Tag Archives: first doctor

The times, the customs and The Romans (1965)

romans

When Doctor Who started, it was a grim little series. Its first story had cavemen beating each other to death. Its second showed the aftermath of nuclear war. But one year in, and it lightened up considerably and could even playfully mix up genres. By story number 12, the series can tackle one of the bloodiest periods of Earth’s history with Carry On-style verve. The Romans is, famously, Doctor Who’s first comedy.

Of course, it’s only partially played for laughs. Ian (William Russell) has an awful time of it; sold into slavery, almost drowning in a galley and thrown into the circus to fight for his life. There’s not much there to chuckle at. Even the stuff played for laughs has a dark edge: Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) gets caught up in an attempt to poison Nero (Derek Francis) which, although unsuccessful, it still results in the death of servant Tigilinus (Brian Proudfoot). Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) gets chased around the palace by Nero, Benny Hill-style which might raise a smile until you remember she’s being sexually harassed. And the Doctor (William Hartnell) thinks it’s utterly hilarious that he may have inadvertently inspired Nero to burn Rome to the ground. He chuckles heartily away even though down amongst the inferno, people are dying horribly.

So as comedies go, The Romans is as black as night. It’s in good company among the Hartnell historicals like The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters, both of which mix up humour with death on an operatic scale. Even writer Dennis Spooner’s own The Time Meddler has a comedy plot punctuated with violence and rape. Makes you wonder exactly who this stuff was aimed at.

More to the point, is The Romans actually funny? I can’t say I’ve ever actually laughed at it. (My first viewing of it, via the VHS release in 1994, put me to sleep). Its jokes are pretty laboured. That unlikely gag Ian and Barbara deliver about the “fridge” is weak, but still it gets two runs. The Doctor’s employment of the emperor’s new clothes tactic to avoid having to play the lyre is very stagey. As is his comedy fight with the assassin Ascaris (Barry Jackson). Francis comes closest to making it work, but even his antics of bashing people over the head with lyres, falling over beds and absent-mindedly waving swords about is pretty tiresome.

But actually, I don’t think it matters that the comedy stylings of The Romans seem irredeemably lame. For a start, it’s impossible to tell what a 1960s audience made of this – they might have thought it was a riot. What’s important about it is that it’s another of Doctor Who’s attempts, even at this early stage of its life, to push the boundaries of what the show was capable of, to ensure that it had sufficient variety to enable longevity. Better Doctor Who comedies will follow because The Romans showed it was possible for the show to bend that far and not break. And hey, they’ll be back to killing people with acid next story.

But gee, can you imagine the reaction to this story if they’d had Twitter in 1965?

@babshair WTF are they doing to #doctorwho? Unfunny comedy antics turning the show into PANTO. BBC intent on killing it. Spooner must go! #notmydoctor

*****

The other thing The Romans does is change the dynamics of the TARDIS crew.

In an era known for decadence and hedonism, Ian and Barbara are cheekily positioned as lovers. They flirt and joke around and treat each other with gentle physical intimacy. We never see them as much as hold hands, let alone kiss. But there’s something undeniably sexy about them lounging around in their togas together.

Their friends with benefits time is interrupted by them being kidnapped and sold into slavery. So begins one of Ian’s semi-regular quests to rescue Barbara, but the absence of the Doctor and Vicki from this adventure means this plot can be viewed in isolation, and it’s purely about two lovers pulled apart by circumstance and eager to reunite. It gives their solo adventure added piquancy, which you can sense when the two finally find each other again and rush into a joyful embrace. From here on in, they’re clearly more than just friends, ready for generations to come to ship them madly.

The Doctor meanwhile is getting to know his new substitute granddaughter, Vicki. I’ve noted before that I think it was an odd decision to replace Susan with someone so similar to her, and yet O’Brien brings a greater air of independence and worldliness to the teenage girl companion than Carole Ann Ford was allowed to. And for his part, the Doctor is less paternal towards her. He sees Vicki as a co-conspirator in his schemes and a student who’ll benefit from his tutelage. Plus she’s more likely than Susan to instigate action within the story; the whole poisoning gag comes about because she’s struck out on her own and made friends with the palace poisoner. Of all people.

Whereas previously we had a TARDIS crew made up of people with protective responsibilities towards Susan – her grandfather and her teachers – now we have a crew of four friends. (Incidentally, The Romans does a great job of giving each of the four regulars a slice of the action, something the most recent series of Doctor Who struggled to do). And in its quiet way, it sets a new template for the show to follow from now on: a TARDIS crew of people who travel together because they want to, not because they have owe any responsibility to each other to do so. A cohort of genuine buddies who’ll go on holiday together, drink, dress up and fondly tease each other.

The Romans may not be very funny, but it’s loads of fun. And because it happens so early in the show’s run, it allows loads of subsequent stories to be fun too. That’s a far more valuable legacy than simply being the first Doctor Who story to crack a few gags.

