The grand start to Doctor Who viewings in the 50th birthday ‘Month of the Doctor’. This first arc finds the original Doctor in full swing, fighting off Daleks and time itself.
#1: The Space Museum and The Chase.
THIS SCHEDULE WILL DEFINITELY GO TIMEY-WIMEY, BUT IT HAS TO START WITH THE ORIGINAL.
The young, the grumpiest… The First Doctor. Hmm?
This choice of adventures isn’t all about beginnings though. Coming well into the Hartnell era, they also bring a significant ending as well. In November 1963, An Unearthly Child began with teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright conscientiously pursuing their mysterious student Susan Foreman through the London fog to 76 Totter’s Lane. It was a precipitous mission and one that ultimately landed them – after two years of concussions, gas and radiation poisoning – in the London of 1965. At the beginning, in that totter’s yard, the two teachers were the hook that the show was built around. They were the audience’s eyes, discovering the mysterious Doctor and learning more about his enigmatic grand-daughter. It was a trick so good that it would be repeated again in 2005 when the series regenerated and once more when the show spun into Torchwood.
The Space Museum (Season Two, 1965)
Recent ‘New Series’ stories have built-up the role of those two, ‘first’ companions in Who mythology. Some have developed that stumbling discovery by the accidental stowaways as the catalyst that creates the Doctor as we know him. They’re the two that make the crochety old exile get involved. If not, he would have presumably happily stayed in the East End, hoping that regeneration wouldn’t catch him in the chemists or at school parents’ day. As seen in the first episodes, at this point he’s a Time Lord who would rather run away from adventure than embrace them. It’s a powerful idea, that adds weight to that first adventure. While, as the Doctor mentions in The Space Museum, he’s already played spectator roles in the likes of James Watt discovering the power of steam he’s not the rampaging freedom fighter (and most dangerous man in the universe) that Steven Moffat would seek to take down a peg or two 50 years or so later.
That reading it pure retcon however. In the show, little is heard of them again after the Doctor grudgingly sees they’ve arrived safely through the Time Space Visualiser at the end of The Chase. The main exception is the strange reference in the Sarah Jane Adventure Death of the Doctor and the their implicit inclusion during the Tenth Doctor’s morbid coda.
They weren’t the first companions to leave the good ship TARDIS though. That sole privilege fell, oddly, to the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan earlier in Season Two. She was quickly replaced with Vicky a young character who can be kindly described as an extension of Susan’s character rather than a carbon copy. Of Ian and Barbara’s final two stories, it’s The Space Museum where Vicki comes into her own, although that tale is also generally considered one of the weakest stories of the show’s first two years. True, there are many problems with the four part serial, but it’s main and unavoidable trap is that it could never live up to the promise of its first part. Caught up in Script Editor Dennis Spooner’s plans to have thematic diversity between serials, it picked the short straw of hard science. The first part works wonderfully, sustained by the TARDIS crew alone, some great directorial flourishes, moments of great tension and that fantastic cliff-hanger – when the crew find their future selves boxed as exhibits in the titular Space Museum. But the pace was always going to alter when the time travellers are caught up by time in part two. Perhaps the strangest thing is that the blatant science plot of part one is replaced by comedy.
I don’t think the fault quite lies in the fact that an essentially comedic story was taken far too seriously by cast and crew. There are strange truisms that appear comedic, but many factors are highlighted in retrospect. The rather pathetic aggressors who’ve invaded the planet seemingly only to build a staid and empty museum to their own achievements – with no curators, but guards and a governor – are indeed proto-Douglas Adams. but could they ever really be anything else? to this day, their equally ineffective opponents, the planet’s native Xenons, are some of the most pathetic rebels that the show’s seen. But while they’ve trapped in a stalemate of ineptitude, this miserable struggle provides Vicki with the bite she’s been waiting for. And then it’s not just Adams. In retrospect, it’s a bit like Rimmer taking charge of the WaxWorld allies in the Red Dwarf series four episode Meltdown…
The ending is the treat: a blunt example of the TARDIS crew finding that every road leads to Rome – or at least their eventual fate as Museum exhibits. However, those ‘paths’ are as typical in the context of the show as kidnapping, capturing and gassing. The most extraordinary thing is that the museum has no CCTV network. Perhaps the great Morok Empire, despite the frankly bizarre suggestion that they’ve defeated Daleks, just hadn’t got round to it yet. Despite the ineffectiveness of either party, or perhaps because of it, the ending is oddly satisfying as the Doctor’s content to point out.
A clear highlight of the serial is Hartnell himself who is clearly having a grand old time. On many occasions, he’s merrily chuckling away, but that may be the pre-and post- effect of the holiday that took him away from episode three. Here his Doctor is particularly mercurial and wonderfully eccentric. Fascinated by the smaller things, finding it far to amusing that he turns a Dalek into a hiding place – his behaviour adds immensely to a finale in which he plays a very minor role. Though we may later find him to be a Time Lord, The Space Museum establishes the master.
