Friday, November 22, 2013

How Doctor Who Saved My Life

Okay, so maybe that's a bit of a sensationalist title but hey, it's been a few months since I last posted and I wanted to grab your attention!

This week many millions of fans around the world are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the longest running sci-fi TV series, Doctor Who. As a huge fan of the show, I too have been reading the various news reports, watching the trailers etc. and I've been loving every minute of it! It is days like November 23rd, the official anniversary day, that geeks live for.

But now that the big day is here I've found myself surprised at some of the feelings its stirred in me. It's a mix of melancholy, protectiveness, home sickness and an overwhelming sense of gratitude all jumbled up with a healthy dose of nostalgia.

A little bit of history...

Like many British kids, I grew up following the classic 1970s ritual of watching Doctor Who every Saturday evening. It was very much a family event. Back then, though I never missed an episode, I wouldn't necessarily have called myself a hardcore fan. My memory of watching the show is hazy in terms of specifics but I remember feeling incredibly impatient with what aired before Doctor Who started which was usually the sports show Grandstand. This particular show ended with a rundown of the days football results and every single statistic made me sigh with increasing annoyance as I fidgeted waiting to see Daleks, Rutans and Fendahl.It wasn't until around 1984 (when I was 12yrs old) that I really became a fan thanks to my friends Sean and Stefan in particular, who got me hooked on reading the novelizations.

Cybermen in "Earthshock" (1982)
High School (or Secondary School as the Brits call it) was a progressively tougher and tougher experience for me. Academia didn't come naturally to me and I had to work my butt off to get even slightly above average grades. In the general school populace I was quiet and lacking in confidence. I had a very small core group of friends and though I wasn't outright despised by most kids I did get my fair share of bullying. I was always the tallest kid in school so I kind of stuck out and in those days much of my existence in surviving school was keeping as low a profile as possible. I wanted to blend in, I wanted to be passed by and I wanted to be left mostly alone and not dragged into fights, or any of the other negative social elements that plague most schools. For as long as I can remember I felt like I didn't quite fit in, like I was an outsider, so the cliques and popularity races of the school world just weren't suited to me.

As I progressed through my teens, the bullying got worse. It was mostly verbal but still extremely hurtful especially when it even followed me outside of school onto streets as I was walking home. I still had a very small group of friends, all of whom were much like me, i.e. reserved, somewhat socially awkward and not spending 99% of their time chasing girls like the majority of kids were. As a result of my seeming disinterest in the opposite sex, I was often the target of homophobia. I've been tolerant of others sexual choices even though I am straight because I know what it's like to feel ostracized and hated.

Throughout this time, there was one thing that was a constant. Doctor Who. My love of the show was one of the highlights in my life at the time. Our group of friends grew as we started a local fan club where we'd watch classic Who stories. Most of these episodes were pirated from Australia and the U.S. (because the BBC rarely aired re-runs in the UK), and so were mushy NTSC converted to PAL. Sometimes they'd been copied many, many times so the picture and sound quality was awful. But those old creaky Doctor Who's brought us all together for a few hours and we loved every minute of wobbly scenery, bad special effects and crappy VHS scan lines.

Dapol action figures sucked!
In my late teens I couldn't get enough of The Doctor. I bought all the books, the magazines and even the shitty Dapol action figures that came out in the early 1990s. I ate up every article on how the show came to be and how each episode was made. I started up my own fanzine and travelled to conventions to interview members of the cast and crew and even launched a global fan group called the International Doctor Who Network. In a world that was pre-internet, this was no easy task! When we launched our first newsletter, The Custodian, I even got a bunch of letters and postcards from a few well-known names. Having grown up with Tom Baker's 4th incarnation of The Doctor, it was a massive highlight getting a message from him.

For those who can't quite make out Mr. Baker's writing: "Dear Sir, another Who publication! For whom? The whole world is sated surely? Not many people know how fond I am of fruitcake. And that is probably the only fact that has not been published. Anyway good luck to you and your readers. It was the loveliest job I ever had. I don't get about much any more but I remain grateful to the fans - Tom Baker"

Though I didn't realize it at the time, this period of my life wasn't just Doctor Who giving me a place to retreat to from the bullying but also the planting of inspiration and the laying of foundations that would guide the rest of my adult life.

In discovering how the show was made I developed a keen interest in storytelling and filmmaking and realized it was what I wanted to do for a living. A key transitional moment at this time was writing my first screenplay - which of course was a Doctor Who story. Then, when interviewing Sophie Aldred, (who played the Doctor's companion, Ace, from 1987-1989), I received an offer to get feedback on my screenplay. Several months later Sophie sent me a 6 page letter with detailed notes on the script. To be honest, I didn't recognize the value of that feedback at the time because I was so delighted that she'd even responded but her notes were honest, constructive and incredibly encouraging. Who knows how many fans she had writing to her but the fact she took the time to do that was amazing and I am still incredibly grateful to her for being the first professional in the industry to actually take me seriously.

20+ years later and I'm a working screenwriter, director and story consultant currently working for Warner Bros. on a massive video game set in Middle Earth. I'm also about to launch Season 2 of my comedy webseries Fools For Hire. I'm so, so grateful for what I get to do and so much of it is due to Doctor Who.

My love of the show instilled in me a passion for storytelling, for wild flights of imagination and for always fighting for the underdog. The 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who began for me with nostalgia which has quickly led me to self-reflection. When I was a child The Doctor helped teach me the difference between right and wrong. As a teen he gave my friends and I a positive place we could retreat to when things got tough. As an adult, he taught me more lessons in structure, character development and dialogue writing than any screenwriting book ever could.

It's incredibly strange for me seeing how popular and beloved the show is now. I never thought I'd see the day when (in Canada no less!) I'd see commercials for it during primetime and giant banners on public transit. It' suddenly as cool to be a Doctor Who fan as it is to wear a bow tie. When did that happen?! It certainly wasn't cool when I was a kid! In some ways I can't help but feel slighted... Like the whole world has appropriated the thing that was my special thing, my special hero. As a character, The Doctor has always been an outsider and he has attracted other outsiders throughout the history of the show, both onscreen and behind-the-scenes. I think that's what drew me and my friends to Doctor Who - we were all outsiders too. Though it's taken the 50th Anniversary celebrations for me to realize it, The Doctor has always been with me and I suspect he always will be.

The fact that Doctor Who is so popular now makes me wonder if we all have a little of the outsider in us. If all it takes to bring us together once in awhile is an eccentric 900 year-old Timelord with a penchant for bow ties, fezzes and long scarfs then maybe there's still hope for the world.

Thank you Doctor Who. Happy 50th Anniversary and here's to the next 50yrs of exploring Time and Space.