It’s possible you haven’t heard, but Doctor Who’s been around for 50 years. Yes, it was news to us, too. To commemorate, I’ve decided to embark on the epic and, frankly, foolhardy task of discussing each and every season of the show, dating all the way back to 1963, between now and the anniversary on November 23rd.
What will that look like, you quizzically ask whoever’s in earshot? An examination of each story per season (with an exception for the seasons that have been severely affected by junking, because I frankly haven’t listened to all of them and a few corners needed to be cut somewhere. Sorry, everybody) in the context of the season itself, a bit about the importance they have on the show as a whole, and any overarching themes that arise, which is harder to find in the early stuff. This might be awesome, or I might go insane in a couple months, but we’re going to go on this journey together. Geronimo!
So, let’s say you’re traveling through time and space in a blue police box that’s bigger on the inside with an alien who’s several hundred years old and turns into other people when he gets mortally wounded; how would you know about any of it? You’d have to be shown, or told, in some form of crash course, because Rassilon knows the Doctor’s not going to tell you himself. This series will give you a glimpse, if ever so brief, into the life of the Time Lord we all know and love. Every companion should get to read this before going off into danger and excitement. It’s a Companion’s Companion.
SEASON ONE – 1963-1964
It’s important to realize how utterly different the series was to anything on British television at the time when it premiered. Ostensibly a show for kids, it had to have a certain element of education to it, which is why the “historical” exists, wherein there’s nothing sci-fi about the story, save that our lead characters are time travelers. However, at least for the first several weeks, the stories were incredibly dark, much darker than you might expect for the time, and featured a central character who was neither trustworthy nor particularly likeable. During Season One, William Hartnell as the Doctor was certainly not the hero we now know him to be; in fact, it would take until about the end of the second season for him to emerge as that. His motives are shrouded, and his morality is spotty at best.
In the very first story, An Unearthly Child, we’re introduced to the characters who were truly the heroes for the bulk of the first two seasons, modern-day school teachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill). They enter the series being concerned about one of their students, Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford), the titular “Unearthly Child,” who is impossibly brilliant in some areas of science and history and laughably inept in others, like she’d never learned the basics. This leads the teachers to follow Susan home, which turns out to be a junkyard in which a blue police box sits, “alive,” as Ian rather rashly claims.
It’s not until a bit over halfway through the episode that we’re even introduced to the show’s title character, an unhelpful and belligerent old man who the teachers believe is holding the poor girl in the police box against her will. They received quite the shock when they entered to see what was inside. Like a shot, they (and the audience) are given nearly every piece of vital information that the program still employs: the machine is called the TARDIS (for Time And Relative Dimension In Space), it can travel anywhere in time and space, the Doctor and Susan are extraterrestrials, and they are running away from their homeworld. 50 years on and those are still the main things one needs to remember, and it’s those basics that have kept the series going despite the many, many changes in style, tone, budget, and cast.
That first episode is truly amazing, and it’s due to the strength of that episode that people kept watching through the next three, which brought the action to the dawn of Man on Earth. It’s easy to point at these episodes and say that they’re boring. On the outside, following the social politics of cavemen named “Za” and “Kal” as they struggle for dominance of the tribe and search for fire, is not the most engaging, but within these episodes we see a lot of growth and a tense dynamic forming between our four main characters. Ian steps up to be the man of action as well as the most reasonable; Barbara is the voice of right and wrong and is easily the best at problem-solving; Susan stands in for the young people watching and can be a very bright and capable character when given the chance in the script; and the Doctor, who is immediately alien to us is brilliant, no question, and cunning and manipulative, and out for himself above all. He’s at odds with Ian almost from the outset, and is even about to murder a wounded caveman with a rock rather than risk being caught trying to help him. He’s morally ambiguous, and the perceived question in the show’s title points to this inherent mystery: We do not know this man and yet we are forced to trust him because of the situation. While the caveman plot ends, the trouble between the “crew” certainly doesn’t.
Against the desires of show creator and head of programming at the BBC, Sydney Newman, the second story, the seven-parter by Terry Nation now known by the blanket title The Daleks, introduced a hostile alien race, encased in metal tank bodies rather than being guys in rubber suits. From ancient Earth, the travelers are taken to another, seemingly deserted planet (Skaro, we’ll find out) that has a massive wooded area surrounding a large, gutted city. Again, the Doctor’s selfishness puts everyone’s lives at risk. He claims the TARDIS needs mercury before they can leave, which gives them reason to check out the city and thus meet the Daleks, a horribly mutated race (here called the “Dals,” later retconned to “Kaleds”) that have fought for eons against the Thals, who are now peaceful and agrarian. This story has a lot of Nation’s trademark running-about-in-order-to-fill-time. An entire episode toward the end of the serial has the good guys spelunking across a studio-bound crevasse… one by one. In real time. But, what we do get are the most enduring villains in the show’s history.
The Daleks are terrifying, even if they are just trashcans on wheels with a whisk and a plunger. We see them as being full of hate, and more than willing to slaughter people who get in their way, which is everyone. There is a definite correlation between the Daleks and the Nazis, who were less than 20-years removed at this time. While that connection would be made even more clear in their next appearance, the “otherness” of the creatures and their fear and contempt for things “other” than themselves have made them an indelible part of Doctor Who. The Doctor is eventually able to outsmart them, if only to fight them another day.
