Reviewed: Doctor Who Season 1 – A Mild Curiosity

And here we go. The first story of Doctor Who went out on 23rd November 1963 on the BBC. The basic concept was gold and has allowed it to remain strong for over 50 years now. A mysterious man (William Hartnell) and his granddaughter (Carole Ann Ford) are in London and attract the attention of two schoolteachers (William Russell and Jacqueline Hill). They set off on a series of adventures across time and space.

It all started as a mild curiosity in a junk yard, and now it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure…

An Unearthly Child

This story has always been considered essential viewing for me. Or at least Episode 1. Every 23rd November, for the last 10 years or so, I rewatch the story again. It’s my own anniversary celebration. Kind of geeky, I admit, but hey, there are worse things to be stuck on in life.

An Unearthly Child contains many of the basic show elements that still continue today. It has an atmosphere that was immediately lost in The Cave of Skulls, and the odd “feel” of Episode 1 was never really recaptured again. Episode 10 of The War Games sort of has that tone, but not nearly as well executed. Once the TARDIS team steps out into 100,000 BC, it’s not nearly as good. It’s not like The Cave of Skulls, The Forest of Fear, and The Firemaker are awful; they’re okay. But given how outstanding An Unearthly Child was, the other three are a let-down. For the longest time, I would watch the first episode, and then stop. It was such a change, such a difference that it turned me off. Later on, I realised that was part of the point – that we were supposed to be shocked at how different the Tribe of Gum material was. Over time, I softened on that stance, but still feel Episodes 2, 3, and 4 aren’t nearly as good as 1.

The Doctor’s general attitude towards his companions was one I liked. This attitude changes a lot during this story, and the next two, and to some extent in Marco Polo as well. By the time we get to the fifth story, The Keys of Marinus, he seems to actively like his companions. I felt the show tried to recapture this with the caustic relationship between the Sixth Doctor and Peri Brown, but that kind of attitude didn’t fly in 1985 as much.

Much of the serial features the crew trying to figure out how to get back to the TARDIS. A lot of the dialogue consists of “Za is leader!” and variations of it. It’s really banal stuff, which fits the setting, but I could never get into it. The TARDIS crew spend a few episodes trying to trick the primitives, as well as show them how to make fire – not heady sci-fi adventure, there.

It nevertheless has a strong cast: Derek Newark (Za) later played Greg Sutton in the serial, Inferno; Alethea Charlton (Hur) played Edith in The Time Meddler; Eileen Way (Old Mother) was Karela in The Creature from the Pit (and appeared in the film Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD); and Jeremy Young (Kal) later played Gordon Lowery in Mission to the Unknown. Finally, Jacqueline Hill returned in 1980, albeit as Lexa, not Barbara Wright, in Meglos.

Sadly, some of the limited budget shows on screen. Specifically, at the end of The Firemaker, when the crew is being chased back to the TARDIS by the primitives, the chase through the jungle was just the actors standing there with others brushing leaves and whatnot by their faces to make it seem like they were in the middle of a rough terrain. The effect is odd, knowing that fact. I wonder if I would have felt different about it, not knowing that. Still, overall, it comes off well; I just don’t like this narrative terribly much.

There were a few versions of this story, of course. The known aired one, and the original “pilot” version. The pilot was the actual attempt to film it, but due to several mistakes, and a desire to change the tone of Hartnell’s performance, it was reshot, and the reshoot is the public widely-seen version. Nonetheless, this pilot has been released a few times over the years – first on VHS in 1991, then again on VHS in 2000, and finally on DVD in 2006 as part of the DVD release of An Unearthly Child.

Verdict: 7/10. The first episode is a 10 out of 10 (might even be a “this goes to 11”). However, subsequent parts are about a 5 or so, so I averaged it out to 7.

The Daleks

The Daleks. Almost as old as Doctor Who itself. They’ve appeared with every incarnation of the Doctor (although their appearance in The TV Movie is a bit spurious). They’ve been loved, mocked, turned into colour-coded kids merchandise options; they’ve even been known to get you tea from time to time.

