Category: William Hartnell

moonbase01For my most recent reviews of Doctor Who Classic at The A.V. Club, please visit Click on season numbers to browse individual episodes.

To see the reviews in publication order, it’s easiest to start at my staff page at The newest material is at the top of the list.

TV Club: Doctor Who, Planet Of Giants

“Planet Of Giants” (season 2, episodes 1-3. Originally aired Oct. 31-Nov. 14, 1964)

Maybe the most interesting thing about this one is what it isn’t. As broadcast in 1964, “Planet Of Giants” is a respectable but not overly exciting artifact of the First Doctor era, talkier and duller than a single-sentence synopsis makes it sound: The TARDIS crew has to stop a murderer and avert an environmental holocaust while trying to survive in a world where they’ve been shrunk to one inch high, menaced by ants that now seem as big as wolves. It’s not lacking in ambitious ideas but never quite gels together, and a last-minute re-edit that condensed the original third and fourth episodes into one hurt the story more than it helped. (And I hardly need to point out the irony of that in a story about making the characters victims of traumatic miniaturization.) In the end, it’s something of an offbeat little curiosity, and not much more.

If history had gone a little differently, though, “Planet Of Giants” could have been a much bigger deal: It was supposed to have been Doctor Who’s first trip. As originally planned, after being confronted by his granddaughter’s teachers Ian and Barbara in “An Unearthly Child,” the Doctor would have kidnapped them by unexpectedly dematerializing the TARDIS—only to botch the takeoff and miniaturize them all. But the script fell through, so “100,000 B.C.” went into production instead, followed by the unexpected blockbuster of “The Daleks,” and the rest was history.

So what? Well, I don’t want to make too big a deal out of it, but it’s interesting to note that unlike about 99.9% of Doctor Who plots, “Planet Of Giants” doesn’t involve time travel at all. It’s set in the present day, and gets its science-fictional mojo not by jaunting into the past or the future, but sort of sideways. That physics-gone-crazy, our-magic-technology-is-actually-crazy-dangerous kind of story would become a minor but significant subset of Star Trek episodes, but Doctor Who never really got into it in a big way again, despite the original intentions of its creators. It’s implied in the very name of the TARDIS, after all. The acronym describes how the ship travels: through Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. Most Doctor Who shows are about time. “Planet Of Giants” is one of very few that’s about relative dimensions. If it had been produced in 1963 instead of 1964, it might have inspired more stories like it instead of being an anomaly.

Originally published Dec. 9, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Three Doctors

“The Three Doctors” (season 10, episodes 1-4; originally aired 12/30/1972-1/20/1973)

On paper, “The Three Doctors” seems like it should be a lot better than it is. Kicking off the show’s 10th season, it celebrated Doctor Who’s anniversary by bringing together all three of the actors who’d played the mysterious traveler up to that point, and set them loose in an adventure together for the first time, and one that lifted the veil on the history of his people, the Time Lords. It also advanced one of the series’ longest-running plot points when, in thanks for saving their bacon, the Time Lords lifted the last vestiges of his criminal conviction from season six’s “The War Games,” allowing him to travel freely through time and space on his own for the first time since the program had still been filmed in black-and-white.

And I did enjoy it when I first saw it as a kid in the 1980s more than I do now, so it’s good to remember that what works for an audience in one age range might misfire for an older one—but the best of Doctor Who, I think, works for all its fans across the board. “The Three Doctors” has its good points, but on the whole it’s a disappointment, with a lackluster story and unimaginative production values that are merely adequate even by the forgiving standards by which classic-era Doctor Who must be judged. Sure, it’s not an embarrassing train wreck like “The Twin Dilemma,” which sinks so low because it’s weighed down with such a stunning array of bad ideas. But that just highlights the major problem with “The Three Doctors” again: It has some good ideas in it, but they’re treated with such an unambitious lack of imagination that there’s not enough actually happening here for the story to be offensively bad—just boring.

Originally published Oct. 14, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Romans

“The Romans” (season 2, episodes 12-15. Originally aired Jan. 16-Feb. 6, 1965)

Doctor Who was never more willing to experiment with different kinds of stories than during its first couple of seasons, which jumped from the post-apocalyptic monsters of “The Daleks” to the 13th-century historical epic “Marco Polo” to the futuristic sci-fi of “The Sensorites” and back to history again, but with a more farcical touch, in “The Romans.” Partly this was because it was a good idea to try a varied approach, since nobody was sure yet what fit the show best, but it was also a conscious choice by producer Verity Lambert and the show’s first two script editors, David Whitaker and Dennis Spooner. “The Romans” is a historical story like “Marco Polo” and “The Aztecs,” but differs in one crucial respect: It’s less interested in the history for its own sake than using it as a backdrop for thrills and comedy.

