Monday, January 02, 2017
Doctor Who 52: 07 – Ten Reasons to Watch The Rescue (SE)
Introducing Doctor Who – The Rescue…
A poor orphaned waif with a forbidding guardian, waiting to see if their ship will ever come in. The sinister figure that terrorises her while claiming to be her protector. This is Doctor Who at its most Dickensian – set on an alien world four hundred years in the future, first on TV fifty-two years ago today. Time for New Year stress and resolution in this 1965 tale that’s small but perfectly formed at the length of a 2017 episode. Maureen O’Brien debuts as the series’ first ‘new companion’, comforted by William Hartnell’s Doctor at his most delightful and menaced by Sydney Wilson’s dastardly Koquillion…
I’m anxious but excited. As chance would have it, a story from exactly fifty-two years ago marks the turning point in my Doctor Who 52. I initially started offering an exciting variety of Doctor Who stories in an idiosyncratic order to run through the year, one every week, inspired by the fifty-second anniversary in November 2015. When my health collapsed beyond even its usual state, that all juddered to a halt. I started again in November 2016, only to end up in hospital soon after. I’m still in a lot of pain, I’m still very unhappy about it, and my health has still yet to recover anywhere near pitiful Alex-normal. But not wanting to be beaten, I somehow buckled down and have now very nearly caught up to where my calendar tells me I should be (Ten Reasons and one Extra still waiting). So far, most of the blog posts I’ve published in this series have been ones that I originally wrote a year ago, which I’ve re-read, rewritten and republished as
The Rescue is available on DVD and through BBC Store. Read on here, or just press Play. If you’ve never seen it but my first few reasons to watch it entice you, then, really, press Play. And while usually I’d take the DVD over BBC Store like a shot (extras, picture quality, not seizing up and needing a restart every time you pause it…), one very good reason simply to press Play this time and one advantage BBC Store has by missing something is the DVD menu. Usually the menus on Doctor Who DVDs have a mix of tantalising moments from the story, like an ambient trailer; that’s how the main menu works here, but the Special Features sub-menu is just one continuous clip of the climax. There are some preposterous decisions elsewhere in the range, but this probably wins the ‘What were they thinking‽’ award for most random and complete spoiler. So when I say there are spoilers lower down my list this time, I mean it…
Ten Reasons To Watch The Rescue (warning: spoilers lower down the list)
1 – It’s the ideal Doctor Who for New Year.
The Rescue is a bit of a new start, but not too much. It’s not too complicated, but has a refreshing twist. It’s small and manageable both in the scale of the action and in lasting just fifty minutes across two snack-sized episodes. And even our heroes get to sleep some of it off.
While The Rescue didn’t start a new season, it was first broadcast on January 2nd, 1965, and it’s perfectly pitched for new viewers to jump on board with the new companion. We see the TARDIS materialise – literally a beacon of light throughout – before we see within, always crucial in making us appreciate that it’s bigger on the inside than the outside, and the small cast gives us much more time with all the characters. Most of all, we get to know newcomer Vicki, and we get to know the Doctor all over again. Written by original Doctor Who lead writer David Whitaker, this is quietly the series’ first relaunch. Of course, the honest New Year Doctor Who would be Resurrection of the Daleks (massive overindulgence followed by regret and resolutions that you’ll break immediately and double down instead) then The Twin Dilemma (the awful hangover)…
“We can travel anywhere and everywhere in that old box, as you call it. Regardless of space and time.”
“Then it is a time machine?”
“And if you like adventure, my dear, I can promise you an abundance of it.”
2 – Vicki is the first new companion.
…And the story goes as far as it can to make that easy on the viewers – or, rather, to make us go easy on her. When we first met the Doctor, it was through his granddaughter Susan, a mystery for her schoolteachers Ian and Barbara to follow. But Susan fell in love and out of the TARDIS in the previous story. How would the Doctor take to someone else? How would we get used to a new teenage face in the show? And what could bring her on board? She’s not another relative, and while the Doctor effectively kidnapped Ian and Barbara, that was bundled up with the role-reversal on teachers who know nothing, and not something a kinder, gentler Doctor could do to a teenage girl. The producers nearly brought on board a gutsy young freedom-fighter from the previous story, but instead chose to go quite the other way. They pull out all the stops to make us feel sorry for her and want her looked after.
