Tag Archives: Susan

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.

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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

 

 

Poetry, brutality and 100,000 BC (1963)

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So we come, at last, to Doctor Who’s first story, consisting of a creepy one-episode prologue and a three-episode thriller set in pre-history, with early homo sapiens. Except it’s only really the first Doctor Who story for those lucky enough to have seen in back in 1963. (Or perhaps, for some unsuspecting gamers who have come to it on Twitch). For most of us, it’s our umpteenth Doctor Who story, come to us via video or DVD or latter day repeats, after having been hooked by dozens of stories which came after this one.

From that perspective, as one part of the sprawling armoury of the series, rather than its opening salvo, it’s a very unusual story indeed. It’s not goodies vs baddies. There’s no injustice to overcome. There’s just a group of mismatched people thrown into a bewildering and potentially deadly situation, forced to work together to escape. And disconcertingly, its first episode feels like the rest of Doctor Who we’ve seen, but its caveman installments feel like something completely different and unique.

For a start, the production team makes the brave move of presenting a supporting cast of early humans who can barely communicate. In a wise scripting decision, these grunts don’t grunt, but instead talk in short, simple sentences, not unlike small children. This just about works, although you can’t help but shake your head every so often when the spell breaks – which it tends to when the tribespeople struggle to describe something outside their experience, and end up speaking in a kind of gentle poetry. My favourite is when chief nimrod Za (Derek Newark) realises he needs more information and says, “I must hear more things to remember.”

This quest for knowledge is one of the story’s themes. It’s Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian’s (William Russell) curiosity which draws them to the TARDIS in the first place, following unearthly student Susan (Carole Ann Ford) home one night, only to discover that she’s living in a police box and there’s a grumpy old Doctor (William Hartnell) is hanging around suspiciously. Once sprung, the Doctor wants to protect the secrets of his technology, which he sees as the key to his and Susan’s safety.  It’s so important to him to preserve this knowledge, that he takes off with the teachers on board. In the other, more hairy tribe, Za and rival Kal (Jeremy Young) are in a race to acquire knowledge of fire making, because with that knowledge comes leadership. As Za says, “the leader would have things to remember.”

The struggle for the position of alpha male happens in both tribes but the one between Za and Kal is a basic contest for dominance. The one between the Doctor and Ian is more interesting. Both can’t help but squabble with each other about the way out of their predicament. Ian is rightly suspicious of this haughty, dismissive alien, and the Doctor views Ian as as primitive and uncultured as any caveman. They eventually reach a detente through recognising the other’s skills, but it’s trickier than a simple development of mutual respect. There’s much more strategy going on.

Take, for instance, when the Doctor saves Ian’s life in the second episode. There’s a scrap with the cave folk and Ian’s about to get a stone axe to the head. Just in time the Doctor bellows, “If he dies, there will be no fire.” It’s easy to see this as an early indication of the Doctor’s true, underlying character, but I think it’s far more pragmatic than that. The Doctor quickly realises that in order for him and Susan to escape this situation, he will need Ian’s physical strength. He admits as much in the next episode.

Similarly, after sparring over the best way to order themselves on their first escape attempt from the tribe, Ian eventually appears to concede the Doctor’s leadership role. It’s in the fourth episode, when the Doctor has tricked Kal into revealing himself as the Old Woman’s (Eileen Way) killer, thus turning the tribe against him. Apparently impressed by the Doctor’s quick thinking, Ian agrees that the Doctor is their leader. But I don’t think he’s given up so soon. Surely Ian’s just thinking that if they ever get back to the Ship, he and Barbara need the Doctor to let them on board again and to attempt to get them home. As Rose once said, you don’t argue with the designated driver.

Naturally enough for 60s Who heroines, Barbara is never in the running for leadership position. But she does operate as the TARDIS’ crew’s conscience. In the third episode, she’s the one who can’t leave Za to perish (he’s been mauled by a vicious jungle beast, sensibly kept off camera). She’s almost hysterical with fear just before this happens, so her decision to give up the dash back to the TARDIS to help their pursuer is initially seen, certainly by the Doctor, as an act of madness. Her act of compassion seems to have been futile; it buys them no particular favour from Za who incarcerates them again as soon as they’re back at the cave. But Hur (Althea Charlton) seems particularly fascinated by this act of kindness, so there’s the sense that the tribe might also end up learning the importance of compassion from our heroes, chiefly Barbara. Add this to the idea of collective action – that no one person is stronger than the whole tribe – and Za has a whole heap of things to remember, including some new socialist ideals.

