The Sixties on Prime
Reviewed by Robert Boswell
AN UNEARTHLY CHILD / 100,000 BC
There's probably not a lot I can say about the series' first episode that hasn't already been said. But, for God's sake, the next time someone's re-launching the series someone please force them to watch this at least a dozen times! Basically, it gets everything right that the TV movie got wrong in terms of introducing the characters and concepts of the series, giving the audience just enough information about the Doctor and the TARDIS to pique their interest without resulting in information overload. More importantly, it provides us with a set of characters who are sufficiently intriguing (in the case of the Doctor and Susan) and sympathetic (in the case of Ian and Barbara) for us to want to watch another 26 weeks of their adventures.
One of the things which really strike me on re-viewing An Unearthly Child is how polished it looks compared to so much of the Hartnell era. Still, I guess this is only to be expected given that they had two goes at getting it right! Waris Hussein directs with remarkable confidence given that he was such a novice. Hartnell's first appearance comes sufficiently far in that Ian and Barbara are well established as our heroes, but when he does appear he blows the other (soon-to-be) regulars off the screen. Carole Ann Ford has basically her only crack at adequacy in the series in this episode too — which is just as well since, in many ways, Susan is the focus of the piece.
Basically, it's very difficult to find fault (and, frankly, it's so enjoyable that I'm not inclined to try). The following three episodes can only pale in comparison, I suppose, which goes some way towards explaining the usual fan reaction to them (which I previously would have agreed with) — ‘boring!’ Watching them this time, though, I actually found myself enjoying them immensely. I'm not sure whether it was watching an episode a day or (God forbid) a sign of encroaching maturity, but I found myself quite drawn to the basic human drama — or rather human dramas: the tribe and the TARDIS crew — unfolding on screen.
The other three scripts may not have as many quotable lines per minute as the first but there are still some gems to be had here (my favourite being the ‘Fear makes companions of us all’ exchange). Anthony Coburn also does a remarkably good job on the dialogue of the tribe members, making it suitably primitive without being tedious to follow. The development of the regular characters is marvellous, and the guest cast really give it their all (Derek Newark and Jeremy Young really standing out).
Okay, so it may not have been the best story to start the series off with, given that they needed to capture the attention of a bunch of bored kids. (Who I imagine reacted as follows: ‘Yay. Cavemen. What's on the other side?’). But it still stands up as a fine piece of drama in its own right.
THE DALEKS / THE MUTANTS
It's easy to see why this story really sold Doctor Who to the public. It's beautifully designed and directed, with some genuinely creepy moments. At least in the first half. Unfortunately, after about episode 4, Nation more or less runs out of ideas and decides to tack on a collection of Jules Verne's greatest hits. The trip through the caves is utterly pointless and tedious — and, sadly, a gimmick which Nation would repeat endlessly in his later stories. The sequence probably isn't helped by the weak direction of the massively overrated Richard Martin, either. Still, in the end, The Daleks is undoubtedly one of the best Dalek stories.
THE EDGE OF DESTRUCTION / INSIDE THE SPACESHIP
Very much a game of two halves. The first part, The Edge of Destruction, has to be one of the most bizarre pieces of television ever made. It's a bit like Waiting for Godot meets one of Brian de Palma's sub-Hitchcock suspense films like Raising Cain or Dressed to Kill — only not half as good. Again, I suspect Martin's direction as being to blame for most of the production's shonkier aspects, like the deliberately stilted delivery of the cast. This is supported by the fact that most of those aspects disappear in the Frank Cox-directed The Brink of Disaster. On the other hand, the second part is an altogether more straightforward affair in terms of story and that, as much as the change of director, may have contributed to making it feel so different from the first episode.
But make no mistake, it does feel very different. The Brink of Disaster is charged with providing the explanations to events in the first episode, and they come thick and fast. At times, though, you get the feeling that David Whitaker just wrote whatever weird event occurred to him for the first part, then concocted an explanation only when he came to write the second. The development of the Doctor-Barbara relationship in the final scene almost makes up for the paucity of the main plot, but the story as a whole still reeks of ‘fill-in’'. Read the book instead.