The Chase (Season Two, 1965)
The following story does what it says on the tin-Dalek. Again, The Chase, is not the best regarded Hartnell tale. The third major Dalek serial, it’s inevitably going to look weak against its definitive predecessors. It would have been impressive had it had the same strength, especially considering that it was a rather last minute commission from Dalek creator Terry Nation. The fact that The Chase emerged close to the first colour Dalek film and never quite made it as the adapted second sequel in that series doesn’t help.
The main problem here isn’t the ambitious set-up, but the complete lack of plot. As established at the end of The Space Museum, The Daleks have been rather irritated by the Doctor. By this point, they’ve perfected time travel (they move quickly, these Daleks, but more on that later) and set off on an assassination mission through, as they say, “infinity”. But after an auspicious start on the sandy, twin-sun scorched planet of Aridius – and the inevitable shot of a Dalek rising from the sand – the Dalek’s mission appears slightly flawed. Once they’ve found that they can’t destroy the TARDIS, their pursuit is directionless. They resort to a rather unconvincing attempt to duplicate the Doctor as their numbers are slowly whittled down by a dodgy Earth galleon construction and Frankenstein’s Monster among other things.
The Chase‘s plot is necessarily episodic, more so than a usual story. In the middle, the similarly framed joke reveal of The Mary Celeste and the Haunted House attraction in successive episodes don’t help the repetition. Model work is excellent though, not least in the final two episodes when the the two parties find themselves on the jungle planet of Mechanus.
Housed in their impressive city, the Mechanoids are a misstep. The idea lurking behind their bulbous design and slightly too daft-voice is still good on paper – human designed terra-forming weapons. But that fascinating edge is removed by the metal versus metal scrap at the end. It’s o surprise that they never made a return appearance, foot noted as proof that Dalek-lightning doesn’t strike twice.
At points, The Chase seems even more of a parody of typical Doctor Who than The Space Museum. The haunted house setting, where the set-up isn’t revealed to the travellers (nor the rather optimistic 1996 entrance price of $10) is a particularly noticeable twist on a traditional Who adventure. Having previously penned The Keys of Marinus, the first of the Doctor’s ‘travelling serials’, here writer Terry Nation is simply repeating the trick by combining it with his pepper-pot creations. Nation tropes abound, especially the unfortunate inhabitants of Aridius and their Mire Beast enemies. The Mechanoid planet, with its dangerous moving fungus and gleaming city twists the concept of the original Dalek tale itself. Terry Nation was a master of filler when required, if not quite of pace.
There’s quite a few precursors to later and even New Who here, some vaguer than others. Of course, the legacy of the structure is most felt in the The Dalek’s Masterplan, the Fourth Doctor’s search for the Key to Time and then 2007’s The Infinite Quest. In the course of this chase however, the Doctor is strangely open to the concept that they’ve left space to enter the human mind in the TARDIS when confronted with a house of nightmares – a theme that would return again and again The Empire State Building foreshadows the plans the Daleks would earlier/later have for that skyscraper in Daleks in Manhattan. Season Eight’s Hide necessarily picks up up its cues from the Haunted House, while Season Six’s Curse of the Black Spot would take the Doctor back to a galleon setting and prove just as inexplicable (editing can take the blame there). Some of these are a stretch, with The Chase coming as it did just two years into a now 50 year career. But, the third Dalek serial was always going to be important. Just imagine the kids who were excited when they saw that Dalek prop in The Space Museum. Then imagine how excited they were during this six part adventure…
Special mention must go to the Time Space Visualiser. Nicely picked up from the previous adventure’s museum, it allows a light filler-filled episode one that guest stars the Doctor’s future complication, Queen Bess – along with petrified Shakespeare – Abraham Lincoln and of course, The Beatles. “Now you’ve squashed my favourite Beatles” the Doctor quips. Badly. After they’ve regaled him with Ticket to Ride.
This adventure is a fine example of the early Dalek era, but its chronology may not be as clear cut as it seems. Again, hindsight plays a large part. As the Daleks say, their rather sudden revenge is triggered by the Doctor delaying their invasion of Earth, but is that the invasion seen earlier that year? Some Dalek chronology puts the story after the Third Doctor tale Day of the Daleks, with a more compelling rationale. By that time the Daleks would not only have been thwarted in their invasion of Earth twice (the second time by a Doctor they didn’t quite recognise at first) but also have developed more established time capability. Certainly, the Dalek’s development of time travel, dimensional engineering (seemingly lost by New Who) and a new mobility without external power packs makes it a better chronological fit. Crucially, it still complies with the Pre-Davros ‘first history of the Daleks’.
A final word on the sulky Doctor who reluctantly sees his companions off at the end of The Chase. “I shall miss them” he says at last. Whether the Doctor as we know him was created by Ian and Barbara’s accidental intervention is open to speculation. But it is fair to say that they gave him a push in the right direction.
While both The Space Museum and The Chase show signs that the show was becoming aware of itself just three seasons in, the show’s legacy was assured by the time his first companions had all left that battered blue police box.