Today during my lunch I started watching the Fourth Doctor serial The Sontaran Experiment. Later this week or next I’ll start watching the Fifth Doctor serial Arc of Infinity, and by the end of the summer I’ll probably have watched quite a few more serials. In short, I’ve been bingeing and will continue bingeing on Classic Doctor Who for a while.

Classic Who is pretty interesting. The show lasted for 26 seasons, usually around 20 or so episodes a season, and ran from 1963-1989. They went through seven different leads, at least fifty companions, and a whole host of supporting actors, cameos, writers, directors, producers, and other crew members during that time, becoming one of sci-fi’s biggest staples and was revived twice, once in a TV movie and again in a new TV series whose eighth season (or series, as they call it in the UK) will premiere in a month and a week. This is all quite amazing, considering that Classic Who had a fairly limited budget for special effects.

And I mean fairly limited budget. Like Star Trek in its early years, and occasionally even worse than that. The first couple of years under the Third Doctor, most serials were confined to defending the Earth because of budget cuts preventing the filming of stories taking place in fantastic and strange locales. And even at the best of times, the special effects weren’t that great. Check out this clip from the Third Doctor serial The Three Doctors (also the first serial ever to feature a former Doctor return to the role). Near the end, you’ll see what I mean:

Yeah, that stuff at the end was an anti-matter monster. And apparently it teleported them somewhere. Not exactly high tech, was it? You watch enough classic episodes, you see that they had to make do with not a lot of money, which sometimes made the monsters look very homemade and laughable, or they had to be filmed in certain ways so that the kids at home wouldn’t see an actor’s two feet sticking out of a monster’s butt. Occasionally that even led to criticism of the whole story: the Third Doctor serial Invasion of the Dinosaurs was derided by viewers because the stop motion dinosaurs weren’t very good and seemed to take away from the overall story.

But that just goes to show how amazing the stories the writers told were, both then and now. What they didn’t have in terms of budget, they made up for in telling compelling tales where the Doctor had to fight in order to save the world (or worlds). Stories like the First Doctor serial The Edge of Destruction or the Fourth Doctor serial The Horror of Fang Rock are very suspenseful stories that rely on very little special effects to instead tell very character-driven horror/suspense stories, and the Seventh Doctor serial The Curse of Fenric was actually so terrifying I was a little scared! Not bad for a story whose special effects were mostly make-up and costumes.

Just a glance at that photo is enough to unnerve me!

These old stories contained much more than special effects. They had mystery, pretty funny jokes, history and science, and compelling plots that kept viewers coming back for more and more each episode. Not to mention how these episodes could confront and tackle complex social issues so that even very small children could learn from them. Dalek stories, from the original First Doctor serial The Daleks to modern-day stories are rife with Nazi Germany metaphors, which have been mentioned by various characters over the years. The Green Death dealt with environmental themes by showing what can happen when you let corporations run rampant over natural resources without enough regulation. And American viewers probably squirmed a little when they saw The Power of Kroll and saw in the conflict between the colonists and the Swampies the fight between white Americans and the Native Americans. I’m surprised the Doctor hasn’t been used as a teaching tool for different causes or issues.

And it wasn’t just the stories that drew the viewers in. The characters the writers created were pretty amazing as well. Heck, it was the writers who managed to keep the show going after First Doctor William Hartnell had to leave the show for health reasons and was replaced by Patrick Troughton. In any other show, the main character being replaced by someone who was a completely different character (but still the same person) would’ve ruined the show. It says something about the writers that they could keep the show going after such a change.

And not just the changes in Doctors. The other characters were amazing as well, helping the viewers to connect with the Doctor and see him and the events surrounding him from a human perspective (literally). Yeah, some of them were annoying (Peri Brown got on my nerves), but for the most part they were all a pretty awesome group of characters. Some of my favorites include Jo Grant, played by Katy Manning, who learned much from the Doctor and became quite a heroine in her own right during her time as his assistant. Or Ace, the last companion of the classic series and played by Sophie Aldred, a punk teen from London who nicknamed the Doctor “Professor” and was in many ways his protege. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elisabeth Sladen, one of the longest running companions and by far the most popular. She even had her own spin-off show for a few years. God, we Whovians miss her.

Not just the stories, but the characters made this show amazing.

All in all, it’s not surprising that nearly fifty-one years after two teachers followed one of their students home and into a police box that was much bigger on the inside than on the outside, the show is still going on all these years later. Sure, ther have been hiatuses and breaks, but there’s been a fandom big enough that the show has gone on to become one of the most popular and probably the longest running sci-fi franchises in the world. And I believe the writers over the years, especially the writers in the classic series, have played a huge part in that.

Anyway, I’m certainly having fun watching the old Doctor Who serials. I just wish it was easier to get hold of them. Well, that’s all for now. I’ve got the first draft of a novel to finish up, so I’m going to get on that hopefully tonight, but first I need to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow. Wish me luck with that.

  1. You know what I would highly recommend? The show Community, where they have a running joke about one of the character’s love for Inspector Spacetime (aka. fictional Dr. Who) Or have I already said this?

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