Thirty Years in the Oxford TARDIS – A history of the Oxford Doctor Who Society

Image Credit: Oxford Doctor Who Society

Image Description: Matthew Kilburn presenting at the 30th Anniversary Party

A partial and personal history by Matthew Kilburn (who was around for most of it)

The late 1980s was not a good time for Doctor Who. One of BBC Television’s flagship programmes had been sidelined, mocked by senior staff, its lead sacked, and banished to a graveyard slot opposite ITV’s ratings-conquering soap opera, Coronation Street. It clung to life in relative poverty, improvising its way from crisis to crisis. The authority with which the Doctor once strode across television screens had been swapped for juggling resources and playing whatever spoons might convince cynical BBC managers that it had some worth. Fandom seemed divided, an optimistic school wanting to celebrate what was good about new episodes while others wanted change but could only draw attention to the programme’s failings. In Oxford, several students had fallen in love with Doctor Who as children, when it was a popular success in the mid-1970s. They faced student disdain. Common rooms no longer filled for Doctor Who in the age of Neighbours. With the help of video collections and nostalgia for 1970s childhoods, our students knew that they work around that. They didn’t know that in their own ways they had begun one of the most enduring expressions of Doctor Who, which would survive their student careers and the disappearance of Doctor Who from television, and greet its triumphant return…

Birth of Terror

I’m recalling the details as I was told them nearly three decades ago, but apparently there were two key conversations which set the society ball rolling, One was between Roger Shaw, then of Corpus Christi, and Matthew Brookes. While discussing Doctor Who outside Exeter College on Turl Street, one remarked “There really should be a Doctor Who Society in Oxford.” Matthew was reading Chemistry, and had also talked to a student from another college in labs, Adam Stephens of Christ Church, who had been seen reading copies of notorious newszine DWB. Matthew brought Roger and Adam together and they in turn sought out more people. On 18 February 1989 the committee met for the first time. Roger Shaw was chosen president, Adam Stephens vice-president, Ian Middleton secretary and Simon Clifford treasurer. The society registered with the proctors on Monday 20 February 1989, the start of sixth week of Hilary Term. It was told it could not have a start-up grant until it had some members.

Where, then, to find them? While Matthew Brookes said he didn’t have any time to start the Doctor Who Society because he was busy keeping the Sherlock Holmes Society going, he was able to arrange a joint meeting on Thursday of 23 February, to watch The Talons of Weng-Chiang. This story was one of the most highly regarded of the Tom Baker era at the time, before awareness of how offensive it could be to Chinese viewers had filtered through into white British consciousness. Some people joined the society there and then. By the time of the second committee meeting on 27 February, the committee had expanded and with new members and more avenues of enquiry, greater access had been obtained to the video-sharing network which underpinned a lot of late 1980s fandom. It’s difficult to imagine today, but in 1989 being able to go to a shelf and pick up a Doctor Who story—and have a choice of formats—was a remote fantasy for most fans. However, there was a network of tape copiers distributing recordings of varied origin. These included early home recordings made from the mid-1970s onwards, from overseas broadcasts, and from viewing copies made from archive tapes and film recordings by BBC staff members themselves. A newer and more limited seam to mine was the early satellite channel SuperChannel. For the first year or so after its launch in 1987 it had run a ‘Best of British’ schedule which provided high-quality recordings of early Tom Baker stories.

The society embarked upon an ambitious programme of old Doctor Who stories aimed at the Oxford student in the street who wasn’t necessarily familiar with ‘organised fandom’. The endeavour might fail, but it might also be good fun to see what happened. The society had a meeting on its own account on Wednesday 8 March 1989, the middle of the last week of term, in Lecture Room Two, Christ Church. Attendees watched the BBC Video release of Pyramids of Mars, were fed jelly babies and enjoyed the first ever Doctor Who Society quiz devised by Roger. The first question was: “What science fiction series started on November 23rd 1963 and has run for a quarter of a century.” Membership, for one term, was £1…

In Trinity Term 1989, meetings settled in on Mondays, where they would remain until Trinity 2006. Roger had decided that he wasn’t going to be president through mods and had handed over the presidency to Adam, who was a second year chemist and didn’t have exams. In days before e-mail and the web, posters were put up in colleges to attract people, literally cutting and pasting from magazines and comics to create images which drew on possible attendees’ cultural reference points. Adam and Matthew Brookes also went to interview John Nathan-Turner, Doctor Who’s producer since 1980, with the intention that the interview should appear in Isis. Isis had not run an article on Doctor Who since 1984, and they didn’t use the piece. The interview eventually appeared, in a far longer form than Isis would have printed, in Doctor Who Magazine in 2016. This term and during the vacation Adam threw himself into Doctor Who activities, writing to potential guests including Tom Baker and Colin Baker. Adam’s invitations paid off in Michaelmas when the society entertained its first two guests, Terry Molloy in third week, who had played Davros in three stories in the 1980s, and John Leeson, the original voice of K9, in eighth.