After seven straight weeks of alien worlds and cities, the production needed to go on the cheap or risk not having a budget to move forward. It is from this very functional basis that Edge of Destruction was born. A two-episode story written by script editor David Whitaker, it takes place entirely in the TARDIS and entirely with the four main characters. It is in no way boring, however, and sets up a lot of the mythos surrounding the vehicle, namely that it is, as Ian claimed, alive, and, more than that, is a character unto itself. Attempting to warn the crew that something is wrong, it manipulates them into behaving hostilely towards each other and entirely out of character. What this does, above just having two cheap episodes, is force the unresolved tension between everyone, and specifically Ian and the Doctor, to get resolved. You can’t have your main characters hating each other forever, and this story in only two episodes gets everybody on the same page to a kind of understanding, as well as launch the TARDIS’ storied history of being unreliable but always trustworthy.
Following this began the “sci-fi one, historical one” pattern that would shape the rest of the season. Sadly missing from the archives, the seven-episode Marco Polo, written by John Lucarotti, was the first “celebrity historical” which featured a real figure from Earth’s past and not merely a time period. Sad to say, I haven’t listened to the extant audio of this story, but it’s held in incredibly high regard.
Terry Nation returned with a six-parter called The Keys of Marinus, which is very atypical of serials at the time in that each episode featured a different setting, problem, and solution in the characters’ overall search for the eponymous keys. The quest narrative is something that wouldn’t be used again until the late ‘70s. William Hartnell also takes a week off, meaning he’s gone for an episode to give the actor a break, which was a necessity of having 42 consecutive weeks of shows. However, when he returns for the culmination of the story, the Doctor steps up as the hero to defend Ian in a trial for his life. This is where we see that the Doctor is not just a scheming jerk, but that he is a good guy, even if still a grumpy one.
The crew returns to Earth for the next story, Lucarotti’s The Aztecs which is easily one of the best and most important stories in the First Doctor’s existence. Through happenstance and mistaken identity, Barbara is believed by the ancient Aztecs to be the reincarnation of the god Yetaxa, and soon tries to use her power to stop the custom of human sacrifice. The Doctor chides her, famously saying history cannot be changed, “not one line,” but the humanist Barbara still believes there’s a better way. Susan actually has quite a lot to do here, as she is being taught by an elder and tries to inject some feminism into ancient Aztec life. The Doctor finds a kindred spirit in the form of Cameca, an older Aztec woman to whom he is accidentally betrothed. This story brings in the question of whether or not, given the opportunity to change perceived atrocities in history, it should be done. Human sacrifice IS barbaric, but that’s to our modern sensibility. We also now know that killing people doesn’t affect the sun or the harvest or any of it, but it’s not up to us, even if taken back in time, to implant our own current practices onto those who can’t yet understand them. Again, I hasten to add, this is a show for CHILDREN tackling all of these issues.
We travel back to the future, and into outer space, for the next story, The Sensorites, which is pretty boring, but does feature some excellent character moments between the Doctor and Susan. Susan’s rarely written as well or as deeply as she is in this and “The Aztecs,” and it’s a shame that these were the exception and not the rule, as Carole Ann Ford is quite terrific if given more to do than scream and twist her ankle. The Sensorites themselves, much later retconned to be relatives of the Ood, are telepathic and empathic which Susan, who is also telepathic apparently, has trouble handling with her tiny Gallifreyan brain. We also get references to the Doctor and Susan’s homeworld, though still a decade away from being named.
The final story of the season is The Reign of Terror, a six-part story written by Dennis Spooner, who would go on to shake up the series a few times as a script editor the following year. This takes our heroes to the Doctor’s “favorite period of human history,” the French Revolution. Interesting that he loves it so much, given how bloody and violent it was to everyone involved. Early on, Ian, Barbara, and Susan are taken prisoner and sentenced to be executed by the Guillotine, and the Doctor, using a vast array of know-how and bluffing, pretends to be a Regional Officer to the Provinces to attempt to free his friends. He comes face-to-face with Robespierre himself and manages to give “The Tyrant of France” a piece of his mind. I really like this story, despite its length, because it essentially becomes a spy adventure, with no one ever who they seem to be and being forever thrown between who is or is not working on the side of the Revolution. There’s much plotting behind closed doors in earshot of people you probably oughtn’t trust, far from the ears of people you don’t trust but probably should. Again, questions of morality are raised, like, is there ever a right reason to kill someone, simply for having an opposing opinion to your own?
At the end of the story, when all is returned to normal, the Doctor, who was angry at the idea that Ian and Barbara would want to leave him, now has the understanding that their life is not for everyone, but that they need to make the most of it while they have it. After nearly a full year of programs, Doctor Who’s first season ends on a positive note, leading way for more adventures and many changes to come the following year.
Come back next week for more Daleks, a trip to Rome, a laugh at some Zarbi, and the first appearance of another TARDIS. We’ve only just begun!