When I was growing up most people’s opinions of Doctor Who were that it was all wobbly cardboard sets, monsters made of tinfoil, running up and down corridors and every alien planet was a Bedfordshire quarry. It was a bit rubbish in other words. Before the series came back in 2005 it was something of a joke. It was a quaint, fuzzy old fashioned sort of thing that you could laugh about. Whilst all those ideas have at least some basis in reality (some episodes do have naff sets, naff monsters, endless corridors and there were some alien planets that were just a quarry… The number wasn’t really that high actually- Around 28 stories contained somewhere that looked like quarry and at least four of those were actually supposed to be a quarry) they neglect the fact that Doctor Who was quite often a well thought out, imaginative, sometimes very well acted series that was very often ambitious and was, very occasionally, innovative as well. Sometimes it even looked good as well. It was, sometimes, spectacularly well written and this is evident even today.
The original series of Doctor Who had one hundred and fifty five stories, usually comprised of either four or six episodes but sometimes more and sometimes less (the actual episode total was six hundred and ninety four) and yes, it’s fair to say that a proportion of them were either average or astonishingly bad. But there are a good number of stories that really do stand out, that are as well written and as gripping as any blockbuster. Given the right budget some of them could well have been movie quality, could well have been on held up as shining examples of the cinematic art, even for the writing alone. For instance, there is Genesis Of The Daleks, in which the Time Lords task Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor with one mission: Avert the creation of the Daleks. Genesis is an epic story that explores themes of nuclear war, authoritarianism and the dangers of science going too far. It introduces Davros, the emaciated and psychotic creator of the Daleks (A character which would have benefited had he only ever appeared in this one story) and contains some of the finest television ever produced. The story reaches its apex as the Doctor prepares to destroy the Dalek incubation chamber at the start of the final part, gets ready to do the deed and then… He freezes, pondering if destroying the Daleks is the right thing to do, whether it is worth saving all their future victims or if by doing so he’ll be no better than his most hated foe. It’s a tense moment, even as written, but it is enhanced by Baker’s finest acting. There is a genuine fear in his eyes, sweat on his forehead, you can tell just by looking at him that this is the most difficult decision the Doctor has ever had to make. It’s an award worthy performance and only the highest high point of this epic saga, one that is only possible due to the superior quality of the writing.
Another remarkable one is the chilling Tomb Of The Cybermen in which the metal cyborgs are awakened from an icy slumber beneath the planet Telos. It is a tense, nervy, sci-fi horror, as cold as the planet under which the Cybermen sleep. We are lucky to have it at all as until 1992 no copy was thought to have survived the BBC’s infamous wiping policy. It is a story that stands up well in every aspect, especially in the writing. It also has the benefit of looking good, even at fifty years old. The black and white picture on the screen enhances the cold and tense atmosphere of the story. When watching, a person can’t help but be gripped by this claustrophobic horror story. There are only a few sets to it- the tombs, the outer planet and the control complex above, but that is all it needs. Despite there being moments where there’s a rest in the action, it never ceases to be gripping. It is a perfectly written story and needs no changes or improvements.
Another story that is just as good, again in a different way is Peter Davison’s swansong, The Caves of Androzani. Despite it being set mostly in a cave on one of those many alien quarry planets it is a really exciting story full of action, violence and excitement. The sad thing about this is that it could have been even better. David Bowie was asked to play the character of Sharaz Jek but although he showed interest he was unavailable. It was also offered to Tim Curry and Mick Jagger and one can only think of how this story would have been up their amongst the gods had any of them accepted. For another different kind of story, but equally compelling, there is City Of Death, which is heavier on the humour than most (it was written by Douglas Adams) but absolutely perfect in every detail. It’s supplemented by a gorgeous Parisian backdrop and whereas most sci fi shows would probably do something stupid with the Eiffel Tower, like have it turn out to be an alien missile or a rocket, here it is just the Eiffel Tower… It’s the Mona Lisa you have to worry about!
