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In 2005 a new generation of young viewers came face to face with Doctor Who for the first time. These pre-teens had their conception of the series shaped by Christopher Eccleston’s newly-installed Ninth Doctor, whose intense persona marked perhaps the single-biggest departure in the way the Time Lord had been portrayed since the programme’s original launch in 1963.
"I don't want to go!" - The Tenth Doctor regenerates; 'Journey's End' (2010).

Nearly eight years on, and these same youngsters have now enjoyed no less than six complete series of Doctor Who. Companions have come and gone, old and new foes bested, and all manner of additions made to the show’s already weighty lore, including the Doctor’s ability to abort his regeneration (Journey’s End, 2008), and alter his biology (Human Nature / The Family of Blood, 2007).

Speaking of Time Lordly transformations, we’ve also had regenerations-a-plenty, courtesy of The Master (Utopia, 2007), Melody Pond (Day of the Moon, 2011; Let’s Kill Hitler, 2011) and the good Doctor on no less than two occasions (The Parting of the Ways, 2005; The End of Time: Part Two, 2010). Even the mode of regeneration has become a stylised affair, as a fiery release of regenerative energy underlines the biologically explosive nature of the event.

Indeed, since Rose Tyler awoke to the day that would radically alter the course of her life (Rose, 2005), enough water has passed under the bridge for these young fans to have reached their early to mid-teens. They are, therefore, sufficiently removed from their younger selves to look back on their earliest memories of the series and see just how well their remembrances stack up to reality.

Of course, the gap between one’s long-stored memory and the actual happening can sometimes be huge. Over time the human memory naturally edits the content of an event, adjusting emphasis and tone as well as sometimes deleting whole passages. That’s why reviewing a story from one’s childhood can be little short of a mini trauma, as the unfiltered fact collides with one’s rose-tinted memories.

Misremembering events, often in a more positive light, is common enough. I like to call it the ‘perception filter phenomenon’, after the perception-altering gadget first introduced in Human Nature (2007), and later seen to great effect in The Sound of Drums (2007). In the latter adventure, we discover this crafty piece of jerry-rigged TARDIS technology enables the Doctor et al. to go unnoticed on the streets of Harold Saxon’s Britain – so long as they remain passive bystanders, that is. In a sense, those life moments with which we’re less than happy are treated in a distinctly similar way to the perception-filter wearer, as our subconscious carefully edits out, ignores or reshapes the memories we’d prefer to avoid.

So, given how our memory can play tricks with our past, just what happens when we finally sit down and re-watch a story from our formative years, long since matured into a classic piece of storytelling by our younger self?

I have two examples from my own childhood experiences of Doctor Who, one of which lived up to expectations, and one which sadly turned out to be somewhat exaggerated, albeit aided and abetted by an exceptionally inspiring novelisation.

The first is City of Death (1979) - the first story I ever glimpsed. On that quiet autumnal evening in September, my too-young self caught the final moments of Part One and witnessed the unmasking of the spaghetti-faced villain – a scene which quite naturally scared me into becoming an overnight fan.

Years passed and that grim cliffhanger became the mythical spring from which my devotion to the series sprang. And with no VHS release or novelisation on the horizon, all I had to rely upon for reliving that seminal moment was my own somewhat blurry memory, which inevitably decayed as time passed by.
Count Scarlioni (Julian Glover) is unmasked. 'City of Death' (1979).

Some years later and I managed to get hold of a photocopy of the story archive, as it appeared in Doctor Who Magazine. But with only the odd grainy black-and-white picture of the scary Scaroth to sate my imagination, it wasn’t until 1991 – some twelve years after my first scant viewing – that I finally had the opportunity to sit down and digest the complete story.

I wasn’t disappointed, and how could I be? City of Death presents the Doctor’s first foreign excursion, courtesy of some lovely location shooting in Paris, along with a tour de force of guest actors, of whom Julian Glover’s turn as the suave Count Scarlioni / ruthless Scaroth is surely one of the highlights of the whole series. I adored it. It felt as though the decade-plus since I had first snatched a look at it had simply evaporated. To my eyes it had more than stood the test of time, and to this day – almost twenty years on from my initial revisit – I feel the very same way. Perception filter phenomenon? Not this time.

The same, sadly, cannot be said for my second example, which suffered from my memory adding details to it, which clearly were a result of viewing a certain blockbuster movie franchise of the time, and my later reading of its very fine novelisation.

Eric Saward’s Earthshock (1982) is an undoubted classic. It has stood up to the intervening years in robust fashion, and widely deserves its status as one of the best stories to involve the Cybermen. More, its portrayal of a companion’s death, by way of the tragic loss of the young Adric, makes it somewhat of a rarity amongst the Doctor’s adventures.

I originally saw this story whilst enjoying my second full season of Doctor Who in early 1982. After seeing the opening episode, I can distinctly remember taking a toy motorbike helmet and a stick-gun, and heading for the trench-cum-ditch which ran alongside the football pitch behind my parents’ flat. There, in decidedly chilly weather, I played at being one of Lieutenant Scott’s soldiers, intent on hunting down the shadowy androids in the caves. For sure it was my favourite story of the time; and with the arrival of a Star Wars double bill at the cinemas later the same year, a firefight involving a melee of laser beams was the default setting for my conception of science fiction.
The Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan explore the caves in 'Earthshock' (1982).

Like City of Death, I had no further contact with Earthshock until its release onto VHS in 1992. However, unlike the former, I had had the advantage of devouring Ian Marter’s excellent 1983 novelisation on more than one occasion, and along with a triple dose of Industrial Light and Magic’s laser battles, my memory of Scott and his team pouring lethal energy from their laser tubes into the Cybermen’s android puppets had taken on Star Wars-esque proportions. Hence, when I eagerly sat down to re-watch the final gripping minutes of Part One and the opening sequence of Part Two I was left distinctly underwhelmed - and all because my ten year-old memory of the scenes in question had become so distorted as to bear little or no resemblance to the actual televised adventure.

Since that disappointing re-acquaintance I have reviewed Earthshock on a good many occasions and, gradually, readjusted my perspective so that my once-exaggerated recollection has been replaced by a more reliable version. I guess this is a fairly natural process, and it’s quite possible that a good many post-2005 fans may now be experiencing this revisionist process too, as their young memories collide with the high-definition reality.

But their experience will be different again. Since 2005, the availability of Doctor Who stories post-original transmission date has become vastly more extended than its twentieth-century counterpart. Through repeats, the Internet and regular DVD releases, the act of reviewing a story is so much more likely to happen within a comparatively short span of time, and thus the erosion of memory which tends to occur over the space of several years is now somewhat more avoidable. Still further, the technical look of an episode circa 2005 is far more likely to match up to visual expectations in 2011, the distorting power of the pre-teen memory notwithstanding.

So, does this mean that the perception filter phenomenon is threatened with extinction, and that henceforth revisiting past adventures will not be quite so dislocating? Indeed not, for however much a story may resist the colouring of an overactive imagination, there is little chance of the childhood memory – awash with the emotions generated by the viewing experience – containing a wholly unadulterated recording of a scene or story. In this way, at least, the manner in which our perception of an event is preserved is still very much open to error. And in any case, there’s something to be said for enjoying one’s perception-filtered memories, at least until the revisiting moment is upon us and we may glean just what we’ve taken to heart and what we’ve forgotten altogether – and perhaps, when re-encountering an old favourite, these are the most telling details of all.

© Copyright Jez Strickley & Doctor Who Online, 2012.
Page Updated: 31/1/2012

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Jez Strickley

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