If you live in Britain or one of the other 93 countries that broadcast Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary specials this weekend (they made several), you’re probably pretty damn sick of Time Lords, Daleks and that bloody bass line by now. I like the show, but even I need a hiatus after being encouraged to binge over the last week thanks to the BBC giving this show unprecedented freedom to indulge the fandom.
I don’t even consider myself a hard-core Whovian (as they like to be called), but not for the usual reasons someone who quite likes the show may be wary of being associated with it. As a child Trekkie who accessorised his blue school jumper with a comm badge and completed his further education by writing a 10,000 word English Literature dissertation that basically boiled down to ‘Who Is Better? Kirk or Picard?’ (not much of an exaggeration), I’m not shy about my sci-fi fandom. If anything, my stupid reflex is to be repelled by a cult hit gaining huge popular success, in the self-destructive way you might curse mainstream radio for not playing the alternative music you like and then brand the band sell-outs and their new fans as posers when they get their big break.
But 50 years for a continuing sci-fi show (on and off) is a pretty damn fine achievement – Star Trek’s due for the golden anniversary in a couple of years too, so look forward to that getting on your nerves, non-nerds! For once I don’t have any room for cynicism, and have just accepted that while Who might not be my #1 favourite show, it’s a hell of a lot easier to lose yourself in when there’s so much of it out there and the creators have the devotion and the funding to write massively fan pleasing installments. I’ve loved it all, and any discussion over whether it'll suffer or improve after Matt Smith hands over to Peter Capaldi is trifling, as the show will soar as long as it’s under the diligent care of Steven Moffat. I’m not going to write a 10,000 word dissertation on Moffat vs. Davies, the internet already exists. And alright, I am a little excited about Capaldi.
I just watched the anniversary episode a day late online, thanks to being in the jaded half of the world that opts out of imaginative TV, and caught up on the related poignant and whimsical dramas that marked the milestone for this show that I can finally accept among my favourites. I'm coming out of that surprisingly spacious closet, and I even felt compelled to bash out a hastily written short story tribute. Hopefully I've missed the anniversary bandwagon and this will be satisfyingly superfluous, I’d hate to be mainstream. The tale doesn’t really capture the joy and enthusiasm the show has given me in my new non-travelling, work-heavy life, as it ended up being no more light-hearted than any of the other horrible stories I occasionally write. Maybe I watched too much Breaking Bad. But trust me, I’m doing okay.
So I guess I wasn’t killed in the devastating Philippines typhoons then. See you in two months for another update that mentions nothing of any real-world importance!
I’ve never had any trouble remembering the day I lost my son. No rhyming mnemonics are needed for that one, it was already a notable calendar date for our family – Peter's 10th birthday and my 50th, by coincidence rather than design. I admit, I did glance at my watch occasionally in the maternity ward as it ticked tantalisingly closer to midnight and the potential for slightly easier dual party planning in the long term beckoned, but I wouldn’t have cursed my wife for delivering ahead of time for the sake of a fun family factoid. She pulled through.
Even more significant for Peter and me than our mutual birthday was that we also shared the occasion with a common friend and lifelong role model, though that’s saying a little more for my then-50 years compared to his brief 10. The 23rd of November 2013 was the 50th birthday of the BBC’s generation-spanning Doctor Who, which had handily provided our main source of bonding as Peter grew. Naturally, I was more a fan of the classic series while my son was more of a philistine who likes digital explosions, but the BBC knows what it’s doing with that revolving door of attractive female companions to appeal to us dads. That unifying show truly offers something for everyone – well, apart from the female half of the population, obviously.
Channeling my inner child, I’d spent the previous three weekends putting together the perfect birthday gift – supposedly for Peter, but it was really a gift for the three of us. Peter, myself and our imaginary friend. I’d converted our redundant garden shed into something that vaguely approximated the iconic TARDIS, as close as I could manage with two tins of blue paint and no carpentry skills anyway. It was a labour of love, and I’m comfortable enough in my immaturity to admit I passed some quiet time in there at the end of an afternoon of DIY, imagining the rotten bench in front of me was the TARDIS console and that a few non-descript clanks of a lever and colorful buttons would send me on my next adventure through space and time. I had to curtail these imaginings thanks to the lingering paint fumes; I was starting to see the time vortex in my blurring vision.
As a child in this same garden, I’d often played Doctor in the shed we’d had back then. It wasn’t blue, of course, but that wasn’t a hindrance as neither was the TARDIS on our TV screen in those days. Those Jon Pertwee serials are so brilliantly colourful watching back, but as our modest family went without the luxury of a colour TV until well into the Tom Baker years I didn't know I was missing it.
