Young at Heart
On Doctor Who, the Alarm and Being 12 Years Old Again

I complain a lot about my nerdy, socially awkward and psychologically scarring childhood, but the older I get, the more I realize how cool it was to be a kid.

Twelve-year-old me never had to make it through a week like the one I just had, with its 12-hour work days pushing me to the brink of exhaustion. Sure, school was tough, but it was over in seven hours, and left me with the whole afternoon and evening to do what I wanted. I had no bills to pay, no responsibilities, and I could literally spend whole days in my head, listening to fascinating music and writing out absurd stories, or watching similarly absurd stories on television.

I’ve recently been described as a big kid, and I guess in some ways it’s true. I mean, I have a good adult job, and I pay all my bills on time, and I own my own car, and all of that, but an enormous chunk of my annual income still goes to fascinating music and absurd stories, much of which I buy because I loved it in my youth. For example, I bought the new Great White album, Back to the Rhythm, this week, not because 33-year-old me expected it to be some kind of masterpiece, but because 14-year-old me loved Great White.

Entertainment corporations are knocking themselves out lately to get me to relive my youth, and spend and spend those adult dollars in the process, and it’s usually easy to see through such crass tactics. I won’t go into depth about the godawful Transformers movie, except to say that it had no connection whatsoever to the Transformers I played with (and, let’s be honest, imagined sweeping, complex epic stories about) as a kid. It was loud and dumb and contained no heart whatsoever. I actually prefer the fairly lousy cartoon show, because at least that stirs up memories for me.

But sometimes the revivals work, because they capture something indefinable about the original. Case in point: Doctor Who, the insanely long-running science fiction show produced by the BBC. Two years ago, producer Russell T. Davies launched a new Doctor Who series in Britain, starring Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor, and while it was hit or miss, it did, finally, trigger in me an almost overpowering nostalgia for the original series.

For the uninitiated: Doctor Who ran for 26 years on the BBC, from 1963 to 1989, and was produced in-house for all of that time. It’s about a free-wheeling adventurer called the Doctor, one of a race of near-immortals called Time Lords, who flits about time and space in a machine disguised as an old-model British police box. (They used to be on street corners, and allowed you to lock yourself in to escape attackers, and contact police quickly.) The Doctor usually travels with companions that he picks up along the way, and he faces off against vicious enemies when he’s not solving mysteries in the past or the future.

Sounds silly, I know, and it undoubtedly is. And it was made on the cheap, too, especially in its later years – rubber monster suits, primitive computer graphics, cardboard sets. The whole thing has an element of grown men playing dress-up that’s inescapable, and if you’re not charmed by it, you won’t be able to get through a single episode. But for me, Doctor Who has this odd magic to it, which I certainly attribute to my having watched it religiously as a kid.

Much like just about everyone my age, my first Doctor was Tom Baker.

(I should explain here – one of the reasons Doctor Who lasted for so long was the concept of regeneration. When the Doctor gets himself into a spot he can’t get out of, well, he dies, but then he regenerates into a completely new body. Which means the producers hire a completely new actor to play the part, ensuring that the show goes on past the tenure of its stars. Seven actors played the Doctor during the original run, with an additional three and counting after that. It’s a novel and kind of brilliant device, and helped turn the show into an institution in Britain.)

Anyway, Tom Baker. He was hilarious in the role, that was the first and most important thing. His hair was wild and curly, his toothy grin infectious, and his manner unpredictable. Even as a 12-year-old, I loved Baker immensely. Doctor Who aired weeknights on Channel 2, our Boston-area public television station, at 7 p.m., and as a very young child, I was allowed to stay up just long enough to see the Doctor before heading to bed. The Tom Baker title scene still gives me goosebumps, with its endless tunnel of liquid-looking video feedback, but it scared me to death as a kid.

I think the first story I saw was “The Invisible Enemy,” but I’m not sure. (Doctor Who is an old-time adventure serial and is told in stories, which are each made up of four to six 30-minute episodes.) The first one I really remember, though, is “The Deadly Assassin,” which reduced the Doctor’s arch enemy, the Master, to a desiccated, creepy husk. I was hooked for life.