It’s pretty clear that by this point in the series, four stories into the second season, the original idea that Doctor Who should provide both entertainment and lessons in history and science was going by the wayside, if not almost entirely gone. Spooner, who not only wrote this story but made his unofficial debut as script editor here, is not particularly careful with his facts about ancient Roman life, changing Nero’s age (he was in his mid-20s, not middle-aged) and embracing the legend that he was personally responsible for the Great Fire of Rome, in both cases because it lets him tell the story he wanted to tell instead of, y’know, what actually happened. Not that I have any big problem with that; Doctor Who isn’t exactly a documentary, and it’s not something the series was ever very committed to even at the start.

Originally published Sept. 30, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “The War Machines”

“The War Machines” (season 3, episodes 42-45. Originally aired June 25-July 16, 1966)

“The War Machines” closed out Doctor Who’s third season in 1966, but like “The Time Meddler” the year before, it doesn’t quite have the feel of a modern season finale—it doesn’t feel like the endpoint of some larger storyline in the series, though it does see an important cast change as the Doctor’s companion Dodo leaves in favor of newcomers Ben and Polly. But especially in hindsight, “The War Machines” did help set the stage for the truly seismic changes that were looming just over the horizon for Doctor Who. Two serials later, in “The Tenth Planet,” the series would undergo the single most important cast change in its history, when William Hartnell collapsed on the floor of the TARDIS and got up as Patrick Troughton—the first regeneration. It wasn’t just the lead actor that would change, but the style of the show itself—and while “The War Machines” didn’t anticipate the regeneration itself (I’m not sure if that idea had even been thought of yet), it did mark a bold step toward the kind of action-driven thrillers that would be the hallmark of the Second Doctor era.

In terms of the plot itself, “War Machines” is pretty good if not a classic, with an appealing B-movie sensibility—this feels like a better, if equally cheaply made, version of the kind of movie featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. (The War Machines themselves strike me as oversized versions of the homemade battletanks you see on Robot Wars, but like so many things with this series, you have to be willing to take the idea behind the actual effect seriously if you’re going to be able to enjoy Doctor Who the way it ought to be enjoyed.) The Doctor lands in London with his current companion, Dodo, and is immediately swept up in an attempted takeover of the world by WOTAN, a highly advanced computer that (like Skynet in The Terminator) has achieved sentience and thinks it can do better than the imperfect humans who created it. Using mind control, WOTAN assembles an army of humans to do its bidding, and eventually builds a fleet of self-propelled robot tanks—one of which is captured and reprogrammed by the Doctor, who sends it home to kill its papa. Along the way, Dodo befriends Polly, the assistant to the scientist who built WOTAN, and later Ben, a lonely and disconsolate sailor who’s at loose ends due to six months’ shore leave and doesn’t know what to do with himself. Both Dodo and Polly are snared in WOTAN’s web. After the Doctor snaps her out of her WOTAN-induced brainwashing, Dodo winds up disappearing almost entirely from the story in favor of her replacements, in what might be the cruelest ditching of a companion in the entire series. More on that in a moment.

Originally published April 29, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “The Time Meddler”

“The Time Meddler” (season 2, episodes 36-39. Originally aired, 1965)

Season finales were not the kind of big events in 1965 that they are today, but the appearance of another rogue time traveler—and one who was not only from the Doctor’s own planet, but a sort of anti-Doctor in his own right—must have been a huge revelation for viewers back then. Before the War Chief, before the Master, before the Time Lords or Gallifrey had even been named, the Monk was our first glimpse at someone from the Doctor’s home. And it’s it’s important to keep in mind that the Monk does appear before any of that other baggage was attached, because he’s best understood as a mirror-inversion not of the Doctor we know now, but the First Doctor specifically—not a cosmic wizard who can feel the pulse of the universe, but a sly, troublemaking old man who always has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Before that, all we knew about Time Lords was a dyspeptic old man and his spacey-genius granddaughter—and even Susan had left the show earlier in the season, seven stories and 26 half-hour episodes previously in “The Dalek Invasion Of Earth.” Her place in the TARDIS crew had been filled by a character who was, on paper at least, nearly identical: Vicki, a young orphan girl who had survived a spaceship crash and was rescued by the Doctor and Susan’s former teachers Ian and Barbara in the appropriately titled story “The Rescue.” Once on board the TARDIS, she allowed the four-person dynamic set up in “An Unearthly Child” to continue mostly unchanged—she had a grandfather/granddaughter relationship with the Doctor, and a teacher/student one with Ian and Barbara. I haven’t seen much of the Vicki episodes besides “Time Meddler,” but she strikes me as more than just a replacement of Susan but an improvement on her, largely because Maureen O’Brien is a much more engaging and lively actress. Her scene with the Doctor at the start of the first episode here is warmer and more endearing than, say, the similar Doctor-Susan scene in “Dalek Invasion,” and she’s a far more effective conversational foil for Steven than I think Carole Ann Ford would ever have been.