LINK TO Fury from the Deep: TARDIS crew members washing up on the beach.

NEXT TIME: More trouble with the eight-legs in Arachnids in the UK.

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Nature, corruption and The Web Planet (1965)

webplanet

There’s a moment in An Adventure in Space and Time which shows Heather Hartnell visiting the Doctor Who set in 1964. As she walks in she bumps into two Menoptra, sneaking out for a quick fag, or something. Just for a beat, she clocks the bizarreness of it all as the two butterfly creatures walk past. It’s a second or two of pure WTF.

That’s fitting because The Web Planet is a six episode exercise in WTF. It comes from a production team wanting to jolt its viewers out of the everyday. They recognised that even after just a year and a half, Doctor Who had fallen into a predictable pattern of tea-time adventure and it was time to try something really bizarre.

This bizarreness doesn’t end with creating a world full of giant ants, giant butterflies, giant millipedes or even a tossed salad of them all (as if that wouldn’t be enough). It stretches to production decisions which deliberately alienate the viewer, such as blurring the camera lens, having a soundtrack of experimental electronica and dialogue peppered with strange alien speech patterns. This is a story that wants you to see and hear Doctor Who in a new way. (Or it’s a story which wants to assault your eardrums while obscuring your view of what’s going on. Potato, potahto).

Its ramshackle production values, its sleepy pacing and its chirruping soundtrack make The Web Planet almost unwatchable to a modern audience. And yet by several measures, it has proven to be a phenomenally successful Doctor Who story. Made in the height of Dalekmania, it outrated the Daleks, averaging 12.5m viewers. Selected to be one of the first Doctor Who novels, its print version has been read by millions of people. It gets name-checked in modern Who and mentioned by Who luminaries like Peter Capaldi as one of their most potent memories of the show. It’s an enduring triumph of ideas over their plywood and poster paint execution.

It transcends all this because of its villain. It’s not a scheming human or a sly Sensorite. This is the Animus and it’s a malevolent force growing like cancer through the planet, poisoning its water, ravaging its landscape. It animates the otherwise docile creatures around it and turns them into killers. It’s strong enough to drag the TARDIS off course. It corrupts everything around it. There’s never been anything like it, before or since.

It gets a bit lost in the story’s ropey design work, but the Animus is a spider which has spread its web across the planet. This makes me think how this story came about. When thinking up a plot preposterous enough for Doctor Who, apparently writer Bill Strutton remembered a painful incident from his childhood, when he was bitten by a bull ant, at his home in Moonta, South Australia. Had young Strutton been bitten by one of Australia’s famously venomous spiders – a funnel-web or a redback – he would have died. You don’t mess with those mofos. Google images of a funnel-web’s web, and you’ll find an eerie looking whirlpool shaped web, leading to a dark centre and, well you can see what Strutton may have been thinking off.

Sadly, when we finally get to meet the Animus in this story’s final ep, it doesn’t look particularly spidery. It’s a dome half suspended from the ceiling, covered with tentacles of old vacuum cleaner hoses which spill out over the entire room. The actors do a good job of looking suitably horrified at it, but there’s no hiding that it’s afflicted by the same budgetary pressures which give us Zarbi which run into cameras and Operta with comical Rastafarian haircuts. The Doctor (William Hartnell) and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) have to lie down and self-entangle themselves it in at one stage, signalling the brute’s limitations.

But wishing for a more technically sophisticated version of The Web Planet gets us nowhere (although if there was ever a candidate for an animated version of an existing story, here it is). And it neglects the elements which transcend its general tackiness. There’s that truly spooky cliffhanger to its fifth episode, with the Doctor and Vicki enveloped in web. But again, it’s the Animus which works, because of its creepy (crawly?) voice (Catherine Fleming). That calm, whispery cadence, like a sinister anaesthetist. (Funny how giant spiders in fiction are often female.)

If The Web Planet is “about” anything (and I’m not sure it is. It could be just so much sci-fi hokum), I think it’s about evil as a force of nature. Up until this point, Doctor Who’s monsters had backstories which explained how they got to be so wicked. Even the Daleks were originally survivors of war, twisted and transformed by xenophobia. The Animus has no backstory, short of just arriving one day to upend everything on Vortis. It just is. It’s just there. And it grows like a malignant tumour. There’s something both chilling and everyday about that.

Strutton was in a POW camp in WW2, so no doubt he saw the best and worst of human nature on display there. Perhaps the Animus is his stand-in for the Nazis, presiding over a microcosm of society, with the Zarbi as guards and the rest of this planet’s population as the oppressed prisoners. Unlike Terry Nation, who used the Daleks to question the basis of Nazism, Strutton’s not interested in how evil emerges. For him, it’s as natural as any other part of the world. But left unchecked, it will take over, like weeds strangling a garden.

