Ten Things I’ve Learned Watching Doctor Who From The Beginning

3rd September 2015 • Feature by Ian Symes •

I only became a fan of Doctor Who in 2005, having completely fallen in love with the revived series right from watching that leaked version of “Rose”. I immediately set about reading up on what happened in the preceding 42 years, and picked up a couple of dozen classic DVDs. But I was always frustrated by the gaps in my knowledge, so last year I decided to embark on a journey through time and… well, mostly time. I decided to watch every last second of televised Doctor Who, in order, right from the start.

Ten months later, having roughly kept a schedule of one episode a day, I’m halfway through Season 8, having seen three Doctors, eighteen companions (depending on your definition), at least nine iconic recurring villains, and as of today, 294 individual episodes. I started a blog, Curiosity In A Junkyard, to chronicle my journey and make a note of interesting things I’ve discovered. But what have I discovered?

In no particular order, here are ten things I know about Doctor Who now that I didn’t know a year ago.

The missing episodes are a slog, but it’s worth it

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I must admit that even as I was starting this expedition, I knew deep down that I’d probably give up when I came up against the missing episodes. I wanted to experience them as best I could, but the notion of sitting down and squinting at grainy telesnaps whilst listening to hissy off-air sound recordings isn’t particularly appealing, and the sheer rarity of actual footage from Seasons 3 and 4 was incredibly daunting.

But thanks to the quality of both the original episodes and Loose Cannon‘s recreations, it wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought. Don’t get me wrong, there were times when I really couldn’t be bothered to watch an action sequence unfold via the medium of scrolling subtitles, but more often than not my efforts were well and truly rewarded. If you’ve not “watched” the likes of “Marco Polo”, “The Myth Makers” and “The Savages”, you’re really missing out on some of the best serials of the Hartnell era. And then there’s “The Evil of the Daleks”, which might well be one of my favourite stories of all time, despite only a seventh of it existing.

“The Celestial Toymaker” is probably shit in any medium, though.

Hartnell wasn’t as bad as his reputation suggests

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There’s no denying that William Hartnell’s performances got considerably worse as time went on, and that by Season 4, his exit from the series was unavoidable. But shortly after I watched that first regeneration, I rewatched An Adventure In Time And Space for the first time. I loved it then and I love it now, but with the added context of having seen all of Hartnell’s tenure, I now realise that the version of Doctor Who they portray in the docudrama isn’t all that accurate.

Which isn’t a criticism of AAITAS – it’s all artistic license, and the basic gist is right – it’s just that both the programme and William Hartnell were so much better than the glimpses you get in the re-enactments. While David Bradley nails what Hartnell becomes, for the majority of his time on screen, the First Doctor is far from the bumbling weakling that he’s remembered as. He’s certainly very different from each of his successors, and perhaps not as strong as any of them, but he’s still brilliant in his own way. Let’s face it, would the show have even got to a fourth season if it didn’t have a compelling and fascinating lead?

They really didn’t care what happened to departing companions

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One of the things I was most looking forward to about this project was following the complete journey of each companion – from meeting The Doctor, to growing and developing as a person, to the poignant departure – like I had with Rose, Martha and Amy. The original three of Susan, Ian and Barbara followed that template to the letter, but it turns out that the production really didn’t give a shit about that fate of most subsequent companions.

If they’re lucky, like Vicki and Victoria, they’ll just decide to stick around in the location of their last adventure, having previously shown little to no desire to leave The Doctor. Some, like Dodo, Ben and Polly, didn’t even get to finish their last adventures. Jackie Lane’s contract expired after the second episode of “The War Machines”, so Dodo is sent off to the countryside, and her desire to stay on Earth is only relayed via a message. A similar situation occurred with Michael Craze and Anneke Wills in “The Faceless Ones”, but at least Ben and Polly got to do a pre-recorded goodbye to The Doctor, tacked on to the end of the final part. Liz Shaw didn’t get a goodbye at all – she was there at the end of “Inferno”, then not there at the start of “Terror of the Autons” – and poor old Katarina didn’t even survive her first full serial, before being killed in the blackness of space when the producer decided she was too difficult to write for.

