A few years since I began, I am still gradually working my way through all the episodes of classic Doctor Who. For the most part, I’ve been watching them out of order, partly basing my choices on recommendations from the Gallifrey Base online community, and Graeme Burk and Robert Smith’s book Who’s 50: The 50 Doctor Who Stories to Watch Before You Die. Then at the beginning of this year, I looked over my list – having passed the halfway mark in terms of the total number of stories – and decided to be neat from now on, and fill in the gaps in order. So since January, I’ve been checking out all the stories from the era of the First Doctor – 1963 to 1966 – which I hadn’t yet watched. (This has included reconstructions and audio of the First Doctor’s forty-four “lost episodes” which were purged from the BBC archives and have not been recovered in full from anywhere else.) Now I’ve finally finished, and I’m in a position to talk about what I thought!
A Little History Lesson
In 1963, Sydney Newman, the BBC’s new Head of Drama, was given the task of coming up with a new show for the Saturday early evening slot. Something geared toward younger audiences was desired, and Newman was interested in the idea of a science-fiction show involving time travel, which could include some mildly educational historical content. Gradually, the now-familiar concept of Doctor Who came together, and a 55-year-old actor named William Hartnell was persuaded to take on the role of the titular grandfatherly scientist. The Doctor would be accompanied on his travels through time and space by his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford), and her teachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill).
At 5:16pm on Saturday 23rd November 1963, ‘An Unearthly Child’, the first episode of Doctor Who, aired on the BBC. The date is significant: President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated the day before, and with this event absorbing the public’s attention, Doctor Who attracted a relatively disappointing 4.4 million viewers. However, by the time the second serial – The Daleks – reached its conclusion, ratings were up to over 10 million. From there, Doctor Who went from strength to strength. The Daleks, the first aliens introduced on the show, quickly became especially popular. A few years later, The Tenth Planet would see the introduction of the Cybermen, another villainous race that would become familiar to fans.
If you haven’t watched any classic Doctor Who, the stories worked rather differently to the modern day series. It was a serial format: each episode lasted about 25 minutes, and most stories were spread over either four or six episodes (though one, The Daleks’ Master Plan, lasted no less than twelve). Also, each episode was given its own individual title until the third season’s The Savages, whereupon they were given numbers (i.e. Part 1, Part 2, etc) under the overall story’s title. Throughout this era, the Doctor couldn’t actually control the TARDIS properly; it moved through space and time randomly when activated.
The First Doctor’s era featured a total of 29 stories and 134 episodes. Several of these were purely adventures in historical settings – e.g. Ancient Rome, the Aztec Empire, the Crusades – without a single alien to be found. In one episode, Mission to the Unknown, the Doctor and his companions don’t appear at all, the focus being entirely on a group of human agents gathering information on the Daleks. And while we now expect to see a Doctor Who special on Christmas Day each year, that only happened once with the classic series, in 1965; the episode in question ends with the Doctor breaking the fourth wall to say, “Incidentally, a happy Christmas to all of you at home!”
As the years passed, the Doctor’s companions came and went – but by 1966, the Doctor himself had problems. William Hartnell was suffering from arteriosclerosis; he had trouble remembering his lines and was increasingly difficult for other cast and crew to work with. But if Hartnell could no longer play the Doctor, could the role simply be recast? It was proposed that since the character was an alien, he could be given the ability to transform himself into a different person, though this would not be officially referred to as ‘regeneration’ until it happened to the Third Doctor. On 29th October 1966, in the final episode of The Tenth Planet, the First Doctor transformed into the Second, played by Patrick Troughton, and a new era began.
Hartnell returned to the role of the First Doctor for the tenth anniversary special The Three Doctors, broadcast in 1972-73. However, he was in such poor health by then that he could not perform alongside Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee (the Third Doctor). Instead, the script had the First Doctor becoming trapped in a time eddy and only appearing on a viewing screen, so all Hartnell needed to do was sit down and read his lines. William Hartnell died two years later in 1975, aged 67.