One of the original edicts from Doctor Who creator, Sydney Newman was that he didn’t want any Bug-Eyed Monsters, and when he saw what Verity Lambert was doing with the Daleks, he objected… until he found out how popular they were. Most of their original design specs continue to this day.

Their look certainly fits the monochrome aspect of the show at the time. The set design is good, so it all fits together nicely to the combined themes of nuclear devastation and the “metallic” feel of the Daleks. I’ve always enjoyed that part of the story. The set design has influenced the modern series too, including the Skaro scenes in The Magician’s Apprentice/ The Witch’s Familiar, the hallway shapes echoed in the Dalek spaceships of Bad Wolf/ The Parting of the Ways, and even the Asylum of the Daleks (albeit a bit grubbier). This is particularly interesting, as the species has evolved somewhat. You wouldn’t think the Daleks would evolve (Dalek Sec aside), but they have – especially after a recent viewing of this story.

This story also originated that “buh-bum” heartbeat-like noise you always got in a Dalek ship – it has survived into the most recent Dalek stories, as well. It feels right to hear that, and reminds me of the general background noise on the bridge of the Enterprise in the old Star Trek series.

Now, I know comparing a 55-year old programme against its modern counterparts isn’t exactly fair, but it’s impossible to go back and watch the beginning of the Daleks without knowing what they’re like today.

The first thing you notice when watching The Daleks is its pace. The complete story comprises 7 25-minute episodes, the equivalent of roughly 3.5 modern day stories. There’s an entire sequence in this story that spans an episode and a half; in the modern show, it would take 10 minutes, tops.

The story starts off slowly with the regulars still inside the TARDIS, where we get some more explanation of the Space-Time Ship. We see a food dispenser, using the “futuristic idea” of meals being in capsules and tasting like what we want them to. The Doctor explains food as being like component parts and colours; you mix them together to achieve the desired result – in this case J62L6 (bacon and eggs). Susan also says that the computer on the ship can direct them wherever they want if they’re fed the right kind of information, but does not elaborate on what it is. Some of this set-up is forgiveable, as An Unearthly Child spends 80% of its time outside the Ship. Once this exposition is out the way, they wander out and view the surrounding area – a petrified forest (hence the name of the first episode, The Dead Planet).

An early example of the Doctor’s manipulative attitude pops up, where he lies to the crew to get a view of the Dalek city below. Hartnell’s Doctor was initially portrayed as a bit of a frump, and this was a good example. “Fine – you don’t want to go? Well, we’ll go anyway; I’ll just make you think it’s the only way to go”. He eventually confesses to this in a latter episode, and there isn’t much repercussion to that, oddly enough. But the character of the Doctor is in full display here, from the cranky old guy, to the caring soul that permeates all the incarnations, to the alien who wonders why people don’t want to do things his way. It’s well handled by Hartnell.

The Dead Planet closes on what was, at the time, an epic cliffhanger. Not so much now, because we all know what the Daleks look like, but back then, Barbara is menaced by a mysterious alien, and all we could see on screen was the plunger. The resolution prolongs the drama further, since you don’t find out what’s behind the plunger until about 5 minutes into The Survivors.

I started watching Doctor Who in 1983, so I’m well versed in Daleks now, and the impact of that is lost on me. Still, it does show the Daleks as being calculating, paralysing Ian’s legs as opposed to just zapping him into non-existence. You don’t know what these things are, and what they’re capable of. (There’s also some decent split screen effects as a Dalek tries to shoot Ian and misses. The extermination effect of this era was just inverting the video, but they split the inverted footage on just half the screen – it works well for SFX in 1963.)

