Who @ 50: Adventures with the Wife in Space – Neil and Sue Perryman

Posted on November 7, 2013

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I love my wife. I love Doctor Who. I believe my wife loves me. My wife does not love Doctor Who. I think I can change her mind about the latter without upsetting the delicate balance of the former. Do I have the right?

The Adventures with the Wife in Space blog has taken on something of a life of its own. Viewing marathons for television series are nothing new, hell, I’ve even considered blogging one of my own, but Wife in Space did something different that instantly set apart from other fan marathons: he asked the wife to take part.

Neil Perryman, media lecturer and self-confessed Doctor Who fan encouraged his wife, Sue (and occasionally Nicol, Sue’s daughter and Bake Off contestant in the making) to sit through every single one of the 696 ‘classic’ Doctor Who episodes. From the start. In order. Including the missing episode ‘recons’. It’s an ambitious experiment, one that would divide most marriages – and a thoroughly good hook for the Doctor Who equivalent of a docusoap.

What surprised me the most about this ‘experiment’ was the fact that Sue gamely sat through the entire series dispensing witty, astonishing yet always fresh observations on a series that few thought anything new could be said about. In the process, she tramples over stories perceived as fan favourites, and astonishingly seems to enjoy some of the clunkers. But turning the success of their blog into a book? I winced when I heard that it was going to be turned into a book. It couldn’t possibly capture the essence of such a successful blog. Could it?

Part-memoir, part-social history, the book is a genial wander through one fan’s intensely personal account of growing up alongside the Doctor. Described as looking like a cross between “a sex pest and a unicorn” by the long-suffering Sue, Perryman’s recollections range from the frustrating to the hilarious.

There’s a brutally frank portrait of the dissolution of Perryman’s parents’ marriage leading to an embarrassing tirade of Sue’s parenting methods that make you feel like you’re inadvertently eavesdropping on someone else’s private conversation. There’s an uncomfortable feeling about how vulnerable Perryman is. The walls of fandom come crashing down as suddenly real life intrudes into the conversation. The flip side is that the Wife in Space presents a refreshing portrait of a life involving, and not revolving around, Doctor Who.

It’s easy to forget in an age saturated with Doctor Who what it was like trying to form meaningful relationships with people who remembered and mocked all the things you hate about the classic series. There’s elements all Doctor Who fans can likely sympathise with – the ‘bulge’ referred to whilst on a hot date turns out to be a VHS tape stashed in hope of taping Part 2 of ‘The Curse of Peladon’. But within the Wife in Space’s pages are a series of incidents that transcend devotion, and demonstrate a deep commitment and bond between Neil and Sue. Sue’s quest to get Neil a pair of 3D glasses to watch ‘Dimensions in Time’ is as just arduous as expecting him to live in a caravan whilst she architects their dream house. It’s less Neil ‘forcing’ Sue to watch Doctor Who, more the pair of them enjoying each other’s company. The bond that is only stretched like an elastic band ready to snap in instances where Sue blunders through Neil’s world directly – calling Tom Baker on QVC, or spilling a drink over John ‘Sgt. Benton’ Levene. Yet there’s a certain charm about Sue that likely has left many fans wishing they had a wife like Sue. When she dryly comments at one point: “I’ve spoken to two Doctor Whos now. You haven’t spoken to any. How does that make you feel now Neil?” we can only answer with one word: triumphant.

There’s often a problem with ‘fan’ books, they can become rant-filled, or are much too niche (I know, a book about a series being niche), and frequently one man’s personal story simply often isn’t interesting enough to sustain a narrative. Dalek, I Love You got there first, as did Rob Shearman and Toby Hadoke’s Running Through Corridors. But what makes Wife in Space different is Sue’s measured, calm approach which can often be felt throughout the book, and the chapter she writes is a particular highlight. It is the throwaway flashes of insights that act as a hook with Doctor Who fans, and for some chances comments and the bonding that has come out of shared experiences is how the Doctor Who community has developed. Some of the incidental observations are the best: Tom Baker’s alienness at dumping Sarah-Jane Smith and making excuses for Doctor Who in light of Star Wars being the most illuminating.

I’m instantly reminded of a comment in Frank Collins’ review about a traumatic coming out experience – I’m suddenly interested in knowing more, especially as his narrative is woven around the time of The Trial of Time Lord. Doctor Who fans have got an uncanny knack of weaving a complex thread of experiences around their favourite programme and subsequently bonding over these. But it’s a skill only fellow fans have to unpick that narrative. This means for some, Neil’s memoirs will be exceptionally tangible, for others, it may be a confusing labyrinth.

The book’s focus is lax though. It meanders from memory to commentary to blog extract with little sense of purpose. Doctor Who fans will be in their element, but I’m not sure what the general public will make of the Perrymans’ ‘experiment’. Neither Neil nor Sue can be described as ‘normal’ if such a subjective thing exists. Does it matter though? It’s brave of them to have stuck themselves and their family under the microscope. Some fans have struggled, or deliberately trolled the pair and hurled some painful insults at them, and there is a considerable chunk on how Perryman struggled to deal with this.

It’s begun to feel like Doctor Who is coming full circle: the fans have taken over the asylum. When continuity announcer Glen Allen (a mildly pivotal figure in Neil and Sue’s courtship) begins recording links for the blog, and later Neil and Sue bump into Nicola ‘Peri’ Bryant and Nev ‘Dead Ringers’ Fountain at a Derren Brown show, the lines between the show and real life become very blurred indeed. Sue has been indoctrinated into the fan gene, and can never escape.

You will need to read the blog to get the most from this book. I dearly wish I’d passed my review copy onto a non-fan to get their thoughts. Wife in Space is an ideal companion piece to the blog but this in itself does not make it an essential purchase. It’s certainly a diverting and enlightening journey through a romance peppered through its core with a silly science fiction series. One key problem for me is that is that stripped away from the blog, the featured excerpts lose their context and I’m just not sure how interested I am in the Perryman’s backstory. Part of the appeal of the blog was the way that the non-fan tramped all over our temple, crushing the holy relics underfoot.

Ultimately though, Tom Baker is right when he refers to fan love as being the one love that doesn’t die. And Neil Perryman has managed, against the odds, to prove that fan love can be shared. Perhaps Sue needs to have him sit through her favourite show for the sequel.

Adventures with the Wife is Space is available now from Faber and Faber.

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Posted in: Non-Fiction