SFX Issue 46

Christmas 1998

Celebrity Couch Potato:

Doctor Who

Guest starring Mark Strickson

The SFX posse, plus one Who companion, mine the Time Lord’s back catalogue for the truth.

It was to be truly special, a scarf-affirming celebration of our heroic Time Lord. While the BBC dozed, SFX would strike, shaming Auntie’s conspicuous lack of birthday balloons by concocting a megabudget anniversary slab of Doctor Who . Christened “The Eight(ish) Doctors”, the hush-hush script was filled with glory, grandeur and girlie screamers. Deceased Docs were to be tastefully recreated in Claymation. Krynoids, Zygons and Chumblies were to be rescued from their life of nostalgic tipples at the BBC Club. Old quarries were coaxed out of retirement. It was to be a jamboree of dotty togs, tactical RAF strikes and twisted ankles.

Sadly, the dismal results of the office whip-round scuppered our dream. The props budget barely covered a few sticks of celery and two bags of jelly babies. Compromises were made. Lavish planetscapes were replaced by Steve and Viv’s faithful flat. Anthony was forced to sprout a Master frightbeard when original choice Alan Rickman flipped us the V’s. Faced with such feeble realities, we petulantly cancelled the whole mad scheme and opted for a pizza-strewn Couch Potato session instead.

Imagine our chagrin when the doorbell rang and the familiar shifty features of erstwhile companion Turlough appeared. “Hello,” said the Black Guardian’s schoolboy chum. “I’m Mark Strickson and I’m ready for my close-up.”

7.30pm “An Unearthly Child” Episode One

The battered couch whirls into the vortex of space and time, returning us to the foggy monochrome world of 1963. It’s the first episode of Doctor Who and, as Paul points out, the whole splendid adventure begins with a moment of nasally-challenged camp.

Paul: “Appropriately, the first thing we hear in Doctor Who is a Kenneth Williams impression.”

It’s true. As two schoolgirls stroll through the corridors of Coal Hill School, some over-achieving extra flares his nostrils behind them and emits a familiar, Matron-tempting “Oooohhhmmmn!”

Mark: “It’s amazing how slow this is, a totally different pace of life. Today’s audience would have switched over by now.”
Stephen: “Shall we?”
Mark: “Black and white is so restful on the eye. Look at the shadows. Incredible atmosphere. TV was ruined when they got colour.”

Impressively, the drama of it all still transfixes us. On screen, Ian and Barbara discuss the thoroughly strange Susan, soon revealed as the Doctor’s granddaughter.

Mark: “This is completely different in style to when I was in Doctor Who . The scenes are longer. These people are having a relationship. They can touch each other’s shoulder. There was never an opportunity for that when I was in it. We could never be touchy-feely.”

Clutching a transistor radio, Susan grooves in a weird alien girlie way to the Shadows-styled twang of John Smith and The Common Men . It’s gear!

Nick: “No one has a chance to be otherworldly now. It’s all Samantha Janus these days. ”
Mark: “One of the problems of being in Doctor Who is that you’re asked to act in an extreme way. It doesn’t mean you can’t sit there and be normal; it means you don’t get asked to do it.”

The two schoolteachers trail the mysteriously groovy Susan to her junkyard abode. Moments later, William Hartnell steps from the fog in an electrifyingly haughty fashion, scaring Dave with his vampiric gnashers.

Stephen: “He’s the same age there as Mick Jagger is now, you know.”
Viv: “Jagger looks older. Hartnell must have done better drugs.”
Mark: “This is actually very good. We don’t know that this is science fiction. He could be abusing Susan. It’s clever writing. You believe that this man has power and he’s not afraid to use it. The later Doctors manipulated but didn’t have power.”
Viv: “Look at his hair. Have you seen There’s Something About Mary ?”

The TARDIS warps into the vortex in a weirdly orgasmic montage sequence. Mark is strangely stirred by this.

Mark: “Now that’s quite sexy – a woman’s face, strange noises, rockets taking off. Do you get it? Am I alone? Am I sex-obsessed?”

The Doctor is next seen sprawled in post-coital fashion on the console room floor.

Mark: “And look at him now – it’s like he’s having a fag afterwards!”
Dave: “You’re just jealous because it wasn’t like that in your time.”

