My time as a “scary girl” on Doctor Who

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Sylvester McCoy was Doctor Who in 1987, when Julie Collins appeared as Leader of the Red Kangs in the TV show. Source: BBC

Julie Collins, University of New England

In 1987, I appeared as Fire Escape, the Leader of the Red Kangs, in a Doctor Who tale of dystopian mayhem: Paradise Towers. In a dilapidated Tower Block, colour-coded gangs of “Kangs” — delinquent teenage girls — ran amok, whilst behind closed doors, sweet and endearing old ladies lured unsuspecting visitors into their apartment for tea, so that they could eat them.

The Kangs became allies of the Doctor — number seven, played by Sylvester McCoy — who went on to defeat the Hitler-like totalitarian Chief Caretaker, played by veteran British actor Richard Briers. The fans both loved and hated this story. The acting was at times way over the top. But on the plus side, Paradise Towers, a storyline written by Stephen Wyatt, contained great social commentary, critiquing the social upheaval of Thatcher’s Britain. The Kangs were seriously “scary girls”, and the streets were full of them.

The recent news that a woman — English actor Jodie Whittaker – will be the 13th Doctor Who has got me thinking about my time on the set of this classic show. Whittaker’s appointment to the role has been hailed by many and criticised by some purists. I think that it is about time a Wise Woman took control of the Tardis, even if the Tardis does not always do as it’s told these days. Reflecting on my brief time on the show, it is interesting that while women such as the Kangs were feisty, the Doctor’s female companions were there mostly to help show how clever he was.

The author as Fire Escape in 1987. Source: author provided

My own personal association with Doctor Who — apart from hiding behind the couch as a very small person — began in the mid 1980s, when my partner at the time, Mark Strickson, was cast as Turlough, companion to the fifth Doctor, played by Peter Davison. I was so jealous! But over the next few years, I probably spent almost as much time on the set as Mark did. This was the era when John Nathan Turner (known as JNT) was the producer and the series was probably at its most economical.

Production was fast and furious. But despite the pressures, I was welcome on location and in the studio. I watched from the sidelines and even from the control room. One day when I entered the studio, the Daleks were there. They were really very scary, even though you knew the voices were coming from four small and elderly gentlemen sitting at a table in the corner with large microphones.

When I eventually got the call to audition for my own story on Doctor Who, it was unlike any audition I’d been to. Instead of sitting across a desk, having a quiet chat and perhaps reading a few lines of script, which was the norm, JNT and the director, Nicholas Mallett, had overturned the furniture and I was asked to improvise a life and death battle.

Working on Paradise Towers was hard work. You had to stay focussed; if at 10pm, your concentration was about to lapse, the production team was unlikely to retake a shot to fix up your performance.

One of the episodes in which Fire Escape appeared.

This was only Sylvester’s second outing as the Doctor, and he was quite nervous at times but his background as a stand up comic helped — and his wry sense of humour came to define his portrayal.

I met many of the Doctors over the years: the quietly dignified Pat Troughton; the charming Jon Pertwee; the ascerbic Tom Baker; the very kind Peter Davison; and the flamboyant Colin Baker.

In recent years, I also met Paul McGann, the eighth Doctor, who appeared in the movie, and he told me a story that shows how the character has evolved over the years.

The Doctor began his existence as a typical white, upper middle class, patriarchal male. While the casting of Peter Davison in 1981 sent shock waves through the BBC — I mean how could you have a young Doctor? — he was still the wise and nicely spoken patriarch.

Paul McGann as Doctor Who in 1996. Source: BBC

McGann told me that when he was cast as Doctor Who, in 1996, he suggested that he play him as a Northerner in a leather jacket. But the producers insisted he play the Doctor as an Edwardian gentleman.

Yet in 2005, Christopher Eccleston became the ninth Doctor — as a Northener in a leather jacket. The Doctor was no longer quite so posh.

