Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Whoniversary: Doctor Who USA 1985 by John Michals

Doctor Who in the 1980's. It seems like such a long time ago. How could it be? It was a dark time for Doctor Who - though it should've been a very bright time. Here in NYC we had at least three channels broadcasting Doctor Who. That is, if you could pick them up. They were all UHF stations, NJN, WLIW and WNYC, and you needed a very well placed antenna to grab their signals. Daily doses of Doctor Who and stories edited together as Saturday night features all of different eras. Add to that the Doctor Who Traveling Museum was visiting America, or "the States" as we are sometimes referred to. This should've been a crowning jewel for a show which had just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Instead it seemed like a desperate last gasp. The show was facing cancellation. The BBC cited low ratings despite the fact that Attack of the Cybermen drew in 9 million viewers. The BBC head of programming had axed the show but fan outcry had caused him to reverse his decision and call it a "hiatus". Many, many years later, it would be revealed that he had been sleeping with Colin Baker's ex-wife. Co-incidence perhaps?

For us "yanks" the chance to see props and costumes up close was a rare treat. We did have regular conventions in NY produced by CreationCon but those focused on actors and sometimes the producer-elect for life; John Nathan-Turner. Later Creation would completely abandon NY as a venue. British fans had for years been able to see the treasures of Doctor Who up close at Longleat. I often read about the show's wares exhibited in that far off place called England via Doctor Who Monthly. I always concluded a trip to the UK was impossible for me. Certainly it wasn't financially feasible for some kid from Queens, NY who made a paltry $20 bucks a week filing at an office after school. Years later when I did have a well-paying job I never considered visiting England. I was content to pour my paycheck into the superb toys and merchandise being produced in connection with the show's resurgence.

I remember great anticipation to see the Traveling Museum but I had hopes that K-9 would be on display. That had been my focus. I had discussed building an R/C K-9 with my Father. It turned out to be a project we never really started. The chance to see the full size prop up close though was something I couldn't miss. We brought rulers with us to try and get measurements. How naive; how nerdy! Finding the Traveling Museum was not easy. It was held, or parked rather, in Central Park. It was a trailer you could walk through adorned with what was supposed to be a terrific collection of Doctor Who related props, masks and costumes. I wasn't too familiar with NY City's geography back then. What a pathetic New Yorker I was! Where in the park were they hiding? After walking around with no clue as to where to find the event we approached the Parks Dept. for assistance. An Officer Frehley helped us out, (no relation to KISS guitarist Ace Frehley I was told). He was an unexpected surprise. He was not only familiar with the show but was an artist with dreams of breaking into comic books. Accompanying us through the park and with the help of his fellow officers on the radio, we located the truck which held the Doctor's secrets.

I can't recall if I was skeptical or not. I thought maybe this was going to be something more like a carnival atmosphere but instead there was "the trailer". It was brightly painted with the `70's era graphics and diamond logo which still seems to me, to be the best version of the show's name. There was the Doctor's car, Bessie, parked outside and roped off so you couldn't sit in it. Thinking back on it, I would've loved to have seen the Whomobile. I have heard it was owned by Jon Pertwee and I guess they couldn't cut a deal to bring it along. There were people from WNYC-TV 31 passing out brochures and info on the station. WLIW 21 and NJN seemed to be bigger supporters of the show and they were noticeably absent from the event. This was probably a great membership drive opportunity any UHF station. These stations are commercial free and still are. They depend on members to donate to keep the programs on their viewers want to see. We watched all our Who programming without interruption except when they needed people to join to pay for the shows. Some merchandise was being sold. I kick myself for not being able to buy anything. I really loved that Doctor Who USA Tour logo with the TARDIS tilted towards the sky. I really wanted a t-shirt with it. Still, I managed to grab a bag to carry flyers in and I have a copy of it. I had planned to one day learn the art of airbrushing and make a t-shirt of my own. One day, when I lose enough weight to look like I did in 1986 - if that ever happens.

No actors from the show were there to welcome us to the event. That was a little disappointing. I don't recall paying any admission either. You walk to the front of the truck and up the stairs into what? Where would this trip lead me? Would this be an adventure as exciting as any seen on TV? Could this truck hold enough to satisfy a Doctor Who fan? Could it be, possibly, bigger on the inside? Well it wasn’t bigger on the inside but it was nicely air-conditioned. You first enter into a budget-sized representation of the TARDIS Console Room. I remember the console being a fraction of the size of the studio version. Understandable, I guess, as the real one seems so wide you might need two truck containers side by side to display it. Looking over the brochure, it may have been the size of the real console but only about 1/2 built into the truck. If the brochure is drawn to scale it looks as though a whole console could've been placed in there. If I was disappointed I cannot remember. It wasn't very accurate but looking at my expression in the photo I seem to be very pleased to be standing in the TARDIS, flying it, manipulating the buttons…oh, the endless rows of buttons! This console was not based on the old version which had been updated year after year. It was based on the newer version that was used from The Five Doctor's onwards. A console for the audiences of the Commodore 64 and the computer gaming era. There were so many buttons and video screens that no amount of script writers should want for any more to use in future story lines. (I later read they still wanted more!). It's the best picture I think Dad has ever taken of me. It was also the easiest one to get because the Console Room was the most brightly lit in the truck.

