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19 Jul 2013

Doctor Who: The Beginning 1963-1973

I don't like Susan Foreman. I think she's whiny girl who's scared of everything and gets herself into trouble. With the possible exception of The Sensorites, she shows absolutely no character development. So why was I bawling like a little baby when she left?

Because of William Hartnell, that's why.

In the last episode of the Dalek Invasion of Earth, Susan has a dilemma. She wants to stay with David and help to rebuild the Earth, but is worried about how it would hurt the Doctor. The Doctor knows this, and makes one of the hardest decisions in his life ... to finally let his granddaughter go. He knows she wants to, and that he is the one holding her back from making the decision. It is his loss we feel. He loves Susan, and even though I don't, I can empathise with him and feel how much it hurts him to leave his granddaughter behind, possibly never seeing her again.

I defy anyone to watch this episode and tell me that classic Who was shallow, vapid entertainment.

In reality the entire first season was like this. While there were Daleks, Marco Polo, Sensorites, Robespierre, etc. behind these monsters and heroes, we have a character drama about two lost humans, abducted from their home by a couple of alien fugitives.

In the first story, there's loads of clashes between the TARDIS crew, from the time when Ian thinks the Doctor has kidnapped Susan, to the time the Doctor berates them from trespassing in his machine. When the doctor, in a fit of indignation at being called a liar about the function of the TARDIS, takes them to the far past, he is indifferent to the suffering of a wounded 'primitive' while Ian and Barbara force him to help. It is also fitting that the two schoolteachers, who view the TARDIS as mere fantasy, are also viewed as fantastical by the cavemen. They have technology that must seem magical to humans living thousands of years ago, yet their view of the TARDIS is the same.

Then we are taken to Skaro, the home planet of the Daleks. The story is rather average with a lot of filler, but the cliffhanger scene of the Dalek eyestalk coming towards Barbara almost feels as if they knew the enemies were going to be a success. But again, it isn't all about the Daleks. Ian and Barbara are still coming to terms with their kidnapping, and can't even be sure they can trust the Doctor, especially once it's revealed that he lied about the TARDIS breaking down just so he could satisfy his curiosity about the city, and thereby getting them captured.

It isn't until the next story though that we get a truly character driven plot. While the denouement is probably one of the silliest moments in the shows history, the lead up is purely about the characters and how Ian and Barbara are suspicious of the Doctor, and angry at him for kidnapping them, but the Doctor reminds them that it was they who entered his ship in the first place. Everything that has gone before, now comes to a head. It is truly wonderful.

Unfortunately, such character driven pieces were mostly abandoned after a few years on the air. While characters still drove much of the plot, the tensions between members of the TARDIS crew remained virtually non-existent until the arrival of Turlough in the eighties.

When we get to Patrick Troughton's era, we see some of the best examples of stories in black and white Who. Both of his Dalek episodes are fantastic, dealing with such ideas as 'What if the Daleks had a human mind?' One of my favourite stories has to be the Enemy of the World. I'm not usually a fan of doppleganger plots, but this was great in spite of it. No need for a monster of the week, just good old fashioned political thriller.

And then the doctor gets exiled to Earth and turns into Jon Pertwee. Now let me get this straight, I don't like formulaic stories, however, I love Doctor Who's formula. The idea of a mysterious man arriving in a blue box, resolving some danger and then disappearing without needing to be thanked, is one of the true genius ideas of the show. I love it when we see the TARDIS materialise at the beginning of an episode and then dematerialise just before the credits roll with that music. But we were denied that with Pertwee's exiled years. And yet, the show still went from strength to strength. His first years as the doctor gave us two cracking stories, the Silurians, and Inferno. In the former, we were treated to a race originally from this planet and who now want to colonise it again. It is a moral dilemma, an invasion from our own planet. And then Inferno gives us a fast paced alternate reality story, placing the Doctor on his own for the majority of the serial.

The following year gives us an introduction to the Master. This is a character who could so easily be a melodramatic villain, but Roger Delgado pulls it off. His chemistry with Pertwee is so wonderful, you can really believe they were friends once.

While Doctor Who had it's not so good moments (the Dalek's 'pet', the bubble-bath of terror, and the less said about the spaghetti monster, the better), overall, in its early years, it was a show with depth. Something that contrasts with its early big screen films starring Peter Cushing. These films lacked the character development of the series, turned Ian from a courageous hero into a bumbling fool, and concentrated on how many Daleks they could cram onto the screen. When people think of early Who, these films are what they are likely to perceive the show as, but it couldn't be further from the truth.

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