Barbara’s desire to help people might have an impact on the tribe, but it’s lost on the Doctor. He’s famously callous in these early episodes in a way which we’ll never see again. It’s not just the famous moment where it looks like he might kill the injured Za in order to escape. Also in that sequence, he seems prepared to abandon Barbara and Ian to help the caveman, while he and Susan run to the TARDIS. And any chance that he might have been learning some kindness from these earthly teachers is dashed in the last episode. That’s when Barbara stumbles and falls on the final run to the TARDIS and the Doctor, tellingly, runs straight over the top of her.

I suppose, to be generous, he might just be in shock. He and his companions have been held in particularly gruesome conditions. They’re kept in that cave of skulls, even though the decomposing corpse of the Old Woman is in there too. Perhaps even worse is that the four of them are forced to watch the final, brutal fight where Za beats Kal to death, eventually smashing his head in with a rock. It’s then you realise how bleak this story is; never again will the show depict one man savagely killing another with his bare hands, no matter how cartoony the circumstances.

It ends up, as most Doctor Who stories do, as a peculiar but fascinating mix. On one hand, it’s startlingly grim – I just can’t imagine the show lasting long if it had kept putting its heroes through bloody ordeals like this week after week. On the other, with its almost lyrical caveman dialogue, it never loses the sense of the unreal. In some ways it’s very sophisticated; it takes the show’s educational remit and uses it both literally (this is how you start a fire, kids!) and also uses education as a theme. In other ways, it’s hammy and repetitive.

Whichever order we watch Doctor Who in, we always come back to 100,000 BC, in an attempt to try and uncover where the show came from. But it will never work – at least not entirely – because in its unique mix of poetry, tutorage and brutality, there’s never been another story like this first one.

LINK TO… The Invisible Enemy. Both feature the work of designer Barry Newbery.

NEXT TIME… Are we in Scotland? It’s time to go Tooth and Claw. But before that… a random extra: a look at the pilot episode.

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.

Micro, macro and Planet of Giants (1964)

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We’re supposed to be surprised; this is Doctor Who’s first shock twist. It’s all in the title: Planet of Giants. We’re meant to think our heroic time travellers have landed on an alien planet. It’s only half way in to the first episode that we’re let in on the secret: this planet of giants is Earth! And then there’s that beautiful shot pulling back from the TARDIS, seemingly in a ravine, to show it’s actually miniaturized and parked between paving stones in a garden path (up which we’ve just been metaphorically led).

It’s an odd story this one, the ninth they ever made. It’s the realisation of an ambition the production team had had since Doctor Who‘s initial conception, to do a story where the TARDIS crew are miniaturised. But you get the sense that they gradually lost enthusiasm for the idea. They left it until nearly last in the season. Then they abbreviated the story from four episodes to three, when they realised it was getting a bit dull.

(That makes a total of three episodes shot but abandoned in Doctor Who’s first year: An Unearthly Child and The Dead Planet both reshot, and this story’s The Urge to Live scrapped. A shrinkage rate never repeated, showing just how difficult in must have been to get the show right in its earliest days.)

I suspect that as the story developed, the technical difficulties which presented themselves started to impact on the fictional world. Someone pretty early on must have realised that the mini TARDIS crew were not going to be able to interact with the full size characters. So this demands parallel story lines in the macro and micro worlds, which presents a whole raft of new difficulties.

The micro world is recognisable as standard Doctor Who; our heroes are thrown into a bizarre world populated by monstrous creatures and ever present dangers. But the full scale world, from which our heroes are absent, is much less familiar territory. It presents the story of the unscrupulous business man Forester (Alan Tilvern) resorting to fraud, coercion and murder in order to gain government approval for a new insecticide. He’s eventually thwarted by the local telephonist and her police office husband. It’s kitchen sink drama, which doesn’t feel at all like Doctor Who. So cutting between these two worlds has the effect of watching two different programs simultaneously.

