Thursday, October 10, 2013

On the Watching of Old Episodes

Thought lost since 2006, this review of a VHS tape of old Hartnell episodes, was discovered in a folder on my hard-drive, along with a letter to the insuance company about my flat in Bollington and some stats for a Pendragon character. It has been painstakingly restored and is republished for free because I am evil and selfish and hate you all.

Fraisier:      Noel, surely you realize that Star Trek is just a TV show.
Noel:          Well, Brideshead Revisited is just a TV show.
Frasier:        You're angry, so I'm going to ignore that.

Doctor Who began in 1963: between, as the fellow said, the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP. When I started watching the programme in the middle-seventies the fans regarded Tom Baker very much as an impostor, and William Hartnell as the real thing. Since, for about twenty years after their first transmission, no Bill Hartnell episodes had been seen by anyone outside of the BBC archives, these old stories took on the aura of the most lost and golden of lost golden ages. When, in 1981, the BBC re-showed the first ever story as part of a retrospective, I took the older fans at their word. 'Unearthly Child' is a superb piece of television; so I naturally assumed that every other black-and-white story must have been just as good.

I suspect that the first-generation fans had convinced themselves of this as well. There are, in fact, two different programmes called Doctor Who: 'Doctor Who One' was a rather serious, magical programme about Time Travel and the wonders of the universe which existed in the collective memory of fans who had grown up with it. 'Doctor Who Two' was the sometimes fun but often silly kids TV show that the BBC had actually transmitted. It consisted, from a very early stage, of quarreling alien races, hopeless companions, and chases along corridors. ('The Space Museum' involves chases along corridors and practically nothing else.) Naturally, our faith in Doctor Who One can't survive the widespread availability of videos of the original TV episodes.

Unfortunately, the BBC has undertaken to make every surviving Doctor Who story available on VHS, prior to deleting the whole line and replacing it with DVD. The three-tape "First Doctor Boxed Set" represents the final batch of black-and-white episodes: 'The Gunfighters', 'The Sensorites' and 'The Time Meddler'. The words "barrel", "bottom" and "scraping" come to mind.

It isn't really fair to watch these stories straight through, in a darkened room, on a large TV screen, and judge them as if they were works of 'art' intended for posterity--any more than it is fair to judge The Beatles Live at the BBC alongside the polished studio albums. They were designed to be watched once and then discarded, after all. This isn't TV drama; it's just the fossilized echo of a Saturday tea-time nearly forty years ago.

The restoration team has done such a good job of cleaning the footage that it took me several minutes to stop gawking at the unnatural sharpness of the video and actually pay attention to the story. Old TV means rough and blurry; this genuinely looked as if it had been filmed yesterday. And this, in the long-run, makes it look much older than it is. One looks at the flairs in the Tomorrow People or the mini-skirts in Star Trek and says 'It's the 60s' or 'It’s the 70s'. As I watched 'The Sensorites', the main thought which intruded into my head was, 'This is set on a strange alien planet where women and teenaged girls wear one-piece knee-length dresses and men keep their jackets on!'

I think that the reputation of these old stories depends on the extent to which they can be made consistent with the 'Doctor Who One' mythology. 'The Sensorites' was reasonably well regarded among fans, because, on paper, it fitted in with the wondrous magical series which they thought they remembered. It has elements of 'gothic horror' (humans trapped by telepathic aliens on a space ship) and elements of 'serious sci-fi' (the aliens have a reasonably well drawn culture, and individual personalities.) The Sensorites themselves looked good in the still photographs, and crop up in the first Doctor Who annual, allowing the story to grow into a lost classic in the collective memory of fandom.

The real thing turns out to be all but un-watch-able. It has a few moments of 'historical' interest, such as when the Doctor and Susan briefly reminisce about their mysterious home planet and the reasons for their wandering--but this is perfunctory. (Not nearly as good as the genuinely tear-jerking moment in 'Tomb of the Cybermen' when Doctor Patrick confides to Victoria about his dead family.) The aliens are tolerably well done. Provided you aren't surprised by the fact that they are not really aliens but actually actors wearing masks then you have to admit that they are rather nice, well made masks, and that the actors try quite hard to put the characterization across. It is quite brave in 1964 to have a substantial supporting cast made up of non-human characters. Star Trek never really tried it.

I was looking forward to the appearance of Peter Glaze, the fat comedian who made a catch phrase of 'Doh!' half a century before Homer Simpson did, but under the masks, I couldn't tell which one he was.

The trouble with the story is that it is boring, boring, boring and boring, with a small dose of patronizing for good measure. It turns on the Doctor losing the key to the TARDIS, and having to become involved in a minor intrigue on an alien planet to get it back. Yeah, so the Sensorites are feuding about whether trade with the human is going to interfere with their traditional way of life or not. Hard to care a great deal. There is a small moment of interest in the final episode when the writer, who has clearly run out of things to happen, in desperation comes up with some insane human castaways. But most of the story is an unbearable exercise in exposition in which plot twists which were not very interesting to begin with are spelled out to the kids in words of one syllable.

There is a plague, which is only affecting the lower caste Sensorites. Our heroes are at tea with one of the nobles. The noble insists they try some of the water from the special spring which only the noble caste uses. Ian makes a big thing out of being thirsty, and takes a swig of the lower-caste water. He comes down with the plague. The Doctor spends half an episode wondering why the only crew-member affected by the plague is Ian. I'm sure even eight-year olds in 1965 were yelling 'It's the bleeding water, you dopey old git' at him.