Doctor Who never returned to The Web Planet, at least on TV. Despite it being the site of its greatest ratings success until 1974. As the Hartnell era ended, the show turned more and more to Earth-bound settings. Not just bases under siege and adventures with UNIT in the home counties; even alien planets had more humanoids and looked and felt more familiar than smeary, noisy Vortis. Never again would the series try to create such a completely alien world. Camera lenses remained undirtied. No more special “insect movement” choreography for the monsters. Return visits to Vortis were restricted first to TV Comic, and the books, audio dramas and give-a-show slide projectors, where the Zabi didn’t have legs like rugby players and Menoptra didn’t trip over their own wings.

It’s truly a world too broad and deep for the small screen. But that’s why it never gets forgotten. That’s why those Menoptra get a cameo with Heather Hartnell, why Margaret Slitheen’s afraid of venom grubs and why this shaky old runaround gained thousands of new fans when it aired on Twitch. We really can’t get enough WTF.

LINK TO The Underwater Menace: both shot at Riverside Studios. Can I get away with that?

NEXT TIME: Stand and deliver! We’re having quite the Knightmare in The Woman Who Lived.

Road trip, stolen Ship and Marco Polo (1964)

Marco

There’s a school of thought that whilst Inside the Spaceship, the original TARDIS crew erupts into conflict and then everyone makes up, settling into a comfortable team. This is allegedly the point where, after 13 weeks of experimentation, the show finds its standard shape and settles into a pattern. From this point of view, Marco Polo is a standard historical adventure, albeit the first and a bit grander than most. But this neglects how wildly experimental it is and that it too plays a part in helping the show find its groove. The Keys of Marinus feels much more like the typical sort of story Doctor Who will settle into. Marco Polo is, aptly enough, exploratory.

Its original name was A Journey to Cathay and that suits it far better. Because this is a literal journey across 13th century China and a metaphoric journey for our travellers and chief protagonist Marco Polo (Mark Eden). Uniquely, this is a story which takes months to unfold; the televised sections are just the edited highlights, linked by narrative excerpts from Polo’s diary. This makes it Doctor Who’s only road trip story, and such stories are always about charting the change in characters as they progress along their journey.

What did this story’s viewers back in 1964 think of being dragged along this trek for nearly two months with our heroes? They would surely have noticed, even in its weekly episodic formats, a plot which is the slowest of slow burns. Writer John Lucarotti gently doles out incident after incident for seven weeks, fuelled by two major plot strands which sustain the dramatic tension. The first is the struggle for possession of the TARDIS, played out between our heroes and Polo. The second is the treachery of Mongol warlord Tegana (Derryn Nesbitt) which the TARDIS crew are convinced of, but Polo is not.

The first plot strand prompts multiple attempts by the Doctor (a waspish William Hartnell) and his friends to regain the TARDIS by fair means or foul. Each gambit gets frustratingly closer than the last, but each inevitably fails and with each failure, those earliest episodic viewers must have realised they had at least one more week of Chinese antics left before the series got back to bug eyed monsters. The second plot strand generates various attempts by Tegana to disrupt Polo’s caravan. All his ploys – your draining of water gourds, your facilitation of bandit attacks and so on – are shared with the audience before he attempts them, keeping us one step ahead of both Polo and our TARDIS chums.

The incidents within these two plot strands repeat and overlap each other through the seven episodes. In fact, the whole story is a bit like listening to two vinyl records simultaneously, both of them stuck on a groove. Our friends plan an escape, make their attempt, they fail and face the consequences. Tegana hatches a plot, executes it and is foiled. Repeat and repeat until we reach Peking.

And in between these two narrative drivers, there are other road trip hijinks to fit in: getting lost in a sandstorm, a runaway girl, an attempt to steal the Ship. There’s even time for a poetry recital in the middle of it. This story is in no hurry.

Which is good, because it’s also trying to teach you stuff. Not an episode goes by without an attempt to educate as well as entertain, on subjects as diverse as the boiling temperature of water at heights, how condensation works, the speed of messengers on horseback and the explosive potential of bamboo. Never has the show’s original instructive premise been taken so seriously.

This what I mean by the story being experimental: it’s working out what a Doctor Who historical should be. Should there be a problem for our TARDIS crew to solve? Or should they simply be caught up in events, struggling to get back to the Ship? Should each episode be scattered through with educational nuggets? What’s the mix between drama and comedy? It’s notable that they never again tried another 7 episode historical; after Season 1, all historicals are restricted to 4 parts. Marco Polo is R&D for all the other historicals. Even the 21st century’s celebrity historicals take their lead from this one.

There’s also something experimental in its exploration of morals and its ability to tie them to its plot. The recovery of the TARDIS is a case in point. Polo confiscates the TARDIS because he wants to give it to Kublai Khan (Martin Miller, one of many actors in yellowface, unfortunately). The Doctor makes various attempts to steal it back… but the message here is he can’t win through trickery. Even when he’s an odds on favourite to win it back from the Khan in a game of backgammon, he loses. He doesn’t regain the TARDIS until Polo gives it back to him… and that act is the culmination of a corresponding moral journey for Polo.

