Transfer Day – Doctor Who’s Little Book of Villains

DSCF1958Two things I noticed recently as a result of writing the last blog article on 1982’s Doctor Who Easter Egg. Firstly, the box features not just a Dalek on the outside but also other creatures as well, ones that would not have been familiar to viewers of the series…

A Guardian of TIST. So now you know...

A Guardian of TIST

Second, it was only when I opened the box that I discovered I’d kept the rub-down transfers, modestly titled ‘Doctor Who’s Little Book of Villains’. I was pleased to find that I’d completed the transfers in the comic strip story, a rather slight tale where the Doctor and Tegan get into trouble with the Master on ‘a strange galaxy known as LATOT’ before making their escape by pressing a button (maybe some current writers also got this egg in 1982?).

More rigorous collectors than me may sigh and tut at the thought that the set hadn’t been preserved in mint condition but it’s surely only right that my younger self picked up his pencil and got on with the job of filling in the scenes rather than worrying about future valuations.

Oh, I used to love a transfer set… The idea of them seems incredibly old-fashioned now but there were few happier ways to spend a wet afternoon when I was a kid than ‘doing a transfer’. There was a formidable range available (Romans, Wild West, DC Super Heroes… do check out the wonderful Action Transfers website for a comprehensive index with great scans) and I remember to this day my joy at finding a Star Wars set at the height of the craze that accompanied that film. There was a Doctor Who set, by the way, though I never saw it in the shops – a shame as I would have loved overseeing the Fourth Doctor’s return bout with the Daleks as they invaded Earth again…

Doctor Who Action Transfer, 1976

Doctor Who Action Transfer, 1976

Anyway, back to my little book. Although Suchard evidently had permission to use the Doctor, Tegan, the Master and the Daleks they evidently weren’t happy to stop at that, feeling the need to embellish the set with their own creations: a Guardian of TIST (a sort of hairy gorilla-like alien in a leotard), a Marsh-Crypson (a spine-covered octopus ‘most at home on swamp planets’) and a Ledom Warrior (a droid with big clamps for hands which wouldn’t have looked out of place in any number of sci-fi shows and films at that time).

3 villains

Villains from ‘Doctor Who’s Little Book of Villains’, 1982

In truth the BBC’s designers didn’t have anything to fear from Suchard’s artists, though you have to admire their enthusiasm in thinking up new foes for the Doctor to face.

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Choc-tor Who – TARDIS Easter Egg

Suchard TARDIS Easter Egg, 1982

Suchard TARDIS Easter Egg, 1982

Yeah I know, that’s a really awful headline… but the truth is there’s something about recalling Doctor Who-based confectionery from your youth that brings out the inner child, and as we all know kids do love a corny pun…

I’m rather proud of myself for hanging on to this box which contained an Easter Egg (which I did not hang onto) manufactured by Suchard in 1982. Perhaps it was because I was at an age where my enthusiasm for Doctor Who was becoming that bit more serious and I had a sense that this kind of stuff was worth keeping. But I think it’s more likely that I just liked the box, with its brightly coloured Dalek blasting away at the TARDIS door and moveable cut out Peter Davison.

Doctor Who Chocolate, 1971

Doctor Who Chocolate, 1971

There was always something thrilling about seeing Doctor Who emblazoned on food in the shops, particularly so when it was on something a tasty as chocolate (and is it me or was Suchard an unusually high-end manufacturer to be making something linked to Doctor Who at this time?). I have hazy memories of the Nestle’s Doctor Who chocolate bars adorned with Jon Pertwee’s face but my copy of Howe’s Transcendental Toybox tells me they date from 1971, meaning I was unlikely to have been buying them (I would have been one year old) unless Mr Cursh who ran the lovely old sweet shop in Willerby where I grew up kept them on his shelves for a very long time.

