Tony raises a glass to McGann and a man.
I didn’t know I was going to write this piece, but I’ve woken up, twenty years to the day since Paul McGann first appeared on British TV screens as the Eighth Doctor, and find I have to.
I have to tell you about Jon.
You don’t know Jon. You never will. So this will by necessity be a little indulgent even for me, for which I can only apologise, and invite you to read something else.
I met Jon when I was about 14, and he was 15. In fact, I’d been driving one of my non-geeky schoolfriends absolutely spare, having been a Doctor Who fan for five years, and he knew a guy who talked about the show as much as I did. I think he introduced us on the principle that if we were talking about Who to each other, he wouldn’t have to put up with us. He marched me over to this tall, skinny, angular, strangely elegant, finely-featured boy one lunchtime and dumped me on him with a ‘Humph’ as if to say ‘There. Knock your socks off and leave me the hell alone!’
I think we both got a pretty good deal – the guy who introduced us eventually became one of my hometown’s most incompetent house-breakers. (It was that kind of school).
But that tall, angular boy with hair like steel wool and a forehead that just kept on going up from a base camp just above his playful eyebrows into territory where you needed oxygen and counselling – that was Jon.
Jon only had one year on me chronologically, but he’d been a Who-fan for a crucial handful of extra years in the pre-VHS era, so he’d seen things I could only read the Target adaptations of. That made him, beyond question, the elder statesman. I remembered nobody before the Second Romana, but Jon had seen Leela. He knew the correct pronunciation of Sontarans, and patiently corrected my ‘Sont’rans’ and ‘Ziggons.’ He had a thing for Elisabeth Sladen and female crime writers, was adventurous with food and generous with people, was slow to laugh (or possibly, it occurs to me only now, simply didn’t find me as funny as I found myself), but when something struck him, he would laugh as though his whole head had exploded in a steampunk accident of valves and pistons. That was Jon.
I’d always been an only child, and though one of my oldest friends had recently become my step-brother (Really, it was that kind of town), what meeting Jon gave me was my first inkling that fandom didn’t have to be a solitary thing, that it could be shared. That there were other people out there who loved the same things you loved, and loved them as much as you did, and who wouldn’t give you a weary eye-roll if you started talking about them and didn’t happen to stop for an hour or more.
He took me to my first conventions – I hadn’t really had an idea that people did that kind of thing. He laughed when John Levene upbraided me for camera shake. He sat next to me the first time I watched Genesis of the Daleks, and gave a slow, satisfied head nod at my reactions.
We didn’t call each other after every episode back in the eighties – get this; the cost was too prohibitive. We didn’t have mobile phones, and texting was called ‘writing’ and was done with a pen and paper, but we’d spend at least a couple of lunchtimes each week dissecting the shift from Peter Davison to Colin Baker, and during the heartbreak of the hiatus, having both been advocates for our family to get VCRs at the first available opportunity (Warriors of the Deep, Episode 4), we’d have ‘viewing days’ in each other’s houses. Days entirely given over to nothing but the pleasure of watching two or three complete stories that we’d either taped ourselves from the TV or managed to pick up relatively cheap at conventions. I saw The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Day of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars and more for the very first time in Jon’s front room. We were an odd couple – he was fastidious, I was a slob; if we’d shared a house we probably would have killed each other, but our shared love of Who gave us a bedrock. Once, after a house party at my place, we packed everyone off home, or off to bed, and ended up watching Terror of the Vervoids at 3AM. Y’know…as ya do. Jon was my Who-friend, my only, real-world Who-friend, because still, back then, you had to find actual three-dimensional people if you wanted to share your geek-love.
Time moved on. We grew up, but never out of our love for Who or our friendship because of it. He introduced me to some other, non-geek friends of his, and they became mine too, opening me up to other things like going out on Saturday nights, and the notion that I had something to contribute. That little group was by no means a geekfest, but it helped me find myself and my voice, helped me go from awkward, bullied teen to smart-alec, over-confident teen. Jon went off to train to become a doctor – possibly his initial career choice had been inspired by Who, but it had long since been replaced by a genuine care of people, and a commitment to making them feel better. It was his true calling, and with a calmness of manner and a kindness of spirit, Jon was the doctor you could only dream of getting when you felt ill. Just like he let nothing interfere with his dedication to Who, so, when he was working, he let nothing interfere with that either, he gave you his whole attention, his whole commitment, and he made you feel very definitely that you were the only person he wanted to talk to at that moment, that your problems were the whole focus of his concern and his skill.
That was Jon.
So why have I told you all about my friend? Why today?
Well, because the last time we geeked out was twenty years ago today. We were living hundreds of miles apart by then, him as a doctor in a busy London hospital, me as a semi-professional poltroon and skiver. We’d been in touch a lot more than usual in the weeks leading up to today though, discussing every titbit of news we’d heard about the McGann story, exchanging theories of how it would go, what the plot would be like, how the American angle would be handled and so on.
We didn’t talk all the way through the story, watching it independently and silent, him in his flat, me in my attic, just me and the TV, everyone else in the world entirely banned. But immediately the credits rolled, I called him, and we Oh-my-Godded for almost two hours. Oh my God, how amazing did the console room look? Oh my God, the Daleks put the Master on trial? That was weird. Oh my God, how amazing and Doctory was Paul McGann. Oh my God, the Doctor is half-human?! Oh my God, the kissing! Oh my god, oh my God, oh my God!
It wasn’t perfect, we agreed, but oh my God, surely Doctor Who would be coming back now! It was a strong start, given it was a regeneration story – surely it would be picked up, and this was what Doctor Who would look like now: it would look like Paul McGann, and that was thrilling.
Sadly of course, twenty years on, we know that wasn’t to be. McGann had impressed people, so his Doctor would go on in novels and audio dramas, but the massive resurgence of Doctor Who didn’t happen twenty years ago.
When it finally did happen, I was in a guest house in Ireland, the night before my step-brother’s wedding. When Rose came on the TV, I politely asked if I could have the TV room to myself for an hour, and got it, and was actually late arriving at my step-brother’s stag do. At the time, I didn’t think Rose was anything like as promising as the TV movie had been – a bit too jokey, a bit too Billie Piper-heavy. I thought probably the nail had just been put into Doctor Who’s coffin. It was only as the night went on and I kept getting calls from female friends, asking if Doctor Who had always been like this, that I realised I was wrong, and the resurgence was finally here.
The resurgence was late.
Between McGann’s first night and Eccleston’s launch, Jon had gone. He had left us lonely Earthlings, quite deliberately, and really, the reason I hadn’t enjoyed Rose so much was that there was no Jon to share it with, no Jon to pick over all the details and be excited with.
The last time I had that sensation of watching Who and thrilling with the after-broadcast chat was twenty years ago today. And while I still love Who, both New and Classic, there’s not an episode that goes out that I don’t watch thinking ‘Jon would have loved this world. This ascendancy, where Who is in everybody’s cultural lexicon, and where most people have an opinion on it. He would just have loved it.’
Celebrate today. Celebrate twenty years of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor; it’s worth a cheer. Maybe watch the movie one more time. But watch it with someone – three-dimensional or online, it no longer makes a difference. Celebrate your geekery today and every day, but celebrate the geeks who share it with you, and make it something beautiful. Celebrate your life and the people who share it with you.
After all, they’re what make it fun.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk