Doctor Who Rewatch: 03

When I first watched The Web Planet two years ago I really didn’t rate it. In my current rewatch, it is the first story where I have revised my opinion significantly upwards. Unlike the other non-Dalek sfnal stories so far it looks weird rather than crap. I think I appreciate it much more now that I have got my watching brain acclimatised to the mid 1960s, as it were; and perhaps it is easier to take it an episode at a time rather than sitting down to watch all six. The Menoptra and Zarbi (and the Animus) are much more convincing aliens than the Voord or the Sensorites, the sets are excellent and the vaseline on the camera lenses adds to the air of alienness. It is no wonder that this was one of the very first novelisations, or that the first Doctor Who annual had not one but two stories set on Vortis. (The Optera and Venom Grubs are still a bit less convincing, but I was able to rise above that somehow.) We also see a lot more of the inside of the Tardis than ever before. Lots of good character moments for all four regulars, with Barbara saving the day.

The Crusade is a well-plotted historical story, such a huge contrast with The RomansMarco Polo and one of the best scripts, in terms of wordsmithing, ever performed on Who. In fact it’s an interesting story for gender roles and racial perceptions: much of the plot is about the parallel fates of Joanna and Barbara, one resisting marriage to Saladin’s brother, the other resisting rape and torture by El Akir – meanwhile Vicki attempts to protect herself by cross-dressing. Hartnell gets some comedy moments with the chamberlain and the clothes merchant (and in one scene both) but the focus is generally elsewhere and this is not a bad thing.

The first episode of The Space Museum is one of the best single episodes of the Hartnell era. The creepiness of the time weirdness in the Tardis, the crew’s apparently ghostly presence on Xeros and then their discovery of themselves as exhibits all makes quite a stunning 25 minutes of television. (See also here and subsequently.) The problem is that once the Moroks and Xerons start actually talking, they are very dull. Somehow Richard Shaw as Lobos the bored and cynical governor / curator comes across as a bored and cynical actor, and sucks the life out of the story on his first appearance. On the other hand Hartnell is well on form (especially in his outwitting of the mind probe) and his absence from Episode Three is sorely felt. Vicki also gets some good moments as she organises the rebels (who sadly are a rather drippy bunch, acting without enthusiasm). This is I think the first of the many stories where the Doctor and friends land on an alien planet and help the rebels overthrow the oppressors, and perhaps the only such story which also involves time paradoxes; either plot line would (and in later stories did) make an excellent yarn but somehow the combination fails to gel. Luckily the Daleks turn up at the end to remind us to keep watching.

The Chase seems like an attempt by Terry Nation to combine the episodic story-telling of The Keys of Marinus (and later, Blake’s 7) with the Daleks and also with his own original genre, comedy. It cannot be described as a roaring success. I note that there is basically a separate story for each episode (the opening two-parter on Aridius, the Empire State Building and Marie Celeste, the House of Horrors, the Doctor’s Double and the Dalek/Mechanoid battle) but it doesn’t really cohere. Apart from the Beatles, the music is the worst for any story so far – soft comic jazz with added xylophones. Some of the monsters are grossly unconvincing – everyone singles out the Mire Beast of Aridius, but the fungoids of Mechanus are worse. Having said that, the Doctor seems more upset at Ian and Barbara’s voluntary departure than for any other companion bar Rose – Hartnell actually seems to be crying at the end. Also NB that the Beatles are the first explicit and direct contemporary reference in Who. (The band Susan listens to in An Unearthly Child are fictional, and Planet of Giants could have been set ten years earlier.)

So, farewell then, the Coal Hill School teachers. Barbara’s role as the more mature woman, part mentor and part viewpoint, was never revived. (The Romana / Adric relationship has some echoes but fails for other reasons; Liz Shaw is brainy but also hierarchically junior; I think Donna Noble shares some of Barbara’s characteristics, but Donna is trying to act younger than she really is, while Barbara is more confident in her own maturity.) Her reduction to screaming terror in An Unearthly Child already seemed uncomfortably out of character, and overall she is a voice of sanity we never quite get again.

