Wicked Professor: Sophie Aldred in Oxford

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Image Credit: Matthew Kilburn (All Rights Reserved)

Image Description: Sophie Aldred and Jonathan Bryden (president, Oxford University Doctor Who Society, 1990-1991)

Sophie Aldred visited the Oxford University Doctor Who Society in February 1991. Paul Dumont recalled the event and the general experience of being in the society for the fanzine Skaro in Autumn 1993 as part of its celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of Doctor Who, and we republish the article here.

AND STILL THEY came in. They filled up the chairs, crammed onto the tables lining three of the walls, sat beneath the tables, sat between the chairs. I made the mistake of standing up and leaving my front row seat behind. I spent the rest of the evening sitting on the floor.

Over seventy Oxford students, crammed into a lecture room in Christ Church, designed for a class of twenty at most. Waiting for the president of the Oxford Doctor Who Society to arrive with a mystery guest speaker.

At the time—Monday 4 February 1991—I was the society secretary, a committee post with a heavy burden. Well, to be truthful, a physically heavy burden, namely the 22 inch colour TV we used for video meetings. At 11pm every Monday night, perhaps after the ATV logo had faded at the end of Sapphire and Steel, or maybe after the Doctor and Sarah had arrived in the Antarctic snow, the audience vanished. Thirty or so students disappearing as quickly as if abducted by Omega. It then took two people to lift the TV down from its wooden stand, carry it across Tom Quad, with the plug lead and multiblock around the shoulders of one of us, like a mayoral chain of office. Once inside the Archdeaconry (where Adam, our TV guardian, had his room), there was the staircase to consider.

The TV was the focal point for all our meetings. There was Doctor Who in every incarnation, and in every possible form of picture quality. 1991‘s video meetings kicked off with Dragonfire with a ‘supporting feature,’ The Tomorrow People: A Man for Emily. I don’t know what lingers in the mind more: ‘the Momma,’ Sandra Dickinson being spanked or the fact that Part Three was in black and white, 525 lines and recorded off a cable station in Oregon (according to the permanent on­screen ident).

For the next six weeks we joined the quest for the Key to Time. Watching old stories—especially those that you first saw during your formative years, when you first fell in love with the series—is not just a process of comparing memories with realities. Between 1978 and 1991, I had read the novelizations, read the relevant interviews in Doctor Who Magazine, discovered how the consensus of opinion in fandom rated those stories of my childhood. The images on the TV set in the lecture room came to me through a filter of (perhaps) too much knowledge.

Yet despite this uncomfortable self-awareness—watching the story and waiting to react to it in the way you imagine you will, wondering if your reaction is genuine or contrived—despite this, I won’t hesitate to say that The Stones of Blood was the best story I saw in 1991. The dialogue, the acting, the lightning twist of plot (stone circle to hyperspace prison)—Doctor Who done with imagination.

But back to Monday 4 February 1991. We started waiting at 7.30 for the meeting to begin at eight. At 8.15, the guessing hadn’t stopped: “It’s William Hartnell—they’re getting a Ouija board.” … “It’s Sylvester—they’re getting some ferrets.” … “It’s Nicholas Parsons” (an overwhelming favourite). At half past eight the tall, denim-jacketed figure of the president, Jonathan Bryden, strode into the room “Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to introduce… Sophie Aldred.”

For the next two hours we were amused, enlightened, entertained, but most of all, overwhelmed by Sophie’s sheer enthusiasm for the programme and the time she spent working on it. She told us about getting her Equity card, her time at Manchester University (she was a contemporary of James’s Tim Booth), Cybercrutch, manic Dalek actors. Above all, she seemed to enjoy herself, and she shared that enjoyment with us.

There was no Doctor Who in 1991—but for seventy of us, there was Sophie Aldred, and memories to treasure.

This article was first published in The Tides of Time Special Edition Summer 2019

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