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Confessed Whovian Tim Brook recalls a fascination with Peter Davison’s stick of celery on the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who.
“In case I get peckish!” said Peter Davison. We were in the Tardis. Not the real one I grant you, but a mock-up at the Longleat Doctor Who Exhibition way back in 1982. The snotty-nosed eleven year old incarnation of myself had just asked his beloved fifth Doctor why he always wore a stick of celery on his lapel, while he scribbled his signature on my Doctor Who Annual. It was an entirely valid question of course and the Doctor had given me a completely honest answer. Or so I thought. Two years later in the all-time classic story The Caves of Androzani, he would use the same decorative vegetable to detect gases he was allergic to and help resuscitate his companion after she caught the rare alien disease “Spectrox Toxaemia” by wafting it under her nose. I was slightly miffed. So the celery wasn’t to keep the Time Lord’s hunger at bay after all? The Doctor, my own beloved Doctor, had told me a lie.
I had seen every episode of Peter Davison as the Doctor. In those long lost days before video recorders and DVDs, I had always made sure I was home to watch my favourite show. If I missed an episode, it would be gone forever. I went to desperate lengths. I refused to go to Cubs. I dropped out of drama lessons. I gave up judo too, just to get my Who fix. But one day, on that very day when Davison would perform a miracle with a mere stick of celery and later regenerate into the sixth Doctor, something very bad happened.
During the school holidays my family and I were visiting relatives. On “Regeneration Day” I woke up at my Auntie Marilyn’s in Oxford, full of excitement. That evening we would be driving into the depths of Hampshire to visit my elderly Auntie Phyllis. This, obviously, was not the reason for my exhilaration. Not unsurprisingly, I had made my parents aware of the small fact that Doctor Who was on that evening and it was Peter Davison’s last ever episode. Perhaps they didn’t appreciate the gravity of the situation, but when it came to taking one’s time to politely say goodbye and respect family etiquette, the Doctor, quite frustratingly, did not have the upper hand. What had started with awkward fidgeting and indiscreetly murmuring “Doctor Who, Doctor Who” became, I regret to say, something of a temper tantrum on my part. A few embarrassed faces and a well-deserved telling off later we all got into the car.
It was now half an hour before the episode started and I had resigned myself to the fact that I would miss most of it. But we could make it for the regeneration! Let’s say I coaxed, persuaded and encouraged my Dad into pushing the pedal to the floor, in a vain attempt to make our own Ford Fiesta perform an impossible act of time travel. My Dad was most obliging, and in the best tradition of the Tardis he nearly crashed twice. Yet he would live to tell the tale. Again and again in fact. When we arrived at our destination my aging aunt stood there, arms outstretched, ready to smother her darling nephew in sloppy wet kisses. But she was to be disappointed, unless she was prepared to rugby-tackle me. I was already in the living room, goggling in front of the TV. Peter Davison, looking a little the worse for wear, was staggering into the Tardis. I had made it. I would see the regeneration.
Doctor Who was often a cause of strife in our family. My five year old brother and I both sent in photos to Doctor Who Weekly, hoping to end up on their readers’ letters page. Given his tender years, our mother wrote in on his behalf, enclosing our address. Our little village was “near York”. Yet Doctor Who Weekly fortuitously misread our mum’s rushed handwriting as “New York”. My brother’s photo, and not mine, got published and Doctor Who Weekly had their first “American” reader.
At university I would study languages and I was swept away to foreign climes. Doctor Who, now cruelly axed by the Beeb, was no longer a daily topic of conversation. I already had difficulty asking directions to the station in Italian, let alone explain about an alien who could change his appearance and travel in time and space in a police box. Now I was more interested in learning the lingo, seeing the sights and wooing a beautiful signorina or two. But Doctor Who was not going to let me go so easily.
One summer day I was strolling along the sunny seafront in Trieste, savouring a strawberry ice cream, gazing at the dark blue sea, its rippling waves reflecting the glittering sunlight, when suddenly I heard… “EXTERMINATE”! How was this possible? This was Italy. Was I dreaming? Yet I heard it again and again. I ran towards where the Dalek’s cry was coming from. I was in front of a games hall, a hive of teenagers, Tetris and pool tables. I burst in, my heart thumping with excitement. And there it was. A pinball machine, a Dalek pinball machine – whirring, clicking, beeping and most importantly of all “EXTERMINATING”. Not only this, there was also Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor. His voice at least, reporting Player One’s progress as he satisfyingly slammed the metal balls against the pinball pepperpots. The machine also displayed images of the other Doctors. Peter Davison too. He fixed me knowingly with his mendacious eyes and I remembered. I was still a fan.
After university I became a language teacher and worked my way up to the dizzy heights of “Director of Studies” at a language school. Whilst managers, teachers and parents would rip shreds off each other in a conflict scarier than the Time War itself, I would sit safely tucked away in my office, devising names for new courses. Power is a dangerous thing and twice a week at four o’clock my fangene would explode as the secretary called out to whichever teacher was taking the class that day, “Dalek is here!”
And now? After many years of lurking in the shadows, secretly indulging every Whovian whim, I have started to take a more public approach to my passion for Doctor Who. I joined Twitter and called myself “Whovian Leap“. Like Sam from that other time-travel show, Quantum Leap, the one that kept me relatively sane when Doctor Who was off air, I would jump backwards and forwards through my own personal timeline and tweet important moments from my Whovian life. I started blogging too and “Whovian Leap” on Twitter would regenerate into a place for promoting my blog. Doctor Who now provides me with another source of excitement. Every day I check my stats and see how many people have read my blog and from which far-flung countries overseas Whovians are clicking on me.
For many, Doctor Who is a just a TV programme to watch and enjoy every Saturday from a sofa-oriented position of their choosing. As you can see, for me it is just that little bit more. It would be dishonest to say I can’t imagine my life without Doctor Who, because in the dark days of the Nineties when Doctor Who had been axed, I was actually starting to lead a “normal” life. It was a bolt out of the blue when Doctor Who came back in 2005 and reignited my passion. I could never have imagined that the show would reach its 50th anniversary and be celebrated with such love all over the world. On 23rd November, I will sit down to watch the anniversary episode along with millions worldwide. But I dare say I am the only one with a stick of celery taped to his jumper. In the spirit of celebration and in the name of the Doctor himself, maybe it is time to forgive Peter and make that ultimate gesture. What’s more, the celery might come in handy. Just in case I get peckish.
About Tim Brook
Tim is an English teacher and translator. He graduated in German and Italian at the University of Salford and trained at St Martin's College, Lancaster (PGCE Modern Languages). He has been published in English Teaching Professional ("Catchphrases in the Classroom") and is an enthusiastic blogger. Tim loves Italy, the cities of Trieste and Naples in particular. His other love is not quite so healthy, Doctor Who. His greatest hope is that his nephews Henry and Arthur will both play the Doctor!