In another pacing issue, the majority of The Survivors is taken up with deciding who’s going back to the TARDIS to get the anti-radiation gloves- uh, drugs that the Thals left behind for them (although we didn’t know that at the time). Susan eventually gets back to the TARDIS, finds the box of drugs, and the episode ends with Susan looking into the jungle as a storm rages. In fact, the bulk of The Survivors (and a decent amount of The Escape) takes place in just a couple of places: the cell where the TARDIS team are, the Dalek control room, and the jungle (again, realised by crew members slapping Susan with stray branches as she runs on the spot). We meet the Thals quickly in The Escape, and we find out they’re not the “mutants” that the Daleks made them sound like.

The Doctor and co. eventually recover and escape from the Daleks by hijacking one and “emptying it”. In this era, the Daleks were powered by static electricity, much like bumper cars. It’s around this time we get a shot of the Dalek creature inside the shell; it wasn’t until the modern series that we get a clear view of that. We get the odd peek here and there in the classic series, but this shot also influenced future design.

The TARDIS team attempt to save the Thals from the titular ambush in the fourth episode, and extricate themselves from the Dalek city. The story could have quite easily ended around the exposition-heavy scene about the history of the Daleks and the Thals. In fact, the TARDIS team actually agree to leave towards the end of The Ambush (the Doctor even says that “we cannot jeopardise our lives and get involved in an affair that is none of our business”), but then we find out that the Daleks took the fluid link from Ian and it’s down in the city. The adventure to regain it comprises Episodes 5 to 7. It’s almost, but not quite, like two stories meshed together, and the end of The Ambush links them.

However, The Expedition, The Ordeal, and The Rescue feels like padding to me. First, we got most of an episode with Ian trying to convince the Thals to help them. The actual trek through an area of swamp takes up the majority of The Ordeal, and even some of The Rescue. It’s an especially slow pace – not my favourite. The Daleks are totally separate for much of this; they don’t interact with anyone else until most of the way through Episode 6.

The odd thing about The Rescue is that the Daleks were overpowered and destroyed rather easily – some of them immobilised by what appears to be nothing more than just a fist punch to the dome. The Daleks generally being abused is hilarious; this practice continues into the modern era. Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor mocks the Dalek as it’s attacked by an eyestalk in Death to the Daleks, (one is beaten with sticks and explodes in the same story); the Fifth Doctor pushes one out of a window; and the Seventh Doctor talks a Dalek to death. My favourite scene along these lines was in David Tennant’s Journey’s End, in which Daleks are pushed around by numerous companions while spinning in circles.

There is a funny moment in The Ordeal too, though I expect it was never intended that way. The Daleks try to use the Thals’ medicine to heal themselves from radiation (it doesn’t work). The resultant Dalek going “Help! Out of Control – AAAaaaAAaaa” (shown through the eyestalk) sounds like a bad drug trip – this was the 1960s after all, so that perception might not be too far off. It does show how differently the Daleks are portrayed at this point in the show’s history. The story feels smaller in scale too: the Dalek plots are usually a large drawn-out plan, but all they want to do here is escape their city.

This first Dalek story ends with some nice dialogue between the characters, who seem to like each other: a short speech by Hartnell about their truth being in the stars is a highlight of The Rescue.

Verdict: 8/10. It only loses the two points for its pacing. While this might be an issue for some (the story could have moved much faster but is forced to fill its 7 episodes), there is a lot worth seeing here, so give it a view if you’ve never done so.

The Edge of Destruction

A Doctor Who adventure that takes place in the TARDIS? The travellers unsure what is going on? No, it’s not Amy’s Choice – it’s The Edge of Destruction!

When I was a little kid, I loved the original Star Trek (I was 1 when it started). My favourite stories showed other parts of the ship, or took place entirely there. Modern TV calls this a “bottle show”, intended to save money. But I just wanted to see other bits of the Enterprise.

So, when I got into Doctor Who, I scanned the back catalogue of episodes, and found a distinct lack of that kind of story. Episode 6 of The Invasion of Time was like this. Otherwise, there was just one full serial. That was it. That was disappointing. But when the First Doctor’s era started airing in the US around 1986 or so, I looked forward to The Edge of Destruction.

