So the holidays have ended, and with them, my writer’s block.
Recently, I’ve been nerding it up and watching a lot of old episodes of Doctor Who. Ever since the classic series was re-run on the ABC starting in 2003, I’ve always had a recurring obsession with the programme. This has once again raised its head this year, and as a consequence I now own rather too many more classic Doctor Who DVDs than my storage solutions will allow. However, it has allowed me to revisit what are some of my favourite television moments from my childhood, and so I’m not going to argue with that.
Like most of my immediate family, the Third Doctor is my favourite Doctor. His era ran from 1970 to the end of 1974, and he was played by veteran character actor Jon Pertwee, who characterised his iteration of the Doctor as a charming, dandyish man of action.
His adventures are notable for their extensive action sequences and impressive stunts, as well as a predominance of Earth-focused stories – at the end of his Second regeneration, the Doctor had been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords to prevent him interfering in galactic affairs. Probably about half or more of the Third Doctor’s stories are actually set on Earth, generally around the United Kingdom.
During this era, UNIT, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, almost always aided the Doctor (or vice-versa, depending on your attitude – I’m reluctant to cast the Doctor as an also-starring in his own show!). Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart led UNIT, himself supported by a group of other military men. The best UNIT ensemble is probably seen between 1971’s Terror of the Autons and 1974’s Invasion of the Dinosaurs – namely the Brigadier, Captain Mike Yates, and Sergeant Benton (who doesn’t actually get a first name. Ever.). The prominence and popularity of these supporting characters led to great and oft-used potential for them to become victims of plot twists; it also sees the UNIT stories being very fondly remembered by fans (including this writer) and the show’s current producers.
Finally, the major villain throughout much of the Third Doctor’s second and third years was the evil Time Lord and galactic criminal, the Master. Brought to life by the magnificent Roger Delgado – a man tragically taken long before his time in a car accident in Turkey, right at the peak of his success – the Master is the complete antithesis of the Doctor. He seeks domination and power wherever he goes, and is not afraid to murder and subjugate on the way there. Frustratingly, he is also incredibly charming and charismatic, which makes him one of those perfect villains you love to hate. Finally, he is almost as well dressed as the Third Doctor.
The two stories which launched this most recent relapse into Who hackery (Whockery?) are probably my favourite stories in the entire run of Doctor Who – The Mind of Evil and The Dæmons. The Mind of Evil begins with the Doctor rolling up to a prison to view the latest in non-death penalty capital punishments – the Keller Machine. This machine is purportedly able to suck the negative impulses from a criminal’s brain, turning him into “a useful, if lowly, member of society”. The Doctor is unimpressed, and when the experiment goes wrong, the audience is encouraged to join him in this opinion. Simultaneously, the world is on edge awaiting the commencement of the first World Peace Conference in London, for which UNIT is providing security. As if that were not enough, the British Government has also decided to destroy its last nuclear-powered biological Thunderbolt missile whilst the conference is taking place, and UNIT is responsible for that too. [An aside: it’s not until writing this that I’m realising just how convoluted this story is] Suddenly, there are mysterious happenings occurring at the Peace Conference and at the prison. When it turns out the Master is behind it all (unsurprising during this era as he was usually behind everything), the Doctor and UNIT realise there is much more going on than they realise and they begin to unravel the mysteries, not aided by the Doctor’s own imprisonment by rioting maximum-security crims. With some fantastic cinematography and climaxing in a massive shoot-out at the prison and some large explosions, plus an unlikely alliance of the Doctor and Master, The Mind of Evil is, in my opinion, one of the great Doctor Who epics.
The Dæmons is much more straightforward, growing out of fan-favourite producer Barry Letts’ desire to write a story about the occult and supernatural. Not far from Devil’s End, a town with a long history of black magic associations, a large grassy mound (called a barrow in this story) is being excavated in search of a Bronze Age tomb. But, ALL IS NOT AS IT SEEMS. The Doctor gets wind of what’s happening there and rushes to stop it. Unfortunately, he is too late, and the archaeologist releases a power greater than any know on Earth. The Master, who is masquerading as the Vicar, has been performing Satanic rituals to bring this power forth, and it turns out to be the Dæmon Azal, the last of an ancient alien race responsible for driving the development of Earth over thousands of years. He also looks like The Horned Beast, which explains the Satanic connection – it wasn’t a Satanic ritual the Master was performing, just a remnant of the Dæmons’ ancient “advanced science”. UNIT stay literally on the sidelines for much of this story, shut out of the village by a heat shield. Only Benton and Yates are inside the village, and they are responsible for much of the military assistance rendered until the final episode. The references to the horror genre, and the occult generally, are what really make this episode. There is an exchange in this serial between the local White Which and the Master, which I’ll reproduce verbatim below:
HAWTHORNE: We are all in mortal peril, Vicar! Have you no concern for the souls in your care?
MASTER: The soul as such is a very dated concept. Viewing the matter existentially, I…
HAWTHORNE: Existentially? Oh, you blockhead!
MASTER: Miss Hawthorne, one moment. You’re very distressed, I can see that. You know, you really are worrying unduly.
(The Master removes his spectacles and gives her his Hypnotic Stare.)
MASTER: There’s nothing to worry about. You must believe me. You must believe me.
HAWTHORNE: Must believe… Oh, why should I believe you? A rationalist, existentialist priest indeed.
MASTER: Listen to me!
HAWTHORNE: You’re a fool, sir. If you won’t help me, I must find someone who will.
This little exchange is probably the best dialogue throughout any Doctor Who episode I can remember (up there with Tom Baker’s “What a wonderful butler, he’s so violent!” in City of Death). The use as a villain of a subversive, liberal, low church vicar is a particularly nice and hilarious touch, and suits the genre perfectly.
When the 2005 reboot of Doctor Who was released, I remember being frustrated by the amount of Earth-focused stories that took place, especially in the first two series. Bizarrely, this is exactly what I liked about the Third Doctor’s era, though perhaps it wasn’t as frustrating because the supporting cast weren’t as irritating as many of the 2005 cast, not to mention the fact that the Doctor being trapped on Earth was actually a plot device in the 1970s. Who knows? All I know is that the 1970s episodes on Earth are a lot of fun and not as repetitive (and considering I’ve watched about five or six stories in the last couple of weeks, I should know…)
Relentless negativity aside, these releases of the old Doctor Who stories are a joy to behold. The Doctor Who Restoration Team should be applauded for their efforts in tracking down and remastering thousands of hours of original footage and sound; they do a marvellous job. Often they have had to go back and colourise entire episodes that were recorded in colour but only retained by the BBC in black and white. It is a joy to watch old favourite episodes in colour when I only ever saw them in black and white on TV. The lengths gone to by the restorers to enhance the experience are impressive. They even using a process called VidFIRE to restore the original video appearance to any footage they have colourised and restored; making for a clear, classic studio look for interior scenes. With the Restoration Team, it’s about more than just getting the DVDs out there; it’s about making the experience as close as possible to the original broadcasts. Their website offers these and many more details for anyone who has lots of time on their hands.
It really is a joy to go back and watch these old things. As an adult, watching stuff from your childhood can be a valuable endeavour – you pick up and understand so much more than when you were younger. It’s also nice to just sit down for an afternoon and escape into pure, unadulterated escapism, and if you’ve read my blog, you know how important I consider that to be. So, take a load off and watch some 1970s Doctor Who. It was a golden era, never repeated.