On Watching Classic ‘Doctor Who’

The Dalek Invasion of Earth (3)

Doctor Who‘s fiftieth anniversary is drawing closer, and so I have decided to catch up on the 26 seasons and TV movie that make up the world before the Ninth Doctor. I had always meant to do this, but I wanted to start from the very beginning, which is hard to do without spending a lot of money for the DVDs. But at last I was able to borrow/rent/beg for the episodes all the way back to season 1, and have begun my intense journey in the TARDIS.

So far I’ve got through talking about Susan Foreman’s tenure in the TARDIS. It seemed like a good stopping point in my binge, including the entire first season (minus missing serial Marco Polo), and the first two serials of the second season. Thematically, it also is a good swath of shows, not just because it’s all of Susan, but because the Doctor starts to become the Doctor we know and love, and a lot of that has to do with him shutting the TARDIS door in Susan’s face. 

Where we start with the Doctor can be jarring to a viewer who started with Eccleston, not just because the original show in black-and-white. William Hartnell’s Doctor is old, curmudgeon-y, and at times pretty clueless, as opposed to the young, charming, and nearly omnipotent Doctor I was used to. In the very first episode, after teachers Barbara and Ian force their way into the TARDIS, he outright kidnaps them so they won’t tell 1963 England about his time machine. He also doesn’t seem to know how to pilot the TARDIS very well (read: even less well than now) and embarks on a random journey with Susan, Barbara, and Ian with the pretense of trying to get Barbara and Ian home. It’s not adventure for the sake of adventure, and he’s not the great saver of worlds. As the group travels the Doctor helps people, sure, but it starts out only as a consequence of his own self-interest. Constantly they are separated from the TARDIS and the action of the plot is only driven by their desire to get back to it. He’s a lost man with a beat up car trying to get home, fixing a few flat tires along the way.

I think there were several turning points along the way that started to shape the Doctor into a more heroic figure. The first, of course, was the original appearance of the Daleks, in the second serial. Even though in that episode, the Doctor is still acting out of self-interest, the creation of an arch-nemesis for him allows him to be heroic later on. The second moment, which may seem minor, occurs in the partially missing serial “The Reign of Terror,” set in the most dangerous time of the French Revolution. The Doctor is separated from his companions and must attempt to rescue them, something he’s done before, but in order to do so he buys the regalia of a government official, which includes a many-feathered hat, and walks into a prison like he owns the place. That confidence and swagger (and inherent silliness) was something I identified with as being very Doctor-ish.

The most important moments, of course, came in Susan’s last serial, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” After landing in the 22nd Century and discovering the Daleks have become the totalitarian rulers of the planet, the Doctor isn’t just trying to get back to his ship anymore. When the Daleks say they are the masters of the Earth he replies, “Not for long.” And then with the help of his companions he blows the Daleks to pieces and returns the Earth to the humans. Only then does he leave.

But not before he leaves his granddaughter behind. Now the companion situation is odd in these first few serials. The Doctor, not as powerful as usual, often is playing second fiddle to the dashing Ian Chesterton, who knows a lot about combat for a high school science teacher. Barbara plays mother most of the time, taking care of many of the people they meet and constantly offering to cook (well, it was the 60s…). The Doctor’s role is often cerebral, needing to defend Ian from a murder charge on one alien planet or prove that someone was poisoning the water on another. This leaves Susan, despite being an alien like the Doctor with telepathic powers (the words “Time Lord” have yet to be spoken), with little to do except scream, cry, be kidnapped, and watch as the stronger characters save the day. She is often ill and often utterly useless, except maybe as a plot driver when she needs to be saved.

She is different from most other companions in that she is not the audience surrogate here. That’s Ian and Barbara. Susan is just as alien as the Doctor. She also has a long-standing relationship with the Doctor that is defined as familial, so the relationship doesn’t really change. The core principle is that they take care of each other, and that they don’t belong anywhere.

So when Susan finds a place where she can belong (otherwise known as a suitable husband, weren’t the 60s great?) the Doctor chooses to leave her behind instead of allowing her to make that choice herself. He literally slams the door in her face, locking her out of the TARDIS and promising to return some day (with the later Doctor’s reputation on that front, I’m going to say no, he’s not coming back for her).

It’s significant for a number of reasons. It’s the first casting change, of the many, many rotating companions and Doctors to come. It’s the first time the Doctor abandons a companion, which he’ll do many more times. Susan becomes the first in a long string of people left behind by the Doctor, some screwed up as he’ll say later, and some not. Although, it seems a little harsh to leave Susan on a war-torn Earth with a man she’s just met and only one shoe (her other broke and the Doctor took it inside the TARDIS to fix, and so when he leaves, she’s literally only got one shoe on). Well, I hear that there are a lot of job opportunities in the post-apocalypse.

But the Doctor’s moving on with one less companion, and possibly, a more heroic sensibility.

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