Admittedly Doctor Who had its naff stories as well. Take for instance The Web Planet, a story from the William Hartnell era. Despite it having everything thrown at the design work and the stylistic side of things it is very dull and without substance. This isn’t helped by the fact that the design work the production team put all their heart and soul into hasn’t aged very well at all. The Leisure Hive from Tom Baker’s final year is another example along similar lines and thanks to the fact that this was one done in colour it has aged even worse than Web Planet. It also has the distinction of making no sense whatsoever. At the very start K9, a supposedly advanced piece of technology, manages to destroy himself by rolling into the sea. His sensors would surely tell him to stay clear, no? And whereas some stories can look terrible and be good (such as The Green Death) equally some can look good and be terrible. These are rare but the one that springs to my mind is The Mark Of The Rani from Colin Baker’s time. The more historical set tales, such as this, always tend to stand up better than the futuristic ones and in design terms that’s more than true here. It has some good points (there’s some good characterisation in there) the script is like something from a ‘tv for schools’ show and that brings the whole lot down. And of course, there are some stories that are let down by both bad writing and bad design work. The Creature From The Pit is one example and the creature’s phallic looking appendage isn’t helped by what Tom Baker does with it.
But despite these notable fluffers there was still a large proportion of Doctor Who that was well written and was almost movie quality. To go back to Tom Baker’s speech in Genesis- Had that been a part of a movie, had that been filmed on a cinematic set with a cinematic budget this would surely have been labelled as one of the greatest movie moments of all time. Even with an actor other than Tom Baker it would have been a really effecting moment. Tom Baker does it brilliantly but imagine it with someone like Oliver Reed or Sean Connery. It would have been amazing. Androzani would be a cult classic and probably would have been a Bowie movie. It would be mentioned in the same breath as Labyrinth. The fact that these stories, and others, could so easily be movies and given the budget would have been just as good if not better, is a testament to the people who wrote those episodes. Although some writers quite obviously tossed out their scripts just for the money, some of them put a lot of hard work and effort into what they were writing. They thought about the story, the plot and the characters. This, frequently, comes across on screen and those efforts still shine through and in some cases even manage to outdo a fair amount of modern television.
Some of the writing and some of the ideas used were also incredibly innovative, though these days we may not see them as such because we are so used to them. One such innovation was arc storytelling- some kind of thread linking separate stories/episodes together which eventually culminates in some sort of major payoff or plays into the plot in a significant way. Nowadays every series has some kind of arc, Doctor Who especially, but back then such a thing was almost unheard of. Usually if there was any kind of arc at all it either formed part of the main plot of a series or was just something that formed part of the background and had little in the way of significance. In Doctor Who this is exemplified very early on in the series by the characters of Ian and Barbara. In the first episode these two schoolteachers barge their way into the TARDIS and quickly find themselves wandering around a prehistoric landscape. For the next two years the Doctor tries and continually fails to get them back to their own time. It becomes the main driving force of the series. The Doctor, at this stage, is not travelling time and space because he wants to but because he is trying to these people back home. Ultimately, however, this arc does not have any major payoff of which to speak. In The Chase Ian and Barbara use a Dalek timeship to return home, the Doctor having failed to get them there (as Ian helpfully points out.) Rather than having any payoff this is really just an ending, a conclusion. It is the conclusion of Ian and Barbara’s story and that is all. The only way this moment has any long lasting significance is in the character of Hartnell’s Doctor and as a demonstration of how much he has changed. In the beginning he was reluctant to have these two interlopers in his ship but now he really doesn’t want them to go, partly because it is dangerous for them to do so but also because he likes having them around. It is only with the gentle persuasion of Vicki, another of his companions, that he agrees to let them go, although he definitely isn’t happy about it.
Another similar sort of thing, a driving force of the plot rather than anything significant, comes with the start of John Pertwee’s era. At the end of The War Games the Doctor (then Patrick Troughton) is exiled to earth and forced to regenerate by the Time Lords for the crime of interference and this then leads to him working with UNIT, which forms the basis for the next few series. His attempts to escape his exile feature in varying degrees. In some stories it is merely an attempt to fix his TARDIS but in others, such as Inferno, it plays an important role in the plot. In Inferno it is an escape attempt which leads him to a parallel world and the knowledge he gains there is what ultimately saves the day. Again, there is no significant pay off to this thread. It merely ends, and this time with even less fanfare or significance than with Ian and Barbara. The Time Lords, at the end of The Three Doctors simply lift the exile, though the Doctor continues to work with UNIT until after he regenerates into Tom Baker.