'The Gunfighters', on the other hand, turns out to be an awful lot of fun. It has been universally reviled by Doctor Who fans because there is no way that it can possibly be made consistent with the idea of Doctor Who One. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, silly. It has jokey titles ('A Holiday for the Doctor') and a non-existent story-line ('The TARDIS arrives at the OK Coral just before the Gunfight. Er…that's it, really.') It is not historical drama. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a time-travel story showing what would happen if some modern people were landed in nineteenth-century America. It's not one of those mythical 'stories-to-get-kids-interested-in-history' that some people persist in believing in. It's not even really a Western. It's nothing more or less that an excuse for a bunch of grown ups to play cowboys and Indians for 98 minutes.

Few of the supporting cast can actually manage American accents, so we have sheriffs and gunslingers who sound cockney and Australian, sometimes simultaneously. Although the sets are good, there aren't enough extras to make the town look populated. It’s a bit of a drawback when trying to make a western to find out that you can only afford one very brief shot with horses in it.

And then there is the matter of That Bloody Song. Someone decided that, if Doctor Who was going to arrive in the Wild West, then there would jolly well be a ballad. There is wonderful bathos when a song at the level of--

So pick him up gentle
And carry him slow
He's gone kind of mental
Under Earp's heavy blow.

--fades into the familiar Ron Grainger theme and the swirly lines, reminding you that, yes, despite all evidence to the contrary, this actually has been Doctor Who you've been watching.

But that said, the story rolls along at an entertaining pace. It may not make much sense, but it is full of stuff. Stephen gets captured by a lynch mob. The Doctor is (inevitably) mistaken for Doc Holiday. He acts as mediator between the Earps and the Clantons. Stephen and Vicki are forced at gunpoint to do a musical act in the Last Chance Saloon. (Cue: 'Next Episode -- Don't Shoot the Pianist.') The Doctor is surprised that Doc Holiday is going to pull his teeth without anesthetic Stephen wanders around a 'real' Wild West town in a cowboy suit such as you could buy in any Fancy Dress hire shop. The Doctor consistently refers to the sheriff as Mr Werp. At the end of the story, the Doctor accuses Vicki of having fallen prey to every wild west movie cliché in the book. He understood what was going on, if no-one else did.

When I first saw a second season Hartnell story, I found it disconcerting that Peter Purves had taken over Ian's role as Grown Up Male TARDIS passenger. Watching stories like 'The Gunfighters', it seems the most natural thing in the world. "This week, I'll be telling you what happened when I visited the last remnants of the human race on board a generation star-ship. But first, here's Val to show you how to make a fluid link out of an old thermometer and some sticky-backed plastic."

Doctor Who never was about Time Travel. With the whole universe of Time and Space to explore, the TARDIS keeps dumping us in English school-book historical settings, where we can meet Famous Historical Characters. Within the first three seasons, we'd seen the Doctor and his companions playing at being Cavemen, Knights, Romans, Greeks, Cowboys, Pirates and travelers with Marco Polo. The heroes spend long enough in these settings to become naturalized: Ian wears a suit of armour and gets knighted by Richard the Lion-heart; Barbara and Vicki dress up in togas. In this respect, the Doctor has a great deal in common with that other archetypal British swashbuckling hero, MrBen. (Mr Ben never witnesses the Bartholomew Day's massacre or an Aztec human sacrifice; and come to that the Doctor never becomes a clown or a cook; but in other respects, the overlap is striking. )

This is why 'The Time Meddler' though it lacks the seriousness of the early stories, might stand for the archetypal Hartnell yarn. The BBC actors look desperately awkward in their Viking costumes; and the fight scenes are an embarrassment; but Peter Butterworth's naughty, interfering but basically harmless Time Traveler is a wonderful opposite number for the pompous First Doctor. He should surely have become a regular fixture in the series. It was always hard to believe that the godlike Time Lords of later mythos had anything whatsoever to do with the Doctors; but the Doctor and the Monk have a schoolboy-ish rapport which makes us instantly believe they are part of the same world. Surely there was a whole universe of Time Traveling tricksters for us to discover? The climax to episode 3, when Stephen and Vicki stumble into the Monk's very own TARDIS, stands as my second favourite of all Doctor Whocliffhangers. (*)

Where 'Gunfighters' at least allows the cast to play at cowboys, the historical setting for 'Time Meddler' has become a complete irrelevance; simply a backdrop in which the Monk can carry out his mischief and the Doctor can stop him. But the historical setting which is being ignored is, of course, the one which more than any other signifies 'History' to generations of British Schoolchildren. The TARDIS seems to choose landing spots, not because they are important, but because they are Memorable. It was inevitable that the TARDIS should eventually take us to 1066; it had arguably never taken us anywhere except 1066 and All That.

The first time we see Susan in 'Unearthly Child', she is reading a book about the French Revolution. The last story of the first season ends with her, her grandfather and her two favourite teachers wandering around a knock-off Scarlet Pimpernel thriller set during, yes, the French Revolution. If the series had ended there (and maybe it should have done) we might have been tempted to think that the whole 'adventure in space and time' was nothing more than a day-dream created by an over-imaginative school girl.

'Susan, listen to me. Can't you see that all this is an illusion? It's a game that you and your grandfather are playing, if you like. But you can't expect us to believe it.'

But very sadly, we started to.

(*) 1: The Dying Dalek's tentacle emerging from the Thal cloak. =3 "I am the servant of Sutek, he needs no other" =3 "So, we play the contest again, Time Lord" 5: "I've made a terrible mistake. I thought I'd locked the enemy out. Instead, I've locked him in."