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15 January 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day Fifteen - The Singing Sands (Marco Polo, Episode Two)

Dear diary,

One of the benefits of the missing episodes is that they give you the chance to let your mind fill in the gaps. Today's episode features a sequence in which Susan and Ping-Cho are caught outside during a sand storm. Now, on screen, this may (or may not…) have looked great, but in my head, it can look as great as I'd like.

In my head, it can be suitably epic and dramatic, the soundtrack certainly helps with that, and it's actually quite a brilliant scene. It injects a nice level of drama to the story, which helps to carry this episode. It doesn't hurt that for this installment, I've used a proper recon of soundtrack and tele snaps, mixed with some other photos taken on the set. There comes a point when you almost forget that things are supposed to be moving - just like yesterday, I'm caught up in the story.

An Unearthly Child doesn't really fit the format of the historical adventures (it set more in a fantasy 'stone age' than any easily definable period of history), which makes Marco Polo the first story that can be really pinned down. I can go and look him up and read about his travels to the East along the old silk trails, and see how this story might fit in.

It's a format that really works for the show, and it's a shame we've not had any of these 'proper' historical adventures in the revived series. While The Daleks was made interesting by the first appearance of the Doctor's greatest enemy, this story is given it's boost by interesting characters.

It's telling that I didn't really feel the absence of the Doctor during this installment; especially considering they go to great lengths to remind us that he's just off to one side, either sulking or sleeping. He turns up at the end, of course, but it really is little more than a cameo.

I'm too busy enjoying the story of Ian, Barbara, Susan, Ping-Cho, Marco and Tegana. The cast gel really nicely (though, really, Tegana is just a pantomime villain. I half expect Marco to turn up during the cliff hanger, as Tegana pours the water away, just so we can shout 'behind you!' at him…).

Something that I didn't tough on yesterday, but will here (and no doubt again at some point) is just how good the incidental music to this story is. You could quite happily give me a soundtrack of it to listen to as I drift off to sleep - it's some really nicely composed stuff.

I'm hoping that the story keeps up its current high quality as we continue on, though I worry that the further into it I go, the more it will need to resort to finding padding for the journey. It feels a little like each episode may just be there to fill time before Tegana can commit something evil…

Next Episode: Five Hundred Eyes 
14 January 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day Fourteen - The Roof of the World (Marco Polo, Episode One)

Dear diary,

Brace yourself; I'm going to open today's entry with a statement that may not get me many fans… I like that there are missing episode of Doctor Who.

Yes! I know! I should really mourn their loss - 106 little pieces of the show that I may never get to experience in their original format. I should hate the fact that they're lost from the archives. I should be up in the attic, hunting around for film cans in the vein hope that I've got a part of The Web of Fear tucked up there or something.

But the fact is, as far as I'm concerned, the fact that we're missing these little bits of the programme's history somehow makes it all the more magical. It makes the 1960s era of the show seem distant and difficult, but it makes it seem so mythical, too.

Perhaps I'm more willing to accept the fact of missing episodes simply because I'm a fan of archive telly in general, so I'm used to there being gaps in my favourite shows. Most of the first season of The Avengers is missing from the archive (oh, but how I love the few episodes that survive from it!), the same is true for Dad's Army, or Adam Adamant Lives!, or The Army Game. Take a look at the DVDs on my shelves, and you'll find that a good chunk of them are missing an episode or two because of the archiving policy of the era.

That's not to say that I don't like to see episodes returned. I was ecstatic when two turned up in 2011, and I'd be thrilled if some more turned up. Of course I would! I'm not mad! But I don't see them as all that big of a loss while they're still missing.

Besides, calling them 'missing' episodes is almost as ridiculous as calling the period between 1989 and 2005 the 'wilderness' years. They're not all that missing at all! We've got a soundtrack for all of them. That's bloody lucky. That's simply not true of the other examples I've given above for show's missing pieces of their past. On top of that, we've got tele-snaps for most of the stories, plus a wealth of behind-the-scenes photos.

