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Reviewed: Doctor Who Season 2 – Pubescent Ecstasy

Season 2 of Doctor Who confirmed the series’ extraordinary popularity. It also radiated a renewed confidence in execution and performance, from the stars and from the production team. Viewing figures in the UK on the first broadcast only once fell below 8 million: 7.7 million for Episode Three of The Time Meddler (A Battle of Wits), shown on 17th July 1965 and competing against summer weather and summer holidays – a time when, even in damp Britain, families would head outdoors and viewing figures slump. There is a distinct sense that the production team, helming an assured hit, could – not relax, exactly, but fully stretch their Menoptera wings and enjoy themselves.

Doctor Who Season 2 is arguably more fun than the more cerebral Season 1: it also varies more wildly in quality. We are fortunate that the crazed vandals and visigoths – who smashed, pillaged, and burned most of Patrick Troughton’s output – left Season 2 virtually untouched. Only two episodes of The Crusade are missing. We can enjoy – and appraise – Season 2 from actual television programmes available to watch, rather than having to reconstruct them and struggle to reach some sort of critical judgement from audio recordings and telesnaps (ugh).

I can only gawp with astonishment and admiration at Verity Lambert and her team who, given a tiny budget, proceeded to work miracles. ‘Let’s do a story with giant ants! And butterfly men that fly!’ ‘Yeeaaaaaah!’ (Or, it being 1964, perhaps they said, ‘Oh, do let’s!’) ‘And let’s bring the Daleks back and have them invade Earth!’ ‘Yeeeeeahhhh!’ ‘And one of them could rise out of the Thames!’ Would the 2019 production team, faced with a story about three rival races of giant insects, plunge in enthusiastically, or offer queasy qualms about CGI costs? Not so the 1964 pioneers, who gallantly gave The Web Planet the green light and buckled their actors into fibreglass Zarbi. I wonder if the tininess of the budget, and the limitations of the special effects available at the time, actively spurred the production team to greater and greater imaginative heights. ‘To hell with the money, let’s do it!’ ‘Yeeeahh, baby!’ Or rather, ‘Oh, do let’s! What fun! Hurrah!’

Much of Season 2 is a tour de force of strong, imaginative ideas, and often highly successful imagery. The Doctor (William Hartnell) and Susan (Carole Ann Ford), now 1 inch high, cower in a sink (realised in the studio)! Butterfly men fly into shot and battle giant ants! Resistance fighters hurl hand grenades at the Daleks, who blaze away back at them outside their flying saucer, now landed in a heliport! The Doctor and his companions find themselves frozen as exhibits in a space museum! Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) and Steven Taylor (Peter Purves) enter a medieval tomb to find themselves in another TARDIS! And imagine the excitement of that episode ending on first broadcast. It had been hinted up to this point that the Doctor’s TARDIS was unique: Susan even said she made up the name, in An Unearthly Child. Now we learn there is more than one TARDIS and that members of the Doctor’s race are travelling through time and space in identical machines (which happily saved production money as the BBC could use the same control room set). Viewers pondered: so, the Doctor and the Monk come from the planet…? And their race is called…? Wait another 5, and 9, years respectively, gentle viewer, and you would find out.

For the viewers in 1964, Doctor Who was an adventure in space and time, a continuous series of connected episodes which led seamlessly into one another, with (almost) no gaps in the narrative. Fans had no idea how long a story would last, nor what was to come next week. How long would it take the Doctor to solve the mystery of Koquillion? Oh, look, it seems that that story’s ended, there’s a new companion, and – we’re in ancient Rome this week! Oh, fair enough, let’s see what happens next…

Elements from one story were carried seamlessly over into the next. The gold bracelet given to Barbara by Emperor Nero becomes the means of control over her for the Zarbi and the Animus. The Daleks witness the TARDIS’s departure from the Space Museum and prepare to pursue it through all of time and space.

So much excitement. So much good writing. And a cast who, for the most part, play it with absolute conviction rather than, as in some Seventies stories, send it up or don’t bother because it is altogether too childish for an Actor of Standing to take seriously. And the characters have grown up. Hartnell continues to give a strong performance, his Doctor’s transformation from (basically) b*stard to hero now complete – but there are signs of the arteriosclerosis which would render Hartnell almost lineless by the time of The Tenth Planet in 1966. Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) relax and are allowed to be funny – Ian dances like your dad, to the Beatles in The Chase, rather than wryly hinting that Susan should turn off John Smith and the Common Men (Surely a later incarnation of the Doctor – the twelfth?- taking a holiday from combating evil, to front a Sixties band in an untelevised episode) in An Unearthly Child (‘I’ve an enquiring mind. And a very sensitive ear.’) Vicki, the new companion to replace Susan, is charming and beautifully acted. With her vulnerability, bravery, and her affection for the Doctor, Maureen O’Brien slips seamlessly into the gap left by Susan in viewers’ hearts.

The arrival of Dennis Spooner as script editor changed the direction of the series – a little. Season 2 started with a hangover from Season 1, the ‘sideways in time’ story Planet of Giants. This was one of the earliest stories ever to be mooted in production documents, formulated almost even before the show had fixed on Doctor Who as its title. It has its moments, but is a bit dull. The inch-high TARDIS crew clambering over the cracks in a path is good stuff, but the plot to market a deadly insecticide by giant/normal sized human beings is deadly dull, and the contrast in scale between the characters means there can be no interaction between our heroes and the villains. Mercifully, Head of Series and Serials Donald Wilson (he who created the show with Sydney Newman) viewed the story, disliked it, and ordered Episodes Three and Four to be edited together to make it a three- not a four- parter. Two episodes of such thin material would have done the job (or no episodes? Who said that? That is not kind), but I digress. David Whittaker showed how a two-parter should be done with ‘Doctor Who and Tanni’, which became the excellent murder mystery The Rescue (Tanni was renamed Vicki). Both stories could have fitted easily into the serious and thoughtful Season 1. So could The Crusade.