It may be that I’m getting mixed up with a later range from 1975 which featured Tom Baker’s Doctor on the wrappers along with Sarah, Harry, the Brigadier, the TARDIS and, wonderfully, Sergeant Benton who really didn’t make it onto enough items of merchandise considering his long and distinguished service to UNIT. Or perhaps I’m thinking of the Star Trek chocolate bars which Nestle’s produced at about the same time (and yes, they used to be known as Nestle’s at the time…). Now they were seriously yummy; made of white chocolate with coloured sugary pieces… they were enough to send a dentist into shock.

Doctor Who Chocolate, 1975

Doctor Who Chocolate, 1975

But the thing is, when I see those images of the blue and yellow wrappers with that picture of the Pertwee bouffant they seem familiar in a way that the Baker-era ones just don’t. Maybe shops just weren’t so worried about sell by dates in those days? Ah well, the memory cheats as they say and some mysteries will never be solved… but I’d love to travel back to the mid-1970s to try some Doctor Who chocolate again.

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More Memories of Longleat – Doctor Who Celebration Commemorative Programme

Good reading if you're stuck in a queue... Doctor Who Celebration brochure

Good reading if you’re stuck in a queue… Doctor Who Celebration brochure

At least I had something to read whilst waiting in the autograph queue at Longleat in 1983. Standing in that vast line (I think I was towards the back but there were so many people there it was hard to tell) I was glad to have something to distract me and pleased that I’d decided to shell out 50p for the commemorative programme.

It’s not the most impressive brochure of its type you’ll ever see, coming in at a slim twelve pages, all in black and white, with one of those rather insipid painted images on the cover which publishers went in for at that time. But if you can see past the underwhelming design it’s an interesting read, both for what it tells you about the programme and as a piece of convention history as well.

"Excellent!" Earthshock Cyberman captured at Longleat 1983

“Excellent!” Earthshock Cyberman captured at Longleat 1983

After introductions from Longleat owner Lord Bath (“I’ve always been a fan”) and producer John Nathan-Turner (“Enjoy yourselves (which won’t be hard) and stay tuned”) the main content is a lengthy history of Doctor Who by Ian Levine, at that time the programme’s semi-official historian.

It’s informative stuff. This was the first place I learned there had been an untransmitted pilot episode, or that Cyril Cusack had been in the frame to play the Doctor. It also reflects many of the prevailing views in fandom at the time: The Gunfighters is described as ‘the worst Doctor Who story ever’; the Graham Williams era was felt by a lot of fans to have ‘too much humour and too little drama’; JN-T’s taking over is said to herald ‘a golden age period with visually stunning drama and colourful locations’. All of these viewpoints would be revisited and reassessed in the years ahead, as is the nature of any programme with as avid a following as Doctor Who.

The timetable of events makes for fascinating reading. Some elements indicate that Britain in 1983 was a more traditional, deferential place – both days opened at 10:00am with the Royal Welch Fusiliers Corps of Drums playing in front of Longleat House.

Hecate casts a spell...

Hecate casts a spell… another costume on display at Longleat, 1983

The prominence given to screenings of old stories indicates how times have changed. In the pre-mass video ownership, pre-multi-channel TV era there really were very few opportunities to see episodes from yesteryear so, as Michael Stevens said in his response to my last post, fans were willing to queue for ages to catch a glimpse of The Dominators. Sadly for Michael, the projector broke down when he finally made it into the screening tent… (For the completists, those stories in showing in the ‘Doctor Who Cinema’ were The Dalek Invasion of Earth; The Dominators; Terror of the Autons; Terror of the Zygons; and The Visitation.)

Overall one gets the impression of an event where the organisers really didn’t know what was about to hit them. Huge crowds would throw the whole schedule out and virtually bring surrounding roads to a standstill. Images and footage from the event show that the staging was as impressive as an underwhelming church fete put on at short notice. But from a modern viewpoint, when many conventions have grown into enormous corporate affairs with ‘VIP lines’ and silver, platinum and gold packages sold for eye-watering prices, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for a more innocent age.


