I spent half of this year, beginning after the end of Matt Smith’s first series in the role, kind of obsessively devouring the complete history of this show (on the TV, at least: radio and books may follow in the new year lol… yes, it was that good of an idea, I am officially a little obsessed). So it’d be remiss, to say the least, of me not to try writing a little something about this most wonderful of shows.
I thought about how best to do this first post on the show (for I’m sure there may be further, more detailed posts, as I get more organised and revisit individual stories in years to come), and I decided to just spend a little time on each Doctor, companion, pick a favourite episode or two for each, etc… basically just let the thoughts flow over some basic structure and see what happens… so here goes:
When I sat down to watch the first ever episode of Doctor Who – actually in between the two last episodes of the last series, as the idea for this crazy marathon first blossomed – I really wasn’t sure if I’d go through with it. It’s perhaps enough to say that “An Unearthly Child” was good enough to make me launch into it wholeheartedly. It’s perhaps the finest first episode of any long-running show that I’ve ever seen, introducing all the basic elements that would eventually become practically archetypes as the years progressed. The main story (“10,000 BC”) of the first 4 episodes might be as flaky as anything else in Hartnell’s years, but the very first 20 minutes, introducing The Doctor himself, Susan, Ian, Barbara (his first companions), The TARDIS, is just flawless myth creation.
Yes, I just called the Hartnell years stories flaky, lol. Let me just repeat that I flew through the complete Doctor Who in just half a year, so to be fair I didn’t give a lot of it nearly the attention it deserved, and these are first impressions only, and I’ll happily come back and watch any episode again because rest assured, I am in love with everything this show is. Hartnell was a terrific Doctor, certainly in my top 5. There were a lot of “historical” stories under his reign, however, and worse than that many of his episodes are missing entirely (damn the BBC junking policy!) so I had only reconstructed versions to enjoy (a sidenote on reconstructions, though: I was overall impressed by them, the audio survived and it seemed they had a hell of an onset photographer… as if further testament were needed as to this show’s jawdropping adherence to continuity…)
Of the companions in these years, few struck me as particularly memorable. Susan grew on me certainly, in that strange way the companions often do. The thing about this show is that it’s as much about the companions as it is The Doctor – if not, as Russell T. Davies wisely realised with Rose, more so. There are monsters and aliens and crazy happenings, and sometimes the companions or even The Doctor can be annoying; but suddenly we find it’s time to say goodbye and we realise we don’t want them to go, and that’s what The Doctor fights for, what it’s all about. So when Susan chooses to stay with a boy she’s fallen in love with, I felt that for the first time. Dodo was a particular example of the “irritating but grows on you” companion for me, too; and Polly is the other more memorable companion of this Doctor, who would stay with him into the Troughton years.
My other favourite story of Hartnell’s Doctor was one his very last – indeed the last that survives in its entirety. “The War Machines” was a terrific story in itself, however, signalled by far more modern titles than previously, and a very down-to-earth setting in contemporary London, with the BT (then Post Office) Tower playing a pivotal role in a story ahead of its time about artificial intelligence gone awry.
I know, I know, the Peter Cushing movies aren’t “canon” (by the way, I despise that word), but I included them in this crazy endeavour and I’m glad that I did. Cushing was a terrific Doctor, I thought, almost a shame he didn’t get the screen time of the TV Doctors really, and these movies are notable for their production values compared to the TV show, and on a personal note, I just adore Roberta Tovey as a much younger Susan. I wrote a bit more on the movies here.
Troughton’s years suffer like Hartnell’s from too many missing episodes, though fortunately he would return in a few later multi-Doctor stories (in colour, too) for us to get a greater sense of his take on the character. He seemed like a wonderful Doctor, so the missing stories are a great shame, but even sadder for me is that these years contained perhaps my favourite of his companions across the entire run, old and new – Deborah Watling as Victoria Waterfield. I’d seen Watling play Alice in the original BBC Wednesday Play version of Dennis Potter’s Dreamchild (Alice) and couldn’t wait to see her in this. Despite the limited number of her episodes available in full, she grew on me in the biggest way. I can watch her farewell over and over and cry just as much every time, even though it does only exist in the form of offline audio and stills. She was just so soulful, it fills me up just to think about her.
