Classic Who marathon: impressions

My recent watching of the Doctor Who TV Movie completes the “Classic Who” segment of my 50-year marathon, having watched all of the classic Doctors in order from Hartnell to McGann for the first time. It’s taken me the better part of a year, and I’m pleased to have, er, “caught up” with the first 33 years of Who that I missed by virtue of not having been alive. I’ve soaked up many memorable moments from the show’s original run and thoroughly submerged myself in Who history and lore. To complete my 50-year marathon, I need only to watch “New Who” up to Capaldi. The New Who segment of my marathon will be a rewatch, but I’ve been enjoying following the life and times of this alien time-travelling physician so much that I simply have to keep going until the end. It’d feel incomplete otherwise.

In any case, before I move onto Eccleston, I’ve decided to listen to the Eighth Doctor Big Finish audios (or some of them, at least). McGann, very unfortunately, didn’t get an “era” on television like the rest of the Doctors; his only televised outing was a very ordinary television movie. The Eighth Doctor’s “era” is on audio, and, I understand, McGann, like Colin Baker, was “redeemed” on audio by Big Finish. So I feel I owe it to McGann, given he is as legitimate an incarnation of the Doctor as any other, to immerse myself in his Doctor’s adventures just as I’ve immersed myself in the adventures of his predecessors, and as I will his successors. Thus, I’m delaying moving onto the revival as I experience the “McGann era” on audio. I’ve started with the Eighth Doctor’s adventures with Charley Pollard in Big Finish’s monthly range, which are the earliest in his timeline (apart from a couple of the more recent releases starting with In the Company of Friends). At the time of writing this, I’ve listened from Storm Warning through to The Chimes of Midnight, and have been very impressed with McGann from what I’ve listened to so far. I’ll be posting brief reviews of each audio I listen to in my regular “Latest Big Finish listens” feature.

In any case, having now seen all of Classic Who, and all of televised Who in general, it’s time to write down some impressions (and lists, lots of lists. Whovians love lists).

If I were to list my favourite eras of the show by Doctor (excluding McGann; as it would not be fair either to judge him by the movie alone, nor to judge him taking into account his audios without doing the same for Colin Baker, etc.), it would go like this:

1. Smith era (2010-2013)
2. Pertwee era (1970-1974)
3. Tom Baker era (1975-1981)
4. Davison era (1982-1984)
5. Troughton era (1966-1969)
6. Capaldi era (2014-)
7. McCoy era (1987-1989)
8. Eccleston era (2005)
9. Hartnell era (1963-1966)
10. Tennant era (2005-2009)
11. Colin Baker era (1984-1986)

I should say there are no eras of the show I really dislike, just as I don’t dislike any of the Doctors. I’m in the awkward position of having Colin Baker as my second favourite Doctor but liking his era the least — that’s because, while I absolutely adored his interpretation of the Doctor, the stories he was given were generally sub-par compared to the rest of the show, without being bad as such.

I started with William Hartnell, the original. I enjoyed his stories, and I enjoyed watching Hartnell himself. Hartnell clearly put a lot into that character, as the First Doctor is always a pleasure to watch, especially in his first season. The Hartnell era (particularly Season 1) is perhaps the most experimental in the show’s history, as the production team were working with a completely blank slate, and it’s a privilege to watch the show trying different things, testing its strengths, shaping itself. To my mind, Season 1 of Doctor Who is a straight run of classics (apart from episodes 2-4 of An Unearthly Child), and certainly one of the best ever seasons of Who; despite the low-rent production, it has all aged exceptionally well (which cannot be said for many serials in later eras). Seasons 2 and 3 (and 4) didn’t meet the consistent quality that Season 1 had achieved, but there are still a spattering of gems throughout, albeit among a lot of rubbish as well. The Doctor’s companions, especially Ian and Barbara (although Vicki is an all-time favourite of mine), are all great, lovable characters who made the Hartnell era even more enjoyable. The First Doctor himself is a compelling and interesting character, and it is fascinating to watch the Doctor transition over his era from a cantankerous, resolute recluse who seemed to desire only to be left alone into the character we know as the Doctor today, the renegade Time Lord determined to fight evil and injustice in the universe wherever he finds it.

