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Behind the Sofa: Memories of Doctor Who

BehindTheSofaOn October 31st, Gollancz will be thrilled to publish an expanded edition of Behind the Sofa, a collection of celebrity memories of Doctor Who. Put together by Steve Berry to benefit Alzheimer’s Research UK after his mother was diagnosed with the illness, his self-published version raised over £20,000 for the charity. Our edition has an extra 40 or so entries and a foreword by Sir Terry Pratchett, and all royalties are going to Alzheimer’s Research UK. Over the next few weeks we’ll be sharing some of the entries in the book, as well as some of the Gollancz team’s recollections of the 50-year-old series. And sign up to our Gollancz Geeks newsletter for a chance to contribute your own memories – the best will win a haul of Gollancz and Who goodies.

So, here’s the first of the entries – Neil Gaiman, which was in the original edition of the book. Check back here soon to read what our next celebrity remembers!

neil gaiman_Neil Gaiman

Graphic novelist and writer

Won the Ray Bradbury Award for his Doctor Who episode, The Doctor’s Wife

Doctor Who is like an inoculation of fear.

Here’s how I became a Doctor Who fan.

Do you remember those free bottles of milk they gave out at nursery school (at least until Mrs Thatcher took them away)? You’d drink them with a straw until you got down to the last inch, then you’d blow down to create bubbles. In Mrs Pepper’s class, in Purbrook, the kids did something far more interesting. They bent the straws over and pushed them around like Daleks: “I will exterminate you”.

Now the milk was delicious but this, I thought, was fascinating: “I don’t know what it is but I have to find out.”

Here’s a confession. The Daleks excited me but they didn’t frighten me. When I saw the bright colour cover of The Dalek World annual in 1966, sitting on a shelf at WHSmiths, I begged my parents for a copy. I learned so many things, like the fact that Daleks can’t see the colour red. (Odd, especially as there seemed to be so many red ones. Perhaps they thought they were invisible.) I still have it now, although no longer with the cover.

So if you were wondering why there are three pages of “fan fiction” by me in The Brilliant Book of Doctor Who, it’s because I wanted to recreate that experience; that cool Christmas morning when you’d find the annual in your stocking. (Although your stocking wouldn’t be big enough for an annual unless you had elephantisis, I suspect.)

My strongest memory of Doctor Who may well be the first time I watched it, aged four, round at my grandparents’ house. I was frightened of the Zarbi, giant ants the size of men who, I’m certain, could eat you. There was a shared children’s knowledge that monsters could look through and come out of the television, that it was their window. But did we run and hide out of the room? No, because then it would be over. We hid behind the sofa because it was a place you could still watch from. It was a controlled space.

If I have one regret, it’s that I wish there had been a scary monster in The Doctor’s Wife. Yes, there was the bad Ood but, looking back, there’s no one single moment that would have sent kids scurrying away in terror. If there’s one thing that could tempt me back it would be the chance to create a monster to do that.

People ask, “Why do you want to scare kids?” yet they forget that kids like being scared. We have to learn fear to survive. Doctor Who is like an inoculation of fear. A small dose while you’re young. It reminds me of the Greek poisoners, who would take the tiniest draughts of poison over time, to build up their immunity, then sit down to take a drink with their enemies. They would survive.

Or is that homeopathy?

The truth is: there’s nothing that you can do on screen or in books that will be as frightening to a child as the shadow of a dressing gown hanging on a door, or a noise from behind the closed doors of a wardrobe. Being scared of Doctor Who is like being scared of the ghost train at the fair. You still know, after the spiders and skeletons and cobwebs and creeps, that you will come out at the end. There will be daylight again.