The second month of my big Doctor Who re-watch is the Patrick Troughton era. Troughton had the unenviable task of taking over the show after William Hartnell was fired (and at which point the show’s producers came up with the idea of the Doctor being able to regenerate his body into a new form, although that exact phrase hadn’t been invented until a later era). Hartnell wasn’t the only thing being ditched by the producers, though. The new showrunners threw out the idea of the purely-historical story (after Troughton’s second story “The Highlanders” we wouldn’t see one again for another fifteen years), switching to a popular “base under siege” format involving alien attacks.
Like Hartnell’s era, the three seasons of Troughton’s time on the show are rather incomplete in the BBC Archives due to an old policy of purging old television shows over time. Unlike Hartnell, Troughton’s era is missing far more (thanks to there being less countries overseas that had bought prints that would be recovered years later); no complete stories exist from Troughton’s first season, and only one (“The Tomb of the Cybermen”) exists from his second season. Watching the stories (and pieces of partially-recovered stories), it’s all the more a pity because there’s something about Troughton’s physical performance that can’t be quite captured via script or even audio recording. Watching him leap and jump about the screen, he’s a true performer who brought so much more to the role than he was ever asked. Most Doctor Who fans hold out hope for more stories of his being recovered; every new piece and fragment found is a virtual goldmine.
The oldest fully-complete Troughton story, which kicked off his second season. This story was originally one wiped from the archives entirely, and only returned to the BBC in late 1991. I remember watching it a year or two later, excited about seeing an previously missing story that was thought to be a masterpiece. Now that I’m rewatching it 20 years later? It doesn’t quite hold up. There are some good bits here and there. Having previously joined the Doctor and Jamie in the season finale, new companion Victoria gets some great scenes with the Doctor; they’ve got a lovely surrogate-father/daughter relationship right off the bat. On the other hand, she’s religated to damsel-in-distress more times than one can count. The bigger problem is the casual racism in this story, with the treatment of Toberman (the only non-white character). He’s every bad stereotype of the African character; the muscle-bound, brainless slave who lives to serve his masters. It’s honestly appalling. Once you skirt around this impossible-to-ignore problem it’s also just a so-so story; the idea of finding the last remnants of the evil Cybermen race and someone trying to resurrect them from their tombs is a great one, don’t get me wrong. But as soon as the secret trap of the Cybermen is revealed, it’s a story that falls apart once you try to apply logic. “The Tomb of the Cybermen” is one of those stories that works only until you start to think about it afterwards. There are (much) worse stories out there, but this is sadly not the masterpiece that my 19-year old self remembered.
When watching this story—the first of Troughton’s third and final season—I commented to Charlie that the real title was “Planet of the Idiots.” Infamously cut down from six to five episodes, it’s not hard to see why. It’s a story populated by stupid characters (on both sides), one that seems almost entirely designed just to introduce the Quarks, robot servants of the evil Dominators. The Quarks are at least visually cool, but they’re utter non-entities with no personalities, little more than tools. How they were supposed to be the next big thing is a bit of a mystery. The high point of “The Dominators” is ultimately how the two bad guys clearly loathe one another, and it’s their hatred that ultimately makes them lose. If they’d just cooperated instead of trying to one-up each other, they’d have killed everyone on this planet of stupid people (a bad parody of hippies) and moved on by episode 3. As slow as this story was, though, I had no idea of the slogs that were still ahead. This is the first full story that features Zoe, though, and she’s a delight; as a hyper-intelligent young woman from the future, she’s a real improvement over the damsel-in-distress that was Victoria.
One of the real high points of Troughton’s final season, easily, “The Mind Robber” is a lovely and slightly surreal story with the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe being trapped in a bizarre, different realm. In a plot where the characters struggle to keep from being turned into fictional characters, it’s hard to ignore the sly wink to the audience. Even ignoring that aspect, though, “The Mind Robber” is wonderfully odd. Where else can (in order to hide the fact that Frazer Hines had gotten sick) a story turn Jamie into a cardboard cut-out, then have him replaced by an entirely different actor for the week? It’s silly and funny and clever from start to finish. The less you know about this story in advance, the better. Check it out.
One of the longest stories in Doctor Who history (clocking in at 8 parts, although a longer one is just around the corner), “The Invasion” is actually missing two of its episodes (1 & 4). Thanks to the soundtrack still surviving, though, BBC Video ended up taking an interesting tactic: they animated those two missing parts. The animation isn’t great, but it’s a fun way to have a complete story for a DVD release, and turns lemons into lemonade. The story itself is great for about its first two-thirds, with a mysterious alien invasion being full of trickery and tension. It’s also one of the rare stories from this era to be set in the present day, giving it an extra punch. Unfortunately, it’s also a story where there aren’t eight episodes worth of material, and the last couple of parts feel extremely choppy. Strangely enough it veers between dragging and then leaving huge chunks of story out. Things start happening off-screen, and the climax of the story ends up involving characters just waiting around for missiles to strike and the like. “The Invasion” starts out great (and has such great Swinging Sixties moments like Zoe wearing a feather boa for several episodes, or introducing Isobel the photographer who keeps taking glamor shots of everyone), but it ultimately overstays its welcome.
