It’s time to talk about Doctor Who

When the Britbox streaming service launched in the UK, the thing I was most looking forward to was watching the existing episodes of Doctor Who all the way from the start. While I’m old enough to have been alive from the very beginning, I have only the vaguest memories of William Hartnell, and my first Doctor Who memory proper is of Patrick Troughton as the second doctor. I have several clear Troughton memories: of the Cybermen bursting out of their pods in what I’m assuming must have been The Tomb of the Cybermen (September 1967); the appearance of the Yeti in The Abominable Snowmen (October 1967); and, most clearly, of the cobweb-filled London Underground in The Web of Fear (February 1968). I was between 4 and 5 years old when these episodes aired.

I might also remember William Hartnell “dying” and turning into Patrick Troughton in October 1966, when I was 3, approaching 4 years old.

In reality, then, it’s highly unlikely that I have any memory of watching William Hartnell in the role of Doctor Who, although I do kind of remember a strong emotional reaction to his first regeneration. I was disinclined to like Patrick Troughton because he wasn’t the proper Doctor Who. I also experienced a similar negative response to the later arrival of Jon Pertwee, although the introduction of colour was some compensation.

You might be wondering how one might possibly remember something from so long ago, when one was so very young. But if you peek at the episode count, you realise that Doctor Who really was an almost permanent fixture on Saturday nights in the 60s. The break between the 42 episodes of Season 1 and the 39 episodes of Season 2 was just about six weeks. Then it took a summer break in 1965 (during the school holidays, basically) before returning for the 45 episodes of Season 3. In other words, apart from the summer hols, Doctor Who was on every Saturday night of my childhood until June 1969, when it took a ridiculously long break until January 1970, at which point it was only on for half the year (26 weeks).

So. Hartnell. My goodness, but he was a crap actor. Of course, they were dealing with shaky sets, hastily written scripts, and limited rehearsal time, and Hartnell himself was 55-going-on-800 years old when they made these. But none of it is very good. It’s amazing it became so popular. The scripts are underwritten, with desultory dialogue, and at times seem improvised and padded out to extremes. Although the episodes are less than 25 minutes in length, in one of them, the characters spend 72 minutes deciding whether to jump over an abyss before someone you don’t care about plunges to his death. I don’t know if it was his death, actually, because I myself had fallen by then into a coma, from which I am yet to awake.

The Dalek dialogue is both preposterous and boring, and the chapter in which they are (finally) defeated, after a lengthy sequence of heavily padded episodes, is also hilarious. It turns out there were only 6 Daleks, and they look funny when they’re pushed over.

Hartnell had a habit of fluffing his lines, particularly the important ones — or when called upon to deliver the episode’s title in dialogue, as he does in “The Brink of Disaster”, which is one of two filler episodes after the first Dalek story and before the completely missing Marco Polo story. “The Brink of Disaster” follows “The Edge of Destruction”, and taken together they’re about 50 minutes of insult to the audience’s intelligence.

Onwards to Troughton…

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