It takes seven episodes for Polo to realise the truth of things he’s been struggling with since he met the travellers on the roof of the world. Tegana is up to no good, as our heroes have been telling him. And the TARDIS was not his to take in the first place. To bring the story to its end, to complete is own personal journey, he has to recognise and defeat his enemy but also do the right thing and give back the Ship. True, it’s kind of arbitrary that it takes seven episodes to make it happen. It could have taken four or six or ten, but that’s the saga format for you. It can take as long as you want to reach a destination.

But now that I think of it… wouldn’t it have been more fun if Marco Polo had ditched its pretentions to moral and educational instruction? It could be more like a road trip movie – a kind of Doctor Who version of The Hangover? The Doctor, Ian (William Russell) and Polo, could go out on the tear and wake up to a tiger in their caravan. Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and Ping Cho (Zienia Merton) could steal a couple of fast horses and rack up some bills on the Khan’s expense account. Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) could wake up married to that handsome Ling Tau (Paul Carson). Now those seven episodes would fly past in a blur! And as the Ship departs our heroes could all wearily agree that what happens in Cathay, stays in Cathay.

LINK TO The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Apprentice: the Doctor is separated from the TARDIS in both.

NEXT TIME… Inquests bore me. But luckily it’s Time and the Rani.

Crusades, Crusaders and The Crusade (1965)

crusade

I’m always a little confused about the name of this story. I know not to call it The Crusaders, because that’s the name of the novelisation. But I often want to call it The Crusades, because when I think of that period of history, I  think of Crusades multiple. The events of this story, for instance, take place during the Third Crusade.

I’m not so foolish as to read too much into the titles of 1960s Doctor Who stories, because who knows what the real titles actually are. But I wonder sometimes why it’s called The Crusade, singular. It could be just one of those early Who vagaries that leads us to call Serial C Inside the Spaceship, The Edge of Destruction or sometimes after we’ve had a few wines, Beyond the Sun.  Or it could be that writer David Whitaker was referring to one personal crusade, presumably that of Richard the Lionheart (Julian Glover).

His personal crusade may once have been to claim Jerusalem for the Christians, wresting it from the Saracens. But after years of bloody warfare, he’s ready to sue for peace. Richard’s an interesting character – he is by no means a paragon of virtue. He’s petulant and temperamental. He lingers too long in the woods, despite the best advice of his knights, and as a result, his key men are killed (he admits no responsibility for this). It is this event, perhaps, which leads him to want to bargain with Saladin (Bernard Kay, unfortunately in brownface). He concocts a plan to marry off his sister Joanna (Jean Marsh) to Saladin’s brother, Saphadin (Roger Avon, also unfortunately in brownface), and thus secure a peaceful settlement.

Joanna’s crusade is to utterly oppose the proposed union. Her outrage leaps off the screen, such is Marsh’s ability to portray Joanna’s horror at the idea. Joanna’s no fool either. She rebuffs Richard’s idea with a stratagem he can’t counteract; she threatens to appeal to the Pope. Her whole presence in the story leads up to this point (indeed, she doesn’t appear afterward) and unlike the men around her, she’s won the day.

Perhaps the title refers to Saladin’s crusade, to prevail over his invaders. The presentation of a religious war between Christians and Muslims would be almost unthinkable in today’s Doctor Who. Despite the unfortunate casting, Whitaker presents a refreshingly measured view of the other side of this holy war. Saladin is no raving, unreasonable madman; he’s cold and calculating (in contrast to Richard’s reckless passion). He’s a subtle, shady character; he conceals himself behind a curtain, listening to events before he intervenes. He treats his prisoners and enemies alike with courtesy. It would have been easy to paint him as the evil mastermind, implacably opposed to Richard. Instead, he’s eminently reasonable – in many ways preferable to Richard. His key moment is when he agrees to Richard’s proposal but insists on preparing his armies for war, in case the whole thing goes pear-shaped. “Hold one hand out in friendship,” he says, in one example of an outstandingly lyrical script,  “but keep the other on your sword.” (Like Joanna, once he’s made his key point, he exits the story, not to be seen again).

It would be easy to say that this is a crusade for Ian (William Russell), whose whole role in this story is to rescue Barbara (Jacqueline Hill, playing her role in a typical Whitaker trope. Think of The Evil of the Daleks where Jamie goes on a similar quest in pursuit of Victoria). But actually, that’s not as interesting as that of another of Barbara’s protectors, Haroun Ed Diin (George Little). Ed Diin is on a crusade to murder the wicked emir El Akir (Walter Randall). His fervour is stoked by El Akir’s killing of Ed Diin’s family and his alliance with Barbara is another way of getting within stabbing distance of his target. His single-mindedness is horrifying, particularly when he entrusts Barbara (who he’s only just met) with killing his daughter, lest she fall into the hands of his enemy. And, by the way, his crusade’s successful, robbing Ian of the opportunity to confront El Akir face to face. He’s a secondary character, but he gets to do away with the bad guy, so his crusade must count for something.

