It’s Still A Police Box, Why Hasn’t It Changed? Part One: Breakin’ Down The Walls Of Hartnell

William Russell, Carole Ann Ford, Jacqueline Hill and William Hartnell in Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child (BBC, 1963).

Doctor Who is about to celebrate sixty glorious years of something or other about timeless magic in a junkyard or whatever it is, and it’s a fair bet that with this in mind, pretty much everyone in the known universe will be doing their own heavily annotated from the beginning story by story series of reviews of every single trip in the TARDIS. Along with probably everyone in E-Space too.

Whether it’s BBC Two’s latest clip show-friendly talking head microceleb vigorously confirming that they saw the one with the Weeping Angels, one of those blokes who used to write letters to Points Of View that began ‘Urgent Megagalactic Transmission From Solar System 8!’ or someone babbling on about the neo-Castrovalvan twelfth segment of time or whatever it is, there are more of them out there than the number of times that same Dalek wheeled through the set pretending to be an entire ‘army’ in The Power Of The Daleks, but before adding yet another to that list it would only be fair to highlight a handful of the more interesting and diverting ones. Toby Hadoke – who you can hear chatting to me on Looks Unfamiliar here and here – is currently working his way through the entire series in two separate podcasts – Happy Times And Places in which he chats to another fan about an individual story and which you can find here, and Too Much Information, an episode by episode deep dive into how each one actually found its way onto the screen, which you can find here. James Cooray Smith, who you can hear discussing Morbius on It’s Good, Except It Sucks here, is presenting a series of abstract observations inspired by individual episodes in his newsletter Psychic Paper here. Meanwhile Jim Sangster, who you can again hear on Looks Unfamiliar here as well as sharing his thoughts on Luke Cage here and the Marvel One-Shots here, has been making his way through an often overlooked but absolutely fundamental part of Doctor Who‘s history without which it might well not have lasted as long as it has done – the tie-in paperback novels published by Target Books – in Escape To Danger here. Then of course there’s this one. Which, at the risk of paraphrasing that bequiffed blowhard who no doubt thinks Doctor Who has ‘gone’ ‘woke’, is different because it’s mine.

Rather than a set of story by story reviews, It’s Still A Police Box, Why Hasn’t It Changed? is a series by series set of observations on themes, trends, oddities, annoying characters, bafflingly memorable vocalisations and endlessly recycled flying insect effects. Why did The Autons have such a problem with The Bluetones? How do you tell the difference between Bellal’s Mate and Bellal’s Mate’s Mate? How do we know Rose Tyler was an avid watcher of Ian News? Find out all of this and more, maybe even including why Polly had Doctor Who’s hat on at the end of The Underwater Menace. You never know.

Incidentally, you can find an expanded version of It’s Still A Police Box, Why Hasn’t It Changed? covering the whole of sixties Doctor Who in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here, but we’re going way beyond that. Not even the Time Lords came this far. Well, erm, obviously they did, but… anyway. Wind up the Ormolu Clock, put on your best pince-nez and hat in astrakhan fur, sit yourself down in the magnetic chair used to immobilise Brett Vyon and whack that Time Rotor on because we’re about to take a trip back to 23rd November 1963, when – just before The Telegoons stank out the Saturday evening schedules with The Canal; presumably an origin story as they looked like they’d been dragged out of one – the timeless magic began…

William Hartnell Is Absolutely Brilliant

William Russell, William Hartnell, Jacqueline Hill and Carole Ann Ford in Doctor Who: Marco Polo (BBC, 1964).

There. I’ve said it. Although we’re generally encouraged to think of the early black and white days of television and of Doctor Who in particular as being slow, creaky and full of ‘wooden’ acting – as defined by the sort of people who appear to think that primetime ITV dramas about very very low velocity divorces and a detective who turns round in the opening titles are full of performances roughly akin to Billie Whitelaw and Keith Michell battling it out over the last remaining BAFTA in the known universe – the actual fact of the matter is that they rarely dip beneath the level of a very good stage play – and in some respects the majority of television shows essentially were stage plays at that point – and that, with absolutely no slight intended, William Hartnell is several leagues ahead of pretty much anyone else he shares the screen with. Almost every eccentric slip and stumble is deliberate and intentional, any actual slip or stumble – which sometimes happened what with it being recorded ‘as live’ and everything – is quickly and effectively improvised around without ever breaking character, and it’s no exaggeration to say that when he’s in a scene, everyone else in it ups their game considerably. So the next time that someone starts on about him ‘fluffing’ lines and the usual nonsense, bear in mind that he was initially reluctant to take the role out of concern that it might be a poor fit for such a successful and acclaimed serious film and stage actor. He did say ‘Eh?’ a lot, though.

