Ginger Nuts of Horror
As things turned out, there were worse kids than that one to deal with,
I am between eight and ten years old. I can be no more precise. I can only be even that precise because I remember the school, and the village the school was in.
Crappy fucking village. Creepy fucking village. Creepy as hell. Every bonfire night, there would be a torchlit procession from the church to the huge pile of wood in the village square. Everyone would be there. The vicar up front, alongside the bigger farmers, the shop and garage owners, the chamber of commerce types, then the regular village folks. Everyone.
In the centre of the bonfire was a stake. Big enough for… well, for a person. It was always empty. Never a Guy. Somehow, that was the worst thing about it, to me. That empty space. It felt threatening. A statement. Yeah, it’s empty… this year....
Our tiny house was next to a pub. One evening at kicking out time, there was some kind of disturbance - not sure if a window got broken or it was just pebbles, but something. When the local constabulary came round the next day for my mum to file the report, he took a look around the house while I and my sister (9 and 7, probably) huddled at the top of the stairs, then looked my mother in the eye and said ‘Well madam, you do have a Greenpeace sticker on your window’.
Two years, we lived here.
The school… man, where to start? Well, outside toilets, in a building that resembled a shed. I mean, indoor ones too, to be fair, but still. An outdoor section of the playing field that was corrugated off, and which contained to my initial delight and subsequent dumb horror an outdoor swimming pool.
A 100% unheated, bug filled, arctic plague pit, that I am quite sure will one day be responsible for developing the world’s first sentient verruca.
Though as I cast my mind back to some of the ‘children’ that I somehow survived being cooped up with, I can’t dismiss the possibility that that had in fact already happened, and I was just too busy trying to avoid being beaten up to notice.
I tell you something too, I know there’s been various attempts at anti-bullying approaches through the years, and I know there’s pros and cons to many of them, unintended consequences, what have you, and the last thing I’d do is dismiss anybody else’s experienced misery on the subject, because God fucking knows if you’ve been there, it’s shit, and that’s all there is to it. But I will say this: I doubt like hell there’s too many schools left whose entire anti-bullying policy could be summed up with the phrase ‘well, he’s moving up next year’.
That was it, by the way. I guess the ‘try and keep out of his way’ was implied, albeit laughable in a school with a total population across the infants and juniors (two classes, separated by a decidedly non-soundproof foldaway ‘wall’) of MAYBE 60 kids. I mean, in practical terms, might as well say ‘try and be invisible’, to which my response might fairly have been ‘I AM fucking trying!’.
As things turned out, there were worse kids than that one to deal with, and I wouldn’t leave that building for good without throwing my first punch in anger, but still, even before that, I wasn’t having any kind of fun.
The one ‘out’ was Friday afternoons. That was when the headmaster and our teacher, no doubt exhausted after his long week of solid 9am - 3:10pm not-giving-a-single-solitary-shit would finally abandon all pretense at running an institution of learning and set us free within the classroom to basically do what we liked.
In my case, that meant the library corner.
This was a single wall mounted white wire rack in the corner of the classroom, stocked by the mobile North Devon County Council library service every month or so. A rotating cast of paperbacks encased in clear plastic, with white borrowing slips stuck over the first page, often obscuring the inside blurb or press. It was a meagre selection, with one crucial saving grace - there would always be at least one or two Target Doctor Who books.
Here’s the wierd part: I can't remember a time when I didn’t know what Doctor Who was. I am literally unable to remember a time when Doctor Who wasn’t a part of my internal imaginative landscape. A time when the Doctor wasn’t part of my personal pantheon of heroes - every bit as vital and immortal as Indy or Luke Skywalker, and in English. In fact, even that understates it: I remember seeing Jedi in the cinema at 5, Temple of Doom at 6 or 7 (and oh friends, have we got a column coming up about THAT little adventure). But The Doctor? Man, he’s just always been there, him and the wheezing, groaning sound that heralds the arrival of a blue Police box and the promise that shit is about to get off-the-hook mental.