It’s certainly not Barbara’s crusade; she had hers a season ago in The Aztecs, an historical in which she became intrinsically linked with the culture around her, attempting to play an interventionist role. Here, she’s far more a victim of circumstance: captured by El Akir, incarcerated by Saladin, recaptured by El Akir, rescued by Ed Diin, recaptured by El Akir and finally rescued by Ian. Despite constantly being manhandled (quite literally) throughout the story, she remains a strong presence throughout the story, albeit one without agency. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to have a story where Ian was captured and abducted, with Barbara staging the rescue campaign?

It’s also not the Doctor’s (William Hartnell) crusade. He plays an early active role in concocting the plan to win Richard’s favour to gain his help in rescuing Barbara. After that he enjoys some hijinks bamboozling tailors and chamberlains and entering into some ethical debate in the royal court, but he’s an observer rather than a catalyst for action. He’s our eyes and ears with which to observe Richard and his dramas with Joanna, but in truth, he’s tangential, not essential to the action. Even when he falls out with Richard (the Lion thinks briefly that the Doctor has snitched on him to Joanna), it’s quickly reversed without consequence. Still, it gives Hartnell a chance to thesp around in some nice costumes and switch rapidly from mirth to outrage.

The final candidate to offer a crusade is the subject of that outrage. It’s the bellicose Earl of Leicester (John Bay), with whom the Doctor has picked a fight about siding with Richard’s scheme for marrying Joanna to Saphadin. He’s appalled by Richard’s plan, and says so, only for the Doctor to accuse him of being a fool and a butcher. He rebukes him with more of this story’s elegant dialogue. “When you men of eloquence have stunned each other with your words,” he snarls, “we the soldiers, have to face it out.” He takes such offence that when the Doctor and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) sneak quietly back to the Ship, he gives chase to execute them. He really must believe they’re bad eggs if he’d rather spend time hunting down an old man and a young girl than fighting the Saracens.

It doesn’t come to that, of course. Our four heroes reconvene at the TARDIS just in time and inveigle themselves insides. Once inside, their ordeals – particularly the ghastly one Barbara’s endured – have been forgotten, and they dissolve into puns and giggles. It’s a spectacularly ill-fitting end to a story which has been a sober and at time brutal examination of men of war exercising their personal crusades. Crusaders. Crusade. Whatever.

LINK TO Under the Lake/Before the Flood: both feature kings.

NEXT TIME… It’s the daily disaster we call Frontios. Luckily it’s about as offensive as a chicken vol-au-vent.

 

 

Morons, zeros and The Space Museum (1965)

space museum

I have this theory that a museum is no place to set an adventure story. They are places of scholarship, conservation and learning, characterised by quiet, respectful contemplation. There’s a reason why Indiana Jones, intrepid collector of museum pieces, has his adventures in jungles, deserts and other far flung locales: museums themselves are inherently dull. Unless the exhibits are going to come to life and exterminate you, there’s not much to set the heart racing.

It’s a theory borne out by The Space Museum, which is set in a space museum, run by a bunch of uninterested guards called the Moroks. They’re an odd lot. Their name is perilously close to “morons”, they dress like power dentists and they have hairdos which appear to have been blown into a permanent state of alarm with industrial strength driers. Plus they have a predilection for declamatory speeches about how hard done by they are. Despite these handicaps, they are, we are told, ruthless conquerors of worlds. Beware! They will land on your planet, kick your arse and… set up a museum.

This is exactly what they do on the planet Xeros. There they establish a museum which looks like a chocolate gateau on the outside, but on the inside features a dazzling array of featureless corridors. The museum’s collection consists of the spoils of war, which it must be said, are scant: a few random spaceships, some unlikely looking props, one Dalek casing and some stools they found on the Sense Sphere. I don’t know who the target audience is for this museum – no-one, if current visitor numbers are any indication – but perhaps it hints at a new battle strategy by these fearsome maurauders. Instead of fighting and killing other races, the Moroks will just wait until their victims come to their space museum and let them bore to death.

The Doctor (William Hartnell), Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), Ian (William Russell) and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) arrive at the museum early – in fact, in spectral form before their real selves actually get there (the TARDIS having tripped over some technobabble). They have a premonition of their future selves as immobile exhibits, like stuffed animals in perspex boxes. Once the timelines are back in sync, it does indeed transpire that the monotonous Moroks do want to embalm our heroes… which is a novel threat, but also strange seeing that the museum isn’t actually full of other unwary travellers who have strayed within its stultifying walls.

(It’s never made clear why the Moroks want to start their collection of frozen alien beings with our heroes. But imagine a museum filled with frozen people, like Narnia’s statue garden of various creatures whom the White Witch turned to stone. And imagine the museum as a dark, gothic mausoleum. Now that might actually be suspenseful.)