Vicki seems, to begin with, much younger and less capable than Susan. Maureen O’Brien – here beginning an impressive career, though thanks to a forgotten early work of Andrew Davies’ I grew up thinking of her as an evil witch-nun – plays her with huge eyes, a waif-like form and outfit, and just enough pluck that she doesn’t make the audience wonder why on Dido she’d want an abundance of adventure after spending every scene cowering. Today Vicki is easy to read as abused or at least crushed by her multiple bereavements and oppressive semi-guardian – she’s young and full of hope that’s ever cowed, he’s dark and brooding and rains on every parade – and to see how after being adopted into a friendlier sort of family she’s going to gain the self-confidence of a cheeky teen anarchist (though inconsistent writing – or PTSD – will give her wild mood swings between the two as her stories continue).
But for now, Vicki sets a template that will often be repeated for new companions, and which I once sarcastically labelled ‘Daddy was a lord, but he’s dead now’. Her mother has died, so her father takes her away to make a new home on a colony world. But their ship crashes on the inhospitable planet Dido, so they don’t get to their new home. And then her father dies too. Not just him, but a massive explosion that takes out every other person she knows, except one. And he doesn’t like her. So there is literally no-one on this planet who loves and will look after her. She seems the most thoroughly orphaned person possible (until the show eventually takes this to extremes with Nyssa), and the Doctor and his friends spend most of the story getting to know and befriend her, so by the end of the story there can be no possible objection to her choosing – and she is very carefully given a choice and time to choose it – to leave on the TARDIS. Just to make sure we get the point that she is utterly and totally destined to be the new companion, she even introduces herself to Barbara twice. The second time spelling out her name, letter by letter.
3 – The Rescue reintroduces the Doctor too.
Even more effectively than it introduces Vicki, The Rescue gives us fresh angles on the Doctor. In a subtly reworked role that retains all of William Hartnell’s intelligence and authority but allows him to be kindlier and funnier, suddenly the Doctor twinkles. This is a great place to start for Mr Hartnell, showcasing just how versatile the Doctor could be and will be from now on – stern, affectionate, vulnerable, incisive, embarrassed, and often comic here, too. People often dismiss the youngest Doctor – the one looking like the oldest man – as a grumpy old thing, not least because when we first see him he’s terrific but not kind in running rings round his companions. He takes a while to warm or warm to, and longer to seem trustworthy. Yet I can’t think of another Doctor with more facets. This story doesn’t so much soften the Doctor’s character as give him a chance to shine in many different ways, not least as the only person who sees everything that’s going on in the story. I love Billy for his speeches and his passion, and there’s plenty of that here. At the climax of the story, he follows previous ‘courtroom’ triumphs with a stunning confrontation in a majestic Hall of Judgement. But by then he’s already charmed budding companion Vicki with his understanding, then been chuffed to bits overhearing how much she already likes and trusts him. He promises her he’ll be diplomatic… Which last about ten seconds before – though he’s the last Doctor of whom you’d expect it – he picks up a girder to use as a battering ram and determines on breaking a door down.
William Hartnell turned a powerful acting presence learned as the stern sergeants and ruthless crooks of his film career into the perversely authoritative anti-establishment Doctor… But he also had great comic timing, and his vulnerability in a character role inspired producer Verity Lambert to make him the Doctor. Both are on full display here. The show needs us to move on from Susan, but the Doctor can’t forget his granddaughter just yet; rarely do we see the Doctor so quietly hurt as when he starts to ask her to open the doors here, and falters, Barbara gently offering help instead. Before long he’s showing he’s sharp as ever to Ian, then wondering if he can get away with pretending he landed on Dido deliberately before remembering that he did it in his sleep, playfully undercutting the danger of his becoming a know-it-all. On the surface, The Rescue may be designed to repair the ensemble cast by introducing a replacement fourth member, but compare it with a year earlier and it’s not just the teenager who’s changed, nor even the Doctor’s character that’s evolved – it’s not an ensemble any more. He’s the Doctor. The ‘new companion’ makes it clear that the others are just that: his companions. If there was ever a doubt who was the star, there isn’t now.
4 – Alien Design.
