Doctor Who at Newton's laws of television

The Early Years

by Richard Amphlett and Matthew Newton

The first Doctor is not amused by this article
We'll begin with a few fascinating facts.

1. There was some Doctor Who on television before John Nathan-Turner started producing it. Doctor Who has actually been around quite some time.

2. It began in 1963, the day after some bloke called Kennedy got shot in America.

3. The first season is generally known as "season one" in the jargon of Doctor Who fan circles, and there is not generally reckoned to have been any seasons before this.

Yes, 1963, possibly one of the most eventful years in the world's history. Well, there was a very cold winter, Mr Kennedy got shot, well some new programme started on BBC1, or BBC as it then was ('cos there wasn't a BBC2). This programme was to shake the nation to its roots, breaking more new ground than any prime-time science-fiction series has ever done. it was a monument to one man, who single-handedly created it, forced it past unwilling beaurocrats and against almost insurmountable odds. The programme was of course Rainbow.

The intuitive amongst you may have just about spotted the teeny white lie in the above paragraph. Yup, you got it, Rainbow was not the brainchild of one man, but in fact the entire Dagenham WI. But I had to mention Rainbow to capture your attention, and now that I have, I can start my article about Doctor Who.

The first ever episode was transmitted on November 23rd, and the public of Great Britain was little prepared for what was to await them. In fact, those who were bothered about Doctor Who knew exactly what awaited them because the Radio Times carried a rather nice little feature with a photograph of William Hartnell, who was to play the mysterious time traveller. Actually, Hartnell was not the first choice to play the Doctor; this was in fact the original drummer from The Beatles that nobody knows the name of, but since nobody knows his name, crediting him would have been rather difficult. Producer Verity Lambert believed that this would have added an extra air of mystery to the character of the Doctor, but since Scouse accents were not permitted at the BBC at that time, and none of the first season was written by Carla Lane. a Liverpudlian was not considered suitable for the role, so William Hartnell, veteran actor and guitarist with Satan's Children, a death-metal outfit from Hammersmith, was chosen. To support him were Carole Ann Ford, purchased cheaply from a wholesale Annoying Pest company, who the BBC were later to use to supply Vicki and Zoe. Playing her two unfortunate schoolteachers (I wouldn't wish Susan on anybody) was William Russell, well known as the movies' first James Bond, and his mother Jacqueline Hill. The plot is well known, concerning as it does an attempt by the evil Baron Bollingrew to steal the Raj Kapur Emerald. To this, he enlists the services of some gravel voices robot creatures called Daleks and a race of underwater assassins called the Voord. The entire party trek across the Gobi desert and the Lozell's road with the caravan of Marco Polo, eventually ending up in an ancient Aztec city where the French Revolution is well underway, and the crew of the city have been rendered unconscious by a race of apparently hostile telepathic aliens called Sensorites.

This is of course, a complete and utter lie.

The first episode of Doctor Who is a remarkable achievement, considering the technical limitations placed upon it, that is to say two twelve minute takes with only one recording break. The atmosphere is really everything, with the scenes in the junkyard being genuinely creepy and contrasting vividly with the brightly lit techno-goth (that's not a new sort of indie music) of the TARDIS interior. Hartnell excels as the Doctor, forgetting his lines only once (or maybe twice), and even Russell and Hill providing superb support as Ian and Barbara. However, the the following three episodes are, put succinctly, dire and deserve to have disposed of any audience that the superb opener had garnered. Fortunately for the rest of us, however, the opening episode of Doctor Who's second story is also excellent, and not let down by the ensuing six. The first Dalek serial, it is probably not unfair to say, is not only the best Dalek story but one of the definitive television landmarks, being a mammoth odyssey epic of a story really giving the feeling of an alien planet, with days, nights, lots of different races, a real geography, and of course, corridors. The Daleks are used magnificently for the one-and-only time in their career, being neither mindless killing machines or slaves to Davros, but thinking individuals with opinions and imaginations. The dialogue between them unfortunately makes for some of the dullest passages of speech in the history of broadcasting, but it was nice of Tezza to try and give them something interesting to say; it's only the electronic voices which make it so dull, not the actual words.