It starts off innocently enough with the travellers around the TARDIS console, and for some reason, they’re knocked unconscious. It’s an odd start to the episode. As they start to come around, they obviously wonder what happened. On top of that, they don’t seem to recognise their current situation, or each other properly. The Doctor is the worst off, with his head cut in the fall and spending a decent amount of time unconscious – something that seems to happen a lot to Hartnell as his time in the role went on.

As they come around, strange things happen. Susan goes to get a glass of water from a drinks machine, and is told the machine is empty when it was not. The doors of the TARDIS open and close on their own when people walk towards them. The fault locator says every single thing is wrong with the TARDIS simultaneously.

One of the more notorious scenes involves Susan trying to attack Ian with a pair of scissors, which she freaks out over and stabs the bed a ton of times. Producer, Verity Lambert admits it was probably better left out. This goes on until the characters all suspect each other of sabotaging the ship or being under alien control. Or perhaps it’s outright mutiny.

This all carries on for a while – pretty much through most of The Brink of Destruction too. The crew mistrusts and threatens each other.

Towards the end of the serial, the Doctor enjoys a particularly strong soliloquy. Hartnell is known for his frequent muffing of his lines. Due to the production values of the time, a lot of these are left in. However, this speech is one of the best moments of the era.

Shortly after said speech, the plot is resolved, and everything is well again. I won’t divulge exactly what it is, but look out for some handwritten words on the TARDIS console, which were allegedly there to help Hartnell locate specific spots on the console during filming.

Though there’s an air of mistrust throughout, this story still serves to galvanise the TARDIS crew as friends. They were more companions by circumstance up until this point. After the problems are resolved, there’s a rather nice scene or two at the end where the Doctor makes up with Barbara, and fun with snowballs, as a direct lead-in to the next story, Marco Polo.

Verdict: 9/10. I’m a sucker for stories set in one location. It’s not perfect, but give The Edge of Destruction a shot. You might enjoy this small-scale bottle story as much as I did.

Marco Polo

And now we come to a story that both surprises and annoys me.

Marco Polo is the first of the “lost” stories of the 1960s era of Doctor Who. The BBC erased the tapes in the early 1970s. Of all the stories that are missing, this one is particularly annoying, because records show it was sold overseas more than any other… yet no episodes survive. It’s also one of three stories (alongside Mission to the Unknown and The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve) where not a frame of footage exists. For most of the other lost stories there’s small clips and fragments of video. Not this one.

Instead, you can enjoy lost stories through existing audio (retained for every episode), married with photos taken from the serials. Watching those are only for the hardcore fans. It’s definitely not for everyone. Still, it is the only way to see lost stories like Marco Polo.

I always knew of Marco Polo‘s legendary status, but to “watch it” brought a surprising amount of joy. A lot of long stories from the 1960s suffered from pacing problems. This one most certainly did not.  While it’s comprised of 7 episodes, it never felt stretched, padded, or sagging.

That the story is this good annoyed the heck out of me, because you can’t see it properly. What makes this interesting to me as one of the Doctor Who historicals is that it doesn’t merge very much science fiction into the historical content. It’s largely devoid of time travel, and the usual trappings of the genre. For the most part, Doctor Who historicals never did much for me. But this one worked, despite the huge handicap of being missing, and having to watch 7 episodes of still pictures as a replacement.

The story starts with the TARDIS landing near the caravan of Marco Polo as the traveller ventures across the Gobi desert to see Kublai Khan. Marco extends hospitality to the crew, and they even tag along the Ship with them on the back of a wagon. All seems well, until Polo decides to use the Doctor’s “caravan” as a gift to Khan, and refuses to return it.  The Doctor and crew try to get back to the TARDIS throughout the rest of the story. It means they’re trapped in the drama that is Marco Polo and his chief, Tegana.

