Doctor Who‘s first episode aired on November 23, 1963. So while for most people, the big 50th anniversary this November will be one day earlier marking the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I’ll be celebrating the debut of my all-time favorite television show.
With eleven different actors playing the Doctor in a major form on the television show, I’ve decided to take the first eleven months of 2013 to revisit each era of the show in the form of a re-watch. I’ve identified three stories for most months (with the exception of August, which I’ll talk about in greater detail when we get there) to make a concerted effort to view, plus several “bonus rounds” to add in if I have the time and willpower. For each month, I tried to try and select in a way that provided a variety of supporting cast characters, approaches, and the like. We’ll see how well this goes…
January kicks off the great re-watch with William Hartnell, who played the role of the Doctor from 1963-1966. His era was different than any to follow, with a mixture of “historical” (set in Earth’s past with no science-fiction elements aside from the time machine that brought them there) and science-fiction stories (either in Earth’s future, or on other planets). By the time the show ended, it had discovered a new format (modern-day with science-fiction elements), gone through several casts and production teams, and finally inexplicably survived the recasting of the title role. Both Hartnell and his successor Patrick Troughton also have large swathes of episodes missing from the BBC Archives due to a mass purging of older television shows over the years, before the age of home video.
More importantly, the Hartnell era is pretty great. With little to look back on, the show reinvented itself on a regular basis and took chances bigger than any other era has since. In my story selections, I tried to find a mixture of historical and science-fiction, as well as hitting as many of the companions (those who travel with the Doctor in the TARDIS) as I could. I ended up watching 10 stories (or 40 episodes) in all, and while I could blather on about each one of them for some time, just a quick comment on the viewing choices.
The very first story, its initial episode is fantastic; it introduces the Doctor, his granddaughter Susan, and inquisitive teachers Ian and Barbara who get sucked up into the adventure against their will. Unfortunately, episodes 2-4 are set in the caveman era and are a bit problematic. The story itself isn’t that bad in theory (with a bit of an allegory over the arms race using a quest for fire) but the direction/acting involving the cavemen is just teeth-gratingly bad. There’s a reason why many people watch episode 1 and then skip ahead to something else, rather than episodes 2-4 of this opening story.
#006: The Aztecs
“The Aztecs” is easily one of the best Hartnell stories, there’s no doubt. The plot is a fun one; landing in 15th century Mexico, schoolteacher Barbara is mistaken for the reincarnation of the high priest Yetaxa and treated as a god, and she decides to try and save the Aztecs by attempting to stop their practice of human sacrifice. It’s a marvelous story, with Barbara struggling to try and fight the tide of history even as the Doctor tries to explain that her attempts are futile. “You can’t rewrite history! Not one line!” is a statement of the Doctor’s that quoted often, and it sums up the story well. “The Aztecs” is the rare script that 50 years later could be reused with no problem whatsoever.