RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who Re-Watch, series 2 19 January 2014

(First written in February 2012)

As before, spoilers abound. See Wikipedia for production details)

Doctor Who (sic) - William Hartnell
Susan Foreman - Carole Ann Ford
Barbara Wright - Jacqueline Hill
Ian Chesterton - William Russell
Vicki - Maureen O'Brien

After about a month's break, the second series got going. Although there was a vague gesture towards an optional "ending" at the end of series 1, this was clearly intended to go on.

Planet Of Giants

Curiously reminiscent of an episode of The Avengers (which had finished its run with Cathy Gale some six months earlier, but was still a year away from Emma Peel; in fact, the next year there was an Avengers episode dealing with a too-toxic pesticide, and two years after that there was one which involved people and things being shrunk).

This one's really carried by Barbara - apart from her bizarre reluctance to admit she's been poisoned, she's really becoming the core of the show (particularly in scenes with Hartnell), whereas Ian usually registers either fascination or terror and Susan remains all over the place.

And this is one of the first instances where the Doctor actually decides to do something unnecessary and good - going back to the TARDIS is the cure for Barbara, but he remains to set the fire and stop the pesticide plot. He's starting, in fact, to become The Doctor.

Pacing is pleasantly fast, particularly at the end; apparently this was originally four episodes, and the last two were edited into one.

Special effects are hugely variable - some good, some terrible, but making sure most of them didn't have to move was great scriptwriting. The very stagey atmosphere, quite characteristic of television of the era, doesn't really help. And of course the victim has a terminal case of genre blindness: "I'm going to post this report that will ruin you as soon as I get back from a two-week holiday during which nobody will expect to hear from me".

The Dalek Invasion Of Earth

So the Daleks are back, having proved hugely popular on their first outing. But it's all a bit odd - the Radio Times had a cover dedicated to Daleks, but the first episode is a slow-growing piece that ends with the Dalek in the river. Terribly effective if you didn't know it was coming! Perhaps an early example of the RT letting the cat out of the bag...

But the settings are splendid, especially the shot of Battersea Power Station and Barbara's trip across London later on - great location work, and not too far from the studio so they could afford quite a bit of it. The opening sequence of the defunct Roboman is superbly atmospheric. It's almost enough to hold up against the complete barking insanity of the actual reason for the Daleks' invasion, and the way they really are just plot devices here: they exist in order to have plans, their plans exist in order to be foiled.

Sadly, this is the end of Susan -- the first regular to leave the show. It seems that Ford was just as frustrated as I've been by the writers' refusal to give her character anything to do -- and again, in her farewell scene, she's finally given some good lines and does an excellent job with them.

The Rescue

A splendid moment as the Doctor asks Susan to do something, then remembers she's not there - perhaps echoing the disorientation that might have been felt by the original viewers. It's an altogether more human instant than the more modern approach of not even bothering to notice that someone's gone. And Koquillion's face-mask is splendid.

But then the other face of the show becomes apparent, in the curiously mid-twentieth-century torch the Doctor carries, and the obviously lightweight "rocks". I am enjoying these early episodes, but they're sometimes tremendously frustrating; I wonder whether they might not have worked better written for radio, without the limitations of the effects budget and technology of the era.

Vicki is clearly being introduced to fill the Susan-slot, without the complexities of Susan's origin - i.e. she's an uncomplicated blubbering wreck. Oh well. Perhaps her preternatural dimness explains why she doesn't make the Bennett-Koquillion connection straight away (that and the sheer quivering insanity of the concept, but that didn't stop me). And Barbara has an unwonted violent moment purely to be castigated for it. It's all quite odd.

"You destroyed a whole planet to save your own skin. You're insane!" But destroying a whole city of Daleks (probably more of them than the hundred or so Didonians) is OK?

Overall: it's clearly there to introduce New Susan, and it does that well enough, but it's a slender reed to bear this weight.

The Romans

This story gets off to a fair old lurching start - from the TARDIS fallen off the cliff straight to the crew embedded in the local society, with no explanation as to how this happened. In later years or in the new series, this would be a sign that time was out of joint in some sinister way, but no. Presumably Spooner just wanted to get to the next bit of the story, but then there's all that flailing around in the villa...

And the slave traders who make up the beginning of the actual story... are kidnapping people, potentially well-connected people, close to Rome? I know they have to appear as villains, but do they have to be made so thoroughly stupid? Barbara's imprisonment and later plot are very reminiscent of The Reign of Terror -- also by Dennis Spooner, alas -- and this is the first story that I've found seriously to drag, particularly through episode 2.

...oh, I see, they're trying to do comedy! The near-misses between the two groups, the "luck's been with us so far" shortly before Ian and fellow-slave are captured, all that stuff with chasing around corridors and poisoned goblets -- I think that must be the intention. But it falls rather flat for me; Vicki is a non-entity, Nero is well-played but stereotypical, Poppaea isn't even well-played, and there's a pleasantly dark shade when the Doctor laughs at the great fire, but that's really about it; Hartnell otherwise plays the Doctor in permanent manic giggle mode. Ian and Barbara's story is better done, and they play off each other very well when they're allowed on stage at the same time, but their individual plots wear thin quickly, especially in the face of Nero's buffoonery.

The costumes are great, and the sets are decent -- the palace rooms look a bit threadbare, but the ship (and wreck) are done ridiculously well considering the lack of budget. A modern remake would have more shots on deck, and the actual breakup -- but this is far more effective at getting across the claustrophobia and lack of information about what's happening outside. (Let's not worry about the lack of actual historical Roman galley-slaves, shall we?)

Overall I think this story suffers from trying to cram in too much stuff, but at the same time pacing itself so slowly that there's no room to do anything with most of it. I realise this is one that many people seem to like, but I'm not one of them on this first viewing.

The Web Planet

Well, this seems like a nice enough OH DEAR CTHULHU THOSE COSTUMES. The space woodlouse is almost an anticlimax after that "no, no, no two-legged human in here honest" pantomime ant-oid. This is why the insects didn't move in Planet of Giants! The Menoptra aren't much better - as costumes, lovely, as life forms, not so much - and the Optera are downright silly (did they get in an amateur dramatic society to provide the extras?). This isn't so bad if you can put your mind into a non-representative art mode, but for me the voices and jumping became profoundly annoying (much as I tend to feel about interpretive dance, which I suspect may have been de Winter's inspiration).

Meanwhile the not-spacesuits actually work much better than they deserve to. Some of the "outside" camerawork is a bit lacking, and there's a strange diagonal blur on many of the shots, presumably meant to indicate otherworldly light but to me it just looks like a dirty lens.

There's a lot of flailing around on the planet, and a lot of Because It's In The Script (oh, we won't investigate the HUGE ALIEN PYRAMID, it can't possibly have anything to do with the force holding the ship to the planet - OK, actually it didn't, and indeed was never mentioned again, but never mind).

"A vertebrate creature" is exactly what it's not, when someone's just put a foot through an obvious exoskeleton. Hey ho. But then the Zarbi cave set is utterly gorgeous, and when the Menoptra take off and land they look almost plausible. (I strongly suspect wires may have been digitally removed in the 2005 DVD edition I'm watching.)

I'm talking a lot about the production, and very little about plot and characterisation. That's because for my money we get very little of the latter - it's another split-up-the-crew episode, unfortunate coming right after The Romans, and most of the time there's not much interaction going on. There are some decent moments surrounding the mind control system, but the plot is a plain and simple fuzzy-aliens-good, black-aliens-bad, more or less a rehash of The Daleks. This is a classic sound and fury story: it has nothing to say, but it says it quite intriguingly.

The Crusade

This is another serial starting on the planet-of-the-week, rather than in the TARDIS. This would be the later pattern, once it was assumed that people knew the basic setup and didn't need to be reminded of it: like a US-style teaser, it grounds the audience in the immediate story.

The plot discussion over a dying man stands out to me as remarkable callousness -- yes, all right, they fix him up later, but shouldn't that be the first thing they try?

I'm not keen on the Doctor as comic relief that we're seeing particularly in the historicals (The Reign of Terror, The Romans, this one). But I'm not a fan of comic relief in general.

On the other hand, Julian Glover as Richard is splendidly complex, Bernard Kay as Saladin is equally solid, Jean Marsh as Joanna is also effective, and the Shakespearean-style dialogue is well-done and most welcome.