Given better technical facilities or a larger budget, the story would save a crew member from miniaturisation (Carole Ann Ford’s Susan, perhaps) in order to be the conduit between the two storylines, and aid our engagement with both. But as it is, there are two plot elements which link these worlds. First there’s the murder of fussy, scrupulous old public servant Farrow (Frank Crawshaw), whose body the time travellers come across in the front yard. The second is the insecticide DN6, the results of which our mini heroes see all around them in the yard; ants, earthworms and flies lay lifeless.

These two factors help the Doctor (a legitimate William Hartnell) and co make the not exactly impossible, but highly improbable leaps of logic to determine that DN6 is a danger to mankind to which they need to draw attention. It’s all very coincidental: Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill)  hide in a briefcase, which gets taken to a laboratory bench upon which there’s a notepad with the DN6 formula scribbled on. It’s from this, a few odd smells and the observation of those corpses, both insect and human, that they just about deduce Forester’s plan. Sherlock Holmes could have some competition.

But they have nothing on telephone exchange maestro Hilda Rowse (Rosemary Johnson). She’s a wily old eavesdropper and amateur sleuth. Her suspicions are raised when she hears Forester impersonating Farrow on a call to his Ministry. To be fair, Forester doesn’t go to elaborate lengths to disguise his voice; he simply puts a handkerchief over the mouthpiece and hopes for the best. Moriaty, he aint.

It’s certainly not enough to fool forensic old Hilda. Then when the phone is off the hook for a while, she gets even more suss and sends husband Bert (Fred Ferris) to investigate. I hope they solve other crimes around their village. There’s a spin off series gone to waste: The Hilda & Bert Mysteries. They solve telephone related crimes! Midsomer Murders before its time.

While all this is going on, our heroes have an additional problem. Barbara has touched some DN6 and it’s slowly killing her. Much time is taken up by Barbara attempting to conceal her illness from her friends, for no apparent reason. “Don’t make a fuss,” she hisses at Ian at one point. This whole plot point is very strange because it’s so out of character for sensible shoe wearing Barbara to behave in this way. But wondering why she doesn’t just tell them is as futile as wondering how that ‘space pressure’ made the TARDIS shrink in the first place.

As soon as they deduce what’s happened to Barbara (more detective work) the Doctor and his friends determine to take her back to the Ship. But Barbara’s more concerned with telling the world about DN6. So they come up with a plan to draw attention to events in the laboratory by resorting to vandalism. The plan? Set fire to the lab. The method? They light a handy bunsen burner, with some handy matches and direct it towards a handy pressurised can. Yes, here’s early Doctor Who‘s educational remit on display. You too kids, can rig up a bomb in your own science lab!

It’s an unusually violent and highly dangerous tactic for our normally peace loving TARDIS crew. And as fortune would have it (and like everything in this story, timing and coincidence play significant roles), Forester walks in at precisely the wrong moment, and the can blows up in his face. Just think about that for a minute: a heated aerosol can exploding in your face; that’s pretty brutal by Who standards. But there’s no time to dwell on the horrible injuries he must have sustained because seconds after, Inspector Bert turns up. And that’s where we leave the macro story, in the hope that he’ll sort it all out. Well, if he can’t he can always call Hilda for back up.

All ends well as our friends return to the TARDIS, and the Doctor hits a reset switch which returns the TARDIS to normal, cures Barbara and shrinks a giant seed for good measure. But no one mentions the elephant in the room: that the Doctor finally managed to get Ian and Barbara back to 20th century England but at a fraction of normal size. Imagine if he’d manage to resize the TARDIS without moving location. Ian and Babs might have decided to jump ship and the Doctor would be looking for two new companions.

There would be two obvious candidates. Step inside the spaceship you remarkable crime fighters Hilda and Bert! Now that would be a twist.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: ‘Quick! Behind this water tank!’ cries Ian. A tank on a laboratory bench? Doesn’t he mean ‘water tap’? But anyway, my favourite is when Hilda picks up a call and says ‘Exchange operator’, the subtitle say ‘Strange operator’. Well, she’s a nosy old bird, but that’s a bit harsh. Still, it was a big hit for Sade, wasn’t it?

LINK TO Enlightenment: Hmm, will you accept that both feature dead animals? Planet of Giants‘ array of dead insects and those dead birds stuck on the Guardians’ heads? Oh, go on!

NEXT TIME… Well done, everyone. We’re halfway out of the dark. Please join me in A Christmas Carol.

Obscurity, observational skills and The Sensorites (1964)

sens1

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.