Classic Doctor Who Retrospective: Season 1

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Guest contributor Michael Coats takes a trip back to where it all began…

I’ve always (sliiight fabrication there) wished that I could have watched the classic episodes of Doctor Who. Unfortunately, there were a few obstacles in my way, not least the small matter being born 3 years too late to have watched any. Actually, I don’t think being born in 1989 would’ve helped much; I doubt my newborn self would’ve been able to quite wrap his head around it. Maybe make that 7 years too late!

Eventually, I realised that this situation would have to be rectified before the 50th anniversary, or I couldn’t live with the shame and would’ve had to fly a spaceship into the sun to incinerate myself. Sun filter descending…where was I? I’ve seen enough commenters on this site say that they’re not interested in watching the Classic episodes, so I’m writing this in order to convince some of the “Nu Whovians” to do so. To paraphrase the Ninth Doctor: it won’t be quiet, it won’t be safe, and I can’t promise it won’t sometimes be irreverent, but I’ll tell you what it will be: the trip of a lifetime.

First, I’ll be looking at the serials of Season 1, though (even partly) missing serials won’t be covered. I cannot watch incomplete stories.

An Unearthly Child

It all begins with An Unearthly Child. Having seen it now, I see it shares an unfortunate similarity with Rose: that despite both being the two most crucial stories in the show’s history, both come across as rather average stories (“Burn the witch!”). Whilst the first part of An Unearthly Child is a strong episode, full of mystery and intrigue, the fire in it seems to splutter out (ironic considering the subject matter). I feel that it doesn’t do a good enough job in establishing the Doctor (William Hartnell) and Susan (Carol Ann Ford) as characters and the concept is stretched a couple of episodes too long. As a result, it’s my second least favourite serial of the series.

The Daleks

Next, my two favourites of the series, the first of which is The Daleks. I understand why they used to leave children cowering behind the sofa, because despite their slightly unorthodox design, they are clever, cunning and ever so slightly eerie (like their first two appearances of the revived series in Dalek and The Parting of the Ways). The methods used to to defeat the Daleks are ingenious, especially the disabling and Ian’s subsequent impersonation of one. It was also nicely fuelled by the tension between The Doctor, Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), something which came to a head in the next serial.

The Edge of Destruction

And as if I’d just hopped in the TARDIS, here we are. And speaking of the TARDIS; yes, The Edge of Destruction is notable for; amongst other reasons: it is one of only two full-length stories set entirely within the TARDIS, the other being Amy’s Choice (dreams don’t count). The episode plays out like a cross between elements of 42 and The Doctor’s Wife, which certainly is no bad thing in my book, and should be in your book too (and I’ll chuck your book into a supernova if it says otherwise). But, it’s the atmosphere of distrust which really makes this story; everyone is blaming each other for what’s going wrong which results in a really satisfying ending I’m not going to spoil for you. River would kill me. Basically, this is what drama is all about.

The Keys of Marinus & The Aztecs

Skipping the missing Marco Polo, we arrive at what I feel is the weakest story of the series, The Keys of Marinus. While having a different threat each week did little to establish the Voord as threatening creatures, they come across as men in suits and little else. Also, like An Unearthly Child, the episode feels stretched. After that, we had The Aztecs, which did a rather nice job with Barbara. Her being mistaken for an Aztec God was certainly an interesting concept, and I enjoyed watching her attempts to change the history of a culture, ultimately futile though they were. It also gave us the First Doctor’s amazingly brilliant line; ‘Yes, I made some cocoa and got engaged.’

The Sensorites

Lastly, we have The Sensorites, which had a significant impact on the revived series. Russell T Davies stated that the eponymous creatures were the inspiration for the Ood, and the Ood Sphere is apparently located in the same galaxy as the Sense Sphere. Addition, Susan’s description of Gallifrey in the final part of the episode is paraphrased by the Tenth Doctor in Gridlock, and it also introduces the Doctor’s dislike of weapons, a prevalent theme in the RTD era. RTD was quite the fan. It is a good story, involving treachery, telepathy and probably other things beginning with “T”.

Some may find some things jarring, the First Doctor’s cranky grandfather characterisation for example. He’s not quite as mellow as Nine, nor quite as angry/arrogant as Ten in Time Lord Victorious mode. He mellows out over the course of the series, but remains quick to anger. The main problem I have with is with Susan. I know that sometimes in early Doctor Who female characters were often quite weak; a product of the times. However, a constantly shrieking  and mostly useless character is not what I expected of the Doctor’s granddaughter. She is more useful in The Sensorites, but the damage has already been done.

Apart from that though, fans introduced by the revived series will feel reassured by how familiar it all feels, apart from the male companion filling the action man role. Ian Chesterton is absolutely awesome, a man with both brains and brawn. Barbara Wright might not be the typical action girl like the revived series companions, but as a schoolteacher and wilful character, she’s one of the strongest female characters you’re likely to have seen in 1963. Best of all, there isn’t a single serial that I’d rate worse than average. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch Planet of Giants. Quite so.