The trend of quality drama continued throughout the season, culminating in two marvellous historical opi, "The Reign of Terror" and, best of all, John Lucarroti's "The Aztecs".

Most of season one of course extended into 1964, and the 26th of June that year saw a most remarkable event; the release of Marianne Faithfull's first single, "As Tears Go By", on Decca Records. It attained a maximum chart placing of 9, not bad for a debut single. Returning (God knows why) to Doctor Who, the science-fiction of season one was rather inferior to the historical stories, with "The Keys of Marinus" being little other than dull, but all the same remaining a remarkable feat of engineering and design, and being the only Doctor Who story to really get across the idea of an alien planet with multifarious cultures, climates and environs, with snowy wastes, jungle tropics and temperate cities. "The Sensorites" had lots of its very interesting ideas wasted on poor dialogue and badly paced action. The real success of "The Sensorites" was the sets, with the gloomy spaceship resembling a Jules Verne submarine and the Sense-Sphere with its curves and vaulted ceilings. Special mention must be made of Stephen Dartnell, who not only manages to be both the imaginatively named John in The Sensorites and the Evil Yartek in The Keys of Marinus; as John he sports (for at least half the story) the silliest headgear ever seen outside...well, The Aztecs, which must surely have won the Silly Hat Award for 1964.

The season closed with "The Reign of Terror" which featured a comedy gaoler. And then...

"Oh no..." screamed Susan, the teenage granddaughter of Doctor Who, the brilliant but eccentric science professor from Telford. "We're heading straight for another season of Doctor Who..."

And so they were, along with a couple of million more people who were watching earnestly on their Logie Baird Patent Televisor Devices. That is, those who had not been turned off television forever by such seminal moments of television such as William Hartnell forgetting his lines in "The Daleks", or William Hartnell forgetting his lines in "Marco Polo" or the very rare indeed sight of William Hartnell forgetting his lines and missing his cues in "The Keys of Marinus" and who braved such terrors as Carole Ann Ford being an annoying little pest in... well, you name it.

The season opened on the very last day of October 1964, a mere seven weeks after the closure of the previous one. It opened with the horror classic "Planet of the Giants", which is believed to have inspired George Romero's definitive 1968 gore film Night of the Living Dead, with its killer zombies and graphic scenes of dismemberment and disembowelment. This is probably not true, but I fell asleep five minutes into "Planet of the Ludicrously Extravagant Sets" and had to make up everything I know about the story. To anyone contemplating watching this rather dull story, I point out that the title characters in Romero's film are several times more animated than any of the cast of "Planet of the Giants". It's a Dalek so rush out and buy lots of merchandise!

"Planet of the Giants" does not, however, contain any Daleks, whatever its merits and the viewing public of Blighty were screaming out for their return. Well, that component of the viewing public under six years of age, anyway. Yes, this was the age of Dalekmania, when any self-respecting Dalek fan was filling their bedroom with such delights as Dalek water pistols, Dalek board games, Dalek bicycles and Dalek dining room furniture, as well as purchasing huge numbers of Daleks of any size, the best of which were the ridiculously named Rolykins, one inch tall versions of the trundling terrors that were especially designed for your little brother to swallow.

So it was inevitable that the production team would relent on their decision that the Daleks would never reappear in the programme, not at all, never ever, full stop, honest, and the metal meanies made their reappearance in "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", a very appropriate title considering what was happening in millions of shops and homes around the country. The story featured scenes that showed us Dalek swimming lessons and had a plot that involved the Daleks digging up Bedfordshire, thus proving that they aren't all bad. "Dalek Invasion of Earth" is undoubtedly the best story of season two because Susan left at the end of it. There.