8pm “Tomb Of The Cyberman” Episode Two

Don your baggy, chequerboard trousers and fish out your 500 Year Diary from your bottomless frock coat pockets. On through the space-time continuum we hurtle, finally materialising in the age known as The Troughton Era. It’s 1967 and the mighty Cybermen are being defrosted from their quick-freeze lair on the planet Telos.

Paul: “Oh good, Victoria. Debbie Watling is so horny in this.”
Mark: “This is better than the later stuff. The scenes are longer. People actually talk to each other. With a slower pace, you believe there’s some danger. If it’s paced too fast your brain thinks that it’s just a script.”
Dave: “It’s great that Troughton’s not saying anything and staying in the background.”
Mark: “With the Doctor in the background, you’ve got tension. If he’s not framed at the front of the shot. You believe he’s in the hands of other people.”

Rather alarmingly, the Doctor appears to be in the hands of some distinctly dodgy thesps with iffy transatlantic accents. One supposedly American space trooper seems to believe he’s in Curse Of The Wobbly Saucer People, calling Telos a “crummy planet.” Someone, surely, is soon to utter the phrase “ray-gun.”

Dave: “It’s Britain’s secret response to Jason Carter is what it is.”
Mark: “Look at the sculpted hair.”
Viv: “Oh, he’s crap! Is this Acorn Antiques?”
Mark: “He’s acting like an American. Having just come back from Los Angeles, let me tell you, these are real people.”
Viv: “This isn’t Doctor Who . It’s Ed Wood.”

It soon becomes obvious that the 1960s bra inferno is still some way off. Victoria is left to make the tea while the men prepare to look suitably macho in the midst of some polystyrene snow.

Mark: “Isn’t that terrible? Deb gets left with a chicken stock cube while the guys get to go off and have an adventure.”

Hold on, no time to skim The Female Eunuch . Look, the Cybermen are thawing from their frosty tombs in an almightily menacing moment. Out they march, sounding unnervingly like The Beastie Boys on Intergalactic, the trendy swines.

Mark: “There’s something very threatening about this imagery. That’s not human birth. Does it remind you of a beehive? It goes back to the old theory of everything in Doctor Who coming from insect zoology. They’re like larvae emerging. It’s a subliminal message.”

In a suitably biological frame of mind, Viv considers the appearance of the Cybercontroller.

Viv: “He looks like a walking willy – don’t you think?”

8.30pm “The Time Monster” Episode One

All those years of complacent sofa-bound smart-arsery finally catch up with us. The po-faced Time Lords step in and exile us to a realm of frilly cuffs, marker pen CSO and dandified lisps. The Pertwee era has arrived, and Steve and Viv’s legendary lava lamp suddenly swirls in sympathy, aping the show’s psychedelic day-glo titles. It’s all change with the age of the showman Doctor. Hai!

Dave: “No more Doctors standing in the background now.”
Viv: “Is he based on Byron?”
Mark: “He’s always reminded me of Jimmy Tarbuck. He’s a variety act.”

Dipsydollybird Jo Grant’s first appearance is marked by the camera’s sudden lurch to ground zero on the studio floor, offering a crumpeticious angle on her groovy mini and boots clobber. The Master is afforded a more dignified entrance, and still impresses with his evil charm.

Nick: “He was cool.”
Mark: “He was fantastic.”
Stephen: “Anthony, you must keep the beard.”

Dependably, the Doctor soon scores points off some buffoonish, pinstriped prat.

Dave: “All the public officials in the Pertwee era seem to be in training for Yes, Minister .”

The social strata suddenly broadens – “Oh, it’s the Pertwee era comedy yokel!” exclaims Anthony as some moustachioed window cleaner climbs up a jittery ladder in the throes of a comedy set-up. Sure enough, after peering through a lab window and witnessing a vase dematerialising into the ether, our man with the porno tache gives a gurn of shock then tumbles off his ladder in a piece of platform-booted stuntwork.

Mark: “Who wears heels like that to climb a ladder? You’d never get compensation from Health And Safety.”

Oh dear, it really is all terribly dreary. We demand Venusian Akido, Sea Devils, the faithful Brigadier and his hasty nuclear strikes on tentacled nasties at the very least. This is plainly Not Good Enough.

Mark: “Oh, I’m absolutely riveted. It’s difficult to watch.”

The lava lamp fades and dies. It’s the first and only switch-off of the night.