Jamie and Zoe, though. *sniff*

Doctor Who once featured the worst possible word

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I’m a bit of a wooly liberal, and I knew that I’d see things in 60s and 70s Who that I wouldn’t be comfortable with seeing in 21st century Who. Female companions are often told to make tea while the men do the proper work, the handful of non-white actors you see are rarely allowed to speak, and any time they do want a non-white character to speak, it’s usually someone blacked up.

There’s no excuse for any of the above, but it’s also not fair to judge the past by the standards of today – old Doctor Who is an historical document, and it must be treated as such. Any transgressions of acceptable standards can be classed as “interesting” rather than “offensive”, and rarely interfere with how enjoyable the show is. But there is one exception. In episode two of “The Celestial Toymaker”, The King of Hearts does an “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo”, and I had to rewind to check that he’d just said what I thought he’d said. He had. He did the full Clarkson version. Wasn’t expecting that from any era of Doctor Who.

Troughton is the best Doctor ever

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Prior to this exercise, I’d seen a handful of serials for each of the first seven Doctors, which was enough to establish a few favourites, namely Troughton, Pertwee and Baker (T). Of those, I’d have gone as far as to say that Troughton was slightly edging it, but now, having seen his entire run? Nobody else comes close.

He burst on to the scene and immediately transformed the role of The Doctor. He added a dynamism and unpredictability without losing any the character’s previously established wit and intelligence. There’s a joy to everything he does, which was absent in the First Doctor but front and centre of almost all of Troughton’s successors. He lifts even the dullest of scripts by breezing through each scene with boundless energy, leaving the other characters and the audience equally flabbergasted. The conclusion to “The War Games” is heart-breaking for so many reasons, but not least because it meant I had no more Troughton left to watch.

That said, I do reserve the right to change my mind once I’ve seen the full tenures of all the other Doctors-that-I-already-think-are-pretty-brilliant. But furthermore I’d also like to put on the record that the best companion ever is Zoe, 100%, 4 eva, IDST.

The Cybermen have been crap for at least 40 years

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Well, comparatively speaking, anyway. I mean, I do like what I’ve seen of the “eeeeexcellent”-merchants of the 80s, but they are a bit naff. There’s been mixed results in the modern era, and tellingly they’ve worked at their best when they’re not the only villain in the story (“Doomsday”, “The Pandorica Opens”, “Death In Heaven”). But upon seeing their very first few appearances, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the original version was never bettered.

Those early Cybermen were just so creepy, with their non-uniform mish-mash of mechanical parts and humanoid flesh, their varied but always unsettling voices and their complete lack of emotion or reason. Every change they’ve been through over the years has detracted from the body horror aspect of the original, and they’ve steadily lost their effectiveness as they’ve become less visceral. Even by the time of “The Invasion”, they look more like pre-fabricated robots than converted humanoids, and all subsequent attempts have taken that even further.

As a side-note, conversely the Daleks arrived in the second serial pretty much fully-formed, and – stupid new paradigm thing aside – have only been tweaked ever so slightly since then. They’ve been consistently brilliant in almost all of their appearances over 52 years. If it ain’t broke…

The black and white era isn’t just one big thing

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The start of the Season 7 saw pretty much everything change at once – the new decade brought a new Doctor, new companions, a new logo, a new title sequence and a whole new format for the show, and most notably of all, colour. It was a seismic change that effectively killed off the first six years of the show, and replaced it with something almost entirely distinct. But that’s not to say that those first six years hadn’t seen their fair share of evolution themselves.

It’s incredibly handy to think of everything that went out in the ’60s as the show’s first “era”, but the fact is that “The War Games” is an entirely different prospect than “An Unearthly Child”. The show was always pushing the boundaries as to what was achievable at any given point, so progress was never going to stand still. The direction of stories such as “The Invasion” and “The Seeds of Death” wouldn’t look out of place anywhere in the classic era, while things like music and model effects improved throughout the decade.

Then there’s the type of stories being told, which started off rigidly alternating between sci-fi and historical settings, with the two elements not meeting until “The Time Meddler”, not long after which pure historicals were dropped all together. “The War Machines” was the first story to be set in contemporary Earth, and that ultimately lead to the creation of UNIT. So while Season 7 did change everything, the moment had very much been prepared for.

Roger Delgado is even more superior to the other Masters than expected

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I love The Master. I’ve seen about half of Ainley’s stuff, and everything of Roberts, Jacobi, Simm and Gomez, and even the emaciated skellington one. Despite a few iffy moments here and there, I’ve barely seen anything with The Master in that I didn’t like. But weirdly, I’d hardly seen a scrap of the original prior to this marathon. I knew from popular opinion that Delgado is most likely better than all that followed him, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much better he is.

