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The real reason Doctor Who makes fans want to hide behind the sofa

Think watching Doctor Who is fun? Not if you’re a Doctor Who fan it isn’t. From new episode anguish to DVD shelf indecision, these are the trials of (watching) a Time Lord…

Doctor Who
Published: Tuesday, 22nd June 2021 at 12:40 pm

If I’ve learned anything from a lifetime’s devotion to Doctor Who – and that’s a big if – it’s probably that Doctor Who fans weren’t put on this Earth to enjoy watching Doctor Who.

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No, in my experience, that sort of thing is best left to mere “viewers” – those lightweight flibbertigibbets who think nothing of sitting down, casual as you please, to enjoy 50 minutes of escapist fantasy, in the same way you or I might innocently tune in to Holby City, or Peston.

For the hardcore faithful, by contrast, watching any new episode of Doctor Who is an uncomfortably fraught experience – one that’s wont to magnify the show’s every blemish and duff note, and leave you seriously questioning your life choices. Or is that just me?

This goes double, of course, if you happen to be watching in polite company: those unavoidable occasions when you’re forced to consume Doctor Who in front of family, friends and other Not We, many of whom have probably been silently judging you – or even noisily judging you – over your choice of hobby for years.

Of course, if you could guarantee the quality of what was about to unfold, this wouldn’t be such a problem. But, uniquely among TV shows, Doctor Who’s famously flexible format can make it a bit of a rollercoaster on the quality control front: for every sublime City of Death and The Haunting of Villa Diodati, there's an excruciating Underworld or Nightmare in Silver.

As a result, communal viewing can take on something of a Russian Roulette quality: I have happy memories of watching Blink in a holiday cabin in North Yorkshire (even if some of the party did insist on talking all the way through it), but still burn with hot shame about the time a packed roomful of friends and family gathered in a Cornish cottage to witness the unfolding horror that was The Rings of Akhaten, in which Dr Who and his friends defeated an angry planet by shouting at it, singing to it, then showing it a leaf. Talk about wanting to hide behind the sofa.

Jenna Coleman in Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten (BBC)

Even that, though, has nothing on Christmas: I still shudder at the memory of 25th December, 2008, when all my rellies crowded into an overheated room to watch The Next Doctor, and I felt their eyes burning into the back of my neck as someone in a party shop gorilla costume and a Cyberman mask terrorised the cast of Oliver! And then, a year later, we were all back again, for that one where the entire human race, from Barack Obama to Sylvia Noble, turned into John Simm, and Gallifrey appeared in the sky over Chiswick. True story.

Then there’s the clammy dread of how the episode will be greeted on social media and the fan forums. Oh god, the forums: if you think Twitter is vicious, you’ve obviously never logged into a Doctor Who forum in the hours after an episode has gone out. It’s less a discussion, more a live autopsy.

And for the full sucker-punch, don’t forget to revisit the next morning when the overnight ratings are released, and a 0.3 drop in viewers is immediately interpreted as the End of Days that will lead to the show’s immediate cancellation and the master tapes of all existing episodes being buried in landfill – even though it was a hot bank holiday weekend and people were probably just… you know, out.

Sometimes, the Normal People in your life will even force **you**, a card-carrying Doctor Who fan, to leave the house on a Doctor Who day – often for the most trivial of reasons, like the fact it’s their birthday, or your wedding anniversary. I’ll never forget the tense week in July 2008 when my first child was due to be born – **in the same week as the Doctor Who series 4 finale**. “Relax,” I told myself. “You can always watch it on video later.” (The birth, I mean. Well you have to get your priorities straight, don’t you?)

Why is it, though, that we always care about the shortcomings of the current iteration of Doctor Who more than we do about its past failings? Why is brand new Who, when it misfires, a source of anguish, while The Horns of Nimon’s manifest failings are a bit of a giggle?

Several reasons, I suspect. Partly it’s because you’re only ever as good as your last show. So until the next story comes along, any dud episode is, for better or worse, the “current” state of Doctor Who – perhaps even a bellwether for all the Doctor Who to come (even though it never actually is).

By contrast, once an era is no longer ‘live’, and can be safely time-locked and filed on our DVD shelves, those failings somehow no longer seem to matter so much: for good and ill, it’s just another brilliant but flawed chapter in the great messy, meandering saga that is Doctor Who.

At which point, it becomes part of a whole other viewing dilemma – that of deciding **which** story from your vast library to actually sit down and watch.

When I was a kid, the only way to enjoy “old” Doctor Who was on audio cassettes taped off the telly, often with unscripted appearances from your mum and dad telling you to turn off that rubbish and come and eat your tea. And even when we got our first VCR, I only had a couple of tapes, so regularly had to wipe over previous recordings. (This is how, in 1984 – and readers of a nervous disposition may wish to look away now – I came to tape over The Caves of Androzani with The Twin Dilemma. The really damning thing? I didn’t even regret it.)

Doctor Who

As a result, I savoured every minute of those stories, as I did the early BBC Video releases. I must have watched Revenge of the Cybermen a hundred times in 1983 and 1984 – which, if you’ve seen Revenge of the Cybermen, you might consider to be at least a hundred times too many.

Now, by contrast, we have the entire catalogue of existing Doctor Who available at the touch of a button. You can literally watch Tomb of the Cybermen on the bus or in the bath, and I know someone who once watched The Sensorites on a beach in Florida. (Because, sure, Disney World is fine and everything, but it can’t compete with ancient black and white images of a race of bulb-headed aliens in space pyjamas tripping over each other’s flippers.)

But can you have too much of a good thing? I only ask because, faced with such an embarrassment of riches (many of them rich in embarrassment, but let’s not go there again), I often find myself overwhelmed by sheer choice. “All of time and space,” the Doctor once promised Amy Pond. “Everything that ever happened or ever will. Where do you want to start?” To which my reply would be: “I don’t know! You’re making me all flustered!”

Doctor Who: Colony in Space. The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) shows Jo Grant (Katy Manning) the Tardis dematerialisation circuit in his Unit laboratory. BBC Television Centre, Studio 4 on 5 March 1971. Photographed by Don Smith for Radio Times

As a result, I usually end up listlessly scrolling through BritBox and iPlayer, or riffling through my DVD shelves, trying to work out what sort of a mood I’m in. Is it a Capaldi mood, or a Pertwee mood? And if the latter, is it gritty (well, gritty-ish), Quatermass-style season 7 Pertwee? Or cosy, UNIT family, Greyhound to Trap One / ham-fisted bun vendor, psychedelic season 8 Pertwee? And if it’s P-Cap, should I watch one I already know is brilliant, like Heaven Sent or Thin Ice? Or give that one with the flying Cyber-Brigadier another chance?

(For some reason, I often find myself drawn to stories I think I don’t like, searching – more in hope than expectation – for some kind of redemption, as if Paradise Towers might suddenly have been transformed into a heartbreaking work of staggering genius since I last watched it. At least, that’s my excuse for why I’ve watched Paradise Towers more times than Genesis of the Daleks – or, indeed, The Godfather – and I’m sticking to it.)

Usually, these conversations will play out in my head for at least an hour or so, after which I usually give it up as a bad job and go to bed. Or maybe I’ll watch the news instead – because at least reports of war, plague and famine are less stressful than watching Doctor Who.

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Doctor Who returns to BBC One later this year. Want more? Check out our dedicated Sci-Fi page or our full TV Guide.

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