Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Hartnell Years - things which occur to me...

So that's the Hartnell Years done.  Starting way back two months ago with a policeman in the fog (played by Reg Cranfield, fact fans), I watched the Doctor collapse on the floor of the TARDIS last night and morph into someone else entirely. And now I feel strangely but genuinely bereft, as though my beloved Grandfather has run away and my granny re-married a little mop-haired git, who tries too hard to be pals.

But I suppose, glass half full and all that.  I've never watched the series in order from the start before, and viewed this way Hartnell - already my joint-favourite Doctor - has been elevated to a position from which he can just about see previous fellow front-runner Jon Pertwee with a telescope, light years behind.  I've watched the three and a bit Hartnell seasons in a variety of formats - straight audio from 'Marco Polo', Loose Cannon recons for the likes of Myth Makers and Reign of Terror, damn clever animated photos for Mission to the Unknown, really bad animation for The Crusades - and a mix of dvd and vhs rips for the rest.  Plus reading all the Hartnell short stories in the annuals and Short Trips collections.  It's quite a lot to experience, but barely a moment dragged and the vast majority was, frankly and without hyperbole, wonderful.

Ian and Barbara's touching, astonishing, touching, beautiful, touching love affair is the absolute highlight, moving from friendship as Ian wanders unannounced into Babs' classroom in 'An Unearthly Child', through open affection and the sort of loving bickering which all real couples do, all the way to the post-coital scenes in The Romans parts 1 and 4 ('The Slave Traders' and 'Inferno' episodes of Serial M for purists). It's brilliantly done over an extended period, helped enormously by two actors who are, in my opinion, as good as the series has ever been lucky enough to have in all its 50 year history.  But even taking away the romance (and who could doubt they end up together after seeing that montage at the end of 'The Chase'?) these are two genuine characters in a way which the series later abandoned altogether (compare Ian to Ace - a character who sounds, looks and acts utterly unlike any real person of the same age, but who was lauded by fans in the 80s as a return to proper characterisation).  They learn and grow over the course of their travels and so do we, the viewers - not just by learning about Cathay and the reign of terror and the like, but also about the way the show changes format and outlook.  What started off as effectively a hostile kidnap, mellows into friendship and respect, and the series reflects this change, becoming less about trying to get back to Earth and more about experiencing the universe, less about staying out of danger and moving on quickly and more about seeking out people in need of help.

Ian and Barbara could have set the tone and established the  template for all companions to come, but unfortunately - possibly simply because Carole Ann Ford left first and so was replaced like-for-like first - writers chose to use Susan, sadly played by a far less able actor, as the ideal companion instead.  And for all that she's the alien, not Ian and Barbara, she's far more generically written than they - a screamer and a crier, prone to falling over and giving up the ghost, whiny and moany and a bit of a pin in the arse a lot of the time.  At least the producers also kept elements of the Susan of the first episode or of The Aztecs, refusing to marry some stranger; the best we can hope for for quite some time to come is that along with companion as screamer we also get companion as fighter.  Even then there's a gradual but noticeable growing preference for the Screamer over the Fighter which isn't overcome until the appearance of Zoe in 'The Wheel in Space' - Vicki to Dodo to Polly to Victoria is a descent from feisty to frightened, and even Zoe is a prototype for a better assistant in Liz Shaw.

If Carole-Anne Ford is patchy, and William Russell and Jackie Hill brilliant, Hartnell is, at times, awesome.  Years of character acting had given Hartnell exactly the skill set required for Dr Who, and a love of the character and the affection he engendered in the audience, meant that the actor puts everything he has into the role with, at times, quite wonderful results.  Look at the suspicious and dangerous Doctor of the first serial - not when he thinks about bashing a fallen enemy's brains in, since that seems reasonably sensible in the circumstances, but in the way he calculates that kidnapping Ian and Barbara is the best thing for him, and then does it.  That he then selfishly risks their lives in The Daleks is no surprise, but the change over the next few years is - this is the only Doctor in the classic series who actually changes (leaving aside the change in Colin Baker's Doctor from vicious psycho to good friend, a move so ineptly handled that I'm still not looking forward to reaching season 22) and the only Doctor in the entire series who changes in an interesting way (Tennant's descent into being a selfish shit being so dull that I may pay someone to drag themselves through his final year on my behalf).  By the time Susan leaves he's capable of the most touching moments and of putting someone else's interests first, and losing Ian and Babs, and his initial angry reaction, is played perfectly.  He's a wonder all round and the fan myth that he was past it by the end of his tenure is arrant nonsense, as anyone who watches 'The Tenth Planet' can see.

There are so many little moments which I could highlight as my favourite that it could soon grow tedious, so here's a selection:
  •  Hartnell inside a Dalek saying 'I am the Master' in 'The Space Museum'
  • Ian's coughing fit just before the revelation that the water is poisonous in The Sensorites, which I assumed was a mistake which the actors has ad-libbed around.
  • That montage at the end of 'The Chase'
  • Hartnell's hat in 'Reign of Terror'
  • The Sensorite at the window of the ship, floating in space
  • The design of the Robomen in 'Dalek Invasion of Earth' - so much better than the leather clad clones in the movie version
  • That Barbara was wrong in The Aztecs and because of that the Doctor loses and John Ringway's character wins.
  • Not shying away from the horror of Viking invasion in The Time Meddler
  • The delegates in Dalek Master Plan
  • Hartnell facing down a War Machine.
  • The wit of 'The Myth Makers', 'The Romans' and 'The Gunfighters' - Doctor Who can be broad comedy as well as all the other things it can be.
  • That everyone, including Peter Haining, was wrong about Galaxy 4 and The Gunfighters - both great.
  • The Cybermen in The Tenth Planet - still the creepiest aliens in Doctor Who history.
  • Every mention of 'Doctor Who', but particularly episode title 'The Death of Doctor Who' - that's his name and I much prefer it being used as a name than being some dull and asinine arc for Steven Moffat.
I'll shut up now though because I can think of something brilliant in every Hartnell story - even my least favourite, The Web Planet, where the design is fantastic, at least, and the Carcinome being a space hairdryer is inspired - anyway, I have Troughton to watch now....

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