Tag Archives: season 1

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

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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

 

 

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Intuition, inference and Inside the Spaceship (1964)

In the info text on the DVD for this story, it says that writer David Whitaker, in a desperate attempt to fill a two episode gap in Doctor Who’s schedule, wrote this story over the course of two days and nights, barely stopping for sleep. It’s not surprising then that Inside the Spaceship is a dream-like experience, peppered with some arresting imagery but fundamentally incoherent. It’s exactly the sort of story you might come up with, working on three hours sleep a night and with only coffee, cigarettes and the fear of what your next job will be when this series ends after 13 episodes to sustain you.

It’s a tease of a story. It keeps wandering down interesting paths, then retreating from them. For instance, in the first episode Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) comes up with a theory for the blackouts, memory loss and hallucinations the Ship’s crew have been experiencing. She suggests that someone or something may have infiltrated the TARDIS. This is then expanded on by Susan (Carole Ann Ford) who’s doing the whole crazed teenage girl bit, when she proposes that whatever it is could be hiding inside one of them.

The whole episode hinges on this idea. The cliffhanger, where a pair of outstretched arms close around the Doctor’s (William Hartnell) neck seems a bit stagy when you know the story well. But on first viewing I suspect it might have been quite thrilling. We know the rest of our heroes are asleep; therefore these hands must belong to the intruder. It’s not so much, “how will the Doctor get out of this one?” as “who’s in the Ship with them?” But after we find out the assailant is actually Ian (William Russell), dazedly trying to protect the Doctor, this promising plot line falls away.

Another road only partially ventured down is the ruthlessness of the Doctor and what he might do to Ian and Barbara if they got in his way. The show has been building up to this; the first two Doctor Who stories both feature moments where it seems the Doctor might do something terrible about of self preservation. In the first story, there’s the suggestion that he’ll brain a wounded caveman to aid their escape, and in The Daleks, he suggests abandoning Barbara in the Dalek city when he realises the high level of radioactivity about the place. Here, having jumped erroneously to the conclusion that Ian and Barbara have attacked him and Susan and undertaken sabotage, he threatens to throw them off the Ship. Yes, the extent of his paranoia is reached. But he never goes through with the plan and events move on.

What is actually happening is that the Ship is careering back through time to its own destruction, and is desperately trying to warn its inhabitants. That it would do so by knocking them out, inciting suspicion and paranoia, booby trapping the control panel, displaying cryptic photographs on the scanner and melting any available clock faces seems improbable to our 21st century understanding of smart devices. Asking why this most sophisticated of machines has to resort to an elaborate game of charades when it could simply have an error message pop up (“It seems your fast return switch is faulty and the death of everyone on board may result. Would you like me to fix that?”) is fair enough.

The Ship does have a fault locator but it’s a strangely capricious box of nuts and bolts. It’s a device that can indicate if a part of the ship is faulty, but can’t communicate that despite everything working properly, the Ship is hurtling towards its doom. I don’t know about you, but I would have prioritised a code which said, “the Ship is about to disintegrate” over “the fluid link’s out of mercury” or “stock up on more bacon & egg flavoured mars bars”. Except this was a time when fantastic machines could be easily imagined, but the ways in which they might communicate with humans could not.

Hence the baffling explanations given in the script to explain what the Ship’s up to. When the fault locator starts lighting up every indicator it has every 15 seconds, it suddenly all makes sense to Barbara. “We have a measure of time as long as it lasts,” she declares. “That explains the clock face. We had time taken away from us, and now it’s being given back to us, because it’s running out!” Um, what? I sense it was about 1am when Whitaker tapped out that one, probably after eschewing a fourth cup of black coffee and opening a bottle of scotch.

But Barbara’s on a roll: “And it replaced time by the light on the fault locator.” Ah of course. That explains everything. She goes on: “Originally, the machine wasn’t at fault, we were. And it’s been trying to tell us so ever since!” Well she gets there in the end, but that’s some peculiarly fashioned reasoning you’ve got there Babs. But as she tells us earlier in the story, things aren’t always logical. Too true, Babs.