The Stock Footage Invariably Looks Awful

Doctor Who: The Aztecs (BBC, 1964).

It’s not really that much of a surprise that the historically-overloaded earliest series of Doctor Who should have taken such hefty advantage of bits and pieces of off-the-shelf film footage from other already extant productions, as it would have been difficult and indeed costly enough for an early sixties big budget feature film to convincingly mock up, say, a thunderstorm or a pacing lion, let alone something recorded ‘as live’ on a handful of sets in three quarters of a broom cupboard at Lime Grove. It doesn’t really help, though, when the clips that they use tend have the sharpness, consistency, luminance and definition of an episode of the colour Andy Pandy that’s been marinaded in used dishwater infused with marscapone before being rolled up the stairs, used as makeshift dental floss, and left on top of a blast furnace for eight months before being sent for a nice lie down on an arctic shelf. That’s even after the Doctor Who Restoration Team have been able to track down, clean up and neatly re-insert the original footage as well, so lord alone knows how it must have looked back in 1963. Although that said it probably still looked slightly more convincing than when some Grange Hill pupils on videotape in about 1989 stumbled across some ‘foxes’ on crackly poorly-matched 16mm film with a whopping great tramline scratch.

The Female Characters Are Better Defined Than Popular Opinion Would Have You Believe

Carole Ann Ford and Zienia Merton in Doctor Who: Marco Polo (BBc, 1964).

According to the average columnist blabbering on about how it’s OK to like it now except somehow it also isn’t at the same time, until Russell T. Davies took over Doctor Who was amongst the most problematically sexist creations in the entirety of popular culture, although apparently also it still was at the same time after he took over too except it wasn’t but also it was. Back in the bad old days, so popular perception has it, Doctor Who was nothing more than ‘the man’ dashing around solving all of the problems and getting all of the glory, with ‘the girl’ left to stand in the background looking pretty, screaming a bit and handing things to him when required. There are, we have to be frank, certain parts of Doctor Who‘s history where this is arguably a legitimate criticism, but the first two series are not amongst them. At this point, it’s worth remembering, Doctor Who had a strident young female producer and a fifty percent female regular cast, and if the Bechdel Test is your particular preferred method of measuring equity-related worth then the overwhelming majority of those nigh on a hundred episodes pass it with ease; if you’re interested, you can listen to me discussing this in much greater detail here. Even above and beyond that, Susan and Barbara will often take the lead in a storyline, facing off against Daleks, ritual historical violence and even the laws of time on their own terms, and encountering all manner of well drawn and sympathetically portrayed female characters en route. Even their less Bechdel-passing conversations are still noteworthy for a television show made in the early sixties, particularly their dealings with the numerous other ladies they meet during The Keys Of Marinus and Susan’s celebrated chat with Ping Cho about her status and expectations in Thirteenth Century China. Most notably of all, there’s a lengthy scene in which Barbara and Susan reflect with some weariness on the male characters’ attitude towards them, which is unfortunately undermined when, almost immediately afterwards, a statue grabs Barbara’s arse.

Jacqueline Hill in Doctor Who: The Keys Of Marinus (BBC, 1964).

Which is perhaps an opportune moment to move on to…

Barbara Would Seriously Get It

Jacqueline Hill in Doctor Who: The Edge Of Destruction (BBC, 1964).

