Thomas's Rant

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The Mysterious and the Ridiculous: early ‘Doctor Who’

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‘Doctor Who’ 2014

Imagine if you decided to go way back and check out the first series of some long-running popular TV series and discovered that, say, Seinfeld was originally a soap opera, or that the first episode of The Simpsons was an educational children’s program about spelling. In other words, imagine if you decided to go back to the first episode of some long-running popular TV series and discovered it was pretty much totally unlike its later incarnation. This happens all the time of course when you discover the slow, awkward, primitive-looking early episodes of a series such as Blackadder or Star Trek, or, conversely, the fresher, more inventive, and better written version of a rather tired formulaic show. In both instances, the earlier incarnation can seem almost like an entirely different show.

In the case of Doctor Who, appearances can be deceptive. The show appears to have pretty clear-cut fundamentals – the Doctor is a Time Lord from a planet called Gallifrey. He has two hearts, dresses strangely, and can regenerate his body. He travels through time and space in a police-box-shaped time machine called a TARDIS, continually defeating alien menaces such as the Daleks and the Cybermen, generally ‘doing good’, with the aid of a human companion or two and a handy gadget known as a Sonic Screwdriver. All of this, at least to the uninitiated, is pretty standard B-grade sci-fi. I don’t mean ‘B-grade’ in a negative sense here – I mean that the style of the show is pretty tongue-in-cheek. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. The scenarios are mostly familiar goodies-versus-baddies plotting with, at times, a variety of intellectual, pseudo-scientific, politically savvy, or totally fantastic thematic ideas interwoven.

You would assume that checking out the series’ beginnings in 1963 would reveal a faded, black-and-white, clunky version of the same scenario. This at first appears to be exactly what we do find. BBC TV in the 1960s was indeed clunky and black-and-white. The prohibitive expense of early TV meant that all the Doctor’s early time-travelling had to take place almost entirely inside BBC TV studios on rather theatrical sets. The cost of post-production editing was so high that the show was performed more or less entirely live, like a stage show, complete with Daleks colliding with the set furniture, and line fluffs, most of them perpetrated by the first actor to play the Doctor, William Hartnell. However, this technical primitiveness can disguise the startlingly different underlying concept of the original Who. If you were looking for the faded version of the familiar scenario, you would probably have to turn to “The War Machines”, one of William Hartnell’s very last stories, produced almost 3 years after the beginning of the series. In it, the Doctor, arriving with a companion in his TARDIS, acts as a futuristic alien technical advisor for military authorities in London fighting the onslaught of an evil computer bent on taking over the world, etc.

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The Doctor meets Kublai Khan in “Mighty Kublai Khan” (“Marco Polo” episode 6).

There were over 100 episodes of the show produced before this point and how unique, exciting and unusual they are. Unlike what the series became, this earlier incarnation is arguably not sci-fi. It was, firstly, designed as a programme to teach children about history and science – the journeys backwards in time concerning history, while travels into the future allowing for exploration of scientific ideas. That the show managed to avoid becoming unconvincingly kiddy or patronisingly instructional can be explained by the manner in which it both succeeds and fails at its educational charter. Firstly, it is educational – in the best possible way. That is, facts about history and science are not the focus but the backdrop against and through which a gripping plot, with, of course, lots of good cliff-hangers, unfolds. This is the basic educational method of attaching naturally interesting things to the subject matter being communicated rather than trying to force an interest through clumsy and uninteresting exposition (the curse of many a programme produced for children). Secondly, the show isn’t only (or even primarily) educational. You can’t help thinking it escapes becoming too preachy through the pure inspirational force of its ideas, sometimes against the wishes of the show’s producers and probably without the production team being consciously aware. Within a few episodes, the scientific ideas give way to the show’s first, most successful alien ‘bug-eyed monster’ with the barely sanctioned but phenomenally successful appearance of the Daleks. This story is then followed by a short serial which cannot be defined as a journey backwards or forwards in time – it is really a move sideways.[1] It seems that the show’s production team has become delightfully carried away by the infinite promise of the scenario.

