Peter Capaldi as the Doctor in Doctor Who.
For once in my life, I feel as if I have some kind of geek cred. When I say that the first Doctor Who episode I remember watching featured the first Doctor, Darren Hoey simply looks disbelieving: he just can’t imagine anything that long ago. “On reruns, surely?” he ventures. Nope, I say; it had the original Doctor, his first companions Ian and Barbara, and the Daleks. It must have been 1966, the year we got a television. And we were immediate converts: the whole family started going round the house swivelling our arms from the elbows saying “Attack and Destroy! Exterminate!” and never really stopped. Such is the power of Doctor Who.
Respect! I can see it in his eyes. Darren is in London for the inaugural Doctor Who Festival, which is being held at a vast conference centre in London’s Docklands. He is 47, “works in IT” – he says this a little self-consciously – and right now is wearing a tweed jacket, a bow tie and a fez. The outfit refers to an early Matt Smith episode, he says, where the Doctor appears wearing a fez and carrying a mop; it seemed a bit much to bring a mop all the way from Birmingham, although he did think about it. The fez-and-mop scene, says Darren, lasted for about a minute in 2010. As a bit of cosplay, that has to mark you out as a hard-core fan.
Although perhaps it’s just par for the course, given the depth of knowledge on display at the rolling fan quiz set up in one of the festival’s vast halls. People sitting singly or in groups at different tables bent over their quiz sheets: it looks like a bingo game. A bloke with a ponytail paces up and down with a cordless microphone. “Which two doctors were the same age when they started?” he asks. All heads are down, all hands scribbling furiously. How would anyone know that? More to the point, why would they know?
Peter Capaldi is the twelfth incarnation of the Doctor, with Jenna Coleman as Clara in Doctor Who. Photo: Kaia Zak
Fandom is a tricky thing. Up in the festival’s press centre, I share round-table interviews with a determined young woman from the Daily Express, a Scottish bloke called Cameron who runs the Doctor Who blog site and an imposing transvestite from a fantasy website who looks a bit like a giant Mrs Doubtfire. The Express reporter asks everyone – Steven Moffat, the executive producer, Mark Gatiss, the writer and actor, and even Peter Capaldi, the current Doctor – about the whereabouts of the sonic screwdriver. She’s heard there is a petition about it. It seems to have disappeared from Series 9. Where is it? The fans want it back!
Oh yes, says Moffatt with mock weariness; he’s read that petition online. I think of my new friend Darren; he says he yelped with glee “like a five-year-old” when his wife gave him a sonic screwdriver for Christmas two years ago. “The screwdriver is always going to be coming back,” says Moffatt. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
The thing is, he maintains, he can’t allow himself to be pressured by fan reactions. “Because we never really know how the fans react, apart from the ones who react out loud,” he says. “Cameron, you told me your website gets how many people – 80,000 on a good day? Dr Who‘s audience is 70-odd million. What are you supposed to do with that? So I ignore the fans even though I am one, even though I socialise with them and even though I like what they do. They can’t drive the show.” It has to be allowed to change as a living, breathing show, agrees Gatiss. “Although it hasn’t changed significantly since 1963, so we’re doing all right.”
Fans at the London Doctor Who Festival 2015. Some came wearing costumes from Tom Baker’s scarf to the TARDIS. Photo: Supplied
Peter Capaldi’s sunglasses, chequered trousers and intermittent noodling on the electric guitar have stamped the Twelfth Doctor as the coolest yet. “Any excuse to wear shades,” says Capaldi. “I’d be wearing them today if I weren’t going to get my leg pulled too much. I just like the rock and roll element, which is really just typical of a man of my age. I think what happens to all doctors is that you put a lot of yourself into it.”
Of course, there are limits to what anyone can do with a character who has regenerated 11 times in 50 years; against all the odds, there has to be a sense of continuity. “You have to allow that space,” says Capaldi. “But you also have to have an idea about who your doctor is. When I started I had a book and if I had a quote, something I thought sounded like the Doctor but that came from someone from real life or from history, I would write it down. I had pictures too; I assembled this scrapbook of Dr Who-ish images.” He won’t say what’s in it. “That’s for when I stop.”
