The First Doctor

Musings on the start of Doctor Who

2 years ago

Latest Post Home Lab 3.0 by Sean Johnson public

When I was in college a friend of mine started picking up VHS tapes of this show called "Doctor Who". I had never heard of it, and had no idea what it was all about. One day I caught about half an hour of an episode he was watching, and found myself strangely intrigued by the eccentric British fellow with the floppy hat and ridiculous scarf. As situation would have it, I only managed to catch a small handful of what I would later learn was the Tom Baker instantiation, otherwise known as the Fourth Doctor. It wasn't until years later that I heard of a so-called Doctor Who revival. Starting off with the Christopher Eccleston instantiation, or Ninth Doctor, it was an enjoyable romp, but I kept wondering just how much of the story lore was being woven on the spot or was in service of old story lines. Towards that end, I decided to start from the very beginning with William Hartnell, the very first Doctor, and move consecutively through the series, eventually catching up to the current season. This would mean watching through 700 episodes of the "Classic Doctor Who", and rewatching the ~150 of the "New Doctor Who" with the Doctor Who Movie of 1996 wedged into the middle. Initially I entertained the notion of writing up thoughts on each episode, and quickly disavowed myself of that silliness. Instead, I'm going to take things season by season. Occasionally I may dip into a specific episode or story arc, but that will be the exception. So with that, lets set the controls of the TARDIS to the first season of the First Doctor!

Willam Hartnell portrayed Doctor Who from 1963 through 1966 covering four seasons and one hundred and sixty nine episodes. It was quite an achievement, especially since he was notoriously not very fond of the role for much of the outset, and ended up having to leave it due to his failing health after becoming enamored by its popularity. The whole idea of a Time Lord being able to regenerate into a different body literally was a somewhat desperate attempt to keep the series afloat while as it lost its leading star. The Classic Doctor Who seasons, called such to distinguish them from the seasons that started anew in 2005 with a reset of the season count, were almost all thirty minute episodes where anywhere from four to twelve episodes were part of a single story arc. Between each story arc it was implied that a variable amount of time had passed, and any number of adventures that may or may not be talked about. This helped give each story arc an implied depth which provided a useful scaffolding and an escape route in the event that a deus ex machina solution was used. It seemed clear during the time of the First Doctor that there wasn't an intention that the adventures would become structural canon that had to wether the weight of decades of story telling. Even so, many elements established in those first four seasons remain as structural story pillars today.

The very first story arc is called An Unearthly Child, and establishes The Doctor and his granddaughter, Susan, as aliens with a time machine. Concerned for Susan's safety her teachers follow her home and discover both The Doctor and the TARDIS. Right off the bat, the establishment of a space and time travel machine that is "bigger on the inside" is established. The end of this arc does feed directly into the next, Daleks, where the first major monster species is introduced. It's quite astonishing how those few elements, along with the characteristic whooshing sound that the TARDIS makes when it travels, were introduced so early and have persisted to today while also maintaining so much of their original wonder.

With the third story arc, Edge of Destruction, another long lasting element is introduced. The TARDIS is revealed to be more than just a mechanical ship, and have some degree of sentience and will of intention. This cements the TARDIS as an essential character to the story which is used to great effect during the future decades of the show. The interaction of The Doctor and the TARDIS is able to take on a subtle nuance. Instead of just a hap hazard flipping and banging of switches and levers, it's now more of a kind of dance where each dancer has moments of trying to assume the lead. The establishment of this conceit between The Doctor and the TARDIS is used to great effect almost fifty years later when Neil Gaiman literally personifies the TARDIS. The success of that episode owes much to this short story arc.

From its outset Doctor Who was intended to be an entertainment vehicle for introducing educational elements from science and culture. The next story arc, Marco Polo, was set in China, and there was a decent amount of effort applied to providing accurate historical context. The arc stretches over seven episodes, and for my taste seems to be at least two episodes too long. Some of that may be a consequence of the only way to watch the episodes is with video stills and a soundtrack as this is one of the sets that had its tapes overwritten by the BBC.

