Saturday, November 23, 2013

An Introduction to Classic Doctor Who

"Psychedelic Spacial Dr. Who" by Doomguy1001
Today marks the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who, the longest running science fiction television series in history. Nowadays though, most people who watch the show are only familiar with a tiny fraction of it: The period dating from the franchise's revival in 2005. But there's a whole 42 years of history that predate the New Series, and, for people over a certain age, this is the version of the show we immediately think of when we think of Doctor Who.

I don't want to add too much to the glut of celebratory discussion today, and there are people far more qualified to talk about the show than me (such as my friends and colleagues Phil Sandifer, Jack Graham or Andrew Hickey): I've really only ever considered myself a casual fan of Doctor Who: It was part of the larger tapestry of action and science fiction shows I remember growing up with and while I always thought it was fun, it was never something that had a profound effect on my life the way it has on the lives of most of my friends (as you can probably tell given what I said last time I mentioned Doctor Who, over at Vaka Rangi).

But a few years back I went through the Classic Series myself to reacquaint myself with it and developed a newfound appreciation for its history, which is seeped in alchemical mysticism and symbolic magick. I figured the one thing I could do to celebrate the show's 50th birthday is to provide a little primer for people who might like Doctor Who today but who are for whatever reason nervous about checking out the bits of it that came before 2005. Since Doctor Who is split up into various creative periods (which were usually, but not always, split up by Doctor), I've divided the list into different categories organised by both actor who played The Doctor and major creative personnel. I've tried to pick one or two serials from each era I think are at once representative of the overall creative and thematic vibe of the era and also show off the series' radical and alchemical heritage the strongest.

Section 1:

Season 2 (1964-1965)

Producer: Verity Lambert
Script Editor: David Whitaker
Doctor: William Hartnell
Companions: Ian (William Russel), Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), Vicki (Maureen O'Brien)

This season shows the original format running on all cylinders. Lambert and Whitaker had found a way to make Doctor Who a show about strange and fantastic things, and it's biggest charm was that it was impossible to predict where it would go and what it would do next. The guiding philosophy was “whatever we did last time, do something completely different this time”. This was why the original companions were a pair of ordinary schoolteachers: The point was they were recongisable people caught up in strange and wonderful situations. Thanks to Lambert's strong social justice conventions it was also a show firmly allied with the youth and, thanks to Whitaker, dripping with mercury.

One thing that's unique to the Hartnell era is the historical story: Serials where the TARDIS crew would travel back to a period of Earth's history and either play with the genre tropes or try to survive, no alien meddling necessary. Whitaker puts a really clever twist on the historical style here, expressly setting it as a Shakespearean theatre version of the medieval crusades and having a lot of fun mashing up the different genres. This was also the first story not to open on the TARDIS crew, a move Whitaker cleverly uses to code them as narrative intruders and something often taken for granted today. The previous story, “The Web Planet”, similarly blended theatrical stylings with sci-fi concepts and space art set design, but it's arguably the most noticeable here. This is helped a great deal by a guest cast explicitly playing their roles like Shakespearean actors, including future star Julian Glover.

The TARDIS crew stumbles upon a museum that exists outside space and time, somehow managing to arrive "before they were supposed to", and discover they are destined to become featured exhibits. Obviously, this is a problem, and now The Doctor, Ian, Barbera and Vicki have to find away to change their own future. There are a lot of clever twists, some surprisingly good action scenes, William Hartnell gets to play The Doctor as mysterious, something he over time got fewer opportunities to do, and Vicki gets to lead a Mod-themed fascism-toppling armed revolution in space. It's a brilliantly mental concept that never runs out of steam and is only partially let down by poor acting on the part of the guest cast.