As the story stumbles towards a close (just a few more scenes, David! Throwback that glass and keep going!), the difference between Barbara’s approach to problem solving and the Doctor’s is presented as the crux of the story. “It was your instinct and intuition against my logic, and you succeeded… you read a story into all these things and were determined to hold on to it,” he says to her, exhibiting a bit more this story’s peculiar explanatory style. The point might have been reinforced if it was Barbara who led the Doctor to discovering the stuck fast return switch, but that task falls to the more technically minded Ian. So the triumph of instinct over logic is another one of those ideas only partially explored.

The real point of Inside the Spaceship is that it marks an end to hostilities between the Doctor and his human companions. It’s a reset point, after which the Doctor will never be as ruthless again. He will throw the odd tanty but he now has a full set of willing companions. Given this outcome, it might have been better for all four crew members to have played an active role in solving the problem, reinforcing that having started out as strangers, they have ended up as a team. In short, a little more clarity of theme and a few rewrites would have helped this little stopgap story enormously.

I can imagine the scene when an exhausted David Whitaker turned up to the production office, bleary eyed and unshaven, to discuss the final scripts with producer Verity Lambert.

VERITY: It’s not very logical, is it?

DAVID: No, it isn’t. But does it have to be? I mean, things aren’t always very logical, are they?

VERITY:

DAVID: For god’s sake Verity, just make it!

LINK TO: Utopia etc. Trouble with the TARDIS.

NEXT TIME:  Dress for Rio, because it’s The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood

Conscience, camaraderie and The Reign of Terror (1964)

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It didn’t take long for Doctor Who to wind up in the French Revolution, a mere eight stories in. Although the show was eager to get there, it proves an uninspiring destination for the fledgling series. It offers little except a series of captures and escapes, strung together with a disconcerting series of coincidences.

It’s really five episodes of runabout, then an opportunity for our friends to stand witness to the downfall of Robespierre and the rise of Napoleon. Still, it gives everyone a chance to dress up, ponce about and end a lot of sentences with the word ‘citizen’. Ah revolutionary France, where everyone speaks English. Along familiar class lines too: posh if you’re well bred, Cockney in you’re not.

Let’s take a detour to the story’s second episode, Guests of Madame Guillotine. In it, the plot inches along. The Doctor (gamey William Hartnell) walks some miles to Paris, taking time out to join a road gang and brain its foreman with a shovel. This is actually of no importance to the plot, but in prison, Ian (dependable William Russell) meets a fellow called Webster (Jeffry Wickham), who gives him a secret message to pass on to a mysterious figure called James Stirling.

This actually pushes the story along a bit, and is played out through a series of filmed inserts, because William Russell was on holiday that week. The only bit of any plot importance in the whole episode, and was done in pre-filmed inserts. The remaining cast shouldn’t have bothered squeezing into Lime Grove Studio D to record that week.

Certainly Jacqueline Hill and Carole Ann Ford should have gone on strike. The whole episode consists of them being imprisoned and planning an escape which never happens. Susan, you see, gets frightened by some rats so they decide to give up. Yeesh. That’s not only annoying and sexist, it’s also just dull.

This is not a good story for Susan. Imprisoned and hysterical in the second episode, sick for most of episodes three to four, imprisoned again in the fifth and almost entirely absent from the sixth. No wonder Ford left the series soon afterwards, if this was the sort of material she could expect week after week.

Barbara gets more to do, mostly in the segments when she’s out of prison and once she’s sent poor sick Susan to bed. She’s integral to the story’s most interesting moment, which comes in its fifth episode, A Bargain of Necessity. In it, Ian and Barbara have both allied themselves with a resistance agent called Jules Renan (Donald Morley).

Our two school teachers, usually inseparable comrades, are at odds over the fate of a man called Leon Colbert (Edward Brayshaw, who would later sneer his way through multiple episodes of The War Games). Barbara had got a bit friendly with Colbert, while Ian languished in gaol. But then once Ian escaped and Barbara herself was languishing in gaol (for the second time. It’s that kind of story), Colbert revealed himself to be working for the other side. A shootout ensues, and Renan kills Colbert to save Ian. Babs takes the news badly.

BARBARA: He was a traitor to you. To his side he was a patriot.

IAN: Barbara, we’ve taken sides just by being here. Jules actually shot him. It could just as easily have been me.

JULES: And what about Robespierre? I suppose you think…

BARBARA: Well just because an extremist like Robespierre…

IAN: Oh, Barbara, Jules is our friend. He saved our lives!

BARBARA: I know all that! The revolution isn’t all bad, and neither are the people who support it. It changed things for the whole world, and good, honest people gave their lives for that change.

