Saturday, February 04, 2006


Escape to Danger

I met a Thal today. Well, all right, today I visited Tenth Planet, one of the best little shops in Britain, to meet an actress who in 1964 played a Thal in The Daleks, the second Doctor Who story. It’s just been released on DVD in Doctor Who: The Beginning, a superb three-DVD set of material that’s 42 years old yet still some of the most startling and imaginative television ever produced, and actress Virginia Wetherell was signing to promote it. In Troy McClure style, you may remember her from such films as A Clockwork Orange and Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, but in Doctor Who she was Dyoni, one of the blond and beautiful Thal people. She still looks fabulous today, just as blond and in a glittering cape she may have invested in for the occasion (or perhaps is regularly seen like that on the high street. I’ll look out).

Doctor Who was created by a remarkable group of people for the BBC in 1963 – iconoclastic Canadian drama supremo Sydney Newman chose a Producer who was young and female (uniquely for the BBC at the time, and since an industry legend), Verity Lambert, who I suspect is one of the few people I might get a serious ‘we are not worthy’ attack over if I were ever to meet her. The first director she chose was a young Indian, Waris Hussein, who also became a big name in the industry and did a stunning job on the first story. We’ve not finished the DVD set yet and there are plenty of extras to go, but it’s a real joy to hear Verity and two of the original leads still so proud and enthusiastic on a commentary for the first episode. With modern restoration techniques, the picture looks almost as good as new, too, and right from the start that eerie music and swirling titles grab you.
“Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? Have you? To be exiles…?”
The best story in the set remains the first, labelled ‘An Unearthly Child’ (with several other names attributed to it). It’s in four episodes and people usually rave about the first; they’re right. It’s an unbeatable introduction to the series, full of mystery, character and amazingly quotable lines, and like the start of the 2005 series it begins from the perspective of ordinary people who encounter someone different, then follow them to a strange blue box that’s larger on the inside than the outside and travels in time and space. They land up in 100,000 BC or so among desperate cave people wanting the secret of fire, and while that’s a fairly simple story, it’s damn good, too. The two ‘contemporary’ characters, young teachers Ian and Barbara, take it in turns to be reassuring or get rather hysterical at the bizarre turn their lives are taking (Barbara becomes rather a strong character but loses it a bit too much here – though at least Ian panics first) and there are far more harrowing emotional trials for the cast than in most of the stories that follow. It doesn’t help that this one time when people are saved by our heroes, they’re anything but grateful (shame that didn’t happen more often). Even the Doctor is pretty disturbing, played by William Hartnell as, well, a git with brilliant facets.

Uniquely, there’s an alternative version of the very first episode, and it underlines just how superbly directed and atmospheric the broadcast version was. Flashes of that brilliance come through in this early version, but it’s beset by technical problems and rather more fluffs than usual (the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan rigidly declaiming “It’s true! Every word of it’s true!” just after a line’s been messed up completely always cracks me up). The Doctor and his unearthly grandchild come across as much more alien and threatening, and while some of that’s compelling it’s also difficult to see how the aggression between the regulars would have lasted much beyond 26 minutes, let alone 26 years. A fascinating start, but I’m glad they had another go.

The second story made the show a hit by introducing the Daleks (irritating Newman, who wanted no ‘bug-eyed monsters’). They change the Doctor, too; initially more selfish and abrasive, up against these fascist mutant creatures in personal tanks he takes a moral stand and defines himself against oppression. The whole thing looks extraordinary, with outstanding design for a petrified forest, a city that doesn’t look built for humans and, of course, the Daleks themselves. The plot, on the other hand, starts off intriguing but runs out about an hour early, and the climax is a mess, with clunky dialogue and characterisation compared to the previous story. There’s also a slight problem with the moral in that ‘ugly’ means ‘evil’. The strong current against fascism is undermined by the ‘good race’ being blond and ‘perfect’ while we know the others are evil because they’re mutated horrors with funny voices. Ah well.

The third story is a short one that’s mainly a creepy character study with the regulars having some impressive shouting matches, though the mystery has a rather silly resolution. The next story made was one of those many pieces of great television from the 1960s that the BBC tossed into a skip and burnt – and, incredibly, that isn’t hyperbole – but, thanks to viewers captivated by Doctor Who from the first, still exists as audio recordings. Available separately on CD, there’s a mini-version here on DVD with the aid of photos. That’s probably wise, as it’s a jolly travelogue at the side of Marco Polo that has long stretches where not very much happens. There are some great moments along the way, though, so if the DVD and CD give you a yearning for what it might have looked like, you could follow them with the labour of love that is a ‘reconstruction’.

Add to that some remarkable documentaries and some variable comedy sketches (in the terms of another popular show of the time, one hit, one maybe, two misses) and other extras, and it’s one of the best DVD releases we own. And we’ve got rather a lot. It’s not perfect, of course, and my biggest quibbles are things that the BBC used to put on their DVDs, but have dropped through budget cuts. While Doctor Who usually has commentary tracks on every episode, you’ll find they’re few and far between here, and if you’re deaf, forget it. Astonishingly, while the rest of society gradually makes things more accessible for people with different disabilities, since they’ve gone into public-private partnership with 2Entertain the BBC have actually reduced accessibility by dropping subtitles for the commentaries altogether and making it impossible for deaf people to enjoy them, after years of making the commentaries accessible to all. I thought it was part of the BBC’s mission to increase accessibility, not reduce it?

