It’s now two years since I started my Doctor Who read-through project (Executive Summary: I’m (re)reading my entire (and now complete) collection of classic Doctor Who novelisations, together with (an incomplete set of) original novels/ audio-books set in the same era, in (internal) chronological order (more-or-less)). I purposely started this on 23rd November to coincide with the anniversary of the first episode broadcast.
By now I have reached the last few stories of the Peter Davison era. That means I’m fairly well into the stories which I actually watched when they were first broadcast on TV (throughout most of the 1980s). I’ve previously read quite a few of the novelisations of these stories, and watched a few of them on video/DVD, but my last attempted at a systematic read-through fizzled out mid-Tom Baker and I had many gaps in my collection (which I’ve subsequently filled – for the novelisations of TV stories at any rate) so for many of these, this is my first reacquaintance with them since I watched them the first time (and I’m sure I missed some episodes at the time). This gives an extra sense of nostalgia to my reading from now on, although in general I actually prefer many of the earlier stories (Tom Baker and Patrick Troughton are my favourite Doctors).
The story I’m currently reading is Warriors of the Deep. This is far from being one of the best stories in classic Doctor Who, or even within its own season, but it is quite an interesting story for me to revisit for two main reasons.
One is that it’s a story where I can fairly vividly remember at least one scene from the TV broadcast over 30 years ago. The particular scene that’s etched in my memory is one of the episode cliffhangers, in which the Doctor appears to drown in a pool of water (supposed to be something to do with a nuclear reactor’s cooling system, I think). Of course, the Doctor didn’t drown and I think that even watching it for the first time, at the tender age of about 7, I was aware that he wasn’t going to but it was still tense and exciting.
The other reason it’s interesting is that the story was written and broadcast at a time when the Cold War was, if not at its height, still pretty much in full swing and the story extrapolates from the then-present to a future (2084 to be exact – 100 years after the story was broadcast) in which the world is divided into two political blocs (East and West, who’d have thought it!) that are at war with each other.
Obviously, history followed a different course; the Cold War came to an end within less than 10 years and it doesn’t currently look like the future is going to be divided quite so clearly along those particular lines (any more than it’s likely that daleks will be invading the Earth in 2064 or any of the other futures posited by Doctor Who). Still, the purpose of most (if not all) speculative fiction (including any Doctor Who story set in the future) is arguably, if not obviously, more to comment on (some aspect of) the world as it now is (at the time of writing) rather than to actually suggest that this is what the future will look like, so this story serves as in interesting reminder (for those of us who were there) or lesson (for those who weren’t) of how the Cold War affected our thinking in the early 1980s.
If Doctor Who from back then gives me a sense of nostalgia (i.e. warm fuzzy feelings about the past and how generally nice it was, or a desire to relive it), thinking about the Cold War gives me what can probably best be described as a sense of anti-nostalgia (a profound sense of gratitude that things aren’t like that any more).
I was too young at the time to have a very firm handle on the details of the world situation but I do remember an unpleasant sense of dread that everything was about to end in nuclear winter. I remember on at least one occasion being particularly upset when I heard a plane flying overhead and thought it must be bringing a Soviet nuke to drop on our heads.
Perhaps more disturbing than the prospect of imminent Armageddon was the fact that, as tends to be the case in wars of any temperature, there was a strong tendency to think in terms of of “us” and “them” and, in particular, to view “them” (since they were safely hidden away behind the Iron Curtain and most of us didn’t come into any real contact with them to provide counterexamples to the idea) as all the same as one another and all evil, when in fact there was just as much difference among them as among us and most of them, like most of us, were just ordinary people trying to get on with their lives.
That is, of course, a huge simplification and very much a young child’s perspective on the Cold War (and one filtered by 30 years’ temporal fog to boot). Still, to return to the Doctor Who story, this sensation of what it was like to live in a Cold War society (as well, perhaps, as the limitations of such thinking) is well conveyed, at least in the novelisation (another one by “Uncle Terrance”).
The story is also quite interesting, at least in hindsight, as it contains echoes of cyberpunk (a genre which was taking off at the time) in a tactical computer that is controlled by a specially-trained human operative interfacing it directly with his brain. This turns out to be a definite weak point of the system, since the whizziest computer is useless if you disable the only person around who can operate it.
By the way, the story (as you might guess from the name) is set deep under the sea, on a top-secret West Bloc nuclear missile base (this is, incidentally, the first Doctor Who story for quite a long time to return to the classic base-under-siege formula that was a staple of the Troughton era) and the real enemy turn out not to be the East Bloc but a reptilian race who ruled the world before humans were on the scene and have now awoken from long hibernation and would like their planet back, if you please. Though, if memory serves me, not to mention the Pertwee era stories – both of which I re-read last year – The Silurians (novelised as The Cave Monsters) and The Sea Devils, they will also not turn out to be the enemy so much as the inbuilt human (and silurian) tendency to be somewhat territorial and to shoot before thinking.
According to the spreadsheet in which I’m recording my progress, I have 249 items of classic Doctor Who material in my collection and Warriors of the Deep is number 176 on the list. Therefore I’m about 70% of the way through my collection by now and fairly well on course for finishing by next November. If I can time it right, perhaps I’ll be able to finish the last book (“The Infinity Doctors” by Lance Parkin) on 23rd November 2015.