A Modern Woman’s Guide to Classic Who: THE FIRST DOCTOR YEARS (1963-1966)December 26th, 2010 at 10:27
Summary: originally designed as a children’s show, the Classic Doctor Who format at this time was half hour episodes making up whole stories of 2, 4, 6 (and occasionally, gulp, 12) episodes, though the stories themselves only got individual names towards the end of the First Doctor’s run – most story titles were decided on later by fans, TV historians, DVD releasers etc.
The Doctor and his companions generally alternated between historical and SF stories, with very few set in contemporary times. Unlike these days, the historicals were usually “pure” in that the stories involved no alien or science fictional element, other than the fact that the main characters are time travellers and have perspectives from other times.
Many episodes and whole stories from these years were destroyed by the BBC (well technically all of them were, but many were saved or recovered) which means sadly that some of the best stories are no longer available to view. Hardcore fans can revisit them through audio recordings, or the good old Target Book novelisations, which are no longer in print but have a thriving existence in the second hand book market (and, more recently, have been made available from the BBC as audio books).
At this stage in Classic Who history, the TARDIS cannot be controlled by the Doctor, which means that any time he leaves a particular place and time, they are in the hands of fate. This gives extra tension to the companion journey, as in many cases they have no way of knowing if and when they can ever return home. Several companion leaving stories thus comprise either of accidentally landing within a year or two of their point of origin and jumping off the bus while they have the chance, or picking the first random planet that seems to have something to offer.
The Companions: The classic group which kicks off the show consists of the Doctor: an elderly grump of an alien, his mysterious teenage granddaughter Susan, and two of her teachers (Barbara – history, Ian – science) whom they “accidentally” kidnapped. The relationships between these four are very nicely developed: the teachers are often in conflict with the Doctor, but care very much about Susan, and try to back each other up where possible.
Susan (Carole Ann Ford), though retrospectively interesting to fans because we’re fairly sure she must be a Time Lady (nothing was known to the audience about the Doctor’s background at this time) gets very little to do in order to show off how special she is, beyond the very first episode. Partly this is because she takes the “damsel” role in most stories, though her knowledge of other times and places can be quite useful. She is the template for the Doctor Who companion whose potential is under-utilised in favour of lots of screaming and running – though to be fair there are fewer of these than people think. Susan’s best story is her last one, The Dalek Invasion of Earth, in which she is separated from the others and gets a whole subplot to herself, including a decent romance.
Ian (William Russell) is (VERY LOOSELY) the prototype for Captain Jack: the active Heroic Bloke character who is willing to do the thumping-when-necessary part that the Doctor is too Doctorish to bother with. He is quite stuffy and old-fashioned (even for the 60’s) and regularly tries to protect Barbara and Susan, when not stealing Barbara’s cardigans to defeat Daleks and other menaces. His best stories are The Daleks (can’t bring myself to call it The Mutants, sorry), The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Chase. I however love him most in The Romans, because it’s a fun blend of comedy and action for him
Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) gets a far more interesting narrative than Ian, probably because the younger male lead would be expected to be all heroic etc. whereas she often acts beyond expectations of a demure 1960’s school teacher. Thanks largely to Susan taking on many of the damsel duties, Barbara gets many opportunities to be independent, capable and to take command of the story. She is at her most interesting in The Aztecs, where she is mistaken for a goddess and decides to use her powers to try to change the bloodthirsty nature of the society they are visiting, though the Doctor warns her that changing history is impossible.
Susan is later replaced by Vicki (Maureen O’Brien), a space urchin who fulfils exactly the same role in the narrative that the Doctor’s granddaughter did. She forms a rather nice relationship with the Doctor, bringing out his fun side in stories like The Romans and The Chase. The Rescue, a two-parter which introduces the character, is really only of interest to Vicki fans: The Romans, The Chase or The Time Meddler would be of more value. Sadly my favourite Vicki story, The Myth Makers, in which she visits Troy and becomes part of the narrative as Cressida, no longer exists. The Target novelisation is a doozy, though, as the writer had the balls to make HOMER its apparent narrator. Yes, really.