There’s plenty of character work and they all look well dressed – I have to say, this was a very good looking story. In fact, I really like the look and feel of the story as a whole. From the drama about water storage, to finding where Tegana’s accomplices are hiding out, from finding where Polo hid the TARDIS key, to the kidnapping of Barbara, meeting Khan, palace battles… there’s a ton of different subplots that all weave together quite nicely.

Even Susan gets something to do in this story. She has her own “companion” in Ping-Cho, and she actually was fairly integral to parts of the story; she wasn’t just standing around or screaming, which was nice. Several actors from this story appeared in later Doctor Who episodes, including Zienia Merton, the aforementioned Ping-Cho. She later appears in The Sarah Jane Adventures episode, The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith as the Registrar, and she had several scenes with the Tenth Doctor, David Tennant.

We also get some real science in play as the Doctor creates water from condensation inside the TARDIS.

I very much enjoyed this one. This is a story that works best as the sum of its parts; as a whole piece, not individual sections as such. It’s a crime that it is missing, but if you can bring yourself to get through the reconstruction, you’ll find a lost gem from the earliest years of Doctor Who.

Verdict: 8/10. I would have given it a higher grade, but the fact that you can only see it as a recon is a strike against it – not exactly a comment on the narrative itself but on the BBC’s policies back then.

The Keys of Marinus

I always had memories of liking The Keys of Marinus, but upon recent viewing, I didn’t like it nearly as much. Marinus was the first repeat for a writer, Terry Nation of Dalek fame, and that actually brings me to my first point. Nation has written a lot of Doctor Who. Only two stories didn’t have Daleks in them; this was one – The Android Invasion for the Fourth Doctor was the other.

The Sea of Death has a feel much like his previous story, The Daleks. Not exactly the same, but somewhat similar. For example, both stories start out with the TARDIS crew landing somewhere desolate. (Interestingly, this is the first story that we saw the TARDIS materialize anywhere from the outside. All previous landings to this point were shown (if they were shown at all) from the inside of the TARDIS.) They explore the area, finding an unusual structure, and setting off to explore it. They get separated and so begins the adventure. The stories have much different structures overall, but I felt the opening part of Marinus before we meet any of the characters of the story bore a resemblance to the first sequences of The Daleks.

Their prowling around the mysterious building results in one of the more unintentionally funny moments here – in what might be one of the least convincing special effects the show has done.  At 13:50 into Episode 1, Ian is fighting a Voord (more on them later) and ends up knocking him through the wall. The DVD commentary says that it was felt that wasn’t a satisfying ending to the fight, so it was decided to have the Voord fall through a hidden panel, down into the sea of acid that the TARDIS crew found earlier in the episode. That’s all well and good, but they didn’t want to send a stunt man down a long drop like that, so they basically threw a cardboard cut-out down a hole and filmed it. The dummy looks like a piece of paper when it turns sideways, and you can see it’s only two dimensional. Its arms and legs all stick out – it makes me laugh every time.

Anyway, all the crew finally get together and meet up with Arbitan. He is the sole keeper of a machine called “The Conscience”.  It was originally used for law and order, but evolved into something akin to a mind control device. To keep it from falling into the hands of the enemy Voord, five “Keys” were scattered around the world, hidden well, so that the machine couldn’t be used. Attempts to retrieve the keys have resulted in no luck: people have died, or just not been heard from again, and Arbitan, being the last defender of the machine, can’t go, so he tricks the TARDIS crew into going for him.

This is what I latched onto early on as a strength of the story, but now I feel it does the story a disservice. The reason for that is The Velvet Web, The Screaming Jungle, and The Snows of Terror are all self-contained stories. I initially liked the variety of that, but recently felt it was a problem, because the episodes are so short. It doesn’t leave much room for development. Sentence of Death and the final part, The Keys of Marinus are tied together, with the last 10 minutes or so dealing with fallout of Episode 1. The various stories had some good ideas; I just feel the lack of screentime kept them from being all good on their own.