Section 2

Season 4 (1966-1967)

Producer: Innes Lloyd
Script Editor: Gerry Davis, Peter Bryant
Doctor: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton
Companions: Polly (Anneke Willis), Ben (Michael Craze), Jamie (Frazer Hines), Victoria (Deborah Watling)
This was a major season of chaotic transition with Innes Lloyd just taking over from his predecessor John Wiles and Gerry Davis serving a brief term as script editor before being replaced by Peter Bryant. There were a good three companion changes and, of course, the landmark switch from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton. This change is directly connected to Hartnell's last serial “The Tenth Planet”, where the Cybermen are introduced as “star monks”: the horrific, enlightened dark future of humanity. Whitaker, who is brought back to oversee the transition, uses the regeneration to explore Kenneth Grant's conception of enlightenment and how it might affect The Doctor specifically. Behind the scenes, the switch happened because Hartnell's health was declining to the point it was beginning to affect his acting, but probably also because the production team wanted him gone. Lloyd wanted to turn Doctor Who into an action serial to compete with Batman and needed a younger, more charismatic lead to do that. But both Whitaker and New Doctor Patrick Troughton were too smart to quite give him that.

Patrick Troughton's first story is quite simply one of the series finest moments. He spends the majority of the serial playing The Doctor very mysterious, unreadable, unpredictable and even scary. It's not what his Doctor would eventually become famous for, but it is a chillingly good bit of acting and fits the story perfectly, not to mention becomes more than a little influential on the series' future. A central tension is whether or not this strange man really is The Doctor (remember the show had never done a story like this before) and the key to resolving this is the Daleks. Although they had been massively popular in the Hartnell era, this is the story where they explicitly become The Doctor's alchemical mirror for they, and only they, know who The Doctor really is.

Season 6 (1968-1969)

Producer: Peter Bryant
Script Editor: Derrick Sherwin, Terrance Dicks
Doctor: Patrick Troughton
Companions: Jamie (Frazer Hines), Zoe (Wendy Padbury)

Troughton's tenure on the show, through no fault of his own (he was nothing short of a genius), became something of a wasted opportunity. Most of the alchemical potential he and David Whitaker tried to bring back to the show was squandered as Innes Lloyd, Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin remained focused on targeting the action demographics, rendering an entire season and a half of Doctor Who a series of repetitive, identical base-under-siege stories that came dangerously close to tripping into outright xenophobia (and arguably actually crossing the line once or twice. Even so, buried within are still a handful of classics). Therefore Troughton's final year became intensely self-critical as the show geared up for yet another major reboot. This was helped greatly by newcomers Terrance Dicks, Malcolm Hulke and especially Robert Holmes, who understood the show's true roots and would go on to be the major architects of the rest of the Classic series.

Practically a godsend as the show faltered, this is an absolute triumph. Although the season finale “The War Games” gets a lot of credit for introducing the Time Lords (we had no clues as to The Doctor's background and history before now), this is the real origin story for The Doctor. This one's all about the nature of fiction and the creative process, imagining a realm outside the universe where stories and ideas can become real. More importantly, “The Mind Robber” explains why Doctor Who is special and what it offers for storytelling that few other shows can. Watch out in particular for the recurring motif of television and things being monitored, and Patrick Troughton's tendency to peer out of TV screens. It's not penned by David Whitaker, one of the rare classics from this era that isn't, but it's firmly within the intellectual tradition he worked in.

Section 3

Season 7 (1970)

Producer: Barry Letts
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companions: Brigadier General Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), Sergeant Benton (John Levene), Dr. Liz Shaw (Caroline John)

This third (or really fifth, actually) version of Doctor Who is a highly unusual one. For Season 7, it was decided that the show would get a bold re-tooling; As punishment for interfering with the laws of time, the Time Lords ground The Doctor on Earth and cause him to lose the secret to the TARDIS and be unable to travel in time and space. Partially, this was a reaction against the Lloyd/Bryant/Sherwin era's losing touch with the concerns of regular people in its attempt to be an exciting monster rumble action series and its uncomfortable tendency to slip into outright xenophobia. Mostly though, to be honest, this was due to costs becoming prohibitive and a need to do away with alien planets. This new Doctor Who would still try to be an action series, but a more socially conscious one and draw its inspirations from tense spy-fi thrillers like The Avengers, The Quatermass Experiment and The Manchurian Candidate. A popular character from the latter Troughton era, Brigadier General Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, was brought back as a regular and The Doctor was sent to work for the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, a paramilitary organisation tasked with investigating the unknown. Not everyone was on board with this new direction, however, including, interestingly, most of the creative team.

