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Three Men in a Tardis

Verity has discovered a pre-Doctor Doctor Who episode

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Stob Significant anniversaries bunch together like buses. Three are assaulting me simultaneously, give or take a month or two.

Two are personal. This writer has now been churning out "Stob" columns for 25 years, and has also recently racked up twice that figure on her personal chronological odometer.

But I am here to mark yet another jubilee. Doctor Who is on the cusp of hitting its own half century, for he and I were born around the same time.

At this time of national celebration, and in view of the BBC's disappointing decision to broadcast only a perfunctory three or four dozen special programmes to mark the event, I am delighted to be able to make an auspicious announcement. You may wish to take an extra firm grasp of your headwear.

I have discovered something more fundamental to the Who legend even than the return of the Yeti to the Underground. And you don't have to go to Nigeria to get it. It's yours for the clicking on YouTube, right now.

I have discovered the zero-th episode of Doctor Who.

Arry J Arry

While the pedantic section of my readership heads off to the comments page to deny the existence of sub-unity ordinal numbers, let me lay out my stall.

The late Victorian writer Jerome K Jerome is, or at least would be in a just multiverse, the acknowledged patron saint of humorous columnists. Nearly everybody is at least slightly familiar with his masterwork Three Men in a Boat (to say Nothing of the Dog), although I find these days many know of it only from indifferent radio and TV productions.

Although this makes it safer to <cough> repurpose his gags without detection (Jerome's gentle wit shines through, gloriously undamaged by the ravages of time and imitators) it makes me cross, for there are fewer fellow Jerome-fanatics around than there should be.

(In inept modern productions, the eponymous three are often portrayed as braying toffs. This misperception neatly mirrors the slagging-off Three Men got from Punch magazine and other reviewers on its first 1890 publication. The contemporary critics loathed 'Arry J 'Arry - as they brilliantly nicknamed Jerome - for his use of cockney slang phrases such as "bally idiot" and "a man of about number one size". Poor old J. If it isn't one damned thing, it is the other.)

But I stray from the point. Jerome was much more versatile operator than a mere humourist. In the early years of the twentieth century he wrote a particular "straight" short story and, in due course, worked it up into a play. According to his autobiography: "In London, on the first night, the curtain fell to dead silence which lasted so long everybody thought the play must be a failure, and my wife began to cry. And then suddenly the cheering came, and my wife dried her eyes."

Given this success, it was inevitable that it would be turned it into a film.

The Passing of the Third Floor Back

It is the second, 1935, film of The Passing of the Third Floor Back that is the subject of my discovery. An even earlier flick was made in the silent era, but that is perhaps taking things a bit far

(screen caption:

'Vworp!'                
                "Vworp!"

Note to piano accompanist: try scraping a key along a bass string).

Let me summarise the plot for you.

The diverse inhabitants of a seedy London boarding house live in a state of misery, produced and amplified by their selfish and unpleasant treatment of each other. The most unhappy of them all is the house slavey Stasia - startlingly described as a "slut" by other characters, but please don't email the late Mrs Whitehouse to protest as they are only using the word as an archaic synonym for "slattern". Stasia is a ne'er-do-well young orphan, graduate of an approved school, who is exploited and bullied by pretty well everyone and especially by the hotel's manageress.

One day, a new guest arrives: a tall, striking, strangely-dressed man who gives his occupation as "wanderer" and "traveller". The Stranger (sic, he attracts both the definite article and title case. Remind you of anyone?) is assigned the back room on the third floor of the hotel (look! now you can parse the piece's title) and sets about sorting out the lives of the house's other occupants.

Stasia, the proto-assistant, instinctively takes to him at once, and assists him in his meddlings. In return, the Stranger treats her and the rest of the household to a Bank Holiday filmed-on-location river trip to, to

Wait! Wait! Stop the film!

Is that a very young and fresh-faced Bill Hartnell in the crowd?

Oh, no. It's not him after all. Quite different. Sorry about that. Carry on, then.

Anyway, Stasia proves, as any Who-watcher would correctly predict, very adept at getting herself almost drowned, and then assaulted, and finally implicated in a murder. The Stranger easily saves her from these scrapes and straightens out everybody except one "evil" character, who stringently resists reform and in due course appears to die (although I think there is sufficient ambiguity in the situation to allow him to crawl away and transmat off this mortal coil to safety). The Stranger makes his farewells to Stasia, and departs as mysteriously as he arrived.

The alternative theory

I am confident that my equating with the Stranger as the Doctor is the only really satisfactory way to make sense of this film. He exhibits very many familiar Doctorish traits, for example knowing more about any given situation than a real observer could possibly infer, and having others readily accepting his intercessions when real life teaches "Oh do eff off, Doctor/Stranger" would be a much more likely response.

True, if I had a free hand, I would firm up my case with a few trivial changes, such as making Mr Wright's Zygon-in-human-form status much clearer, and introducing a couple of lines of dialogue to account for the Stranger's European accent:

STASIA: If you're an alien, how come you sound like you're from Germany?

STRANGER: Lots of plenets heff a Bavaria.

It has to be confessed, however, that my explanation is not the traditional one. This is given in Wikipedia, and it is that the Stranger is a "Christ-like figure".

Thus I am placed on the unfamiliar ground of theological debate. That signpost you are staring at reads "Verity's Comfort Zone 4 miles".

Still, nothing ventured. I hereby advance the following points that the Stranger is the Doctor, not Christ:

  1. The Stranger is clean-shaven. Beards are often positive in Christian iconography, but distinctly negative in Who, where they usually decorate the villain (Delgado, Hurt, Nathan-Turner).
  2. It is put directly to the Stranger, and he accepts, that he is operating under a policy of non-interference. This is very characteristic of early Who, when the Doc and his time lord peers were frequently heard banging on about this principle while steadfastly ignoring it. To my knowledge, no such policy informs Christian doctrine. Apparent non-interference is attributed, as I recall the hymn, to "mysterious ways"; blatant hypocrisy (eg, pretending not to interfere while actually interfering like billy-oh) frowned upon.
  3. While it is true that JKJ came from fiercely chapel stock - for example, he had a great-auntie who held that Thomas Paine was the Antichrist - and was rather spiritual, he was also a close pal of HG Wells. It is hard to believe that a writer of Jerome's calibre failed to pick up any sci-fi smarts from such close exposure to the giant of the genre. Perhaps Jerome imagined Well's famous time traveller returning from Morlock-bothering and, instead of materialising back in Richmond, becoming a sort of freelance social worker, wandering the time vortex and sorting out unsatisfactory arranged marriages and immoral short-term loans.

That, then, is my case, and to pursue it any further, you too will have to go and watch the fourth-best British movie of 1936.

Should you find it a little slow in places, go back and watch the animated episodes of The Ice Warriors. That will learn you.

And if you still disagree with my conclusions after that, well, let us not quarrel over it too much.

All I really wanted to say was: Happy birthday, Doctor. ®

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