Saturday, 1 May 2010
THE REGENERATION GAME Part I
Nice to see Who, to see Who nice!
By 1966, William Hartnell was becoming too ill to keep working on Doctor Who. Back then, then the show was running for a massive forty two weeks a year, and although the main cast had regular breaks worked into the stories, the work load was clearly becoming too much for Hartnell. And Rather than continue the series, without the main character Taggart style - the decision was made to recast the role.
Obviously introducing a new actor in the lead role was a huge risk, but as history shows, the gamble paid off. However no one could have foreseen the effect of recasting the lead would have had. For a start, rather than breaking the show, it actually strengthened it and ensured longevity not just for the titular Time Lord but also for the programme itself.
The concept that the lead character could change his appearance and character due to his alien nature was incredibly inspired. Obviously from a production stand point, it is a brilliant story mechanism for bringing a new actor into the role but it would also enrich and expand the mythology of the series. However, like many things in the murky world of Doctor Who lore, nothing is quite as it seems.
The Doctor’s many regenerations unleash the two apparently easiest questions about the show - “How many incarnations of the Doctor has there been?” and “How many actors have played him?”. Now at first sight, this brace of queries appear to be the simplest questions about the Doctor, but in actual fact these twin dilemmas lead to some highly complex and perplexing areas.
And if you think the answer both questions is the same, and that said shared answer is eleven, then you are way off course. Yes there will be lots of continuity porn! Yes, there will lots of spurious fan theories! But looking at the various regenerations of the Doctor reveals a lot about the history of the show, with different incarnations changing to fit the times. So let’s fire up the time rotor and go back to the beginning…
THE FIRST DOCTOR
Back in 1963 the world first meet the Doctor, and this very first version of the Doctor as a very different man. To begin with he’s shown as being rather elderly , a far cry from the pin-up Time Lords of recent times. And he is presented as a very mysterious character, in fact, it isn’t entirely clear if he is a hero at all in the first few stories. He’s irritable, rude, and manipulative; quite possibly mad and given that he has essentially kidnaps his first companions Ian and Barbara and then blames them for it, potentially evil.
However as the serials unfold, his character does mellow, and although he still frequently carries on like the word ‘crotchety’ was invented just for him, it is clear that he is on the side of good and begins behaves far more like the character we all know and love. However that said, for the modern viewer, venturing back into the Hartnell years can be a disconcerting experience.
For a kick off, it’s quite a shock that the character dynamics of the show are completely different. Viewers familiar with later incarnations will be surprised by the crowded TARDIS setup - the good Doctor has three companions, rather than the usual single female. And instead of being the man of action at the adventures revolve around, the Doctor is more the brains in a team; Ian handles the physical action, Barbara provides good sense and the moral compass, and Susan is the young lead for kids to identify with, while the Doctor co-ordinates matters. Well, sometimes, he does - in this era, it is far more of an ensemble show and hence it is not a given that it will be the Doctor who comes up with the winning plan or even saves the day every week.
Indeed, that the Doctor is so often not centre stage in the stories, some viewers may well be left wondering if this is even the same show as the modern incarnation. And indeed, some will be thinking, as Lee from The Black Dog Podcast so memorably put it, “who the hell is this mad old bastard?”.
However, on the plus side, there’s not a sonic screwdriver of any description in sight and we get a lot more of the Doctor solving problems with only his ingenuity. This was a golden age when the Doctor relied on his intellect rather than gadgets. And the writers worked hard to find feasible solutions to the dangers he faced rather just inventing ad hoc magic powers to get them out of the corner they have written themselves into.
Another key difference in these early days, is that there was another genre of story in the roster. For as well as foiling aliens mucking about in the depths of history and adventures in the far future among the distant stars, these early seasons of Doctor Who featured what we now term ‘historicals’.
Now these serials were set in Earth’s past, and saw the Doctor and the TARDIS crew hobnobbing with famous figures such as Marco Polo, or turning up for major historical events like the Fall of Troy. However, in these stories there were no science fiction elements - no dastardly bug eyed monsters threatening the locals or time travellers buggering about with the threads of history. And although several of the later historicals bordered on comedy, generally the idea was that by including serials rooted in locales familiar from history classes, Doctor Who as a programme could inform as well as entertain.
Now there is often nothing more ghastly than education masquerading as entertainment, particularly when there is a younger audience in mind. Frequently it results in a swift flight to the banana republic of Patronised City where the diligent officers of El Presidente’s Secret Police will beat seven shades of fun out of you with rubber hoses and textbooks. And certainly to the modern viewer, for whom monsters are as much as part of the Who as the TARDIS and the sonic screwdriver, the prospect of watching the Doctor become a museum tour guide does not sound very appealing.
However, if you can get your head around the concept of a Doctor Who adventure without aliens, robots and all the other accoutrements of sci-fi, you will be pleasantly surprised by the stories on offer in this subgenre. Thankfully the production team never let historical detail clog the motors of adventure, and the historical genre actually delivers some of finest Hartnell stories. For example, a good starting point for anyone wanting to explore the Hartnell era is The Aztecs which raises some very interesting moral dilemmas. And after you’ve experienced several historicals, you may well end up feeling as I do, that it’s a bit of shame that modern Doctor Who doesn’t set outside the realms of the fantastic once in a while.
But perhaps most surprising element in this first age of Doctor Who, is that Susan is his grand daughter. Now over the years, some have wondered whether Susan was actually one of his biological family, mainly as we have got so used to the Doctor appearing as an asexual figure for most of his fictional life. But she clearly is as it is Susan and not the Doctor that gives us our first description of their home world with it’s orange skies and silver trees. And when she is time scooped to the Death Zone on Gallifrey in the multi-Doctor team up story The Five Doctors, she clearly knows exactly where she is.
