Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Hiding behind the sofa...

It's hard to miss the giant posters of Daleks around Earl's Court at the moment. No, it's not an invasion, but more a sign that the school holidays are upon us, and there's an exhibition of the iconic Sci-Fi series to promote, taking place in the museum hall of Earl's Court.

The exhibition features some of the costumes and props from the current run of the series, including Daleks and Cybermen, as well as displays on its history and the making of the programmes (some with strobe lighting, dry ice and other special effects) since its inception in 1963, though the emphasis is on the current 'resurrected' series, produced by BBC Wales.

For much of my childhood I was an avid fan. My earliest memories are of the second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton, fighting Ice Warriors and surrounded by lots of foam. (I think this was supposed to be a suffocating goo produced by fungi the evil Martians had sent to earth to poison the atmosphere).

I followed the adventures every week, always willing us to get to my Grandmother's on time when we visited, which was almost every week-end. One of my frustrations was that we seemed always to turn up just as it was starting, and the TV set took about five minutes to warm up. (Younger readers will never know the joys of ancient black-and-white sets with their huge valves...)

The Ice Warriors - scaly humanoids from Mars whose weakness was warmth - quickly became a firm favourite, alongside those real monster stalwarts, the Cybermen and Daleks. I must confess that I never actually hid behind the sofa, and didn't find the Daleks all that intimidating. Perhaps I was just being precocious, but I sussed early on the fact they couldn't climb stairs. (Eventually, of course, the TV producers realised they had to tackle this and showed that the Daleks could hover; in the latest incarnation, they can actually fly. In my view, that's just cheating). I therefore found the Cybermen more scary, as they were cold, unemotional, invincible and could get to the first floor without a lift. (Have you noticed that the Daleks always seem so highly strung, too? All that shouting 'Exterminate!' all over the place. So un-British.)

It's funny how memory makes you associate individual programmes with specific real events. I recall missing an episode of The Curse of Peladon because of the power cuts in 1972, and it was only years later that I bought the video to find out what had happened. I'm not a great collector of videos, but it's an absolute tragedy that the film of so many of the earlier series have been lost - I would love to see The Evil of the Daleks again, just to see if it is as I remember it. Many that have survived have only done so, apparently, because networks in Australia and Singapore kept their copies. I always preferred episodes set in space, or at least on other planets (my wanderlust started early, too) and was somewhat disappointed when the third Doctor Who, in the form of John Pertwee, had a long run set on Earth. More cheating, in my view. But at some point in Tom Baker's wonderful stewardship of the role, the usual teenage interests took over, not to mention 'O' levels to study for, and going to University in 1980 marked the end of Saturdays spent in front of the telly.

Until its recent resurrection, of course. BBC Wales really did hit on something when they realised that modern cgi techniques, plus a singular lack of decent drama and a frustrated audience of grown-up fans, meant that there was a ready market for a new series.

I have to say I find the glitz and polish of the new productions a little off-putting - there was something terribly endearing about all those slightly dodgy sets, where imagination had to fill in for special effects. (Wasn't it strange how many planets looked like disused quarries?) And the monsters these days often seem too easy to polish off: the Cybermen of old really were nigh-on invincible, their only weakness being gold dust, which they couldn't breathe.

There - my anorak credentials are laid bare!

The Dr Who exhibition runs at Earl's Court until September 15th. Adult entry is £9, children £7 (plus booking fee if done over the internet) and tickets are for entry at a specific time.

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