Peter Capaldi who played the Doctor from 2013 until now, might be seen as a return to the old model — the mature patriarch — apart from the fact he is Scottish. And yet Capaldi is quite different, more reflective, more self doubting. Ironically, considering the Doctor is not human, this incarnation seems more human and in need of support from his companions. For this reason, he is my favourite Superhero. The Doctor is in a sense Everyman and therefore, Everywoman.

The idea that Time Lords can change genders has already been established, and the Doctors can remember all their previous incarnations, so I do not think the change to a female Doctor will be earth shattering. Maybe Doctor number 14 will be a person of colour, that would be exciting.

The ConversationPostscript: After appearing in four Doctor Who episodes, the author went on to study zoology and do a PhD in ecological humanities … as you do.

Julie Collins is Lecturer in Indigenous studies at University of New England. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Gusworld note: how could I resist republish an account of Doctor Who from a fellow UNE survivor?

The many moods of Tom Baker

Tom Baker may look nothing like the curly-haired figure with a scarf we recall from our childhoods, but he still know how to ham it up. Here’s a sequence of photos I snapped of him at the Time Quest 2009 fan event (yes, it’s taken me a while to get these online).

















Drink Ready

Invasion of the new series

I headed off to the Invasion conference in Barking today for another major overload on Doctor Who. While I’ve been to several UK Who conventions before, this was the first since the new series got broadcast and Who shifted from cult favourite to mainstream obsession. Here are the random highlights with the customary appalling photos:

Waris Hussein and Derren Nesbit: Astonishingly, while Hussein directed the pilot episode, the broadcast version of An Unearthly Child and the now entirely lost Marco Polo, this was his first convention appearance. Best quote: “It’s a great shame you can’t see how brilliant the sets and costumes and stories were [for Marco Polo]”. Me, I’m not so sure. Nesbit turns out to be the missing link between Who and the Bee Gees, while Hussein directed Barry Manilow in the TV version of Copacabana.

Waris Hussein and Derren Nesbitt

As ever, the Big Finish crew were happy to discuss their approach to Who and how it differs from the TV series (in essence, happy to take the odd idea but don’t see the point of direct duplication). Best quote: Gary Russell on the odd approach to DVD releases: “Every other series in the world is available in box sets except Doctor Who — there’s just no logic to that.”

Joseph Lidster, Gary Russell, Simon Guerrier, David Darlington and Ian Farrington

Given his long-running career, it’s no surprise that the chat with Richard Briers only briefly touched on his Who role in Paradise Towers. Like many a Who actor, he complained about the influence of reality television. Best quote: after talking about backstage information: “You guys like all that shit, don’t you?”

Richard Briers

Kev McCurdy, who co-ordinated the fight scenes for The Christmas Invasion, revealed that a 5:32 scene took six days rehearsal and 90 minutes recording time (though four-and-a-half hours were scheduled). He then re-enacted the scene with a colleague in the grounds of Barking Abbey School, where the convention was held. Great stuff.

Kev McCurdy demonstrates a fight scene

Over lunch, I checked out the props display elsewhere in the school. Nice stuff, albeit with a clear late-series bias.

An authentic Davros costume

Classic Who Costumes, heavy emphasis on 1980

Classic Who Costumes

First up after lunch was Leslie Grantham, who noted that working on Resurrection Of The Daleks directly led to his role on EastEnders via director Matthew Robinson. Unlike every other guest, Grantham didn’t take audience questions, which I’m guessing was so he wouldn’t get asked about his webcam exploits. Best quote: “I don’t like the new Doctor Who. I think it’s the fact he had a northern accent.”

Leslie Grantham interviewed by Gary Russell

Sarah Sutton was charming (if obviously practised at this sort of thing). For once, I overcame my shyness and asked if she had the same low opinion of Matthew Waterhouse (Adric) as her co-star Janet Fielding. After identifying me as an Aussie, she noted that Matthew was “irritating” at the time, but these days she finds him quite amusing. Best quote: “I’m probably a bit more diplomatic than Janet.”