After that, it feels a lot like The Romans, with the humour turned down a little: it's a generic adventure in Crusadeland (see also FrenchRevolutionland and Romanland), with only the Joanna marriage offer to mark it out as being of a particular time and place. But we have a harem (no eunuchs, though), desert bandits, and so on... yes, it's better than The Romans, but it ends up feeling like two middle episodes of pointless picaresque flailing around so that the audience gets to see the world, and a sudden gear change from historical sightseeing as everyone remembers that they can't change anything -- so it's a race back to the ship and a coincidence that lets everyone get away. It's primarily tourism and secondarily danger, rather than adventure that happens to be in exotic places.

The Space Museum

A splendid start -- none of that TARDIS-as-safe-haven stuff we'll meet in later years! Clearly something has reached inside and mucked about, and is continuing to do so. It's all splendidly atmospheric throughout the initial exploration of the museum, and only slightly marred by the Doctor's total refusal to take any of it seriously.

And then in episode two it almost instantly falls apart into walking, not even running, down corridors -- with bonus clean-cut student revolutionaries, who are at least acknowledged as ineffectual (and doesn't either side have any women?). Barbara is captured and helpless yet again (this time behind a glass door). In the third and fourth episodes things start picking up a bit, with only a few plotholes (like the world's worst paralysis gas), and Ian gets to be the action hero that he wants to be.

Visually it's lovely -- the "exterior" shots are a bit lacking (I can't tell if the dazzle pattern is meant to be decoration or an actual carved rock wall), but the early model work of the ships outside the museum is decent, and the contents are superb, particularly the pre-Orac computer in the armoury. In the modern show, Vicki's job of mucking about with that computer would always go to the Doctor; I like it when companions are allowed to have their own skills and attributes, and this is the first time I've warmed to Vicki.

For me at least, definitely a step up from the last few stories; the straight historicals haven't been grabbing me as much as I'd hoped they would when I started out on this rewatch. The initial strong episode followed by later weaker ones is starting to be a pattern -- An Unearthly Child, The Sensorites -- and I'm wondering whether there was something about the script pitching process that encouraged writers to put all the good stuff up front.

The Chase

Aaaaaah! Free Jazz and Terry Nation! (Fortunately the former mostly doesn't persist past the starts of the episodes.)

The Time-Space Visualiser is quite a neat piece of kit, particularly considering the huge televisions with tiny screens that would have been familiar to many of the audience... though the dials for "Jupiter" and "Pluto" and so on are a bit iffy. (And a good couple of minutes of historical incidents are blatant padding -- which must have been curiously expensive by the standards of padding, unless the props department were able to borrow costumes and sets from other BBC productions.) Meanwhile, the Daleks entering their time machine show where some of the money was scrimped from, clearly having only three suits moving around in circles out of shot...

The usual rules apply: having a time machine just means that you can go to other times, not that you can do anything useful in terms of arriving "earlier" or "later" on a small scale. It's an understandable limitation from a plotting point of view but the lack of an in-universe explanation sometimes makes things look a bit threadbare -- and here it destroys the entire plot ("why don't they wait until they know where/when the TARDIS has arrived, then arrive thirty seconds earlier and set up a Really Big Gun pointing at the door").

It's unfortunate that Ian and Vicki have to wander off completely just to get the plot moving by splitting up the crew yet again. The Aridians aren't bad, though some of their forehead seams do rather show, and the composite shot of rocks falling by the cast was... probably terribly impressive in its day. The monsters' appearance is clearly mollusc-inspired, but perhaps... unfortunate. (And presumably the Daleks slaughter all the Aridians before leaving. I mean, why wouldn't they?)

Bozhe moi, is that meant to be a Brooklyn accent? And that, an Alabama accent? Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I do rather like the exterior design of the Dalek time machine, though -- there's a subtle hourglass motif, perhaps even unintentional, that's quite pleasing. The model ship wasn't such a great idea -- miniatures on water always look bad -- but in those days they didn't have access to real ones. The two brief stops, in New York and on the Marie Celeste, seem as though they're meant to be comedy moments -- but in the latter place we have a comic mass suicide. Um? I feel less happy about the stammering and bickering Daleks; I know Nation started in comedy, but for my money it never quite sits right with the tone of the show

Hartnell's inability to remember lines is really showing, particularly when it comes to technobabble. And then we're dumped into the Haunted House. This feels to me more like Terry Nation saying "oh, well, I can do whatever I feel like doing on this show" than any sort of serious plot development... though, in context, I think it does work, the clue being that it's so thoroughly and blatantly derivative from the beginning. (Filling a sideshow with actually-deadly robots seems foolish, though.)

