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The first three Doctors

I had originally planned to do an overall piece on the first two Doctor Whos, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, shortly after I finished getting through all their stories in the summer. But that was a point when energy levels were generally a bit low, and anyway it actually makes more sense to consider them together with Jon Pertwee. Tom Baker's is the first Doctor I can remember watching consistently first time round, so my experience of all of the earlier three was formed first by the Target novelisations, then by Doctor Who magazine (and the Making of Doctor Who and the Jean-Marc Lofficier volumes), then by occasional viewing of surviving series, and only very lately, in the last year or so, by going through them systematically. And in fact the first three made similar numbers of stories (29, 21, 24) and episodes (134, 119, 128), all well behind T Baker but unmatched by any other subsequent Doctor (Davison ties with Troughton for number of stories but is way behind on episodes), so we are comparing like with like to a greater extent than is possible with any other grouping of three Doctors.

Hartnell, for me, has been the real discovery in this process. He is alien, in a way that only Tom Baker and Christopher Ecclestone have managed to convey since. He is a cosmic wizard in a way that only McCoy and Tennant have approached. He is distant, yet humorous. He is outraged by his enemies. To sum him up as a "grumpy old man" is just so unfair. And Hartnell dominates the camera, positions himself beautifully every time (Peter Purves remembered getting useful tips from him about it), simply cannot be ignored as the star of the show. Shame about the occasional fluffs, but standards were different in those days. Hartnell is the one Doctor who I don't think has been adequately represented on the printed page; his performance is so visual.

And Doctor Who, in his day, was so very varied. I think each of the first three seasons on its own has more variety of settings and tone than any three seasons since combined. (Bar, just possibly, the most recent three.) It's not just the alternation between sf and historical stories; look at Season Three, which is my favourite, and you have a) two companions dying horribly and b) a musical comedy, as well as a story in which the Doctor is invisible and another in which he and his companions are not seen at all.

High points: en bloc, Season Three which includes The Daleks' Master Plan and The Massacre as well as The Gunfighters, a quite different kind of experience. Otherwise the original Daleks story, The Crusade and The Tenth Planet. There are a couple of stories which have brilliant individual episodes which the rest of the story does not match - the last two of The Keys of Marinus, for example, or the first of The Space Museum.

Low points: Two particularly cheesy sf efforts are The Sensorites and The Web Planet.

Companions: The best is Sara Kingdom, who never actually travels in the Tardis, followed by Ian and Barbara, followed by Stephen. I have a peculiar fascination with Dodo Chaplet, but cannot bring myself to argue that she was much good.

While I was immediately intrigued and engaged by Hartnell's Doctor, Troughton took a while to grow on me, but I came to appreciate him in the end. He's much more human and humane, much less mysterious, though one picks up odd hints about his home world here and there. There is a warmth towards his companions that is unmatched by any other Doctor (except the Four/Romana II relationship). It's here that the show takes on the shape it has had pretty much ever since, apart from the Pertwee years, of mainly travelling to future Earth or earth-like planets, with only two and a half stories out of 21 set in the past (compared to over a third of the Hartnell's stories), and a large number of bases under siege by inhuman monsters.

I started with the CDs of missing Second Doctor stories, and only gradually moved to the videos and DVDs of the survivors, so one thing that struck me was quite how posh his accent actually is - you tend to miss this because of the eccentric clothing, which makes him seem scruffy, but just listen to the vowels; would perhaps have been considered standard Received Pronunciation (or BBC English) in the middle of last century, but I'm sure he's closer to it than any of the others. Since this was indeed a fairly standard accent, it's sometimes difficult to pick Troughton's voice out on the audios; but once you see him, there is no doubt - his face and mannerisms are magnetically attractive, and everyone else responds to him in the scene.

High points: I'm a Season Six rather than Season Five fan. It's partly because of the company he is keeping, partly also that there are several amazing stories in it: The Mind Robber, The Invasion, and The War Games which established the Doctor's true nature for the first time (and is Neil Gaiman's favourite story). Of the earlier stories, I am one of the few who prefers The Power of the Daleks to Evil of the Daleks - I've been re-listening to them over the last few days, to reconfirm my prejudice - and the stories from Season Five that I rate are Tomb of the Cybermen and The Web of Fear.

Low points: The Underwater Menace; The Faceless Ones; Fury from the Deep; The Dominators; The Space Pirates.

Companions: Zoe, Zoe and Zoe. Apparently there is a bloke in most of the stories as well, and apparently there is another companion in the middle of the run who screams a lot, but there is only one real Troughton companion as far as I am concerned.

Pertwee has been the loser in my estimation in this process of engagement with classic Who. He comes over as condescending and patronising; his snarling at the Brigadier and Jo in particular often seems to lack any real affection or humour. The Venusian aikido is particularly irritating (there must be a potential Pertwee drinking game where any shout of "Hai!" means you have to down your beverage in one).

Far too many of his stories are interchangeable, and grievously over-padded (oddly the average length of a Troughton story is longer, but doesn't feel it). The earth-bound setting (for two thirds of the 24 stories) deadens the sense of variety which characterised the Hartnell era and was not wholly muted for Troughton. All the future stories are set in a Star Trek-ish environment, which would have been great as part of a grand narrative plan but doesn't really hang together. Several of them are rather heavy-handed political parables.

High points: Having said all that, there are some. The first season is, for my money, the best, with Spearhead from Space a great introduction and Inferno a great conclusion, with not too much padding out of the good bits of the two intervening stories. There is a peculiar feeling that the show could have gone a completely different direction if the pattern of Season Seven had been followed, to end up being like The Avengers but with a non-human lead and more armed men that he could call on if necessary. Of the rest, I enjoyed most The Curse of Peladon, The Sea Devils, Carnival of Monsters and The Green Death.

Low points: Far too many. Worst is probably The Mutants, but Colony in Space and The Three Doctors are pretty dire too.

Regulars: Liz Shaw is great, and it is a real shame that she was dropped; they could easily have kept her as brainy woman and brought in a thick bloke to whom the plot would need to be explained. The Master is a stroke of genius, and helps excuse the Doctor's brusqueness; in a sense, the Master is his Jungian 'shadow'. The Brigadier, however, gets steadily sillier as the stories progress, and Benton and Yates are good only when they actually have something to do. Sarah's first season is not her best, and apparently there is another one in the middle of the run who screams a lot.

I think it will be a while before I do another post like this!


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 22nd, 2007 11:44 pm (UTC)
I've read your opinions in detail and... you seem to be me. You don't happen to have any distinctive birthmarks, do you?
Dec. 23rd, 2007 01:06 am (UTC)
Wonderful summary, thanks
Dec. 23rd, 2007 11:59 am (UTC)
Low points: The Underwater Menace; The Faceless Ones; Fury from the Deep; The Dominators; The Space Pirates.

Didn't Target bring out an incredibly chunky adaptation of "The Underwater Menace" or "Fury From The Deep" that suddenly had people (i.e. one Doctor Who Monthly reviewer) reappraising it as a lost classic?
Dec. 23rd, 2007 01:00 pm (UTC)
Googling around, that would appear to be Victor Pemberton's novelisation of his own script for "Fury from the Deep"; must keep an eye out for it.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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