Mention should be made of Jamie, who stayed with The Doctor a long time. It’ll become clear that I’m more into the female companions so I won’t try to hide it, lol. I feared Jamie would be a hard one to put up with but I’ll admit, he had his moments – like any of the less likeable companions (and we’ve all got our hangups)… simply the longer they hung around, the more you learned to put up with them for the sake of the show, and there’s great dramatic currency in that.
Of Troughton’s stories, for my faves I would pick “Tomb of the Cybermen”, if only because it’s the only Victoria story that exists in its entirety; and Troughton’s last story, the simply epic “War Games”, which introduced a phenomenal number of elements that would become part of the show’s very essence.
As the show turned colour, entering the 70s with Pertwee’s Doctor, the whole thing began to feel a lot more familiar to me. I’m almost certain some of Pertwee’s stories would’ve been repeated in my childhood, either off the back of whatever current Doctor was playing or Pertwee’s other big TV role, Worzel Gummidge (which I guess itself was running on repeats in my childhood, as it ended in 1981, when I was just a baby lol).
Though I loved Pertwee as a Doctor, I can’t say much for his stories. “The War Games” had left the Doctor banished to Earth with his knowledge of how to operate the TARDIS wiped – about as tight a writing corner as he’d ever be written into, and as such partly to be admired. But they never really successfully wrote themselves out of it, and I find almost all of Pertwee’s stories dull save for the first multi-doctor episode which in addition to that gimmick (which I personally love: I hope they do another multi-doctor story, for the 50th anniversary perhaps?) is also a great story.
I loved all of Pertwee’s companions, but of course the best known was Sarah-Jane. I can’t say I expected to feel much for Sarah-Jane. When she returned briefly in Tennant’s time (before going off to do “The Sarah-Jane Adventures”), my excitement was honestly more for the return of K-9 than her lol. But again, there’s that companion effect, and boy did she grow on me.
Another important addition to the show during this time was The Master, and I’m not sure there was ever a better person in this part than Roger Delgado. I felt Anthony Ainley grew into the part admirably, eventually, but at first seemed like a strange plastic version of Delgado’s frighteningly dapper incarnation. More recent incarnations simply haven’t had enough screen time to make a real judgment.
I tried watching a fair few of Tom Baker’s stories some years ago as they repeated on UK Gold or some such channel, and the slowness of the 4 episodes per story format was a bit of a shock to me at the time. Coming to them this time after the earlier more common 6 episodes or more per story made them feel a lot easier. Dare I say it again, however, very few of Tom Baker’s stories gripped me on the story front. Again it was more about the companions for me – though I did find Baker a much more interesting Doctor than remembered – and I think it’s safe to say that Baker had the most consistently fascinating batch of these, to name only the best (in my opinion): Leela, Romana II, Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan.
Yes, I included Adric there. I’m aware that he’s one of the least liked companions in all Doctor Who history (oh, just you wait…) It was the nature of his departure from the show (under the watch of Peter Davison’s Doctor – which I won’t spoil but you can probably guess). I may have been 30 years late seeing it but I still didn’t see it coming at all. It’s an important moment for The Doctor because it shows that he’s not infallible.
Lalla Ward as Romana II is a companion that seriously jostles with my absolute faves for the top spot. My love was cemented in the “City of Death” episode, one of my favourites, with astonishing location shooting in Paris, and a bizarre costume choice for Romana that gives her the look of a runaway St. Trinian.
