Welcome to The Doctor Who Classics Guide! This is a special series that aims to take an objective look at each Classic Doctor Who story. If you’re new, please read the introduction first.
“It all started out as a mild curiosity in the junkyard, and now it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure.”
— The Doctor, The Sensorites
The early 1960s were a turbulent time for the BBC. What was once a comfortable television monopoly was now being terrorised by commercial competitor ABC (now ITV), and trusty, long-running shows were rapidly losing viewers. In order to combat this issue, the business undertook a total restructuring and overhauled their programming – a venture which created gaps in many timeslots that needed to be coloured with fresh, new ideas. One particular space on Saturday afternoon between Grandstand and Juke Box Jury needed to be filled with something appealing to children, teenagers and male and female adults alike, and Head of Drama Sydney Newman had an idea…
In essence, Doctor Who can’t be credited to a single creator. It could be said that Sydney Newman had the idea, C E Webber played a huge part in fleshing out the characters and overall details, Anthony Colburn set some of the specifics such as the TARDIS being in the shape of a police box and the first episode’s iconic lines of dialogue (“wanderers of the fourth dimension”, etc), and Verity Lambert carried the show through production when it was doomed to fall apart. But regardless of who was responsible, whatever that group of people did became a legacy that would last far longer than anyone imagined.
On the 23rd of November 1963 at 5:17 pm, the show that would change British sci-fi forever saw it’s first moments in the world of television…
Series 1 (1963-64)
Doctor: First (William Hartnell)
Companions: Susan (Carole Ann Ford), Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill)
- Number of stories: 8
- Number of “existing” episodes: 33/42
- Number of missing episodes: 9/42
- Animated: 2/9
- Not animated but telesnaps exist: 6/9
- Not animated and no telesnaps exist: 1/9
An Unearthly Child
Just let me get this straight. A thing that looks like a police box, standing in a junkyard; it can move anywhere in time and space? But that’s ridiculous!
— Ian Chesterton
Also known as: 100 000 BC, The Tribe of Gum, The Paleolithic Age, The Stone Age
Number of episodes: 4
Setting type: Present day (1 episode), purely historical Earth (3 episodes)
DWM “The First 50 Years” poll ranking: 78th of 241 (top 33%)
Schoolteachers Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton become intrigued by one of their pupils, Susan Foreman, and visit her home address – a junkyard at 76 Totter’s Lane – where they meet her grandfather, the Doctor. The Doctor and Susan are aliens who travel through time and space in their ship, the TARDIS, which looks like an ordinary police box but actually houses a huge gleaming control room. The TARDIS takes them all to a Paleolithic landscape where they encounter a tribe that has lost the secret of fire.
And so began the journey that changed our lives forever.
I have always upheld that every Whovian should watch at least part one of An Unearthly Child, even if they have no intention of continuing with the rest of the classic series; I distinctly remember how surprised I was when I realised how many elements of the show had originated in 1963, and how many had not. You’ll see what I mean when you go and watch it yourself (if you seriously cannot be bothered you can read my summary instead), but I believe it’s an essential step in beginning to understand the show’s legacy. You’ve probably heard several times that the first episode had an abrasive Doctor, companions that connected with the audience instantly and an exceptionally erratic TARDIS, but seeing it for yourself is something else entirely.
So episode one is a must, but what about the other three parts of this story? While they still contribute a lot to the legacy, plotwise the entirety of 100 00 BC can be pretty frustrating; on about three occasions they almost make it back to the TARDIS, but something gets in the way and flings them back to square one. This however, is pretty much standard for early Doctor Who, and you get used to it (there’s plenty more annoying examples later on, the most prominent ones in the story Marco Polo). It also moves exceptionally slowly for an early Doctor Who serial, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t dose off on a few occasions every time I view it – I mean, cavemen standing around arguing over menial politics? Maybe bring along a mindless activity for this one (crocheting, anyone)?
Is it worth your time? Well, yes and no. Episode one is an absolute must, and while episodes two to four set a lot of important precedents they aren’t best William Hartnell episodes. However, one thing that is great about this story is that it allows you to test the waters – if you can sit through all four episodes and be reasonably entertained, you can certainly get into the 60s era. Absolutely bored out of your brains to the point where you can’t stand another second? Maybe consider skipping ahead to the 70s (the Key to Time series is a really great place to start).
Doctor: They’re intelligent. Very intelligent.
Ian: Yes, but how do they use their intelligence? What form does it take?
Also known as: The Mutants, The Dead Planet, The Survivors, Beyond the Sun
Number of episodes: 7
Setting type: Futuristic alien planet
DWM “The First 50 Years” poll ranking: 46th of 241 (top 20%)
The TARDIS has brought the travellers to the planet Skaro where they meet two indigenous races – the Daleks, malicious mutant creatures encased in armoured travel machines, and the Thals, beautiful humanoids with pacifist principles. The crew quickly become entangled in local politics, and must find a way to end the war between the races.
Ahh, the Daleks. Surprised to see them this early on? Indeed, one thing I don’t think a lot of New-Who Whovians realise is just how early the Doctor’s greatest foes were introduced into the series – they’re just four weeks younger than the Doctor himself. The Daleks is a gripping story that features our favourite pepper pots, as well as their home planet Skaro and racial counterpart the Thals. It sees the Doctor visit the show’s first alien planet, meet the first two alien races, and encounter the first civil war (something that would become the show’s cornerstone format in the first few years). In other words, this is a definitive legacy story.