Still, “The Invasion” ultimately acts as a template for what’s to come in the next year. It introduces the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) and brings back a character (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart) from the previous season to lead it. It’s a concept that would end up ruling the next three years of the show once Jon Pertwee took over, making this story somewhat crucial in the evolution of the show. But that will be explored further come March…
The best thing about “The Krotons,” by way of comparison, is that it’s blessedly only four episodes long; in fact, it’s the shortest story of the entire season. Long time and prolific writer Robert Holmes gets his start on Doctor Who here, and it’s a minor miracle he was ever asked back. The basic premise of the story—evil aliens enslaving a planet to sacrifice their brightest to them so their brainpower can be used to fuel the evil aliens—isn’t bad at all. But it’s a story with no memorable characters, and aside from the neat look of the Krotons themselves, it’s barely a blip on the radar. By this point, the high point is really watching the Doctor and Zoe interact; she has a great rapport with the Doctor. It’s not so much father/daughter (like we’d seen before with past companions) but almost teacher/pupil. Watching little moments like the Doctor trying to get a better score than Zoe did on the intelligence-measuring teaching machine are nothing short of hysterical; it’s a reminder of how much Troughton did to turn the most boring scripts into something watchable.
“The Seeds of Death” is another one of those stories where you get the sneaking suspicion that at six parts, it could’ve used a slight trim. It’s not bad, but it’s in many ways the epitome of the base-under-siege story format as the Ice Warriors return and take over a base on the Moon that controls all of the T-Mat teleportation system on Earth. The best thing about “The Seeds of Death” has got to be the strange decision to have Troughton start performing pratfalls in a huge sea of foam; I started expecting to hear the “Yakity Sax” music playing as he yelped, tripped, and floundered through what looked like a scene right out of I Love Lucy. Ultimately, the story’s a little dry, but once again Troughton’s a winner.
Remember how I said that “The Invasion” ran eight episodes? “The War Games,” closing out the season and the entire cast’s time on the series, clocks in at ten episodes. But here’s the crazy thing: there’s barely any padding at all. “The War Games” is most known for introducing the concept of the Time Lords (of which the Doctor is declared to be a member), and fan lore would tell you that until they appear in episode 9, it’s a skippable story. Fan lore doesn’t know what it’s talking about. I watched the first nine parts on a flight across the country, and I was actually irritated that we landed 40 minutes early and I didn’t get to finish it right then and there. It’s a great story about people being yanked out of their own time zones and forced to fight in never-ending wars by unknown manipulators; it’s remarkably engrossing right from the start.
“The War Games” has a tiny bit of fluff near the end, but it’s remarkably little; you can trim it down to eight episodes if you want, but I actually would say that it’s not worth doing so. What you end up with is a great fake-out, where it looks like another typical “this is how the Doctor saves the day” conclusion only to then have it go horribly wrong and a decision of last resort has to be used instead. “The War Games” is ultimately a great way to wind down the cast’s time on the show. It’s funny because before this re-watch I’d probably only seen episodes 1-2 and 9-10, but now I’d highly recommend this story to just about anyone. “The Mind Robber” is my favorite Troughton story, but this comes a close second.
Earlier I said that a bunch of the stories were missing. For some of them, however, a handful of episodes from the overall story remain. I was going to try and watch all the remaining episodes and pull a Troughton hat-trick, but alas, I ran out of time. (February is, after all, the shortest month, and work got particularly busy during the last week.) As for those I tackled? Well…
“The Underwater Menace” recently shifted from being 25% complete to 50% complete in the archives. It’s still a fairly rubbish story though, one that literally has a mad scientist who wants to blow up the planet. Aside from some nasty peril for the companions (Ben, Polly, and Jamie) it’s pretty unremarkable at best, and grimace-inducing at worst. “The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Web of Fear” I”ll lump together, though, since the second is a sequel to the first. Who knew that lumbering robotic Yetis and a disembodied voice could be so creepy? Unlike “The Underwater Menace” I was enthralled with each, despite that they’re both 6-part stories with only 1 part surviving for each. I’d love to see more of these stories found down the line.
And to the surviving episodes of “The Moonbase,” “The Faceless Ones,” “The Evil of the Daleks,” “The Ice Warriors,” “The Enemy of the World,” “The Wheel in Space,” and “The Space Pirates”… well, at least I’ve seen all of you (except for “The Ice Warriors”) before. I’ll try and squeeze in a re-watch of them sometime this year, but not for the official Troughton month, alas.
What’s next? An entirely new cast, crew, setting, structure… and a shift to being filmed in full color. See you in March!