Come the big day, I unveiled the big blue box beneath the tarpaulin and the glow in Peter’s eyes made me grateful for the billionth time that these geek loins hadn’t spawned a football fan or devotee of something else I would have lacked the enthusiasm to be supportive about. His genetically engineered science fiction upbringing may lead to him facing difficulties in adolescence (unless geeks are cool now? I don’t keep track), but no father and son had a closer relationship than ours. One that was now – unbeknownst to all but one in attendance – rapidly approaching its conclusion.
‘Wow!’ Peter cheered. ‘My own TARDIS!’ He ran towards the shed, a familiar sight now rendered even more familiar in TARDIS blue, and inspected the lacking details, as I knew he would.
‘It’s as close as you’re gonna get,’ I admitted. But he didn’t need the disclaimer – it was hardly a stretch for the infinite imagination of this little man in a miniature suit and dickie bow that he was now owner-operator of a bona fide time machine. What I would have given to feel that spark of imagination and adventure again, but at 50 the best I could hope for was living through him. It was adequate.
‘TARDIS! Time And Relative Dimension In Space,’ he explained to those among the entertained onlookers who hadn’t had that particular mantra drilled into them.
‘Take a look inside,’ I urged. Not to see my crappy attempt at Gallifreyan interior design, but so he could join the ranks of the Doctor’s companions by spouting the popular catch-phrase.
‘No! I’m the Doctor. That’s your job, Rory,’ he ordered.
‘Why do I always have to be Rory?’ I mock-complained, glad to have never been called on to portray a sexy female companion in our roleplays at least. I diligently performed the rehearsed exercise, taking an aghast look inside the shed/TARDIS then running around its thrifty perimeter and heading back inside to exclaim: ‘It’s bigger on the inside!’
‘That’s right,’ said the Doctor/Peter, proceeding to deliver a technobabble explanation for this imaginary phenomenon that, to be honest, even went over my head as a lapsed Whovian and casual viewer. Whether it made sense within the nonsensical confines of the Whoniverse or it was just his own spin on scientific gobbledygook, he certainly sounded like he knew what he was talking about. That was my boy.
Uncle Matt followed us inside, carrying one of the various over-priced plastic gizmos Peter had received for his special day to join the others from the past few birthdays, Christmases and various treats and rewards in-between. I didn’t recognise this prop from the show, but at least it wasn’t another bloody sonic screwdriver, we’d amassed enough of those from well-meaning relatives and acquaintances to open up a dedicated eBay shop. Uncle Matt – no-one’s real uncle, as far as I knew, but a friend of mine since I was Peter’s age – held aloft the toy and placed it on the TARDIS console/splintered workbench. ‘Don’t forget this, Doctor!’
‘What’s that?’ Peter asked.
‘It’s the timey-wimey activation circuit,’ Matt patronisingly divulged. ‘Your TARDIS won’t work without it.’
‘Oh, I know that,’ Peter confidently retconned. ‘So, where shall it be, Rory? New New York? Trenzalore? Let’s go somewhere amazing!’
Matt motioned me out into the garden as my son the Doctor contentedly pushed non-existent buttons and activated the timey-wimey circuit. The time-honoured sound effect of scratched piano strings and electronic beeps and boops reverberated around the garden. When I looked back, Peter had gone.
‘Peter?’ I asked, then repeated the enquiry at louder volumes for an indeterminate period. It didn’t take long for the impossible reality to be confirmed. ‘How could this happen?’ I remember myself asking, distraught and mind-blown.
‘It’s the way it had to be,’ Uncle Matt calmly replied. ‘What I did, I did without choice... in the name of peace and sanity. Tell me John, do you remember your 10th birthday?’
‘Yes,’ I said, despite the irrelevance. ‘That was the first time you came over, wasn’t it? I was playing Doctor Who.’ I was the Doctor, of course. My own father was brought up in a culture where growing up was a necessary part of adulthood, so there was never any question of him taking part and being my Rory, or my Brigadier as it would have been back then. But then Matt came over, unannounced, wearing his own antiquated Doctor costume, and we had our own 10th anniversary adventure before he grudgingly accepted becoming the Brigadier from then on. And Jo Grant on one occasion further down the line, but we don’t need to go into that.
‘Do you remember the costume I was wearing that first time?’ Matt persevered.
‘It was a Second Doctor costume, wasn’t it? The sort of thing Patrick Troughton used to wear. Scruffy jacket, bow tie. Very similar to...’ I mercifully didn’t take too long to cotton on. You might have expected more from someone as well-versed in time travel clichés as I am, but I wasn’t exactly in the best state of mind. ‘No,’ I flatly denied. ‘That would be ridiculous.’
‘It was me,’ Matt/Peter confirmed. ‘I mean, it is me. I was sent back 40 years. I didn’t know what was happening, I was still in my bloody play-world. I recognised another kid in a vintage Doctor outfit and I played along, it wasn’t until your parents came out of the house and I realised my own family didn’t live here any more... or at least, not my generation of the family, as I learned much later.’