Having been confronted with the vision of a future spent frozen in display cases, our four heroes debate what it will take to change the future. They stage an interesting debate about whether any action on their part is going to help or hinder their chances. Well, it’s interesting the first time. The problem is they keep having that same debate over and over throughout the next three episodes. But at least it’s an interesting reversal of their usual mantra about not being able to change history. This time, in order to survive, they need to mess with future events.

They never get to the bottom of it, though. At the end, it seems the future has been changed because Vicki has encouraged the mousy Xerons to stage a revolution. (If Vicki seems like the least likely of the TARDIS crew to stage such a rebellion, it is at least a pleasing development in her character, from being a line feed for the Doctor).

Who are these Xerons? Well, they are the oppressed indigenous species and an equally odd bunch. Their name is perilously close to “zeros”, they all dress like sinister Wiggles and they each have four eyebrows. They’re also all weedy teenage boys, the type you’d think would be super tech savvy, but unfortunately they can’t work out how to hack the computer which is guarding the armoury (because, y’know, museums totally have armouries). This is preventing them from overthrowing the Moroks, so instead they sit around, drink coffee and wish they’d taken more STEM subjects at Xeros Elementary. Luckily Vicki’s on hand to hack the armoury’s computer and generally do all the thinking for them.

As it happens, it must have been Vicki’s rabble rousing which did the trick because none of her companions did anything effectual. Barbara gets locked in a cupboard with a Xeron. The Doctor goes on holiday for a week. And Ian finds a gun and reimagines himself as the series tough guy, getting into fights, menacing some Moroks, but not actually achieving anything. If The Space Museum does nothing else, it at least shows Vicki to be an intelligent, proactive force in the program. It may even be a subtle suggestion that the future can only be changed by the young.

The story falls so quickly from being innovative and spooky to being a generic good guys vs bad guys shoot ‘em up, that you can’t help wonder if it was deliberate; an early meta-commentary on the show itself. But surely that gives The Space Museum too much credit. There’s no subtext here. The battle between the Moroks and the Xerons seems like generic sci-fi tosh because that’s what it is.

That in itself is peculiar, because the Hartnell era is so much about the weird and the wonderful of alien cultures; that a world ruled by insects is as strange and adventurous as the rival courts of Richard I and Saladin. To suddenly veer into pulp sci-fi seems uncharacteristic. It’s like writer Glyn Jones, having set up an intriguing premise in the first episode, has to cobble together another plot to contain it in for three episodes.

The whole thing staggers to an ending when the hammy revolution, full of ray gun shots and extras falling extravagantly to the floor reaches the Moroks’ headquarters. Our heroes congratulate themselves on a job unwittingly done and head for the TARDIS, leaving the teenage boys in charge. Though really, if our heroes had stopped to think about it for as long as they worried about whether or not they were changing the future, they’ve have realised that both parties of antagonists on Xeros are doomed to die out within a generation. Because although they have guns and freezing machines and Sensorite furniture to fight over, what neither the Moroks or the Xerons have amongst them, is any women.

LINK TO The Shakespeare Code: both feature callbacks to The Crusade.

NEXT TIME… nothing’s quite as it seems to be at The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.

 

 

 

 

Doctorless, Dalekless, Mission to the Unknown (1965) and The Feast of Steven (1965)

Episode One

21st century Who has gotten us used to Doctor-lite adventures. But even now, we’ve only ever had one Doctor-entirely-absent adventure. It’s the one episode curio Mission to the Unknown.

Writer Terry Nation created the Daleks and, buoyed by three popular TV outings and a feature film in the cinemas, thought they could do without the Doctor and his friends. Given a surplus episode to play with, he grabbed the chance to let his metal babies glide out from behind the time traveller’s shadow. Mission to the Unknown is a first attempt to gauge how they’d hold an audience’s attention on their own.

The answer is… adequately. They’re as strangely compelling as ever, but not so the company they keep. Nation created a great monster, but never created great human characters. Here, three astronauts are stranded on a hostile planet, but they are standard, hammy heroes with not much to distinguish them, saying things like “I didn’t want to touch down on this lousy planet in the first place” and “you can bet your life our whole galaxy is in danger!” Yup, Daleks have better dialogue than these b-movie duds.

But to be honest, Daleks without the Doctor have never excited me. There’s something about their mechanical single-mindedness which seems to need the Doctor’s eccentricity and humour to bounce off. Partnering them against a James Bond wannabe as they are here (replacement lead Marc Cory even has a license to kill), or against a whole SSS of them as proposed in Nation’s would-be spin off, doesn’t have the same alchemy that Doctor Who has.

If the Daleks’ solo plan doesn’t quite come off, it’s partly because they’re not up to much. They spend much of the episode holding a big meeting with their allies from other galaxies. There’s a reason why middle-management strategic planning days don’t feature heavily in drama. Perhaps the Daleks and the Planetarians should have held a team building exercise instead? “Now everyone, we’re going to catch Malpha as he falls backwards… What do you mean you have no arms, big black Christmas tree?” When they start listing their invasion targets (Mars! Jupiter! The Moon colonies!), you can imagine the bullet points appearing onto whatever the Dalek equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation is. And you sense a sparse script being padded.