Capaldi, along with Ingrid Oliver – who plays the popular Zygon-fighter Osgood – and the wicked Master/Missy actor Michelle Gomez are heading downstairs to do a Q&A with the fans. I walk in the opposite direction, towards the alluring sounds of explosions. Between bangs, a BBC special effects team lets the punters stick their hands into jars of powders and crystals to make their own chemical reactions or to fiddle with a gruesomely severed arm made of rubber. “Feel it!” urges SFX trainee Rowena Lewis. “It’s even got hairs in it!” We may live in a digital age, but rubber remains central to Doctor Who: it’s still the best way to give someone a face that looks like a bunch of squid’s tentacles.
The journey begins: William Hartnell played the first doctor when Doctor Who began screening in the 1960s.
Of course, there’s acres of merchandise nearby: you can get anything from a pencil case to a made-to-order life-size working Dalek for £3400 ($7300). Replica overcoats, as worn by various Doctors, are literally walking off the rack – with fans inside them, obviously – which means that there are increasing numbers of Matt Smiths and David Tennants storming around the displays. But it’s not only the recent Doctors who feature; the long knitted scarf worn by Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, is selling well at around £60 ($129). It’s a bit like those specials – one for the 20th anniversary, one for the 50th – where all the past doctors joined forces. Doctors, doctors everywhere.
Some fans arrived already kitted out for the evening’s cosplay competition; you can’t help but notice Sarah Carey in her homemade replica of the villainous Missy’s purple suit. Sarah seems to be moving rather stiffly as she poses for photos. “Well, I’m wearing a corset,” she confides. “I found out in an interview that Michelle Gomez wears one, so I thought it made sense.” She made that corset herself using steel wires and is eager to tell anyone who will listen – me, in this instance – that she could make this stuff all day if someone gave her a chance. “If I could get a job working on Doctor Who …” she sighs sweetly. She has been a fan, she says, ever since she can remember.
One of the striking things about the Doctor Who Festival, in fact, is that it’s not all middle-aged men in bad jumpers who probably don’t get out much. It’s a school day, so there aren’t so many children, but there are still a few families along with lots of mixed groups of students, retired folk up from the country, even gaggles of smartly dressed middle-aged women. Every so often a few of the delegates from the Acute and General Medicine trade fair in the next wing of the exhibition centre wander down our way, heads swivelling in amazement. It has to be more fun trying on a lizard mask than looking at the latest defibrillator.
“Most people start being Doctor Who fans when they are children,” says Moffat. “And to a great extent, the show still speaks to that part of you. It has a very particular place in the world in that it is the children’s programme that is in no way suitable for children. It doesn’t sit in the adult world either – we discuss terrorism and immigration and there’s big red calamari in it.” What is great, says Gatiss, is its sheer oddness. “It’s very British in that way.” And, as Darren Hoey says with a giggle, “it’s just so much fun.”
One of the questions the cast are all asked the most, they say, is where they would go if they could get into a real TARDIS and go travelling through space and time. A couple nominate Ancient Rome, but mostly they just want to go back to a time when they were actually alive, but younger. Perhaps that’s what we all want.
Michelle Gomez says she would like to back behind the couch with her twin brother again, watching Doctor Who in a state of delicious terror. “We were both obsessed. It’s still vivid in my memory because it was really magical,” she remembers. “My older brothers would come in and before you knew it there would be four kids there, all of very different ages. I think that is the only thing we did together. That nostalgia is still very much alive.” And not just for wicked Missy, obviously: it seems like half of London has arrived at the ExCel centre, with many more expected over the weekend. Like I said, such is the power of Doctor Who.
The First Official Australian Doctor Who Festival is being held at the Royal Hall of Industries & Hordern Pavilion on Saturday 21st and Sunday 22nd November. Series 9 of Doctor Who screens later this year. Tickets can be purchased at Ticketek. Information doctorwho.tv.