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No one’s ‘space boyfriend’: William Hartnell

So what is this scenario? It may appear somehow related to the later familiar outline of the show, but I argue it is in fact a totally different idea. Our heroes are certainly travelling through time and space in a far more varied and unpredictable manner but, significantly, these heroes are accompanied by an occasionally unfriendly and decidedly grumpy old man. Examining the first story, two remarkable features reveal themselves at once. The Doctor is incompetent, unpredictable, and a troublemaker. He also is clearly not the protagonist. The hero of this series seems to be either the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan (fitting the demographic of the young viewer) or her meddling but generally quite sensible schoolteachers, Ian and Barbara. The Doctor is clearly in the ‘character’ role as both ‘the Instigator of the Adventure’ – the Gatekeeper to Mysterious Realms, the Old-Man Prompter to Adventure, the Virgil-like Mystagogue – and ‘the Trickster’ – the Maker of Mischief, the Challenger of Beliefs and Ideals, the Cheat, the Liar, and the Clown, he who makes more mischief than he finds. There is something utterly fantastic and mythic about this idea. As a result, this Doctor is a far cry for the rational ‘scientific advisor’ (or quirky ‘space boyfriend’) of later years. This man – for he is a man, the Time Lord ‘back-story’ not cracking a mention for nearly 6 years of the show – is a truly mysterious character. In fact, Mystery is who the mystagogue is. It defines him. No one asks who he is or where he comes from. This is built into the very title of the show. Doctor Who signifies Mystery. ‘Who’ is not his name of course. He is simply referred to as ‘The Doctor’ because he has no name. It matters not who he is but where he leads us, and the show’s first production team certainly seems to have realised, despite their ‘educational’ brief, that where he leads us could truly be anywhere.

A huge spaceship, magical but flawed and imperfect, mysteriously materialises as a then-common everyday object, a police box (for those not in the know, a kind of pay-phone used by London police as a precursor to the walkie-talkie). This small blue phone-box can be installed anywhere interior or exterior, studio or location, out of which blunder our heroes into, well, any situation. Unlike later producers of the show, the first production team clearly noticed the infinite variety of this scenario so that even when they stumbled upon the phenomenal success of the B-grade sci-fi option (with the Daleks), this was clearly viewed as only one of many more and varied possibilities.

To this end, the basic mechanics of the show were geared, refreshingly and startlingly, toward variety, possibility and unpredictability – a very exciting prospect. Hence, not only do stories jump unpredictably between future, past and sideways arrangements, but genres change just as quickly. We can be watching a deadly serious power-play among the Aztecs, then find ourselves in the midst of a silly farce set in ancient Rome. (Sometimes the genre changes throughout different episodes of the same story.)[2] It is not only that the narrative involves a space-and-time travelling machine which could depart at any moment (and, importantly, isn’t properly under control), but each stop on its journey can have any duration, as each story can have four, six, seven, three, two, even one or twelve episodes. The size and relative meaning of each step of the narrative cannot be confidently gauged. As a viewer, you can even lose your way within a given story because, until “The War Machines”[3], each episode is given its own individual title without indication of the episode number, e.g., episode 4 of “Marco Polo” is actually only referred to as “The Wall of Lies” onscreen. The viewer is liable to forget how many episodes she has been watching already. As if this wasn’t already an excitingly unpredictable viewing experience, the writers deliberately introduce ‘fake endings’ to a number of these early stories, signalling a thrilling escape or final dénouement culminating in a sharp reversal at the last minute.[4]

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Barbara takes charge (“The Aztecs”)

Then there is the element of character. The Doctor seldom appears as the lead. Ian takes over much of the action at times, while Barbara and Susan often have adventures of their own, or take on the lead role for a story. Often our characters split off into groups and barely meet again for a story, sometimes they travel together, disappear altogether, or, on at least one startling occasion, trudge on alone.[5] Conflict is caused not only by villains, but through misunderstandings, bad luck, complex situations, even mere technical faults. The possibilities are vast and this enormous variety is actively pursued and presented.