IAN: Well, he got what he deserved.

BARBARA: You check your history books, Ian, before you decide what people deserve.

Barbara is the Ship’s resident historian, and luckily wherever in history the TARDIS lands is on the Coal Hill curriculum so she always knows her subject. She’s often also the conscience of the crew, and the historicals bring out her strength of opinion. The Aztecs famously highlights her willingness to stand against the Doctor’s fatalistic view that history can’t be changed. And here, despite the fact that all their allies have been in the resistance, she can still see value in the ideals of both sides of the conflict, while Ian has long since chosen a team to back.

It’s an interesting theme – the duality of accepted history – one which the series could have explored further. Perhaps story editor David Whitaker wanted to. This incident reminds me of the sentences he wrote for his terrific prologue to his book Doctor Who and the Crusaders. “The next time we visit Earth,” [the Doctor] said, “I hope we encounter a situation where two men are opposed to each other, each for the best reasons… That is the only way to understand the folly, the stupidity and the horror of war. When both sides, in their own way, are totally right.” It sounds like the direction The Reign of Terror could have headed down.

Barbara’s role as history teacher means she is a tangible presence in these early historicals, whereas Ian does not have quite the same resonance. His role as science teacher is only of passing interest to the series. He’s on hand to explain a convenient example of high school science in action, like how condensation works or how to use a pulley, but these are small touches not the whole story. Barbara is able to have her perspective on and reactions to history change a story like The Aztecs or The Reign of Terror, but Ian has no such pivotal involvement in the sci-fi serials.

Barbara’s strong presence in the story is contrasted by the rather weepy one provided by Susan. As the only other female character in the story is a maid, the two provide the story’s major viewpoints of femininity: on one hand determined, brave and fiercely moral, on the other helpless, hopeless and ineffectual. To say 1960s Who is sexist is hardly the newest of observations, but The Reign of Terror shows just how mixed its messages could be.

Given this history, it’s perhaps to be expected that our two Coal Hill School teachers conform to traditional gender roles when it comes to education; she’s into the humanities, he’s about the “hard” subjects like science. If you think times might have changed in this regard, remember that 50 years later, the twelfth Doctor hung around with two Coal Hill teachers as well; she taught English and he taught Maths.

As the French might say, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Except they’d say it in English, of course, Citizen.

LINK TO 42: The Doctor faces a fiery death in both.

NEXT TIME: Do not feed the flying pests! It’s the final end of The Evil of the Daleks.

Obscurity, observational skills and The Sensorites (1964)

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Hiding within Doctor Who’s first year is The Sensorites, a story of first disastrous contact between humans and a race of mind manipulating aliens. Like the reclusive aliens of its title, it has done its best to not draw attention to itself.

After its broadcast in 1964, it took 23 years to be novelised. It was another 15 years before it was released on VHS and gained its reputation for being stupefyingly dull. When it finally snuck onto DVD another 10 years later, the most noteworthy aspect of it was the accompanying featurette Looking for Peter, in which Toby Hadoke unearthed hitherto unknown info on writer Peter R. Newman. A story which is upstaged by its own featurette is never a good sign.

Slow and obscure it may be, but there’s a few things worth noting about this story.  For a start, it’s Doctor Who‘s first attempt to show the future of humankind.  And it must be said, they don’t come off very well. The humans we meet are hapless victims and delusional murderers.  The ones we don’t meet were exploitative money grabbers, we’re told. It’s a gloomy view of our race’s prospects.  We’ll have to wait until The Dalek Invasion of Earth before we meet admirable, heroic future humans. But in general, the Hartnell era is pessimistic about our society’s prospects: mass murder in The Rescue, corrupt dictatorship in The Daleks’ Master Plan,  readoption of slavery in The Ark. The future bites, and it starts with The Sensorites.

(It also means we get the first of many scenes repeated throughout the series where contemporary companions get flummoxed by details of life in the future. “Still too much air traffic,” signs astronaut Carol (Ilona Rodgers) when asked about how’s the earth’s looking. I find these sort of exchanges thoroughly tedious, but we can be thankful story editor David Whitaker didn’t apply too heavy an editorial brush to these scenes, lest we get more of guff about stock cubes being three course meals and everything being powered by mercury. Lucky escape, I reckon.)