THE KEYS OF MARINUS
Basically, this story appears to have been the result of Terry Nation deciding that the most successful parts of The Daleks were the set pieces of the trek through the caves, and that he should therefore write a story based around such set pieces. Unfortunately he was wrong. As I indicated above, I found the latter episodes of The Daleks to be utterly tedious and Keys is, if anything, much worse. The first episode starts quite well, even if the exploration of the pyramid is essentially a less interesting version of the exploration of the Dalek city. But the locations that the TARDIS crew are sent to in subsequent episodes are neither interesting nor well developed enough to hold my attention. Only the final sequence in Millennius holds any real interest — and that only because Hartnell is so wonderful in the trial scenes.
Wow. This is one of those stories where you think ‘it can't possibly be as good as it's cracked up to be’. It's not — it's much, much better. I think I basically spent the whole time this was on with a big smile on my face. This is one of those occasions where the adage about how much easier it is to write about something you hated than something you loved comes in, so I'll just say two things. First, John Ringham is absolutely astonishing as Tlotoxl. Second, the quality of the scripting here, combined with the quality of the direction on An Unearthly Child make me want cry over the fact that Marco Polo, Lucarotti and Hussein's collaboration, is still lost.
Oh dear. A painful experience. It starts well, though; I'll give it that. The wonderful ‘leaving the TARDIS’ sequence and the suspenseful scenes on the abandoned ship both show Mervyn Pinfield's skill as a director. But the Sensorites themselves look ridiculous, and the script is appalling. Things only get worse when the action switches to the Sense-Sphere, with the risible ‘we all look the same to one another’ identity switching, and the source of the ‘plague’ being obvious long before the characters figure it out.
PLANET OF GIANTS
A huge relief after The Sensorites. It's not the greatest story in the series' history, by any stretch, but it's a lot of fun, and it's over before it wears out its welcome. The giant sets are really neat — but then that's what everyone singles out about this story. The sequences with Forrester and Smithers seem surprisingly adult — almost like they've been lifted from a ‘proper’ police drama of the time. My only reservation with this story is that it does seem to mark the beginning of a ‘dumbing-down’ of the show. That is, a move from attempts to present more intelligent science fiction ideas — exploring the alien or future worlds in which the characters finds themselves in as much depth as the historical stories explore their environments — to straight action-adventure with a sci-fi backdrop. This is a development that becomes more pronounced as the show's second season progresses (and Dennis Spooner comes on board).
Also of note with this one is the first appearance of Dudley Simpson on incidental music. And ruddy awful it is too. Dudley starts as he inevitably went on — loud and melodramatic. Why Who fans love this guy so much is utterly beyond me.
THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH
I guess this is basically the epitome of dumbing the show down, but it's quite enjoyable nevertheless (probably as much for the change of pace as anything!). Being totally objective, the plot's not really up to much and the reason for the Daleks' invasion seems tacked on, but there is enough excitement and incident to keep the story rolling along. The romance between Susan and David is actually quite well developed though the friendship between fellow curmudgeons the Doctor and Tyler is much more fun to watch. It's interesting to speculate about what might have resulted if Jenny had been the new companion instead of Vicki, as was originally intended. One imagines that she and the Doctor would have had a somewhat fiery relationship, to say the least! Shades of Tegan?
I've always liked The Rescue, for some reason. Liked it enough to suggest that it actually redeems Whitaker for Inside the Spaceship! The dialogue in the early cave scenes is hilarious (‘I can hear you from in here, you know!’), though one imagines Dennis Spooner had a great deal to do with this. The loss of Susan and the arrival of large doses of humour (playing up to Hartnell's fantastic comic timing) pretty much signals the end of the meaner, colder Doctor of the first season, and the beginning of Hartnell's ‘genial uncle’ characterisation. He's already more or less made friends with Ian and Barbara by this point, but the loss of Susan leaves him much more reliant on them. His affection for both the schoolteachers and Vicki is obvious, and he has no qualms in offering the latter a place in the TARDIS. Vicki makes a pretty good impression here, but the character is a bit obvious as a Susan replacement. Still, at least she doesn't whine as much, and has a sense of fun!
If the witty interplay at the start of The Rescue was down to Spooner, it was obviously just a warm-up for this. I laughed like a drain the whole way through. The entire cast (including the guest stars) is in superb form. Well, okay maybe not Maureen O'Brien, who just seems a bit wet as Vicki. This story sees the dumbing down thing spreading to the historicals. But, more than anything else, there's just a sense of a production team which is by now confident in its audience and the appeal of its show relaxing and enjoying itself.