But Doctor Who was experimenting with form and flexing its wings. The production team already knew they had all of time and space to play with: they now realised they had all genres to play with as well, and reached further afield into other film and literary forms for inspiration. The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Space Museum, and The Chase all leaned towards such pulp science fiction cinema serials of the 1930s as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers (starring Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe and much loved by my father, who watched them in the cinema in the 1930s and, aged 35 in 1964, loved this new science fiction programme Doctor Who even more.) . These ’30s serials were epic battles between good and evil, a peril a week, with thin plots just about sustained by monsters, exciting set pieces, and daring thrills.(The BBC reran the Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers serials endlessly as children’s morning TV in the summer holidays in the 1970s.) Well, I think that’s what they were going for in Parts 2- 4 of The Space Museum and I think it’s a pretty fair description of The Chase.

Dennis Spooner relaxed a little on the show’s seriousness – and historical accuracy – and gave us the historical romp of The Romans: Burton and Taylor’s Cleopatra it ain’t, but there is more than a hint of Carry On Cleo (with an even lower budget). Spooner, who recognised a good thing when he saw it, left David Whittaker’s serious story The Crusade well alone, before returning to a setting in the past with The Time Meddler. Here, Spooner went one better than a straight historical romp: he introduced a character who romped with history, trying to rewrite the timelines that the Doctor said couldn’t be rewritten in The Aztecs, by giving King Harold atomic bazookas (what they? – ed.) to win the Battle of Hastings. What for? For a laugh. For fun. Thus Spooner introduced the pseudo-historical and exploited fully the anarchic joy of Doctor Who’s format and ethical palette. Adversaries were no longer required to be pure evil: from now on, they could be amoral, mischievous, or just stupid. But the Monk finds his match in the equally mischievous Doctor, who delights in removing the dimensional unit of the Monk’s TARDIS. The inside now fits the dimensions of the external shell and the Monk can’t get back in. Furious, the Monk returns to visit incompetent vengeance on the Doctor in Season 3.

So, Season 2 was the season in which Doctor Who came of age, stretched its wings, and vented its new-found confidence. Some experimentation hatched turkeys: the Slyther, a duvet trembling in ecstasy; a Zarbi cannoning into a camera; Daleks racing down ramps only to crash, off camera, into the scenery. The strain of producing 40 episodes – Season 2 actually had 39, not 40, episodes: a consequence of the cancelled fourth part of Planet of Giants – a year was beginning to tell too, with scripts that should have been binned (The Space Museum, and the first five episodes of The Chase) going into production. This was a problem which would become more and more pronounced in Patrick Troughton’s time as the Doctor and led, in 1969, to the drastic decision to halve the number of episodes per season and ground the Doctor on Earth.

But Season 2 finally fixed and stablished Doctor Who’s place in the nation’s affection.

And it also became the goose that laid the golden eggs for the BBC. The bovine that wore the space helmet in The Time Meddler proved to be a cash cow. Approaches were made by a certain Milton Subotsky to turn the first Dalek serial into a movie. The BBC began to sell Doctor Who overseas, to the Commonwealth – Canada, Australia, Nigeria – and to Saudi Arabia (except for The Crusade, for obvious reasons). David Whittaker wrote the first novelisation. TV Comic started its Doctor Who strip and Dalekmania was so huge that a whole new department, BBC Enterprises, was established to cope with the demand for licences from toy, book, and games manufacturers. Terry Nation made a fortune and rejoiced. Raymond Cusick, who designed the Daleks and was perhaps primarily responsible for their success, wryly noted that he himself, as a salaried BBC employee, got bugger all. Viewing figures peaked at 13.5 million for the first UK broadcast of The Web Planet Episode One: almost double the number who watched Resolution in the UK in 2019. (Perhaps an unfair comparison, given that we now live in a multi-channel age of fragmented viewing, but nonetheless true. Perhaps – whisper who dares – The Web Planet Episode One was rather better than Resolution and Doctor Who had a better reputation among viewers in 1964 than it did in 2019?) UK viewing figures for the season averaged 10.46 million.

Season 2, like Season 1, was a resounding success. For every questionable moment, there was a moment of genius. Season2, even more than its predecessor, laid the foundations for years and years of Doctor Who stories. The Monk became the Master. Medieval England was visited by a time traveller again in The Time Warrior (1973). The Cybermen, not the Daleks, were to invade Earth in 1968 – to be followed by the Nestenes, the Axons, the Daleks again, giant spiders, the Zygons, the Kraals, the Krynoid… and the Daleks and the Cybermen again and again in the revived series. Like Susan and Vicki, much loved companions were married off in future stories and their replacements welcomed aboard the TARDIS. The revelation that others of the Doctor’s race had TARDISes and roamed time and space, was a step on the way to the final realisation of the Time Lords (‘They’re my own people, Jamie!’) in 1969.

Season 2 was funny, experimental, weird, exciting, engrossing – and loved beyond all words and worlds.

NEXT: We look down the back of the sofa for some missing stories.

Frank Danes

Reviewed: Doctor Who Season 2 – Pubescent Ecstasy

by Frank Danes time to read: 9 min
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