Wednesday, July 29, 2009

An extraordinary thing happened to me on the way to the pub

It’s the Tom Baker that catches my eye.

A couple of weeks ago and I’m walking down the street near my flat, on the way to the pub for a Saturday afternoon catch-up with an old workmate. It’s a miserable day and the footpaths are packed with material put out for an inorganic collection programme running that week. Mainly old mattresses and television cabinets, surrounded by all sorts of old junk.

Wandering past one of these piles, I carry on for another few metres before I decided it really was Tom Baker I’d seen on top of one of that broken-legged desk. It was him, the fourth Doctor’s unmistakable hair and Baker’s own unique grin. I have to go back and have a closer look.

It’s sitting on top of a beaten-up box and I’m not expecting much. It’s probably just some old, tatty magazine with little worth reading, an old Starlog or SFX that gets breathless about long-forgotten geek interests. But then I turn it over to look at the cover and it turns out to be a late 1980s issue of the official Doctor Who Magazine, the best publication to ever cover my favourite television show.

DWM issues are still pretty rare around these parts and it’s good to get hold of any back issue, especially one that is sitting unloved on the street, ready to be carted away. I check underneath to see if there are any other unfamiliar issues and see another Doctor Who logo, so I dig a little deeper.

Wait a fuckin’ second….

* * *

When I’m nine years old, the Radio Times Doctor Who 20th Anniversary special is my bible. It’s a nice, chunky magazine that is packed with information and I read that fucker until the cover falls off. Then I read it some more and the first and last few pages also fall off and then I finally put it away, having memorised all the information I need.

At this stage, I’d only read a couple of the Target novelisations and seen a few handfuls of episodes, but the local television has just started running them from the early days (claiming, bizarrely, that the Mind Robber, from deep into the second Doctor’s run, is the earliest complete story available and starting from there).

And then I got this magazine and it had a full episode guide, with the briefest of synopsis and details about the Doctors and every companion they had and stories about the behind the scenes people and even some weird fan convention photos that fascinated the fuck out of me.

Doctor Who was always on the television, but it was the printed page that got me hooked on the show. It’s the magazines and books I find over the next few years that fill me in the background of this great, great series.

This is the mid eighties. This isn’t just in the days before DVD box sets, this is before many of these stories even got a video release. The local video store had some beaten up copies of the very earliest video releases featuring stories like the Seeds of Death, Revenge of the Cybermen and the ubiquitous Five Doctors, with annoying things like credits edited out. But apart from that, there was nothing.

A whole generation of Doctor Who fans could only read about the older stories, as there was no chance of seeing them anytime soon. If a new episode was missed, tough luck. It might get repeated somewhere, but the chances were slim.

Amongst all the novelisations and magazines, the best source of info turned out to be the official Doctor Who magazine. First published in the late seventies as a weekly, it soon became an indispensable part of the entire experience. It’s not just the story details it gives, it’s the huge amount of background detail and analysis of classic stories that make it so damn useful.

It also helped to be full of interesting comic strips, from a variety of fantastic creators, including John Wagner, Pat Mills, Dave Gibbons, Steve Parkhouse, John Ridgeway and many, many more, including the odd story from Grant Morrison and Alan Moore.

The magazine got a lot of mileage out of the series when it was still on its original run, breathlessly introducing every new Doctor or companion, and eagerly scooping up any snippet of information.

Remarkably, the magazine got even better in the years following the cancellation of the original run. Wild speculation often filled the pages, and little of it turned into reality. (The magazine must have told us that the Doctor was definitively back a half dozen times before Russell T Davies came along.)

But with no show, the level of analysis came to the forefront, and the magazine became a much richer experience because of it. There was always new product, including original novels and audio adventures, but without that ongoing television saga to follow, the publication still managed to get some great in-depth pieces out of the overall Doctor Who culture.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t always easy to get hold of copies of the magazine. It has always been on newsstand, but has also been a fairly pricey read in this part of the world, and if an issue was missed, it was so hard to find might as well have been a lost episode of The Celestial Toymaker. Back issues would rarely show up on the second hand market, and while it was possible to pick up older back issues now and then, they proved pretty elusive.

So when I see Tom flashing his big cheesy grin on that pile of inorganic refuse, I know I’ll be happy if I get a single back issue. It’s something, which is always better than nothing.

But wait a fuckin’ second…

* * *

I’m late to meet my friend at the pub, because something much more important has come up. Turns out that one issue of the Doctor Who magazine was just the tip of the iceberg and there is a whole pile of the things. I have to get them home.

I know I look horribly skody, swiping a bunch of magazines from a pile of inorganic refuse, but I don’t care. Walking down the street with a box that is starting to fall apart, all I know is I’ve found the kind of score that doesn’t come along very often.

I get them home, stash them away safely and head back off to the pub. I apologise for the delay and get the beers in, but can’t stop thinking about that beautiful pile I’ve got sitting back home.

It doesn’t take me long to get the issues in order and see what I’ve got, and it’s a true treasure haul. Every issue of Doctor Who Magazine from #89 up to #210, along with a dozen special editions, including a decent copy of that Radio Times magazine that disintegrated under my obsessed hands.

It’s been a few weeks now, and I haven’t even made a dent in that pile. There is just so much material to get through, but even with the vague browsing I’ve managed so far, it’s still fascinating to see how the show evolved during the late eighties, with the actual magazine blossoming into something new after Sylvester McCoy walked off into the sunset with Ace. More analysis, more fiction, more experimentation. The introduction of the New Adventures novel range were a pretty big deal at the time, even if it has led to a massive amount of similar auxiliary product. At the time, NAs were unique.

There really is a whole lot more of these magazines to get through, and I’m looking forward to it. I sometimes wonder if I should knock on the door of the house I found the magazines outside and thank the person who decided to dump them, because I am incredibly grateful to have the chance to read this stuff.

I dream of finding hauls like this, and still can’t really believe how easy it was to find them. It really is the kind of opportunity that comes along very, very rarely.

Thanks to Tom Baker and his unmistakable grin, and the decision to walk to the pub instead of driving, I ended up with a pile of great reading. I’ve always love Doctor Who and always will, and a decade of unlikely magazines only reinforces that love.

Especially when they’re free.

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