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Doctor Who Rewatch: 01

I bought a Philips MP3 video player a few weeks back, and have been using it for the purpose for which such things are made: watching early Doctor Who in sequence during my morning commute. (This has also cut down on the number of books I read, for which some may be grateful.) Recent research indicates that there are roughly 22,776 minutes of screen Who, so at 25 minutes a day it will take me the guts of three years to get through the lot. I have seen it all before, of course, but taking it sequentially and at a steady pace, along with watching the recons of the missing episodes, makes it a different experience.

The very first episode, An Unearthly Child, still stands out as excellent television, with Hartnell only in it from halfway through but getting some of the best lines ever about the nature of the Doctor's existence:
I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it. Have you ever thought what it's like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? Have you?... to be exiles? Susan and I are cut off from our own planet, without friends or protection. But one day we shall get back. Yes, one day. One day.
After that, the other three episodes with the cavemen are competent but not overwhelming, and Barbara in particular gets a rather tediously screamy introduction.

The Daleks really is where Doctor Who gets going. There is a case to be made that the pepperpots never get so interesting again. Certainly they are incomprehensible, blankly hostile, psychopathically destructive, and strangely watchable. The conversion of the Thals from pacifists to fighters has some moral ambiguity - the Tardis crew are motivated by their own need to get away, and there is a certain air of tragedy even in the final victory. (Shame that the actual final fight scene is a bit crap.) And Barbara gets the first Who romance with Ganatus (comprehensively rewritten to Barbara/Ian by David Whitaker for the book).

The Edge of Destruction is a two-episode filler with a great beginning and middle but a less good resolution. The weirdness on the Tardis screen, the clock faces and the odd behaviour of the crew are all nicely done, but the broken spring is rather banal and unmagical. However, what really makes the story memorable is the humanising of the Doctor and the repairing of his relationship with Barbara.Marco Polo is the only lost story in this run, but I was able to get hold of the reconstruction which tops and tails the original story with filmed pieces featuring Mark Eden as a much older Marco Polo reminiscing. The colour snaps illustrating the soundtrack make it look fantastic, and the visual cues give it a real sense of place as well, as the narrative shifts from the mountain passes to the court via the desert and staging towns. And it is rather bleak in places - the Doctor's illness is not funny, the murderous plans of Tegana even less so. Susan gets a welcome bit of character development through her relationship with Ping-Cho. (Marco Polo, Tegana and the Great Khan are reunited in 1967 for an episode of The Prisoner, "It's Your Funeral", which gives another flavour of how this must have looked.) This is the first story that doesn't lead directly into the next at the end of the last episode.

Now that I am also rewatching Blake's 7 (at the rate of one episode per week rather than one per day) it's interesting to see how Terry Nation's first attempt at a weekly sf show ended up. The six parts of The Keys of Marinus are, basically, The Old Man And The Mission, The City Of Bottled Brains, The Deadly Jungle And The Dying Man, The Arctic Robber And The Killer Robots, and the two-part On Trial For Murder finale; a format that didn't really resurface again until 2005. Though before we look for material recycled into Blake's 7 episodes, NB that the literal cliff-hanger scene in the middle of episode 4 is recycled directly from The Daleks less than three months previously.

Hartnell is on really poor form in the first episode, fluffing several lines ("impossible at this temperature; besides, it's too warm!") but clearly invigorated by his holiday and much better in the last two. Barbara gets several Heroic Moments, being the first to spot the Bottled Brains and also fighting off Vasor's sexual assault (a scene that wouldn't get onto family television these days). Poor Susan just gets rescued a lot. The Voord, though mocked by Paul Magrs in a couple of his Iris Wildthyme stories, are not all that bad. And the last Key of Marinus leaves the planet with the Tardis, and is presumably still knocking around somewhere.

The Aztecs is very good, but doesn't quite rise to greatness. There are some great bits - Barbara struggling with the consequences of her divinity, the Doctor's romance with Cameca, the Doctor and Barbara arguing about changing history. (It should be added that Lucarotti did some good female characters - Barbara is at her best here, and don't forget Cameca, Ping-Cho and Anne Chaplet.) But I find Tlotoxl a little too pantomimey as a villain, and Ian just biffs Aztecs about, and gets condemned to death again, while Carole Ann Ford is on holiday. Everyone does it with great conviction, and you barely notice that it's all done in a hot studio with a painted backdrop. And we end with another cliff-hanger into the next story, though our heroes have had enough time to change clothes.

Striking how often Barbara is the memorable companion in a lot of these. The Doctor is a very odd, weird, alien and compelling figure, with Susan of course in his wake (except where she is allowed character development in Marco Polo); Ian's memorable moments here are really in The Daleks, and to a certain extent The Edge of Destruction. But Barbara literally rules The Aztecs; the only early story I can think of off-hand which puts a companion closer to the spotlight is also by John Lucarotti, The Massacre. (Later examples are few and far between: Turn Left, of course, but that's about it.)

