A Tunnel in the Sky

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Doctor Who

Reviewed by David Longhorn
Posted March 27, 2005

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A Highly Prejudiced Overview


The facts behind Doctor Who are available on numerous web sites - a good place to start is with the BBC, which has plenty of information about one of its biggest successes. DW remains the only British science fiction series to run for decades, and to be remarkably successful around the world. Much of this success was apparently down to pure chance.

It seems that in 1963 the BBC decided it needed a half-hour programme for Saturday afternoons. It would fill the slot between the sports and the news, and someone decided it had to be a family show. Someone came up with the idea of an educational series with an adventure element that would also entertain. Something about time travel, to teach the kiddies about history, with occasional forays into science fiction to spice it up a little. The producer given the show was Verity Lambert. If anyone created Doctor Who, the quintessential show for male nerds, it was a young woman.

DW was expected to run for a couple of years at most, so the starring role could be given to a relatively elderly actor, William Hartnell. Hartnell was a veteran of many British films, and had often played army sergeants and the like. In DW he was cast as a mysterious, eccentric scientist with a bizarre machine, the Tardis (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) that enabled him to go anywhere, at any time. Unfortunately, he couldn’t steer it properly…

DW was the first BBC programme screened after normal service resumed following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Not surprisingly, it gleaned quite a large audience. A few weeks later the first science fiction DW adventure, ‘The Daleks’, was aired, and the series became a major talking point. The only problem was that, as the series continued, the elderly Hartnell began to have more and more trouble with his lines. Eventually it became obvious that either another actor would have to be cast or the series would have to be killed off, despite its popularity. And thus was born one of the weirdest gimmicks in television.

The Doctor was zapped by a Cyberman (see below) and instead of dying somehow ‘regenerated’, becoming a wholly different person. The second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton, soon established himself in the role. A quirky ‘cosmic hobo’ rather than an austere gentleman, Troughton’s Doctor had great charm and presence. He also encountered a whole slew of monsters, as the series shed its pretensions to educating the masses and concentrated more on science fiction.

Having set a precedent, the BBC proceeded to recast the Doctor again in the early Seventies. Jon Pertwee - best-known as a comedy actor - took the role into the era of colour television, and his dandified yet dynamic image again rang the changes. Exiled to Earth by the mysterious Time Lords, the Doctor became a more-or-less willing scientific advisor to UNIT, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. Soon he was confronted by another renegade Time Lord, the Master, superbly played by Roger Delgado. Delgado’s premature death in a road accident robbed the series of its best villain.

Jon Pertwee was succeeded by Tom Baker, whose early seasons got the biggest ever audiences for DW so far. Much of this was down to the long-serving writer and script editor Robert Holmes. Baker’s approach was quirkier and more playful than Pertwee’s, and he soon established himself as the archetypal Doctor. But six years is a long time to stay in any role, and things started to go adrift as the 1970s drew to a close. The series became silly and self-indulgent. Once the rot set in, ratings started to decline, and the BBC - with that unerring instinct for self-harm so often found in bureaucracies - downgraded the show from drama series to light entertainment.

By the mid-Eighties the writing was on the wall, despite a heroic attempt by some dedicated people to revive an increasingly hackneyed show. The series was ‘rested’, though not actually cancelled, shortly after celebrating its 25th anniversary. An abortive attempt at a Nineties revival led to a weak made-for-TV movie. But now it’s back, and fans/addicts/nerds can console themselves that the BBC won’t squander such a strong brand image a second time. Probably.

A few facts about the Doctor’s unconventional lifestyle…

The Doctor usually has a companion, whose purpose is to ask him questions. These generate some useful exposition. The fact that the companion is often female, young and attractive doesn’t mean that anything improper is going on. It’s a family show.

Indeed, the first Doctor had a granddaughter, Susan, who sadly left him to marry a freedom fighter on a future earth. No other hints about the Doctor’s family life have emerged since, but it is at least possible that the Master was/is his brother.

Companions are almost always captured at some point. This usually happens after they ignore the Doctor’s advice and wander off. Companions are rarely killed, but this has happened on a couple of occasions.

The Doctor has a pocket-sized gadget called a sonic screwdriver. This is an all-in-one problem-solving device, and if he didn’t have it we’d be drenched in Voyager-style technobabble as he rigged up a new gizmo for each occasion.

At one point the Fourth Doctor had a robot dog called K9 - the idea was every bit as lame as it sounds.

The Tardis is ‘disguised’ as a London police telephone box, a concept that was almost obsolete when the first series was devised.

The Tardis automatically confers the ability to understand alien languages on the Doctor’ and his companions. Honest.