Despite the seven-episode length, this The Daleks has a decent structure and generally flows quite nicely. But the duration really lets it down; it really feels like it’s about two or three episodes too long, and at one point there’s a turn in the plot and a change of tone that makes the second half of the story feel like an unnecessary bit just chucked on the end. There’s also an awful lot of standing around and ‘chatting’ at some points, but the action and intrigue that laces the majority of the story makes up for it. Overall, it’s reasonably entertaining story.
Is it worth your time? To be honest, it really depends on how much you like the Daleks and how much you want to know about them. The story introduces a lot of interesting precedents and is essential in understanding the Dalek legacy, but at the end of the day three hours is quite a long time. I recommend that you give it a go, but on the same token skipping is understandable. I will, however, throw in the fact that it contains a decent number of good looking almost-shirtless guys. You know, if you’re into that sort of thing…
The Edge of Destruction
Barbara: Look, why don’t we just try and open the doors and see for ourselves what’s outside?
Doctor: What is inside, madame, is most important at the moment.
Also known as: Inside the Spaceship, The Brink of Disaster
Number of episodes: 2
Setting type: The TARDIS
DWM “The First 50 Years” poll ranking: 183rd of 241 (bottom 25%)
As they slowly recover from the shock of being thrown to the TARDIS floor, the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara all seem to be acting strangely. A number of unexplained events occur and suspicions are raised that some alien force may have entered the ship. On the brink of disaster, it’s up to the travelers to work out what went wrong before it’s too late…
Take a punt – when do you think the first story set entirely in the TARDIS aired? Ten, maybe fifteen years in when they started running out of ideas? 50 years after the show began when Clara got trapped and the Doctor set out to look for her? Nope, it all starts right here in early 1964.
You may or may not have heard Whovian jokes about the ‘fast return switch’ or ‘the spring of destruction’ – this two-parter is how they all came about. The Edge of Destruction is the first (and arguably only) story to be set entirely in the TARDIS, bar the sequence at the end which leads into the next story. There’s a lot of debate about why this serial was written, but nobody really refutes the fact that it was, in essence, a “cheap and nasty” filler between The Daleks and Marco Polo.
Don’t be put off when I say “nasty”, however; the story itself really isn’t that bad, considering the whole thing features just four cast members and one set. The main issue is that the plot and resolution sag a lot, and they’re really not explained very well (I’ll leave it to you to decide if you really understood every single thing that happened). What this story does do, however, is take an opportunity to develop and add dimension to the characters and make you love and understand them just that bit more. Ultimately I believe the 50 minutes David Whittaker was assigned to write for were used wisely.
Is its worth your time? For such a short story, you really can’t go wrong. The Edge of Destruction is basically a character piece, and thereby a good way to get to know and come to love the current TARDIS crew. That being said, keep in mind that in the grand scheme of things this is a pretty crap episode of Doctor Who, and, well, I will admit that ultimately from a ‘legacy’ viewpoint you won’t be missing much if you skip it.
My plan has worked! The strangers and their unusual caravan accompany me to Lop. Our route takes us across the roof of the world, down to the Kashgar Valley and southeast to Tarkand…I wonder what their reaction will be when I tell them what I propose to do?
— The diary of Marco Polo
Also known as: A Journey to Cathay
Number of episodes: 7 (all missing)
Setting type: Purely historical Earth with a significant historical figure
DWM “The First 50 Years” poll ranking: 84th of 241 (top 35%)
(Art by hisi79)
Arriving in Central Asia in 1289, the Doctor and his companions join the caravan of the famous Venetian explorer Marco Polo as it makes its way from the snowy heights of the Pamir Plateau, across the treacherous Gobi Desert and through the heart of imperial Cathay.
‘Purely historical’ stories – often simply referred to as ‘historicals’ – are special type of story that are almost entirely exclusive to the William Hartnell era. Fundamentally they involve the crew going back in time, normally (but not necessarily) meeting a famous real-life historical figure, and facing no extraterrestrial threats whatsoever – instead the drama originates from the setting itself.
Marco Polo is basically the first example of this type of story, although arguments can also be put forward for An Unearthly Child. It’s a gorgeous serial that sees the TARDIS crew forced on a journey to China with one of the world’s most famous explorers, naturally facing threats such as sand and snow storms and almost losing possession of the TARDIS. Because all seven episodes are missing from the BBC archive it’s quite often (and quite understandably) overlooked, but in fairness it’s also one of the most ‘famous’ missing stories. Admittedly Marco Polo is a bit forced, drawn out, and annoying at times, but at the end of the day it’s an entertaining narrative with some beautiful costumes and sets. The duration gives all the characters time to get comfortable, develop, and otherwise get themselves into plenty of trouble, and Mark Eden’s portrayal of the infamous Italian traveler comes across very well.
How can I ‘watch’ this story? This story is completely missing, but it can still be “watched”. See the “Guide to “Watching” the Lost Episodes“, specifically the following sections: Official Condensed Reconstructions, Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition – The Missing Episodes, Loose Canon Recons, and Official Full “Audio Stories”.
Is its worth your time? I’m not going to lie, reconstructions are hard and – let’s face facts – they don’t get any easier. Are they enjoyable? Yes. But are they a completely satisfying alternative for not being able to watch the real thing? No, unfortunately. However, condensed recons are a real treat, so if you can hands on the 30-minute version of Marco Polo then I really recommend you watch it. The selected audio excepts and associated telesnaps will still give you a real feel for the story, and it’s a great way to ‘test the waters’ and work out if you’ll be able to handle full-on recons in later seasons (there’s a lot, trust me). If you want to go the whole way the full recon is also quite enjoyable, and you’ll find your imagination will help you fill in the gaps and appreciate each episode.