When I first watched the beginning of the First Doctor’s era, it was fascinating to see where one of my favourite TV series began. Granted, the first story – set in the Stone Age – is a bit dull in terms of entertainment value; but the next one, The Daleks, is much better, and you can see how both the story and the Daleks themselves would have grabbed people’s attention in 1963. Regarding all the subsequent stories, I found something to like in most of them – they are largely just simple fun. Obviously, given the time and the budget, the special effects are not exactly spectacular, and there are many noticeable instances of actors stumbling with their lines. Once in The Daleks’ Master Plan, the Doctor declares, “The Daleks will stop at anything to prevent us!” Those must be some pretty weak-willed Daleks, then. The monsters often look pretty silly, though many of the sci-fi sets and historical production designs look good.
What’s curious about Hartnell’s First Doctor is that I generally liked him, and yet sometimes felt like I shouldn’t. He can certainly get impatient and snappish with his companions, and even displays dubious morals from time to time – in The Daleks, he tells a lie to the others so he can continue exploring the alien city against their inclinations – yet somehow, this isn’t all that grating, and he remains a likeable character. Perhaps it’s because this behaviour fits his image, or maybe it’s just balanced out by his more positive moments: his cunning, his childish chuckling when excited, and his refusal to suffer fools gladly.
As far as companions go, I really loved Ian and Barbara, who are surely among the best companions in the show’s history. Being middle-aged, they were appropriately level-headed, but they remained curious and enthusiastic, and had a pleasant family dynamic with the Doctor and Susan. They were also relatively competent in crisis situations: Barbara was intelligent and not afraid to speak her mind, while Ian was a surprisingly handy action man for a science teacher, regularly having to fight for his life and often coming off better. Over the years, the Doctor hasn’t had many companions in Ian and Barbara’s age group, so it will be interesting to see how the Thirteenth Doctor gets on with Bradley Walsh.
Unfortunately, none of the other companions really did much for me. Susan spent too much time screaming, crying or getting captured. Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) was fairly likeable but generic. Steven’s (Peter Purves) more heroic qualities were let down by his short temper. Dodo (Jackie Lane) was a brainless liability. I’ll need to see more of the two companions at the end of the era, Polly (Anneke Wills) and Ben (Michael Craze), but they’re not proving to be as much fun as they seemed to be when introduced in The War Machines.
My Favourite Stories
Marco Polo / The Romans / The Gunfighters: These were my favourites of the aforementioned historical adventures. Marco Polo – one of the lost stories – is an exciting adventure with a great exotic feel; while The Romans and The Gunfighters have a lot of fun playing around in their respective historical eras, with some random narrative singing included in the case of The Gunfighters.
The Keys of Marinus: This story is basically a fetch quest in which the Doctor and co must hop from place to place to collect a series of keys for a world-saving machine. As a result, the story is several adventures in one, involving mind-controlling brains in jars, man-eating plants, Ice Knights, and Ian being framed for murder with the Doctor as his defence lawyer. The variety, the tension (particularly in the latter story), and everybody getting their moment to shine, makes this an enjoyable one.
The Daleks’ Master Plan: Given the sheer length of this story, I felt a bit daunted going into it. But it’s far from a chore to watch; in fact, the twelve episodes go by very quickly. As in The Keys of Marinus, there’s a lot of moving about to add variety; and it ends up being surprisingly grim, with two short-term companions getting killed.
My Least Favourite Stories
The Web Planet: The story is slow and the monsters are men shuffling around awkwardly in giant ant costumes – but probably the biggest reason I didn’t like this one is because the “good” aliens are giant moths, and moths are among my least favourite animals on Earth.
The Celestial Toymaker: While The Daleks’ Master Plan felt shorter than its twelve episodes, this one felt far longer than its four episodes. Nothing much happens except for Steven and Dodo being forced to play a series of inane games against various cringeworthy characters; while the Doctor barely features, having been rendered invisible and mute as he plays a trilogic puzzle. Interestingly, the Celestial Toymaker himself is played by Michael Gough, who went on to play Alfred Pennyworth in the Batman films from the 80s and 90s.
Recommendations for Newcomers
Obviously, start with An Unearthly Child and The Daleks to get a feel for the setup. Of the adventures which survive in full, I’d recommend The Keys of Marinus, plus The Aztecs and The Romans to give a feel for the historical adventures. The stories involving Ian and Barbara are generally the best, but The Time Meddler – which has Steven and Vicki – is another good one.