It's all very well to say "we shall fight to the death", but... with what, pray tell? They seem remarkably optimistic. And then... "Just look at that vegetation!" "Just as though it were alive." Hmm. Nation really can't manage to write convincing science teachers! The business with the Doctor's robot double is briefly amusing, but it's an awful lot of setup for a very quick resolution.

The Mechonoids [sic] are lovely, and it seems a shame they were never used again -- though in terms of practicality they're even worse than the Daleks. (It would have been nice to see them brought back in the new series, in place of the throughly silly Ood.) And there's an unfortunate focus on the immediate situation; we have to escape from the city by getting to the ground, so we'll simply ignore the Daleks that are beetling about on the ground and will doubtless shoot us as soon as they see us. Steven Taylor is also surprisingly ignored -- surely they should be asking him more about the details of their situation, rather than ignoring him as soon as he's told them the basics?

And then the Doctor's mysterious machine, the one he'd been working on for all those episodes, turns out to be just a one-victim bomb. I thought it was meant to be some sort of time-affecting device! The Dalek-Mechonoid battle montage is surprisingly effective, though, even if the city does seem to have been designed to be overlaid with that dust-billowing stock footage.

The departure of Ian and Barbara starts off with what seems remarkably like a proposal of marriage, and we get a brief return to the cantankerous Doctor -- though he's more petulant than anything else, which seems a shame (apparently Hartnell himself was pretty unhappy about the situation). The return montage is decent, though I'd still like to have known just what story they were going to tell... Both of them have been poorly served by the scripts, I think, with Ian often ending up as an interchangeable action man while Barbara has been a blubbering capture monkey. When either of them get to show their brains, and particularly Barbara's mature viewpoint, they get much more interesting; I'll miss them. (The fact that they can go, leaving the original role of a moral compass unfilled, show just how much the show has changed since it started: the Doctor has become one of the good guys full-time, and therefore there's no need for the others to keep him on the right track.)

And of course while I know on a meta-level what happened to Steven it's a curious lack of resolution not to mention him. I suppose they must all think he died in the city, but they say nothing.

All in all, though, I rather like this one. Yes, it's contrived, and the Comedy! moments are put in with rather a broad brush, but overall it never loses its sense of fun.

Departed companions to date, ranked by how much I like them:


The Time Meddler

I wonder if this was meant to bring new viewers into the show -- the introduction of Steven and all the business about not believing in the TARDIS is very reminiscent of An Unearthly Child. (And, yes, all right, we're visiting a power struggle among a bunch of primitives with the lead female played by Alethea Charlton.)

In spite of their narrative role as the "normal" people, it's worth remembering that both Steven and Vicki are from the future as far as the audience of the 1960s was concerned -- so clearly it's not necessary to have people from audience-contemporary Earth to make the show work. (I'm sure I'll stop reviewing well before I get to the revamped series, so I'll just get that dig in now.)

There's an unfortunate cut after the Doctor's announcement that they've landed on Earth -- Steven looks as though he's about to say "but that trip should take days", or something like it. Aggressive editing, perhaps, but it's rather more obvious than usual.

This is the first historical with a bit of fantastic adventure attached, and while it works rather better than the straight historicals have for me it seems somewhat unsure of itself. Are we trying for a story about a time-traveller, or an historical tale about Viking raids? The flipping back and forth is disorientating, but it's a noble attempt to keep some educational value while bringing up the level of action and excitement without having all the nonsense about historical fact being inviolable that we've seen in earlier historicals. (Here it's made clear that it can be changed -- Stonehenge -- just that some people think it shouldn't be!)

I like Steven's sneakiness and untrustworthiness; it's an interesting change from the basic openness of Ian and Barbara.

Where do a bunch of peasants get so many swords from? Why has nobody gone off to raise a more general alarm? And why is there so much wandering around the forest? (I know, padding...)

The Monk's plan might have worked much better if he were a hermit -- everyone knows you don't go and bother them, nobody expects there to be lots more of them about the place, and his time machine could be buried under his hovel. (The Monk is clearly not meant to be much of an operator -- he makes all sorts of foolish mistakes. But I do like his progress chart!) His narrative role is rather more interesting -- in the first series, he might have been the Doctor, and now he's cast as a clear villain against the Doctor's Good Guy (which he's become over the course of this series).