After Barbara and Ian left, Vicki was “promoted” to female lead, and the standard combination from then on (with a few notable exceptions and overlaps) was to have one male and one female companion alongside the Doctor instead of a “family’ group.
Steven Taylor (Peter Purves) was the Heroic Bloke replacement for Ian, and is another character whose potential was not quite realised – as a spaceman from the future, he had a lot more to offer the stories than he was allowed. His sudden appearance at the end of The Chase is all crunchy and promising: he was a prisoner of Mechanoids for many years, clinging to a soft toy for comfort and the last of his sanity, and the TARDIS is his only lifeline out. It is a fantastic launch for a character, but there was little follow through. It doesn’t help that several of his best stories no longer exist: to anyone desperate to know anything about him as a companion I’d say go straight to the audio version of The Dalek’s Masterplan, which is really excellent (also The Reign of Terror). The Time Meddler and The Ark are rather good examples of existing TV stories with Steven action.
Katarina (Adrienne Hill) is a weird anomaly, a companion who did not appear in any full stories, and whose few episodes (I think she appeared in three or four?) no longer exist in the archives. A priestess from Troy who seemed to be grabbed at random by the Doctor five minutes after leaving Vicki behind, she was written out speedily because the writers regretted introducing her in the first place, figuring that a character from the past would make a lousy companion. (they were wrong, as Jamie McCrimmon showed later in the 1960’s) I always assumed Katarina was boring and miserable but actually having listened to The Dalek’s Masterplan, she was quite good for the brief period she was there, and died valiantly, blasting herself out of an airlock to save Bret and the Doctor.
Replacing Katarina a little while later was the extraordinary Sara Kingdom. I was always predisposed to like this character, as she was played by the awesome Jean Marsh, and the picture in my Doctor Who book had her pointing a gun and looking all tough, something rarely allowed to a companion. But only this year when I listened to The Dalek’s Masterplan for the first time (did I mention: AWESOME) did I realise how good she was. Sara gets a far better through-narrative than most companions. When we first meet her, it is as a tough soldier belonging to a corrupt organisation: someone so loyal to her government that she shoots her own brother dead when she believes him to be a traitor. The Doctor and Steven, however, cause Sara to question her own beliefs, and she has to choose between what she has always believed in, and the cause of honour and freedom. It’s a path very similar to that followed by Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black) in Farscape, nearly 40 years later. Something I particularly liked is the way that Steven, far from pulling an Ian-like “let’s look after the laydeez, shall we” act on Sara, treats her entirely like an equal. There are several moments where he defers to her, or has an opportunity to patronise her but doesn’t. It was one of the only times when I thought the script credibly conveyed that he was from the future.
(Jean Marsh, incidentally, does not consider Sara to have been a companion, as she was never hired for that role, but Sara is generally considered a “canon” companion by most fans]
Dodo Chaplet (Jackie Lane): ah, poor Dodo. The companion most likely to end up at the bottom of a favourite companions list, because no one can remember which one she was. If there was a list of companions treated most badly by the production, she would take the crown from Katarina: Dodo was never allowed to shine, lurches from a cockney accent to a received English one depending on what the producers had decreed that week, and is written out finally, halfway through a story, offscreen. Still, she is in The Ark which is an excellent SF story, and while she contributes very little to The War Machines, her final story, it is a very good one.
Ben and Polly (Michael Craze and Anneke Wills): the first companions until Sarah Jane (& the Brigadier) to help a Doctor transition between regenerations, these two were my favourite black and white companions for many years, even when I had never seen them in anything. Their opening story, The War Machines, is a very cute robots and aliens piece which has the benefit of being set in a far more swinging version of the sixties than ever seen before (or possibly since) in Doctor Who. Polly is the posh dolly bird secretary to an evil overlord; Ben is the Cockney sailor in the wrong place at the wrong time. Together: THEY FIGHT CRIME. Sadly if you fall in love with them in the War Machines there isn’t much material left to enjoy: and most of it is Second Doctor stuff, so I will leave it at that for now.
Feminist Heroes: Barbara Wright and Sara Kingdom.
