Have I got Whos for you

 

 

As animals learn to recognise the sounds of danger and take flight on hearing those sounds, so when I was six years old I learned to take flight when I heard a certain sound coming from the television on Saturday teatimes.  It was a weird, pulsating sound that went diddly-dink, diddly-dink, diddly-dink and it was the start of the famous electronic music of the BBC’s flagship science-fiction show Doctor Who.  However, such was the monstrousness of the aliens encountered by the Doctor and his companions while they explored the universe in the Tardis, his police box-shaped space / time machine, that to me it seemed more like a horror show.  Legend has it that Britain’s entire juvenile population would take refuge from the show’s monsters by hiding behind their sofas, but I didn’t, because in our living room there wasn’t enough space to hide behind the sofa.  Instead, I’d run into the adjoining kitchen and sneak frightened glances back at the TV from the kitchen doorway.

 

However, like a character in a Joseph Conrad story, I eventually realised that the only way to conquer my fears was to confront them.  So I forced myself to stay in the living room when Doctor Who came on TV and watch it.  This was during the period when the Doctor was played by Jon Pertwee and, during his last couple of seasons, I did become reasonably immune to the show’s scary bits.  But then in 1974 a new production team took over and new Doctor, Tom Baker, inherited the lead role.  They decided to make the show as frightening as possible – well, as frightening as they could get away with on a teatime TV series watched largely by primary-school-age kids.  And suddenly I found myself watching it from the kitchen doorway again.

 

The show was long-running even then.  It’s far longer-running now and today, November 23rd, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of its first episode being broadcast in 1963.  Writer-actor Mark Gatiss recently wrote a TV play about how the show was created – courtesy of Sydney Newman, the BBC’s then head of drama, Verity Lambert, a young female producer, and William Hartnell, the flinty character actor who was the first person to play the Doctor.  Gatiss’s play, An Adventure in Space and Time, was shown on BBC2 two evenings ago and starred craggy Dundonian actor Brian Cox as Newman, actress Jessica Raine as Lambert and Harry Potter actor David Bradley as Hartnell.  An Adventure… nostalgically recreates both the tweedy boardrooms and the sweaty studios of the BBC in the early 1960s and is clearly a loving tribute by a massive fan of the show (which Gatiss avowedly is).  Also, it’s the best thing the BBC has done so far to celebrate Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary.

 

(Other celebratory items have included Doctor Who: the Ultimate Guide on BBC3, the corporation’s teen / twenty-something channel, which treated us to the opinions of such experts on the show as useless teenybop-rock band McFly.  There was also an optimistically-titled special called The Science of Doctor Who, hosted by Brian Cox.  That’s Brian Cox the famous physicist, not Brian Cox the craggy Dundonian actor.)

 

 (c) Royal Mail

 

William Hartnell was 55 when he took on the role in 1963, but if you’ve seen him in movies like Carry On Sergeant or Hell Drivers, you’ll know that he belonged to a wartime generation of British actors who seemed like tough, leathery old men no matter what their real age was.  Accordingly, Hartnell often played the Doctor as a cranky pensioner (although he mellowed later on).  Indeed, in the show’s early episodes, he’s quite unheroic.  He comes across as a devious old shite and on one occasion, when he picks up a rock intending to stove in the head of an injured man, seems almost psychotic.  I wish that in the show’s modern incarnation, where there’s much bleating about the Doctor’s pacifism and his unwillingness to use physical force, the programme-makers would cast their minds back to how the character behaved originally.

 

One nice thing about Gatiss’s play is that it shows the change Doctor Who wreaked in Hartnell’s life after 1963.  He’d become typecast as a hard-man character capable only of playing crooks and army sergeants, he wasn’t in the best of health and he was possibly at the end of his acting career.  Then he found himself in a wildly popular TV show, one unlike anything he’d done before, and suddenly he became an instantly-recognisable hero to the nation’s children.  Sadly, he didn’t have long to enjoy his fame.  After three years his declining health – he found it increasingly difficult to remember his lines, especially the show’s sci-fi technobabble – forced him to quit.

 

But it wasn’t Hartnell that made Doctor Who a huge success.  It was the saltshaker-shaped, croak-voiced and homicidal Daleks that trundled into view at the end of its fifth episode that sent ratings through the roof.  The Daleks were created by Terry Nation, who till then was known as a comedy writer.  Nation almost didn’t write for Doctor Who, as he was already lined up to work with the legendary TV comic Tony Hancock.  However, as happened so often with Hancock and his writers – see also Ray Galton and Alan Simpson – he and Nation fell out, and Nation accepted the invitation to write for Doctor Who after all.  Thereafter, Nation’s work was mostly fantastical – he worked as script-editor on The Avengers and in the 1970s created the shows Survivors and Blake’s 7 – and he became one of the most influential figures in British TV science fiction.

