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Patrick Troughton Is the Doctor!

By Bob Beechey

[Second Doctor]We all have our 'own' Doctor. Even though I had been a fan all the way through the Hartnell era, I still consider Patrick Troughton as 'mine'. This is especially poignant as Paul McGann seems to have resurrected many of the attributes of the second Doctor in his own portrayal. Let us start at the beginning.

I was already 19 on 23 November 1963, when the first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast. I had been long looking forward to this. Science fiction was a rarity on TV and this new series was well advertised in the press and the Radio Times. Like The Lost Planet and A Stranger from Space, we were faced with a programme that was first and foremost for children, but the concept seemed interesting. The first episode did not disappoint. The eeriness of the junkyard, the mystery of the Doctor's grand-daughter, the first appearance of the Doctor, Barbara's first stumble into the TARDIS, a police box standing alone on a prehistoric rocky wasteland - these moments have stuck in the mind forever since. The slow build-up, the literate dialogue, the careful studio design was what we expected from quality television. Hartnell, in those early episodes was exactly right, with a slightly alien, dispassionate, self-interested air that culminated in the moment when he looked as though he might pick up a rock to crush an injured caveman's skull.

The following Dalek story cemented the SF appeal of the series but Hartnell's written persona was becoming more irritating and venal when he pretended to have a damaged mercury fluid link as an excuse to visit the Dalek city. As time passed, the character degenerated into mere tetchiness and this was exacerbated by Hartnell's memory problems and line fluffing.

The scenes that linger in my mind in William Hartnell's time as the Doctor are all of the first episode and part of the second; the first appearance of the Daleks; the Zarbi sending my young brother behind the sofa; the Dalek appearing from the Thames; Michael Gough as the Celestial Toymaker and a strange back projection in a stagecoach sequence in The Gunfighters, where a cowboy on a horse (in a large white hat) is doing nothing in particular. It is strange what the brain retains, this was, after all, a very long time ago. Only a little sticks, a strange grab-bag of frozen images. Everything else has required the purchase of videos to bring back memories.

When I heard that Patrick Troughton was replacing Hartnell I became somewhat excited. I had been a Troughton fan for many years. He was one of those reliable character actors that had been a mainstay of British television for many years. He would crop up as reliably in almost every BBC series as reliably as Jack Elam or L.Q. Jones did in cowboy films. His craggy features were immediately recognisable but could take on a huge variety of different personae.

Patrick Troughton rarely took on major roles but was always there. I have a bizarre memory of a stagy, studio bound BBC serial about a log-cabin family in American pioneering days. In one episode, almost without rhyme or reason, Patrick Troughton appeared as a buckskin-clad frontiersman walking down a bush path. A Red Indian appeared and there followed one of those pre-filmed, balletic, judo-esque, highly choreographed fight sequences that was inserted into the taped programme. Troughton was, of course, the victor.

There were, however, two starring roles in major television productions that have become famous. The BBC had made a hugely expensive series of Jesus of Nazareth to great acclaim and controversy - this was the first time an actor playing Christ was allowed to show his face. The series was so successful that the BBC followed it up with Saul of Tarsus with Troughton in the starring role. Location filming in the Middle East and huge sets were the order of the day, but the authority and stature of Troughton's acting made it work.

Even more memorable was the BBC production of Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop with Troughton playing the malevolent dwarf Quilp. This was a very convincing performance, with the actor exaggerating his small stature by perching on tables and other furniture. Younger fans will only have seen Troughton in lesser roles in some films that are reliably recycled by TVNZ. These can only hint at his range as an actor: Israel Hands accompanying Robert Newton's legendary Long John in Disney's Treasure Island; the sightless tormented of the Harpies in Jason and the Argonauts and the terrified Father Brennan in The Omen.

I was tired of Hartnell and Peter Cushing was, unexpectedly, a disaster. So, it was with some anticipation that I looked forward to Patrick Troughton revitalising the role of the Doctor. I watched with interest as he pulled himself to his feet beside the TARDIS console. However, my first reaction was disappointment! Everyone knows about the general surprise when the famous comedian Jon Pertwee played the Doctor dead straight. Well, with Troughton it was the other way round: there were strange cometic touches to the new Doctor. He wore impossibly baggy trousers, he waddled when he walked, he did silly business on a recorder - this Doctor appeared to be a buffoon!

As the role developed, this Doctor grew in stature. Unfortunately, many of my memories are dim - my mind cannot fill in the gaps left by so many missing episodes. I was at University at the time and although, each week, I joined the huge audiences in the TV room for Top of the Pops and Match of the Day, as well as the much smaller ones for Doctor Who, there were many other things competing for the pigeon holes in my brain. I tend to remember Troughton doing a lot of running and crying out "Oh, golly gosh!" and "My giddy aunt!" and "Oh dear!" This Keystone Cops element is well illustrated by the Doctor running, clutching his bottom, from the Cybermen's shots in The Invasion.

Patrick Troughton's Doctor is best described not by what he did but by his changing moods and attributes as he worked in the background to influence universe-shattering events. He can be: concentrating with beetled brow but keen intelligence as he fiddles with yet another piece of futuristic electronics; thoughtful in quiet contemplation as he solves another problem without actually telling anyone; showing a deeply caring side and extraordinary wisdom as he effectively comforts a companion; vain about every aspect of himself, deserved and undeserved; courageous and cowardly; irritable, not coping with criticism, and just plain daft, hopefully misdirecting the enemy.

It is this confused and confusing amalgam of observer, victim and driving force that makes Troughton's Doctor so effective as a central focus for good SF story telling. Jon Pertwee was too much the man of action, Colin Baker and Tom Baker were too overpowering, Peter Davison was too polite and vulnerable and Sylvester McCoy was ultimately so mysterious and manipulative that the whole Universe was too small for him and unlikely to survive his presence.

Paul McGann has regained those essential elements of a Doctor that can hold a series without chewing the furniture or the Universe. He is sometimes effete, sometimes silly, sometimes deeply caring, sometimes wise, sometimes brooding, sometimes suggesting hidden menace and mystery. He works under the Pertwee logo but has, in his own unique way, resurrected the attractive and confusing personality of the Second Doctor. Long may he live!

This item appeared in TSV 52 (November 1997).