Patrick Troughton’s era I just found great, walloping fun. The stories in the Troughton era are uncomplicated monster-of-the-week runarounds, commonly in the “base-under-siege” style. There’s nothing wrong with that: I know plenty of fans regret the poor scripts and simplistic stories of the Troughton era, but if you can just enjoy these stories for what they are, as I was able to do, Troughton can be marvellously fun. Even rather pedestrian scripts that would seem utterly silly and juvenile in, say, Season 26, like The Dominators, can be great fun if you appreciate them for what they are and just allow yourself to be absorbed by the story. In any case, the Troughton era has its fair share of undisputed classics, such as The Power of the Daleks, The Moonbase, The Evil of the Daleks, The Tomb of the Cybermen, The Enemy of the World, The Web of Fear, The Mind Robber, The Invasion, The Seeds of Death and The War Games, despite many episodes being regrettably missing. Troughton had a succession of great companions: Ben & Polly, Jamie McCrimmon, Victoria Waterfield and Zoe Heriot. Jamie is an all-time fandom favourite, and, for me, the team of the Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe is one of the most memorable and definitive TARDIS teams of all. The Second Doctor is played superbly all throughout his era by Patrick Troughton, who is easily the best actor to play the role in the classic run, and gives his all to the role. Troughton is an absolute joy to watch, and if he doesn’t significantly elevate the quality of his stories, no one does.

Jon Pertwee’s era is my favourite era of the classic show. Like the preceding era, it’s great fun, but with some distinctive aspects: namely, the earthbound stories and prominence of UNIT. When I had reached the Pertwee era, my initial reaction was “Oh great, a whole era of stories set on Earth. How unexciting.” What’s the point of a show about a man who can travel anywhere in time and space if he never leaves the Home Counties? However, I enjoyed the earthbound dynamic much more than I thought I would. I really grew fond of the “UNIT family” of the Brigadier, Liz Shaw/Jo Grant/Sarah-Jane Smith, Benton and Yates, who are all fabulous characters played well by great actors. The idea of having the Doctor marooned on Earth working for UNIT could easily have misfired, but it is pulled off superlatively, so much so that it’s my favourite era of the classic show, even if Pertwee himself is not one of my favourite Doctors. The Pertwee era, for me, is a long run of mostly high quality stories, which I only truly began to appreciate when I got to later eras of the show where such high quality writing and production became less commonplace. The Pertwee era gave us three classic, fondly-remembered companions — the Brigadier, Jo Grant and Sarah-Jane Smith — as well as the enduring enemy of the Master, and a whole host of great, classic stories.

The Tom Baker era, as fans know, is when Doctor Who reached its zenith in terms of popularity and presence in the public consciousness. Indeed, the first few seasons of Tom Baker are, to my mind, Doctor Who at its consistent best. The run of stories from The Ark in Space to The Sun Makers is an unbroken succession of 20 of the most memorable stories in the show’s history, with an abnormally high concentration of outright classics. It is an era when the show was simply getting it so right all the time. It also helps a great deal that Tom Baker is the most compelling portrayal of the character yet and since, an enigmatic, magnetic, and totally alien character by whom you simply can’t help but be mesmerised. Tom Baker’s companions were all memorable, even K9, although the Doctor looked a little put out in Logopolis surrounded by Tegan, Nyssa and Adric (missing Romana, one guesses; and yes, I totally ship them). The era began to lose its way in its fifth season, the Key to Time saga, and never recovers the glittering heights of Seasons 12-15, but even the latter stories of the Tom Baker era are generally higher quality than most of what came afterwards. There are still a smattering of great stories in these later seasons of the era, such as The Pirate Planet, The Stones of Blood, City of Death, Full Circle, The Keeper of Traken and Logopolis. Additionally, Shada, had it been completed, would easily have been one of the gleaming high-points of the show on par with The Caves of Androzani and City of Death, and, in the modern series, with Blink.

Like, Pertwee’s era, I enjoyed Peter Davison’s era far more than I anticipated, as I did the Fifth Doctor himself. The Davison era started uneasily, but soon found its rhythm. From Kinda onwards, the stories are generally quality, with the odd clunker here and there (*cough* Terminus *cough*). In Davison’s era, one can definitely sense the difference between John Nathan-Turner’s stewardship and previous eras of the show, not least in the adoption of silly “uniforms” for the Doctor, the exclusive use of tinny synthesizer music, and the marked difference in tone and feel (creepy gothic horror out, floodlit spaceships and other indistinguishable sets in). Davison’s companions are one unfortunate aspect of his era: while I personally like Nyssa, and Adric eventually grew on me, Tegan is annoying and awful (the stereotypical antipodeanity of her character was exaggerated to cringing point; she seemed to be able to talk only in cliches; and her constant cynical moaning must have sorely tried the Doctor’s seemingly infinite reasonableness and patience), and Turlough is a cowardly git, although he, at least, improves. In any case, the Doctor often seemed to be left somewhat overwhelmed by the number of hangers-on following him everywhere, getting in his way as he tries to save the universe. The balance is only rectified when Peri joined the Doctor at the end of Planet of Fire, but only for one story (what a great one it was, though). Over the course of his era, Davison himself became one of my favourite Doctors. Once I looked past the silly cricket whites he never took off, the Fifth Doctor was actually a highly engaging interpretation of the character, the original “old man in a young man’s body” Doctor. Davison developed and modified his Doctor’s characterisation over his three seasons, finally perfecting it in his final season, having gone from irritating youthful enthusiasm to gruff and world-weary, yet still unfailingly polite (which I find much more interesting).