It also features some early attempts to start mythologizing the series.  An early awkward sequence sees the TARDIS crew recounting their last adventures in order, like they’re reading from the Doctor Who Programme Guide.

But more importantly, the Doctor (a patchy William Hartnell) for the first time becomes a raconteur, name dropping historical figures like Henry VIII and Beau Brummel. It’s now such an established part of his character, but it starts here. Susan (Carole Ann Ford) also drops hints about her and her Grandfather’s past, talking of the planet Esto and of their own planet with its burnt orange skies and silver leaves. Remember, the series is saying, there’s more to these two than we’re showing you, dear viewer.

The first two episodes are set on board the Earthlings’ spaceship. The TARDIS crew arrive to find its inhabitants dead (cue loud brass sting! on the soundtrack), then alive, and in both states under mental assault from the Sensorites. In Captain Maitland’s case, they seem to have reduced him to a state of wooden rigidity, unable to speak in anything but a stolid unconvincing manner.  Unusually, our heroes decide there’s nothing to be done for the stricken pair, so they head back the the TARDIS to be on their way.  Imagine how many other stories might have been cut short this way if the Doctor and co had simply given up and gone home. Time-Flight could have been 15 minutes long.

But as they turn around to walk the two metres back to the Ship, they discover its lock has been stolen (loud brass sting!). There are a number of ways in which our heroes might have preempted this. They might have simply glanced towards the TARDIS when the smelt something burning, but despite it being just over there they chose not to. Or they might just have remembered that every time they land somewhere, something prevents them from getting back into the TARDIS and flying away.  Don’t think they’re that self aware? How about Ian’s (William Russell) observation later in the story that every time they split up (as they do in nearly every adventure), there’s trouble. He’s been paying attention. Well, except for that lock theft, of course.

The first two episodes are full of examples of people taking ages to walk down short corridors, or not overhearing conversations happening right next to them, or cowering from unseen menaces which are clearly within arm’s reach. Lack of space for the sets, I assume, and lack of options directing those hulking old cameras. Whatever the reasons, the result is an awful lot of creeping slowly around the spaceship’s brief corridors. The section where Ian and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) discover the Sensorites are on board, is particularly static. Perhaps director Mervyn Pinfield was aiming for some Hitchcockian suspense. Or perhaps he just needed to pad out some meagre scripts.

But in the middle of these leisurely paced episodes, there’s a remarkable performance by Stephen Dartnell as John, an Earth astronaut driven out of his mind by the Sensorites.  Disheveled and wide-eyed, his slightly  off camera stares and one-sided conversations combine to produce a performance of palpable madness. It’s actually a shame when his sanity is restored (thanks to an extraordinary spiky hair drying ensemble) and he becomes a regular uninteresting bloke again. Dartnell is a bit of a mystery; this is the second of his two Who roles (he was previous Yartek, Leader of the Alien Voord ™) and after that his CV is very slight. Perhaps if we ever get a special edition DVD of The Sensorites there’ll be a Looking for Stephen featurette.

Events liven up slightly when the action (if we can call it that) moves to the Sensorites’ planet. Down there, it’s more traditional Hartnell fare. Like the previous story, The Aztecs, there’s a bad egg among this society, plotting to bring our TARDIS chums down. This is the City Administrator, a kind of disgruntled public servant.

Like all the Sensorites, he’s an gnomish little thing, with a beard that extends well up onto his bald head, but he has gruff, truculent tone which helps us remember which one he is. He keeps our heroes busy for a couple of episodes with poison, impersonations and kidnappings and all sorts of villainous incident. But like all the Sensorites in their unforgiving onesies and blank eyelid-less stares, he’s hard to feel anything toward. It’s no wonder when he’s finally brought to justice in the last episode, it’s done off screen.

That last episode also reveals who’s been killing the Sensorites; it’s three unhinged members of the Earth crew, who have been poisoning the city’s water supply.  As it turns out, they’ve been living out in the wilderness, like soldiers in those tales of military units lost in the jungle, carrying on hostilities because they’ve never heard the war is over. Like the City Administrator,  their crimes have been motivated by fear and ignorance. This is a story with bad things done by both sides. If this was story was made ten years’ later, it would have Malcolm Hulke’s name on it.  And the Sensorites would be reptiles, natch.