Here’s the various Key stories…

Key 1: In Arbitan’s possession.

Key 2/ The Velvet Web: The crew appear to be in luxury, but it is in fact a place of squalor, and everyone was controlled by minds in a jar (that looked somewhat like the Gamesters of Triskelion from Star Trek).

Key 3/ The Screaming Jungle: I like this idea best, because it’s a forest where the plants are the villain. It’s well produced, and the terror seemed legitimate, as opposed to fake “acted” terror.

Key 4/ The Snows of Terror: This one took place in a snowbound hut, and the TARDIS crew (minus the Doctor – more on that later) outwit a local who wants to steal their valuables, and, uh, “have his way” with Barbara. I liked this one the least. When the team find the key, the cave it’s in is randomly discovered; you never get the feeling that they intended to go there, so it felt serendipitous. There is, however, one piece I liked: the key itself is locked in a block of ice, and to melt the ice would also mean waking up four frozen guards who were guarding the key. I thought this was a nice puzzle to be solved.

Key 5/ Sentence of Death and The Keys of Marinus: This takes the form of a trial, where Ian is accused of murder. The Doctor acts as his defence attorney. This section is a bit stronger than the others, but that’s mostly due to the additional screentime, meaning they could do more with the narrative.

Once all the keys are retrieved, the TARDIS crew head back to Arbitan, only to find out that the Voord have taken over and killed Arbitan. Ian tricks one who was masquerading as Arbitan, and the crew eventually get away, saying goodbye to a few of Arbitan’s helpers they picked up along the adventure.

I feel if this had say just four keys to find, not five, perhaps dropping the plot of The Snows of Terror, this would have been a lot stronger. I like the variety concept here a lot, but the individual bits aren’t served strongly.

Still, it’s worth a view.  It’s not like it’s awful, despite the laughable effect in Episode 1.   I’d check it out, I just don’t expect it to be on many fans’ lists of Top 10 Episodes.

Verdict: 7/10. It’s not awful, but I don’t expect it to be on many fans’ lists of Top 10 Serials.

The Aztecs

One of the strongest stories of the entire First Doctor era.

When I first watched it, back in 1986, it was perfect. Obviously, as I’ve had some years to digest it, it’s not perfect-perfect, but back then, it was far superior in my eyes to any other Hartnell story I had seen. This is an opinion I still share today. The Aztecs is spectacular.

In fact, halfway through Episode 3, The Bride of Sacrifice, I realised I’d not taken any notes. I was engrossed right from the start. If you only watch a single First Doctor story, make it this one.

That the TARDIS crew appeared from the inside of an Aztec tomb was fascinating. Barbara is captured when she wanders out of the tomb but is placed on high as a reincarnation of their God merely because she’s wearing a bracelet that she picked up from inside (a bit of a flimsy excuse, but it’s quickly forgotten about). Much has been made over how Susan was rather quickly reduced to a screaming teenager in the show’s run. Not a lot is said about Barbara being a teacher though. This is a story where she gets to play with the original character design (much like the next story, The Sensorites is for Susan).

Barbara decides to try and change history by trying to convince the Aztecs that their concept of human sacrifice should be abolished. This is where we get Hartnell’s famous “You can’t rewrite history – NOT ONE LINE!” quote. I wonder what the First Doctor would think about the “time can be rewritten” stance in the modern show.

After Barbara tries to stop a sacrifice, the chief priest of sacrifice, Tlotoxl calls her a false god, and tries to depose her. She’s backed by the high priest of knowledge for a while, and from there is the drama of the rest of the story.  Barbara and the other characters have gotten themselves into a situation and they can’t get out, because the tomb is locked from the inside – you can’t get back in there. In the meantime, all four characters get involved in individual plots, and while they’re mostly separate from each other physically (but not all the time), all the plotlines intertwine very nicely. They all have their own paths and trails to follow.