And the reason that’s really pretty odd is that I didn’t have a television in my house until 1986, by which time I was seven years old.
I remember that, you can bet. Trial of a Timelord, Colin Baker… I sometimes think one of the big reasons I don’t find Colin Baker as obnoxious as so many other do is because I first saw him in black and white.
Shorn of the constant mental irritation of that fucking outfit,
there really is stuff to like about his performance, I think. And anyway, he was my first.
Except that can’t be right either, because he wasn’t. I knew all about Doctor Who, and Daleks, and Cybermen and Autons and The Master and the TARDIS and K-9, sonic screwdrivers, Sarah and Harry and Barbara and Ian and all of it, for years before The Valyard tried to send my hero down in glorious monochrome over the autumn of 1986.
So it had to be the Target paperbacks.
And I mean, duh, right? I learned to read before I got to school, thanks to the extraordinary patience of my mum, and I still remember with perfect clarity the day I discovered/was taught reading in my head…. WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSHH!!!! I was five. So that plus school libraries plus no TV yet still containing extensive Who lore = Target. Terrance Dicks.
And this particular one I remember especially well.
There’s a few reasons for that, but chief has to be the cover. I mean, just look at it:
Now admittedly, the squid/eyeball/tentacle critter barely features in the story itself, but if one look at that cover doesn’t make you want to pull this book off the shelf and commence with the devouring, just know that you and seven year old me will never be friends.
But there’s more to it than that. Re-reading it for this article, I was astonished at just how much of it I’d completely internalised, in terms of the shape and flow of the plot, the big moments, even much of The Master’s dialogue. Reading it was a profoundly odd experience, because I kept getting this powerful doubling effect, like I was reading the words before reading them. It’s like the damn thing has been photocopied up there or something. And I mean, sure, part of that is just the age, and that old word ‘impressionable’ has rarely felt more apt, but…
...well look, I sat in that library corner and read every day for two years. And I can remember hardly any of what I read back then, even the Doctor Who ones. So why this one? Why was it that as soon as the idea for this column came up, I knew with a moral certainty that I’d end up writing about Doctor Who and the Terror of the Autons, sooner or later?
Well, first, because Terrance Dicks, obviously. The man has been described elsewhere as having a prose style that is ‘ruthlessly efficient’, and I certainly can't argue with that. but the re-read showed me more than that - or at least, showed my WHY that’s such a powerful tool.
One of the reasons it’s so powerful is because it means he manages to create these amazing bit part players with an incredible level of interiority in just a few short sentences. There’s Luigi Rossini (born Lew Ross, in Hoxton, a fact we learn in the opening paragraph of the book) - owner of a shabby circus that employs desperate performers on their way out or in trouble, and pays starvation wages. Within two paragraphs, we know him, understand him, and intensely dislike him. In a similar word count, we’re introduced to Albert Goodge, an aging scientist working at the deep space radio telescope whose obsession with the poor quality of the packed lunch his wife provides manages to be funny and somehow faintly poignant all at once.
And that’s just the bit players - the poor unfortunates who have managed to find themselves in a Doctor Who story without realising it, and are therefore almost certainly doomed. When the time comes to meet the main cast, Joe, The Brig, Yates, The Doctor, they simply leap of the page and take up residence in your skull, like the ghosts of departed but well remembered friends. It’s astonishing stuff.
And then there is, of course, the story. My understanding is that the Beeb got in some trouble for this one on broadcast from the blue rinse brigade, and based on this novelisation it’s not hard to see why. The ‘killer plastic motif is exploited in a number of terrifying ways (which is how I get away with talking about Doctor Who in a monthly column on horror influences, in case you were wondering). Killer dolls, killer flowers that shoot suffocating film over your mouth and nose, killer furniture, for crying out loud. Not forgetting what must have been an iconic screen moment (so powerful it gets an illustration in the Target book) when The Doctor peels off the face of a policeman that’s ostensibly rescuing him, only to find a faceless plastic dummy beneath, which, wow, just wow. It’s pretty bloody thrilling in the book, if I’m honest. And sure, that’s actually Robert Holmes, bless his little cotton subversive no-authority-can-really-be-trusted socks, but the moment got my heart pounding as I read it, at seven and at thirty seven, and that’s at least partly down to Mr. Dicks not fucking it up in prose.