Doctor Who does “Space Oddity”, David Whitaker's sadly final contribution to the show (though helped via an uncredited rewrite by Pertwee-era architect Malcolm Hulke) is at once the story in the Letts/Dicks/Pertwee era that most readily embraces the trappings of spy-fi thrillers, but at the same time most clearly problematizes them as a blueprint for Doctor Who. Whitaker is of course brilliant at using The Doctor to deform the narrative and had previously done a genius James Bond send-up in the Troughton era with “The Enemy of the World”. It's also really the second and last time Doctor Who addressed 1960s space fever, becoming oddly prescient in its scepticism that the space race would ever lead to anything. Aside from that, it's an incredibly gripping little thriller with a great, fitting twist. This is also pretty much exactly what I thought Doctor Who was before I learned more about it, so this era, and this story in particular, remains a personal favourite of mine.

Season 10 (1972-1973)

Producer: Barry Letts
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Doctor: Jon Pertwee (sort of)
Companions: Jo Grant (Katy Manning), Brigadier General Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), Sergeant Benton (John Levene), Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin)

As the Pertwee era went on, eventually the creative team on the whole could no longer support the more militaristic, action-oriented aspects of the show, feeling it was tipping Doctor Who dangerously close to empire-glorifying Tory politics and hegemony. This was not helped by Jon Pertwee, who unabashedly played The Doctor as a virile leading man (which neither William Hartnell nor Patrick Troughton had ever done) and an upper-class aesthete to boot, seemingly completely missing the mercurial, anarchic core of the character introduced in the show's earliest years. The solution, dreamed up over the course of Seasons 8 and 9 by savvy writers like Robert Holmes, Bob Baker and Malcolm Hulke, directors like David Maloney and cast members like Nicholas Courtney and Katy Manning, was to turn to things like Monty Python and Glam Rock visual logic to turn Doctor Who into a giddy roller coaster of campy Glam performativity. Thus The Doctor became a Drag leading man (probably completely unbeknownst to Pertwee) and the mercury shifted other places (pay close attention to Katy Manning's Jo Grant in particular here) and Season 10 sees this approach at it's apex. The 10th Anniversary year also saw the first multi-Doctor team up as William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton returned in the reunion special “The Three Doctors”, which also restored The Doctor's ability to use the TARDIS.

Robert Holmes, in one of his finest scripts, delivers both the peak of the Glam version of Doctor Who and strong evidence it can't last forever and a new model is needed. “Carnival of Monsters” is a delight, running through Holmes' favourite subjects like the marginalization of the working classes, the banal evils of bureaucracy and a toothy critique of those who think Doctor Who is all about monsters and scary things. Notice also the metaphorical television motifs: A return to a theme that Troughton in particular reveled in and a reminder that The Doctor is in some sense connected to TV. Here, Holmes uses it as an exploration of spectacle, and questions whether or not this is irreducible from television and if it's truly an admirable goal in and of itself.

Section 4

Season 13 (1975-1976)

Producer: Phillip Hinchcliffe
Script Editor: Robert Holmes
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Sarah Jane Smith (Lis Sladen)

The Letts/Dicks/Pertwee era had been the most popular incarnation of Doctor Who thus far, cementing the show as a Saturday teatime staple. However, that success was nothing compared to Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes' time running the programme. Backpedaling hard away from the Pertwee era's restrictive format and all-too-often facile politics, Hinchcliffe and Holmes catapulted Doctor Who back into the realm of ideas by pitting The Doctor against the Lovecraftian horrors that lurk in our collective consciousness by crashing him into a series of nightmare-scapes inspired by Hammer Horror. The Hinchcliffe era got instant marquee value by casting the unbelievably charming and charismatic theatre actor Tom Baker as The Doctor and winning over a sceptical audience almost immediately. Baker would go on to become the longest serving actor ever to play The Doctor on television to this day (a record seven consecutive years) and become so iconic he would remain synonymous with Doctor Who until David Tennant finally surpassed him as most beloved Doctor in 2006-7. Although it didn't always completely work, the Hinchcliffe era was incredibly bold, confidant and forward-thinking and remains the most popular of the Classic Series eras. 