Susan is the most separate. Carole Anne Ford had her “vacation” from the show here and was gone for two episodes. She does appear in those episodes via small filmed clips. Susan spends most of her time in a “seminary” of sorts, to prepare her for Aztec culture. She’s the most disconnected from everything, although she’s brought into play in The Day of Darkness when she refuses to marry the Aztec human sacrifice. As she broke their law, she’s to be punished.

Ian ends up the target of Tlotoxl and is set up as a great warrior to combat Ixta, the chosen leader of their armies. Ian mostly spends his time around with Ixta and has a few skirmishes. The physical battles are a weak point in the story – the big combat pieces don’t seem like terribly good fighting segments. It’s the one let-down for me.

The Doctor is considered an “old man”, so is treated with reverence. He spends most of his time talking with folks in a Garden of Peace. His best moments are with an older woman from the tribe, called Cameca. The Doctor is being just nice to her, but accidentally ends up getting engaged to her. There’s some wonderful acting by William Hartnell in this story.

Barbara is the focal point of the story and spends the overwhelming majority of the time in the temple, and the area right around it. She makes one appearance in the village at one point, but is a pretty immobile character in this story. Barbara was never my favourite character, but I thought Jacqueline Hill did well with emotional range.

There are a few production issues here. The extreme smallness of the recording studios plays into things more than once.  At least twice by my account the camera used to film a closeup runs into part of the set, and there was some pretty bad shaking of the cameras. There’s also a shot in Episode 4 where you can see the edge of the set floor. These don’t detract from the strength of the story, but they are pretty noticeable technical blunders from 1964.

The characters are strong, it’s a well-constructed story, and it looks good (save for the technical realities of the Sixties).

Verdict: 10/10. The best Hartnell story.

The Sensorites

I used to skip The Sensorites. I didn’t get a chance to see the Hartnell and Troughton era material until 1986. When I finally did, there was a lot of it at once (given the realities of lost stories at that time). When I did get to see the Hartnell serials, I always blew off The Sensorites – I don’t know why. I did watch it, but my teenage self probably felt bored with this story. When I came to rewatch I, however, I found a much better story than the one lodged in my memory.

I’m not going to claim it’s one of the greatest stories, because it’s not. But it has a lot of points I wish I had paid attention to earlier. First and foremost: Susan. Susan’s original character design was that not of just a teenage girl, but was more fleshed out. That the development didn’t happen is what led Carole Ann Ford to leave the show early on in the second series. This story, however, shows what the character could have been if they didn’t quickly de-evolve her into a screaming young girl. She shows mental capabilities that she didn’t demonstrate before. I never disliked the character of Susan, but generally, she was there to be captured and rescued, captured and rescued, do some screaming, etc. She isn’t like that in The Sensorites, so I’d say this is probably her best overall story, except possibly the first episode of An Unearthly Child.

I also enjoyed the human character of John, played by Stephen Dartnell. I thought his acting (as someone whose mind had gone and was on a slow road to recovery) was particularly strong.

The sets, too, are well done, and there’s a wide variety of them – it wasn’t just the spaceship we’re initially introduced to. This is the first story to show a continuous camera shot starting inside the TARDIS console room, and follows the characters out the door and into the scene to be played. Given the practical production issues in 1964, it meant constructing the spaceship set right outside the TARDIS set. The flip side of this happens much later: the first ever Doctor Who story to go the other way is The Snowmen, and features characters talking outside the Ship, going through the door, and continuing inside the TARDIS set.

The Sensorites themselves are interesting if not a “great” alien race. They have a very odd look. That’s probably down to practical matters of 1964 television, but is perhaps why I never liked the story in the past. Still, they had some interesting characteristics. They’re very sensitive to loud noises, and are totally blind in the dark – and when that happens, they’re also frightened. Kind of like a reverse Weeping Angel.