I find interesting the continuity-that-never-was, before all the stuff about Time Lords and Gallifrey was invented. It's been made pretty clear in earlier stories that the Doctor is a human from the far future (and from another planet) -- while at the same time he regards the 1960s as the present day, hey ho -- and that he built the TARDIS himself (and Susan named it). Here we learn that the Monk is from the same time/place, but somewhat later -- and apparently also a hobbyist (I see them as something like radio hams, building their own time machines from standard plans and a supply of parts). Still, that was all to be taken in another direction entirely.

Overall impressions

So the second series... it's been patchy at times (for me, the Romans - Web Planet -- Crusade sequence), but it seems overall a lot more solid than the first. They're definitely finding their feet. Of course, in series 3 Verity Lambert left...

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:04pm on 19 January 2014

    Well done for getting in the dig about all the revamped series companions being audince contemporary. I'm getting heartily sick of it. I was a Tom Baker and Peter Davison era man, and there were a number of non contemporary companions that worked well. I'm also sick of all the stuff about the companions' families back on earth, if I wanted that sort of thing I'd be watching Eastenders and Corrie not Doctor Who. The one off companions in the Christmas specials have been better from that point of view since there isn't time for family.

  2. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:10pm on 19 January 2014

    Did you watch Adventures in Time and Space before Christmas, which was a dramatisation about the Hartnell era? There were one or two schmaltzy moments clearly put in for the US audience who seem to need that sort of thing, but otherwise I thought it was very good. They also downplayed Hartnell's temper a lot I'm told.

    But what I like most about it was the love affair it had with BBC TV Centre. They had the run of the almost empty building and could use any room they wanted as a set, and boy did they take advantage of it. I particularly liked the exterior shots paying homage to the doughnut, having seen it so much on Blue Peter as a child. Get that wide angle lens out chaps, you're going to need it to get the entire thing in shot.

  3. Posted by Michael Cule at 04:53pm on 19 January 2014

    In the unlikely event of my acting career ever restarting, I want to play the come-back of the Monk. An old school friend of the Doctor's ("He borrowed my notes in Paratemporal Physics: he'd never have passed without me.") returning to ask what the HELL the Doctor has been doing to the structure of the Universe. ("And they called me a meddler!")

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 09:48am on 20 January 2014

    Owen: I think in summary I don't really care where companions come from, as long as they has something interesting about them. It's a similar problem as in detective fiction: yes, you need an in-world sounding-board for the Brilliant Mind to explain things to, but it's a great insecurity to assume that that sounding-board must be completely without skill or interest of his own. As you'll see in writeups of later series, I was much more impressed by companions like Zoe (probably smarter than the Doctor at least in some areas) and Liz Shaw (when she was written well) than by the generic screamers.

    Owen again: I have seen An Adventure in Space and Time. I thought that it had its moments, but there were some major problems with the characterisation: Sydney Newman wasn't a cigar-chewing caricature of an American philistine, but rather the TV producer most interested in and enthusiastic about weird and experimental material. And nobody at the BBC gave a damn about ratings; they were glad when the commercial network started, because then they wouldn't have to pretend to be populist any more. They did pay some attention to audience feedback, but only as part of a much larger set of inputs. So that scene about "the ratings are in" really doesn't ring true.

    Similarly, Verity Lambert had already done her time as "unsure young woman finding her feet in the Big World of Television" a couple of years earlier; that was moved into the context of Doctor Who, presumably so that she could have the holy character arc so beloved of textbook-bound scriptwriters.

    Yes, Bill Hartnell does appear to have been a stubborn old cuss, and I was surprised to see how much he was dropping his lines even in those early shows. I suspect Gatiss toned him down here so that he could be shown as a Good Guy In The End. (And I think his reaction to seeing Matt Smith as his successor would have been both vastly more disgusted and vastly more fun to watch than what we got.)

    My impression of the whole thing was that it had lots of moments of trivia put in to get the fans enthusiastic (things like the Lime Grove power failures), and the interview fragments shown at the end demonstrate where a lot of the ideas came from.

    Michael: do you really trust the Powers that Be not to get the Monk horribly wrong? I'm afraid my reaction to the way the show's been going recently has been to hope a new producer comes in soon before the current one can wreck even more of the setting.

    (I know, take the money and go down the pub.)

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