Sarah Sutton

Without a doubt the most popular guest of the day was Camille Coduri, who plays Rose’s mum Jackie, making her first ever convention appearance. Having been driven in overnight from filming in Cardiff, she seemed almost insanely energetic, and happily handled all kinds of fan questions while being careful not to reveal anything about Series 2. Best quote: when asked whether (a) Jackie or (b) she preferred Christopher Eccleston or David Tennant: “I think Jackie, definite threesome. For me, nowhere — married, very loyal.”

Camille Coduri

Last in for the day were a series of supporting actors who have collectively played several roles in the most recent series, including Steward in The Longest Day, multiple Daleks and several other villains. All great fun, even if by now I was freezing in the school auditorium. Best quote: Nicholas Pegg: “Sometimes there’s just not enough vomit in the world.”

Barnaby Edwards, Nicholas Pegg, Simon Day, Alan Ruscoe, plus some bloke who never got out of the way

The shortest Who ever

Just in case anyone hasn’t seen it: there’s a new Doctor Who interlude available on the BBC Web site, broadcast last week as part of its annual Children In Need appeal. The last time these two TV phenomena interacted we got the amazingly shocking Dimensions In Time, but this isn’t a dumb comic interlude: rather, it covers the first couple of minutes following the Doctor’s regeneration, and leads directly into the forthcoming special The Christmas Invasion. One can only presume it may also be repeated at the beginning of that episode, particularly for overseas transmissions.

Nicely done, and it’s especially good for once to see a companion outright freaking over the regeneration process, as in the past there’s been a tendency for people to take this phenomena rather too casually. No word yet on when the ABC will be broadcasting the special, but presumably they won’t be waiting until Christmas 2006!

Torchwood should be good, touch wood

Having spent more than a decade neglecting Doctor Who on screen, the BBC isn’t wasting any time catching up. Not only has it commissioned two further series of the show itself, it’s also now approved what is only the second televisual Who spinoff. (The first, K9 & Company, is not normally mentioned in polite company.)


Torchwood, due some time in 2006, will be an adult-oriented drama, set in Cardiff and featuring Captain Jack Harkness, the character portrayed by John Barrowman who created such a splash in the latter half of the latest Who run — not least because of his willingness to sleep with every passing alien, regardless of gender. Despite the name (an anagram of ‘Doctor Who’ used by the production team), Harkness himself, and a promise the story will be “seeded” in the next Who series, there’ll be no direct Who connections once it starts running. Russell T Davies, the main force behind the Who revival, is writing and producing.

On the whole, this can only be a good thing, though the fact that the series will go out on BBC Three and will have a modern-day setting suggests it won’t get the extravagant budget the Who series enjoyed. However, if all the other actors are of Barrowman’s calibre, it’s bound to come off well. Whether it means Captain Jack won’t appear in Who again remains to be seen.

(Incidentally, it’s a bizarre coincidence that the first post I’ve done post-Whovention is also Who-related . . . better broaden my celebrity gossip horizons pronto!)

Gusworld’s Whovention banquet photo frenzy

Clearly, I have no sense of restraint or shame. After coughing up a small fortune for a vaguely rare Who annual, I then splurged further amounts of money for the right to sit at the same table as India Fisher at Saturday night’s Whovention banquet. Obviously, this makes me seem like a complete deranged fanboy, but it made for a good evening (and kept the charity coffers filled). India’s outgoing, cheerful, full of good stories about the acting industry and living in London (I know nothing about the former and a reasonable amount about the latter), and was clearly enjoying her trip.

Having already sunk this far into low-grade public behaviour, I figured I might as well go the whole hog and get pictures with all the guests. So here they are.

Whovention 7: India Fisher

India Fisher: simply a lovely person.

Whovention 7: Deborah Watling

Deborah Watling: compact and charming.