Naturally, I had no idea what the hell was going on when Tom Baker’s Doctor regenerated into Peter Davison’s at the end of “Logopolis.” I’d never even heard of regeneration when I saw it, so it came as a complete surprise. I later learned all I could about the various actors who played the Doctor, and I still say that even though Baker was my first, I like Davison’s more refined, reserved portrayal best.

The new series just wrapped up its third season, easily the spottiest of the bunch, but they’ve struck gold with David Tennant, the 10th actor to play the Doctor. He’s awesome – manic, hysterical, and yet able to act with surprising force and intensity when needed, something Tom Baker did very well, too. The third season’s best stories brought back that old Doctor Who feeling, especially the devastating “Human Nature/The Family of Blood,” and the surprisingly spooky “Blink.”

But it was sitting down recently with my old friend Mike to watch the entirety of the Key to Time saga, which made up all of Tom Baker’s fifth season as the Doctor, that did it. I had such a good/bad time watching all ten-plus hours of this story (actually six stories that wrap together) that I shortly made a financially idiotic decision: I’m putting together a complete run of Doctor Who DVDs.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. The DVDs are released by story, not season, and command pretty high prices. There were 159 stories in the classic series, and just about 50 of them are on DVD now. (Sadly, more than 25 of those stories are either completely or partially missing from the BBC archives – they didn’t expect to need them again, so they wiped the videotapes.) But I’ve decided to go in chronological order – I bought “The Beginning,” a box set containing the first three stories, a couple of weeks ago.

The first Doctor, debuting in 1963, was an older gentleman named William Hartnell, and his portrayal is surprising at first – he’s a mischievous, irascible old coot who’s always out to save himself, a far cry from the genial and selfless Doctors of later seasons. And unlike later actors and production teams, everyone involved in these first stories took them incredibly seriously, and played them straight.

And it works. The second story introduces the Daleks, basically murderous pepper shakers with toilet plungers for arms, and even as a kid I laughed at these things. They can’t even go up stairs, so how menacing can they be? But damn, “The Daleks” makes them work. They’re actually kind of creepy, and they prove to be a match for the first Doctor and his companions. The story is in seven parts, and lasts almost three hours, but it’s riveting. I’ve ordered a couple more black-and-white Hartnell stories, and I’m looking forward to seeing as many as I can.

I will confess, too, that I skipped ahead, just this once – I was dying to see Tom Baker and Peter Davison again, and the BBC was kind enough to give me a one-stop-shopping opportunity with the “New Beginnings” box set, containing Baker’s last two stories and Davison’s first one. Watching them again brought back a flood of memories, especially the final episode of “Logopolis,” Baker’s swan song. Baker is just as terrific as I remembered, and Davison, while he hadn’t found his swing yet, reminded me throughout “Castrovalva” why I like him so much.

Sure, it’s all breathtakingly cheap, and the stories are convoluted and often nonsensical, but I love this stuff. I even accept the worst of the new series, which has a bigger budget and yet still relies on cheese more often than not, because it’s Doctor Who, and I loved it as a child.

Musically, there are a number of bands I feel the same way about. I will take any scrap of recorded material by the Cure and love it to pieces, because Disintegration saved my life in high school. I will buy new records from the most cornball hair metal bands on Earth because they remind me of my earlier days.

No other band can take me back in time, however, quite like the Alarm can. I owe my friend Chris Callaway for lending me a cassette copy of Strength, back when we were pre-teens, and sparking my eternal love for this band. The Alarm’s fist-pumping anthems are such a part of the fabric of my life that I find I can’t even objectively rate their new work. If it has Mike Peters at the helm, and contains at least one sky-high “woah-oh,” I will love it unconditionally.

I have been waiting since I was 12 years old to see the Alarm live, and earlier this month, I finally did it. The band played (brace yourself) the Ribfest in nearby Naperville, part of a triple-bill of nostalgia that included the Fixx and the Psychedelic Furs. Peters and his new Alarm (he’s the only original member left) played for only 45 minutes, but it was worth waiting 21 years for. They slammed through a set of classics, songs I’ve been singing along with for two decades.