The Doctor cannot use time travel to solve every problem because of something called ‘The Blimovitch Limitation Effect’. Nobody knows what this means.

The Doctor’s arch-enemies, the Daleks, are not robots, but nasty little blobby monsters lurking inside war machines. Not unlike H.G. Wells’ Martians, in fact.

Anyone belatedly boarding the Tardis may need a little bit of help getting their bearings. So here are some DW adventures worth renting on DVD…

The First Doctor - William Hartnell (1963 to 1966)

‘The Aztecs’
One of the remits for the series was that it should provide historical adventures that would educate as well as entertain. These proved less popular than the horror/sci-fi stories and were eventually dropped, but this may be one of the best. Inevitably, the plot revolves around the Aztec custom of human sacrifice, but the script offers a balanced view of a complex and fascinating culture. Astute viewers will note the Doctor’s insistence on not tinkering with ‘established’ earth history - though this is of course what he does all the time in the future or on other planets.

‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’
It’s overlong, slow, in black and white, and the special effects are risible. So bad, in fact, that the BBC was shamed into adding some modern ones for the DVD version. But this gives you a good idea of what the show was about in its early years. The setting, a devastated and occupied London, had considerable resonance for people who remembered the darkest days of Word War Two. The parallel between the Daleks and the Nazis was obvious. The Daleks were created by scriptwriter Terry Nation, who attempted to market them as a separate franchise via two feature films starring Peter Cushing as a very credible Doctor. Less credible is the basic plot, which involves mining the earth’s core. By slave labour. Somebody call Doug McClure.

The Other First Doctor - Peter Cushing

The great British character actor played the Doctor in two feature films, which were essentially vehicles for the Daleks. The Daleks’ creator, Terry Nation, wanted to market the concept in America. The movies were based on the first two Dalek adventures and were aimed more squarely at a young audience. While not particularly successful, ‘Doctor Who and the Daleks’ and ‘Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD’ have their moments, and Cushing is excellent value.

The Second Doctor - Patrick Troughton (1966 to 1969)

‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’
Anyone familiar with Star Trek’s Borg should get to know their frightfully English ancestors, the Cybermen. Unlike the Daleks, with their battle cry of ‘Exterminate!’, the Cybermen really just want us all to be one happy community of shiny, soulless near-robots. In this adventure the Doctor and his companions interfere with an Earth expedition to the supposedly dead planet Telos, where the last of the Cybermen are just waiting to lumber into action again. It’s a classic ‘let’s go to the lost city and stir up some peril’ plot.

‘The Mind Robber’
Now here’s a strange one, and an adventure that shows Troughton’s abilities to good advantage. The Tardis is in danger so the Doctor uses an emergency switch to literally shunt it out of reality. This lands the adventurers in a white void where the Tardis (it seems) is destroyed. Strange things happen, and it gradually emerges that fiction and fact are interacting in a very dangerous way. Admittedly the ending is a bit of a let-down, but that’s a minor flaw in a rather surreal adventure.

The Third Doctor - Jon Pertwee (1970 to 1974)

‘Spearhead from Space’
Not only the first colour series, not only the first sight of the new Doctor, but also the introduction of a truly scary menace - eyeless plastic robots with guns in their hands. (The invaders arrive in meteorites, not unlike the aliens in ‘Quatermass 2’.) It’s a fun adventure, with a truly cheesy ending, in which Pertwee has to strangle himself with some limp tentacles. But the images of shop window dummies coming to life and slaughtering the folk of London remain nightmarish, and were re-staged for the first episode of the 2005 series.

‘Carnival of Monsters’
The Doctor and his assistant, Jo, find themselves on board what seems to be a passenger ship on 1920s Earth. It’s all very Somerset Maugham, except for the attack by a huge sea monster, and the fact that the passengers seem to be stuck in a time loop. Meanwhile, on a planet ruled by a callous bureaucracy, officials debate whether to admit a couple of disreputable entertainers. The two plots mesh when the Doctor realises that he’s stumbled on a very unethical use of advanced technology. All right, so the monsters are weak, but the central premise is fascinating. Pertwee is on top form, fulminating against the immorality of the ‘miniscope’ while admiring the science that makes it possible.

The Fourth Doctor - Tom Baker (1974 to 1981)

‘Pyramids of Mars’
Fans of StarGate have heard this one before - ancient Egyptian gods were really aliens! This story shows Baker at his pop-eyed, scarf-swirling best. The baddie is Sutekh, also known as Set or, if you like, Satan. Robot mummies, a good cast, and some neat ideas combine to make an adventure that looks back to classic horror movies. The final scenes involve the solving of a series of puzzles. Watch out for the ‘honest guard, lying guard’ logic puzzle.