THE WEB PLANET
I guess this story can't help but be disappointing to anyone who grew up with the novelisation (the first Doctor Who book I read, at the age of 8 or 9). Still, I do have to admire its utterly insane sense of ambition if nothing else. I also suspect it might have been a better production if Christopher Barry had been at the helm rather than Richard Martin — but you probably guessed by now that I'm not a huge fan of Martin's. Still, even with a better director on the story, it would still have to contend with the fact that it's completely impossible to achieve on Doctor Who's budget. I mean, let's face it, the Zarbi look ridiculous, the Menoptra only look impressive until they try to move, and as for the Optera... For all that, there are some genuinely wonderful moments in the story (the abortive Menoptra attack at the Crater of Needles works surprisingly well), and it is at least trying to do something a bit more intelligent (do I detect the hand of David Whitaker here?). And I'd still rather watch it that The Sensorites any day!
THE SPACE MUSEUM
This story wants desperately to be something more than just a ‘rebels vs. evil empire’ shoot-em-up. Unfortunately, it fails completely. The first episode gives us a genuinely interesting premise, and a genuinely exciting cliffhanger, but the story proper completely fails to capitalise on it. Hartnell gets some great comedy business (the bit where he hides in the Dalek, the interrogation scene), but neither the Moroks nor the Xerons are interesting (or well-acted) enough to base a story around, and none of the other regular cast members get anything particularly interesting to do. On top of which, there are some appalling lapses in logic — if you're going to do a story which actually looks at the implications of time travel, the least you can do is work it out properly!
...In which Terry Nation decides that The Keys of Marinus was so successful that he should apply the same principles to a Dalek story. Please, shoot me now! Thankfully, unlike Keys, this one actually reaches such abysmal depths that it's actually laugh-out-loud funny, which at least makes it more enjoyable to watch, if no more worthwhile as a story. See the Doctor hang out with tea-cosy-wearing desert people! Marvel as he meets a hillbilly on the Empire State Building! Choke on your tea as he fights Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster in a haunted house! And just when you think it can't get any worse, up pops the Doctor's robot ‘double’. 'Nuff said.
THE TIME MEDDLER
This one's a real gem, coming after a run of stories ranging from the disappointing to the downright awful. One gets a sense that this story is basically Dennis Spooner setting down his vision of how Doctor Who should be. And great fun it is too. Dumbed down from Whitaker's version, without a doubt, but there's a real sense of freshness and innovation about this story. Peter Purves is great as Steven, and he plays off Maureen O'Brien beautifully. Vicki finally gets to be the more experienced one in the TARDIS crew and, boy, does she ever lord it over Steven! Hartnell gets some more wonderful lines courtesy of Spooner, and his banter with Peter Butterworth is superb. Of course, as people love to point out, the Vikings and the Saxons aren't really particularly interesting characters. But who cares? It's not like they're the focus of the story, is it? Basically, this one's massively underrated.
I rather like this story, but I'm not quite sure why. The Monoids are probably as ridiculous an alien as the series has ever featured (with the possible exception of Alpha Centauri - but at least s/he didn't sport a Beatles wig!), and the humans all wear that bane of televised science fiction, the toga. Still, Michael Imison does a wonderful job with the direction, and the whole production looks like it's had a fair bit of money spent on it. The first two episodes are by far the best, telling an intelligent science fiction story with no real monsters or villains. Steven's speech at his ‘trial’ is quite lovely, if a little corny. The commander is delightfully dotty, and even Dodo's almost acceptable. Almost.
The idea of the TARDIS taking its crew to the same location, but at a later time is an interesting one (though, as others have pointed out, it doesn't really take them to the same location, 'cause the Ark itself has moved). Unfortunately, as with The Space Museum, the latter half of the story doesn't really live up to its intriguing lead-in, and is a much more run-of-the-mill humans vs. monsters affair. It doesn't really help that the human cast in the second half is nowhere near as strong as the first. Still, at least we do get Roy Skelton doing his Evil Zippy voice as Monoid One — a taste of what's in store for the Daleks!
I'll apologise to Andrew Pixley right now, 'cause I really don't like this story. I tried, really I did. But as far as I can see, it's tacky, badly acted, banal, and deeply unfunny. When the height of the story's humour is the fact that the Doctor can't get Wyatt Earp's name right, you know you're in trouble (‘Mr. Werp’, indeed!). The Doctor and Steven act as though they're as thick as the proverbial pig droppings (Dodo does too, but that's no change for her!), and the accents are appalling.
