, and sometimes more exciting than, the episode itself. The show's early producers have often spoken of how their biggest audiences were for the first episodes of new stories, with people tuning in to see who the latest aliens looked like, after losing interest in the previous bunch halfway through. Look at that early fan newsletter reprinted in Doctor Who - The Sixties, and you'll see the editor jumping up and down with excitement despite not knowing much more than the working titles of stories that were due to air in a fortnight or so. Even twenty years later, in the age of Doctor Who Magazine, little had changed; prior to transmission, all anyone really knew were story titles and bits and pieces of cast details and that was it. Only once, to the best of anyone's knowledge, did an episode escape in any form before it was aired, and even then it was a hissy and distorted audio of a very visual second episode of a story, so it made no sense anyway.

These days, however, you can't move for people who want to know every last detail about new episodes as far in advance of transmission as possible. Go to any prominent fan site and you'll find - whether you want to see them or not - a list of 'spoilers' that are almost as long as the actual scripts. But where's the joy in knowing exactly what's going to happen beforehand? Would, say, The Invasion Of Time have worked as well if all its twists and turns had been common knowledge pre-broadcast? Of course not, but then rampant spoilerism isn't anything to do with joy; it's more to do with the need to be the most knowledgeable fan on the block, to discover that elusive last little snippet of information that will have a couple of dozen internet forum posters hailing you as a hero for about thirty seconds.

Enough of this nonsense. Let's get a bit of surprise and mystery back into Doctor Who, and maybe, just maybe, get back to the days when even "wait... don't move!" and Sylvester hanging over an ice ledge for no reason could, in the heat of the moment, feel like exciting cliffhangers. But then again... there's the whining from the production team, who seem unable to understand that with their very public displays of 'secret filming' and encouraging their pals who've been to preview screenings to slap 'not allowed to say anything about it but I've just seen best episode ever!' type statements all over Twitter, that they are basically poking the spoiler hornet's nest with a red hot poker... and those fans who think that they have to assume a militant anti-spoiler stance and complain that the Radio Times announcing what day and time it's going to be on is ruining their enjoyment... and suddenly you feel like revealing everywhere that the Ice Warriors are back (sort of) next series. Sometimes, you just can't win. And now someone's going to complain about having Rhinocratic Oaths by The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band spoilered...

1. The 'We Hate Social Workers' Scene in Silver Nemesis

Some things are just beyond ridicule.