Beyond the TARDIS interior lay a treasure trove of authentic Doctor Who items. Upon entering the next room you find yourself in a darkened maze. I wonder if this was supposed to be the darkened limbo which was seen just outside the doors from the Doctor's console room episode after episode? The length of the trailer has a corridor that zig-zags making the most of the limited space inside. Looking back this may not have been the best way to present Doctor Who to the public. Maybe a brightly lit TARDIS trophy room with roundels, (plenty of roundels to match the number of buttons), would've been better. This adds to the mystery of the exhibit but it was hard to see anything and under Plexiglas near impossible to photograph. It also makes it a challenge for the uber-fan to get reference if they're going to re-create props and costumes of their own. This little adventure was in the years before I took photography or even owned a camera. I would have to rely on my Father's skills to capture any useful shots. Also, in many of the photos I can be seen waving people off or trying to tell them to stand back as my Father snaps a picture but people repeatedly kept trying to get through the tightly enclosed space and on to the next attraction. It also occurs to me that the visitors to this exhibit were mostly not Doctor Who fans. At least not on the days I visited. Many of them didn't seem to know what they were looking at. They were curious, meandered along the darkened corridors but I didn't sense any anticipation as to what lay around the next corner.

I also have to admit my memory on what I saw is as fuzzy as some of the pictures turned out. It could be I was just so obsessed with K9 I wasn't impressed with much more that was on display. So as we plodded through the darkness I vaguely remember seeing the Dalek but it wasn't the fan favorite for me then, that it would become for me today. I had accepted them as part of the Who lore but the staircase vulnerability had always ruined it for me. They did eventually overcome that design flaw in a Sylvester McCoy story before the show took its too long "hiatus". In new series stories the sight of the Daleks is always comforting. As villains go you want to see them and see them be bad. They've reclaimed their place as dangerous killers and have shown they can be a formidable adversary for The Doctor. The Davros mask was also on display just opposite. This appears to have been the 1980's Davros which I was somewhat disappointed in much like the 1980's Sontarans. I felt the mask-maker who did the originals had done a fine job. Why couldn't the new masks keep the look of these iconic characters?

Now forgive me if I seem ungrateful because I should be thankful we got to see any exhibit at all but I can't understand some of the characters that were represented. The Robots of Death mask was there. A nice story but for characters used only once I can't understand their continued popularity. I don't recall seeing the Kryon from Attack of the Cybermen, (the brochure credits them as being in Revenge of the Cybermen. That has to be a mistake), but if I recall what they actually are I don't see why they were included. A Sea Devil was present. I could understand including one. They and the Silurians had had return engagements during the Pertwee era and had returned for a Davison era story but Sutekh was represented twice? The Ergon was impressive but why include The Malus? The Tractator was fresh in our memories but the Mutt and The Marshman not nearly so. Why the Cyberleader? The Cyberman redesign of the `80's was brilliant. I still think the 21st century versions should have more ear-muffs and less Iron Man influence myself. The early version Cyberman helmet was also good but there have been so many versions of the Cybermen you could've had a whole section outlining their upgrades. Then there was the Styggron, the High-Priestess Headress and the Gastropod Nestor…why? There were no scarves on display, no Sonic Screwdrivers, no celery sticks or other gadgets; but there was K9.

If the Dalek was the big draw why place it up front and not at the end where K9 was displayed. I mean why not save your best for last? Well I thought K9 was the best. Unfortunately he was under Plexiglas. There's no way we would be able to measure him. What did I expect really; that we would be allowed to pet him? You could see screws on this surface that weren't visible on TV. Some wear and tear but nothing as extreme as portrayed in the 2006 story School Reunion. I liked the simplicity of the design and the computer screen on his side. For an era which had no clue that all of our knowledge would be available on the internet, as well lap-tops and iPads would be available in the future it seemed too far-fetched that a mobile robot dog would have such features. The wagging tail and the posable ears also had no function other than for him to be cute. Never doubt the power of a cute robot! R2-D2 may rule but K9, a robot which amazingly reproduces the form of a dog, will always be a close second. My Father took what photos he could and some even have the ruler on the case but nothing useful would come of it. We walked the length of the trailer a couple of more times to get more shots because we didn't want to bottle-neck the traffic at the end of the exhibit. A couple of times my Father suggested we see if the display case was locked down that maybe we could just steal K9. I didn't think that was a very good idea - yet might be so typical of a New York City denizen! No, let's not spoil people's enjoyment of this little curiosity by stealing the best thing in it. The end of the adventure had my Father snapping endless pics of me outside. So many I became extremely self-conscious and couldn't stop grabbing my other arm. We should've snapped more pics of K9!

We never built a K9 replica. We traced the outline on some wood and it just sat in the basement for years. After the show returned and K9 re-appeared with Sarah Jane a 1/4 scale, R/C toy was released. Impatient, I scooped it up with the help of a friend in the UK and paid waaaayyyyyy too much for it. Of course they were going to release it in the USA. I should've been more patient, saved some cash and visited England to see further Doctor Who exhibits, (or at least go to Cardiff to try and catch the new show in production). The Doctor Who USA Tour travelled America but in the long run failed to drum up extra interest in the show. It was a great little event to see Doctor Who artifacts up close. And like the Road Warrior... it lives now, only in my memories.


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