Well, erm, possibly not quite as much of an appropriate moment then. We had probably better qualify this one a bit. With very few exceptions, the focus of the ‘Doctor Who Girl’ has always been slanted towards the late teens slash early twenties end of the scale, with successive production teams shamelessly stating their intention to use the latest skimpily-costumed sidekick for scant other purpose than to get ‘the dads’ watching. The fact that this role was originally filled by – gasp – a thirtysomething with ‘sensible’ wardrobe choices and a very much era-appopriate hairstyle has always generally been dismissed by fans with a worrying undercurrent of ageism as an of-its-time neccessity that nobody in their right mind would deploy now – apart from the fact that when Russell T. Davies did it really, really worked – and hapless Barbara has always found herself conveniently omitted from lists of sexy and/or ‘iconic’ companions. There were to be no adolescent-friendly full-page Doctor Who Magazine posters of poor old Jacqueline Hill. With the benefit of a bit more maturity in both senses of the word, let’s put a stop to that nonsense here and now and point out that you only have to watch for a couple of seconds to realise that Jacqueline was a strikingly good-looking woman, who also, when they deign to allow her to wear something a tad more with-it, clearly ‘has it going on’ as well. Meanwhile, once the regular characters have got past the initial prickliness about being intruders in ‘the ship’, Barbara also emerges as a likeable and attractive character; witty, thoughtful and headstrong, and her flirting with Léon Colbert in The Reign Of Terror is really rather sweet to witness. No wonder the writers of the tie-in novels were always drooling over her. Also as it’s in black and white, you can pretend she has red hair too. Um, did I just say that out loud?

There Are Too Many Fucking Rope Bridges

Doctor Who: The Daleks (BBC, 1963-64).

Got twenty five minutes of Saturday afternoon television to fill? Then why not stuff huge chunks of it full of half of your regular cast and a handful of guest stars doing desperately unconvincing ‘swaying’ acting as they make a protracted tension-deficient meal of their attempts to traverse a hazardous chasm by performing cramped feats of trapeze artistry with dislocated bits of a rickety-looking rope bridge whilst a sound effect snarls off-screen without apparently ever getting any closer? Even the old Republic movie serials were never this shameless about it.

“Here’s Water, Marco Polo…”

Derren Nesbitt in Doctor Who: Marco Polo (BBC, 1964).

One of the major logistical issues with attempting to do a story by story critical review of Doctor Who‘s entire history – at least where the early years are concerned – is that almost a third of the episodes made between 1963 and 1969 no longer exist in any variety of visual form. Fortunately, owing to a for once benevolent application of the resourceful ingenuity of Doctor Who fans, there are all manner of lost episode reconstructions available cobbled together from whatever material still existed, which in some cases was little more than a muffly audio recording and a handful of photos. This isn’t the same as being able to see the actual episodes as transmitted, but it’s as close as you can get unless the hail is hailstoning in the right direction or something apparently. Fortunately that very first series has survived more or less intact, with the only gaps on the archive shelves being episodes two and three of The Reign Of Terror – so bad news for anyone who is desperate to know what the physician summoned to examine Susan looked like – and all seven episodes of Marco Polo. As lost as that elaborately costumed historical travelogue may be, however, it also serves as a pertinent reminder of just how good Doctor Who was in those early days, with or without the actual original transmissed visuals. Right at the conclusion of the second instalment of Marco Polo, after sabotaging the touring party’s water barrels in the middle of the desert – in case you were concerned, they managed to overcome the sudden drought thanks to, erm, condensation on the TARDIS windows – aspirant Kublai Khan assassin Tegana elects to mock their plight within earshot of absolutely nobody whatsoever by pouring some of his own personal H20 stock on the desert sand and cackling “here’s water, Marco Polo…”. Aside from the audio recording, nothing remains of this dastardly scene outside of an on-set photo of Derren Nesbitt who may well have been deliberately hamming it up for the camera anyway, but even so, by all accounts there are some fans who, without ever having taken any particular notice of the line itself, will casually repeat it on autopilot as part of everyday conversation as readily as they might “I see I see, I get the picture”, “come on Wordsworth out of there” and “I am The Q, your master, and ye will obey me”. It might not be “I drink and I know things”, but it didn’t need to be on ten thousand mugs to catch on with, erm, one person either.

The Ice Soldiers In The Keys Of Marinus Are Unexpectedly Effective

Doctor Who: The Keys Of Marinus (BBC, 1964).

You can spend eighteen months and hundreds of thousands of pounds on ambitious CGI effects, and then spend a further six months showing off about them in an endless procession of almost indistinguishable behind the scenes featurettes, but sometimes you’re just going to get a better result from a well directed and acted sequence in which an immobile suit of armour suddenly jerks into motion in the middle of everyone else’s armour-disregarding dialogue. It’s so effective in fact that none other than Peter Davison claims to have been unnerved by this particular moment as a youngster – although whenever he mentions it they always seem to stick in clips of the actual Ice Warriors for some reason – which frankly is a seal of approval that no amount of BAFTA Craft Awards can buy.