Heroic Blokes: Ian Chesterton, Steven Taylor, Ben Jackson
The Screamiest of Them All: Susan and Polly
Best Guests: Nicholas Courtney as Bret Vyon in The Dalek’s Masterplan, Peter Butterworth as the Meddling Monk in the Time Meddler
Best Stories You Can’t Watch: Did I mention The Dalek’s Masterplan? A truly epic space opera series with politics, fabulous planets, traitors and a lovely bit of time travel comedy stuck randomly in the middle. I also have a soft spot for The Myth Makers, AKA Doctor-Who-Does-Troy. Both are available as audio adventures, as are all missing stories. Perhaps the most lamented missing story is The Tenth Planet, which not only introduced the Cybermen, but also featured the first ever regeneration of the Doctor, but if I were you I’d skip that in favour of The Power of the Daleks, the Second Doctor’s debut…
Best Stories to Watch:
Titles: The Daleks (also known as The Mutants)  and The Dalek Invasion of Earth 
Featuring: First Doctor, Susan, Ian, Barbara, Daleks!
Why Watch: the introduction of the Daleks saved the show from early cancelation and ensured its continuance for many years – both of the first two Dalek serials still (mostly) hold up today for war-against-robotic-alien melodrama, creepy design and music, and interesting character moments. In some ways they are the Alien and Aliens of the Doctor Who franchise – The Daleks gave us battles and adventure on a distant planet, but The Dalek Invasion of Earth ramped up the stakes considerably, with an excellent and effective portrayal of a post-apocalyptic London.
Category: Good Old Fashioned Space Opera
For Extra Credit: follow it up with the two Glorious Technicolor movies starring Peter Cushing, which were adaptions of these serials. Compare and contrast! Marvel at the Daleks in colour! Blink in astonishment as Ian and Barbara are replaced by interchangeable comic slapstick actors and bombshells, respectively!
Titles: The Romans  and The Chase 
Featuring: The First Doctor, Ian, Barbara, Vicki, a hint of Steven, Romans, Daleks and Mechanoids!
Why Watch Them: Both stories are often maligned and sneered at by hardcore Doctor Who fans, but are dear favourites of mine because of the comedy and great character moments. The Romans shows the TARDIS crew on holiday for the first time, and manages to pack in just about every Ancient Roman story trope known to cinema. Ian and Barbara’s charm and ingenuity are shown off to great effect during their separation from the others, and William Hartnell’s First Doctor has never been as likeable as in this romp, alongside perky Vicki. The Chase, meanwhile, is based on the premise that the Daleks have built a time machine with which to pursue the Doctor and his crew through Time as well as Space. It flits from strange setting to strange setting, somehow managing to tell about eight different stories. It’s like the whole Hartnell era distilled into one chaotic patchwork of a story, and if you don’t take your Who too seriously, it makes for a very fun watch. Again, Ian and Barbara are shown to great effect here, their final story, and it is evident how much they have grown and learned as companions. I’m not saying both stories wouldn’t be best watched whilst drinking and giggling, but they are rather adorable.
Category: Romps (and in the case of The Romans, Historical too)
For Extra Credit: Develop your own drinking game while watching the Chase, and spot a future companion on top of the Empire State Building.
Title: The War Machines 
Featuring: The First Doctor, Ben, Polly, and I suppose you can count Dodo
Why Watch it: a fun, action-packed story which benefits from its datedness, showing a Swinging Sixties London under attack by War Machines and evil computers.
For Extra Credit: Read up on the history of the Post Office Tower, an iconic London landmark that Australians like me mostly recognise because of the giant kitten episode of The Goodies.
Honourable Mentions: Episode 1 of An Unearthly Child (introduces the first TARDIS crew beautifully, but I recommend avoid the three following eps which are full of BBC cavemen and rather dire), The Aztecs (for great Barbara-meets-history action: this one is recommended to Random Alex in particular!), the Time Meddler (we meet a fellow member of the Doctor’s race! lovely use of anachronisms and the effects of time travel), The Ark (an excellent piece of surprisingly hard science fiction which looks at the kind of effect the Doctor can have on the people he interferes with).