It can come as a surprise, considering all of this, that these early years of Doctor Who, those made under the series’ first producer, the young and inventive Verity Lambert, are not more well-known or highly regarded. This cannot be entirely due to our modern prejudice against anything old, clunky, and black and white. The fact is that it is really only fans of the later, quite different Doctor Who which are aware of these early episodes, and such an audience tends to be critical of the many deviations from the later scenario.[6] Of course, the series isn’t, by today’s standards, realistic, properly ‘character-driven’, and is frequently mistaken for the children’s series it can at times appear to be (although it is worth emphasising that Doctor Who was made by the BBC’s drama not children’s television department).

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The original TARDIS interior

I suspect a major problem concerns the DVD releases, the most common means of viewing these episodes today. Despite the lovingly detailed even pedantic efforts of the restoration team, the DVD releases, ironically, destroy much of the original mystery of the show. Not only are the menus presented in the style of later Who, but instead of being released as a series box-set (series 1, series 2, series 3, etc.), the DVDs are presented as separate self-contained stories, which, owing to the lack of overarching story titles and the greater continuity in these earlier episodes, they technically aren’t. This form of release reveals the number of episodes in each story beforehand. (All this is leaving aside the issue of gaps in story continuity due to episodes missing from the archive.)

In the end, it is probably the incredible variety which, paradoxically, causes the most viewer dissatisfaction, as we humans are creatures of habit and sameness. Certain sections of the audience always prefer sci-fi stories to historical period dramas, or vice versa, and are liable to become bored when bemired in a story of a personally unfavourable genre.

Yet I think we shouldn’t quibble with a series which, considering its technical limitations, is, despite appearances, so technically and artistically proficient. Verity Lambert Doctor Who is the way the series was designed to look. The interior of the TARDIS never looks more mysterious, exciting, magical (but still very real) as it does in the opening episode (and particularly in the early story, “The Edge of Destruction”). The time machine being a significant part of the new show, a sufficient budget had been set aside to make this set new and effective, a far cry from the faded and battered skeleton of the original design used up until the late ‘80s (saying nothing of the CGI-enhanced, overblown new series’ ‘gaudy-egg’/’phallic ball-sack’ design).

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Pale imitation: the Pertwee-era TARDIS

A big problem, particularly when shooting on a budget, is colour. The black and white of the ‘60s creates an unreal, fantastic quality exactly right for this early period of the show. The BBC’s vast costume department (still existing at that time) made many of the historical stories look amazing in their degree of detail. It is also easy to forget that there is a sophistication and drama created by the movement of an old-fashioned camera crane, today used only in more cinematic dramas. If you watch a William Hartnell Who with care, you are liable to notice the most complex high angles, low angles, and carefully choreographed craning shots, which put today’s static shot/reverse-shot television shooting style to shame – and the camera work is all the more impressive considering the show was filmed virtually live without post-production editing in very cramped old-fashioned TV studios.

I must say a word about the often overlooked sound design. The newly formed BBC Radiophonic Workshop produced some radical experimental sound design effects, most famously, the Doctor Who opening theme. The Radiophonic work in these early years is possibly the most astounding use of sound in a television show, providing not only incidental sound effects but what we would call today soundscapes, ambient sound environments which give the impression of a place and time. The superlative first Dalek story is perhaps the best example of this but even in historical stories, the sounds of distant horses, a bustling village square or a traumatic desert sand-storm are created largely by the soundscapes alone, played in live as the action unfolds. The detail of the work is easily overlooked. Not only were enough different incidental Dalek spaceship doors or blaster rays played in on cue, but the differing atmospheric sounds of various locations were flicked on and off in time with intercutting between scenes which were filmed live, inside, and often merely at different ends of the same BBC TV studio. In line with the series’ wild variability, it will come as no surprise that each serial also had an entirely different composer to write the incidental music, creating markedly different musical impressions as well. The sound designers also do not shy away from that great squirmy horror for modern viewers – silence.