The other episode that really stands out for me out of Baker’s stint as The Doctor in terms of pure story is, as with Troughton, his very last before regeneration, “Logopolis”. The whole story concerns decay as The Doctor knowingly nears the end of life as he knows it, and the regeneration at the end is just beautiful.
The Eighties Doctors were a strange bunch and none of of them really brought back cosey memories of any childhood love/fear I may have had for/of the show (though I’m certain it existed). By far the most exciting thing during this period was the new arrangement of the theme tune, lol. Incidentally, that theme tune – it occurred to me that by watching the complete thing over this half year, I’ve heard that theme tune at least 700 times, and you know what? I still get excited when I hear it. That’s some great music lol.
Really, the main companions that accompanied Davison along the way were Nyssa and Tegan, heldover from Baker, and later Peri would join him. Tegan was an interesting one, very much a model for later companions in the way she was plucked out of space/time almost by accident before embarking on a very by-the-numbers existence as a flight attendant, finally to find herself a real fighter at the Doctor’s side. Her first farewell moved me immensely, as she simply fails to catch the TARDIS in time for departure. “I thought you were going with the Doctor?” someone asks her, and she sadly answers, “so did I…”, and suddenly I had that feeling you get so often when watching this show… that you didn’t know how badly you wanted them to stay until it’s too, too late…
As with Pertwee, I couldn’t really single out a single story at this stage (please, please, I repeat, don’t take this as an outright judgment on the quality – I am aware that I have merely skimmed the surface in this first pass!) so for my favourite (ie, the first one I’ll buy on DVD next year as I begin the long process of devouring extras and commentaries and what-not lol) I would pick the multi-Doctor story, “The Five Doctors”. It was kind of terrible, with two of the Doctors involved not even “really” taking part… but still, like I said, I personally love the gimmick.
I’m certain that by this point (Baker was Doctor from 1984-1986) I must have begun watching the show and becoming a fan for the first time in my pre-teens (though I consider “my” Doctor, the one I remember most prior to the new series, for better or worse, to be McCoy). Nothing much about Baker’s tenure struck me until “Vengeance on Varos”, a story that comes out of nowhere and was frankly ahead of its time. The Doctor and Peri find themselves part of a TV show where people are killed for entertainment – it sounds more like a story from the new series than old, right?
Peri was a funny old companion. The first thing that must be mentioned is the bizarre accent she has. I’m careful to say bizarre instead of “bad” because really, it’s so all over the place that in the context of Doctor Who it could frankly be genuine lol. But again, I have to say, she’s a companion that grew on me; and her departure is one of the most disturbing of all (at least, at first), even more so due to the initially cold way it is delivered in the epic, series-long storyling “Trial of a Time Lord”, the other “episode” I would pick as a favourite out of these years of the show (I’m pleased to see that the entire arc is available in a well-priced DVD box set). It’s still as slow moving as anything in the show’s initial 26 year run, but as a whole you’ve kind of gotta love it.
Like I said, this was “my” Doctor. Or at least I thought. And I looked forward to seeing Ace as she was one of my earliest crushes, I thought for sure she would be my favourite companion. But the McCoy years begin as the flakiest of all the 80s Doctors, in that odd period of the late 80s that was neither here in the postmodern nor there in the down-and-dirty 70s. As Ace first appeared, I was almost sad to see Mel – played by Bonnie Langford, yes, another candidate for “worst companion EVER!” – leave. I kind of loved Mel. She was tiny, bubbly… and yep, I even loved the voice. By contrast Ace seemed with her badge-adorned jacket and love of blowing things up like something constructed deliberately to please.
There are a couple of stories early on in McCoy’s tenure that I enjoyed: Dragonfire for the changeover of Mel/Ace, and Remembrance of the Daleks, for… well, for the Daleks let’s be honest But finally in the last couple of McCoy’s stories I found something to hold on to. Something very interesting happens in these last two stories, particularly “Survival”, and it’s yet another embodiment of that “don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” theme that seems to run through every single aspect of Doctor Who.