I mean, I could bang on all night - how long have you got? The Master is bloody brilliant in this one (could it really be his first story? Feels like he’s always been part of the geography of the show), manipulative, suave, apparently perfectly in control but of course seething with repressed rage, hypnotising away like a good’un. And of course his plan makes no sense at all unless viewed as basically screaming at The Doctor ‘LOOK AT ME AND HOW CLEVER I AM!!!!’ via the medium of attempted homicide. Which as new series aficionados will understand is exactly how they ultimately explain all this wonderful glorious nonsense. The Auton concept is pushed in a ton of interesting and terrifying directions, using the classic Doctor Who trick of ‘let's-make-an-everyday-household-object-a-source-of-terror’ and taking it Tap-like all the way to eleven - I mean to say, anything plastic can kill you! On behalf of seven year old me, you bastards.
Also, thank you. Thank you so, so much. Because for a terrified, bullied, bright but alienated seven year old, who was awkward and did not fit in at all in the environment he found himself, you provided… an escape. No better, a portal, into another world, another place. Yeah, okay… a TARDIS, if you want to be strictly accurate about it.
And sure, the world you took me to was scary. But fuck it, the world I was escaping was scary too. I had bullies and apathetic authority figures and policemen who didn’t give a shit too. At least in Doctor Who they were controlled by an evil alien intelligence, which made some kind of sense.
And of course, in your world, there was The Doctor.
Sure, he’s old, arrogant, kind of an asshole to his friends. Sure, he spends half his time trying to escape the planet, and he’s impatient, and he’s at times ridiculously over confident. And sure, he leans on his charisma, uses it to breeze past all the above to make people like him and do what he wants. But he’s The Doctor. He cares. He is righteous. He has zero tolerance for bullshit or macho posturing, he’s empathetic, he’s tenacious and angry and always the smartest person in the room. He dresses like an Australian's nightmare (for those of you keeping score, that’s two Spinal Tap references so far), and he disrespects authority every chance he gets, and the one thing he really, really cannot abide is cruelty.
The Doctor was my hero. Aw hell, why pretend? The Doctor IS my hero. He always will be. The hooks in my psyche run deep, too deep to extract even if I had the slightest desire to, which I don’t. Because when you’re sat in the corner, surrounded by a world that you don’t understand, full of banal evils and casual cruelties, the notion that out there, somewhere, is a man with a time machine that can travel anywhere and anywhen, getting into adventures and writing wrongs and standing up to and beating every bully in the universe… hell, it almost makes all of it worthwhile.
No, scratch that. It DOES make it all worthwhile.
The notion that there’s a better world, with yes, villains and bullies and death, but also, crucially, heroes - smart, compassionate people for whom force is a last resort, and for whom intellect and empathy are always prized higher than brute strength and the ability to inflict harm. A universe where, yes, there are monsters, but also a man that the monsters are afraid of. A man who bends his surroundings into a better place by sheer force of will, who can stare every oppressor and false authority and demagogue in the eye and say ‘not good enough’. A man who cannot prevent horror, cannot stop death, a man who exists in a universe where bad things sometimes happen to good people, but who stands, who fights, who makes a difference. Who makes things better.
Even if it only exists as a story.
Kit Power will be appearing as part of the FCon Doctor Who panel, 10am Saturday 24th October, alongside some actual real life Doctor Who professionals, desperately hoping he isn’t found out. Details of the event and tickets can be found here: http://fantasycon2015.org/whats-on/