Gradually as the series progresses these sort of plot drivers take on more and more significance and eventually do start having payoffs that resemble the arcs we know today. The first of what we might call a proper ‘arc’ comes after the exile is lifted. It is a subtle arc for the most part, playing out largely in the background and practically unnoticeable until the very end when its greater significance is revealed. This involves the planet Metebelis III and at first the Doctor is only attempting to reach it and eventually in The Green Death, when he has something better that he ought to be doing, he insists on hardwiring the TARDIS to get him there. It’s a disaster and all he ends up with is a blue crystal that later proves useful in de-hypnotising UNIT soldier Mike Yates. Everything then comes back to haunt Pertwee’s Doctor in his final story, Planet Of The Spiders. This is the real payoff, the first proper payoff to any long running theme or arc in the show’s history. It actually has a significance. The Doctor’s previous visit to Metebelis III and his taking of the crystal is what sets the whole story in motion. The spiders of the title come from the aforementioned Metebelis and they want their crystal back so as to increase the psychic power of the spider queen, who has been gathering crystals in order to enhance her abilities. The only way, it turns out, to save the day is for the Doctor to return the crystal but this also means sacrificing himself in the process. The whole Metabelis arc is crucial to the fate and the downfall of the third Doctor. His determination to get there is what leads him to the crystal and the crystal is what ultimately seals his doom and causes his regeneration.
A slightly less subtle arc features in the next series, Tom Baker’s first, and runs throughout though this, ultimately, is again more of a story thread and has little in the way of significant payoff. The arc is a series of stories which focus around something called the Nerva Beacon, a space station where humans have been cryogenically frozen. But besides the stories running concurrently (two of them taking place on the Beacon, one on the deserted Earth below and the other (which is Genesis) on Skaro, the stories have very little to do with one another. We actually have to wait some years for any kind of proper arc to appear again and this occurs in the series commonly referred to as ‘The Key To Time.’ Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor is assigned a quest by the White Guardian of time to locate the six fragments of the key to time before the evil Black Guardian and thus restore balance to the cosmos. All of the next six stories are then linked by the quest. It is again, however, more of a driving force for most of the series but it does have something of a payoff. The Doctor is able to gather the pieces together but as he does so old Black manages to catch up with him. The Doctor destroys the device holding the key together and again scatters the pieces and the Guardian vows to destroy him before the Doctor is able to escape. It is a very quick payoff, granted, but it is still one that has some significance for as well as bringing the quest to a close it sets up a new enmity for the Doctor and a new threat, although sadly the threat and the enmity are mostly forgotten by the start of the next series.
Over the years that follow we start to see more and more of these arcs forming, all of which have some sort of payoff, though mostly none that have any lasting significance. These include the E-Space trilogy where Tom Baker’s Doctor attempts to find his way back to our own universe, the end of Tom Baker’s run and the start of Peter Davison’s which is also a loose trilogy of stories centred around the return of the Master (and Tom Baker’s final story also links back to E-Space,) the Fifth Doctor spending his first series trying to get air stewardess Tegan Jovanka to Heathrow airport (culminating in an episode involving Heathrow airport and a time travelling Concorde) before we move on to the only (so far) attempt by the Black Guardian to destroy the Doctor which is again, a trilogy.
Where these really take off, however, is with ‘The Trial Of A Time Lord‘ and the ‘Ace Arc.’ Trial, like with the Key to Time, is a whole series of interlinked stories though the thread between them is no longer a driving force but a framing device, namely the Doctor on trial. This is presented by having the stories being shown as evidence in the trial and there are frequent back and forths between the story at hand and the courtroom. At first the stories don’t seem to have any connection barring the framing device but as the series goes on we gradually see what is happening. The trial is all a sham to cover up the fact that the Doctor stumbles upon a Time Lord conspiracy in the first story and everything has been rigged and tampered with by the chief prosecutor, the Valeyard in an attempt to take the Doctor’s regenerations. The last story of the series provides the climax, the payoff, though it is one that is sadly let down by a botch caused by behind the scenes production problems. This story is a final battle between the Doctor and the Valeyard and wraps up, in some way, most of what has come before. Like arcs do today, this finale pulls tight the threads that have linked the previous stories and shows its overall significance.