“The Curse of Fenric” is Ace’s story through and through, with an emotional climax that humanises her completely. “Survival” builds to a climactic duel between The Doctor and The Master in which The Doctor screams that “If we fight like animals, we die like animals!” and the simply heart-melting closing monologue (I guess they knew it was the last for a while):
“There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea’s asleep and the rivers dream, people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice and somewhere else the tea is getting cold. Come on, Ace, we’ve got work to do.”
It left me on a high, anyway, though I’d fallen unconditionally in love with the show long before.
If anything McGann’s Doctor seems to me to count even less than Cushing’s “non-canon” (did I mention I hate that word) one, though I understand his Eighth Doctor is more noted for radio plays etc that I haven’t yet encountered. I have a bit of a soft spot for the movie, and it’s a great stopgap over what would otherwise be an even more jarring transition between old series and new, giving us the regeneration of McCoy into McGann but introducing thoroughly more modern production values etc. It has its place I’m sure.
It was only midway through “Dalek” (my favourite episode of Eccleston’s season, and possibly my favourite single episode of Who ever, incidentally) that I realised, in fact, I hadn’t seen a good half of this series of Doctor Who ever before. I forgot that though I was excited to see “Rose” when it leaked on the internet, I then kind of zoned out of the whole thing until the second half of the “Empty Child/Doctor Dances” story. So it was kind of an experience to finally see this whole season as a whole.
Rose is, of course, one of the greatest companions the Doctor ever had. With the initial Rose arc, Russell T. Davies clearly realised what had been proven to be great about the companion archetype over and over in the show’s history, and boy he went with it. It doesn’t matter that we don’t see McGann regenerate into Eccleston, not just because it’s almost a reboot of the show, more because we re-enter the Doctor’s world through Rose‘s story.
By the way, though I singled out “Dalek”, it’s impossible for me really to pick favourites from the new series. I intend to buy whole collections of these immediately on DVD and Blu-ray because it was the sweeping story arcs that really made them such an astounding success.
Eccleston struck me as an even better Doctor on this “re-watching” (I’d not seen a single episode of the new series more than once until now, it’s worth saying) than he did the first time. From his bizarre delivery of the line “Run for your life!” in his first episode to his final words in his last, “You were fantastic, and y’know what? So was I…”, he seemed to channel almost all previous Doctors exactly according to what best fit the situation at hand. I could watch any of his episodes over and over… though the same can be said for just about any of the new series, lol.
The big one. This was the era when Doctor Who became simply so consistently brilliant that its very consistent brilliance almost became a bore week after week (I really don’t mean that badly, it’s just the only way I’ve ever been able to articulate its brilliance lol). Tennant carried the Rose arc to its profoundly moving closure, with that jarring yet hilarious conclusion that led into the Catherine Tate Christmas special, in itself a kind of deserved break for The Doctor in which respects were paid to Rose’s memory constantly, as if the writers knew exactly how much this companion had meant to us. Rose echoed into the next companion, Martha’s, time on the TARDIS too. It made the adoption of a whole new character that much easier to bear and adjust to, and as always, she too grew on us – the whole third season, in fact, is arguably really all about Martha earning the right to replace Rose, and she goes above and beyond, but finally turns him down because he will never love her like Rose.
Tennant had “pseudo-companions”, too. “The Girl in the Fireplace” is an episode, if any, that deserves to be singled out (and it has been, often) – a profound, heartbreaking story by Steven Moffat that practically serves as a template for his first season arc with Matt Smith’s Doctor and Amy Pond. Post-Rose we had Joan Redfern in the emotionally epic Human Nature/Family of Blood 2-parter, Sally Sparrow in the lean, mean, “Blink”, and of course, the whole River Song thing that’s still to come. These “companions that never were”, when as successful as these, are somehow even more powerful than the more longterm partners, for all the same reasons: they grow on us, they grow in themselves, and deserve to see what The Doctor can show them as much as anyone else… and just at the moment when we think we can’t live without them, they’re gone.
