There are a lot of differences between British and American fans of Doctor Who. But chief among them might be the fact that most Americans watching Doctor Who now didn't grow up on it the way so many British people did. The way I did.
And if you didn't watch Doctor Who as a child, then you missed out on a core experience, that's at the center of many people's relationship with the show: Being scared out of your wits.
Yes, really. Being scared. Of the dodgy monsters, of the silly effects, of the campy perils. All of it. Because when you're a little kid, you don't see the flaws in quite the same way, and you experience this stuff differently. But also, those of us who are adults now didn't have hugescreen HD televisions when we were kids — as various people pointed out in yesterday's Star Trek costume roundup.
And Doctor Who has usually been at its best when it's hair-raising scary, even with all the humor and good nature and fun and cleverness. As we gather around our televisions to watch the latest Christmas special, it's important to remember this.
If you didn't grow up on Doctor Who, or you somehow managed to remain un-scared by all the monsters and the imminent peril, then you probably think of Doctor Who as something a good deal campier, or maybe even primarily as a comedy. You probably think the monsters are mostly just there to be silly and goofy. The Daleks are these ridiculous salt shakers, the Cybermen are Borg wannabes, etc. You won't understand why people constantly talk about watching from "behind the sofa," to the point where that phrase has become a cliche attached to Doctor Who.
Some of my earliest memories of being alive are of being terrified of Doctor Who. I spent a few years in the U.K. as a small child, and Doctor Who was everywhere — you couldn't escape it if you wanted to. And this was the era of Philip Hinchcliffe, when Doctor Who was basically doing a mini-gothic horror movie every single week. My tiny brain was filled with weird, grotesque images of horrible creatures and screaming peril. Every week, the blue diamond tunnel pulled me into a realm of sheer dread. And every week, it climaxed with an unholy tearing sound, as though the world were being ripped apart by the fear, and then you were chucked back into the blue diamond again, returned to your ordinary life.
Every summer, they did a Doctor Who exhibition featuring props and sets from the show, at Blackpool (a seaside resort) and Longleat (an old stately manor that some aristocrat had turned into a theme park to pay off what I'm guessing were gambling debts.) Going to one of these exhibitions, and seeing the TARDIS and the Daleks up close, became the main purpose of my existence.
At last, the nagging and whining paid off, and there was a family roadtrip, crammed into a British mini for umpteen hours until we reached the promised land. And the exhibition itself was insane. You went inside the Police Box and were greeted by a Dalek, giving a welcoming speech and saying that people who littered would be Exterminated. And from there, you venture deeper into the heart of the show, with various monster costumes in glass cases, lit up by pulsing colored lights. At last — contrary to the geography of the show itself — your journey inside the Police Box led you to the TARDIS control room.
I ran and hid under a car in the parking lot. I'm not sure how long I was hiding there. It felt like several hours, but was probably just a few minutes. I heard my parents calling for me and finally came out from under there. Thank goodness whoever it was didn't try to drive off while I was hiding out down there. I missed seeing most of the exhibition. Image via the O.L.G. Doctor Who Pages.
Everybody thought it was the Dalek that had scared me out of my wits — seeing one up close — and maybe the Dalek had something to do with it. But the thing that sent me running out of there was seeing someone reach out and play with the switches on the TARDIS console, and knowing that we were about to be sent to some terrible unknown destination. Never to return, probably to be eaten by monsters.
When we went back to the U.S., the PBS stations were showing Doctor Who in earnest, and they tended to flip flop between the Pertwee and Baker eras. It was all pretty intense. I never noticed that there were only a handful of Silurians — I noticed their glowing third eyes and the deadly plague they unleashed on London. Davros' giant mutations were slimy and horrible, even the clam thingy. The Autons unleashed murderous dolls that could strangle you in your sleep. And so on.
Even as I got older, Doctor Who kept its power over me for a long time. I completely lost my shit when the Master stole that guy's body in "The Keeper of Traken," because it was creepy as hell. I was also a gullible child, who tended to believe all sorts of ridiculous fantastical things that I was told, well into adolescence.
In high school, I tried to get other kids to start watching Doctor Who with me — and they never quite took it as seriously as I did. I remember spending hours trying to explain to one friend, in particular, that Doctor Who was actually a serious horror program and not just a campfest. Alas, that particular day, the PBS station chose to show "The Creature from the Pit." Irrevocable setback!
To this day, I love Doctor Who for lots of things — but I take the monsters seriously. I love the clever plots and the complex storytelling, and the degree of intense emotion the show has brought to its characters in the revived version. But I still think of Doctor Who, in some corner of my brain, as a scary show. And hearing the 1970s version of the theme tune, with its bassline reminiscent of alien Gregorian monks, still gives me a little tinge of dread.
A few years ago, I was hanging out with a friend and we decided to indoctrinate her kid into classic Doctor Who. He was probably seven or eight years old, and an inquisitive supernerd who consumed geek culture in mass quantities. We tossed "The Hand of Fear," which was pretty new on DVD at the time, into the player. This was Elisabeth Sladen's final story as a regular castmember, in which she finds a stone hand buried in a rock quarry and gets taken over by the hand's owner. There's lots of severed stone hand action, as it crawls around inside a nuclear reactor.
About halfway through episode two, I became aware that my friend's kid was sort of hiding behind his mom. "Wow," he said at last. "When they called this 'The Hand of Fear,' They weren't kidding." For a second, I thought he was joking, making fun of the dodgy special effects or whatever. But no. One look at his face was enough to convince me otherwise. He was having the real, full-on Doctor Who experience, the kind that bonds you with the show for life.