 Sadly, it was not to last: Phillip Hinchcliffe's steadfast refusal to shy away from the more overtly adult horror aspects of the genre he was playing with a roused the ire of media watchdog, moral guardian and professional buzzkill Mary Whitehouse, who claimed Hinchliffe's version of Doctor Who was "poisoning the youth", dubbing it “teatime brutality for tots”. Rather than stand up for its staff and ideals, the BBC, in one of its more reprehensible moves, turned Hinchcliffe into a sacrificial lamb and fired him after three years to appease Whitehouse.

An incredibly singular retelling of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, drawing heavy inspiration from the Hammer series of film adaptations beginning with 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein. Robert Holmes simply packs this script full of tantalizing concepts and symbols as a mad scientist tries to revive the greatest war criminal in the universe, we are exposed to the Time Lords' dark subconscious and The Doctor is forced to negotiate with a monastic order of priestesses who guard the secret to eternal life. “Morbius” also boasts some really clever usage of BBC production techniques and an absolutely phenomenal cast that brings the script to life, so to speak. It's Holmes' deliberate attempt to place Doctor Who into a tradition of alchemical and mythical British literature and, just for good measure, he throws us a whopping great retcon that challenges everything we thought we knew about Doctor Who up 'till now.

Season 17 (1979-1980)

Producer: Graham Williams
Script Editor: Douglas Adams
Doctor: Tom Baker (sort of)
Companions: Romanadvoratrelundar, A.K.A. “Romana” (Lalla Ward), K-9 (David Brierley)

After the firing of Phillip Hinchcliffe, incoming producer Graham Williams was told to tone down the horror and focus on comedy, while at the same time being told Doctor Who was too comedic (neither the first nor the last time a producer would be given unworkably contradictory marching orders). It took Williams several years, but with his third script editor, Douglas Adams, he finally found a model that worked: Adams had submitted several scripts to Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes in Season 12, but was told that his scripts, while very good, did not mesh with the classic horror metafiction themes they were interested in exploring. These rejected scripts would eventually become, with some revisions and rewrites, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in 1978

Adams finally got his chance to write for Doctor Who under Graham Williams and used much the same approach to it that he had on Hitchhiker's. Unfortunately, given the chaos the production team was in, this meant Adams' vision didn't always come through as strongly as he, and we, would have liked, although it works best in this season. Another problem Williams and Adams had was Tom Baker: Baker had something of an ego and had a tendency to steal scenes and walk all over his co-stars, and by this point was firmly convinced the show revolved around him (irritatingly, he wasn't exactly wrong either). This wasn't the first time the actors and the producers were at odds (and sadly won't be the last), but it is the most explosive and several times threatened to outright destroy the show.

Thankfully, Adams, along with Robert Holmes, came up with a solution: Returning to and updating a strategy Holmes had used last time a single actor dominated the show, the character of Romanadvoratrelundar, or Romana for short was created as the show's first Time Lord co-star. By introducing her in “The Ribos Operation”, a story consciously built around themes of “as above, so below” duplication and redundancy and eventually casting the abjectly brilliant Lalla Ward once Romana's original actress Mary Tamm walked off the set, Williams, Adams and Holmes were able to subtly restore the show's mercurial balance. Furthermore, Baker and Ward turned into one of Doctor Who's greatest double acts, and Season 17 saw the show displaying possibly the most self-aware and forward-thinking attitude towards its structure and ethos in its history.

