Saturday, March 27, 2010


You may have noticed lately I've been posting a lot more lately--well, that owes to the fact that I'm moving house soon and I wanted to pay off on a lot of things I've been promising forever here at the Prattle. This, then, is the beginning of the long-promised Doctor Who thread. It was going to be Doctor Who Week, but really, it's unlikely we'd cover all of it in a week's time and Doctor Who Writing Of A Period Of Indeterminate Length But Probably Longer Than A Week felt too wordy for a title.

OK, so . . .had I done this in January, when the final David Tennant and Russell T. Davies special had aired and we were staring down the barrel of a new Who era things might have been a bit more timely, but thankfully I've waited until just before the debut of the new guy, Matt Smith, so my procrastination somehow ended up making everything more timely again.

So, let's look at Doctor Who and try, more likely as not in vain, to get a handle on it as a concept and why it's become something so enduring--I mean, we're not far from it's 50th anniversary and even when it was off television, it was always, in some fashion in the public consciousness.

The obvious question is why? I mean, it's this show that began as an educational kid's show, done with a budget charitably described as cheap and cheerful, laden down with melodramatic acting, bogus science at the best of times, and rarely shies away from indulging in a little campiness now and again.

So why this? What made it stick?

Well, the obvious answer is surely the famous monsters--The Daleks, the Cybermen, and others--and we'll surely talk about them soon, but that's not the whole story. After all, as effective as they've been as fuel to drive the storytelling engine, once you get past the age of four, one finds those episodes tend to miss the mark more often than not.

I submit the following points--One, Doctor Who has endured because it's a pretty sturdy and versatile bit of television. You can go anywhere and do anything, according to the major premise--just get in the box and move on to the next thing. To the extent there's much continuity at all it's left just elastic enough (ideally) to be a resource and not a burden. Additionally, just about the time a certain approach gets stale or the Doctor's character gets a bit predictable, you just regenerate the Doctor and the show around him changes. William Hartnell's cranky anti-hero edge gives way to Patrick Troughton's more lighthearted touches gives way to Jon Pertwee's more action-packed stories, gives way to Tome Baker . . .well, being unleashed upon things, as it should be. And so on. That versatility, and ability to change to meet the needs and desires of the audience, is a key to its endurance.

The other reason, of course, is that in all it's various incarnations, it has a kick-ass theme song:

I've been told by some people the Doctor Who theme gave them nightmares as a kid. Yeah, that's what I said--"What?"

Anyways--I intend through this series to take as close a look as possible at each Doctor in turn and give y'all a picture of what each era was like, what they played up and what they downplayed, and generally look in on each and see what it's like, and we'll get the ball rolling right now.

It's going to be slightly difficult to talk in detail about William Hartnell's Doctor, not just because not many of his stories have been released over here and also because not many early Doctor Who stories exist intact anymore. But from those I've managed to see, I've come up with a picture of a rather interesting era of Doctor Who.

At first blush, one would imagine Hartnell's Doctor as a genial grandfatherly figure, generally there to get his companions from one adventure to the next, but not to do much more of consequence beyond that. That may, in fact, have been the idea when the show was conceived, even.

In practice, it wasn't how it ended up going. In the early stories, the Doctor is very much an anti-hero, at best. At various times in the course of these early stories he sabotages his time machine to get his own way (touching off the perpetual conflict with the Daleks) and later, when the TARDIS gets damaged again (thanks to a faulty spring) he's willing and almost eager to toss everyone out on their ears, whether it would be safe for them to leave or not. It's rather surprising, especially considering how early in the program's life it is. To have a character who carries himself as if he doesn't much care whether the audience likes him or not is compelling enough to carry the show over some of its weaker points.

And there are many. For one thing, a lot of these stories, to modern sensibilities can seem about two episodes two long and intensely arch and preachy in bits. Moreover, you're guaranteed at least one well-intentioned but ultimately poorly realised special effect that completely bounces you out of the story, and at times, the constant bickering among the TARDIS crew can just make you want to scream (not the last time either of those last two will happen in the long and storied run of Who, I should add) for them to belt up and get on with it until the Daleks come back, at least.

But for all that these are (and will continue to be) constant drags on the series, it's Hartnell's approach to the character that gives even the slightest story some dramatic weight. Even to his own granddaughter (whom he eventually sort of abandons) he's an outsider, nearly a misanthrope, and he seems to delight in it at some level. It's no accident that that iconoclasm, and that sort of rebellious streak is something that's common across all incarnations of the Doctor.

As time goes on, the Doctor's character does mellow and becomes more grandfatherly, and the stories ultimately begin to change--initially there was a balance between historical stories followed by stories which focused on science. With the Daleks being so successful, gradually any excuse to catch lightning in a bottle was used, and while some of them are fondly remembered, not many of them stuck (although, we were first introduced to a renegade member of the Doctor's race, it was a one-off thing. But all good ideas come back . . .and back . . .) except for one, introduced right at the end of Hartnell's tenure.

The Cybermen come from a planet where they one were human, but have replaced so much of themselves with artificial parts that they've completely lost touch with their humanity and don't really miss it all that much. In fact, they seek to make everyone like themselves (which certain of you may find a rather familiar motivation) The Doctor naturally thwarts their plans, but not without cost, because at the end of the episode, he collapses, undergoes a rather peculiar change, and all of a sudden is someone else.

And it's here that Doctor Who really takes its first steps towards becoming an indelible part of pop culture. Because not only has the lead actor changed, but the tone and the feel of the entire show will change and y'know what? It'll totally be okay, as we'll see next time, when we look at the Second Doctor's era.

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