I've decided to do these six at a time, basically because that will synchronise nicely with the Hinchcliffe/Holmes seasons if I keep it up that long (counting Mission to the Unknown as part of The Daleks' Master Plan). In which case I will post the next of these in mid-November, though my travel schedule for the next few weeks may delay it.

< An Unearthly Child - The Aztecs | The Sensorites - The Romans | The Web Planet - Galaxy 4 | Mission To The Unknown - The Gunfighters | The Savages - The Highlanders | The Underwater Menace - Tomb of the Cybermen | The Abominable Snowmen - The Wheel In Space | The Dominators - The Space Pirates | The War Games - Terror of the Autons | The Mind of Evil - The Curse of Peladon | The Sea Devils - Frontier in Space | Planet of the Daleks - The Monster of Peladon | Planet of the Spiders - Revenge of the Cybermen | Terror of the Zygons - The Seeds of Doom | The Masque of Mandragora - The Talons of Weng-Chiang | Horror of Fang Rock - The Invasion of Time | The Ribos Operation - The Armageddon Factor | Destiny of the Daleks - Shada | The Leisure Hive - The Keeper of Traken | Logopolis - The Visitation | Black Orchid - Mawdryn Undead | Terminus - The Awakening | Frontios - Attack of the Cybermen | Vengeance on Varos - In A Fix With Sontarans | The Mysterious Planet - Paradise Towers | Delta and the Bannermen - The Greatest Show in the Galaxy | Battlefield - The TV Movie >


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 9th, 2009 08:46 pm (UTC)
I got confused part-way through this review because The Keys of Marinus section doesn't say that it's about the Keys of Marinus (except in the cut text). So I thought you were comparing B7 to Marco Polo.
Oct. 9th, 2009 09:19 pm (UTC)
Neat. I'm currently making a concerted effort to see/hear the approximately 50 Doctor Who stories that I've never seen before, and a large chunk of those stories are in the Hartnell and Troughton eras. I don't quite have the discipline to watch them all in order, although it's a project that I'd like to tackle someday, maybe when all the DVDs are out.

Barbara is quite an impressive character in those early stories.
Oct. 9th, 2009 10:20 pm (UTC)
You may be amused to hear that comments on the Fandom Wank post about the Octocon controversy degenerated into an argument about whether it is pretentious and politically extremist for Irish people to spell their names in a way that does not make the pronunciation immediately transparent to English-readers.

Edited at 2009-10-09 10:21 pm (UTC)
Oct. 10th, 2009 09:26 am (UTC)
I entirely applaud this project! All the best people are watching early Doctor Who at the moment. :-) Indeed, since the current phase of my own Who watching involves working through the First and Second Doctors sequentially, it looks like you and I will be more or less in step for quite some time here.

I agree, of course, entirely with your comments about Barbara, since I have been banging on about her awesomeness with great enthusiasm in my own reviews. I'm so thrilled and impressed that Doctor Who was serving up characters like this at such an early stage. Pity it isn't really sustained after she leaves, but DAMN I'm going to make the most of her while she's around!
Oct. 10th, 2009 09:30 am (UTC)
BTW did you catch the reference to Pyrrho in The Keys of Marinus?
Oct. 10th, 2009 09:51 am (UTC)
No, I didn't, but I'd love to know more about that. Is it with reference to the illusions in the city of Brains? Do tell me more.
Oct. 11th, 2009 10:50 am (UTC)
It's actually from the last episode:
Doctor (to Tarron): "You should read Pyrrho, my boy! He founded scepticism! A great asset to your business."
Ian: "Thank heaven you remebered reading Pyrrho, Doctor!"
Doctor: "Reading? What are you talking about? I met the man!"
Oct. 11th, 2009 11:50 am (UTC)
Oh, brilliant! In fact, this has a double significance for me: not only is it an instance of Classical receptions, but it's also a comment on the relationship between history-as-text and history-as-direct-lived-experience, which is exactly what I'll be talking about in my Classical Association paper on Doctor Who at Easter. So thank you a thousand times for catching that where I'd missed it, and do chip in if I seem to be missing anything else similar as I work my way through the stories of this period.
Nov. 17th, 2010 04:28 am (UTC)
Miles and Wood make the point about The Edge of Destruction that the twist isn't that a switch was stuck, the twist is that the TARDIS was communicating. I just watched it for the first time and was struck by an even more specific version of their observation: because of how the switch ends up being stuck, the Ship thinks it's under attack. So the first thing it does is try to drive everyone on the ship mad so they'll take their fingers off the switch. And then when that doesn't work it tries to communicate. Or in other words, first it lashes out in pain, then it tries to reason through the situation. Which is great characterization.

Also note that at this point there's no telepathic link, or bond of closeness, between the Doctor and the Ship of the type that develops later. The Hartnell/TARDIS relationship, at least in Season One and early Season Two, is that he doesn't know how it works, isn't sure what it's going to do next, and is somewhat scared of it. (This comes over nicely in Planet of Giants). Overall, I'm finding that the effect of the early Hartnell stories is to suggest a very different backstory than the one that is eventually presented in The War Games.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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