Rightly regarded as a high-water mark of the Classic Series, one's opinions on the larger Graham Williams era notwithstanding, “City of Death” is a sublime romp that cleverly disguises just how intelligent it's actually being. In many ways it's the closest the Classic Series gets to the pacing of the New Series as it flips back and forth between three different time periods, involves cracks in time and features a great deal of running to and from places. The premise is wonderfully insane, involving a massive conspiracy hatched by an extraterrestrial war hero to paint six identical Mona Lisas so he can travel back to the dawn of life on Earth and undo his species' extinction. It's little wonder a basic writing prompt for Doctor Who after this is “do what 'City of Death' did”. The cast is once again brilliant, highlights being watching Tom Baker and Julian Glover (back from “The Crusade”!) screaming at each other and Lalla Ward being delightfully subversive in between bouts of snarking at Tom Chadbon's Detective Inspector Duggan. Amidst all this fun, though is some serious commentary on the nature of mechanization and artistic expression. Adams has an agenda here, and makes a fundamental claim to what Doctor Who should be and should stand for in a time it seemed like few were willing to.

Section 5

Season 21 (1984)

Producer: John Nathan-Turner
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Doctor: Peter Davison
Companions: Tegan (Janet Fielding), Vislor Turlough (Mark Strickson)

Graham Williams and Douglas Adams abandoned Doctor Who at the end of Season 17, finally fed up with the impossible conditions they were being asked to work under. With the production staff all but completely gone, the only one willing to take the top seat was former production assistant John Nathan-Turner. Undeniably the show's most controversial producer, Nathan-Turner introduced a series of sweeping aesthetic and production changes in an attempt to modernize the show. Although his tenure lasted a frankly unprecedented decade and he oversaw no fewer than four Doctors, three script editors and near a dozen companions, Nathan-Turner was far less of a creative influence than his predecessors had been-He was a CEO and an ad man, not a showrunner. More than any other producer, Nathan-Turner was dependent on his script editor to provide a concrete vision for Doctor Who

Sadly, for half of that decade he was paired with Eric Saward, a completely untrained and untested rookie whose biggest credentials were being a hardcore Doctor Who fan. The result can be called nothing short of a complete disaster: Nathan-Turner and Saward accentuated each others faults and together made a series of crushingly poor decisions that culminated in driving almost their entire audience away in 1984-1986 and getting Doctor Who canceled in every way except officially. Ironic, as Nathan-Turner had helped save it just a few years earlier. Despite that, there are still quite a few good ideas here; they just came far more intermittently than in the past and require a lot of rehabilitation and patience.


Penned by one-time script editor and veteran science fiction writer Christopher Bidmead, this is one of the Sward era's rare gems. Bidmead had previously sent off the Tom Baker era with “Warrior's Gate”, “The Keeper of Traken” and “Logopolis”: A masterful trilogy of stories in Season 18 that dealt heavily with the concept of social entropy and decay that have been aptly described as "science poetry". Bidmead returns to this theme with “Frontios”, imagining a place both at the edge of the universe and the end of history itself; a place where even the TARDIS is not meant to go. Putrefication and decay are not only major themes, but major elements of the set design and visual logic. Peter Davison, an incredibly talented veteran actor who, like Patrick Troughton was insultingly wasted on this part, gets one of his rare opportunities to play The Doctor the way he wanted (instead of the ineffectual, emotionally stunted soap opera lead he was often written as) and is a delight to watch here. 

Section 6

Season 26 (1989)

Producer: John Nathan-Turner
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Doctor: Sylvester McCoy
Companion: Ace (Sophie Aldred)

The fact Doctor Who managed to survive an extra three years after the Saward era is at once something of a miracle and also a technicality. The wasted potential of Peter Davison's tenure and the catastrophic train wreck of his successor Colin Baker's**** meant that the vast majority of the show's intended audience had long since abandoned it and Doctor Who was now seen as an embarrassing relic by the BBC. As a result of demands placed on him by the BBC as well as his own desperate attempt at both salvaging the series and being able to retire comfortably, Nathan-Turner purged the entire Doctor Who production staff in 1987 and took a chance on a bunch of brash young upstarts led by new script editor Andrew Cartmel: A person who, when asked what he thought the purpose of Doctor Who was, gave the absolutely delightful answer “to bring down the government”. 