The Second Invasion

Attendances in Trinity had been strong, sometimes I think with about forty or fifty attendees, but after over 200 people signed up in Michaelmas it became usual for 70-80 people to be crammed into Lecture Room Two on Monday nights. The society ran out of termcards at Freshers’ Fair and an emergency document was put together at short notice. The society concentrated very much on old Doctor Who so there were no formal screenings of Season Twenty-Six as it went out and only one recorded instalment of a new serial, of Ghost Light part one after the freshers’ meeting on Monday of first week. This meeting saw several new members arrive including me! Michaelmas also saw the first society dinner, a formal meal in the Old Dining Hall at St Edmund Hall on Friday of seventh week, with the senior member, Dr Martin Grossel, presiding. The meeting announced changes to the committee, which was still formed at this stage by invitation only. The most important of these was Louise Dennis joining as publicity officer and, to her surprise, magazine editor.

In those days lots of student societies seemed to have magazines, before the internet, and Doctor Who also had its fanzine tradition to draw upon. Louise published a Tides of Time every term between Hilary 1990 and Hilary 1992, and the pace was kept up with a few gaps for the succeeding decade. At the end of Hilary 1990 Adam was succeeded by Jonathan Bryden as president of what was now formally, thanks to a successful application to the proctors, the Oxford University Doctor Who Society. There was some dispute over expanding the committee despite the number of enthusiastic new members. A constitutional revision was followed by an election for two committee places. I was one of the candidates and to my disbelief came third, which I imagined was the result of hostile management. In Michaelmas there was a further election where I undertook enough politicking to come second in the poll and join the committee. Really all this shouldn’t have been necessary. The year in hindsight became a sort of latterday student I, Claudius rivalling the Union. The main change this year was the addition of other fantasy and science fiction television – ‘telefantasy’ in the jargon of the time – to the termcard, partly as a response to the launch of the Star Trek Society at the end of Hilary 1990. We existed in a spirit of co-operation and friendly competition and early in the two societies’ histories there was a substantial overlap of members, though this ceased to be as the 1990s wore on. We did have a joint Christmas party in 1990, and in 1991 we purchased a VCR together to replace the one which until then the societies had been hiring. Tim Procter, Jonathan’s successor as president, and I (now vice-president) went down Marlborough Road one summer day to collect the video player from the student who was selling it.

The Legend

Before Tim took over, Jonathan had a secret project which he shared with very few on the committee. During the screening of The Pirate Planet in third week it was announced that there would be a guest in fourth week whose identity wasn’t known to the majority of the committee. That Monday I was instructed by Jon to start turning people away when the room was full, as he didn’t want to breach fire regulations with such an important guest; the rest of the committee told me not to blindly follow orders as people crowded in, sitting in all available spaces, on and under desks, let alone chairs. The guest turned out to be Sophie Aldred, who was lovely! (See the Summer Special Edition for Paul Dumont’s near-contemporary report).

A round of reforms following Jonathan’s departure led to the committee being opened up to anyone who wanted to be on it, recognising its social as well as executive function. By the end of Trinity 1991 the inmates had now taken over the asylum, with few of the original committee now involved. We were dedicated, passionate, obsessed with making the society the best it could be. Among those to join the committee when it was opened up to anyone who wanted to join it was Paul Groves, who revolutionised the look of the termcards. In 1990 BBC Video accelerated their release programme, and with an increasing number of commercially released tapes and what other private collections we knew of, we were able to keep the society going. Hilary 1992 was my run out organising speaker meetings. Terrance Dicks, author of several television stories, script editor of more and noveliser of still more for Target books, was one of the most widely-read authors for children of my generation and he was a natural choice, relating his uneventful career at Cambridge, before going on to discuss his work on Doctor Who and views on what came afterwards. J. Jeremy Bentham was a great influence on how people wrote about Doctor Who as the leading and often the only feature writer for Doctor Who Weekly/Monthly’s first three years.

With finals approaching I was guilty of some micromanagement supporting two rapid rearrangements of the committee for 1992/93. Any later problems owed something to my lack of foresight. We left Christ Church in Michaelmas 1992, settling in for a few years at the Miles Room in St Peter’s who had their own television! No more lugging heavy cathode ray tubes across quads and up stairs, or indeed across town in emergencies.