 

From www.millersantiquesguide.com

 

In 1966, with Hartnell unable to continue in the role, someone hit on the idea that the Doctor – a super-intelligent, centuries-old alien – should, once his current body had worn itself out, be able to regenerate himself.  This meant the show could go on with different actors inhabiting the lead role.  Each new actor would give the Doctor his own quirks, tics and gimmicks but he also had to persuade audiences that he was at heart (or hearts – the Doctor has two) the same character.

 

The second Doctor, Patrick Troughton (who in An Adventure… was played by Mark Gatiss’s old League of Gentlemen colleague Reece Shearsmith), was a long-serving character actor, often in British horror movies like The Curse of Frankenstein (1956), The Phantom of the Opera (1963) and The Black Torment (1964).  Later, he returned to the genre, with Scars of Dracula (1970), Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973) and The Omen (1976), in which he played a priest who got memorably skewered by a lightning rod falling off a church.  (That scene still chills me – films in which Doctor Who gets killed off always seem hard-core to me.)  Troughton’s Doctor was an impish and dishevelled character, part hobo and part hippy, with a fleeting resemblance to Mo in the Three Stooges.  Most subsequent actors in the role have named him as their favourite Doctor and some (including current incumbent Matt Smith) have borrowed from him.

 

(c) BBC

 

The producers during the Troughton years, Innes Lloyd and then Peter Bryant, abandoned the ‘historical adventure’ stories common in the Hartnell era, in which the Doctor met the likes of Marco Polo, Emperor Nero and the Aztecs and the only science-fiction element was the Tardis.  Instead, they pushed the show towards out-and-out science fiction and monsters.  They developed the Doctor’s second-deadliest enemies, the Cybermen, who started off as sinister gimp-like figures in silvery body-stockings and evolved into the hulking, blank-faced, handled-headed baddies that they’re familiar as today.

 

Also, the show featured more stories set on contemporary earth, for example, with Cybermen stomping down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral and, more incongruously, yeti marauding through the London Underground.  No doubt this was due to budgetary restrictions, modern-day earth (well, London) being cheaper to film than the historical past or the distant future.  But it was also due to the producers realising that audiences found it more unnerving when the Doctor’s monstrous foes popped up in settings they were familiar with.  Debuting during this time was the long-running and admirably unflappable army-officer character, Brigadier (initially Colonel) Alistair Lethbridge Stewart, played by Nicholas Courtney, who helped Troughton and four subsequent Doctors against invading aliens.

 

In 1969, Troughton quit too and the BBC had to decide whether to end the show after a respectable seven-year run or to continue it with a new actor.  It opted for the latter course but made changes to the format.  The Doctor’s race, the all-powerful and isolationist Time Lords, were introduced.  The Doctor, it transpired, had stolen the Tardis from his home planet and nipped off in it to see the universe.  Worse, he’d broken the Time Lords’ non-interventionist code by meddling in events (for the good, obviously) at every place he’d landed.  Troughton’s tenure ended with the Time Lords capturing him, exiling him to earth – with the Tardis disabled – and making him regenerate again.

 

Stranded on earth and played now by Jon Pertwee, the Doctor fell in with the Brigadier again and started working for his anti-alien military organisation UNIT (which stood once for the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce; though after the real United Nations complained, the programme-makers changed it to the United Intelligence Taskforce).  Much crap has been written about Jon Pertwee by the show’s more intellectual fans.  Although until then Pertwee’s background had mostly been in comedy, he stands accused of making the character too much like a straightforward action hero – his Doctor wore a cape and often overcame the villains by using on them a futuristic martial art called Vensuvian Aikido.  Allegedly too, he made the character right-wing and authoritarian by working for the military-industrial complex, i.e. the Brigadier and UNIT.  It’s even claimed he turned the character into a petrol-head because his Doctor had a fondness for driving vintage cars.  Pertwee’s real personality – from all accounts he was a bit of a prima-donna – probably hasn’t helped his reputation.

 

(c) BBC

 

To that I can only say that during his tenure from 1970 to 1974, Pertwee’s impact was immense on kids like me.  To us, he was The Main Man.  Every Monday at school would be spent discussing what he’d got up to – what alien or monster he’d karate-chopped – on the previous Saturday’s episode.  (These discussions required considerable play-acting from me, as I’d been too scared to watch much of the episodes.  But to preserve my reputation for manliness I had to pretend that I had.)  No doubt it did Pertwee’s considerable ego no harm to know that, for a large section of the British population, he was the Greatest Bloke in the Universe.

 

As the Doctor and the Brigadier were in a Holmes / Watson-type relationship, producer Barry Letts and script-editor Terrance Dicks gave them a Moriarty in the shape of the Master, another renegade Time Lord, one who was as evil as the Doctor was good.  Playing the Master initially was the excellent Roger Delgado, a Cockney in real life although Spanish and Belgian in his parentage, which gave him the necessary amount of foreignness to be a British TV villain at the time.