In The Daleks and The Keys of Marinus, the previous two science fiction stories this fledgling show produced, the humanoid heroes prevailed over their monstrous opponents. Here, everyone just goes their separate ways, admitting that they all could have behaved better. The humans glide away in their spaceship, the Sensorites retreat back to their Sphere and the TARDIS crew slink away.  No-one’s drawing attention to themselves, much like the story itself. But here The Sensorites can claim another first, as the show’s first attempt to show a conflict more complex than just good buys vs. bad guys. In its sleepy way, it’s pioneering.

In Looking for Peter, Toby Hadoke calls The Sensorites unloved. But then years later in Gridlock, a snippet of its dialogue gets quoted.  And then in Planet of the Ood, the Sense-Sphere gets name checked. And there’s a photo of one in Time Heist, of all things. That’s not bad for an unloved story from 1964. Sure, these are shibboleths to the hard-core fans, but they are also signals that despite its best efforts to hide from us, there are things worth remembering about The Sensorites.

LINK to Hide. Romantic couplings (John and Carol, Alec and Emma)

NEXT TIME… Two power blocs poised to annihilate each other… It’s time to take a dip with those Warriors of the Deep.

 

 

 

Revision, reversion and The Daleks (1963/4).

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1.

There was a surprising moment in last year’s Into the Dalek when the new Doctor indulged in a bit of nostalgia. “See, all those years ago, when I began,” he ruminated, “I was just running. I called myself the Doctor, but it was just a name. And then I went to Skaro. And then I met you lot and I understood who I was. The Doctor was not the Daleks.”

50 years after it was broadcast, Doctor Who is still referencing The Daleks (if that’s what we’re calling it this week). And still expecting its audience to know about it. Which isn’t as naively optimistic as it sounds; after all this story’s also been a film, one of the most reprinted novelisations and completely remade as Genesis of the Daleks. This is Doctor Who‘s equivalent of a folk tale, being told again and again, changing as it goes.

But for Into the Dalek to claim that this is the adventure which defined the Doctor is a bit rich. Nothing of the sort happens in The Daleks. The Doctor (curmudgeonly William Hartnell) finishes this exciting adventure with the Daleks more or less as he starts it. He’s the same slightly shady, temperamental old git; there’s no transformative effect on his character. There’s no profound realisation about who he is. To claim there is is a nice thought and fits what we know now about his character. But it’s a revisionist view. Look to the next story, Inside the Spaceship, if that’s what we’re calling it this week, for the real change in who the Doctor is.

That snippet of dialogue from Into the Dalek does however accurately reference a transformative effect this story had its production team. As is well documented, the show’s creator, Sydney Newman, disliked this story and didn’t want it made. He thought its ‘bug eyed monsters’ too low rent. But when the story’s ratings skyrocketed, Newman, producer Verity Lambert and story editor David Whitaker suddenly knew what their audience wanted. Action, adventure and, yes it had to be admitted, bug eyed monsters. It was they who suddenly understood who the Doctor was.

2.

It’s funny watching this story with 50 years of hindsight, knowing the impact it will have on the series. Of course, it was never meant to be so influential. It was the only story the production team had ready to go. It was not planned as any more important a story than those surrounding it. The Daleks were meant to be one offs. In 1963, this was not the first Dalek story, but the only Dalek story.

We can only imagine what it would have been like watching this for the first time. It must have been an extraordinary experience. Surely there was nothing on television like the Daleks. Even in these early days, when effects are still very ropey, they must have been eerily fascinating.

There’s a moment in An Adventure in Space and Time where we see the filming of this story, and the Daleks fill up the playback screens as unsettled crew members watch on. A Dalek’s camera lens eye stares unflinchingly out of the monitor. ‘They’re creepy‘, someone says and I imagine that’s the reaction felt by the viewing public at large. In 1963, these things were weird, nightmarish creatures but we’ve lost that sensation. These days, they’re familiar as family pets.

Back then, they made for must-see TV. 6.4m people watched The Daleks‘ second episode, where the monsters first appear. The following week that figure was 8.9m, up 40%. By the end of the serial it was 10.4m. Numbers which ensured the show’s longevity. Like Newman’s dislike of BEMs, that ratings boost went down in Whostory. Stories fans tell each other these anecdotes over and over. Again, this story’s like a folk tale, within and outside its fictional world.

3.

