RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who Re-Watch, series 1 16 January 2014

(First written in December 2011)

I've recently started watching Doctor Who from the beginning. I've seen occasional episodes and stories here and there (e.g. back when I had a television and the BBC would do anniversary specials), but my experience as a regular viewer starts towards the end of the Sarah Jane Smith era.

I'm not going to worry about listing alternative titles or any of that guff. See Wikipedia for that. I am interested primarily in the progress and development of the show as a show rather than in constructing complex fanwank explanations for why decisions that were made differently the second time they came up, or dodgy effects shots, aren't really mistakes.

So here are my thoughts on re-watching the first series... spoilers abound, obviously.

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

An Unearthly Child

The first episode is a great introduction. Audience identification figures are set up clearly, as is the Doctor as antagonistic plot device. But what role does Susan fill? I'm not surprised she was the first to go; the scriptwriters simply don't seem to have any idea what to do with her, whether she should be damsel-in-distress, alien weirdie, or just another protagonist.

It's worth remembering, and I'm trying to do so as I go through this, just how much of the show's mythology hadn't been established. The producers were, very sensibly in my view, leaving unmentioned anything that didn't absolutely have to be fixed down and explained. There's an old man who's Not From Round Here, and his spaceship can travel from one time period to another. That's all that's given out, and it's all that's needed.

The following episodes are, frankly, blah; I can see why reviewers at the time weren't too impressed. It's a pity that it's Barbara who (quite realistically) can't cope with the strangeness of it all...

The Daleks

And this is of course the one where it all took off. But already Barbara is becoming Backup Screamer to Susan's First Screamer. The Doctor is still basically antagonistic, or at best self-interested, and that really only leaves Ian to do much that's positive.

For me, this is where lack of budget really kicks off creativity in the production team. An Unearthly Child got away with just using obvious studio sets for the "outdoor" shots, but here the entire Dalek city - the tower, the prison cells, the control room, everything - is mounted with a couple of basic sets, clever camera angles and a matte painting. It's a superb piece of design, giving a splendid sense of claustrophobia and saving money at the same time.

Meanwhile the script isn't quite so great - the racist assumptions would make Goebbels go "isn't that a bit too heavy-handed", and the final solution to the Dalek Problem is barely even debated - certainly not by our unquestioning protagonists.

The Edge Of Destruction

Nowadays we'd call this a bottle show - made with just the regular cast, on standing (or at least readily-available) sets, in order to save some money and production time. For my money, bottle shows can be some of the best episodes: without external distractions, we have to go with characterisation.

Well, sometimes. Susan's turn with the scissors is effectively chilling (yes, anyone can play barking mad, but most people can't play slightly-mad); pity the others can't keep up with Ford's standard of acting here. But all that stuff about the food dispenser is an early example of filling in too many details - they're not hungry, so we can assume they eat; they're not falling over tired, so we can assume they sleep; we don't need this explained any more than we need to see it in an episode of CSI. This is taken to its extreme in the unwinding of the central conceit of the episode: the broken spring is frankly bathetic after what's gone before.

Mostly the producers and script-writers had the sense hereafter to back away from this level of detail, though the revived series dives into it all too enthusiastically.

Marco Polo

First reconstruction. Doesn't seem too painful. I turn down the colour. (Since I watched this I've got a better, B&W, reconstruction.) Also the first "real" historical, since I can't take the first story terribly seriously. A rare use by the BBC of a non-Anglo cast member, a young Zienia Merton (later known in Space: 1999) as Ping Cho (Burmese, Chinese, all the same innit?), but really this comes round to being a sort of bottle episode again, partly enforced by budget: we have a small core cast (three major NPCs), and we spend most of our time with the caravan.

Three NPCs? Actually, at this point one could regard the Doctor as an NPC too - he's more of a plot device than an active character, in part because Hartnell wasn't really up to memorising many lines at a time. But I'm thinking of Marco Polo, Ping Cho and Tegana.

Ah, yes, Tegana. Is he wearing a subliminal-message t-shirt reading "do not believe that I am evil"? Because we're precipitated into the middle of the story, something that often works very well to avoid tedious setup, we never know why this obvious villain is trusted by the others. Yes, all right, without this it would be two episodes rather than seven, but it does rather grind round and round and round.

Susan's reasonably effective here, but awfully mid-twentieth-century-Western in her horror of arranged marriages. If the show were being made now, I think there'd be more effort to play up her exposure to multiple cultures, perhaps something along the lines of "well, sometimes that can work well, but in effect you're being treated like a bartering token and that won't do".

The Keys Of Marinus

Another plain SF story with no pretension to educational value, and one that I find quite fun -- particularly in its perverse explanation of the bad guys in rubber suits as actual people in rubber suits. But Terry Nation was hired to bang this one out in a hurry, and it does rather show in its collect-the-plot-tokens structure (though it gives Hartnell time for a couple of weeks off in the middle, no bad thing).

But where this show shines is in its spendthrift use of imagination: glass beaches and acid seas, mind-controlling brains in jars, screaming killer vegetables, robot knights, courtroom drama! This is also the first time to my mind that the companions are actually starting to enjoy the travel they're doing.

Even if one does slightly feel that the whole thing could have been resolved by smashing the Conscience back in part 1.

The Aztecs

Go Barbara! The Doctor is still a plot device: all that stuff about "you can't rewrite history", well, what about Dalek history, eh? What about the history of Marinus? I'm sure a modern viewer would regard Barbara's position as essentially a racist one -- I know better than these people how their culture should go -- but she does have superior information, so...

Though actually I'm more interested in the other societal changes she'd have had to bring in. It's not as though the Conquistadores were all friendship and fuzzy bunnies until OH NOES HUMAN SACRIFICE YAAAAARG...

A holiday for Ford makes this very much a two-hander between Barbara and the Doctor, with Ian being vaguely macho round the edges. But why abandon Cameca, other than the metaplot reason that the show already had its cast of regulars?

The Sensorites

It seems to have a bad rep, but actually I quite liked this one - largely for the first and distinctly atmospheric section, on board the spaceship. Once it heads down to the planet, for me it all comes apart into generic and all-too-human power plays and turns into something much less interesting.

It's quite a fifties-SF sort of plot - indeed, this was Peter Newman's last work for British television. But I'm very glad to see that this time at least the ugly aliens turn out to be at least relatively the good guys. Still, this story could easily have been made as a stand-alone film or short series, replacing the TARDIS contingent with more Terran astronauts; there's nothing especially Doctor Who about it.

Susan's role here is pretty dire - she's being a psychic rebellious teenager, and this simply doesn't work for me.

The Reign Of Terror

Second (partial) reconstruction. Every story so far has involved the TARDIS not working right -- a necessity with involuntary companions, I suppose -- but one would think by now that they might check before dashing off to split up and get into trouble. Susan has turned into a capture bunny who will foil her own rescue attempts, and the Doctor spends two episodes walking (OK, first location shooting for the show, but). There just doesn't seem to be a great deal of drive to this one: the PCs are split up, they get into various trouble involving comical revolutionary stereotypes, they get back together, they get away.

Overall impressions

So that's the first series. So far it's being a pretty generic adventure show, with a few interesting conceits...

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