Has there ever been such a contrast between two adjacent stories? We have had six weeks without seeing a human face apart from the regulars, and all of a sudden we are thrown into the middle of a Shakespearean costume drama… except, that’s superficial. Yes, it is something to be celebrated that Doctor Who can offer such variety, but there is also a strong continuity between the two stories, in that they are both theatrical in their own ways. Yesterday in my Web Planet review, I said this:
Was anyone really watching them and believing they were real aliens? Doctor Who simply doesn’t function on that level, and doesn’t need to.
To expand that point a little further, we need to think about the viewer’s experience. It is possible to create a television experience that tries to get the viewers to believe what they are watching. It’s a difficult, self-defeating approach. Soap operas probably come closest to that kind of immersive experience because they rely on an emotional connection with the characters to keep the viewers coming back, but that is swiftly abandoned when the writers want to use repetitive disaster storylines to generate a bit of publicity and bring in some new viewers. Crime dramas sometimes try for immersion; whodunits never do. Tellingly, comedy is always theatrical rather than immersive, which is why we don’t generally worry about tricks like a laughter track. In many ways the ultimate approach to comedy is Mrs Brown’s Boys, which shows us out-takes, and occasionally even has the camera pull back from the standing sets to show us the camera operators and audience. So it is completely impossible for Doctor Who to aim for the viewers feeling like they are watching something real if you want any kind of element of comedy, for a start, because comedy as something scripted is too ingrained in us, and already was long before 1965.
So when Doctor Who does that magnificent bit of comedy with Ben Daheer and the Doctor, or has Vicki cross-dressing as Victor for no apparent reason other than Doctor Who is doing Shakespeare this week, we are just as firmly in the realms of the theatrical as we were when actors were scuttling around in giant ant costumes and bumping into the camera. The direction here also feels different to what we are used to – overhead shots, fast cuts and an action scene with Ian fighting the camera.
The problem with Doctor Who doing Shakespeare in 1965 is that it forces 60s values to the forefront. There is no air of tension between Doctor Who and the genre it is visiting, as per The Shakespeare Code. Doctor Who just fits happily into a world where a female character must become a male one in order to be involved in the story, unless she wants her part in the story to be a victim of a kidnapping… which brings us to Barbara.
She starts her travels with the Doctor by getting kidnapped by him. She is the first to be captured by a Dalek, gets captured by Acomat and Malik in Marco Polo, and has a horrendous time of it in The Keys of Marinus, again the first to go missing because she panics, and then gets repeatedly captured and even has Ian try to strangle her. In the very first episode of The Sensorites she gets captured, ditto in The Reign of Terror, and in Planet of the Giants she is the one who gets infected and has to be saved. She is sold as a slave in The Romans and then spends most of the story being chased around by Nero. In The Web Planet, she is the first to be targeted by the Animus, who drags her out of the TARDIS. Once she is rescued by the Menoptera they then treat her as a possession, discussing whether to kill her or not. Almost immediately in The Crusade, Barbara gets captured, and then recaptured in the second episode, and then captured in the third episode, and then captured in the fourth episode.
There is a limit to what we can expect from Doctor Who in 1965, but with a visionary female producer I think we can expect more than this. But Verity Lambert was not writing the scripts, and there was obviously only so much she could do here. Barbara does get a lot of interesting and brave things to do throughout her time with the Doctor (note that I deliberately didn’t mention The Aztecs in my list above), but clearly something is going very wrong here.
Vicki fares much better as a companion than Barbara or Susan ever did, mainly because she is being placed firmly in the role of the Doctor’s best friend. The Doctor and Vicki are paired off once again, while Ian and Barbara are off having their own adventures – that’s three stories in a row with this identical structure. Vicki has got to be the First Doctor’s favourite companion – they get on so well together. To a certain extent that also places her in a subservient role. Note that fabulously poetic line, “courage, loyalty and wit are gathered here”, is not so fabulous when you think about it. Ian gets “courage”, so in other words he’s the muscle in Doctor Who. The Doctor gets “wit”. Vicki gets “loyalty”. So she is defined in terms of being a good assistant to Doctor Wit. But Maureen O’Brien is simply too brilliant at making Vicki shine as an individual character to let this kind of thing hamper her. However much any script tries to pigeon-hole her, she finds a way to be a unique force in her own right.