Whovention 7: Frazer Hines

Frazer Hines: and I didn’t even mention Emmerdale.

Whovention 7: Rob Shearman and India Fisher

Rob Shearman, India Fisher and yours truly. Again.

I also asked Rob Shearman if he had in fact remembered my drunken remark about coming to Australia last year. It turns out he did, but, as he said, “I couldn’t imagine it was ever going to happen.” It was that kind of event.

Adultery, killing penguins, unwise disclosures and excessive spending

Spot the TARDIS . . .
While this Whovention is technically Doctor-less, having four international guests more than makes up for it. Today was largely dominated by interview sessions with the four imports, all of whom made for entertaining viewing.

Of course, if you’re a dedicated Who fan and you’ve read all the reference works, then the odds of any of the stars coming out with an anecdote you haven’t encountered before is fairly low. I often find the best bits are when the actors describe other elements of their career, since these are stories we haven’t run into before. Frazer Hines’ tales of what children tell him when invited on the stage during pantomimes (one young girl explained that she was there with Mummy and Uncle George, “the nice man who comes and stays when Daddy is driving his lorry”) were particularly amusing.

Whovention 7: Frazer Hines

Frazer emerges from the TARDIS to an applauding crowd.

Whovention 7: Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling

The stools were so high Frazer lifted Deborah onto hers for a later interview session.

I’ve tended to find at UK conventions that the people associated with Big Finish provide the best and freshest Who-related tales — quite possibly because they’ve done the work in question much more recently and haven’t been doing the convention circuit for twenty years or more. This was certainly the case today.

Rob Shearman gave a fascinating account of the writing process for Big Finish, which seems to involve a lot of random pitching of ideas in pubs followed by frantic creative bursts. We learnt that he can write an audio script in around two weeks; in contrast, work on ‘Dalek’ for the new TV series stretched for over a year. For that reason, he said he thinks it’ll be a while before he writes for TV Who again, if only because there are so many other projects he wants to pursue and committing to the series makes that largely impossible.

Whovention 7: Rob Shearman

Rob Shearman: exhausted by not getting an aisle seat on the flight over — which really does suck if you’re a tall guy!

Of his Big Finish scripts, he loved Robert Jezek’s performance as Frobisher in The Holy Terror and The Maltese Penguin, but really doesn’t fancy writing for penguins. He got his revenge by killing Frobisher in a short story for a fan anthology. Jubilee is about “an hour too long”, he reckons, though the central concept is good.

He enjoyed working on The Chimes Of Midnight but thinks that it leaves too many questions unresolved — he pitched it as a “haunted house that isn’t” story, and forced himself to write an episode a day, creating a series of “great cliff hangers” that he didn’t always get around to resolving. (Personally, I think it’s a great story.) The Unbound script Deadline is his personal favourite from his Big Finish, though he says he’s received loads of hate mail about it. And he wrote Scherzo, the Eighth Doctor/Charlie two-hander, on his honeymoon.

Whovention 7: India Fisher and Rob Shearman

“Is it too early to ask for a drink?”

Whovention 7: India Fisher and Rob Shearman

Forced to sit apart to reduce microphone interference.

India Fisher bubbled with enthusiasm over her trip to Australia so far (she’s been here for a week and is hanging around for another fortnight after the convention finishes). She kept mischievously pointing out that since Big Finish producer Gary Russell wasn’t here (he’s a constant presence at UK conventions, and has been at the last couple of Whoventions as well), she could say whatever she liked about him. “Of course, with the Internet it’ll get back to him even before I’ve said it,” she added. So for the record: Gary never tells anyone anything until the last minute, often casts actors with just a couple of day’s notice, and is infamous for only wanting a single take when directing. None of this would cause him any sleepless nights, I suspect.

Whovention 7: India Fisher

India (shoeless for comfort) smiles at the crowd.