 

This was also when the show’s greatest writer, Robert Holmes, became prominent.  He was responsible for such traumatising stories as Terror of the Autons, which featured murderous sentient plastic in various forms: murderous plastic dummies, dolls, armchairs, flowers and telephone leads.  Also creeping me out during this period was a non-Holmes story called The Daemons, which had the Master unleash ancient and evil forces from an English country church and which was in the tradition of 1970s British folk-horror movies like The Wicker Man.  A sequence where a malevolent group of Morris Dancers try to suffocate Pertwee by pinning him against a maypole and wrapping him with the pole’s ribbons while they dance around him has left me with a lifelong fear of Morris Dancers.

 

This period also saw The Three Doctors, an adventure marking the show’s tenth anniversary in 1973.  It brought together all three characters who’d played the character by that point: Pertwee, Troughton and (a very ailing) Hartnell.  This set the style for future anniversary / reunion adventures such as The Five Doctors (1983), The Two Doctors (1985), Time Crash (2007) and one that’s being shown tonight, featuring the tenth and eleventh Doctors, Day of the Doctor.  In these, the Doctors assemble through some strange kink in the space-time continuum, bicker, get on each other’s nerves and insult each other’s interior-design sense in the Tardis control room.  (“You’ve done this place up.  I don’t like it.”)  The Three Doctors saw Pertwee and co save the Time Lords from destruction and in gratitude they lifted his exile, allowing him to go wandering again.

 

(c) BBC

 

In 1974 the Doctor regenerated again, Pertwee being replaced by Tom Baker.  Like Troughton, Baker had served time in British horror and fantasy films like Vault of Horror, Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Frankenstein: the True Story and the mind-boggling sleaze-fest The Mutations, and he was also a raconteur well-known for his drinking exploits in the less salubrious pubs of Soho with the likes of Francis Bacon.  Eccentric, wild-eyed, endowed with a voice and manner that made him seem like a Shakespearean version of Groucho Marx, and wearing the definite Doctor Who outfit of a wide-brimmed hat and super-long multi-coloured scarf, he became the franchise’s signature Doctor.  When The Simpsons do a Doctor Who gag these days, it invariably features Baker’s fourth Doctor.

 

With Baker as the definite Doctor, an ambitious young producer called Philip Hinchcliffe at the helm, and the show’s best writer, Robert Holmes, as script-editor, the next three years were the show’s Golden Age.  Hinchcliffe and Holmes borrowed ideas from all manner of British horror and adventure fiction, such as Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, Sax Rohmer, Agatha Christie, Frankenstein, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as well as from the Hammer horror films and Quatermass, and they produced a slew of classic (and, for me, terrifying) adventures: The Ark in Space, Terror of the Zygons, Pyramids of Mars, Brain of Morbius, Masque of Mandragora, The Deadly Assassin, Robots of Death and Talons of Weng Chiang.

 

During this era my all-time favourite Who adventure was broadcast, The Seeds of Doom, which concerned alien seed-pods that germinated, infected their human victims and then slowly transformed them into hideous, flesh-eating plant-monsters.  One pod falls into the hands of a crazed millionaire plant-lover called Harrison Chase – played by Tony Beckley, a familiar face from cult British movies like Get Carter and The Italian Job – and Chase wastes no time in getting it to germinate.  The scenes where slowly-transforming botanist Arnold Keeler is chained to a bed, futilely begging Chase to give him medical help, while Chase is more interested in aiding his metamorphosis by feeding him protein (i.e. slices of raw meat), is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever watched on TV.

 

Alas, all good things come to an end.  By 1976 Britain’s self-appointed moral guardian Mrs Mary Whitehouse was on the warpath about the show’s horror and violence – she was particularly upset by an episode of The Deadly Assassin that seemingly ended with Tom Baker being drowned.  So the BBC took Hinchcliffe off the show and instructed its next producer, Graham Williams, to tone things down.  Consequently, Williams’ era is seen as the start of a long period of decline for the show, the stories being pitched at a much younger audience and Baker being encouraged to play up the Doctor’s comedic aspects.  Most painfully, a cute and intensely annoying robot dog called K9 was added to the cast.  One of the creators of K9 was writer Bob Baker, who since then has co-written the Wallace and Gromit films with Nick Park.  I can only say that, as heroic dogs go, K9 is not fit to sniff Gromit’s bottom.

 

(c) BBC

 

That said, I still found some of the Williams-era Doctor Who entertaining.  This was largely because towards the end of it the great Douglas Adams, of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, was appointed script editor, which upped the level of wit in the writing.  Also, Tom Baker received some good dramatic support, both from his regular cast (which included Lalla Ward, now better known as Mrs Richard Dawkins) and from his guest stars, which included such classy characters actors as Iain Cuthbertson, Valentine Dyall, Peter Jeffrey, John Woodvine and Julian Glover.  Glover, in fact, was the villain in the best adventure of this period, The City of Death, which was set in Paris and co-written by Adams.  At one point The City of Death managed to attract some 16 million viewers, showing that, even if the show was declining in quality, the Great British public was still watching it in droves.

 

A year later, however, another new producer arrived and a terrible thing happened.  For the first time, Doctor Who became conscious of its fans.

 

To be continued.

 

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