Monday, November 25, 2013

Fifty Years of Doctor Who: A Personal Journey

Fifty years ago last Saturday, I was settling down to watch the first episode of a new Sci-Fi series on BBC.  Just the day before, we'd been stunned by the news of Kennedy's assassination.  Strangely, I've always had vivid memories of both events (I fit the clich√© — I even remember what programme we'd turned on for when we saw the newsflash) but it was only about a decade ago I discovered they'd been on consecutive days.  Twenty-four hours is a long time for a child.

I'd been vaguely miffed that a cartoon show I liked had been taken off for this new programme, but I was looking forward to it all the same.  I'd loved the Pathfinders series ITV had put on over the previous couple of years (Pathfinders into Space, Pathfinders to Mars, Pathfinders to Venus) and was hoping it would be as good.  I was pretty much hooked by the time the unearthly title music had faded away.

Doctor Who quickly became my favourite programme, though I can't actually claim to have watched every single episode from the Sixties.  There was no recording in those days, no iPlayer, no endless repeats on BBC3 (no BBC3, or even BBC2 at first) and sometimes I had to be out at Saturday teatime — usually for a treat, though it tended to be a close-run thing whether the treat was worth it. 

Still, I saw probably 95% of the episodes, many now lost: the first sight of the Dalek and the Cybermen (not to mention the recently returned Great Intelligence and Ice-Warriors), the comings and goings of companions, and the Doctor's first regeneration.  It's difficult to pick out a high point, but I think it might be the amazing (and largely lost) twelve-parter The Daleks Master Plan, memorable among other things for killing off two companions.

Not that I knew it as The Daleks Master Plan at the time.  For the first three years, only episode titles were ever given, and the stories were, Friends-style, The One With the Daleks Invading Earth or The One With the Voords.  This was The One With the Time Destructor.  Whatever it was called, though, I loved it.  I've seen the surviving episodes and reconstructions of the lost ones since, and as far as it's possible to tell it still holds up well.

Not all the stories from the Sixties have survived as well in reputation, but my experience of them was a bit different from people discovering them now.  Back then, they were slick and beautifully made, with totally convincing sets and effects.  I'm sure they've been tampered with since — the same as the way that, when puppet shows like Thunderbirds were shown back then, the strings were totally invisible and have only been added on modern copies.

Of course, nothing's really good or bad except in reference to its own time and context.  One story that has a poor reputation among fans is The Web Planet (aka The One With the Zarbi) but my experience of it was very different.  To an eleven-year-old watching it in the Sixties, it was absolutely awesome, and the story was one I remembered as a high point.  Even from a twenty-first-century perspective, I think it's a much better story than it's given credit for, although it does have serious holes in it.  Mainly to do with the Optera.

Another reason for negative views of some of these stories today is that most people now experience them by getting the DVD and watching straight through, or at most in two chunks for the longer stories.  They were never designed to be seen that way, and watching them in twenty-five-minute doses a week apart played up the excitement and tension.

What Doctor Who mostly did in the 60s was to play to its strengths.  An excellent example of the this is The Dead Planet, episode one of The Daleks.  It finishes with the iconic shot of the view down the Dalek eyestalk of Barbara cowering away in terror, but the episode as a whole consists of the four regular characters wandering around cardboard sets, handling awful props and talking a lot.  And it's an absolute master-class in how to build up tension with few resources.  I'm certainly not advocating making programmes exactly like that now, but I think it might not be a bad thing, in the days of effects-led storytelling, for the makers to take a step back and relearn some of the basics.

The Sixties version of Doctor Who was my childhood, and nothing can compete with childhood memories, but I continued to watch through the Seventies.  The images and the feelings they generated didn't stick so firmly in my memory in this era (I was busy growing up, going to university, getting a job and all the things associated with those processes) and when I started rewatching them I often found I'd totally forgotten excellent stories, but I watched faithfully throughout the Pertwee and Baker eras.

A few things stick in my memory.  I recall, in late 1975, while Pyramids of Mars was on, I was taking a course in Greek philosophy at university.  The lecturer was explaining one philosopher's attempt to "Platonise" Egyptian mythology and gave a brief account of the murder of Osiris by Set, or Sutekh — then gave a slight laugh and added, "Currently appearing on Doctor Who."

The Eighties were when I lost touch with the show.  There were a number of reasons for this, not least that I didn't have a TV for part of the decade.  Anyway, when they messed around with the schedules and put it on during a weekday evening, I wasn't usually in at the time.

In any case, I felt less motivated to make an effort.  I felt Tom Baker's last couple of series were noticeably slipping (a view I still hold, with certain honourable exceptions like City of Death and Logopolis); at the time, I didn't much like Peter Davison's Doctor (though I've revised my opinion there); and I wasn't very impressed with the current crop of companions.

In any case, I stopped watching, apart from an occasional catch-up that wasn't enough to get back into it.  I've now acquainted myself with Eighties Doctor Who, and my feeling now is that it was a very uneven period, but with plenty well worth watching and occasionally as good as any era.  I personally think that the very last classic series, in 1989, was probably the best since the high days of Tom Baker.

