Doctor Who Project: The Reign of Terror

I get the impression they don’t know where they’re heading for. Come to that, do any of us?

And so the first season of Doctor Who concludes with a six-part story set in far off and fantastical…France?

Revolutionary France, to be precise, during the period of Robespierre’s rule that gives our story its title, “The Reign of Terror” (Story Production Code H). The Doctor has brought Ian and Barbara “home,” as he promised (or rather threatened) to do after dealing with the Sensorites. France seems to be close enough to England for the Doctor, but by the time he realizes he’s off by two hundred years, he’s already been knocked unconscious, dragged out of a burning building by a French ragamuffin, and forced to work on a chain gang. And then he winds up looking like this:

Doctor Who 008 (1964) Hartnell -The Reign Of Terror3 on by Père Ubu via a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.

Not entirely sure which is the greater indignity…

The Doctor has the sensible notion not to leave the TARDIS at the beginning of the story, but then, persuaded by Ian’s offer of a drink to make their parting amicable, off they go. Once Ian realizes that they’re not in England (or even the twentieth century), it’s his turn to wish to return to the TARDIS:

Ian: You know, I think we ought to get back to the ship while we still can.

Doctor: Nonsense. It was your idea to explore, anyway. Besides, that might be very interesting. Walk will do us good.

Once again, the writers contrive to split up the travellers, with Ian, Susan, and Barbara (who instinctively change into period clothing they find alongside bread, wine, maps, and daggers in a trunk in an abandoned house) captured by revolutionary soldiers and dragged off to await the guillotine; the Doctor, meanwhile, has been knocked senseless by royalist sympathizers hiding the house and remains undetected by the soldiers, who set the house ablaze. Then you get the kid, then the long walk to Paris, then the chain gang (from which the Doctor escapes by smacking the road works overseer over the head with a very large shovel). It’s a six-part story for a reason.

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Doctor Who Project: The Sensorites

I don’t know why we ever bother to leave the ship.

Why, indeed, is it that the Doctor and his companions leave the safe (usually) confines of the TARDIS every time they jaunt, unguided, through time and space, other than the fact that there wouldn’t be much of a show without this reckless behavior? Barbara asks this very question at the beginning of Peter R. Newman’s “The Sensorites” (Story Production Code G), spurring the companions to reel off all of their extra-TARDIAL adventures to date: pre-historic earth, the Daleks, Marco Polo, Marinus, and the Aztecs. And the Doctor replies, “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 Sensorites,” alas, is one adventure our fearless travellers would have been better off just staying in the TARDIS for. They certainly try, for as soon as they leave the TARDIS and see that they’ve materialized inside a spaceship crewed by two seemingly-dead humans, the Doctor himself is keen to get right out of there. The first ten minutes of the story seem like an apology for the plot to come, with each character in turn suggesting that they get right back in the TARDIS and leave, but as soon as you see Susan lock the TARDIS door, you just know they’re getting locked out.

By these guys, no less:

Doctor Who 007 (1964) Hartnell -The Sensorites1 on, by Père Ubu, via a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.

In fairness, Howe and Walker make a good point about the story’s attempt to portray an alien culture with, well, alienness and in a subtle and sympathetic vein. But the real interest for Doctor Who fans is in the continued development of the companions and the early stirrings of canonicity.

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Doctor Who Project: The Aztecs

What’s the point of traveling through time and space if we can’t change anything?

You can be forgiven for thinking that John Lucarotti’s “The Aztecs” (Story Production Code F) is about the Doctor and his companions’ adventures amongst the Aztecs. An understandable mistake, because it’s about the Aztecs as much as Moby Dick is about a whale. Which is to say, yeah, of course, but not really.

No, “The Aztecs” is Doctor Who‘s first real examination of time travel and its limitations and potential paradoxes. The Aztec setting is really just window dressing, both scenic and moral, in this story, with endless parades of Aztec warriors processing back and forth whenever Barbara, mistaken for a reincarnation of Yetaxa, an Aztec High Priest, needs to go anywhere, and the issue of human sacrifice serving as the focal point in the Doctor and Barbara’s struggle about whether or not to intervene in history.

Not Barbara. Yetaxa.

The action in the story revolves around the TARDIS materializing in an Aztec tomb with a one-way door that all of our intrepid time travelers manage to go through. This device of rendering the TARDIS inaccessible has been used in every story to date, save “The Edge of Destruction” and “The Daleks,” where the TARDIS was inoperable instead, a narrow distinction. Thus far in the series, the writers have not developed a story where the Doctor would want to stay in the setting and resolve the plot’s convolutions, and “The Aztecs” begins to give us some background about just why the Doctor doesn’t wish to meddle.

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Who Watches the Re-Watchmen?