India’s keen to pursue more comedy work (ideally in a Catherine Tate-style sketch show), but says she’s very happy doing audio work, which is coming her way in ever-increasing volumes thanks to her ongoing work with Big Finish (where she’ll soon have done more than 30 stories). She boasted that only she and Nicholas Courtney had full copies of the script for the anniversary story Zagreus, since printing a full script for everyone would have consumed huge numbers of trees.

Whovention 7: The assembled guests

During the lunchbreak, we got another treat: the first public screening of ‘Paris In The Springtime’, the making-of documentary that will feature on the DVD release of City Of Death. This was both informative and amusing, neatly mixing archive footage and documents, contemporary interviews and even a cartoon-style retelling of ‘A Gamble With Time’, the story which Douglas Adams was forced to rewrite radically over a single weekend to create the finished script.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should also point out that, as usual, I became consumed with competitive envy during the charity auction and ended up paying a small fortune for a signed Doctor Who 2005 annual. Well, it is for charity, after all, and it did boast a bunch of signatures from contributors to the annual (including Rob Shearman, Clayton Hickman, Steven Moffatt, Tom MacRae and Dave Houghton) who I’ll probably never track down otherwise.

Whovention 7: The assembled guests, again

Trivial? Who?

Whovention 2005 kicked off on Friday night with a traditional staple of fan conventions: the trivia night. From my own point of view, this had the potential to be highly embarrassing. If you dumped me in a room with 20 random strangers, the odds are good that I’d know more about Doctor Who than any of them. If you dumped me in a room with 20 Who fans, however, I’m likely to be one of the least informed.

I blame the fact that I’m obsessed with so many other things as well — if I could convince myself to just have one major obsession/collecting interest/tragic hobby, I would really be able to specialise. But that ain’t gonna happen. So my normal tactic is to volunteer to write down the answers — I might not know much about the topic, but I can do a reasonable impersonation of a secretary.

In the event, our team table managed to perform quite respectably (we never deluded ourselves we were going to win a prize), and I even came up with a couple of answers that no-one else at the table knew. It helped that all the questions were in fact Who-related: at previous Whoventions, there have been other sci-fi related questions, which always throw me completely. We totally sucked at one of the picture rounds — naming characters from various stories over the years — but did manage the improbable feat of identifying a Portugese translation of a Who Target novel.

India Fisher and Frazer Hines help read the answers.

In truth, half the reason everyone shows up at trivia nights is to get an extra chance to gawk at the celebrity guests. All four of this year’s overseas imports — India Fisher, Frazer Hines, Rob Shearman and Deborah Watling — appeared, and Shearman demonstrated his fanboy credentials by helping his table get the top trivia score (even though he left early and skipped the third round, which was entirely about the 2005 series). India was, as usual, charming and self-deprecating, Frazer always comes alive at these gatherings and Deborah made the customary jokes about being short. The lighting in the room was lousy for photography (as you can see), but hopefully there’ll be more opportunities tomorrow. All in all, a great start to the event.

Whovention ahoy!

The Chimes Of Midnight, authored by a certain R. ShearmanThis weekend, I’ll be happily attending Whovention 7, the latest in the Doctor Who Club of Australia’s series of biannual get-togethers. Given the success that the new series has enjoyed, I imagine things will be a tad more crowded than at previous Whoventions, which can only be a good thing, really.

One of the special guests at this year’s event is Rob Shearman, who has written half-a-dozen audio dramas for the Big Finish range of audios, as well as the Dalek episode from this year’s TV series. I had a quiet chuckle to myself when I learnt Rob was attending. On my regular trips to the UK, I often attend UK Who conventions — they’re much more frequent over there, in large part because the actors and other Who celebs don’t have to travel very far to get to them. At the Dimensions get-together last November, Rob was one of the guests, and during a rather drunken conversation with him at the bar, I suggested that he should line himself up to be a guest at the next Australian convention. I have no idea if this half-tanked suggestion had any direct influence, but on the other hand, he is showing up . . .