Why Does Everyone Have So Much Trouble With Aydan’s Name?

Doctor Who: The Keys Of Marinus (BBC, 1964).

It’s the ominously titled Sentence Of Death – episode five of Terry Nation’s location-hopping hidden microchip puzzle quest The Keys Of Marinus – and the travellers are transported into ‘The City Of Millennium’ and indeed straight into a murder mystery that they seem set to unjustly take the rap for. A bigger mystery, though, is why nobody seems to be able to agree on one single definitive pronounciation of the name of actual perpetrator Aydan. Throughout the episode you’ll hear a wide variety of stresses, emphases and vowel sounds, with William Hartnell alone offering more than one variation. Small wonder then that he nearly evaded the attention of the City’s finest judicial minds.

It’s Impossible To Remember Where You’re Up To With The Sensorites

Doctor Who: The Sensorites (BBC, 1964).

Doctor Who‘s black and white era is full of stories that start well with an intriguing first episode but very quickly tail off after that, and nowhere is this stark discrepancy more evident than with The Sensorites. So much so, in fact, that if you elect to break up your viewing of it on an episode-by-episode basis -and, let us be blunt, that’s the only way that pretty much anyone in their right mind ever would choose to watch it – you’ll have a hard time keeping track of exactly which episode you’re on; in fact you can find a chronicle of my own failed attempts at remembering which episodes I had and had not already watched here. They all seem to meld into one after a while – it looks, sounds and feels more like an early sixties British sci-fi film than anything else in the first series, which is perhaps not altogether surprising given Peter R. Newman’s background as a screenwriter, but this is not necessarily a good thing in itself. For a start, it’s almost twice the length of one of said films, and was made for less than a tenth of their already scarcely impressive average budget, and the end always seems to be impossibly far off on the horizon. Some have even speculated that nobody has ever actually seen the last episode, and if they have, there is evidently little that they are either able or willing to tell you about it. Although maybe they just hadn’t remembered it was the last one.

Susan N0-Mates

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child (BBC, 1963).

By the time that we join the very first episode of Doctor Who, Susan has – even by conservative estimates – been enrolled as a pupil at Coal Hill School for at the very least more or less an entire academic year. During this time she has enjoyed life amongst her classmates as a pre-Beat Boom teenager, investing in trendy caps and following instrumental beat combos up and down the charts while confounding her teachers with her poorly disguided advanced scientific knowledge and clumsy historial blunders. The only problem is that on the admittedly scant evidence we have, nobody else in the school appears to know or even like her. There are no chatty conversations, no offers of makeup tips, no blushingly smitten boys and no indication whatsoever that she even knows anyone else’s name. All we get to see is them alternately being bored by or laughing at her. Not even bitchy side-eye from that tall dark-haired girl or taunting from the boy who goes ‘OOOOOOOO!’ at a photo of Frank Ifield. It seems unlikely, especially in the days when there were only two television channels that closed down before they’d even started transmission for the day and the radio only played stuff called Washday Cha-Cha by Frank Frankford And His Disinterested Five and you had to make you own entertainment out of those sort of slot-together styrofoam planes that did a sort of three quarters of a loop the loop when you threw them before hitting the ground and bending uselessly out of shape, that the other pupils would not have taken a forcibly befriending interest in this excitingly mysterious interloper, especially as she might have been handy for future-anticipating fashion predictions. Though maybe even being a Time Lady is never quite enough to prevent you from assuming the mantle of The Girl Who Smelt Of Spam.

Anyway, that’s series one of Doctor Who. Next Time! An inconsistent cat, the other kind of ‘Dalek Cutaway’, and far too many ants…

Buy A Book!

You can find an expanded version of It’s Still A Police Box, Why Hasn’t It Changed? covering the entire sixties run of Doctor Who in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Please note that if you pour it on the ground cackling “here’s coffee, Marco Polo…” I will not be especially amused.

Further Reading

There’s Not An Ounce Of Curiosity In Me! is a more in-depth look at The Sensorites and why it is so hard to remember which episode of it you are up to; you can find it here.

Further Listening

There’s much more about Doctor Who‘s early days and plenty more besides in my appearance on The Zeitgeist Tapes – the podcast where politics meets pop culture – here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.