Of course, the technical shortcomings of all of these elements are obvious to modern viewers. Yes, those complex crane shots often result in a collision with the set. Off-camera equipment noise can interfere with the aural soundscape. The fight scenes will always appear rather pathetic without the benefit of post-production editing – although, I must admit that my own private misgivings about how badly such a sequence could conceivably look onscreen has led me to watch them with some (granted, unintentional) degree of suspense so similar to the dramatically appropriate emotion as to blur into a reasonably feasible dramatic effect. (Similarly, I feel that Hartnell’s line fluffs beautifully compliment the tetchy incompetence of the Hartnell-Doctor who spends his time floating about in space and time clearly in denial that he really has no idea where he is going. It seems appropriate that he also doesn’t appear sure exactly what he is saying either.) I find these shortcomings merely add to the wildness of it all.

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Someone needs a bath…

I do not want to go into plot detail, for fear of spoiling the mystery here, but I also want to draw attention to the extraordinary nature of even the most minor plot elements in these early pre-“War Machines” years. Rarely do we see prehistoric people presented dramatically in film let alone TV, and only seldom is historical drama presented as farce. No TV producer would have the gall to even attempt to present a world entirely comprised of giant insects or produce a story where each episode contained multiple time machines and a different setting each week. You would be hard pressed to find a TV show where characters are shrunk or aged to death or suddenly shot, nor do they, momentarily and unexpectedly break the fourth wall, confuse themselves by walking about in circles or reappear unexpectedly from an entirely different serial. Such story elements are remarkable compared not only with most other television series past and present, but also with later Doctor Who itself. In later Who we never see the TARDIS treated like a kind of tent into which you can duck for a nap throughout an epic journey, nor as a setting for an entire serial. Characters do not tend to remember events, even passing references, from stories past. Until relatively recently, the Doctor never suddenly fell in love with a passing minor character, nor would he have fierce arguments with his companions. Perhaps less dramatically but nonetheless remarkable, Hartnell-Who even features characters sweating, becoming dirty, changing their outfits, and having the occasional meal, everyday activities noticeably absent from later Who. There is even one instance of a cliffhanger which tantalises with a question about the past instead of the future – rather than “what will happen next?”, the viewer asks, in the most joyfully ridiculous manner, “what the heck just happened then?”[7]

In sum, William Hartnell Doctor Who is more unusual and extraordinary than its clunky black-and-white appearance suggests. It is fantastic but (mostly) makes sense. It takes itself seriously but with hallucinatory logic and a sense of the absurd. It is childish but serious and, at times, dark and mysterious. Most impressively, it refuses to find all but the most vague formula. It is this non-formulaic wild indefinable quality which renders it both dramatic and ridiculous in equal measure. We should, I suggest, appreciate this wild televisual anomaly for its clunky unconventional explorations into both the unknown and the ridiculous, instead of treating it as faded, poorly produced, primitive children’s TV show or as an awkward, slightly embarrassing early incarnation of a decidedly different later TV series.

For more on Doctor Who see my Doctor Who Story Registry.

 

[1] The 12th and 13th episodes (“The Edge of Destruction” (aka. “Inside the Spaceship”)).

[2] Witness (as best you can – the story has been wiped) the comedy of episodes 1-3 of “The Myth Makers”, which concludes painfully and tragically with its gritty and deadly serious episode 4 (“Horse of Destruction”).

[3] Actually, the story before this, but since it has been wiped, we’ll just overlook this minor inaccuracy.

[4] Examples are “The Ambush” (“The Daleks” episode 4) and “Rider from Shang-Tu” (“Marco Polo” episode 5). “The Plague” (“The Ark” episode 2) even sends the travelers departing only to land back in the same place several centuries later.

[5] ‘The Sea Beggar” and “Priest of Death” (“The Massacre” episodes 2 & 3) technically feature only the Doctor’s companion Steven as a protagonist.

[6] Oh! The frustration when Ian says in “The Edge of Destruction” that the Doctor’s “heart seems all right”. Surely he means his hearts (plural) seem all right? Fan indignation seems to imply that the early series is not so much different as inaccurate – how dare they assume the doctor isn’t a time lord! etc.

[7] “The Death of Doctor Who” (“The Chase” episode 5).

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