That was later, though.  I still had fond memories of the old stories, and I watched them on the rare occasions they were reshown, but nothing much more.  As I discussed in a previous piece, I'm not actually very good at "being a fan", and I've never really been into tie-ins, conventions or merchandise for anything, so I didn't have anything much to keep up with.  I watched the 1996 movie and felt (as I still do) that McGann and McCoy were brilliant, but overall it was a disappointment.

Then the channel UK Gold started running the classics (or maybe they'd been running them and that was when I got the channel — I can't remember).  Anyway, I watched loads of stories and taped quite a few, and for a while I just watched those ones over and over, before I eventually discovered the joys of cheap DVDs being sold online.  As of now, I have most of the stories and can vary my Who-watching a good deal more.

In the meantime, of course, the show was rebooted in 2005.  I wasn't sure what to expect, after the experience of the movie, but I loved it.  I have some quibbles, but they're more to do with how TV is generally made today rather than specific to Doctor Who — the tendency to be led by effects and action, as against the intelligent storytelling of the past (though Doctor Who's better than most at blending them), overuse (for me) of music, and an over-reliance on story arcs.

Nevertheless, I think Russell T. Davies, Stephen Moffett and the rest have done a wonderful job of updating the show without losing what always made it special — the way it balances fun and gravitas, action and intellect, scary monsters and social relevance.  Saturday's Fiftieth Anniversary Special, which had a really hard job living up to its hype, blew me away, managing to be at the same time a brilliant story and a fan's wet-dream of reappearances, in-references and in-jokes (they even got a reference in to the notorious UNIT dating controversy).  And the ending opened up a whole new vista of possibilities for the next fifty years.

So where now?  Although I'll be sorry to see the end of Matt Smith, who's become one of my favourite Doctors, I'll be fascinated to see what Peter Capaldi makes of the role.  For companions, I love Clara, but I hope when she does go they'll be more adventurous.  Although the string of primary companions we've had since 2005 have all been distinct and interesting characters, they've essentially all (or mostly) been twenty-something contemporary women.  I'd like to see an occasional one who isn't — someone from the past or future, or from another planet.  Maybe an alien.

Similarly, I'd love to see more variation in destinations for the TARDIS, particularly more historical settings that aren't nineteenth or twentieth century (seriously, the 1980s as historical?) and more well-realised planets.  Not just desolate planets with crashed spaceships, or barren rocks that aren't being pulled into black holes (much as I loved those stories) but living, complexly populated planets.  The twenty-first-century equivalents of Skaro, Marinus, Peladon, Tara or Androzani.

Whether or not they take my advice (and why wouldn't they? I keep telling myself till I believe it) I'll keep watching.  Maybe, if medical science keeps the pace it promises to, I'll just about still be around to watch the hundredth anniversary on the care home TV.

5 comments:

  1. It's cool seeing the perspective of someone who grew up with the series.

    I'm a few years younger than you (and what a difference a few years make in terms of having many coherent memories of the 60s). I was born a week and a half after the first episode of Dr. Who, and in the US to boot, so my earliest TV memories are of Sesame Street and the Apollo Moon Landing (but of course, I don't remember the Silence telling us to kill them :D ). I discovered the series in the 80s when the local public TV station was showing the Tom Baker episodes over and over on Saturdays. In spite of the variable quality and (by 1980s standards of someone who also watched Star Trek Nex gen) bargain basement special effects, I loved the show. When they started showing the Davidson episodes, I was skeptical, because the notion of a show where the main actor changes was so foreign, but I already loved him from All Creatures, so I carried on. And eventually, the PBS stations started showing the older episodes too. I lost track of the show in the 1990s but also have enjoyed the reboot. Eccleston took some getting used to for me, and by the time I got used to his more serious Doctor, we were on to Tennant.

    I hope the show continues to prosper and Capaldi is able to fill the shoes of his predecessors.

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    1. Yes, the whole thing was done on a shoestring throughout the classic run. I've heard, for instance, that the entire budget for creating the Daleks was £60. That was worth a lot more than it is now, of course, but still only about £1,000, or $1,500.

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  2. Classic Star Trek, which I do remember from my Childhood, also had pretty inexpensive effects. For example, I believe that little device McCoy used to scan his patients was a salt cellar from a thrift shop, and Nomad doubled as the Romulan Cloaking Device. In those days, though, these kinds of things just didn't matter. Better special effects are cool, but one down side is that they can come to drive the story. Just because you can do something visually, doesn't mean every story has to have it.

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  3. I don't think it's just me getting older, but it does seem as though The Doctor has been a skinny young man for decades now. Tom Baker passed for young when he took over, but they've been getting younger ever since. Could this be yet more evidence of ageism in the media? Once you're past 22 you're over the hill? I don't remember William Hartnell, and even Patrck Troughton is a bit fuzzy, but I loved Jon Pertwee who was no spring chicken. I can't take the series seriously anymore with the new style of fast-talking, rather slick Doctors.

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