This is a small, cheap story, but designer Raymond Cusick – who created the series’ first alien world – carefully chooses where to put detail that fills in a civilisation. Though his big alien beastie here isn’t a patch on his Daleks, the various stylised representations of it are fabulous. Massive carvings draw your attention from bare rock walls; pillars give shape and purpose to the Hall of Judgement, transforming it from a big empty space to the eerie, majestic heart of the story, aided by smoke and (reused but atmospheric) musique concrète. And the alien figure of Koquillion, all leering tarantula-faced bristles and tusks with the manner and mendacity of a wicked Dickensian stepfather, is decidedly creepy every time he comes to call and tell Vicki not to go far from the crashed ship, or he might not be able to protect her from his people…
5 – The Doctor’s sympathy versus Barbara’s exasperation.
One of the biggest changes in the Doctor since the series started a year before is that he’s now much more concerned for and tactile with his companions, no longer just with his departed granddaughter. In their first scene together here, the two teachers are worried; she’s noticed that the vibration of flight has ceased, meaning that for the first time, the Doctor’s slept through a landing. They rouse him and he comes to, embarrassed but charmingly tactile with his friends, pretty much giving each of them a hug, so when Barbara breaks his flow to try and tell him what’s happened, he jumps wonderfully to the wrong conclusion and clasps her hand to his breast in concern and delight. Then he’s more embarrassed when he realises what she actually meant…
“Oh, but Doctor, the trembling’s stopped.”
“Oh, my dear! I’m so glad you’re feeling better. Hmm!”
“No, not me – the Ship!”
“Oh, the— Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry.”
6 – The Doctor’s knowledge versus Ian’s exasperation.
Ian and Barbara have developed since the of the series, too. This time, everyone’s favourite Coal Hill Schoolteachers go off exploring, while the Doctor dozes in the Ship. But when they’re menaced by Koquillion, Barbara’s toppled from a cliff and Ian caught in a rock fall, the Doctor springs out to help… Only to wind Ian up by knowing considerably more than he does, despite as far as Ian is concerned having only been outside for a moment while he was out risking his neck exploring.
“Oh, there was this – thing, this repulsive thing with a – hideous face.”The Doctor gives him a quick glance up and down and tells him no bones broken, but somehow Ian doesn’t seem to mean it on thanking him for “The most thoroughgoing medical I’ve ever had.”
“With hands and feet like claws?”
“Yes, that’s it. How do you know?”
“Well, this is the planet Dido. I’ve been here before. I know them very well.”
“They’re very friendly people.”
“Oh! It wasn’t friendly to us.”
“…This thing. Was it armed?”
“No, no, it wasn’t. Wait a minute… It was carrying – some sort of – jewelled club. About so long.”
“With a big head? Resembling a spanner?”
“I don’t know why you bother to ask.”
Though the Doctor gets an exasperated moment of his own later, as the two of them clamber across a narrow rock face in the dark and then, as if that wasn’t enough to put up with, hear a roar from ahead of them. Ian sticks the torch right in the Doctor’s face.
“What was that?”
“Well, it’s not me, is it? Shine the torch down there!”
7 – Making you think about time travel (and tact) for yourself.
Charmed by the Doctor, Vicki has started to bond with Ian and Barbara, so they start to exchange confidences: Vicki about her loneliness, and the two teachers about their travels. Ian tells Vicki that their spaceship travels through time as well. Barbara tells her that they left in 1963, instantly regretting it.
“1963! But that means you’re about – five hundred and fifty years old!”The camera lingers first on Vicki calculating, then Barbara trying not to look monstrously offended – in the fragile moment of still feeling very in the wrong just after Vicki’s forgiven her – while Ian covers his mouth and chokes with laughter in the background. And all neatly reintroducing the series’ concepts, and letting the viewer go, ‘Hang on – no – that’s not right – let me work it out…’ while Babs is writhing in embarrassment and elbowing her long-term companion in the ribs, before Vicki drops another clanger on the contemporary audience, too:
“Well, yes, I – I suppose I am. Yes, it’s a way of looking at it, but I’ll try not to look at it too often.”
“They didn’t have time machines in 1963. They didn’t know anything then.”The same conversation gets one of my favourite moments in the book, similarly making us think:
“‘Oh, come on, you’re imagining things, Barbara Wright,’ Ian laughed. ‘You’re as bad as that awful little Tracey Pollock in 3B!’