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Doctor Who’s Woodstock – Longleat Celebration Event, 1983

Time Lords Conference Room, Longleat 1983

“Hours I had to queue to see this! Hours!!” Me on Gallifrey, Longleat 1983

It was the event that many Doctor Who fans claim to have been present at and in fairness, given the organisers were overwhelmed by the numbers who fetched up at the gates of Longleat House in April 1983, they probably were. Or if not, they were most likely waiting outside in the forlorn hope of gaining access to the massively over-subscribed Doctor Who Celebration event which marked the programme’s twentieth anniversary.

Legend has it that 35,000 people attended on the first day, 10,000 more than expected, with many more were turned away at the gate but nobody really knows the exact numbers. Like the Doctor’s exact age or the precise dates he worked at UNIT, it’s one of those things that have taken on a kind of mythic status over the years, and the truth shall never be known.

Kamelion looking nonchalant in the TARDIS

Kamelion looking nonchalant in the TARDIS, Longleat 1983

My own memories of the event are, unsurprisingly, of queues. Long ones. My Dad, good-natured and cheerful as ever, went around with me and stood in line for the autographs tent for what seemed like a couple of decades. It didn’t move and the boredom was only relieved by a glimpse of Peter Davison, in full Doctor costume, saying good morning to the crowds as he made his way in. Noticing that the soldiers on duty were wearing UNIT badges also raised a smile (I think they were there to shift equipment and set out barriers rather than to shoot the people queuing to get in…).

Eventually, after a bit of gentle prompting from Dad, we decided this game wasn’t worth the candle and gave up our place to wander through the other attractions the event had to offer. This included a close-up look at some sets and costumes, a very crowded merchandise tent and a chance to have my photo taken in the TARDIS.

"Saw that Davros the other day. Hasn't half let himself go..."

“Saw that Davros the other day. Hasn’t half let himself go…”, Longleat 1983

I don’t look too thrilled in the resulting snaps (the one my Dad took is a good deal clearer than the Polariod we were provided – I can’t remember if we had to pay…); perhaps through a combination of tiredness and disappointment that a good portion of the day had been wasted, or maybe it was having my illusions shattered that the only thing inside the police box prop was empty camera film packs.

"And you're set on world domination are you?" Longleat 1983

“And you’re set on world domination are you?” Longleat 1983

Before I knew it, it was time to go and meet up with my Mum, sister and her German pen-friend who, not fancying having to endure the seething mass of humanity that was the Doctor Who event, had spent the day happily strolling the house and grounds.

I suspect my memories of that day at Longleat are similar to many other people’s – hordes of people, lots of queuing interspersed with the odd star-struck moment, but a general feeling that at least I was there to experience this unexpectedly hugely popular event, even if I didn’t manage to meet my heroes. And it was nice to see some authentic Doctor Who stuff close-up, including a Dalek as can be seen on the About page.

Never have managed to get Peter Davison’s autograph, by the way. Twice I’ve been to conventions where he cancelled at the last minute; twice I tell you…

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Sherlock and the Doctor

Long before Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss made Sherlock, there was another significant connection between Doctor Who and British literature’s greatest detective. The year following his departure from the TARDIS, Tom Baker slipped the deerstalker on for the BBC’s adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the best known novel in the Holmes canon.

It was something of a Doctor Who renuion for Tom. The serial was made for BBC1’s Sunday evening classic drama slot which at the time was overseen by Barry Letts as producer and Terrance Dicks as script editor, who had been instrumental in casting the Fourth Doctor. For myself and probably many other kids at the time who weren’t about to read the source material, these dramas served as our education in classic novels. Usually it was Dickens with the odd Thackeray or Bronte thrown in so there was great excitement when something rather more thrilling came along, especially when Doctor Who was going to be playing Sherlock Holmes.

The Hound of the Baskervilles tie-in edition

The Hound of the Baskervilles tie-in edition

My first inkling of it was when I saw this tie-in edition in a temporary book stall at school. We were all given a £1 token to spend in an effort to persuade us to read more. It just so happened that this covered the price of the book so I handed mine over. All I can say is that this particular educational initiative worked for me and I’ve been hooked on Holmes ever since.