9pm “The Seeds Of Doom” Episode Six

Time to don our infinite scarves and proffer crumpled bags of jelly babies in boggle-eyed fashion. It’s 1976, Basil Brush and Frank Bough have provided the warm-up act and we’re just about to tuck in to hot, buttered tea-time crumpets as, somewhere in the heart of Middle England, Mary Whitehouse is poised on the point of apoplexy. Tom Baker is currently battling the horticultural menace of the Krynoid, a nasty bit of overgrown vegetation smothering a country house. Not too convincingly.

Mark: “Now that is crap. It’s also pathetic. You see, you didn’t need that shot. If you haven’t got the budget, find another answer.”
Nick: “Hold on, I grew up with this. It’s corking stuff.”
Paul: “It’s not. It’s just Tom Baker storming around all over the place shouting people’s surnames very loudly.”
Mark: “Watch what’s happening. Tom makes a point of not listening to people and suddenly the drama has gone. You’ve got to listen to people to understand the situation. He’s become a formulaic hero.”

Boycie from Only Fools And Horses is spotted in the thrall of some particularly ferocious foliage. Thrash as he might, he still succumbs to the cruel and faintly phallic attentions of the Krynoid. Paul remains unmoved and not a little mocking.

Paul: “Death by pondweed.”
Mandy: “Surely this is all filmed in the Blue Peter garden?”

Mark is prompted into a dark confession. “I used to take my dog to do a shit in the Blue Peter garden,” he discloses, obviously still fearing fiery retribution from Biddy Baxter. “But I did use to take a carrier bag…”

It all ends with a timely fly-past from some RAF bombers. The Krynoid waggles its tentacles in tragic death throes.

Mark: “Sad, sad.”

Nick munches a jelly baby in silent protest and prepares to lovingly stroke his Weetabix Card collection. Anyone got a Lynx?

9.30pm “Mawdryn Undead” Episode One

“Oh, this is all terribly familiar” smirks Mark, as the spangly Davison titles zip by and our eyes prepare for an episode’s worth of telly-sofa-telly-sofa double-takes prompted by the living, breathing, pizza-scoffing presence of Turlough’s alter ego. It’s Mark’s first episode and he instantly hits a shifty note by joy-riding in the Brigadier’s vintage jalopy.

Mark: “That car was incredibly difficult to drive. I’m double-declutching the gears. I’m just thinking, ‘How do I even look at this other guy because I’m going so fucking fast!’ See there! I lost control of the back wheels! I’m hardly managing to keep them on the road.”

Concussed after a nasty bit of off-road action, Turlough is transported to the blue-screen realm of the thoroughly menacing Black Guardian, the drama of the moment sadly undercut by the sight of a stuffed crow adorning the evil one’s noggin.

Mark: “Imagine how difficult it is to act in front of a blue curtain. Valentine Dyall wasn’t even there at the time.”
Dave: “No wonder you didn’t mention the dead bird.”

Mark’s musings on the dissipating drama of Doctor Who are offered fresh ammunition when we’re presented with the sight of Peter Davison’s vegetable buttonhole.

Mark: “He cannot stand around with celery in his lapel. Here you have the Doctor and his companions, but nobody’s having a relationship, nobody has a private moment, nobody’s dressed like anyone you’ve ever seen.”

Someone dares to point out that, in the finest tradition of Please Sir , Mark seems a rather mature public schoolboy.

Mark: “You were casting somebody older who could get away with it, because this was an alien who could watch, pretend to be something else and get away with it. That isn’t me being hammy. I would have acted it very differently if I’d been playing a real schoolboy. And, just for the record, I didn’t go to public school… Historically, I’m common as muck.”

Mark is seen conversing with an eerily glowing decanter stopper, Ratners-styled communication tool of the Black Guardian.

Mark: “That thing was attached to a car battery and incredibly hot; you could only do a scene with it so long before you had to chuck it off.”

Which is what, on screen, Turlough suddenly seems to want to do... except it’s (unconvincingly) stuck to his hand.

Dave: “That looks like you’re holding on to it.”
Mark: “Guess why?”
Viv: “Stop, you’re destroying our dreams…”

Sod digital. This is the future of interactive television. On screen, Turlough swivels his eyeballs into his skull in an alarmingly alien fashion. On the sofa, Mark satisfies our cries by re-enacting his zombie-eyed party piece. And then there’s the optional fashion commentary…

Dave: “You had great shoes.”
Mark: “They were bought in Carnaby Street. I thought, ‘I’ve got to spend some money on something fucking cool.’ I think the suit came from Burtons – I thought ‘Sod this!’ Not so sure about the socks, though. Look, there’s the alien, he’s done all the research except for the socks.”

