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5 June 2018

The Day Of The Zarbi Riots

One of the biggest stories from this past week has, rather surprisingly, been original companions Ian and Barbara making it back to London in 1965. Contrary to Mr Chesterton’s claim in An Unearthly Child, it seems that time does indeed go ‘round and round in circles’… 


When the news broke a few weeks ago that Doctor Who was coming to ‘Twitch’, I confess to having no real idea what that meant - but as it happens, it’s turned out to mean something rather marvellous. Twitch is an online service for watching and streaming digital broadcasts which has acquired the rights to show almost all of the original run of Doctor Who. (Missing episodes and, sadly, several Dalek adventures are excluded - the latter on ‘rights’ grounds apparently.) It’s streamed in batches of three or four stories a day, Monday to Friday, with the whole batch on a loop that gets repeated twice. They started last week with An Unearthly Child and are working their way right through the classic series. What  makes this different from other repeats, however, is the inclusion of a chat box that allows viewers to comment on the episodes in real time - suddenly watching these beloved old treasures has become a worldwide communal experience. And judging from the rapidly streaming chat, the audience includes thousands of young people, many of whom have never experienced classic Doctor Who before - and they’re LOVING it. 


The comments whizz by at such a frenetic rate that it’s impossible to read every single thing that’s being said, but if you stare at the chat box for long enough, and relax your mind, it’s possible to achieve a zen-like state of higher consciousness that allows one to perceive the mood and general opinion without focussing in on each individual statement. It feels rather like being one of the infospike journalists from The Long Game - a massive download of information that is processed and packaged subconsciously by the human brain to become comprehensible content. Unlike many other social-media platforms, there’s no facility to ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ anyone’s contributions, so there’s no dopamine reward for outstanding efforts - people are simply joining in the chorus of commentary for the sheer joy of it. The Cave of Skulls, for example, provokes gems such as: “Za is a poser”, “Praise Orb”, and “LISTEN TO THE WOMAN”. The first glimpse of the cat in Planet Of Giants results in a bewildering blizzard of feline emojis and countless cries of “KITTY!”. 


What’s really fascinating is witnessing the formation of patterns that emerge from the maelstrom as these new viewers seize upon and celebrate certain moments and lines of dialogue, happily weaving memes from fragments of the past - ones that we’ve always been aware of, but have perhaps never celebrated to this degree. At the time of writing, Ian Chesterton’s line from The Chase about he and Barbara having made it back to London in the year 1965 has become an overnight internet sensation. This is mainly due to the clip in question being featured in a trailer for the Hartnell era that’s currently playing (twice) between each episode - along with the First Doctor’s “Believe me - I know!” from The Aztecs, which has been similarly seized upon. (In a pleasing piece of synchronicity, Russell T Davies’ currently airing BBC1 drama about Jeremy Thorpe - A Very English Scandal - happened to open with a massive caption reading ‘London 1965’. Always got his finger on the pulse that one…!) 


A truly heartwarming aspect of the week has been the degree to which this hyperactive hivemind has embraced the characters of Ian and Barbara. (The former now often referred to as ‘EEYAN’ due to the pronunciation of his name by Ixta in The Aztecs…) It’s been more than half a century since our intrepid schoolteachers first followed their unearthly child home through the London smog, and a whole new audience has fallen completely in love with them. There’s been fan-art, and memes, and a genuine connection - proving indisputably the brilliance of those wonderful performances, still shining through from all those years ago. (Though the adoration of Barbara did experience a brief wobble when she shoots Sandy the sandbeast in The Rescue… “She’s a MURDERER!”) There’s apparently even been ‘shipping’, whatever that is - probably something to do with the Mary Celeste scenes in The Chase


Then, on the forth day of the schedule, something went terribly wrong at Twitch HQ - the fluid links burnt out, the fault locator was on the fritz, and a time loop was established. Viewers tuning in for the scheduled showing of The Web Planet were instead confronted with a repeat performance of An Unearthly Child. Frustrations were vented in the comments: “Wrong Episode!”, “Wrong Episode!”, “WRONG EPISODE!!!”. After about fifteen minutes of protest, the episode was was eventually changed… to Planet Of Giants. They then proceeded to show the entirety of that story, and then The Dalek Invasion Of Earth - repeating the previous day’s playlist while an increasingly disgruntled audience continued to demand the promised trip to Vortis. The outrage was mostly good natured and healthily humorous, but still overwhelming. Variations on “We want Zarbi!”, “Justice for Vortis!”, and “ZARBI RIOT!” were repeated ad infinitum. This was one of the strangest, most surreal, and unexpected Doctor Who moments of the year so far. Thousands of young people on the internet, in 2018, threatening to riot if they weren’t shown The Web Planet immediately. All quite tongue-in-cheek, obviously - no one was actually going to take to the streets and start smashing the place up in the name of insect movement movement by Roslyn De Winter, but apparently The Web Planet was trending on Twitter. In 2018. Extraordinary. 


Eventually the time-track was corrected, and the clamouring masses got their fix of vaseline-smeared sci-fi action. Whether it was quite what they were expecting is another matter: “BLEEP BLOOP. I AM AN ANT!”… But the Day of the Zarbi Riots made one thing very clear - that these dusty old episodes are more than being enjoyed by their shiny new audience - they are being cherished.


Younger fans may well be getting rather fed up by now with the constant and sometimes rather patronising commentary from older enthusiasts on their viewing habits, attitudes, and Time Teams. Sorry about that. But honestly - seeing you take such delight from this material - that many of us had never imagined would once again be so celebrated - is actually rather moving and beautiful. We love that you love what we love, and can’t wait to see what mega-memes you pluck next from the Doctor’s adventures as the Twitch marathon progresses. We hope you enjoy it as much as we're enjoying your reactions! 


Richard Unwin

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