The serial is a very faithful adaptation of the novel, made very much in the BBC’s house style of the time – studio interiors shot on video, filmed location material when they ventured outside (to Dartmoor in this case). You can find clips on You Tube and the whole thing is available for download on the very nifty new BBC Store for a modest price.

It received a mixed reception at the time, one correspondent describing it in a letter to the Radio Times as ‘very disappointing. The interiors were stagy and very poorly lit, the acting was wooden…’. Tom Baker seems to have enjoyed himself during filming whilst recognising his own shortcomings in the role. In his autobiography he recounts an entertaining tale about how ‘the dog who had been engaged by the BBC to play the hound was gentler than Mother Teresa’ and had to be cajoled with chipolata sausages to attack the actor playing Sir Henry Baskerville, but also gives a frank assessment: ‘I couldn’t lift the character into that special world that makes Holmes so funny and fascinating’.

Probably the main reason why the drama isn’t better remembered today, though, is that shortly after the BBC had a go at bringing Holmes to the screen, their ITV rivals Granada trumped their efforts with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett. The lush production values were a cut above anything offered by the BBC at the time and Brett’s witty, twitchy, razor-sharp performance was to establish him as the definitive television Sherlock Holmes until Moffat, Gatiss and Cumberbatch reinvented the part almost thirty years later.

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Extermination Game – War of the Daleks

DSCF1866There was only one choice when it came to deciding what we were going to play on a recent games night. It simply had to be this ingeniously constructed game which is a good candidate for the best board game ever to be associated with Doctor Who (granted, it may not be a long list…).

Dating from 1975, the first thing to note from the box and packaging is that there is no mention of Doctor Who at all – it’s the Daleks who are front and centre here. The first flush of Dalekmania in the 1960s may have long-since faded by the time this game came out but Terry Nation’s creations were still popular enough to carry items of merchandise (there was also a series of Dalek annuals which ran from the mid-1970s).

DSCF1869Open the box and there’s a chunky slab of a board to place the pieces on. The Dalek Control Centre lies at its heart and players need to blow this up by getting to the centre, evading the Daleks along the way. In a fantastic use of Skaros technology the Daleks patrol along grooved tracks, controlled by turning the Control Centre dial.

Considerable skill and foresight is needed to avoid extermination and the terrible fate of going back to the beginning – the Daleks rotate as they move along the tracks and if any part of one touches you that’s you done for, and it’s entirely possible to exterminate yourself (I know that now because it happened to me…).

It’s this that really sets the game apart from more run of the mill efforts (including Strawberry Fields’ own Doctor Who board game, released the same year) and made for a surprisingly challenging game when we had our games night.

DSCF1881The Daleks pieces are rather beautiful too (four red and silver; four blue and gold) and make for great little toys in their own right, reminiscent of the Rolykins which sold by the bucket load in the 1960s.

Naturally, sound effects were needed to accompany the moment of extermination. Ours came courtesy of a Product Enterprise Talking Dalek but you could just as easily provide your own. You couldn’t do any worse than the game’s TV advert

Despite the huge changes in children’s games since the 1970s, I like to think a new version of War of the Daleks could still appeal to youngsters today. It certainly kept me and my fellow players (combined age:192) entertained.

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Paperback Classic – The Making of Doctor Who

The Making of Doctor Who, 1972

The Making of Doctor Who, 1972

This book may be creased, yellowing and nearly as old as I am but it’s a very special book for people who love Doctor Who

Published by Piccolo in 1972, The Making of Doctor Who was the first non-fiction book about the series. All the elements we’re now used to seeing in similar books are there: the episode guide; the biographies of leading actors; the detailed look at how the programme is made – all done in 120 wonderfully concise pages which manage to be informative and straightforwardly entertaining.

Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks have plenty of fun with their material. Rather than a straight retelling of the televised stories to date we get the Doctor’s early travels presented in the form of High Court transcripts from his trial (“We can produce here at least two witnesses, the boy called Jamie and the girl Zoe, who will testify that they travelled with the prisoner of their own accord.”). For the Third Doctor’s adventures the writers use the neat rick of a combination of (occasionally hilarious) memos from the Brigadier to his UNIT superiors (“I took normal military action, set explosive charges and totally destroyed the enemy. Instead of thanking me, the Doctor seemed quite displeased”) and Time Lord archive entries for when the Doctor ventured off Earth.

DSCF1925This playful technique of in-world storytelling feels brilliantly fresh and engaging even at over four decades’ remove (there’s also a medical report on the Doctor from Lourdwater Cottage Hospital which featured in Spearhead From Space, where the notes record ‘strange phenomena are inexplicable in the light of present medical knowledge’) and is the kind of fun approach that’s been missing in so many books published since.

That isn’t to say that there’s an absence of detail: fans in search of chapter and verse could find lists of production codes, writers and directors for all transmitted stories and there’s a very comprehensive chapter about the production of The Sea Devils which starts with the production team suggesting a story featuring the navy to former sailor Malcolm Hulke…

Perhaps the element of the book where it most shows its age is the final chapter ‘Honest to Doctor Who’ which is given over to Rev John Beckwith who makes a determined if not entirely convincing attempt to draw parallels between Christianity and Doctor Who (“If we ask, ‘What has religion go to do with science fiction and space research?’, the answer is: ‘Everything!’).

The world has undoubtedly moved on since 1972 but there’s plenty here to enjoy in this hugely influential book from two of the series’ most important writers.

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Capturing Tom Baker

Product Enterprise Fourth Doctor

Product Enterprise Fourth Doctor

There surely never was a more inspired piece of casting in Doctor Who’s history, maybe in the entire history of television, than choosing Tom Baker to play the Doctor. Plucked from a labouring job on a building site, Baker would go on to make the role completely his own. Arguably none of the other actors to have played the part have been so effective at conveying the character’s alien, other-worldly quality. When Tom Baker’s Doctor stared his enemies down or smiled with that wider-than-the-Mersey grin you somehow believed this really was a man from another world.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that those tasked with depicting the Fourth Doctor have struggled to capture a convincing likeness.

Product Enterprise’s Talking Fourth Doctor, released with a similarly verbose K9 in 2003, went for what you might call the ‘grinning loon’ approach. This was a classic Tom Baker expression, usually used when it was most inappropriate, and was part of the actor’s plan to wrong-foot the audience, always leaving them wondering what his Doctor was going to do next. This worked extremely well on television but doesn’t, I think, translate wholly successfully to a sculpt. Does anyone else think of the Joker when they see that grin permanently fixed like this?

Character Options Fourth Doctors

Character Options Fourth Doctors

The other approach is to go to the opposite end of the scale and opt for a simple, blank stare as Character Options have done with these different versions of the Fourth Doctor. They’re undoubtedly marvellous figures and the accuracy of the costumes is a joy to behold but somehow the face doesn’t quite cut it, capturing none of this Doctor’s madcap sense of fun.

Not a Doctor but an Avenger?

Not a Doctor but an Avenger? Denys Fisher’s Fourth Doctor

Perhaps Denys Fisher had the right approach back in the 1970s. Legend has it that the mould for their Fourth Doctor was damaged so they replaced it with that of one prepared for a Gambit doll from The New Avengers. Whatever the truth of that, at least this Doctor had a welcoming smile on his face that wouldn’t frighten the kids.

Maybe the lesson from all this is that there are some faces that are just impossible to capture accurately. And the brilliant Tom Baker, with those wild staring eyes and trademark grin, really can’t be frozen in plastic…

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Action Stations

Rogues Gallery... Morbius, Zygon, Mummy

Good looking bunch of lads… Morbius, Zygon, Mummy

Doctor Who fans of a certain age can be a curmudgeonly bunch, forever telling the younger generation how much better they have it nowadays. “Not like it was in our day”, they say in their best Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch impression, “We had no repeats! No internet! None of your DVDs! If we wanted to enjoy Doctor Who we had to watch on Saturdays before we had a bath in’t front room! But we were happy!”

