I have been spending a lot of my free time lately watching and rewatching the BBC's documentary series
"The Doctors Revisited." The reason for the frequent rewatching is because I keep having mixed feelings about each episode and want to see if repeat viewings clarify my thoughts. I finally decided that the only way to really clarify them much at all was to express them. Since my wife is a Who fan but not the massive nerd that I am, the best expression is to write about what I think.
I've watched Doctor Who since I was a very young child. My parents were Doctor Who fans when I was a kid (though neither of them are the huge nerd I am either they are both moderately geeky in their own ways) and my first viewings were alongside them on Saturdays on KCET 28. My parents' love of the show is easy to understand as an adult; as die-hard science fiction fans on the one hand and committed members of a pacifist Christian denomination on the other they must have eaten the show up. Though Peter Davison and Colin Baker were the current Doctors on the BBC during this period, American TV was running re-runs. Thus the Doctors who inspired my fond childhood memories of the show were Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. Like many Brits a bit older than me, Tom Baker was the Doctor for me for a very long time despite the fact that a healthy exposure to Pertwee gave me a lot of respect for his run on the show. I did see Peter Davison's run as a kid but family time watching TV on Saturdays was no longer a regular thing before PBS finished broadcasting all his episodes. As a result, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy (and the truly wonderful Sophie Aldred) were entirely unknown to me until my adulthood. Nor had I ever seen Patrick Troughton outside the classic anniversary special "The Five Doctors."
That said, by the time BBC began running the documentary I had seen plenty of all the Doctors. I had rediscovered Doctor Who in college (where a friend and I used to watch episodes on the projector in a in the Bible and Religion professor's classroom late at night on weekends) and the bulk of the episodes we watched starred Peter Davison and Colin Baker. Then, several years ago when my wife and I were still living in Tennessee, the magic of the internet brought something truly special into my possession: a massive collection of all 26 seasons of the original show with the infamous lost episodes of the Hartnell and Troughton runs reconstructed through still photos taken during production over the original audio tracks. By this time I had already seen one First Doctor serial but had still never seen Troughton outside The Five Doctors. Suffice it to say it is a treasure I still exploit as often as possible. So I was very excited by the documentary. Rather than put everything in one post, I am going to write about each episode one at a time.
William Hartnell was obviously before my time but the show I loved as a child would never have existed without him.The grand historical dramas and cheesy pseudo-historical comedies of his run are something that has been missing from subsequent runs (saving only the single story "The Highlanders" from the Troughton run and the oddball two-episode story "Black Orchid" from Davison's run) and I think this a great shame even if some of these stories were terribly bad. These kinds of shows stopped being written because the audience loved the monsters. Yet at their best the "historicals" made excellent use of an inverted perspective in which the Doctor and his companions were "monsters" whose very presence risked unraveling the fabric of history.
Perhaps because the First Doctor is still the version of the character to which I have been least exposed, this was an episode about which I had very few complaints and only one real disagreement. I found the dissertations of Stephen Moffat, David Tennant, and Neil Gaiman (a man who really should be offered a chance to run the show and who really should say yes if ever offered the job) on how different the Hartnell Doctor was from his successors very much in line with many of my own thoughts. I could make a minor quibble here if I really wanted to. The personal authority that the First Doctor could exert if he so wished was fundamental to Pertwee's portrayal of the Third Doctor and is something only Peter Davison ever really wholly abandoned. Even the Second Doctor has a few of these great moments. This surprising authority combined with the occasional malignancy the First Doctor could demonstrate helped established the alien-ness so central to Tom Baker's legendary run, the bombastic egotism of Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor, the Machivallian ruthlessness of Sylvester McCoy's brilliant run as the Seventh Doctor, and the brooding dark side both Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant were capable of showing. Still, despite the manner in which Hartnell laid the core groundwork of the character, those watching the first series of Doctor Who after only viewing the newer version of the show from Eccleston on would have a hard time recognizing their idea of the Doctor in this curmudgeonly old antihero.
Yet this was Hartnell's magic, the reason I still watch his stories with relish. The First Doctor is the cranky old grandfather who is a proper bastard to almost everyone but whose love for his family shines through again and again. His combative but close relationship with Ian Chesterton is clearly the difficult relationship between a father and son of very different generations and values but remarkably similar strength of conviction. This and the amazing closeness between the First Doctor and his granddaughter Susan is the glue that created the show and laid the groundwork for the relationships between all future Doctors and their companions. Despite creating a starting point for all the future developments of the character, the First Doctor is the most unique. All his successors but the Fifth possess a manic energy he utterly lacks and this lone exception utterly lacks the crankiness and steely authority that might (when combined with a TARDIS as constantly full as that of the First Doctor) have brought him closer to his roots. One can see the First Doctor to varying degrees in the successors but nothing of the successors in the original. As the First and Original, this is only right.