As for the Doctor, he just gets better and better, and is now virtually the fully-formed comedy anarchist genius that we are familiar with today. A lot of credit is given to Patrick Troughton as the creator of the Doctor as we know him but that ignores just how much Hartnell did with the role himself, from a starting point of a character who was basically completely different. William Hartnell seems more confident with his lines than ever before, perhaps inspired by the high quality of the scripts. More significantly, he is probably inspired here by working with Maureen O’Brien, who is pitching Vicki in just the right way to allow the Doctor to develop in the direction that Hartnell so clearly wants him to go. It is all summed up beautifully in the following exchange between them:
Vicki: “You wouldn’t go off and leave me, would you?”
The Doctor: “What a question!”
Just four stories ago he did exactly that, to his own granddaughter. But to the Doctor the idea of doing the same to Vicki is simply unthinkable. RP
The view from across the pond:
As if being creative was not enough for the original era of Doctor Who, we also had some brave storytelling. Take The Crusade for instance. This 4 part story took place in the 12th century in the presence of King Richard the Lionheart. But here’s the caveat: King Richard is depicted as abrupt, even rude; periodically I’d even say childish. By contrast Saladin, the Saracen ruler, is depicted as polite, understanding and cordial. Saladin demands respect for his prisoners offering them all liberties except liberty itself. King Richard, by contrast, is dismissive and does not try to help when the Doctor asks him to help rescue Barbara. I’d call that conviction when it comes to storytelling. To further illustrate that, Vicki is a young girl traveling with the Doctor through hostile lands. Does this family show from the 1960s disregard that danger? Not at all. The Doctor disguises Vicki as “Victor” to keep her safe.
Once again, the cast shines. Ian is the man of action for the TARDIS crew, fighting off attackers at the start of the story and later overcoming Ibrahim even while tied up. He later gets knighted. (Think about that when he finally returns to his own time!) The Doctor becomes the sage advisor to the King and he’s brilliant in that role. Hartnell throws himself into the part, not unlike his portrayal in The Reign of Terror. Vicki is basically just his ward through the story. What is surprising is the Doctor has no issue stealing considering what he was absconding with was already stolen! He gets caught later but excused by the King. Still, I’m certain there’s a lesson there! Jean Marsh and Julian Glover both appear in this story as well, as Joanna and her brother King Richard. Marsh would go on to play companion Sara Kingdom in The Dalek Masterplan and Morgaine in Sylvester McCoy’s Battlefield. (She was also married to Jon Pertwee in real life!) Glover is now probably very well known to fans of Game of Thrones. Together, they formed a fantastic cast for an historical adventure!
You’ll notice I skipped Barbara. That’s because Barbara’s experience is the one that really warrants examination. She is taken hostage at the very beginning of the story. What she goes through is actually terrifying, but we tend to get caught up in this family science fiction story. If we look at a show like Homeland, being taken prisoner in a foreign land would be scary all by itself. That might be the subject of a season-long arc. In Doctor Who, we only get 25 minutes to experience it and the fear factor is lost, but just a few minutes thought reveals how frightening that would be. Being told that the only pleasure one has left is death and that is a long way off… is psychological torture implying there will be some physical torture to go along with that. The fear factor is actually off the charts, but the depiction is muted by the type of show we are watching. And let’s not forget, Barbara is a History teacher in a high school! Not that Ian, the science teacher, gets off light! He has his face slathered with honey and threatened to have ants eat him alive in the blistering hot sun. (He’s probably not that worried about ants having just encountered the Zanti… I mean Zarbi… just one story earlier!) The point is, this is taken in the stride of a 4 part serial, but conceptually, these events are actually deeply traumatizing. The fact that the crew gets on with it (barring that it is just a script) is probably largely due to the fact that they are becoming used to the stress of traveling with the Doctor. And maybe there’s something to that! Maybe when you have to live by your wits, you find yourself growing more accepting of these otherwise debilitating experiences. So what will happen to Ian and Barbara should they ever leave the Doctor? One wonders…
Sadly, only parts 1 and 3 exist, so we can’t really watch how the cast responds to the events throughout the story. The terror of a real, historical adventure will pass and they will get back to another science fiction story. The final episode ends with the crew frozen over the console as the lights of the TARDIS console flicker and we wonder what traumatic experiences they will get caught up with next in The Space _useu_!
Is there an M? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist! Episode 3 of The Crusade is called “The Wheel of Fortune”!) ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Space Museum