Very Saturday tea-time: Chasing the magic of Doctor Who

“It all started out as a mild curiosity in the junkyard, and now it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure.”
– The Doctor, The Sensorites (1964)

A letter to Who,

When you exploded back onto our screens eight years ago, your Northerner’s voice asked us to join you on an adventure. “Do you want to come with me?” you asked us, before issuing a caveat. “Because if you do, then I should warn you – you’re going to see all sorts of things. Ghosts from the past. Aliens from the future. The day the Earth died in a ball of flame. It won’t be quiet, it won’t be safe, and it won’t be calm. But I’ll tell you what it will be: the trip of a lifetime.” We followed you then, thousands upon thousands of us, faithfully, blindly; trusting you with our own lives and our Saturday evenings. We followed you to the end and back again, many times over, and you never let us down. 
I still remember the moment I became a Doctor Who nerd, and I think it was in one of those first precious few minutes’ glimpse of the show that we saw in the trailer on television. It was only confirmed and exacerbated by Rose’s heady and intoxicatingly wonderful mix of the mundane and the extraordinary. Across the following thirteen weeks we met those ghosts and aliens you promised us, we saw the day the Earth disappeared in a ball of flame, and we had the trip of a lifetime. Your ninth. It wasn’t quiet or safe or calm, but it most certainly was one of the most exhilarating and glorious pieces of television I had ever seen. You had that hard edge of steel which grounded us, grounded the show, so perfectly in our world, and we saw ourselves in you, in Rose Tyler and her mum, her boyfriend, saw our dreams reflected in your adventures. And you saved us when we needed you most – as we were surrounded by all those Daleks. We absorbed the energy from the time vortex and you saved us even though it cost you your life. But you regenerated – the simplicity and genius of the show’s inbuilt longevity mechanism – hurling us headfirst into the glorious song of Ten, and your little blue box rocketed its battered wooden way towards Barcelona (or insofar as we can assume). And I just wanted to tell you that you were Fantastic.
Rose saved Ten as well, as we all knew she would and, like her, we fell for him too, the maddest and most mercurial of your incarnations to have graced our screens this side of the time rift. Your first adventure, in those jim-jams (very Arthur Dent, don’t you think?), fighting the Sycorax on top of their ship (no second chances, either) meant that the great cosmic adventure was going to continue, every bit as frenetic and emotional and deliciously mad as it ever was. In fact, it was only really beginning. And here’s the thing: even though your era of the show involved the requisite aliens alongside the companions and their families; even though we saw the almost-end of the world (again and again, season finale after season finale) there was an underlying humanness to it all, an identification with the characters – even you – and it meant that we cared about them, all of them, very last one.
One of the great strengths of Russell T Davies’ writing is that within the first five minutes of having met a character, any character, you know exactly who they are and what they’re on about. Doesn’t matter whether it’s Rose or Martha or Donna, one of the Hath, good old Wilf, or even one of the unnamed characters who reaches their demise in the pre-titles sequence, we know exactly what they’re on about almost as soon as they appear. If they’re a recurring character, like one of the companions or a member of their family, then we watch them develop and grow across the series (or two), but we always see them as people, never as characters. And that is Davies’ strength, one reason why the show worked as well as it did when you crash-landed on our screens back in 2005. It might be doing Davies a bit of a disservice to describe his Who as a bit like a soap-opera, but it’s almost true: we see the families and the characters fight, argue, mend, grow, laugh, and cry, but we love them, we fall in love with them, even Donna Noble, the best temp in Chiswick. We cry with them, we laugh with them, share their pain and heartache and when they leave, when the series ends and you continue on your way, invariably alone, we miss them, we want to see them again, and we hope that you’re going to be alright. Because we know, as well as you do, that you should never be left with yourself for too long. (And you knew it too, after you met Adelaide Brooke.)
In a way, the characters we met in Series One through Four formed a kind of family, a great big warm family of the sharedness of humanity: the Tylers, the Joneses, the Nobles, all of them, even Captain Jack and Mickey, old friends like Sarah Jane Smith, even Harriet Jones (MP Flydale North) – they’re all part of your family, and I don’t think Series Five (or any of the other series’ after Vale Decem) have had that same warmth and humanness to them.
When Russell T Davies left, Steven Moffat took over, and you changed – at first into a bumbling little giraffe of a Time Lord, one who wore tweed and braces, boots, a bow-tie (and sometimes a fez); a Doctor whose face was so young but whose eyes were so old. And your first round of adventures were fun, for a while, while they lasted. You met Vincent van Gogh, in one of the most heartbreaking stories I’ve ever seen, and Amy Pond made us cry. You saved the universe, rebooted the Big Bang by putting yourself and River Song right in the middle of it, and we loved you for that, for your goofy dancing at Amy and Rory’s wedding, for helping to save Christmas (not to mention for taking us on a sleigh ride pulled by a shark). But you changed, became darker, harder, angrier, and we never could forgive you for that. You met the Silence, rewrote history, met your Tardis face-to-face, and collapsed time upon itself, but you also turned us against you. You knew Amy and Rory could not stay with you forever, knew they had to live their own life without you, so you took us all on one last round of adventures. You outwitted the Daleks, saved a spaceship full of dinosaurs and a town called Mercy, you met the Brigadier’s daughter, and the four of you faced the angels, together, one last time. But they got the better of you, the Angels did, and the Ponds’ were cruelly and untimely ripp’d from your life, and you never saw little Amelia again, never said a proper goodbye to the little girl who gave you fish-custard in her kitchen while that one hell of a crack in her wall waited upstairs for you, the girl who called you her Raggedy Doctor.
Then you met Clara Oswald, after a fashion, and you could never quite understand her. ‘The Impossible Girl,’ you called her, and as we slowly grew to like her, she saved your life and you never properly thanked her, for any of it. Your time is almost up, Eleven. I’ve got a feeling you’re going to have some help too, from old friends we haven’t seen all that much of lately, and there’ll be another tenant in your Tardis (just for a little while, though) before too long. I just hope you finish your story well, give it all you’ve got, and go out with a great big bang!
As the fiftieth anniversary of your first appearance on our screens rapidly approaches and the BBC’s publicity juggernaut grinds into overdrive, I’ve been trying to work out why your very existence, why the show’s premise, as a television show and as a phenomenon, seems so unlikely and improbable, why your success is so magical and yet so unfathomably, intangibly, elusive. And although I am no closer to an answer, the journey has been something quite wonderful. All those adventures we’ve shared, the friends we’ve made along the way, the friends who’ve left to continue their lives on their own; all those planets we’ve seen, the sunsets across distant spiral arm galaxies, the threats we stopped, the wonders we savoured and encouraged; and that one time we had to hop, do you remember that? Hopping for our lives. No? Anyway, we hopped once (or twice), and we had a ball, you and us. You never stopped – we never stopped – not once. Not in a million adventures, and fifty years of Saturday tea-times. All across the universe, always running, never slowing (especially through Paris).
It was Brilliant. You were Fantastic. And we all cried Geronimo, one last time.
We were right there with you, every little baby-step of the way. You might not have seen us at first, but we caught up in the end, all held our breath as you crashed on through that milestone. An adventure in space and time.
So here’s to fifty, old friend. And may you never stop running.

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