‘Tracey Pollock . . .’ Barbara murmured. Coal Hill School suddenly seemed a million miles away. In fact it was a great deal further and long since buried beneath the Metropolitan Disposal Plant.”
8 – The double (or single) entendre.
Ian Chesterton at one point calls the villain “Cocky-lickin’”. I suspect it’s only that William Russell seems so sober and respectable and that Ian is written as the most reassuringly ‘straight’ of all the Doctor’s companions that he ever got away with it. It’s almost as bare-faced as one of the stories in the first ever Dr Who Annual, published the same year, being titled The Fishmen of Kandalinga. In later years The Rescue was also described by one infamous guidebook as being set on the planet “Dildo”, which I knew people were finding funny some time before I understood why. But it’s Ian Marter’s novelisation that’s mostly likely to make you gasp. It was the book he was writing just before his untimely death, and I can’t help but wonder if he inserted some passages as a gag, expecting his editor to take them out, and then the editor didn’t want to change any of his last book. Right on the first page, a character sniggers at the script’s time-reading of “sixty-nine” flying hours until they reach Dido, which was so blatant that I spotted it even as a surprisingly innocent teenager, while in Chapter 5 there’s so much manipulating of oily, lubed rings that when I re-read the novel later in life I immediately re-re-read it back again to be sure those were really the words.
9 – A very Doctor Who moral: don’t judge by appearances.
The Doctor and Ian struggle to avoid a howling Sand Beast at the cliffhanger (both episodes end with pretty much literal cliffhangers). We see a Sand Beast staring at Vicki with its big shining eyes on stalks as she innocently goes about finding shrubs to eat, then lumbering forward. And Barbara sees that too. So she seizes the crashed ship’s flare gun and runs out of the wreck to blast it in the head (which Ian Marter’s novelisation describes tastefully as a “smouldering toffee-like blob”, after cheating rather in the build-up). Its keening death wail is rather distressing for the viewer, but worse for Vicki: “Sandy” was herbivorous and her only comfort as a pet, and now this becardiganed murderer has killed him! Alien-looking doesn’t mean nasty, human-looking doesn’t mean nice, Barbara and Vicki between them have to learn both lessons, then poor Vicki is slowly brought to understand and forgive her by the Doctor listening to and trusting the orphan to make her own choices. You can see her realising how much better an alternative guardian he’d make…
10 – The two-faced guardian.
And finally, the big twist. The Rescue is sometimes described as a whodunnit, but of course the point is that it only becomes that once you know who’s done it. You don’t even think of it like that when you can see the monster Koquillion played, as always, by a man in a monster suit all the way through. The glowering Victorian authority figure, the only other survivor after the wicked alien natives killed all the crew at a feast of welcome – but somehow managed to kill all their own people in the explosion too – had murdered a crew member on the voyage and everything else was his attempt to rescue himself. Vicki was ill in her cabin and didn’t know, so he dressed in Didoi robes made from local animal skulls to menace her as Koquillion, personification and maligner of the beastly natives, setting her up as witness to Dido’s cruel, murderous and conveniently unable to answer back inhabitants for when a ship arrives from Earth to rescue them both. It’s an entertaining dual performance from Ray Barrett – double-credited behind a portmanteau pseudonym of Sydney Newman and Donald Wilson, two of Doctor Who’s co-creators – though outshone by William Hartnell. The Doctor’s been enchanting right through the story – but now he sits like a marble statue in the Hall of Judgment of a slaughtered people to wait for the killer. And while the murderer made me think of Dickens throughout, the Doctor’s intellect and the plot he unmasks reminds me of Conan Doyle’s The Norwood Builder.
There are few scenes in Doctor Who that make me sit up and pay attention so keenly as when the Doctor, not turning but eyes racing as Koquillion enters the Hall, calls for him to come in. The atmosphere’s already electric, and then – casually, conversationally, because both of them know, so there’s no need to announce it, and because that way the audience is all the more likely to go ‘What? What did he say?’ – the Doctor informs him by his real name that such robes are only for absolutely ceremonial occasions. And from then on everything about the scene is relentless.