This is not to minimise Ian, who is the first of a long run of action-oriented male sidekicks (Steven, Ben, Jamie, UNIT, Harry) but is also much brainier than any of his successors. This does create dramatic conflict with the Doctor, of course, as Ian chafes at being junior male to someone so infuriating. (NB that the successive male companions are all from hierarchies so are more used to taking a lead from their elders.)

There is not much spinoff fiction featuring Ian and Barbara, but I do recommend Paul Leonard’s Venusian Lullaby, set in between The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Rescue. William Russell has made a couple of Big Finish plays, one of which reprises Ian; Jacqueline Hill appears as a misguided priestess in a late Fourth Doctor story but is unfortunately no longer available.

In some ways The Time Meddler feels like a revamp of the very first story, An Unearthly Child, with Steven’s sceptical astonishment at the Tardis, followed by a return to a primitive feuding society in which the key female role is played by Alethea Charlton. It is great fun (with the significant exception of an implied rape scene). Steven gets a great introduction to the Tardis, and we have a nicely depicted Northumbrian community, under assault from contemporary Vikings. Best of all, we have the Meddling Monk, the first fellow time traveller the Doctor has encountered. Forty years on, we know of course what is going on, but if you watch with fresh eyes the suspense is done rather well – we don’t see the Monk’s Tardis till the end of episode 3, though it’s clear that the Doctor and Monk know each other of old, leaving us (and Steven and Vicki) to catch up. Good marks also for the closing sequence of the Tardis crew’s faces against a star field.

The only completely missing story of this run is Galaxy 4, which means we are in a slightly chalk-and-cheese situation. From surviving clips, the look and sound of the alien planet was pretty impressive – I see it is Geoffrey Hodgson who gets the credit for the background noises, which really deserve to be described as incidental music. It’s also a rather interesting reintroduction of the Doctor, now shorn of his original companions, as an ethical hero – the Rills recognise his moral superiority, to the point that they are prepared to sacrifice themselves for him if necessary. And the story itself has a more explicit moral message (“don’t judge by appearances”) than most Who stories. This third season starts with far future allegory and ends with contemporary political commentary, by way of epic and slapstick. Having said all that, unfortunately the actual plot details of Galaxy Four are pretty silly – why on earth would the Drahvins send the Doctor and Vicki to capture the Rills’ ship? What possible scientific basis can there be for the planet exploding? Poor Steven, as Peter Purves bitterly points out, ends up playing a part originally written for Barbara. It is a somewhat wobbly start to the new season.

< An Unearthly Child – The Aztecs | The Sensorites – The Romans | The Web Planet – Galaxy 4 | Mission To The Unknown – The Gunfighters | The Savages – The Highlanders | The Underwater Menace – Tomb of the Cybermen | The Abominable Snowmen – The Wheel In Space | The Dominators – The Space Pirates | The War Games – Terror of the Autons | The Mind of Evil – The Curse of Peladon | The Sea Devils – Frontier in Space | Planet of the Daleks – The Monster of Peladon | Planet of the Spiders – Revenge of the Cybermen | Terror of the Zygons – The Seeds of Doom | The Masque of Mandragora – The Talons of Weng-Chiang | Horror of Fang Rock – The Invasion of Time | The Ribos Operation – The Armageddon Factor | Destiny of the Daleks – Shada | The Leisure Hive – The Keeper of Traken | Logopolis – The Visitation | Black Orchid – Mawdryn Undead | Terminus – The Awakening | Frontios – Attack of the Cybermen | Vengeance on Varos – In A Fix With Sontarans | The Mysterious Planet – Paradise Towers | Delta and the Bannermen – The Greatest Show in the Galaxy | Battlefield – The TV Movie >

1 thought on “Doctor Who Rewatch: 03

  1. My towel wore out about 25 years after I bought it from Andromeda Bookshop in Birmingham…

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