Image courtesy the BBC.
Consider actor Patrick Troughton’s instructions at the start of his tenure. Hello, Patrick: your job, if you choose to accept it, is to take the helm of one of the BBC’s most popular programs, Doctor Who. We won’t be changing the character; instead, you will be playing the Doctor. Yes, we know that you look nothing like William Hartnell; you’re younger, and shorter, but we’ll do some prep work for you. We’ll note that the Doctor is an alien, and we’ll give him the ability to change his appearance and alter his character when his body would normally die. Oh, and we have absolutely no idea how this is going to go down with the audience, but we suppose it’s up to you to sell the change to them. No pressure, eh?
But Patrick Troughton did it, by altering the Doctor’s character. No longer the stern grandfather, he was now a quirky uncle, who hid his intelligence from his foes through a veneer of buffoonery, and most villains did not cotton onto this fact.
It was during Patrick Troughton’s era that the historical story faded from existence and the show focused more on introducing new monsters to menace various humans under siege. This actually got the show in trouble with parent groups, who deemed the program too frightening for their children. Of course, this means that the show had become more reliant on its special effects, which means that a number of stories end up dating badly in the years to come, but the show was still at the top of its game for the era, with top notch directors like Derek Maloney and Douglas Camfield making a lot out of a little.
Unfortunately, much of the era is lost to us, thanks to the BBC’s boneheaded archival policy of the time. Of Patrick Troughton’s twenty-one stories, only six exist in full format. Most of the others have at least one or two episodes missing, or have only one or two episodes remaining, while a number don’t have any visual materials at all. Which means some classics are missing, and there’s not much to pick from in the remainder.
Here are my picks for episodes to watch:
The Evil of the Daleks (1966-7) (Audio Only)
Advertised as the last Dalek story (a promise that held for five whole years; almost a record), The Evil of the Daleks is an epic tale that runs from modern day England to a Victorian manor house in 1866, to the Dalek home planet of Skaro. David Whitaker writes this tale, rather than Terry Nation, and it’s clear that the man knows better how to write for Daleks than their supposed creator. The Daleks are at their most sinister and devious, there are a lot of rich characters to go around, and the plot is complex enough to justify its seven episodes, and don’t rely heavily on special effects that date. Episode two, the only episode to exist in video format, shows a rich production, with great images of metallic Daleks juxtaposed with the gothic surroundings of the Victorian manor house.
Tomb of the Cybermen (1967-8)
Unfortunately, this story doesn’t date well. It is a monster thrash that tends to focus on action more than character, and with special effects that don’t pass muster in today’s day and age. However, those with an eye to late sixties television production should appreciate the effort that went into this story, and it is especially interesting to watch the Doctor at work.
Consider, the Doctor and company arrive on Telos, a major planet of the old Cybermen empire, and discover a team of archaeologists about to open a tomb. The Doctor knows the Cybermen, and clearly knows how to get into the tomb, suggesting he knows what the tomb contains, and that the Cybermen within are not nearly as dead as people would like, but he lets the humans enter and risk the release of the Cybermen anyway. Why would he do this? There is a definite sense that the Doctor is feeding the mad scientist of the troop the rope he’s going to hang himself with, so that said scientist will recognize said rope and close up shop and go away, but of course that doesn’t work out the way the Doctor hopes.
The Web of Fear (1967-8) (Audio only)
It is a quirk of the series that each Doctor has a returning villain or monster which is limited to or closely identified with that particular Doctor and none of the others. The third Doctor had Autons, for instance, the fifth Doctor had the Mara, and the second Doctor had the Yeti. Originally introduced in The Abominable Snowmen, these robotic creatures masquerading as the (in actual fact, gentle) Himalayan monsters are big, brutish, and have fearsome claws. They are the muscle of the mysterious Great Intelligence which possesses minds and forced a human friend of the Doctor (a Tibetan abbot) to live for four centuries.
The sequel, The Web of Fear, is quite different, even though it was hastily written to take advantage of the unexpected popularity of these creatures. The Yeti are given a leaner, meaner look, and now they are invading modern-day London. As Londoners flee a clinging toxic web spreads across the city, members of the army take refuge in the London Underground to launch a counter-attack.
Doctor Who was not given permission to film in the London Underground, so director Douglas Camfield (you’ll find his name at the back of many of the best stories classic Doctor Who has to offer; Graeme Harper, whose name you’ll recognize in the revival, was his protege) built his own — a set so realistic that officials from the Underground called the BBC to complain about the unauthorized filming. Sadly, only the first episode exists of this tight, claustrophobic thriller, but its influence would be seen down the years through the emergence of UNIT.
The Mind Robber (1968-9)
A fair chunk of Patrick Troughton’s episodes follow a similar format: the Doctor and company helps humans under siege from a variety of monsters. Indeed, the fifth season is often referred to as “the monster season”, so The Mind Robber stands out, like Enemy of the World, in playing with a different format. Moreover, The Mind Robber distinguishes itself from a number of other Doctor Who stories for playing the closest to fantasy.
To escape a volcanic eruption, the Doctor sends the TARDIS flying off at random, and they end up stuck in a great, empty void — only the void is not so empty. Something is making a play for the Doctor’s mind, and then creating a fantasy world of storybook characters to menace companions Zoe and Jamie. Can the Doctor defeat the master of the Land of Fiction (in reality a poor hack writer imprisoned by a computer)?
It’s an ambitious tale that is held back by the limitations of its era. Zoe’s fight with a comic book character, for instance, is marred by extremely poor fight choreography, and the inability to give the comic book character speech balloons (something the novelization took up with relish), but the story maintains a confident swagger that carries it through, and it benefits from a truly surreal first episode where the Doctor and company deal with the great white void.
The War Games (1969)
I’m afraid I can’t recommend Patrick Troughton’s final story, The War Games, which was written during a period of considerable turmoil behind the scenes. No less than three stories had fallen through, and scripts had to be rushed forward to fill the gap. In the case of The War Games, what was once a six part story ballooned to ten parts, and the padding is more than obvious. The whole thing turns into a boring runaround.
The story is notable only for its final episode, where the Doctor concludes that he can’t resolve the situation on his own and asks for help from his own people, the Time Lords. This is only the second time that we see some of the Doctor’s people (the Meddling Monk’s two appearances amount to the first), and the first time we hear the phrase “Time Lords”. The all-powerful Time Lords do manage to clean up the mess, but then grab up the Doctor and put him on trial for stealing a TARDIS and interfering in the lives of lesser creatures.
The Doctor’s speech to the Time Lords is a highlight, acknowledging his “crime” and lambasting his people for standing idly by while evil flourishes. The Time Lords’ verdict, to exile the Doctor to Earth during a period of considerable calamity so that he can practise what he preaches, is inspired, and sets the stage for the seasons to follow, but the episode itself still continues the story’s runaround storytelling, with an escape achieved with laughable ease (the Time Lords forgot to lock the cell), only to be thwarted. Really, what was the point of all that?
Fortunately, there were better things to come…