The one disagreement I did have with this show was with the episode chosen as Moffat's "Adventure with the First Doctor." Not because I do not love "The Aztecs" nor because it is not a classic example of a form largely ignored since Hartnell's tenure. It is merely that, to me, the greatest story of the Hartnell era will always be "The Daleks" while the most profoundly influential (if not as good from a viewer's perspective) is "The Keys of Marinus."
"The Aztecs" was the first story starring Hartnell I ever saw. Its portrayal of one of the Doctor's companion as the fundamental source of all the crew's troubles during their visit is a profound use of the science fiction aspect of the "historical." While the villians Tloxtol and Ixta are appropriately diabolical, the real reason for the conflict is shown in Tloxtol's sidekick Tonila. He is a basically good man who is defending his culture from an invader seeking to conquer it and profoundly twist it to suit her idea of what it should be.The fact that Barbara is trying to save the Aztec civilization from Cortez is beside the point. She is the "alien" in this story and it is the manner in which the villains view her as a dangerous monster to be destroyed that drives the action. Human sacrifice may be something we can all agree is evil and wrong today, but the Aztec perspective was different and Tonila is a brilliant demonstration of this perspective. Tloxtol and Ixta are fundmentally evil people using treacherous means to protect positions threatened by Barbara's reforming zeal. Tonila is occupying a role much like that of Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart in "The Web of Fear", "The Invasion", and the entire run of the Third Doctor: he is the defender of his civilization's way of life. For all this brilliance, however, I suspect "The Aztecs" was chosen because it was easily combined into a two hour feature. As an historical drama its influence is minimal on a show that has since become an adventure in Lovecraftian sci-fi horror combined with high comedy.
On the other hand, "The Daleks" is classically representative of the show and a grand look into the future. Though Moffat says that Hartnell emerges as a hero in "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" it is here that he first faces the creatures that Russell T. Davies made the fundamental focus of his term as showrunner and who Moffat calls the Doctor's most iconic enemies. It is here that the Doctor essentially makes a decision (even if his companions do bully him into it) to save the threatened Thalls from the Daleks' plan to finally "win" their hideous war by destroying all life on their planet but themselves. It is the story that planted the fertile seeds of two of my very favorite Doctor Who moments: Tom Baker's masterful performance in "Genesis of the Daleks" and the Seventh Doctor's coldly reflective decision to undo the Fourth Doctor's mistake in Sylvester McCoy's tour de force performance through "Remembrance of the Daleks." Most of all, "The Daleks" is the first great Doctor Who story. Every serial before it was decidedly inferior and very few since have matched it.
"The Keys of Marinus" immediately precedes "The Aztecs" and is often considered decidedly inferior to it. It also has comparatively little of the Doctor himself. The cast is split up to search for different components of the titular maguffin of the story and the Doctor's companions and the supporting characters Altos and Sabetha are frequently the focus of the action. Yet like the best of the Sixth Doctor's stories the Doctor himself has a grand moment at the story's conclusion. Indeed, it could be said this episode set the formula that Eric Saward used for much of his run as script editor: the Doctor is the catalyst whose insertion into an already existing conflict or crisis finally resolves the issue but his companions and their local allies are the primary focus of much of the story. It also, by introducing a common thread that links otherwise very disparate episodes into a coherent story, set the standard that was used much more subtly by both Davies and Moffat in creating story arcs for each series of the show under their tenure. Most importantly its formula was responsible for the very best storytelling arcs of the Third and Fourth Doctors. Both the grand cycle of the Master in the 8th Series (in which Roger Delgado is essentially a regular and the Master plays a role in every story) and the Fourth Doctor's grand epic "The Key to Time" (the root of my biggest beef with the documentaries, though that must wait til I write about the Fourth Doctor) make use of this formula to arguably greater effect than this underappreciated little story. This serial is better than it is given credit for being and every fan of Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker would not be able to help but remember its influence.
Is it unrealistic to want to have seen one of these serials featured in place of "The Aztecs"? Probably. "The Daleks" lasted seven episodes and clocks in at three and a half hours. "The Keys to Marinus" lasted six, clocks in at three hours, and frequently does not even feature the Doctor. So I understand the choice of "The Aztecs." It consists of four half-hour episodes that make perfect tv-movie viewing and I even agree it is probably superior to "The Keys of Marinus." I just can't help but cling to the idea that either would be more representative of how the First Doctor affected and continues to inspire the future of the show instead of offering an isolated picture of a part of the show's past future writers would discard almost entirely.
I guess, like the First Doctor himself, I am a curmudgeon.