It’s pointless telling people how hard the old days used to be, of course, but I’ve always felt one area where people of my age group really did miss out was that of Doctor Who action figures (oh, the hardship…).

To my enduring regret, it seems nobody in the 1970s saw the potential of cashing in on the Star Wars boom and having a go at a Doctor Who range. They surely would have had a big success on their hands in the mid-Tom Baker era when the show attracted upwards of 12 million viewers as part of (cliché alert) BBC1’s legendary Saturday night schedule.

He's behind you! Oh, I give up...

He’s behind you! Oh, I give up…

Eventually Dapol came along and produced an extensive range of figures from the late 1980’s onwards. By then Doctor Who was nowhere near as successful as it had been in the previous decade and children’s attention had moved on to electronic games and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so a hit of Death Star proportions was never on the cards.

Dapol had a good run of over 15 years though, even operating a Doctor Who exhibition for a while and their range had some highlights (the Tetrap’s leather wings are a nice touch) but doesn’t seem to be very fondly-remembered today. Perhaps this is due to the iffy sculpting on some figures or inaccuracies which fans have poked fun at over the years (a green K9, a five-sided TARDIS console, a two-handed Davros who looked like he was busting some moves on the dance floor), though I tend to think those things all add to the enjoyment.

Probably the main reason is that Dapol had the bad luck to be making Doctor Who stuff when the programme was off the air. Their licence expired in 2002, not long before the BBC decided to revive the show, and it was another company that got to produce the tie-in action figures.

How I would have loved these in the 1970s... The Master, Magnus Greel, Mr Sin, D84 Robot

How I would have loved these in the 1970s… The Master, Magnus Greel, Mr Sin, D84 Robot

But I like to think there’s an alternative dimension where the young me and my compatriots were able to create their own adventures featuring the enemies that terrified us on Saturday nights…

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RTD and the Corgi Celebration

Corgi 40th Anniversary Gift Set

Corgi Doctor Who 40th Anniversary Gift Set

The Corgi Doctor Who gift set issued to mark the 40th anniversary in 2003 was a right old mixed bag. Tom Baker was the Doctor of choice, depicted no less than three times. Representing the baddies we had an Earthshock Cyberman, a Hartnell-era Dalek and a Davros of uncertain vintage. K9 was present too, and as with other items in the collection the scaling was a bit off – the tin dog modelled here looked as though he’d had his snout in the Winalot bag when the Doctor wasn’t looking.

This mix of characters and eras from the programme’s history gave the feeling of a greatest hits package, as though the development team at Corgi had gone home and each asked their relatives what they most remembered about Doctor Who. Not an unreasonable approach really, given the set was intended as a mass market product to sell off the back of a special birthday for a programme which had long-since disappeared from the screen.

That all changed in late 2003, of course, with the unexpected announcement that Doctor Who would be returning to BBC1 on Saturday nights. Mass excitement followed, both among fans but also, more surprisingly, the wider public as well.

It just so happened that, shortly after the news broke of the programme’s return, I bumped into new showrunner Russell T Davies whilst checking out the new Corgi collection in London’s Forbidden Planet. Rather wonderfully, the programme’s new creative supremo had popped in to the capital’s leading sci-fi store for exactly the same reason as me: he had some time to kill before his train and wanted to check out the Doctor Who stuff.

I couldn’t resist saying hello. RTD was funny, charming and good value for insider news. He told me the show was all set to be on the screen in early 2005 with a thirteen episode series (a mere six had been the rumour) and that the Daleks would be coming back (this was before a breakdown in negotiations with the Terry Nation estate almost scuppered their return).

We had a nice chat about, yes, the Corgi gift set and agreed it was a fun collection, if a little pricey at £30 or so. “Mind you,” said the big man with a wicked smile as he left the store, “I could claim it back in the name of research…”

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