A Place to Hide

I left the committee at the end of Trinity 1993 and received a hand-made card made up of posters I’d designed for the society and signed by the rest of the committee, as well as the BBC VHS release The Pertwee Years. I thought I was going to concentrate on my doctoral thesis and help apply some of the skills I thought I’d picked up at DocSoc turning around the Arthurian Society. In the event, I’d seriously misunderstood the latter and it was a major headache which drained far too much of my energy and goodwill. DocSoc was a great help to relaxation, whether enjoying watching videos, attending talks such as the second visits of Terrance Dicks and John Leeson, or decompressing at the Friday night casual meetings Anthony Wilson (president, 1993-1995) ran for a while.

Two of the key meetings of 1996 were the screening of the TV Movie as it went out on BBC1, the first time we had watched a Doctor Who story live, and the visit of Lalla Ward, then fairly recently married to Richard Dawkins and whom the committee had approached by leaving an envelope for her in her husband’s pigeonhole at New College. Other developments included the appearance of the society website, and a decision for a few years to brand as ‘OU Who–The Oxford Society of Cult Television’.

Escape to Danger

I left Oxford in 1997 after eight years as a student. The Doctor Who Society was now much smaller, with only about twenty people at most attending meetings. The generation who had grown up with Tom Baker’s Doctor had moved on. Meetings migrated from Mansfield to Keble to Hertford before settling for a few years in Wadham. While I was out of Oxford the society enjoyed a wave of contact with figures in the small world of professionalised Doctor Who: DWM editor Gary Gillatt, BBC Books editors Steve Cole and Justin Richards, and then informal secretary-general of the novelists’ collective Paul Cornell, who was also guest of honour at the Hilary 1998 dinner. Not long afterwards Paul met Caroline Symcox (president, 2000-2001) at a non-Oxford gathering. They were married in 2002.

Another trend in the late 1990s was that the society started to make many more excursions to nearby Doctor Who locations. The favourites were of course Aldbourne, near Swindon, where much of The Dæmons was made, the Rollright Stones as seen in The Stones of Blood, and East Hagbourne, of The Android Invasion. It became something of a tradition to be photographed on the cross to which Tom Baker’s Doctor was tied by the Kraals in that story. I returned to Oxford in October 1999 to start my ideal postdoctoral position at what was then called the New Dictionary of National Biography. Returning to the society, there was a real problem in the early 2000s in that very few people were joining the society and those that did rarely stayed. After a decade of transmissions of old episodes on satellite television via UK Gold, which had launched in 1992, fans coming to Oxford often knew most of the series backwards and watching it as a group didn’t appeal. There was also a gap between the leading lights who came from an archive television and telefantasy tradition, and newcomers who might suggest a programme they liked only to be told that there had been no good television made since 1990. Nevertheless, we did like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and once concentrated on a small monitor to watch some episodes which had not then shown in the UK.

The Last Despairing Try

By 2003, things were looking grim. Most of the committee were either finishing their degrees–often their second ones–or had left university altogether. I was present at a dinner in the Mitre where we agreed to give it one last shot, with former president and long serving Tides of Time editor Matthew Peacock becoming president for the second time for as long as it took him to finish his doctorate. Other people filled what roles they could. A little later, after ten years away, I returned to the committee and took over Tides, returning the title to A5 and choosing to spend some of the money still in the society account from the early 1990s on distributing Tides to members for free. A hardy few perpetuated the society through the succeeding year. The announcement made in September 2003 that Russell T Davies was bringing back Doctor Who had little effect in the succeeding two academic years, but we tried to think of ways which might keep the society relevant for a generation who knew little (at the time) of Doctor Who. Early in 2005 we challenged the Star Trek Society to a quiz, with someone Rei England knew from the quiz society as host. This acorn grew the oak of the Geek Quiz, which the Doctor Who Society has hosted for fourteen years now and where the science fiction and fantasy and other generally obsessional societies challenge each other every fifth week in term.

With fewer and fewer people interested in video meetings, we reduced their number and had more general social meetings. For several years Matthew Peacock had organised regular curry nights, but after Matthew’s departure these now moved into the termcard. We tried other things too, but looking back this reflected how tired many of us were feeling at the time. We didn’t meet to watch the new series when it started in 2005. The issue of watching the leaked video of Rose split the society, with some meeting to do so, others recognising that this was going to be a major communal event on a national level. In Oxford the week before Easter, I saw pubs which normally only advertised sport saying that they would be showing the return of Doctor Who. It was like DocSoc’s way of enjoying the programme had taken over. We had been the prophets, but weren’t honoured in our own country. The 2005/06 year was another difficult one. We were dependent for somewhere to meet on the president of the day, whose offered his graduate centre’s TV room and bar, but this was potentially undiplomatic considering it deprived non-Who watching fans of a college facility. At Freshers’ Fair, he unceremoniously binned the hand-drawn logos of several old television series, including those of The Prisoner and The Professionals, which had adorned the freshers’ fair stall in the OU Who era and immediately thereafter. It seemed that Doctor Who and its very specific fan culture was being de-emphasised in favour of the new series alone and general geek tribalism. I wasn’t thrilled by this, but at the same time I’d wanted to connect with the new viewers and in any case I expected to be gone quickly. In the event I got on with the new members, including the person who was to become one of the two longest-serving presidents of the society, Adam Povey.