“Rescue Me.” “Where Were You Hiding When the Storm Broke.” “Rain in the Summertime.” “Sixty-Eight Guns.” And to top it all off, perhaps the quintessential Alarm song, “Spirit of ’76.” I’ve been waiting most of my life to hear “Spirit of ‘76” live, and it was amazing – Peters sandwiched modern classic “45 RPM” between the two halves of “Spirit,” and I was hoarse by the end, shouting the lyrics to both songs. It was an amazing show.

But unlike the other two bands on the bill, the Alarm is still going strong – stronger, some might say, than ever. Their last album, 2006’s Under Attack, was excellent, displaying a louder and rawer Alarm sound than I’ve ever heard. Mike Peters has just bounced back from a second bout with cancer, and he’s playing and recording now like he might never get the chance again. You can hear the edge in his voice, and the urgency in his always melodic, always terrific songs is undeniable these days.

And he keeps on trucking. The new Alarm project is called The Counter Attack Collective, a seven-month release schedule leading up to the new album, Counter Attack, in January. You ready for this? You may want to sit down. Peters has recorded roughly 50 new songs, and he’s releasing most of them on six EPs, one a month leading up to the album. Subscribers to the Collective will get the six EPs, a bonus live EP, the full album, and a box to put them all in. That’s just awesome.

So of course I subscribed – it’s a mere $110. And the first two discs showed up in my mailbox this week, including the first EP Three Sevens Clash and the bonus live EP. Peters has gone right back to his punk rock roots with these things. They come in cardboard sleeves, made up to look like cheap one-color punk vinyls, and the CDs themselves are black plastic, designed to look like old 45 RPM records, with grooves and everything.

Seriously, these are so… fucking… COOL.

And the music is just as good. Three Sevens Clash was obviously designed as a unified EP statement, 20 minutes long. It contains four songs, with an intro, an extended outro, and a quick interlude in the middle. “Three Sevens Clash,” the song, is a sequel to “45 RPM,” and is all about the history of the band, in a way. But from there, Peters brings in some deep minor-key grooves on “Kill to Get What You Want” and “Fill in the Blanks” before kicking your ass for 48 seconds with “Zeros and Ones.”

The EP concludes with “Love Hope and Strength,” a slower, more anthemic piece that continues into “Broadcast on Street Airwaves,” an extended coda reminiscent of the Clash at their dub-influenced peak. By the time the three concluding tracks have segued into one another, it becomes clear that Three Sevens Clash is a single 20-minute piece, as full of life and energy and passion as anything Mike Peters has ever done.

The bonus EP is a live medley of punk tunes, including “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.,” filling out a terrific performance of “45 RPM.” It just underscores the focus on the Alarm’s early, street-level days that seems to be the theme of Counter Attack, and if Peters can pull this entire eight-CD project off with the same level of intensity he’s brought to these first two, this could be the most consistent, most unrelenting set of Alarm songs ever. I’m thrilled to find out if he did it.

But most of all, I remain amazed that Mike Peters and his bandmates continue to inspire that same feeling in me that the original Alarm did when I was 12. Back then, the Alarm convinced me that anything was possible, that there really were no frontiers that can’t be crossed. And even now, the Alarm still strikes the same chord in me, making me believe that with love, hope and strength we’ll never give up without a fight. I will always love this band, and I will always look forward to anything they do, because they make me feel young and alive. And for that, I can never repay them.

The second EP, called Fightback, comes out in two weeks. Check out

Next week, a whole smattering of new records. I’ve been deluged with new albums over the past two weeks, but I’ve also had very little time to listen to them. I promise to rectify that next week, with brief looks at Interpol, Spoon, They Might Be Giants, Emerson Hart, Suzanne Vega, the Chemical Brothers, Julian Cope, the Swirling Eddies, and the new Prince album, Planet Earth. Or, again, some combination thereof.

See you in line Tuesday morning.