‘The Robots of Death’
Agatha Christie meets Isaac Asimov in a space Whodunit. The murder victims/suspects are the officers commanding a giant mining machine on a desert planet. The crew are robots that, of course, can’t harm human beings. Except sometimes they kill you. The Doctor and companion Leela (a scantily-clad warrior woman from a stone age culture) have to work out what’s going on and why.

‘The Horror of Fang Rock’
The Doctor materialises the Tardis at what he thinks is an English seaside resort, so he and Leela can enjoy a holiday. Typically, he has gone astray in space and time, and the pair find themselves implicated in the killing of a lighthouse keeper. The truth is that an alien is bumping off Fang Rock’s residents. The Doctor pits his wits against a shape-shifter that kills with an electric shock. The effects are naff, but it’s fun. There’s also a line that sums up the show’s basic premise. Someone asks Baker ‘Are you in charge?’ to which he replies, ‘No, but I’m full of ideas!’

The Fifth Doctor - Peter Davison (1981 to 1984)

The Doctor and his companions land on a future Earth and find themselves in a quarry. Again. But when a group of cave-exploring scientists are massacred by androids the Doctor suspects that something sinister is going on. The action shifts to a space freighter, where lurks an old enemy with a fiendish masterplan. This adventure shows both the strengths and weaknesses of the series as the 1980s drew on. Davison - though not very authoritative - did a good job in difficult circumstances.

The Sixth Doctor - Colin Baker (1984 to 1986)

‘Vengeance on Varos’
Things went badly pear-shaped during the second Baker’s era when the series was cancelled and only revived due to a public outcry, partly orchestrated by The Sun newspaper. This adventure shows how DW lost its way and become just another dodgy space adventure series. However, the central image of a sick society kept in order by brutal reality TV shows has retained its impact, and there are some good performances. Watch out for Martin Jarvis as the Governor - this actor was often tipped as a potential Doctor, and would have made a good one.

The Seventh Doctor - Sylvester McCoy (1985 to 1988)

‘Remembrance of the Daleks’
We’re back to the vengeful pepperpots from planet Skaro, and also back to the original setting of the first ever story. This 25th anniversary episode (written by the excellent Ben Aaronovitch) recaptures the essence of the show - family entertainment with imagination and a slight edge of social commentary. Note the subtext on racial bigotry, and try to forgive the BBC for yet more cardboard spaceships.

The Eighth Doctor - Paul McGann (1996)

‘Doctor Who - The Movie’
A decent budget gives this feature-length story a stylish feel, and McGann does an excellent job (as does McCoy in the pre-transformation scenes). This Doctor is convincing as an eccentric hero in modern America, which is quite an achievement for a quintessentially British character. The major problems are that the story owes little to the original series, and Eric Roberts is not a great villain. No monsters? Oh dear. DW is at its best when there’s a Gothic horror element, but here there’s just a dumb ticking bomb plot. Entertaining, but nothing special, has to be the verdict. Pity - a great opportunity missed.

The Ninth Doctor - Christopher Eccleston (2005)

And here we have the revived series, complete with a decent budget and a hefty thirteen episodes, each weighing in at standard US length - 45 minutes. The goodwill from the British media and public during the build-up to the first episode was something to behold, and it didn’t disappoint - gags, menace, a fascinating Doctor and a believable new companion (Billie Piper). All credit to executive producer Russell T. Davies for handling a tricky regeneration so well. He has clearly learned a lot from Joss Whedon, which can only bode well for the series’ future.

The Tenth Doctor is to be David Tennant - the youngest actor to take the role so far. Fans, old and new, will be rooting for him.


Editor's Note: Obviously this article was written several years ago, and I hope that one day David returns to give us his opinion of not only David Tennant but also Matt Smith and the continuing adventures of The Doctor. Or perhaps I will one day write a review of the new series, since I am very familiar with it but not with classic Who. - Galen

UPDATE: I have finally posted the beginnings of my review of Classic Doctor Who, and I will be adding to it as I watch more of the episodes. A page on New Who will follow at some time in the future. - Galen


Related Links:
Gallifrey One - probably the biggest DW fan site
The BBC Doctor Who Homepage - has info on the new series on its main page now


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Sydney Newman

Verity Lambert
Innes Lloyd
Barry Letts
John Nathan-Turner
et al

Premiere Date
November 23, 1963

Credits at imdb.com
Classic Series (1963-1989)
and Revival Series (2005-Present)

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