It all feels a bit inconsequential. But there is one event which promises some to have impact on the bigger story to come. It’s Marc Cory’s (Edward de Souza) attempts to get a message to Earth about the Daleks’ presence on the planet Kembel. He does this by recording it on cassette, which is quaint. But he’s killed before he can transmit the message, and Earth remains unwarned. But this is a prequel, right? So viewers back in 1965 could have reasonably expected that to pay off later.

Unfortunately, it proves to be a fizzer. In the fourth episode of The Daleks’ Master Plan, the Doctor and his allies play back the recovered tape and listen to Cory’s message. It tells them all about the Dalek threat… which they’ve already discovered two episodes ago. “I don’t know if it’s revelant”, the Doctor fluffs when he finds the tape.  No, it’s not Doctor. It’s entirely “irrevelant”. It only adds to the general sense that this Mission has been marking time.

But that’s not to suggest that a one episode story, standing alone from the rest of the series, was an experiment doomed to fail. In fact, the Doctor Who team quickly repeated it, with another episode separate from the stories around it. Tellingly, when putting this next odd-episode-out together, the production team left out the Daleks, not the Doctor. Surely an acceptance that Daleks are optional, but Doctor Who really can’t do without the Doctor.

Episode Two

It’s absurd to think of the merry Christmas celebration that is The Feast of Steven as anything other than a standalone story. Sure, it was produced as part of the twelve-part epic The Daleks’ Master Plan, but then Mission to the Unknown was produced as part of Galaxy 4 and we think of them separately. True, it has one scene that makes reference to Master Plan’s ongoing narrative, but that’s it. A few scant sentences in an otherwise entirely separate storyline. And yes, it’s broadcast in between episodes of Master Plan, but who cares? The story’s already been interrupted by four episodes of The Myth Makers.

And if we needed any more convincing, it was omitted from Master Plan for overseas sales. It’s not only seen by its makers as separate but also unnecessary. So meaningless outside its context as a throwaway piece of festive nonsense, to be of no possible interest to audiences outside the UK. Even stone cold Doctorless Mission to the Unknown could be sold overseas, but not this.

So where to start? Well, I suppose the first thing to note is that it’s a comedy (no, really) and more broadly comic than any other Doctor Who story. Even stories like The Romans or City of Death which are comic in tone, have dramatic storylines at their core. The Feast of Steven has no dramatic intent at all. It’s made up of two comic set pieces designed to keep a Christmas Day audience amused.

The first set piece involves some antics at a Liverpool police station. As conceived, this was going to be a crossover episode between with popular police drama Z Cars. Now, I’ve never seen an episode of Z Cars, but quite why a police drama was seen as good fodder for a Doctor Who crossover eludes me (But hey, Dimensions in Time makes anything seem possible). Could the seventh Doctor and Ace have shared a cracker with the cast of The Bill? Could the thirteenth Doctor drop in for Christmas lunch in Broadchurch? (That would be confusing.)

This half of the episode is all very arch and self aware. Steven (Peter Purves) conveniently finds a police uniform and oddly enough it comes with a Liverpudlian accent. As an astronaut from the 25th century it seems unlikely he’d be able to adopt such an accent, but when questioned about it by the Doctor, he says he did so because everyone else was speaking that way. The Doctor himself points out that one of the Policemen is played by an actor who appeared in The Crusade. And although the significance of the man and his troublesome greenhouse escapes me, I’d bet it’s some comment on the regular dramatic fodder on Z Cars.

Never before had the series so knowingly winked at its audience as if to say, you’re watching a piece of television. We both know it, so let’s have some fun. That alone makes it weird enough.

But then the second half changes tack. There’s no self-referential game playing here. Just a load of old slapstick on the film sets of two early Hollywood epics. It’s pure farce, and judging by the cacophonous soundtrack, utterly chaotic too. Unlike the first half which invites its audience to exercise its knowledge of contemporary TV, this is asking them to relive happy hours spent at the cinema, watching quota quickies and screwball comedies (some of which would have starred William Hartnell). Its characters are cliches, its set ups predictable, but that is, I suspect, part of the fun. But blimey – it sounds absolutely barking.

Finally, and infamously, there’s the breaking of the fourth wall when the episode ends with the Doctor wishing the audience a “happy Christmas to all of you at home”. It’s a moment unique in Doctor Who, so bizarre as to be almost impossible to decode. But it is surely the clearest signal that the production team is saying, ignore the last 25 minutes. It was just a bit of fun. We won’t even bother telerecording it, that’s how disposable it is. It’s the exclamation mark at the end of an extended joke between friends. And the second episode in short order which has played fast and loose with the core elements of Doctor Who.

