As evidenced by the world-spanning, attention-grabbing celebration of the show’s 50th anniversary last November, we’re pretty much all Doctor Who fans now. But it was not ever thus. There were once long, dark times when admitting to knowing what TARDIS stood for was to invite a merciless public lampooning. This writer still bears psychic scars from the time he tried to use a school English presentation as an opportunity to convince his classmates that they really should give that new Colin Baker chap a try.
Comedian Toby Hadoke is the brains behind long-running Manchester comedy night XS Malarkey (which moves to a new venue, The Pub/Zoo, in Manchester city centre this week). He’s also a man who knows exactly what TARDIS stands for. In 2006 he decided to try and join his two enthusiasms together with a one-man show about life as a Doctor Who fan. First staged as part of the Manchester Comedy Festival, Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf quickly developed an appreciative following among fans and non-fans alike. After a number of tours and an acclaimed adaptation for BBC Radio, in due course it spawned a follow-up show, My Stepson Stole My Sonic Screwdriver, which Hadoke is bringing to Oldham Coliseum this week – incidentally, in a unique performance complete with live BSL interpreting.
Over the years, on the quiet, Hadoke’s template – using a fan’s own deep, unconditional love of something to spin out a comic, even moving autobiography – has been replicated elsewhere. British comedian Will Smith has written one-man shows about his obsessions with Bergerac and Marillion and there’s now a small stack of books by writers eagerly exploring the impact of Doctor Who on their young lives. If Hadoke didn’t actually mint this format, he was certainly a very early proponent. As he himself says, “Just recently my mum rang me furious because, on The Guardian ‘Experience’ page, there was a bloke who did a thing about bonding with his kids over Doctor Who and she said, ‘He’s just nicked your show!’ I suppose I’ve certainly noticed an upsurge in those ‘geek odysseys’ – geekery combined with heart, if you like – becoming a currency in the media. I’m not saying I invented that at all. It’s maybe that I’m just more conscious of it, but it’s certainly OK now to be a functioning human being and a Doctor Who fan!”
And yet, there’s something about Doctor Who which is inherently loveable, fallible and funny, which means it lends itself nicely to this very human treatment. Not to pick on it, but it’s hard to imagine a one-man show about Star Trek fans working quite so well. Moths Ate My Spock Ears just doesn’t have the same ring to it, anyway. “Well, Star Trek does have a sense of humour, I think, but it’s kind of right there in the DNA of Doctor Who,” Hadoke suggests. “I mean, after all this is a series in which a man with two hearts travels through all of time and space in a police box. It’s very British in that respect, too. In Star Trek they explore and go off exploring the universe in the best, biggest spaceship you can imagine. In Doctor Who, they do it in an battered old police box.”
Whereas Hadoke’s first Doctor Who show centred on his love of the series as a youth, My Stepson Stole My Sonic Screwdriver ties together its barnstorming comeback in recent years with major upheavals in his own personal life. It’s often tender, honest and thoughtful but, without fail, it’s also irresistibly funny. Hadoke has a knack for presenting a fan’s boundless enthusiasm and love of facts while undercutting it with a more balanced perspective to great comic effect. It genuinely isn’t necessary to be able to recite every Patrick Troughton story (in order) to enjoy his shows. Fans and non-fans will all find themselves laughing with – rather than at – each other.
Anyone still doubting Hadoke’s devotion to his chosen cause might want to note that he spent much of 2013 on a quest to get first-hand anecdotes about every Doctor Who story for a series of free podcasts entitled Toby Hadoke’s Who’s Round. It was first suggested by a tweet from someone he’d never met and the entire mission was completed just in the nick of time on December 22. “I think I did a total of 157 interviews, something like that. From producers and writers to extras; everyone from Zoe Wanamaker to the man who was the boom operator on The Space Pirates. I met some fascinating people. Looking back on it now I can’t believe I did it, on my day off sandwiched between a gig here and a meeting there.” Covering the show’s comeback years could have posed a problem, but for a single stroke of luck. “I just thought, ‘Oh, I’ll aim for the top’, and I emailed Russell T Davies. He said he turned down every single Doctor Who interview that year, but to my surprise and delight he agreed to do it.”
In fact, since the success of his one-man shows, Hadoke is now an established figure within the world of Doctor Who fandom, working on the BBC’s official DVD releases and writing for the long-established Doctor Who Magazine. “When you’re doing a show like this you don’t really consider how successful it might be because you’re just getting on with your daily life. But when I do get chance to reflect on it, I realise that it’s opened so many doors. I’ve made lots of good friends through it, too. It changed everything for me.”
Interview by Andy Murray
What: My Stepson Stole My Sonic Screwdriver
Where: Oldham Coliseum
When: January 16, 2014