Sat, Jun
9
2007

The Classic Who Must See List

Sat, Jun 9, 2007

A while back a fan of the revived Doctor Who series asked me to post a guide to what episodes of the Classic series she should watch next. It took a while, but I’m happy to oblige.

It’s important to note that as I’m a longtime fan, my list was quite hard to pare down, so what I might enjoy of the original series might not be what a fan who knows only the revival might like. A lot of elements from the original series carried over to the new Who, including the sense of wonder, a protagonist who feels that the ends don’t justify the means (and who is constantly challenged on that fact), and a reliance on strong writing to carry a story forward instead of special effects.

Some of what didn’t carry over, however, includes special effects which were quite limited by the technology and budget on hand, as well as a slower pace of storytelling. Doctor Who told stories that were typically 90 minutes long, broken up into 22.5 minute long episodes, and some stories lasted even longer. The program was a marvel at doing a lot with a little, and as a result their historical stories tended to be the ones that didn’t date, while some special effect laden stories which were so groundbreaking then seem laughable now.

So, you have to be prepared for a slower pace of storytelling, for acting and directing that occasionally konks out, and for spaceships made of vacuum cleaner parts. But, hey, the original series made me a fan, so it can probably make one of you as well.


Part I: The William Hartnell Years (1963-1966)

williamhartnell.jpg

Image courtesy Behind the Sofa.

Doctor Who began when teachers Ian Chesterton (science) and Barbara Wright (history), curious about the strange behaviour and crazy knowledge of student Susan Foreman, follow her home one night and discover that she lived with her grandfather (the Doctor) inside a police box. At this point the Doctor is a crotchety anti-hero, who upon being discovered by Ian and Barbara, sends the police box (in reality the TARDIS) aflight, taking them to 100,000 BC where they meet cavemen.

Doctor Who was conceived as a family-oriented education program, bridging the Saturday afternoon gap between the end of football and the beginning of the evening soaps, and you can see the educational setup in the arrangement of characters. Through the TARDIS, Ian and Barbara can show to the audience (through Susan) history as it happens, or science as it could be.

This arrangement got thrown out of the window within a month with the introduction of the Daleks, but it still took some time before the Doctor became the unquestioned star of this piece, and the source of wonder and discovery.

And now on to the recommended episodes:

The Aztecs (1963)

Early in the series, there was a class of story called the pure historical. These didn’t interest the kiddies as much as the space adventures and they were by and large dropped by the fifth season, but looking back, I think this is a pity. The historical stories age much better than the science-fiction ones as they are far less resistant on special effects, forcing the crew to rely more on the acting, the writing and the set design and, more often than not, the BBC did these things very well.

The historical stories also tended to be different from your typical story where time travellers go back in time. Instead of creating a plot around the possibility of altering history, the Doctor and company tend to get caught up in events, and their primary goal is as simple as just trying to get the heck out before the wheels of history crush them.

Indeed, The Aztecs takes the opposite approach to time travel historicals. Despite the Doctor’s stern warnings of, “you can’t change history! Not one letter!” (followed by a heartfelt, “believe me… I know”), history teacher Barbara Wright resolves to do just that. When the Doctor and company arrive inside an Aztec pyramid and emerge at the height of Aztec society, Barbara is mistaken for reincarnated high priest and treated something akin to a returning god. Great, she thinks, I can change Aztec society from the inside, make them less bloodthirsty, less prone to reprisals from the Spanish Conquistadors.

Except it doesn’t work out that way. High priest Barbara may be, with a Cassandra-like vision of the Aztecs’ future, but she can’t beat the weight of centuries of Aztec culture. One of the most powerful moments of the series comes when Barbara intervenes to stop a human sacrifice — and receives the strongest objection from the sacrificial victim, who then commits suicide rather than be dishonoured.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964)

It’s slow moving in parts, has some dated special effects and some elements of bad acting, but this story probably ensured the Daleks’ longevity as the mainstay monster of the Doctor Who series. And the creatures are wonderful, here — expensively built, and impressive looking, especially by sixties’ standards. There are also some great set pieces (especially the Nazi-occupied London motif) and a tearful departure between the Doctor and his granddaughter that would set the stage for companion departures to come.

The Time Meddler (1965)

Another historical that plays with the “you can’t change history” motif, although by now it has morphed into “you shouldn’t.” Soon after the departure of Ian and Barbara, the Doctor, Vicki and Stephen find themselves in Northumbria in 1066. The Doctor knows they are about to see the start of the sequence of events that end with King Harold’s loss to William the Conquerer at the Battle of Hastings. According to history, Harold’s men were almost spent because, just a week beforehand, they had to race up to Northhumbria to stop a Viking invasion; and, oh, look, here comes the Vikings.

Except a strange monk seems intent on saving King Harold some time and energy with the use of an atomic cannon…

I would call this story gothic comedy. It’s slow moving and builds up a lot of suspense, but the payoff is one of the furthest things from the horror that the series applied in later years. The Meddling Monk is a hoot, and his battle of wills with the Doctor makes this one of my favourite episodes of the series.

The Massacre (1965) (Audio Only)

Sadly, none of the episodes of this story exist on tape, because the BBC had an absolutely terrible archival policy that didn’t for a second foresee the coming DVD and VCR revolution. This is a classic historical, told in absolute seriousness, that is as good as any BBC drama of the period. The Doctor and Stephen arrive on the eve of the Massacre of St. Bartholemews Eve, when the Catholic majority of Paris are about to turn upon the Hugenot Protestant minority in a horrible bloodbath, and Stephen is left to do little more than try to stay out of the way. The Doctor, on the other hand, may or may not be impersonating the Catholic fanatic Abbot de Abrose, for reasons known only to him. There is political intrigue, and a definite sense of tragedy here, with the best moment coming at the very end, when the Doctor deals with the rebuke of his companion for failing to do more to stop the massacre.

Of course, with this story existing only because enterprising fans at the time decided to tape the audio off their television screens, the only way for you to enjoy this story is off of a CD the BBC produced after taking and cleaning up the best of these recordings. The result is a radio play that can be hard to follow in places (for example, where companion Stephen fends off a sword attack), but I managed to understand and appreciate the story. Doctor Who’s set and costume designers were among the best the BBC had on offer, so there’s no reason to believe that this story would have dated if video copies had remained, but listening to the audio only does allow your imagination to fill in the blanks.

Although I am told that the director used a trick of depicting the final massacre by cutting between various classic paintings of the event, over and above the sounds of the rampaging mob.

The Tenth Planet (1966)

This episode may be a little hard for fans of the revival to take, because it’s slow in places, with repetitive plot elements, and dodgy special effects, not to mention some extremely dodgy science, but The Tenth Planet is landmark in two respects: the first appearance of the Cybermen, and the first regeneration of the Doctor. And, surprisingly enough, the two are not connected.

By this time, actor William Hartnell’s health was failing due to Multiple Sclerosis, and as a result the character is missing for fair chunks of the storyline as the Cybermen attack a scientific base in Antarctica. Episode four is also sadly missing from the BBC archives, and the DVD is only able to show us the audio recording, plus photographs and short film clips, but it’s still fascinating viewing. There is a disturbing, horrible feeling throughout as the first Doctor delivers his last lines and you get a definite sense of “this man is dying.”

And one has to wonder how the British audience would have reacted to the whole concept of regeneration played for the first time.

Sadly the story that follows, The Power of the Daleks, is completely missing from the BBC archives.


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