Friday, September 6, 2013

A Doctor A Week: William Hartnell (The Dalek Invasion of Earth)

11 weeks. 11 Doctors. 11 stories. Right up to the fiftieth anniversary, Russel will be reviewing one story a week for each Doctor. He will try and relate each story to a larger picture and how it relates to each period. He will occasionally make fun of them. But he will try and show you what a varied and brilliant history the show has. As well as overcoming his own prejducies about certain periods in the shows history. Each review will have spoilers and will assume a certain level of knowledge about the story in question.

William Hartnell was the man who started it all. On Saturday teatime, viewers were first introduced to the mysterious time traveller known only as The Doctor (although the credits did call him Doctor Who); a man who had accidentally (or perhaps quite deliberately) taken a pair of schoolteachers away from 1960s London and on a terrible voyage through time and space. the show was, of course, meant to be at least a little educational. And Hartnell’s reign had more than its fair share of proper historical adventures including The Aztecs* during which our travellers would get involved with a moment of history. During these stories the only science fiction elements would be the anachronism of our leads. There would be no monsters. No alien explanations for historical events. And while that could sometimes be a bit dull, stories like The Aztecs were actually all the more intense for these limitations.

But what viewers loved were the science fiction stories. The second adventure for the TARDIS saw them encounter a strange alien race called The Daleks. These war-hungry creatures - a mass of hate bound up in an advanced battle machine - captured the public imagination. So much so that a year after they first appeared on their home planet of Skaro, they appeared again on the nation’s television screens. But this time, they were more terrifying. This time they had come to invade earth.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth is an excellent example of early Who at its finest. yes, its a little wobbly round the edges and, yes, there’s a lot of patronising dialogue towards the female characters (The Doctor’s threat to spank his grand-daughter Susan is especially gigglesome) but there’s also a lot of derring do and risk here. In fact, its a very good adventure and a prime example of why Hartnell’s reign was strong enough to lead into the show we all still love.

The adventure starts with the TARDIS crew landing in a mysterious city that looks like London. Except everything’s mysteriously quiet and no one notices the whacking great sign that says, “It is forbidden to dump bodies in the river” - which should have been everyone’s first clue that something odd is going on. But all the same, the Doc and his companions (Grand-daughter Susan and his two reluctant travellers, Ian and Barbara) spend a long time faffing about before they realise that something is wrong. Of course the fact that a bridge falls on to the TARDIS doesn’t help.

Much of the first episode - as was so often the case with early Who is filler. Lots of toing and froing and Susan uselessly twisting her ankle. But its all rather fascinating and the sparse atmosphere of the near future created by Terry Nation is disturbing. There is a real sense of puzzling out the reality of their situation and when the Dalek rises from the water at the end of episode one, there’s a real shock value. And there would have been back in the day, too. Each episode is individually named, so the fact that this is “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” would have been lost on many viewers who would likely have gone apocalyptic when they saw this creature rising out of what was for so many people a familiar and safe landscape.   In the days before twitter and mass media propagated by the internet, it was easier to keep the viewer surprised and spoiler free.

But what’s great about The Dalek Invasion of Earth is that the daleks are a little secondary to the main plot of the apocalyptic future. What really matters here at the rebels that the Doctor and his friends fall in with and the great whacking mining camps set up by the daleks. There are great moments in here. My favourite finds a mother and daughter doing whatever it takes to survive in this new world and taking advantage of the unwary travellers they find in their midst. Theres a fairy tale element to these scenes and a real sense of betrayal as Susan and Barbara are turned over to the Daleks.

Of course, this is the 60s and Doctor Who was still a kids show that had some interesting limitations. The robomen are great in concept - humans brainwashed by the daleks - and terrible in execution (Its hard to tell if they’re bad actors or just told to act badly, and lets not even think about their daft wee helmets.) And the less said about the rubbish monster that the daleks have patrolling their work camps the better; it’s very very very slow and very very very silly. But then that’s the charm of this era of Doctor Who; for everything that looks dated, you see something that would go on to have a lasting impression in pop culture. There are moments when the screen hums with the excitement of a program that would define its era.

Hartnell’s Doctor is rather harsh, still, at this stage. He cares for people but he’s not too concerned about deaths if they serve a greater cause and he has no time for fools. He’s an odd mix of bumbling distraction and paternal harshness, and this mix is fascinating to watch. Off course, he’s also a great line fluffer. In the early days, Who was filmed pretty much in sequence, and with very little room for retakes, so its fun to see how they make Hartnell’s occasional inability to quite remember what he’s saying part of the character.

The end is famous, of course. That clip of the Doctor saying, “Someday, I’ll come back” is used over and over again. He is speaking to his grand-daughter Susan, who he deliberately locks out of the TARDIS so she can have no choice but to stay with the man she’s fallen in love with over the course of this adventure. The speech itself is brilliant, but the context isn’t. Susan’s “love story” basically sees her flirting a bit with a guy who wants her to cook and clean for him. there’s no love story. Just an affirmation of certain sixties attitudes about women. And the Doctor is all for it. Making him definitely a man of his time. But, really, the romance between Susan and David is one of the most ill-conceived excuses for a character leaving. The chemistry is laughable and the suddeness of the flirting is completely unbelievable. It seems like padding at first, and in a way it is; thrown in as an afterthought to explain the character’s departure.

However, for all these dated elements, The Dalek Invasion of Earth is epic, ambitious and mostly great fun. Everyone gets stuff to do (except Susan who just limps a lot before she falls in live). Its a very good story for Hartnell and his early team of explorers in time and space. The Daleks are a little too nasal, but you can understand the effect they’d have had at the time. And the use of a real life location (London) echoes future concerns for the show that would time and again try to frighten viewers by placing the action on their own doorstep, an approach that would be refined in Troughton's The Invasion and later come to define the first half of the Pertwee era, where the Doctor was confined to a modern Earth setting.

- The sacrifice of the wheelchair bound Dortmun is touching. Also there’s something very good in the way that he confronts the daleks - who are tooling about in their own motorised contraptions - and then forces himself to stand in order to reinforce his humanity. Nice stuff.

- The Robomen rebellion is very funny indeed. They way they lift the daleks like they’re made of balsa wood is... well, its amusing. Indeed, at this point in its history, the show’s action sequences are often very awkward. But all the more endearing for it.

- The explosions are very tiny. Full marks to everyone involved for reacting like they’re much, much bigger than they are.

- You can see the padding on occasion. The crocodile in the sewer is one of the most pointless dangers ever seen. Also the doctor’s very nimble for an old man with a cane.

*The Aztecs is, of course, the story that saw The Doctor fall in love, and quite intensely. Something that many fans would later retcon from their brains when they complained abot the doctor's feelings for people he met on his journey in later incarnations.

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