Early 1950s Television Set on by gbaku via a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

It’s not enough for a science fiction fan to view a favorite movie or series, or read a favorite novel, once. The whole notion of fandom involves repeated and extended interaction with the object of our notional obsession. The repeated engagement with a work of science fiction, in any medium, is not unlike any form of literary or cultural study. We re-read, or re-watch, in order to better understand the object we are studying.

Re-watching or re-reading is not simply summarizing; to re-watch is to examine a part with knowledge of the whole. Sometimes this task reveals continuity errors or plot holes; other times, re-watching reveals nuances planted early in a series that only bear fruit much later in the future.

While the whole prospect of re-reading or re-watching science fiction is nothing new—the fanzine has been around about as long as the genre itself, and parodies of devoted re-watchers raising continuity questions feature prominently in any portrayal of science fiction fandom—of late, several science fiction re-watching efforts have been undertaken online.

In addition to my own Doctor Who Project, two other groups are working their way through the numerous Doctors, including The Doctor Who Mission, a group project trying to tackle a story a week, and The TARDIS Project, which is revisiting not just stories but individual episodes within each story.

One of the problems with Doctor Who re-watching in general is the difficulty in finding all of the stories. Besides the much-lamented loss of more-than-a-few episodes by the BBC, the entire existing run of the series is not yet out on DVD, leaving dedicated re-watchers who have no desire to acquire the missing stories via peer-to-peer solutions to scramble about at library sales and online auction sites to find VHS tapes to undertake the task before they stop making VHS players.

The glee of finding some repeated trope or following the evolution of a phrase in a series is well worth the effort required to track down all of the damn things, though.

(Image courtesy of gbaku via a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.)

Doctor Who Project: The Keys of Marinus

Now, now! Twist the dials!

The First Doctor and his companions, having left China behind, find themselves once more at the mercy of the wonky time mechanism in the TARDIS, arriving on a glass sand beach surrounded by acid seas. Over those seas and far away are the titular Keys of Marinus, four of which this fab foursome will be coerced into finding.

Much like the preceeding “Marco Polo,” Terry Nation’s “The Keys of Marinus” (Story Production Code E) is a sweeping epic of a story, stretching a simple “fetch and carry” plot over six episodes. Four Keys must be found, each in a different location on the planet Marinus and each accompanied by a different type of story. Finding the first Key involves psychological suspense, with a struggle to separate reality from illusion. And there are brains in jars.

Doctor Who 005 (1964) Hartnell - Keys Of Marinus4 on by Père Ubu via a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license

The second Key is in an overgrown laboratory with violent plant life, and in finding it, Ian and Barbara undergo a horror-type encounter with eerie whispering from creeping vines. To find the third Key, Ian, Susan, Barbara, and two new helpers run around a frozen waste in an action episode, fending off wolves, a burly trapper, and ice warriors who come to life when heated up. And the acquisition of the fourth Key requires solving a murder mystery that is nowhere near as puzzling as the very awkward jump between episodes four and five, when we go from Ian escaping the trapper’s hut to Ian being knocked out in a vault with no explanation.

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Doctor Who Project: Marco Polo

I find your caravan most unusual, Doctor.

With the Fast Return Switch unstuck, the TARDIS lurches back from The Edge of Destruction and deposits our intrepid travelers on the Roof of the World, the Himalayas—Earth, albeit in the Thirteenth Century. But nothing can be easy, because the TARDIS promptly breaks down again, depriving them of heat, light, and water, miles from civilization of any sort. Luckily, though, they get a tow:

Need a lift?

Marco Polo just happens to be traveling by and gives the Doctor’s “caravan” a lift and his name to the seven-episode story. “Marco Polo” (Story Production Code D) is the first of the “historical” Dr. Who stories and, alas, the first of the stories that no longer exist in filmed form.


For reasons of frugality, shortsightedness, confusion, and bureaucratic bumbling, the BBC erased, discarded, and destroyed the video tapes holding either directly recorded or “telerecorded” episodes of many stories from the William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton eras. Film cans with master recordings were also destroyed. Fire hazards, I suppose. Only slowly did prints sent to other countries for broadcast, plus privately purchased recordings and even, as in the case of “Marco Polo,” audio recordings of the broadcasts, begin to return to the BBC. Richard Molesworth’s 1998 article for Doctor Who Magazine on the state of the Dr. Who archives provides a fascinating look into the complexities, quiet tragedies, and minor miracles surrounding the early stories’ loss and (partial) recovery. So this look at “Marco Polo” is based on a remastered (and abridged) audio recording of the story, accompanied by production photographs, put out by the BBC as a special feature on the DVDs of the initial three Hartnell stories.

So just what did the BBC destroy when they trashed “Marco Polo”?

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