Finally we have the ‘Ace Arc,’ which is done so subtly and with such precision that you hardly even know that it’s there until almost the final moment. Only when you go back and look at previous episodes do you realize that it is even there. Instead of, like all of the other arcs, this being focused on some sort of macguffin or plot device it was more centred around character, specifically the character of Ace. In The Curse Of Fenric it transpires that throughout her time in the TARDIS the Doctor has known all along that she was a pawn being used by evil entity Fenric. It turns out to have been Fenric that placed Ace in the Doctors path, creating the time storm that lands her on the planet Iceworld in Dragonfire and we discover that Fenric was lurking behind the scenes in another story, Silver Nemesis. What makes things more complicated is that the Doctor has been stealthily moulding and manipulating her, making her face her fears and the demons of her past, for instance her fear of clowns in The Greatest Show In The Galaxy or the time she firebombed a creepy old mansion in Ghost Light. The twist comes in that this story she inadvertently creates her own future and thus all the demons which the Doctor has had her face. This whole arc is essentially all about character development, about Ace going from a stroppy, displaced in time waitress to a mature and responsible young woman.
For Doctor Who as a whole this is something of a pivotal moment. Whilst characters and their relationships to each other had developed beforehand, the First Doctor’s mellowing from irascible grump to someone much kinder for example, it had never before developed any character to the same extent as with Ace. The fact that her development also ties into the overall plot of the series is also something quite remarkable, especially for the time. Back then this sort of thing was practically unheard of on television, except for in serializations and soaps. Take for example the original Star Trek. The main characters hardly change from one end of the series to the other- Spock is always cold and logical, Kirk arrogant, swaggering and sure of himself and McCoy getting his goat ticked off by everything. The things that happen to them have little to no long lasting impact and this was true of most television up until quite recently. You could watch one episode and go on holiday for a month, come back and everything would be the same. You didn’t need to have seen the episodes in between to know what was going on. You could jump on anywhere. With Doctor Who we can see this starting to change, with the threads holding the series together and various arcs and subplots taking more and more significance as time went on. Doctor Who, in a sense, pioneered the sort of arc based, character driven story telling that we see on television today.
Whilst speaking of character, it is important to note that throughout the whole run this was something that Doctor Who did incredibly well, especially with some of those that only appeared in one story. On television it takes both good writing and good actors to create a good character. You need to first to attract the latter and the fact that Doctor Who was able to do this on a regular basis shows how good the writing was in the first place. Notable near misses include the above mentioned David Bowie but Lawrence Olivier also once very nearly made a guest appearance- He declined in the end because the only role left for that series wasn’t a very good one. As for the people who did make it in, even in stories that weren’t that great, there were quite a lot of recognisable faces, not necessarily people who were great actors but faces that were either really well known or high profile. These include (deep breath) Game Of Thrones‘s Maester Pycelle and one time Bond villain Julian Glover (twice), Carry On stalwart Peter Butterworth (twice as the same character), Hammer Horror and 90’s Alfred Pennyworth actor Michael Gough (twice), Gail from Coronation Street, Fred Elliot from Coronation street, Mr Rumbold from Are You Being Served, Gruber from Allo Allo, Edith from Allo, Allo (at least twice) Bert Kwouk, Likely Lad Rodney Bewes, Dambusters star Richard Todd, Honour Blackman, Joan Sims, Philip ‘your name will also go on the list’ Madoc (several times) Richard Briers, Martin Clunes, Patricia Quinn (Rocky Horror’s Magenta,) John Cleese, John Challis (better known as Boycie from Only Fools and Horses) Nicholas Parsons (as a vicar,) Ken Dodd, Geoffrey from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Brian Blessed running around doing what Brian Blessed does best, Zippy from Rainbow (Roy Skelton) was a principle Dalek voice and you might not realize it but Davros (Terry Molloy) is a regular in radio soap The Archers. I could go on forever and there were so many more people who were famous or well known at the time but have been mostly forgotten about now. Every story had at least one well known/recognisable actor in it to the audience of the time. All the time as well, you can be watching something and someone will pop up and you think ‘hang about, he/she was in Doctor Who!’