Like I said under Eccleston, the new series has been more about great arcs than great individual stories, but that’s not to say all arcs are great as each other. There was certainly a lot of air in the middle of Tennant’s – um – tenancy as The Doctor… the Mr. Saxon arc of Season 3 perhaps being the worst offender, hitting a low point with “Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks” and its frankly silly looking human Dalek, a story that takes none of its characters anywhere particularly interesting. But maybe, again, this weaker arc was intentional, like the humour of that Tate Christmas special, we just needed some downtime after the powerhouse that was Rose?
Strangely, Tennant’s tenure picked up exactly at the time when it seemed most likely to fail, as Catherine Tate came onboard full time as companion. Now, I loved Catherine Tate’s comedy but I don’t think there was a soul whose heart didn’t sink a little at the announcement of her as the new companion. Martha following Rose was enough work at getting an audience to love again, but bringing Donna back was a whole other challenge for the writers and I think it’s a huge factor in the show’s current goodwill that it totally paid off. Tate was subdued, emotional, and finally brilliant as a companion, proving really that this show can literally do anything.
And then there were the specials… the first few of which I must admit seemed unfocussed. “The Waters of Mars”, however, is a wonderful story that made clear the intention of the specials that culminated in what was always going to be a painful regeneration for the audience, let alone the Doctor himself… Tennant’s Doctor simply became too cocksure as these specials rolled on… Doctor Hubris, as it were… and one last element of his mythology that I simply adore began to feature more and more prominently: those stories when his enemies directly call him on his own failings… his loneliness… the fact that people have died because of him too…
If replacing Rose as companion was hard to take, surely replacing Tennant as Doctor was even more scary a prospect for even the loosest and newest fans of the show. It was as I watched Tennant’s last episodes just a few weeks ago that I realised they only aired a year ago, yet Tennant’s Doctor already feels like another life ago. Matt Smith could have taken an entire series, like Martha, ingratiating himself in the role… but he did it all in the first episode. At the end of “The Eleventh Hour”, he simply WAS the Doctor. And as I’ve already said, by the time “The Pandorica Opens” rolled credits, he had inspired me to go full Whovian. Some of the stories on the way were, if I’m honest, even weaker than some under Russell T. Davies… but the Amy Pond arc was made that much more prominent, making the failings of any individual stories far less of a problem.
So that’s where we are now… I don’t feel right saying much about the Christmas special as I’ve only seen it once, and it was on Christmas Day, and I was tired and drunk as ever lol. But I liked it – it was a mess, but a warranted (due to the sheer scope of the story and the time in which it was told) and beautiful one. The song is still in my head days later on, and the trailer for the new series looked phenomenal.
What I love the most about Doctor Who was something I already said even before this insane watching spree… it’s that it’s a show that can simply do anything – it almost fits into the same genre as those anthology type shows I also love, like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, or Masters of Horror, with the exception being of course that it has total continuity of characters. What I’d add to this that I realised more as I watched this past half year is – not only is it able to do anything, but more importantly, it does do anything, and it always makes perfect sense in terms of its own pseudo-science, characters, story, and continuity. Even at the latest Moffat maddest, like the timey-wimeyness of “The Pandorica Opens”, there is a truth embedded into the madness that makes it simply one of the most important things on television today. What The Doctor represents is to me a good as great as any of the world’s religions, and frankly, frequently even more compelling as an option.
There is so much more to write about, but I’ve broken 4000 words here so I have to stop for now. Again these are all just my first thoughts only a week after finishing watching the whole nearly 50 years of the show so don’t even bother having a go at me ‘cos I missed something, I’ve no interest in being right or comprehensive or giving a sh*t about (I vomit at the word) canon. I just love the show, more now than ever, and I’m sure I’ll love it more still.