Doctor Who’s first episode, An Unearthly Child, is practically perfect in every way. The mystery of who Susan is is so compelling that Ian and Barbara’s curiosity is completely understandable. The Doctor, too, is totally alien but in the most fascinating way. This may be an episode in which people just talk, but it is compelling in its design, writing, directing, acting and, of course, Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire’s wonderful title music. I can’t believe an audience in 1963 wasn’t immediately curious about this programme.
The rest of the first serial, a political power struggle with cavemen, tends to be looked down on by fans, but it is not without its merits. The characters being captured feels genuinely threatening – as opposed to later in the show’s run in which the mandatory captured-by-the-bad-guys moment doesn’t actually mean anything – and is frightening enough for the Doctor to put aside his animosity for Ian and Barbara and work with them to get to safety. It is not the best of historicals, and in a season of very strong ones it comes at the bottom, but it doesn’t deserve the reputation it has as there is still a lot to enjoy.
The Daleks is every bit as important as An Unearthly Child and the brilliant design of the Daleks is what saved the show from an early death. Everything about the Daleks reveal is perfect and we have the actors to thanks for that. I doubt if a Dalek strolled onto screen it would have the same impact as just seeing a sucker and hearing Barbara’s incredible scream. Similarly it is The Doctor, Susan and Ian’s reaction to them in episode 2 that tells us they are something to be afraid of. The Daleks in this serial are underdeveloped and seem too emotional and too reliant on others, but it is still very easy to see why they became popular and why they saved Doctor Who from an early death. Beyond the Daleks themselves, some of the scenes with the Thalls are also interesting, a stand out being Ian struggling to justify asking them to fight and die just for the TARDIS crew to get back their fluid link.
Yes, The Edge of Destruction is the one where Susan stabs a pillow with some scissors, but it’s also the conclusion a trilogy of adventures that has seen the characters go from strangers to teammates. There is a lot more character development in this first season than I would generally give ‘60’s television credit for. The first adventure in the TARDIS happened because the Doctor was being a dick. The exploration of the Dalek city happened because he lied about the damaged fluid link. These poor choices cause a lot of friction between the group so the paranoia everyone has here feels natural. The final main scene between the Doctor and Barbara is lovely and touching, and marks the beginning of a change in their relationship. Yes, he would still be a dick when the script needed him to be, but for the most part he was becoming a more likeable, accessible character.
I have never seen Marco Polo and unless you were around in 1964, you haven’t either. The first of the Doctor Who serials to be missing in its entirety, it was also my first experience with an audio reconstruction. The linking narrative gives just enough to understand what is going on without it being intrusive. The other bonus is there are no budget limitations to my imagination and I would imagine that some scenes, such as Susan being trapped in the sandstorm, didn’t turn out as realistically on a set as they did in my mind. That being said, judging from the existing stills, the production values do look impressive for its time. Its story is one that would be unheard of just a few years later – a purely historical adventure in which they journey with Marco Polo to meet Kublai Khan. It may be seven episodes, but it was never boring. The villain was fun, and Marco Polo himself was the perfect foil for our heroes – never cruel but still a hinderance.
The Keys of Marinus is probably my favourite science fiction story of the first season, and it does something I don’t recall any other serial doing – instead of one long story, it tells a collection of mini-stories that have an overarching plot. One episode for the set-up, one for the conclusion, and four stand-alones in between. Each of the stand alones is a fast paced, punchier story than you would expect from classic Who. My personal favourite is the Velvet Web, in which all but Barbara are brainwashed into seeing a world that isn’t there, all part of the evil plan of brains jars. A hundred Quatloos on Barbara once again saving the day! Though admittedly not all of the stand alones are this strong, they all have something of value. Given how strong the Keys of Marinus is, I’m surprised the show didn’t go down this route more often, though I would imagine it would be more costly to create new sets each week, instead of being able to reuse them.
The Aztecs has got to be my favourite historical. It’s has so many interesting ideas in it: can you and should you change history? What are the moral problems with setting yourself up as a God to people too primitive to know better? What fascinates me further is that while Tlotoxl may not be the best example of humanity, he is not the bad guy. Barbara sets herself up as a god and begins trying to change the Aztecs way of life. If anything, she is the villain of the story and Tlotoxl has every reason to feel the way he is. But Barbara’s reasoning behind what she is doing is not without merit. As a historian, she mourns the loss of the Aztecs after the Spanish arrived and wants to find a way to ensure that the culture lives on. The side stories of Ian and Ixta’s growing animosity and the Doctor falling in love with Cameca all serve to keep the story entertaining and moving along at a good pace. The set designs are lovely but the real standout for me is the costume designs. I don’t look at old, black and white television and wish it was in colour, but I do with the Aztecs. The costumes, especially in colour stills, are absolutely beautiful, the stand out being Tlotoxl’s blood red and black costume.
The Sensorites has a very strong and downright creepy start to it in which the enemy is unseen and the threat is psychological rather than physical. As the Sensorites themselves come into the story some interesting themes emerge about giving in to fear or trying to rise above it, bigotry towards those who are different from you and also whether to show any compassion to those who have wronged you. The actors playing the principal Sensorites, do a great job of using their voices to distinguish their characters – the thoughtful leader, the fearful bigot, etc – without which they would have just been guys in unmoving rubber masks. This is a serial that it not loved in the way, say, The Daleks or The Aztecs is and a part of me can see why. Its pacing is leisurely, and most of its scenes are people sitting around talking. I think it would have been far more effective if it had been told in four parts instead of six, but overall I do think that the story is still very effective, and I always appreciate the ones that have more to say than ‘there’s a monster, kill it.’
The Reign of Terror is another fantastic historical. The first episode in particular stands out for its bleakness and its danger. I genuinely felt scared for the characters, despite knowing they would be fine. Despite being six episodes long, the pacing never slows, except perhaps some of the stuff involving the Doctor journeying towards Paris. My rule when watching classic Who is to watch one episode a night, as the classic series was never designed to be watched all in one go, but with The Reign of Terror, I just had to keep going as it grabbed my attention so much.
What also stood out was the violence, most notably when Robespierre is shot offscreen and is seen a moment later clutching his bloody jaw. This serial is also the first, chronologically, to have animated episodes in place of missing ones. While they are done in a way that is not in keeping with the style of the time, mainly fast editing, they are still a much better alternative to still images, which I always find dull and uninteresting.
I’m glad I’ve decide to start rewatching classic Doctor Who. I really had forgotten just how good this first season is. Yes, there are some weak episodes peppered throughout, usually episode two, where the story has to continue rather than progress, but the serials overall are fantastic. They are not a simple case of telling science fiction or historical stories, there is often something deeper going on within them. The Daleks has themes of fascism and questioning what is worth fighting and dying for, The Sensorites is about being afraid of what is different and attempting to overcome that, The Aztecs is about the morality in attempting to change a culture. The four leads are great in their roles. Hartnell is sometimes made fun of for the flubbed lines, but there are so many times when he blows it out the park. As for the characters, the stand out for me is Barbara. I think the fans and documentary makers really do need to be pulled up for their insistence in remembering female companions as screamers. There are so many times when Barbara is the member of the group who sees the problem before the others, or figures out the solution, or stands up to a threat. If there’s any problem, it’s that the female characters suffer from inconsistent writing more than the men do, even within a single episode, but that’s sixties television. Now, on to season two…