The characters of Doctor Who, especially the ones in the better stories, sometimes just stick in the memory. Jago and Litefoot from The Talons Of Weng Chiang are a good example of this sort of character, as is the military group from Remembrance of the Daleks. It is worth noting that these characters have even had their own spin off but they are not the only ones to stand out. The previously mentioned Curse Of Fenric features an unexpectedly stunning performance by the above mentioned Nicholas Parsons as Reverend Wainwright, a man conflicted by his loss of faith. From the same story we have the paranoid Commander Millington, Russian commando Captain Sorin, crippled Turingesque scientist Dr Judson (another fantastic performance by a man called Dinsdale Landen) and old spinster Miss Hardaker whose strict Christian morals warrant her a gruesome death. John Cleese may not be on screen for very long in City Of Death but it’s a moment that you’ll never forget. In Inferno you have a whole parallel world where we not only see different versions of the regular characters (which are themselves very well written) but even the guest cast are fleshed out and duplicated tremendously well. They stand out as individuals- the insane professor Stahlman and his loyal assistant Petra Williams, conflicted by her duty doing the right thing, for example. On each of the worlds they might look the same and have the same names but they all feel like different characters. You can’t help but squirm at the start of part seven when you realize what has just happened to them all. Petra’s burgeoning romance with Greg Sutton, played out with subtlety across two worlds, is also very effective in terms of the characters. Meanwhile Graham Crowden’s Soldeed (The Horns of Nimon) is memorable for all the wrong reasons. It is the mark of a good character that they stick in the memory and Doctor Who has an awful lot of them, often many times in the same story. The best ones, even though they were never anything more than one off side characters, had depth. They were rounded and you are forced to care about them. Their presence (and the fact that many were well performed) shows how good the writing of the show was, how talented some of the writers were despite often being no more than jobbing television script writers.
I can not of course leave out the regular cast from the issue of characterisation. Having such a large regular/reccuring cast overall (depending on who you include, by my reckoning that is 33 characters played by 50 people, counted as any character appearing in more than two stories, even if a particular actor/actress only played the character once) there is enormous variation. It’s fair to say that some of them were misfires- Adric was not only poorly acted but also a poorly written character in general. He was supposed to be some kind of mathematics genius but he comes across as a precocious teenage irritant, Doctor Who’s answer to Wesley Crusher in other words. The saving grace is that goes out in a ball of flames, literally, as the spaceship he is on crashes into earth and wipes out the dinosaurs. Bonnie Langford as Mel was another absolute misfire, as was the character of Dodo early on in the series. Dodo was especially vapid. But then you have the likes of Jamie, played by Frazer Hines, whose rapport with Patrick Troughton’s Doctor is spot on. They’re best mates bumming around the universe together and that comes across on screen. You can feel the chemistry, which is down to both the actors the excellent quality of the writing as well. Sarah Jane too, who returned in the modern era, is rightly regarded as one of the best, a strong female character but certainly not a badass in the way that some people interpret the term. Like with Jamie and Troughton she had brilliant chemistry with her Doctors and this was reflected in the scripts, which at this time were at the height of their quality. These were well thought out, well developed characters to begin with and they could so easily have been botched, look at Adric for example, but the writing and the writers and the actors did them a great deal of justice. They made you like them not just as characters but as real people.
There are instances in Doctor Who which can quite rightly be seen as the high water mark of television writing. Yes, there are bad bits, some poor design work but when the writers of Doctor Who got things right they really did get them right, whether that was with the stories or the characters or sometimes even both. Even today there are people who will tell you that the original series was a bit rubbish and it never gets the same love or affection as the modern series. The idea that it was all dodgy sets and corridors and quarries in Bedfordshire still lingers, because in the very worst cases those things are to some extent sadly true. But, as I have shown, a lot of the writing was top notch, sometimes pioneering and innovative, and for that the original series deserves far more credit than it sometimes gets.