As the 50th anniversary of the time-travel show is approaching next year (23 November 2013), I’ve decided to do a roughly fortnightly series on the history of the show, going season by season until the present day i.e. Season 34 as it will be in 2013. I’ll be briefly discussing each story, going onto some other topics and hopefully getting some of my readers interested in the classic era. Entire books have been written on just individual aspects of the show’s history, so I won’t go on too long.
So, let’s begin at the beginning. The classic era of Who consists of multi-episode serials, with numbers in each ranging from one to fourteen, but typically four or six. Runtime was usually c.25 minutes. However, when discussing the first three seasons of this show, we need to point out that what you got were individually titled episodes with the viewer not being able to guess in advance where one serial ended and another began. The titles for these serials are therefore sometimes educated guesswork, gleaned from the BBC paperwork – this particularly applies to the first season. Not all fans agree on the titles, so I've gone with the DVD titles the BBC uses.
Also, I’d better beginning by mentioning the missing episodes. Of the 784 episodes of DW produced to date, 106 are missing from the archives (it was 108 until two turned up late last year). All from the era of the first two Doctors (when the show was in black and white), the reason these episodes are missing was simply that the BBC had a policy until the late 1970s of junking master copies when it felt there was no more value from them in a pre-VCR era. It’s only through the hard work of fans (whose off-air audio recordings ensure that we have everything in at least audio form) and various episodes turning up among private collections or in foreign TV vaults that we have just over half of the black-and-white era available to us. I’ll mention episode status in brackets for each story where relevant.
If you remember “Human Nature” and the comment about “John Smith” having parents called Sydney and Verity, you may know that this is a reference to two of the show’s key creators
The “father” of Doctor Who was Sydney Newman (1917-1997), a Canadian who also created The Avengers, a classic British spy series. The BBC needed something to fill the slot between sports show Grandstand and music show Juke Box Jury, so he came up with the original concept for the show. He intended it to be educational as well as entertaining, although the former fell by the wayside.
The “mother” was Verity Lambert (1935-2007), the show’s first producer and actually the first woman producer at the BBC – before she’d even turned 30. There is a great drama about the creation of this show just waiting to be made and I wouldn’t be too surprised if we got one next year.
Present at the birth were Ron Grainer (the composer of the original theme music), Delia Derbyshire (who arranged it) and Waris Hussein, the first South Asian BBC drama director, among others.
An Unearthly Child (four episodes, all available)
[A pilot version of the first episode was made first, but another version was ordered as the BBC weren’t happy with it. The original version is available on video]
Our story begins with two schoolteachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, wondering why one of their pupils, one Susan Foreman, is acting strangely and being very bright (as well as talking about decimalisation of the currency). They visit her home at 76 Totter’s Lane, which is a junkyard and encounter her grandfather – the First Doctor. After the two teachers push their way into the TARDIS, the Doctor the reveals he and Susan are aliens (although the name “Time Lords” does not appear at this time) essentially kidnaps the pair of them.
After the first episode, Team TARDIS (as I shall refer to the TARDIS crew at any given time or in any given grouping) arrive in pre-history and enter a plot involving a tribe who have lost the secret of making fire. At the time, most of the past setting stories did not involve aliens in any way and so these stories are called “pure historicals” among fans.
Episode one is a wonderful piece of sci-fi. Most people don’t really bother too much about the other three.
The First Doctor
Played by William Hartnell, the first Doctor was a crotchety old man, with a marked tendency to go “Hmmmmm…” and mangle his words, a feature of early 1960s TV production when things were basically recorded “as live” and going for a retake wasn’t done unless you absolutely had to. Possessed a great sense of cunning though. Hartnell’s portrayal has been somewhat overshadowed by the other ten – it’s a somewhat different portrayal from the rest.
The Daleks (7 episodes, all available)
Arriving on a dead alien world with high radiation levels, the team enter a futuristic city – where Barbara has a memorable encounter with a sink plunger. When a vital TARDIS component is left behind, they must get it back by persuading a pacifist tribe to fight the Daleks.
Nobody had seen anything like the Daleks before – in fact we might not have got them at all. Terry Nation’s creations (his estate still co-owns the rights) were vetoed by Newman, who did not want a procession of “bug-eyed monsters” in his educational show. Lambert overruled him – a correct decision for the longevity of the show.
The Edge of Destruction (2 episodes, all available)
Set entirely in the TARDIS and only featuring the four regulars, the ship is heading back towards the Big Bang and the crew must figure out why. This was originally meant to be a two-episode filler of a thirteen episode season - in the end Season 1 got 42 episodes – but it’s good filler at that.
Marco Polo (7 episodes, none available)
The team take a road trip across 1289 China with Marco Polo. I haven’t seen (or heard) this one. Plan to get the audio version at some point though.
The Keys of Marinus (6 episodes, all available)
An alien world is threatened by another lot of aliens, so the team have to find the keys to a machine that makes evil actions impossible, hoping around the planet with ‘travel dials’. Essentially a bunch of fairly good mini-adventures penned by Terry Nation.
The Aztecs (4 episodes, all available)
Arriving in 15th century Mexico, Barbara gets mistaken for a god and knowing the unpleasant end of Aztec civilisation, decides to try and make it better, while the Doctor gets engaged. A rather fondly-remembered story, this one.
The Sensorites (7 episodes, all available)
Arriving on a spaceship, the crew find humans terrified of a race called the Sensorites. When they encounter the latter, they find that the Sensorites are just as scared of the humans… An early example of the clever writing and playing with conventions that this show is so at.
The Reign of Terror (6 episodes, 4 and 5 are missing but are being recreated through animation for the DVD release later this year)
A pure historical set during the latter part of the French Revolution, this was the show’s first go at location filming. I haven’t seen this, but I certainly am going to get the DVD.