At the time of writing, I’m only three and a bit serials in to Season 8 (where The Master appears in every story), but even by now, I’ve seen all the classic elements of the character that I’ve seen in other incarnations. He’s already twisted good people into doing evil things, weaseled his way into positions of power and authority, reluctantly teamed up with The Doctor on several occasions, and even turned up in disguise for no apparent reason. Roger Delgado does all of these things better than anyone else. You can’t take your eyes off him, and his chemistry with Pertwee is incredible. A simply masterful performance.

Actors going on holiday in the middle of a serial was apparently fine

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The weirdest thing about early Who is that it vaguely feels like the world’s least conventional soap opera. Seasons would go on for the best part of a year, with each episode produced each consecutive week. Most serials would follow directly on from the previous, meaning we pretty much see everything that happens to the main characters with very few gaps. And at the time when each individual episode had its own title, rather than each serial, it felt like you were watching one continuous story unfold, rather than a series of shorter ones.

So in that regard, and especially considering the workload, it’s completely understandable the main actors would each be given a couple of weeks off every now and then. The bizarre thing, from a modern day perspective, is that the rest of the production would just carry on without them. The result is almost always jarring, with clunkily-inserted lines of dialogue to explain away someone’s absence. And in story terms, it was almost always detrimental – whenever Ian or Jamie went missing, you could really feel their absence. When it was The Doctor’s turn to have time off, the burden was on the shoulders of the companions, and so results were mixed as to whether they could carry it off.

And towards the end of Hartnell’s tenure, when he was being written out of episodes increasingly often, it really hurt the show. Not that the producers could have done much about it, considering the reasons for Hartnell’s absence, but the tail end of Season 3 and the beginning of Season 4 goes to show that you can’t really have Doctor Who without Doctor Who in it.

Sometimes things can be improved by the knowledge of what’s to come

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Most of the time during this run through, I really wish I could somehow go through it spoiler-free. I mean, it’s impossible – quite aside from the odd bits I’ve seen before and all the knowledge I’ve picked up over the years, I’m never going to be surprised by the sudden appearance of a particular character or alien if they’re plastered all over the DVD cover. But every now and then, it works out really nicely.

When I first watched “The Abominable Snowmen”, I gasped at the mention of “The Great Intelligence”, having somehow forgotten that he and the Yeti were linked. But nobody would have gasped in 1967, because they hadn’t seen “The Name of the Doctor”. Similarly, “The Macra Terror” was improved by the knowledge that it would get a sequel-of-sorts four decades later.

First appearances of things that would later go on to be iconic – the sonic screwdriver, the pseudonym “John Smith”, The Doctor having two hearts – are always fun, as is spotting young guest actors that would later play much more famous roles, including Gail Platt, Wallace, Mr Mackay and both Rimmer’s Dad and the Cat Priest from early series of Red Dwarf. It’s also a lot of fun to chart the level of Zippyness in each voice Roy Skelton contributes.

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The best thing about it though, is spotting the initial seeds of ideas that would eventually radically change the show. They were always experimenting with new concepts, and most of them fell by the wayside, but when they work, they’re unmistakable. When I first saw The Meddling Monk, a villainous renegade Time Lord, I immediately started imagining that he’d later regenerate into Roger Delgado. And you can totally identify the moments in “The Web of Fear” that lead to the creation of UNIT, and the beginnings of the entire Third Doctor era.

It seems very apt that this mission to witness absolutely every bit of Doctor Who ever is throwing up such time-related curiosities. The main conclusion I can draw from the whole venture is that this is a show that’s always been special, right from the very first start and throughout. Even when it’s not at its best, it’s rarely dull and there’s always something to enjoy. This whole thing has become less about wanting to fill in the blanks, and more about just wanting to watch brilliant TV on a daily basis.

Ian Symes is both a jackanapes and a ham-fisted bun vendor who lives in London and works in TV. He writes a lot about Red Dwarf for Ganymede & Titan, and is currently in the process of watching every episode of Doctor Who in order, whilst blogging about it at Curiosity In A Junkyard. He is sometimes cruel and usually cowardly.

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