Originally published March 4, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Dalek Invasion of Earth

“The Dalek Invasion Of Earth” (season 2, episodes 4-9. Originally aired Nov. 21-Dec. 26, 1964)

When it comes to its importance to Doctor Who, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” is way up there among the most influential serials in its history. Commissioned almost immediately after the surprise smash hit of the Daleks’ debut the year before, “Dalek Invasion” put Who in the ratings top 10 for the first time, and helped stoke the fires of 1960s Dalekmania into a full-fledged craze. (Seriously, it was a big thing—not as big as Beatlemania, but a genuine pop-culture phenomenon.) It’s also hugely important to the show’s ongoing narrative—in their first story, the Daleks were implacably evil but still small-time, not even able to travel outside their home city. “Dalek Invasion” repositioned them as Doctor Who’s first and greatest intergalactic threat—and prompted a response in kind from its title character. With a bigger budget than ever before, “Dalek Invasion” boasted the series’ first extensive use of on-location filming, allowing real London landmarks to give the Daleks’ takeover an uncanny realism and an epic feel. And it marked another milestone first: The departure of a companion. The original companion, in fact—the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan, which set a precedent for how the series would work cast changes into the storyline.

Originally published Nov. 6, 2011 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “The Aztecs”

“The Aztecs” (season 1, episodes 27-30. Originally aired May 23-June 11, 1964)

“But you can’t rewrite history! Not one line!” –The Doctor
“Anyone can make history. Only a great man can write it.” –Oscar Wilde

We’re back again in 1964, for the sixth serial of Doctor Who‘s first season. The main cast is the same as in the two shows from this era I’ve covered already—the tetchy old First Doctor, schoolteachers Ian and Barbara, and the Doctor’s teenage granddaughter Susan. And the stakes for the travelers are mostly the same as well: They’re wandering randomly through the universe in the TARDIS, and the question that comes up most commonly when they land is “how are we going to survive this?,” not “what wonders will we see now?”

That’s certainly one of the driving elements of tension in “The Aztecs,” in which the TARDIS crew find themselves stranded in pre-Cortez Mexico, and must survive in a culture whose religion is based on human sacrifice while trying to get back to their ship and escape. The Doctor isn’t a hero here in any conventional sense—all he’s really interested in doing is figuring out how to open the one-way door in the tomb of the recently deceased high priest Yetaxa atop the city’s main temple, where the TARDIS had the bad luck to land.

But this is really a story about Barbara—possibly her best in the series—as she’s mistaken for the divine reincarnation of Yetaxa and decides to use her newfound power for more than just her own safety, but to put a stop to human sacrifice. Ignoring the Doctor’s insistent advice, she takes the bull of history by the horns and tries to make it go down a different path. She fails, and her failure has a certain Shakespearian flavor to it—the moral of the story here is that a single person, even one temporarily mistaken for a demigod, stands as much chance of transforming an entire culture as Lear does of asserting his royal power in the face of a raging thunderstorm.

Originally published Sept. 21, 2011 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “The Daleks”

“The Daleks” (season 1, episodes 5-11. Originally aired Dec. 21, 1963-Feb. 1, 1964)

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that “The Daleks” might be the most important serial in the history of Doctor Who. I’m not saying it’s the best—though it is very good—but it was such a huge success at such an early stage in the show’s development that it changed what the show was about at its core. It made the show an instant hit, and sparked a frenzy of interest in the Daleks, complete with tons of cheap toys and novelty records. And its influence still echoes in both major and minor ways, from helping to define the Doctor by defining who his enemies are, to establishing a tradition of dramatically revealing a serial’s main villain as the cliffhanger of its first episode.

Originally published July 31, 2011 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “An Unearthly Child”

It’s November 23, 1963. The future, for the next few years, is going to be more chaotic and world-expanding than most people can imagine, although some sense of that is surely dawning, as people watch news coverage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in stunned disbelief; it just happened yesterday. (And over on Mad Men, Roger Sterling’s daughter’s wedding has just been ruined by this news.) Amid this flurry, Doctor Who began its marathon run through time and space, eventually becoming the longest-running science-fiction series in TV history.

Over the course of these columns, we’ll explore a wide range of the show’s history covering the first eight incarnations of the mysterious Time Lord. It’s a lot to take in, and if you need an overview of all this before we start, read the Primer I wrote last year and then meet us back here.

OK, everyone ready? We’re going to start, naturally enough, at the beginning. What we’re about to watch is a four-part serial, originally broadcast in 25-minute segments over the course of a month—the format that the show would follow for almost the entirety of its original run. It’s really two completely separate stories, with the first episode establishing the overall premise and introducing the four main characters and their timeship, the TARDIS, and the next three (often referred to separately under the title “100,000 B.C.”) constituting the travelers’ first proper adventure. Along with the next story, “The Daleks,” (which I’ll cover later on), pretty much everything that will define the series is established here. The first episode is, I think, brilliantly done; the next three together could be about a half-hour shorter but get the job done.

Originally published June 5, 2011 on Read the complete article.

WordPress Themes

Spam prevention powered by Akismet