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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

So...you want to get into Classic Doctor Who? Part 1

With March 31st and the premiere of the second half of Series Seven of Doctor Who, I'm often finding more and more people that are discovering the series for the first time. Whether it's the mind-bendingly awesome concepts of showrunner Steven Moffat, the quirky lead actor Matt Smith, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer sized void that the show fills for some of us, or just the fact that its the hot sci-fi/fantasy thing that's just now becoming big in America, Doctor Who is everywhere. When I saw Matt Smith on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, I knew it was "game on" for the series.

What's funny is, very few of the new Doctor Who faithful have ever bothered to watch Classic Doctor Who, which ran from 1963 to 1989 in Merry Old England. The current show is a continuation of the original series, as each actor to play the ubiquitous "Doctor" is a "regeneration" of the actor who played him before. This has happened twice now in the current series airing on BBC and BBC America, but did you know it happened at least seven times prior to Christopher Eccleston first happening upon Billie Piper being chased by the Autons? Guess who has watched a good deal of Classic Doctor Who? Guess who's going to tell you what's good from each specific Doctor? Yep! Thanks for reading.

Now in order to expedite things, I'm going to stick with a rule of one serial per Doctor. While the current show has forty-twoish minute episodes like any standard cable television series with generally thirteen episodes in each given series (or season), the original series was often based around the formula of four to six twenty-threeish minute episodes that were broken up into serials (or story-arcs). The original series still had seasons, but short of a couple of seasons that carried overarching themes, the serials were by and large independent of each other with only the main players (the Doctor and his companions) carrying over from serial to serial.

Again, I'll be picking one serial per Doctor, and these won't all be television serials either (MYSTERY!!!!), but basically what I want to do here is give anyone who has an interest in possibly checking out Classic Doctor Who a starting point worth delving into, if they are brave enough (more on that later). Now, if you aren't already amongst the converted and are interested in the show, do yourself a favor a check out the following if you have Netflix Instant Streaming: Series/Season Three Episode: Blink, Series Four episodes: Silence in the Library/Forests of the Dead, Series Five, and Series Six. Those are all you need to catch up to where the show is currently, and you get to avoid alot of froth in the middle, though there's good stuff here and there too that's worth checking out, but I hate having to struggle through the less-good seasons of a show to get to its meat sometimes (ala Breaking Bad).

One final caveat for the unwary, Classic Doctor Who is rough-going at times. It's cheap looking, the acting is often questionable, and the further it gets past its prime (late seventies-early eighties), the worse it gets. But with that said, allow me to share with you what I think is at least worth your time, at least as a sampler of what came before, if nothing else.

First Doctor
Pilot & The Edge of Destruction (available on the "The Beginning" dvd set)

You ever wanted to watch a tv series that could basically be described as "Ebeneezer Scrooge, Time Cop", well you'd get your wish if you tried to view any of the First Doctor era. Starring William Hartnell in the title role, so to speak, the show tried its darndest to be a mixture of educational (the Doctor, his granddaughter (!), and her teachers(!!!) meet the Aztecs or go to the Old West or meet Marco Polo) and early sci-fi (DALEKS!!!!). The very first serial of the entire series "10,000 BC" doesn't stray from that plan as the Doctor and companions meet cavemen. There's little to recommend there except for the very first episode, or alternately the pilot episode both entitled "An Unearthly Child". This episode focuses on Susan, the Doctor's granddaughter and the teachers who find her so strange that they follow her home one night only to find her walking into the infamous police box. The Doctor only appears towards the end of the story, and is far more abrasive (particularly in the pilot) than the character has ever really been portrayed. It's a nice moody-ish piece of television, especially given the time in which it was shot.

Given that the pilot episode is only one quick shot, "The Edge of Destruction" is probably your next best bet to get a fully fleshed out picture of the First Doctor. Written by David Whitaker, who was probably the closest thing sixties Doctor Who would get to a Robert Holmes/Steven Moffat, "The Edge of Destruction" is a "bottle episode" in that the Doctor and his companions are stuck within the TARDIS and feelings of emotion like paranoia and despair began to run rampant amongst the crew. What makes the serial (which is only 2 episodes long) work is that rather than the Doctor and Susan, etc reacting to an external threat, like say The Daleks, everything is occurring within their safety zone inside the TARDIS. It's the first serial that actually builds characterization around what had so far been ciphers rather than fully fledged individuals. It also is the first inkling given in the series that the TARDIS might actually be alive.