Next up was a neat little two parter known as "The Rescue". Villain of the piece was Koquillion, the actor inside the costume being credited under a false name in both the Radio Times and on the end titles in order to disguise the fact that it was in fact Roger Daltrey, who was in the BBC's Riverside building for an appearance on Top Of The Pops, but misread the notice board giving details of the performers' assembly point and got the words "the" and "Doctor" mixed up. For the performance that he missed, Daltrey's place in the band was taken by Bill Brundle, ex of the Brundletones, Acton's nascent paper-and-comb and tea-chest combo who had scored considerable successes in the fifties with such classics as "My Ole Man's a Sewer Inspector" and "Let's Hit a Tea-Chest Very Hard Indeed". Brundle was refused a regular place in the band after it was explained that "My Generation" could not be satisfactorily performed on a broom with three pieces of string attached. But back to Doctor Who.

The next two stories of Doctor Who's second season can both be described as comedies. Firstly there's "The Romans", in which, much to the audiences dismay, it is confirmed that Vicki has in fact become a companion, due to a clause in Verity Lambert's contract that states that she must have at least one annoying pest resident in the TARDIS at any time. The plot of "The Romans" is insignificant, detailing the Doctor inspiring Nero into burning down a bad cardboard model of Rome while the emperor fiddled, although it isn't detailed what he actually fiddled with.

But as a comedy, the next story is even more successful, yes, it's the infamous, all-singing, all-dancing and jolly expensive "The Web Planet", written by Bill Strutton. Now if you or I had suggested writing a story in which the Doctor and friends help a race of butterflies overcome a race of giant fibreglass ants who are being controlled by a giant floating umbrella, then we would be carted off to a nice padded room somewhere. Not Bill. In fact, he was so chuffed with the idea that he was preparing new scripts called "Return of the Zarbi" and "The Zarbi Invasion of Earth" but unfortunately the scripts were stolen and burnt by an insects-rights movement, so were never made.

After The Crusades (which is actually very good, so has no place being discussed in this article) is The Space Museum, in which a race of people in black role neck jumpers are having a bit of a fight with some more people who have silly eyebrows over the entrance fee to an intergalactic version of the Natural History Museum. One interesting point is that the leader of the people with silly eyebrows would later reappear in DOCTOR WHO in Underworld as a robot with a waste paper bin on his head.

At the close of this story we have an exciting lead-in to the following adventure and a vain attempt to revive the dying trend of Dalekmania. "The Chase" concerns everyone's favourite petulant pepper-pots building their own time machine thanks to an item on Blue Peter and pursuing the Doctor through the Universe, believing him to be responsible for the falling sales of Dalek underpants. The chase itself takes both parties to many locations in which they have to face such terrors as 12 foot walking mushrooms, an American tourist called Morton Dill and worst of all, a robot William Hartnell. The climax of the story takes place on the planet Mechanus, in which another race of Terry Nation robots appear - the Mechanoids - who fight a battle to the death with the Daleks over control of Rolykin toy manufacturing.

At the end of the story, Ian and Barbara finally leave the Doctor, which upsets him somewhat - well, wouldn't you be upset with just Vicki for company? But fortunately, another clause in Verity Lambert's contract stated that Doctor Who must also feature a heroic male companion to keep the resident annoying pest company, so heroic male Stephen the Spaceman was quickly drafted in to replace heroic male Ian. Peter Purves, who played heroic male Stephen the Spaceman, had appeared earlier in "The Chase" as the male but not that heroic Morton Dill, would later go on to much bigger and better things, such as presenting Blue Peter and programmes about dogs.

To close the season the expectant audience was presented with "The Time Meddler", which like The Crusades is very good and should not be studied here, but it scores over the pure historical in having a monk in it.

Well two seasons after Sydney Newman and his mates said to themselves "I know let's invent a story about a man who travels through Time and Space in a police box" the series was still going, despite William Hartnell forgetting his lines on a regular basis. But how could the BBC follow season two? Well, with season three, perhaps?

Based on articles previously published in Think Tank issues 20 and 21 (April/May 1991).

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Copyright RJW Amphlett & MJ Newton 2003. All rights reserved.
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