Thursday, July 21, 2016

The End of Time

Over two and a half years ago, on Saturday November 23 2013, Doctor Who, the television programme that has enthralled me from early childhood reached its fiftieth anniversary, just a couple of years before I reached my own. Before the special new epic episode went out later that evening, at exactly 1715 I watched the very first, fifty years to the minutes after it first went out. “An Unearthly Child" excited me, as it had since the first time I saw it projected from 16mm film in a university lecture theatre in 1979. The following day, I found myself watching episode two, “The Cave of Skulls”, and a new ritual was born. I would mark the fiftieth anniversary of my favourite made-up world by watching it all, an episode a day until there were no more episodes to watch.
I filled in the clusters of missing episodes from the first six years by using the restored and narrated off-air soundtracks made by fans at the time, and by viewing the reconstruction of the episodes combining these soundtracks with off-screen pictures and other visuals. The linear rush through these black and white sixties episodes was, I now realise, and kind of grand multimedia re-staging of the joyful enlightenment that came to me as a seven year old when “The Making of Doctor Who” and the tenth anniversary Radio Times special magazine revealed the hitherto-obscure history of the programme that had become the highlight of my week.
As the newly-recovered missing Patrick Troughton episodes sped past in twelve days, I realised it would be over two years before could watch them again. My rules were that I could watch the new episodes that were broadcast as well as each daily vintage one, but I couldn’t watch any others, jumping neither forwards nor backwards.
By summer 2014, I’d watched all the sixties episodes and was joined for the colour ones by my friends Gill and Martin. We’d try and keep in step with each other and share our period memories and modern evaluations of them an episode at a time in a shared discussion. I’d just started formally practicing mindfulness and found this a rich vein of material with which to assess what I was actually experiencing instead of what I was thinking about experiencing.
The next year was a vivid one as we passed into episodes I’d watched as a child and ones which I’d watched when I’d known my two fellow travellers. We watched my first memory of the series, “The Daemons” from 1971, the episode from my seventh birthday (“Planet of the Daleks” Part One), and remembered how we’d felt when Jo left the Doctor at the end of “The Green Death”. The more times I relive these, the more I re-remember them and hardwire who I am. These were formative legends.
In early 2015, my then employer had me commuting from Edinburgh to Glasgow every day. I had time to watch each 25-minute Tom Baker episode and write a mini-essay for the others. It was the sole redeeming feature of that ghastly engagement. By April, my lack of enthusiasm had percolated through to our client, who asked my employer not to send me to them any more, and so Spring and Summer of 2015 became my JN-T period, when my own professional future became as insecure as that of the programme during the eighties. My last day with my employer was the day we watched Tom Baker hang up his scarf. I spent a glorious month of paid garden leave with his open-faced successor each day, and on a sea day of our summer holiday cruise round the Baltic, watched all 90 minutes of “The Five Doctors” on my iPad in a coffee lounge aboard the P&O Aurora.
Back to work, to a new employer. My commute was short and often on two wheels. Fitting in one of the sixth Doctor’s first run of experimental 45-minutes episodes each day proved a squeeze and compromised the essence of the experiment - the serial, episode-at-a-time experience which meant I was usually in the middle of an adventure. These were over in a couple of days.
Eventually, the original 26-year run came to an end. In a succession of leaps worthy of a time traveller, we went from the first ending, in 1989, to the fleeting rebirth in 1996, to the more permanent resurrection in 2005 in just three days. Although I’d conceived this as an episode each day, the three of us agreed that as they were all now a bit longer, and usually comprised an entire story, we’d watch one every other day, giving time to chew them over.
Work got busier, and the winter saw me trying to devote five days a week to prepare for an ultra marathon. My ability to write up my reactions was compromised and I still feel sorry that I failed to keep a diary for the whole experiment.
While we’d been doing this, two whole series featuring a whole new Doctor had gone out. As I watched “The Name of the Doctor” in which the Doctor dives into his own time stream I mused that I was about to do the same thing, by now re-watching the new episodes that I’d double-banked on Saturdays along with whatever the historic episode was I was watching.
And last night, I reached “Hell Bent”, the most recent episode of the most recent series of Doctor Who. I’ve caught up. Nearly. Christmas 2015 was a fraught time. I managed to watch “Gridlock” on Christmas morning, as my schedule dictated, but family commitments meant I didn’t see “The Husbands of River Song” go out that night. A week later, I still hadn’t managed to watch it and decided to make accident the mother of invention and resolved to deliberately hold it back until the end of the experiment.
And so, tomorrow, to round this off, I will watch the most recent episode of Doctor Who, for the first ever time. The last episode of this sequence will be the only one I will be watching for the first time ever. It seems apt to turn my focus from revisiting the past to what will be, for me, experiencing the present.
And, then, I shall be done. What then? We’ve contemplated simply starting again at “An Unearthly Child”. Or whipping through Doctor Who’s off-screen stable-mate “Blake’s Seven” or on-screen siblings “Torchwood” or “The Sarah-Jane Adventures”. But I’ve resisted these ideas. For me, the right thing to do next is to step away from discipline and ritual for a while and just let spontaneity take over.  I have the luxury of not watching Doctor Who for a while. Of reading on the bus instead of watching Peter Capaldi weave magic on my smartphone screen. Or I can choose to scratch itches that have become pervasive over the last couple of years - to wallow again in the glory that is the recoloured “The Mind of Evil”, to experience the oddness of the recovered portions of “Galaxy Four” and “The Underwater Menace”. And as soon as the nights draw in again, I think it highly unlikely that I will not succumb to the temptation of “The Enemy of the World” and “The Web of Fear”, still only watched twice since they were returned to the archives. And speaking of archives, Obverse Books’s “The Black Archive” series of book essays and Doctor Who Magazine’s “The Fact of Fiction” will keep leading me to look at Doctor Who stories just because they’re good, or interesting or both.
I may be a little lost without my daily and then other-daily ritual. I haven’t aways felt like watching whatever the next episode was, or had the time, but I’ve always done it, and usually felt glad to have done so. These are my rosaries, my catechisms. I mentally list the stories in order when I’m swimming or out running. There was a time in early 2014 when I could actually recite the individual Hartnell episode titles. That was a condition which, as an adolescent, I aspired to.  In carrying out this pilgrimage through the past, I have done my adolescent self proud. He’s still there, alive, inside me, and as deserving of my love and kindness as he’s ever been.

1 comment:

Faceofboe said...

It was a pleasure and a privilege joining you on your journey. I hope we do another thing some time soon.