However it should also be noted that throughout these early years, neither their home planet or their race are ever named. At first it is not even clear if they are aliens, the Doctor describes themselves as ‘exiles’ and ‘wanderers in the fourth dimension’. The serials hint at a back-story but never reveal anything substantial other than the fact that the Doctor and Susan are not from Earth. Although production notes and other behind-the-scenes apocrypha mention that the original background for the characters was that they were forced to flee their home world due to a terrible galactic war, none of these elements made it into the finished scripts. However, before you continuity junkies leap to connect this background with the more recent tales of the Time War, it must be noted that later stories sketched in a different genesis for the Doctor’s travels, but more on that later…
Plus there’s no mention of Time Lords possessing two hearts and the Doctor is frequently mistaken for human by alien scanners. Now this has lead to a school of thought, developed in the various ranges of Who novels, that Time Lords only gain a second heart after their first regeneration. However whether the Hartnell Doctor is actually the first incarnation is a matter of some debate which we will also be getting to later.
THE FIRST DOCTOR - AARU PRIME VERSION
We tend to think of television properties making the leap to the silver screen to be one of the curses of modern times. That it is only recently that Hollywood has gotten so riddled with creative bankruptcy, that it is capable of little other than pillaging TV and their own past for things to remake, reboot, reimagine and generally mess up under the banner of some buzz word beginning with ‘re’.
However, in British cinema the cinematic adaptation of a hit television show has been a staple of the industry since the ‘50s. For example, Hammer Films scored their first big success with their celluloid retelling of Nigel Kneale’s BBC serial The Quatermass Experiment and later would see record breaking returns with their two cinema spins-off of the popular ‘70s ITV sitcom On The Buses.
So when Doctor Who captured the nation’s imagination, and dalekmania swept through this green and pleasant land’s playgrounds like the Black Death, it was only a matter of time before one of the many impresarios of the British film industry would be round to Broadcasting House to secure the necessary rights to rematerialise the TARDIS on the silver screen.
And indeed, Milton Subotsky, best known as the man behind legendary Brit Horror studio Amicus, and always quick to spot a popular trend, soon had the ink drying on the dotted line. Hence AARU Productions quickly produced not one but two Who films. These were Doctor Who & The Daleks (1965) - an adaptation of the Doctor’s first televisual encounter with Skaro’s finest, and Daleks’ Invasion of Earth 2150 AD (1966) which retold their second TV appearance for the big screen.
In both movies, the role of the Doctor was played Peter Cushing, gentlemen actor extraordinaire and no stranger to donning the mantle of iconic characters. However this rendering of everyone’s favourite Time Lord is somewhat different to the television version. For a start his name is clearly ‘Doctor Who’ and now he has two granddaughters, Barbara and Susan Who. Secondly this Doctor is human rather than Gallifreyian and hails from contemporary times. And finally, rather than ‘borrowing’ the TARDIS, the Cushing Doctor actually invented and built the iconic vessel. While he retains the elderly aspects of the Hartnell version, Cushing’s take character is far softer and far less enigmatic, playing the Doctor more as an amiable mad professor than a crotchety old geezer.
Now although this pair of movies have entertained generations of children through their countless TV reruns - they are as much a regular fixture of holiday television in the UK as Ray Harryhausen flicks - they are not considered to be part of the Doctor Who universe proper. (Although there are many fan theories to link them into the canon.) However the Cushing Doctor definitely counts for both our questions.
Obviously Cushing counts as another actor in the role but he also counts as an extra incarnation. As his Doctor is human rather Time Lord, the Cushing version isn’t just another actor in the role as the First Doctor. Although he is appearing an adaptation of a First Doctor story, strictly speaking Cushing can only be The Doctor - as he is human he cannot regenerate and hence there will be no Second Doctor. So logically he should be considered a parallel universe incarnation rather than an alternate performance.
However, just to confuse matters further, the First Doctor was played by another actor other than William Hartnell…
THE FIRST DOCTOR - SLIGHT RETURN
For the show’s twentieth anniversary in 1983, it was decided that a feature length special would be made. And taking their lead from the 10th anniversary story The Three Doctors, it was decided to do another multi-Doctor adventure. However there were a couple of problems - for a start, Fourth Doctor Tom Baker wasn’t keen on returning to a role so soon after leaving, and more importantly William Hartnell had passed away.
The first problem was easily fixed with using some unused footage from the unfinished story Shada and conveniently trapping the Fourth Doctor and Romano in a time loop for most of the story. As for the second missing Time Lord, by chance producer Jon Nathan Turner ran into actor Richard Hurndall, and was struck by his similarity to Hartnell. And so it was decided to include the First Doctor in the story with Hurndall taking over the role.
Now as for Mr Hurndall’s resemblance to Hartnell, some people see it while others think it a similar situation as Ed Wood seeing Lugosi in his chiropractor. And although it’s fair to say that Hurndall only superficially resembles Hartnell in appearance, in terms of his performance he is his double. He has the First Doctor’s mannerisms and intonation down pat, and indeed several of the guest stars who had worked with Hartnell praised his performance, with Carole Ann Ford (Susan) describing it the experience as positively uncanny.
Hurndall did so well in bringing the First Doctor back to the screen, it’s a shame that they never had him return for another outing. However one appearance is enough for our tally…
Right then, to recap - so far we have 2 Doctors and 3 actors in the role - and that’s just dealing with the First Doctor… See I told you, it got complicated!
Next time on THE REGENERATION GAME - “So you’re my replacements eh? A dandy and a clown!”
Didn’t he do well ?!?