While on vacation, I was browsing the aisle of a capital city-area thrift shop and stumbled upon a rare treasure: a collection of “Doctor Who” novelizations published from 1973 to 1994.
The books were prose novels based on stories originally presented on the long-running British science fiction show about the adventures of a mysterious time-traveler called the Doctor and his young friends. “Doctor Who” novelizations were my Hardy Boys, H.P. Lovecraft or, for the younger readers, Harry Potter and “Twilight.” These were the stories I read under the blanket while I burned up flashlight batteries into the wee small hours. The books took me to faraway galaxies or the day man discovered fire.
These books were also why I was so slack-jawed tired when I arrived in my first-hour classes in middle school. I stretched these thin paperbacks between the pages of my social studies textbook and read them instead of the lessons during the time we were allotted to study for an upcoming test.
No offense to the machinations of the Ottoman Empire, but they just didn’t hold as much appeal as a talking robot dog with a laser blaster in his snout, the murderous Nazi allegory Daleks or the giant rat living in the sewers of Victorian London. (Although I did learn how to use the word “allegory” correctly in a sentence, so school was not a total failure.)
I learned about “Doctor Who” through Iowa Public Television. When I was a boy, IPTV ran episodes of the show six nights a week, Sunday through Friday, at 10 p.m. My dad would let me watch the show before I went to bed. Each night, after I (allegedly) finished my homework, Dad and I played two or three games of checkers before the 10 p.m. news. We chatted about the Hawkeyes, current events and what not. When it got to be about a quarter to nine, Dad and I went upstairs to the kitchen. He mixed me chocolate milk with Nestle’s Quick in one of the many cartoon or movie glasses I’d forced him to collect when various fast food restaurants offered them as premiums in children’s meals.
Dad went downstairs to watch the news, but extracted a pair of promises. First, for the love of God, don’t spill the milk or Mother will have both our hides. Secondly, I was to turn off the TV and go to bed when my “spaceman show” was over because it was a school night. (Friday nights, the milk promise was made, but the bedtime restriction was eased.)
I regularly broke the second promise on weeknights. I was given a $5 allowance as a lad. The bulk of this went to comic books on the wire rack at Montross Pharmacy on the Winterset town square. But my Mom and Dad made twice weekly trips to Des Moines so my mother could get her hair done at her favorite east Des Moines shop. (The hairdresser and her husband, a printer, would later take me in after my folks died.)
Most trips, Dad and I would park at Union Park to kill time during her appointments. I would climb the giant metal rocket slide while he read the newspaper or napped in the front seat of his brown 1975 Ford Country Squire station wagon. Other trips, though, we would peruse Merle Hay Mall. I found the bookstore and beelined for the lower shelves of the science fiction section. There were the “Doctor Who” books. They cost about $3 in the middle 1980s, when I bought them by the handful. It was a big chunk of my allowance to invest in one item, but they never disappointed.
My father grew up during the Great Depression on a Madison County farm. He was not, as they say these days, an early adopter of technology. He didn’t buy a TV with a remote control until he 70. He never bought a VCR. (There was no such thing as “on-demand” and DVR.) And even if we had a VCR, they didn’t have VHS copies of “Doctor Who” at the local rental store. That meant I either saw “Doctor Who” when IPTV broadcast it or I missed it.
But these novels gave me access to the entire run of the show. Stories that had never aired by IPTV — including stories that had been accidentally erased from the BBC archives and didn’t exist anymore — were at my fingertips. Dad supported this habit. Reading is good, he believed, no matter what the subject. However, he would often be baffled how I could memorize that TARDIS, the Doctor’s time machine, was an acronym for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space, but I couldn’t not seem to diagram a sentence to the satisfaction of Mrs. Adams in English class. There are some mysteries even the Doctor cannot solve, although I believe I actually did learn the word “acronym” from a “Doctor Who” book.
My “Doctor Who” novelization diet had another English side effect. Hours spent with these books had convinced me “color” was spelled “colour” and “gray” was actually “grey.” There was also the matter of quotation marks. The British double quotes inside single quotes. We do the opposite. Mrs. Adams wore out a few red pens trying to teach me this lesson. Once, she asked me why I kept doing that. I showed her one of my “Doctor Who” books. She shook her head and said, “The English don’t speak the same English we do, my boy.”
These books remained among my most prized possessions until about my sophomore year in high school, when flirting with Jennifer Beeman over the cafeteria taco bar suddenly became far more interesting than evil Time Lords with a shrink ray. During a spring cleaning at my second set of parents’ home, I donated an entire box of the thin paperbacks to charity. I’ve regretted that choice many times since, but as my friends who have helped me move in recent years will tell you, there is no shortage of heavy reading materials in my apartment.
I would have liked to buy the whole stack of books at the thrift store, but the soul of moderation is a distinct lack of cash. Still, I picked up a few at a reasonable price. I thumbed through the pages when I settled down for the evening. Again I traveled in time and space with the Doctor, but instead of destinations in faraway galaxies, I wandered back through my own history to simpler pleasures of glasses of chocolate milk with clumps of powdered mix at the bottom and conversations over the checkerboard.
The only other difference between then and now, I suppose, is that I read the books on top of the sheets by lamplight.