It should be noted that these early Doctor Who serials are especially stagey looking, not unlike an early Dark Shadows episode. William Hartnell's portrayal eventually softens into more of a fun grand-dad type, but his brash, almost antagonistic Doctor is kind of amazing to behold considering the lovable character he eventually became...

Second Doctor
Tomb of the Cybermen (available on DVD in a new anniversary edition)

...starting now! Patrick Troughton took over in 1966 and completely altered the characterization of the Doctor, instead of being a cantankerous old trickster, he was now a cosmic hobo who knew far more than he let on. It's a good portrayal, and to many (including Matt Smith) he is their favorite Doctor, second only to Tom Baker for most. Unfortunately due to the BBC's old policy of erasing tapes they didn't think anyone would have use for, most of Troughton's tenure is unavailable for public consumption. Only a few serials exist in their entirety and luckily, one of the finest examples of the Second Doctor is now easily obtained.

"Tomb of the Cybermen" details the Second Doctor and his most classic companions Jamie and Victoria as they join an excavation team into the tomb of the now vanished Cybermen. It's probably the only time so far (until hopefully this season's Neil Gaiman penned episode) that the Cybermen have been a threat at all. They so often seem like the Daleks' cheaper, less effective cousins. But here, they display some real menace, or at least menace as it would be seen in 1967. We also get a number of the Cybermen's mythos put into place including the rather funny Cybermats. It follows the typical Second Doctor formula of "Base under siege" but is probably the best execution of that idea in his entire era, at least that I've been able to see. It's a great watch.

What's also nice about this set of Second Doctor episodes is that beyond having an arresting actor in the lead, viewers also finally have a companion they can latch onto who is more than just someone the Doctor explains the plot to. I'm of course referring to Jaime, as the female companions won't quite get the same respect until a number of years later. But Frazer Hines carries humor, alot of physical activity, and an arresting personality that makes him literally only second to the Doctor in who the audience becomes warmest to. If you're going to delve into the Second Doctor, this is the place to do it, you don't have many choices anyway. It's also only four episodes long, which is a huge boon. Doctor Who had a terrible habit of padding its serials with extraneous episodes that added absolute zilch to the narrative. Four episodes was generally (with one very notable exception) the sweet spot.

Third Doctor
The Time Warrior

The Third Doctor; with his venusian akido, frilly Austin Powers-esque shirt and smoking jacket, and his car "Bessie", was Doctor Who by the influence of James Bond and Batman. Jon Pertwee's era as the Doctor was an attempt by the program to inject some much needed action to pull the kiddies in who wanted a bit more of what they were getting from spy programs that had begun to take hold in the late sixties and early seventies. It's a fun tenure, he even gets his own M in Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and a lab from which to experiment and investigate. His was also the first run of episodes that were show in color. All of these elements combined to increase the popularity of the program by a significant margin.

It's in "The Time Warrior", Robert Holmes' best early script that we finally get a female companion that's fleshed out into the third dimension. "The Time Warrior" is notable for a few things, but its biggest virtue is the introduction of Sarah Jane Smith, probably the most famous and popular Classic-Who companion. From the moment she comes on the screen, you know things are taking a turn for the very good. Sarah Jane is a feminist, hard-nosed investigative journalist who stows onboard the TARDIS when the Third Doctor goes to investigate a case of missing scientists who have been taken to the middle ages. The first appearance of her character was an acknowledgement by the show that the times are indeed changing and for the better.

The episode is also notable for two other reasons, the debut of the potato-headed Sontarans (or rather one stranded one), who would pop in and out throughout the series but as with the Cybermen previously, never more effective than in the episode cited in this list. Lately, we've gotten a more humorous look at this race via  Straxx, the Sontaran nurse who has appeared a few times during the Eleventh Doctor era. Also, the episode forms a kind of loose trilogy of Holmes episodes of the Doctor taking on somewhat trapped villains. Interestingly enough, another one may be on this list.

