Joe Bennett says the diverse cast of Dr Who over the past few years should help “reduce the bias a bit”. Photo/NZME
Retirement day and I was returning from the shops with a pair of pretty ones tinkling in the seat next to me, courtesy of the government, when the radio announced that the BBC had, for
the first time cast a black person in the role of Dr Who.
“Dr Who!” I bellowed, “Is it still going?” Because, ladies and gentlemen, a long time ago when the world was young, I saw the very first episode.
It was on an unreliable black and white TV and all I remember now is a damp suburban street and the doctor and the girl who would become his sidekick rushed into a police station and shut down the door behind them, and then this music started, the creepy Dr Who music that everyone my age knows but no one can sing (come on, try it. You’ll find yourself hooting like an owl).
Home later with the adorable ones safely stored in the valuables cupboard, I googled Doctor Who and discovered that the first episode had aired on an early Saturday night in November 1963 when I I was 6 and a half – and I would have insisted on half – and it aired a minute 20 seconds later than scheduled because of the cover of – did you guess it yet?
Come on, come on, November 1963. Yes, that’s right – the Kennedy assassination. Everyone of my generation is supposed to know where they were when they learned of Kennedy’s death. Now I know I was waiting for Dr Who to start.
That Kennedy died at the same time Dr Who was born is the kind of thing people on the internet would have a lot of fun with these days, but I don’t think anyone made a fuss about it at the time, it was, if not a healthier world, at least one in which the madmen were less visible.
The actor who first played Dr Who was white, masculine and old, of course, because that’s what powerful people looked like.
Today, white people, men and older people still have a grip on most levers of power, but at least the entertainment industry has tried to change that. I guess for the past few years there has been a female Dr Who, and now there must be a black one, and while such castings individually make little difference, cumulatively they must help reduce bias a bit, good for them.
But that’s not my point. My point is Daleks. The Daleks were the seminal alien from Dr Who and at 6 and a half they scared the hell out of me. I had to see them both and was terrified to see them so I knelt behind the couch with a cardboard box over my head – I’m not making this up.
I watched the screen through a handle in the cardboard box, but the moment the Daleks appeared, normally at the end of an episode, sweeping forward on invisible wheels, like steering wheels at height chest strap, shouting “Exterminate, exterminate” in a nasal tone that was shared about 20 years later by my driving instructor, I twisted the cardboard box and simultaneously ducked behind the sofa, a belt and braces of defense against the threat posed by the Daleks.
Why they scared me, I don’t know, but they seeped from television into my real world. Daleks were hiding at night just around the bend of the stairs and, when I turned off the light, under the bed.
And now I find that I was not alone in the way I dealt with my terror. In 1991, the Museum of the Moving Image in London held an exhibition celebrating Dr Who. They called him behind the couch. We are all more alike than we imagine.
Two years later, the Daleks were replaced by Cybermen, and I remember being disappointed that they didn’t scare me. They looked like they obviously were, men in suits, when the Daleks had hatched from nightmare burrows. But the Cybermen and subsequent monsters must have scared the rest because Dr. Who ran and ran.
What does it say about our species that a TV show whose sole purpose is to scare little children should have lasted over half a century and been the BBC’s highest grossing global export and become, and I quote, an icon of British culture, I can’t tell you. But I think it justifies opening a lovely one.