On the bright side, the sets and costuming are very nice, and Rex Tucker's direction is lovely, particularly in the climactic OK Corral film sequences. Oh, and I'd still rather watch it than The Sensorites.
THE WAR MACHINES
Well, everyone and their dog has said it, so I suppose I'd better say it too: this really is the blueprint for the future of Doctor Who. I think it's true to say that seasons 4 and 5 were where the show really settled down into the formula which remained its basis right through to 1989. But this story is the blueprint for that blueprint, if you like. It's also a very exciting story in its own right, thought it's surprising how little the War Machines themselves appear. Ben and Polly are easily the most appealing companions since Ian and Barbara, and Hartnell gives one of the strongest performances of his later stories. He really is great at all the hob-nobbing with gentry and crushing authority stuff — things we usually associate with Pertwee.
THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN
Well, this is about my favourite story of all time, so I guess it's safe to say I liked it. Tomb seems to have come in for a fair bit of flack since its rediscovery, for reasons that escape me. But it really is the only Cyberman story to really address what, for me anyway, is their scariest aspect — their ability to turn you into one of them. On top of that, there's some wonderful dialogue (even the Cybermen get great lines — ‘You belong to us. You will be like us.’), some great performances (Captain Hopper always makes me laugh), suspenseful plotting, and that gorgeous incidental music. The regulars all get some good material too (the part where the Doctor and Jamie reach out for Victoria and end up holding hands, and especially the scene where the Doctor tells Victoria about his family — a real gem, that one).
Of course, it does have its faults. There are some flaws in the story's logic if you want to over-analyse it, and there are some rotten effects (the Cybermats just look silly; and then there's the Cybercontroller dummy...), but if you're worries about the quality of the special effects, why on earth are you a Doctor Who fan?
I think this is the closest we've come so far to the pain of The Sensorites. This story really is thoroughly rotten. Boring villains, unsympathetic victims, naff-looking robots, togas — this one's got it all. Even Troughton's not that great (and I never thought I'd have to say that!). God bless Derrick Sherwin for shortening the agony by one episode.
THE MIND ROBBER
This is as good as The Dominators is bad. The really ironic thing is that the first episode — which was tacked on by Derrick Sherwin to pad it out — is the best part of the story. But that shouldn't detract from Peter Ling's episodes, which are also extremely enjoyable. I love the way that the story has this strange air of whimsy, but is still able to generate a feeling of menace when it needs to. A welcome debut for David Maloney, one of the show's best directors, who impresses right from the outset.
Not half as bad as it's cracked up to be. I mean, it's not the greatest story ever, but it's a damn sight better than The Dominators, for a start! (And, yes, I would rather watch it than The Sensorites. How did you guess?). Robert Holmes' knack for dialogue is apparent in the interplay between the three regulars (particularly the Doctor — Zoe scenes during their tests), and the Krotons themselves actually look quite impressive until they try to move. The major problem with the story is one that hurts a couple of other stories in this period — the supporting cast is rather uninteresting. Did anyone who watched this story really care if the Gonds lived or died? I mean it, I'm really asking!
THE SEEDS OF DEATH
This is one of those stories that benefit from being watched at the rate of one episode a day. Watched all in one day, the padding is painfully apparent, and it can easily put you to sleep (believe me — I've literally fallen asleep watching it!). It works rather well on drip-feed however. I much prefer the Ice Lord design in this story to the one from the Peladon stories, as well. The resolution to that Episode 5 cliffhanger's still a massive cheat, though!
THE WAR GAMES
Ah, I do love this story. Death to those who think it's too long! Death, I say! I think Steve Lyons summed up the story's appeal best in his ‘Top Ten’ for DWM a few years back: he said something like the first three or four episodes are full of grim and gritty trench warfare, then the next six episodes are full of camp villains wearing leather. And that's pretty much the appeal of the story. Stops it from getting tedious or same-y, though! The first few episodes are undoubtedly the best, with the weird goings-on in the trenches. Once the alien base is revealed, it all gets a bit more routine, but those kinky leather suits and the groovy set designs make it a lot of fun. The War Chief is a great villain (very much the proto-Master, of course), but Philip Madoc blows him off the screen as the War Lord once he turns up. The final episode really rockets the story into classic territory. The Doctor defending himself to the Time Lords is one of the series' great moments (‘All these evils I have fought ...’), and I have to admit to having a lump in my throat watching Troughton saying goodbye to Jamie and Zoe (‘... time is relative ...’).
This item appeared in TSV 61 (December 2000).