Colin Baker, as I’ve said is my favourite Doctor of the classic era, and my second favourite Doctor of all, but whose era is my least favourite. From my perspective, Colin had one classic story (The Two Doctors), four other above average stories (Vengeance on Varos, Revelation of the Daleks, Mindwarp, The Ultimate Foe), and the rest were all either average or bad. Colin’s era began badly in The Twin Dilemma, but picked up in Vengeance on Varos and put out a couple of decent, even good stories that nevertheless fly under the radar as a result of the unremarkable stories that surrounded them. The Trial of a Time Lord was a great misfire which nevertheless has its great, even inspired moments, but ultimately falls flat. I think the problem was that Doctor Who, by then, had become too repetitive and samey; the right thing to do when Colin took over was to take the show in a completely new direction, preferably darker and more grown-up, to match the Sixth Doctor’s character (which was eventually done with McCoy), rather than to keep making more of the same. It does seem, in any case, as though the writers had begun to run out of ideas in Colin’s era: the scripts seem lazy and half-arsed, not to mention unimaginative. None of this, of course, was Colin’s fault. It seemed Colin was much more enthusiastic about the show than either JNT or the writers; he had big plans for his very interesting interpretation of the character, and was unabashed about his desire to surpass Tom Baker’s record of seven seasons playing the Doctor, and played the character himself with such zeal and conviction. For his commitment, he was unceremoniously and unfairly sacked by the BBC bigwigs (it really should have been JNT, who had done all he could and actually wanted to go). Colin’s is an era of missed opportunities, although not necessarily bad in itself: if you look hard enough, you can find things in this era as great as in any.

Sylvester McCoy’s era constituted something of a rebirth for the show, a rebirth that had been sorely needed. In the first place, though, the McCoy era started with the “silly season”, Season 24. A lot of fans deride Season 24 as an all-time low for Doctor Who before a glorious regeneration, but it can be quite enjoyable if, like Patrick Troughton’s era, you enjoy it for what it is; both Paradise Towers and Delta and the Bannermen are decent and enjoyable enough stories in their own right. However, the great u-turn that the show took in the following season was a positive development: I regard Remembrance of the Daleks and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy as masterpieces both; the latter in particular is an astonishingly creative and exciting exemplar of what the show could have become if it had been allowed to continue. Season 26 continued the new darker, more mature direction, with The Curse of Fenric a parting high-point. We know that it was all too little too late, but the final two seasons of the McCoy era are arguably the most creative storytelling the show has done since Season 1. My opinion of McCoy’s era is only slightly diminished by the fact that, despite his odd moments of glory, I found the Seventh Doctor a rather boring and unengaging Doctor. Ace, on the other hand, was a very interesting and engaging companion, easily the most developed companion of the whole classic run, and the unprecedented focus on Ace’s character prototypes the companion-centred storyelling of New Who.

So now, at the close of the classic segment of my 50-year marathon, my “favourite Doctors” list stands something like this:

1. Matt Smith
2. Colin Baker
3. Tom Baker
4. Peter Davison
5. Christopher Eccleston
6. David Tennant
7. Paul McGann
8. Peter Capaldi
9. Jon Pertwee
10. Patrick Troughton
11. William Hartnell
12. Sylvester McCoy

As Whovians know fully well, one’s personal “favourite Doctors” list is subject to constant change, even after one has long seen everything there is to see of Doctor Who. I’m sure mine will continue changing, especially as Paul McGann has been rapidly shooting up my list the more I hear of him on audio. My rewatching of Eccleston and Tennant in the New Who segment of my marathon may yet change my opinions of them (Matt Smith has no chance of being dislodged from the top spot). In addition, Peter Capaldi also has the potential to make it much higher, come Series 9.

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