Its political allusions are a little confusing. The Daleks have long been labelled Nazis, lurking in an underground bunker, talking of extermination. But it’s there that the similarities end, at least in this, their introductory story. The more interesting aspect of them is that they are the mutated remnants of a race ravaged by nuclear war, who have retreated into metal boxes, and to live inside another metal box. As for the Nazi ideal of Aryan physicality, that belongs to their old enemies, the Thals.

The Thals are stand ins for the Jewish race. Displaced, they wander the planet in search or settlement, and their name is a suffix common to many Jewish surnames. But again, you can push this allusion too far. It’s enough to say that Thals are sympathetic hero types, but their fair skinned good looks brings an unwelcome hint of body fascism to proceeds. Beautiful is good, ugly is bad.

But the Thals are also pacifists, which leads the story to its turning point, when school teacher Ian Chesterton (William Russell) must convince the Thals to fight the Daleks, so that the time travellers can regain a lost TARDIS component. “Pacifism” says Ian, “only works when everybody feels the same,” basically giving voice to the story’s mission statement. The sequence where he provokes chief Thal Alydon (John Lee) into fighting by threatening to take his girlfriend to the Daleks, can be read as Ian proving to the Thals that pacifism has its limits.

In the end it is fear which spurs the Thals to dump their beliefs and go on the offensive. As Alydon says “The Daleks are strong and they hate us. And I am sure they will find a way to come out of their city and kill us.” He’s right about the threat the Daleks pose (inside their city they plan to flood the planet with radiation), but how odd to think that the predicted threat of an attack has managed to convince the Thals of the virtue of a pre-emptive strike. By the time the TARDIS crew have left, our heroes have taught a peace loving race to be warriors again. Which is to say the least, an unusual position for a Doctor Who story to take.

4.

Elements of this story endure. Tristram Carey’s music with its submerged bass note thrum turns up again. Brian Hodgson’s sound effects for the Dalek city are still being used in new Who. Terry Nation reuses plot elements in future stories like repeated guitar riffs from a hit song. It’s absolutely right that Into the Dalek, and stories yet to come, continue to look back to this bedrock story. It may not have changed the Doctor, but it sure did change Doctor Who.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: “Capsule ready to go critical” grates one Dalek to another in the final episode. “Perhaps you’re ready to go critical” guesses the subtitles, which seems an odd suggestion to make.

LINK to Gridlock. Both feature subterranean sanctuaries from ravaged worlds above.

NEXT TIME: Why is your face all coloured in? It’s our first Capaldi story Time Heist.

Throwing shade, making allowances and The Aztecs (1964)

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Recently, I stumbled across this twenty year old opinion about 60s Doctor Who:

I’m talking retrospectively now, when I look back at Doctor Who now. I laugh at it, fondly. As a television professional, I think how did these guys get a paycheck every week? Dear god, it’s bad! Nothing I’ve seen of the black and white stuff – with the exception of the pilot, the first episode – should have got out of the building. They should have been clubbing those guys to death! You’ve got an old guy in the lead who can’t remember his lines.

Bit harsh! Particularly seeing as the person being quoted is none other than Steven Moffat, showrunner of Doctor Who. But I wouldn’t hold him to this; there’s plenty of boozy conversations I had in 1995 which I wouldn’t want recorded and transcribed on the internet for posterity. Although I don’t think in any of them I advocated clubbing anyone to death. Could be wrong though.

As it happens, this is the third random in a row on stories from the 60s. Are they all awful? I’m probably more fond of The Dominators than I should be, but any balanced assessment would probably conclude that its impressive moments are outnumbered by its duff ones. Before that I was talking about The Tenth Planet and was so flummoxed by it I ended up asking the question ‘is this brilliant or rubbish?’

Now, I can’t agree with Moffat the Younger’s assessment that all 60s Who post An Unearthly Child was bad. But perhaps you do have to be a fan to look past early Who‘s limitations; perhaps this is what I’ve done with all the Hartnell and Troughton stories I’ve randomed (need a handy list? Why, here’s one!).

Which makes me wonder how many allowances does a viewer have to make to enjoy 60s Doctor Who?

And so I’ve been thinking about this in relation to one of the most highly regarded 60s stories. In The Aztecs, our original TARDIS crew of the Doctor (William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and her teachers Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian Chesterton (William Russell) land in 16th century Mexico and are, as in so many early stories, cut off from the Ship. They become embroiled in local politics when Barbara is a. mistaken for a reincarnated priest and b. attempts to dissuade the locals from practicing human sacrifice. All in a day’s work.