It all ends in pantomime fashion with Turlough skulking up behind an unsuspecting Doctor, convenient boulder in hand.

Viv: “Oh, you are such a bugger…”

Anthony hits fast-forward, insisting we see the resolution to this compelling cliffhanger.

Mark: “I think we all know it’s crap.”

True enough. Episode Two begins with a splendidly-timed detonation by the FX crew, leaving Turlough stumbling and rockless.

Mark: “Notice how I took the Italian footballer’s approach: if you’re found out, throw the ball in the air and say, “Oooh, you bastard – me back!”

10pm “Revelation Of The Daleks” Episode Three

Taste flees screaming from the room as we return to the bombastic, biliously-attired days of the Colin Baker era, a riot of generously sliced ham and clashing colour schemes. It’s nasty, it’s brutish and, mercifully, it’s short. The threat of cancellation (and foolish protest records involving assorted members of Ottowan, Toto Coelo and Heatwave) looms over the sofa.

Mark: “Can we watch a Bonnie Langford one?”

On the funeral world of Necros, nastiness is afoot. Bodysnatching, cannibalism and designer violence are the new gods of Saturday tea-time. Not to mention toupeed undertakers leching outrageously after the jiggly charms of Peri.

Viv: “Well, put your cleavage away then, girl! Stop teasing him!”
Mark: “Suddenly we’re in the realm of high camp comedy. What does this bring to mind – a PVC apron, long sideburns and a moustache? And what is Colin wearing?”

Dismissed as a “Glam Rock X-Files ” by the soundbite-friendly Viv, the tale juggles Alexei Sayle, sitcom star bounty hunters and a curious moment where the megalomaniacal Davros begins to bang on about somebody else’s infidelity.

Anthony: “That’s a really weird idea – Davros as a moral guardian getting apoplectic about people having affairs.”
Nick: “It makes sense. Somehow, I can’t imagine swinging Dalek blob-swapping parties.”

Engrossed as we are with all this domestic intrigue, we can’t help but notice that, in spite of his ‘Stare-at-me-I’m-such-a-loon’ threads, the Time Lord is receiving very little camera time.

Nick: “The Doctor has been shunted off into the sidelines.”
Mark: “Except for that fucking costume…”
Dave: “Somebody should time this and work out how little Colin Baker is in it.”
Stephen: “The less the better.”

Hark, is that the rattle of the dimensionally transcendental knife-drawer?

10.30pm “Survival” Episode One

Never call us predictable. Well, perhaps just the once. We opened with the first episode and now the Potato that is Couch shuffles off into the limbo of abandoned telly with Doctor Who ’s last hurrah (give or take the odd bit of transatlantic companion-snogging). It’s 1989, Sylvester McCoy winks tweely in the titles (All: “No!”) and Mandy is happy because there are horses.

Viv: Thundercats !”

Indeed, the furry menace of the Cheetah People is exposed as faintly farcical. But hold on, here’s Perivale, council estates and – heaven forfend – a dribble of social realism.

Mark: “This is good. It’s getting better again. It’s much more powerful when there aren’t lots of people wandering around dressed in silly clothes.”
Paul: “Real people, real place, real relationships. It works.”
Mark: “And with the Doctor and only one assistant you have time for them to develop a proper relationship.”

Sadly, it all goes wobbly with a derisory scene involving Sylvester McCoy in a daredevil motorcycle showdown, climaxing with a Road Runner-styled collision and the sight of The Seventh Doctor’s bottom sprawled on a conveniently placed couch.

Dave: “That’s bad.”
Paul: “That’s The Goodies .”
Viv: “It’s like the end of a night after a session of Couch Potato.”
Stephen: “I’d rather not see Sylvester McCoy’s arse in the morning.”
Mark: “Bits of it are crap, bits of it are wonderful. If you make a programme for 20 odd years, that’s bound to be true.”

Fear not, for soon we all feel warm and nostalgic as we compose ourselves on the couch for the last goodbye. Our eyes are misty of vision as the final scene finds the Doctor and Ace strolling away into the promise of new adventures. They talk of dreaming rivers, cities of song and, er, UK Gold. How we’ve missed the old boy and all his decades of timewarping japery throughout the cosmos...

Paul: “Lovely.”
Stephen: “Lovely.”
Mark: “Dry your eyes now.”