Another benefit of this serial is its brevity, at four episodes, it simply breezes by. It's well plotted, avoids many detours and gives us the first compelling (read: not mustache twirling) villain of the soon to begin Robert Holmes-era.

Fourth Doctor
The Talons of Weng-Chiang

And appropriately enough, the final serial of the Robert Holmes run-era on the show is my choice for the most popular of the Doctors. Prior to the series revival, when someone mentioned Doctor Who, the first thing that came to the mind of most Americans was likely Tom Baker. Baker has the distinction of still being the longest-tenured Doctor, playing the role from 1974 to 1981. His run in the lead was also the set of episodes acquired by PBS in the 1980's when it had its British block of television programming. I still remember watching my local PBS station that would show "Are You Being Served?" around 10 pm or so and then follow that up with an episode of the Fourth Doctor. Tom Baker's more bohemian, goof ball but also at times quite alien Doctor really struck a nerve with the viewing public. It was the first time since Troughton that the Doctor engendered personal elements that weren't quite human and was a giant about-face from the Pertwee era.

With such a long run, there a number of really fun serials that I could pick from to represent the best of the Fourth Doctor. Early on, there's the tremendous Hammer Horror take-off " The Brain of Morbius", followed by the Manchurian Candidate-esque "The Deadly Assassin" (which is still my favorite episode where the Doctor squares off against his arch-enemy The Master), and the Douglas Adams penned "City of Death" which is possibly as close as the television series got to the Moffat concept of "timey-wimey". But as much as I love "City of Death" and I really do, it's easily my number two choice here, "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" has everything I'm looking for in a Fourth Doctor episode: Gothic-Hammer style Horror in a Victorian setting, a murderous cult, super unconvincing looking monsters (giant rat!!!), and the Fourth Doctor going full-monty on his main character influence of Sherlock Holmes, he even gets two new temporary companions in the serials that portray the two different takes on Watson in mass media in Jago and Litefoot.

Through his early years, the Fourth Doctor was teamed with Sarah Jane Smith, until he unceremoniously dumped her back on Earth when he decided he got tired of her more or less. By this story-line, he had instead been teamed with Leela, a savage warrior-woman he found in a previous adventure. The character is anything but passive as she spends many adventures trying to stab and fight her way to a solution, with the Doctor trying to "civilize" her. It didn't help though, that she debuted in a leather bikini, kind of undercutting any messages of the introduction of an empowered female. Early Doctor Who was full of "one step forward-one step back" moments like this. Still, the character was tremendously interesting and Louise Jameson is very good in the part and maybe never better than here; where forced to wear Victorian era clothing, she has to fight back every urge she has to fit in with the much polite society of the late 1800's. The serial also contains what can only be described as unfortunate decision (and hopefully not racism) in the portrayal of the Chinese cult and its leader Li H'sen Chang, who is basically a Fu Manchu type but played by a white actor. The character is certainly portrayed as well as could be given that hugely awful circumstance, but the idea of putting a white man in "yellow face" as late as 1977 seems rather unforgivable when an Asian actor could have easily been hired. The stereotypical elements might have still been there, but at least the discomfort would have been lessened.

Back to the positives though, Russell T. Davies, who would go on to run the show from 2005-2009, called "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" some of the best dialogue every written for television. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but I definitely think it's one of the smarter scripts that early Doctor Who ever had. There's a great main villain called Magnus Creel, who fulfills another "trapped villain" archetype that Holmes would go to at least once more, this time pulling inspiration from The Phantom of the Opera. I told you, this serial really ran the gamut on its influences. "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" is also where they tried to pull out all the stop budget-wise. Holmes and Producer Phillip Hinchcliffe wanted bigger set designs, bigger costuming, etc for what would be their final serial, that eventually the man who was supposed to balance the books at the BBC called it quits during production. It all turned out worthwhile as "Talons" from a historical perspective and from script quality is probably as good as the Fourth Doctor ever got. That is, if you can get past some of its backwards elements, if not, the Adams' penned "City of Death" makes a fine back-up.

That's the end of Part One, I'll be back with Part Two where we cover Doctors Five through Eight, and no, the Fox produced movie DID NOT make the list.

Click here for Part Two!

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