The Breakthrough

Adam Povey took over in Michaelmas 2006 and remained for over three years. Adam inaugurated an era of a small but contented group of friends happy just watching Doctor Who, settled with some others on the red-cushioned seats of the television room in St John’s, with the Geek Quiz held elsewhere in the college in the North Seminar Room. For a while, early in Adam’s presidency, we passed out of registration as we didn’t have enough students to fill the positions of president, secretary and treasurer, and so we lost the right to use the university name. We rapidly became a registered society again, but we never claimed ‘university status’ back. As more people started to attend and participate, Adam overhauled the society’s administration so that the constitution and finances were fit for purpose, moving from president to treasurer at the end of 2009 in order to do this. Adam’s effort in keeping things going and reinventing the society around a modern version of its original format has led him to be dubbed ‘the Russell T Davies of the Oxford Doctor Who Society’, although he professes not to have approached the society as an institution. However, it was during Adam’s time that we were gifted a book collection and began the present version of the library. Institutional status comes looking for you even when you don’t want it.

In Michaelmas 2009 we had a speaker for the first time in over three years, Robert Shearman, writer of Series One’s Dalek. Jonathan Nash succeeded Adam as president and was an affable chair for three years, being its second longest-serving occupant. We even went to Fantom Events’ Utopia convention when it was at Heythrop Hall for a couple of years in 2010 and 2011. For a while, we launched academic years with some very frivolous Doctor Who cocktails and attempts at fish fingers and custard. We journeyed to Cardiff several times, when one or other version of the Experience was running. On one trip to East Hagbourne in 2012 I thought it would be a good idea, while we waited for the Fleur de Lys pub to open, to drive over to the other Android Invasion locations in the area and have a look at the Health Protection Agency at Harwell. When we parked the minibus we were set upon by armed police from the Civil Nuclear Constabulary as we did not have permission to visit a site within the terms of the Official Secrets Act. Katrin Thier and I became the responsible adults and our names and addresses were taken.

All Kinds of Futures

The society gradually found more and more things to do. We went to the cinema screening of The Day of the Doctor in 2013. We’d booked early at the Vue near Oxford United’s ground on the southern edge of Oxford and so rather than attend the city centre screening at one of the Odeons, divided into groups who either biked down or were shuttled down in my car or Linda Tyrrell’s. We then returned to the city centre to discuss the series afterwards in the pub. Other developments this decade included our establishing diplomatic relations with the Cambridge University Doctor Who Society. The annual Varsity Quiz began in 2015 in Cambridge and has since alternated between the two ancient universities. James Baillie and I were the initial question-setters, but we have both since passed on our mantles. We also regularly visit the Quiz of Rassilon which takes place every month at the Sebright Arms in East London.

Finally, in 2015 we started to do something we perhaps should have tried before and had organised viewings of the new series as it went out on a Saturday. This has proved particularly successful when the series has been scheduled in the autumn, and none more so since we moved into an auditorium, at Mansfield, for Series Eleven in 2018. The committees of recent years have all been great hosts.

Oh, and in 2017 I came back to Tides of Time. The fanzine might be an archaic format in many eyes, but I like it and people here like to write for it. After two issues I was joined as editor by sometime president James Ashworth who has kept the publication in touch with the present generation. More of that in another article, next time.

DocSoc, as earlier decades called it – during the 2010s it became generally referred to as WhoSoc, matching the abbreviation the university e-mail system gives it – has been a much bigger part of my life than I expected when I joined in 1989. I’ve been a member, a committee member, its vice-president, its magazine editor, and even from 2005 to 2006 its senior member, the academic responsible for signing the registration forms to confirm that the student society is behaving properly. I’ve watched new members turn up in their first weeks at university, and been to their weddings some years later. I’m conscious of being a guest in the student sphere, but at the moment the students still don’t seem to mind. Thanks to them, and to you.

Based on a talk given at the Oxford Doctor Who Society Thirtieth Anniversary Event, 28 April 2019. With thanks to Adam Stephens, to Paul Groves, Oxford University Doctor Who Society: An Unofficial History, 1989-1992 (1992) and to Jonathan Bryden, ‘An Anomaly Within An Inconsistency’, The Tides of Time 1 (1990)

Tides 44 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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