The Keys of Marinus followed, which was another arc that seemed to need more work. The idea of taking a story line, introducing a puzzle element, and then breaking apart the principal players to have them reunite later with a solution is not bad in and of itself. The execution in this case just seemed a little too haphazard. This set of episodes also suffered from an unfortunately common situation where the character of Susan is very flat. The writers just didn't seem to know what to do with her, and seemed to just switch to her being a complication prop or a noise generator. Neither of those things help the story along, and is especially disappointing considering the high expectations that were established in the first set of episodes.

As with the Marco Polo arc, the next one, The Aztecs, also drew on historical elements. More liberties were taken in this case,, as the amount of material about the actual Aztecs is sparse. Even so, the appropriation of the human sacrifice element of the common mythos of the culture did provide a useful narrative device. It's not surprising that this is one of the more popular set of episodes, as it does lay down a thick layer of ethnocentrism. Allowing the ancient civilization continue in its "barbaric" path is permitted by one of the first direct acknowledgements that changing events in the past can end up rewriting events in the future. This is a classic problem with any story that attempts time travel. Doctor Who does a pretty good job of handling it in general, though with some more recent Doctors it borders on the ridiculous.

The next story arc, The Sensorites, introduces a new alien race and takes the story back into space. The Sensorites themselves formed the basis of the Ood fifty odd years later. In some ways this arc has one of the more involved plots, and it gets pulled off remarkably well. As with all the Doctor Who monsters from this era, the reliance on costume to demonstrate danger is, well, not very effective. At the same time I think they did a pretty good job given what was available both from a technology and a budgetary perspective.

The final story arc of the first season is The Reign of Terror and returns to the historical context, this time in that of the French Revolution, with the title indicating the specific period within. This set of episodes shifted The Doctor's historic storylines into what later became the norm. While historic settings and touchstones are used, there's no discernible effort to maintain historic fact. The trope of "that is what got written down in the history books, but this is what really happened" gets clearly established. At that point it seems to have been irresistible to ever go back to the time of Marco Polo where a degree of care was consciously taken to keep things within a true historical context. Unfortunately, by this point the writers seem to have completely given up on having Susan be anything more than a one dimensional caricature.

Most of this first season was new to me. I had previously seen bits and pieces of The Aztecs, and not much more. While I appreciate attempts at a degree of historical education mixed in with entertainment, I think all such attempts were largely unsuccessful. Dropping any pretense of attempting to convey actual historic information would do the show some good. This is clearly established in modern Doctor Who, and the trope is sometimes used to great narrative effect.

The show also did a remarkably good job at handling the aliens and monsters. The Daleks were well thought out, and menacing as characters even while having ostensibly ridiculous costumery. It's no small achievement that the basic structure and form of the Dalek has remained the same, even down to the plunger arm. I think there's a lesson here to be leaned about not needing to rely on anthropomorphic and predatory animalistic stylizing to convey menace. While the Sensorites didn't become recurring alien characters, I thought they were well done. They did establish a premise that gets used a lot in later Doctor Who where it turns out that the seemingly dangerous aliens aren't because they have destructive intent, but rather they are just defending against a non obvious assault, often perpetuated by humans. It works well as a lesson of being careful about making assumptions of intent based on surface knowledge.

With this first season, a remarkable amount of canon was created. There's The Doctor, of course, and the TARDIS. The Daleks, while not yet a nemesis, are established as a singularly destructive force. The companions being first class citizens in the story is also something that shouldn't be overlooked. So much of The Doctor's character evolution is done directly through interaction, and often arguments, with the companions who aren't just there to do what The Doctor says. The scaffolding of how the show plans to deal with disruptions caused by time travel is also introduced, but not leaned upon too heavily. I don't know if it was intentional, but there's a lot of subtlety to this first season.

Sean Johnson

Published 2 years ago