The Doctor. The Original, You Might Say

Beyond all that, I have to admit that I love early Doctor Who. As my profile and many other writings testify, Doctor Who in general was a huge influence on me growing up, and I go along with Russell T Davies that it’s just about the best idea in the history of anything. However, as I’ve got older I’ve been particularly drawn to episodes some people would dismiss as creaky, cheap and black and white. The series starts with a staggeringly strong, varied and imaginative set of stories, setting out the series’ manifesto of science and history, though not yet really mixing the two. It's hard to imagine a better launching-point than these, where the Doctor starts off as a mysterious old git making life difficult for the clean-cut leads and sees him wrestle his way to being the undoubted star and hero.

I watched / listened to all the first Doctor’s stories in a row for the first time a couple of years ago and found to my surprise that I was completely captured by William Hartnell, who simply is the Doctor. And he’s fantastic. He’d always held a certain magic in being ‘the First’; I loved the few books with him in them, as well as being spellbound by the fragmentary scenes I could listen to on my Dad’s hissy open-reel recording of the documentary Whose Doctor Who. Perhaps it’s that he’s an old man with huge authority and strong moral sense, who in every other respect behaves like a child. Like the TARDIS and many of the series’ greater moments, he up-ends your expectations. He’s fiercely intelligent and utterly irreverent. He shows off outrageously. He sulks or shouts when he doesn’t get his own way, but is unexpectedly kind. He’s unpredictable, and it works brilliantly that the actor is, too, with so many little mannerisms and, yes, the odd endearingly wrong line. He’s hugely watchable. Too many ‘wise old men’ characters are deeply dull or paternal, but this one starts as an explorer who asks all the difficult questions, and it seems a natural progression from that to discovering the sheer fun of toppling empires. He dresses up, hams it up, and giggles uncontrollably when things go wrong, but risks his life to stop genocide. I can believe in him as a person, and there’s never a single story when Hartnell lets us down; any actor has their off days, but he never showed disdain for the material or gave the sense he was tired of being the Doctor, even when he was physically tiring by the minute. He’d never be cast in a TV today of sexy young heroes, and though I think sexy, relatively young David Tennant (five months older than me) has the makings of a great Doctor, for me the original is the best. Of course, it’s also not impossible my taste in Doctors may be ageing to keep up my differentials ;-)

Having had a good time out there today, I thoroughly recommend Tenth Planet to anyone after anything to do with Doctor Who and various other ‘specialist’ merchandise, if you’re in reach of sunny Barking. It’s not just because they have a good selection, reasonable prices and a good line-up of guests coming along to sign autographs (without charging anything extra). It’s because the guys who run it are both nice and helpful. When it’s easy to think of a particular specialist shop that’s ludicrously overpriced and shockingly rude to customers, that’s an attractive quality. I’m also enough of a wuss to point out it’s much more fun to queue up in an indoor centre than on the street. I had a particularly nice time today waiting around with a father and son couple of fans, chatting about what each of us liked, and I’d rather do that in the warm than shivering and rained on.

The apparently out-of-left-field title for this entry is from the three Doctor Who books to feature the Thals – two of which are jolly good – which each have chapters that are a variant on ‘Escape to Danger’. It’s since become probably the most over-used title in Doctor Who fiction, but I grew up finding it exciting…

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Thanks, Nicholas! And particularly for the livejournal syndication. I don’t know exactly what that does (do get in touch and explain it gently), but it makes me sound a little like a TV programme that’s been sold to America, which is exciting. Lovely to hear from you again, anyway.

I’m glad to fire up your interest in Billy Hartnell; there are other impressive DVDs of his stories available. The Aztecs is great, a fable about the perils of meddling in history, played absolutely straight and with an outstanding role for Barbara, as a goddess. The DVD also has a South Park-style chocolate recipe, which makes me laugh. Though The Dalek Invasion of Earth is set in 2167 or so it’s really ‘what if the Nazis has won the war’, complete with Daleks sieg-heiling around a deserted London. I don’t think there’s a more iconic Who image for a politician than Daleks in front of the Houses of Parliament. There are even jolly CGI alternatives to some of the dodgier effects on the DVD, which has very endearing documentaries too. ‘Endearing’ is probably the best word for The Web Planet, which tries to be completely alien and succeeds in part; there’s also the Lost in Time set, which might be called ‘the odd episodes left over when the BBC was stupid enough to burn the rest’. The Crusade stands out there, with both Richard I and Saladin coming across well in just about the best ‘Doctor Who as straight costume drama’ going (two episodes are there in their entirety, two as audio only), and I’m very fond of ‘space epic’ The Daleks' Master Plan, though it suffers badly from most of it being wiped. Both stories have rather good 'Reconstructions' (see link in the main text), and with the latter it’s worth following ‘the whole thing’ to its shattering conclusion. Of those still just on VHS, I’d go for The Time Meddler, an amusing tale of Peter Butterworth doing dubious things in 1066.

As for The Chase… Well, after we started the whole of Who from the beginning a couple of years ago, I found that when Ian and Barbara left at the end of the story I got all misty-eyed and missed them terribly. I can see I’m becoming middle-aged and like my Dad, who my Mum always sighs at when he weeps at movies. Also fun are the Mechanoids, huge flame-throwing robots that were meant to be ‘the new Daleks’ but only really took off in exciting ‘TV21’ comic strips that have all been reprinted about a dozen times and enthralled me as a kid (about the fifth reprint). My trouble with the main story of ‘the Daleks chase our heroes through time and space’, though, is that the Daleks are done a bit too much for laughs. Their first two stories made them the Nazis; this should be like a crack Gestapo squad hunting down the Resistance, but instead it’s like the drop from Secret Army to ‘Allo ‘Allo.

PS Well spotted; the books I was referring to were indeed Doctor Who In An Exciting Adventure With the Daleks (David Whitaker, and terribly good, with the TV version part of ‘The Beginning’), Doctor Who – Genesis of the Daleks (not bad, but much better on screen and coming soon to DVD) and Doctor Who – Planet of the Daleks (which is at least better than the TV version)…
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