It may be over 50 years old, but The Aztecs still impresses and fascinates. It’s one that deserved to be let out of the building. It presents an interesting (pro-colonial?) dilemma and cuts along at a pace which far outstrips many other Hartnells. But there is something inherently hokey about the way it was made, which I think is one of those things a viewer has to make allowances for. Luckily there’s something utterly convincing about it too.

For an example of this inherent contradiction, consider Barry Newbery’s sets. They are all rostra, polystyrene and painted backdrops. They are in essence, the stuff of theatre, the influence of which is so palpable in these early Doctor Whos. There’s no reason why these stagey sets should have the power to transport us to this distant civilisation.

And yet they do. They offer the viewer a complete world. I realised watching the story again that I had a real sense that the warriors’ training camp was some distance from the elders’ garden and that both were in different places to the temple and the tomb in which the TARDIS lands. Of course in reality, they were butting up against each other in Lime Grove Studio D. Somehow, through some Newbery magic, it works.

Also something of an acquired taste is chief bad egg Tlotoxl, the High Priest of Sacrifice. He’s played with leering treachery by John Ringham. Much of The Aztecs revolves around Tlotoxl’s attempts to discredit Barbara, so time and again he has some scheme to cook up, to undertake and then to commiserate over. Ringham’s performance is at times hammy, but often this is because of the limitations of early TV technique. Look at the end of the first episode:

TLOTOXL: (while facing the Doctor and Barbara) No, no, this is not Yetaxa. This is a false goddess! (Turns to directly address the camera) And I shall destroy her. (Long lingering stare over a slow fade and roll credits)

The dramatic import of that line is undermined by the fact that the Doctor and Barbara are just there and clearly within earshot. We have to suspend our disbelief because that’s the style of piece. The cameras don’t offer the flexibility to do anything differently. Remember those hulking great things didn’t even have zooms. (There’s another example of these camera limitations when Barbara first exits the tombs wearing Yetaxa’s bracelet. To get it into shot, and thereby signal its significance, Jacqueline Hill has to raise her arm up in front of her torso and allow the camera to creep forward.) As for changing shots, this is an era when editing literally meant cutting tape with scissors and reattaching it with sticky tape, so the more long lingering shots the better.

So anyway, Ringham’s performance is theatrical in style, but it’s full of conviction. Subtle, it’s not, but he speaks of his desire to bring down the ‘false goddess’ with such venom, you can’t help but believe him. His ambition is almost tangible. Again, somehow it works despite of itself.

But you can see what I’m doing here; making allowances all over the place. For familiar Doctor Who bugbears: lack of time, lack of money, lack of technical sophistication, and a penchant for theatre. I’m a forgiving viewer. Young Moffat’s right, I think, to present the alternative view of someone who’s not prepared to be so forgiving. And even my sympathetic eye can pick out some flaws; the fight scenes are slow and unconvincing, a few performances are wooden as, and the whole plot hinges (geddit?) on our heroes forgetting to leave a door open. Twice.

WithThe Tenth Planet, the good and the bad elements sat next to each other in strange opposition. With The Aztecs, I’m saying something different: that I can see that it shouldn’t work as TV (at least to our modern sensibilities), but somehow it does. Let’s put our clubs down, Moff, say I, at least for this one.

And as for the old guy who can’t remember his lines… He’s nowhere to be seen in The Aztecs. Hartnell gives an awesome performance here, moving easily from calculating old schemer to gentle romantic (his romance with Aztec lady Cameca offers some welcome light relief). And occasionally the unpredictable alien peeks out from behind his grandfatherly facade. Early on, Ian is quietly appalled when he realises he’s going to have to hold down a man while he’s stabbed to death. “Do it, man!”, the ever pragmatic Doctor urges. “Do it but don’t interfere”. It doesn’t come to pass in the end, but has a Doctor ever asked a companion to be an accessory to murder since?

A spiky ruthless grey haired Doctor pushing his companions to the limits? That’d never work, right Moff? Take their pay cheques back immediately.

LINK to The Dominators. In both, aliens arrive in a new culture and question that society’s ways.

NEXT TIME… God save the Queen, ay? Let’s light The Idiot’s Lantern.