The Doctor doesn’t shrink from the ‘alien’, but he backs away as something far more sinister – an evil man – closes in on him. A betrayer, a cruel tormenter, a genocidal mass murderer, a rotten heart of darkness. Someone who always finds the ‘other’ to blame to cover up his own foulness, who exploits the person he poses as protecting and terrifies them into siding with him, who will throw aside anyone at all for his own gain. Under the pretence, this is someone horribly familiar. Though ironically the man in a monster suit looks far more effective than the monster of the week, fans have often speculated why, in a later story, the Doctor’s visions of past monsters as part of his inner fears should include an image of Koquillion, because he wasn’t even a monster. I wonder if they’ve ever watched it.
What Else Should I Tell You About The Rescue?
I’ve always thought The Rescue a lovely little story, not quite one I’d put in my ‘best of’ countdowns but played, written and directed so neatly that I can’t help enjoying myself more every time I watch it. It was only the second William Hartnell story I ever saw – brought along by an older friend to a bootleg showing by some university club in Manchester – and it opened my eyes to how endearing a character he was. I still remember falling in love with his comedy scenes at the start, and his shy delight on overhearing Vicki talking about him. There are a couple of moments that don’t work – a monster that tries to break up the human form and really doesn’t succeed, and the Didoi being defined as another ‘Planet of the Hats’ people who all think the same way – but it’s a neatly-formed story, well-told, and gently relaunches the Doctor and the series while handling its first big change, all at the length of a modern Doctor Who episode, a rarity in the Sixties. You can buy it in a double-DVD set with the more comedy-toned The Romans which I’ve heard called, but which you sadly won’t find labelled as, ‘Veni, Vidi, Vicki’.
Ian Marter’s novelisation has a very different flavour to the TV version – where 1965’s The Rescue is a small-scale story with an innocence that’s marred by one terrible betrayal, 1987’s reworking takes place in a much more cynical universe and expands the action considerably. The rescue ship is very of its time, going from an occasional voice on the radio to scenes on an explicitly American spacecraft – a “heap of Reaganium” – whose crew are shaken by the TARDIS and snap, “Don’t press my button!” It all makes the subtext of the damage done by ‘settlers’ to Native Americans much more the text, linking it to gung-ho ’80s US military clichés and, with the author seizing on the original serial’s New Year broadcast dates, giving a bitter festive commentary on the show’s hopeful ending. Not all the humour is so black – the Tracey Pollock moment always makes me smile, and the Doctor gets several new entertaining lines, particularly an incisively bitchy comment on the villain’s story and at the TARDIS’ next destination – while Dido is given a feel of ruined grandeur and horror at the end of a civilisation well beyond the TV’s budget. The science is rather dodgy, but the main flaw for me is that the structure falls down badly in the second half; as with the innuendos, I suspect Target Books’ editor didn’t want to alter the text of Ian Marter’s final book, but when the story comes to a head and the climax is then deferred for forty pages of sub-sub-Tolkien ruins and giant beasties, it could have done with another draft. You can buy it on audiobook, read by Maureen O’Brien in a warm, intimate style, with a vulnerable Vicki and an endearingly querulous Doctor.
And, if you need one, my score:
If You Like The Rescue, Why Not Try…
The Evil of the Daleks, utterly marvellous, another script from David Whitaker, introducing the exemplar of the companion as Victorian orphan innocent of her sinister sort-of-guardian. And much more. Voyage of the Damned, another Christmas hangover with an ill-fated ship and a blatant companion audition piece, with a twist. The Ambassadors of Death, another tale of aliens who aren’t really hostile being used as cover by scheming humans. Dragonfire, a refreshing change to the timid Victorian orphan companion trope and another fearsome monster concealing something unexpected. But to stay with something short for the New Year…
The Sontaran Experiment. Another brisk two-part story set on a rocky wasteland of a world where the population’s extinct – or is it? – and we meet the survivors of a destroyed spaceship, one of whom is not what they seem, all of which is later greatly extended by an Ian Marter novelisation.
The Christmas hangover’s not quite over yet – but assuming I go back to finish a couple of still-tasty leftovers, and with the still bigger assumption that I manage to go on writing…
Another new companion is caught up in a whodunnit that’s not really a whodunnit and finds both that humans can be more alienating than the aliens and that stepping on board the TARDIS and leaving it all behind was only the start of her problems.