I can’t say for sure why I continued with this ludicrous fantasy. Possibly for the escape it offered from the serious situation of my son’s very real disappearance. Rest assured, while we were prattling on about causality and the ramifications of changes to the space-time continuum, my wife and other friends and family more responsible than the sci-fi nerds were being pragmatic in their search, contacting the authorities and spreading the word around the neighbourhood. No one else was prepared to accept that a child had travelled back into the past in a home-made TARDIS. I chose the comforting escape of fiction and insanity that told me my son was found, and was standing right here among us.
‘I don’t understand. How could you do this to yourself?’ I asked the time traveller. ‘With that... thing, whatever it is.’
‘The fruits of my research. I finally managed to put some of my limited 21st century knowledge to good use, advancing the field of temporal mechanics beyond its years, all for this. Because there was bugger-all else I was useful for! Seriously, if you’re ever going to send an ambassador back into the past to warn the Earth’s population about upcoming horrors, don’t choose a 10-year-old boy who knows nothing about his world outside of a silly sci-fi show. I can’t tell you the amount of time I’ve wasted, racking my brain, trying to remember any notable events from my brief life in the future. Terrorist attacks, wars, any avoidable deaths. Nope – just some tentative clues about the Last Great Time War and the sequence of Doctors, but I kept those spoilers to myself.’
‘That last-minute jump in the odds for Peter Capaldi replacing Matt Smith – that was your doing?’
‘I placed the odd wager. I had to fund this research somehow.’
‘But why?’ I pleaded. ‘Why go to lengths to create the situation that sent you away in the first place? That took you out of my life?’
‘Because I learned over time, it all happens for a reason. There are consequences for conspiring to alter the course of events. You can’t begin to imagine.’
‘I watch Doctor Who.’
‘Alright, you’ve got a head-start. But forget Daleks and Cybermen – there are ancient, colossal forces at work out there, of unfathomable...’
‘I’ve read Lovecraft as well. Is this all bullshit to take my mind off my son running away? Because I have better things to do than listen to this.’
‘Running away? You saw him, he vanished – I vanished. Back into the past. I am your son!’
‘No, that’s not true,’ I matter-of-factly denied. ‘That’s impossible. But just on the off chance that you’re not an utter screwball, I’m going back to get you.’ I strolled into the TARDIS shed and approached the strange device. Matt chased after me, but warily kept his distance outside the door.
‘Stop! It won’t work! Do you remember a 50-year-old man appearing out of the shed that day? No! It didn’t happen then, so it can’t happen now! Time won’t let you!’
‘Time will do what it’s bloody well told,’ I declared. And with that charismatic send-off, I pushed the button and was engulfed in a bright flash of light. My vision and balance returned, and I saw that the garden outside was empty. Gone was Matt – or Peter, as he claimed – as were the few upset stragglers desperately awaiting his younger counterpart’s safe return that would never happen. Unless I had something to say in the matter!
‘Peter?’ I called, wandering the garden. There was something awry; an absent sound of birds and neighbourhood children. It all seemed too quiet. The TARDIS shed was still standing, so I couldn’t have been sent to the past. Which only left... then I saw the Dalek.
‘EXTERMINATE!’ the diminutive pepper pot foe predictably announced, trundling along the garden path towards me and waggling its eye stalk and laser cannon or gas spray, depending on which incarnation of the franchise I’d somehow ended up in. I wasn’t in the mood for games. I picked up a sheer piece of sheet metal that had fallen off the shed roof during my renovations, and that there evidently hadn’t been time to clear away in the intervening years or decades as the Earth fell to the legions of Skaro. I ran at the Dalek, letting rip an instinctive battle cry and tearing its head clean off in a single swipe. The top section bounced along the grass, leaving a trail of red blood behind it. That’s inconsistent with canon, I observed.
I heard a sharp intake of breath from the patio, followed by a piercing scream that turned into a commotion. My wife and Uncle Matt sprang from their hiding positions and ran to attend to the dead boy in the Dalek costume while the other birthday guests ran into the house to call the authorities for real this time. I saw the banner they’d hastily strung up over the French doors while I’d been distracted by Matt’s tall tale:
HAPPY 50th BIRTHDAY, JOHN AND THE DOCTOR!
HAPPY 50th BIRTHDAY, JOHN AND THE DOCTOR!
My grasp on reality had conveniently slipped far enough that descent into full-on catatonia was a breeze. The last thing I remember from the day that changed everything was meeting Matt’s gaze, my lifelong friend and grown-up child, as he looked up from his younger self’s dead eyes and faded away.
(Images © BBC probably)