The 50th anniversary of Doctor Who is really the 35th anniversary for people like me. In 1978 Tom Baker’s first four seasons (12-15) were simultaneously released to PBS stations, and that was the start of American fandom. Some of Jon Pertwee’s seasons had been shown in the early ’70s, but they didn’t generate any interest. The Star Wars craze of ’77 made the U.S. suddenly receptive to this sort of thing, and for me it was life-changing. Those Tom Baker stories were recycled relentlessly on TV, and they ran daily between Mondays and Fridays. At five episodes a week, the networks burned through four seasons in much less than a year’s time, which was just as well. These were the days before VHS, and I rejoiced in the frequent PBS replays.
A Golden Age
What you have to understand is that those four seasons were the absolute best of Doctor Who, and they still are. I’m not just saying that because they were my first. This was the golden age under Philip Hinchcliffe, who turned Doctor Who into a violent and gruesome horror-fest. Frankly I couldn’t believe I was watching stuff this intense on TV. Much later I learned that in the UK, the BBC had received numerous complaints about the Hinchcliffe stories, especially from Mary Whitehouse (the Chair of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association) who claimed that they could traumatize children.
I discovered the show when my PBS station was towards the end of season 14, at Robots of Death. Which means that my second story was the epic Talons of Weng-Chiang, recognized by many (and certainly me) as the best Doctor Who story of all time. And my third was The Horror of Fang Rock, the season-15 premiere which felt like it belonged in season 14. (Hinchcliffe was producer during seasons 12-14, and Graham Williams would run things a bit lighter throughout seasons 15-17. But some of the season-15 stories were so menacing and horrific they felt like leftovers from the Hinchcliffe era. Fang Rock was one of them.)
Being initiated by these stories spoiled me to say the least. I came to think of them as a murder-mystery trilogy. Robots of Death combines a “whodunnit” plot with a group of programmed killers, to produce a claustrophobic story set inside a desert mining vehicle; people are stalked and strangled one by one, and the tension never lets up. The Horror of Fang Rock is oddly similar, this time set inside a lighthouse in a stormy sea, and the murderer is a shape-shifting alien who can assume the appearance of its slain victims. In between these tight environments, The Talons of Weng-Chiang presents Victorian London on a grand scale, and a hideous plot involving girls gone missing. Here the Doctor dresses up like Sherlock Holmes to assist the police, and lands in over his head against Chinese assassins, giant sewer rats, a homicidal doll, and a stage magician who is kidnapping the girls so that his master can “feed” on them.
Robots of Death was a perfect first story for me. It was straightforward, fast-paced, and intelligent. But it also conveniently introduced me to the TARDIS, through the eyes of Leela. Hers is the best companion reaction to “bigger on the inside” (Amy Pond’s in The Eleventh Hour is a close second), and the Doctor’s “explanation” for it has become legendary:
Doctor (holding up two boxes): “Which box is larger?”
Leela (pointing to the larger): “That one.”
Doctor (setting the larger box down and coming close to Leela with the smaller one): “Now which is larger?”
Leela (indignant, pointing over at the larger one): “That one!”
Doctor: “But it looks smaller.”
Leela: “That’s because it’s further away!”
Doctor: “Exactly. Now if you could keep that one exactly that distance away and have it here, it would fit inside the small one.”
Leela (nonplussed): “That’s silly.”
Doctor: “That’s trans-dimensional engineering.”
And that’s ridiculous, of course, because trans-dimensional engineering has nothing to do with how the eye is fooled. His explanation is indeed silly, and even my ten-year old self could see through it. But I quickly fell in love with the Doctor’s techno-babble. It fit the eccentric tone of the show — and in this case the writers may have intended something else. It’s quite possible that the Doctor is deliberately bullshitting Leela because he doesn’t consider her worthy of (or intelligent enough to handle) a genuine explanation for trans-dimensional engineering. Especially considering that she’s a primitive savage. That’s how I’ve come to understand the scene. It would be entirely in the Fourth Doctor’s character to spout nonsense just to shut her up.
As for The Talons of Weng-Chiang, every frame contains fond memories, but let’s focus on the villain, since he’s often tragically overlooked. Magnus Greel is for my money the vilest Doctor Who villain ever. Davros may be the most iconic and morally deranged (a galactic Nazi bent on subjugating the universe to a “supreme race”); Sutekh is certainly the most terrifying and invincible (a nihilist devoted not to subjugation but the total obliteration of all life everywhere); and the Master is the the most dangerously unpredictable (a personal rival capable of anything, even switching sides, to shaft the Doctor). But you can’t get more loathsome than Magnus Greel. He’s driven by the sheer need to survive. Hideously deformed from experiments gone awry, he inhabits sewers and subterranean lairs like a malingering ghoul. Like the other villains, he’s a megalomaniac, but he’s delusional (believing himself to be a Chinese god), and acquires artifacts like the Time Cabinet for the same primal reason he slaughters people like cattle: to leech power for his disintegrating body cells. There seems to be no particular reason for his choice of young girls, save that it feeds his particular sadism. He’s the quintessential Hinchcliffe villain who freaks me out more than any other.
My stand-out memories of The Horror of Fang Rock are priceless Leela moments. Best of all is when she whips out her knife and yells at Palmerdale who won’t stop arguing: “You will do as the Doctor instructs, or I will cut out your heart!” Everyone is aghast at her barbaric display, but for once the Doctor doesn’t chastise her for violent impulses, because he needs the bickering to stop. Later, when someone else is found murdered, and poor Adelaide screams her bloody head off, Leela slaps her face in disgust. Finally, in the end, when she and the Doctor are the only ones left standing, she gloats over the dying body of the alien, and scolds the Doctor for not “celebrating the death of an enemy”. Of all Leela’s stories, this one drew most creatively on her tribal savage background.
Speaking of Fang Rock’s ending, it makes the story unique, though I didn’t know it at the time. For the first and last time in the show’s history, every single character in the supporting cast is killed off. These murders, moreover, are not just done for the “sake” of a high body count. As in Robots of Death, each kill is a slam in the gut that escalates the plot. I wish Steven Moffat would take inspiration from this classic, discard the “everyone lives” trope, and give Peter Capaldi some darker material to work with next season.
Completing the Loop
When PBS finished airing season 15, it looped around back to 12, and it wasn’t long before I devoured the entire Hinchcliffe era. I was initially confused thinking that Sarah came after Leela, and villains like Davros followed Magnus Greel. On some level I still think of Leela as the “first companion” (Sarah was obviously the best), on the power of first impressions. Her first story, The Face of Evil, was the last story I saw from the season 12-15 package. It was every bit as good as Robots of Death, and had it been my first story, it would have been interesting since I lived on a religious community. The story tackles religion head on, and is premised on the Doctor having unwittingly screwed over a planet by setting up a psychopathic computer-god in his own image. One of the cliffhangers gave me nightmares (see here, 3:15-4:00), and remains my favorite cliffhanger to this day.
Those are my anniversary reflections. I entered the world of Doctor Who during its golden age, and on three especially dark stories that blended horror and mystery in a unique stew. The new series has tapped this old power on occasion, with entries like The Unquiet Dead, Tooth and Claw, and The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. I’ve generally been a fan of the new series, but neither Davies nor Moffat have superseded Hinchcliffe. They’ve come close when at the top of their game. But too often they have feared to trust that children can handle the “traumatic” storytelling that Mary Whitehouse decried, and that my best friend and I lived for when we were kids. This past season (the seventh) has been the worst in dumbing down to Disney levels. I’m pleased to say that the 50th anniversary special renewed my hope for season eight, and for a new Doctor.