I’m glossing over the story a lot here, but the main problem with the tale is that doesn’t really need to be six episodes. It doesn’t drag too much (well, a little), but it probably could have been tightened up a lot with two fewer episodes

Verdict: 7/10. It’s definitely worth checking out, if for no other reason than to watch the performances of Carole Ann Ford and Stephen Dartnell (John).

The Reign of Terror

When I put the work together for this article, I actually lived in fear of the final story, The Reign of Terror. Mostly because it’s one that has never interested me in all my years of being a fan. I’ve seen parts of it; I even bought the DVD when it was released years ago to support the concept of animating missing episodes. But I never fully watched it front to back all in one go. The French Revolution concept just didn’t interest me. This is odd, as it’s one of the last stories with the original TARDIS crew, so you’d think I’d be all over it. But I wasn’t. When I first started on this part of it, I asked my editor if I could get away with “It’s that French one with Hartnell”. I was told it might need to be edited. So okay, I’ll do a bit more…

Has time changed my lack of excitement? Will I feel any different in 2019 than I did years ago? Let’s find out.

Well, first off, the thing doesn’t feel very “French”. Everything is in English! I know, it’s TV, but even the accents aren’t terribly French sounding to me. It kind of takes you out of the story. This brings up another concept. I personally am not familiar with the events of the French Revolution, so how accurate the people and locations here might be is lost on me.

The incidental music seemed better than most in this story, which went with the general theme of exploration early on. It was a full 12:40 minutes before the TARDIS crew met any other characters beyond one single kid, and 11.5 mins before they figure out where they are – that’s a full half- episode just poking around. Even for the Hartnell era, that’s slow.

Episode 2, Guests of Madame Guillotine, has the first ever location shooting in Doctor Who – the scene where the Doctor walks from where they first land to Paris in order to rescue the rest of the TARDIS crew. Oddly enough that’s not Hartnell. That was an actor named Brian Proudfoot, who becomes the first person other than William Hartnell to play the First Doctor, albeit without showing his face, nor delivering any lines…

As I watched this, the aforementioned lack of “French” was something I could overlook. Okay, it’s set in France, they tell you they’re in Paris a lot, but if you ignore the fact that it’s supposed to be French, it works as a pretty standard Doctor Who story where the characters are separated, threatened, rescued, etc. – a concept that’s been used a lot over the course of the programme’s history, and over the course of many Doctors.

As much I liked Susan in The Sensorites, in this one, she’s quite whiny and isn’t of much value to the overall story. I can see why she wanted to leave (as she indeed did just two stories after this into the second season). Not really the fault of Carole Ann – you can only do so much with weak writing – but I felt Susan was particularly bad in this story.

One of my favourite things was William Hartnell’s outfit once he changed into French gear. I love that look – especially the feathered hat he wore. It suits him!

Episodes 4 and 5 (The Tyrant of France and A Bargain of Necessity) are animated, and that actually feels jarring. It’s not that the animation is bad, but I was actually starting to get into the story by the end of A Change of Identity, so when Episode 4 was animated, it made it slightly harder to immerse myself again. The animation style is different from more recent animations, as this was one of the earlier attempts. It has a slightly different style, one that I kind of wished they did more of now. The people looked more like they do in more modern animations. Had this style been maintained in the years since this was released, this would have been amazing in 2019. After watching the two animated episodes, I rather liked the style, but they did spend a bit too much time on close-ups. But I did like this animation.

The French Revolution stuff seemed to tie itself up super quickly in Episode 6, Prisoners of Conciergerie, which seems to run counter to the slow plodding feel of most stories of this era.

Verdict: 6/10. Overall, I liked it more than I remembered but it’s still one of the weakest of the first series of Doctor Who.

It’s fair to say that Season 1 is a mixed bag, but there’s plenty to enjoy there; in fact, I found things to enjoy even in the stories that I didn’t think would fare so well. Revisit the early days of the Doctor, Barbara Wright, Ian Chesterton, and Susan because you, too, will be surprised by the ambition and imagination of the first production team.

NEXT: Dalekmania, departures, and a dinky TARDIS.