Cartmel and his team were flagrantly leftist and radical, a sharp change from Nathan-Turner's attempts during the Saward era to make Doctor Who safe and apolitical. In addition, the Cartmel era saw an attempt to restore a sense of mystery to the character of The Doctor, and, under Sylvester McCoy he became increasingly dark, unpredictable and manipulative. This era also saw magic and the power of myths and symbols examined with the most complexity and power they'd ever been. What this all meant though was the show finally had something to prove again, and with an absolutely killer main cast comprising of Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford and Sophie Aldred, Doctor Who became, in my opinion at least, the most intelligent, tight and exciting it had ever been. A shame nobody watched it: The Cartmel/McCoy era ended after only three years when the Classic Series was finally officially canceled in 1989.

Ghost Light”*****

This is, in my view, the series' crowning triumph. “Ghost Light” is a strange, intriguing work that dives headfirst into the world of dreams and symbols. It's not made to be passively watched; it's meant to be carefully examined and engaged with. One of the serial's core themes seems to be studying oppositions, and it gets a lot of mileage displaying the contrast between things like light and dark and masculine and feminine and then blurring the boundaries and reappropriating the logic they work by. Another major theme is Darwinian evolution, or at least the pop perception of it and the effect it had on society's perception of nature. This is a fantastic story for both The Doctor, who staunchly rejects the trappings of Victoriana even as he's a product of it (he is, at heart, a Victorian inventor) and Ace, the series' first canonically bisexual lead. Ace is undeniably the main character here (as she is throughout the last two years of the Cartmel era) and, in yet another of “Ghost Light”'s genius twists, the story eventually becomes about her dealing with her personal demons and finding ways to channel and stoke her rebellious, anarchic fire.


*Like a great many TV episodes from this period, much of "The Crusade" is missing, dating as it does from a period of time where television was seen as disposable entertainment and therefore the concept of archiving not even being a thing anyone would have thought of. Thankfully, the soundtracks for all the serials still exist, as do more than a few on-set photos and screenshots, so it's possible to watch animated reconstructions of these missing stories. If you're uncomfortable watching a reconstruction, swap out this serial for either "The Web Planet" or "The Rescue" also from this season, both of which exist in their complete forms.

**"Power of the Daleks", despite being possibly the most important story in the show's history, is also missing. Again, if sitting down with a reconstruction is a problem for you, check out "The Krotons" from Season 6 instead. It's not as good, but still a great romp that bucks the more distasteful trends of the Lloyd/Bryant/Sherwin/Troughton era. Alternatively, you could go with the newly discovered "The Enemy of the World" from Season 5, a terrific Whitaker outing that gleefully plays around with tossing The Doctor and company into a James Bond movie and lets Troughton show off his formidable acting chops.

***Want more Tom Baker? I almost included "The Face of Evil" from Season 14 as it's an underrated highlight of the late Hinchcliffe/Holmes era and introduces Leela, played by Louise Jameson, who is one of my favourite companions (and apparently Matt Groening's too, as he named a character after her). It's the Baker/Jameson duo that I most associate with this era of the show, and their first outing is also arguably their best: It's a tight little story featuring a great central time travel mystery with a lot of fun twists and turns, some wonderfully witty dialog, outstanding acting all around and fantastic chemistry between the two leads. To me, this is quintessential, iconic 1970s Doctor Who the way I remember it and can't recommend it highly enough.

****Why no Colin Baker? Frankly, I suggest newcomers avoid his tenure entirely. I simply can't find a single thing to recommend in it unless you're a serious fan and willing to forgive quite a lot. If you really want an example of what mid-80s Doctor Who might have looked like had it worked, I suggest the Big Finish audio plays "...ish", "Jubilee", "Doctor Who and the Pirates" or "Peri and the Piscan Paradox".

*****While "Ghost Light" remains the best in my opinion, pretty much everything in the Sylvester McCoy era is a triumph, and I'd also draw your attention to his first season, which operated slightly differently than the Ace stories of his latter two years (though no less effectively, I hasten to add). Of those I very much also recommend "Paradise Towers", which does J.G. Ballard as a children's pantomime or "Delta and the Bannermen", which concerns an interstellar war between carnivorous flagmen and insect women set against the backdrop of the 1950s as seen through a British holiday camp. It's also named after Echo and the Bunnymen, so really, where can you go wrong?