LINK to Tooth and ClawBoth Mission and Tooth and Claw feature monsters that can transform you into said monster, with a scratch.

NEXT TIME… Hey nonny nonny, it’s The Shakespeare Code

Random extra: rehearsal, performance and the pilot episode (1963)

pilot

So let’s just take stock for a moment. We have the broadcast version of An Unearthly Child. And we have the pilot episode which consists of one take of the first half, and two different takes of the second half. That’s two-and-a-half versions of An Unearthly Child, which makes it a unique experience among Doctor Who episodes. It’s the only one we have the dress rehearsals for.

The usual story is that the pilot episode is an edgier, slightly darker experience than An Unearthly Child, with the Doctor being more antagonistic and Susan being even more unearthly. Truth is, the two are very similar; there’s no evidence of a significant rethink between takes. Even the little mini-drama of the two whispering school girls and the boorish teen who interrupts their gossiping is kept lovingly intact.

What is true is that it’s much less technically polished than An Unearthly Child. As perfectly skewered in An Adventure in Space and Time, it’s a schmozzle; doors stubbornly refuse to close, cameras struggle to focus on their subjects and so on. It’s hard not to notice these faults and to recall that head honcho Sydney Newman refused to put the episode to air in the state it was in. Like all dress rehearsals, it was never meant to be seen by layfolk like you and me.

But Newman couldn’t have anticipated that one day, it would be unearthed and made available for all to see. Retaining and viewing the pilot says something about our fannish desire to understand how the show was made. It also expresses something about completism; that we want to see every frame of Doctor Who – even the stuff we were never meant to see. And because we have big gaps of 60s Doctor Who, even the dress rehearsals are worth cherishing.

It’s funny how we like being told the same story over and over again, and Doctor Who’s beginning keeps getting retold. We have 2.5 Unearthly Children and we have an alternative version in David Whitaker’s book, Doctor Who in an exciting adventure with the Daleks (a version which dispenses with all the caveman malarkey). Then there’s another version in the film he co-wrote, Dr Who and the Daleks . It’s pretty clear that Whitaker (though probably no one else around him) held much affection for the series’ original opening, and looked for any opportunity to rewrite it.

Even today, the gaps in the story are intriguing enough to inspire ongoing filling. The Name of the Doctor shows us the moment the Doctor and Susan actually absconded from their homeworld. Big Finish have audio dramas which fill in the space in between that moment and when they landed in London. And wasn’t there talk a few years ago of a brand new audio novelisation of this first story? It seems we just can’t stop wanting to add to and adjust these very first episodes.

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So why does so little change between the pilot and the transmitted episode? I think it’s got something to do with styles of performance.

With modern filmmaking, rehearsing and recording scenes in short order, you can experiment with every line. Matt Smith, famously, tried new interpretation of lines frequently and Peter Capaldi, from all accounts, takes an inventive approach to each scene. It’s a technique which allows the actors to explore the various nuance in each line and give the director an array of choices. A director can end up with a choice of takes all with different emphases, and he/she can play around with them in the edit, shaping each scene differently.

This was simply not an option when they were making Doctor Who in 1963. That recording regime required the cast to come to the studio recording pre-rehearsed. It called for consistency, not invention. Partly because the cameras didn’t move that fast. You can see it demonstrated in the two takes of the second half of the pilot. The cast members hit their marks accurately and say their lines almost identically. With the sort of time pressure they had to deal with, they wouldn’t have risked a spontaneous new take on a line, in case it threw one of their fellow actors and the whole scene fell apart.

So you can imagine that when they came to remake An Unearthly Child, they were keen to leave it mostly the same. Camera positions are similar. The actors’ blocking is more or less the same. And the actors produce more or less the same characterisation they did in the pilot. There are a few line changes, but presumably, they didn’t want to mess too much with what the main cast were doing. Not just because it was good work already, but also because you wouldn’t want to inspire a lack of confidence in their performance – which may well happen if you were to say to one of them, “we want you to play this completely differently to last week”.

The joy of a truly great performance is that you forget that the exercise is a construct: draw too much attention to it, the spell breaks and it suddenly feels like actors speaking lines. We forget how good the actors on Doctor Who generally are, particularly the regulars, because that spell rarely breaks. And with this TARDIS crew, it’s almost unheard of. But having 2.5 versions of the same episode means you’re effectively seeing how they cast that spell. You can see Hartnell et al deliver a line three times. And you can see how they deliver the goods brilliantly, time after time.

This is why we should treasure that pilot episode. Not because it’s a tantalising false start, or because it’s more precious minutes of an era perforated with missing episodes (although it’s both those things). Its real value is in seeing actors at work, and appreciate the professionalism and poise they show under extreme pressure. We can look up any number of episodes of Confidential or Doctor Who Extra from recent years and see Smith, Capaldi etc rehearsing a scene and crafting their performances. But to see it from over 50 years ago? That’s truly remarkable.

NEXT TIME… Tooth and Claw