Still, all that said… It does make it hard to do a marathon of Doctor Who from the start. The last time I tried it, I didn't even bother with the missing episodes, I just skipped over them to the next available story. This time, though, I'm doing every episode, which means delving into various reconstructions.

They'll be taking a number of forms over the coming months (in just a few weeks, Reign of Terror comes out on DVD, with it's missing episodes fully animated! And just in time for when I have to watch it!), but for today's story, I've been listening to the narrated soundtrack, and taking a look at the tele-snaps as I go.

Now, let me get this one out of the way early on, because I'm likely to ramble on about it plenty over the next week; William Russell's narration on the soundtrack is superb. The man is simply amazing. His work for Big Finish over the yard has been fantastic, and even here, he's giving it his all. He really is one of the greatest ambassadors the show has ever had, and I really do hope he gets a chance to pop up in the 50th.

As for the episode itself… Marco Polo has a reputation for being one of the great lost stories of Doctor Who. There are parts of the internet where you can find it held up as a cure for all the evil in the world. It has to be said, I've always been more than a little skeptical of this. I don't tend to like it when people constantly tell me how good something is.

Based on this first episode alone, though, it is rather brilliant, isn't it? I've found myself being swept up in the story with this one, which is always a good sign, and the 25 minutes just breezed by. Right from the word 'go', with the travellers exploring their surroundings on the mountain top, I caught up with events, and it's not long before their being swept away to join Marco Polo's caravan.

This episode is perhaps the best example we've had so far of the show fulfilling it's original intention to educate the audience, as well as to entertain it. We're given discussions of Marco Polo's journey and of his life, given specific details. Coming to this after a recent re-watch of Andrew Marr's fantastic History of the World documentary, it's startling how much they impart here.

And yet, I wasn't bored at any point. I'd worried, without having anything much to focus on, that my attention would wander away from the story, and I'd end up missing bits. I'm really glad that the educational stuff is nicely mixed in with enough of a story to keep me interested.

Marco Polo isn't really a good guy, here. He's certainly not evil (unlike Tegana, who might as well be twirling his mustache as he laughs from a corner), but he tells the Doctor that he's taking the TARDIS, and that's that. Mark Eden plays those scenes really well, in what might be one of the best performances we've had in the series so far.

It's continuing a trend of having a very strong opening episode, so I'm hoping that can hold true for the next few days…

Next Episode - The Singing Sands

13 January 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day Thirteen - The Brink of Disaster (The Edge of Destruction, Episode Two)

Dear diary,

It has to be said that after the last episode, this one looses its tension really rather quickly. Yesterday was all about building suspense, forcing us to wonder why all these strange things were happening, and led down roads that indicated there could be some entity aboard the ship hiding in the crew.

We even end on the cliffhanger of someone's hands closing around the Doctor's throat. It's all rather dark, and just a little bit off the wall, but today's 25 minutes just feel a bit like, well, filler.

Technically, the whole story is filler. Hastily assembled using the regular cast and minimal sets to bulk out the initial commission of thirteen episodes while the production team waited to discover their fate. But even so, yesterday we were given something really rather fantastic (an episode I'd never expected to rate so highly).

There's still a lot to like here, but most notably is the changes we see in the Doctor. I commented that Barabra's rant toward him yesterday is a real turning point for the character, and we see that in effect here. He's still the Doctor we've known for the most part so far to begin with, declaring that he'll put Ian and Barbara off the ship no matter where they are, but by the end he's a very different man.

It can be seen as he helps Barbara into her coat, and laughs with Ian - this is the kind of relationship I most closely associate with the opening of The Chase, quite some time later. By the end of this story, he's not talking of taking them home, and they're not asking about it. Simply; they've landed somewhere new, and they're off to explore it.

It's more than a bit of a shame that the whole plot boils down to the idea that there's a spring stuck in the TARDIS console, especially after we're teased with such great ideas in the first instalment. Still, it does its job, and sets us up nicely for the next adventure. I think that's the best way to think of this tale; it's a bridge between the 'old' version of the show and the version we'll be running with for a long time yet.

Today's entry has very much summed up my thoughts on the story as a whole, anyway, so I'll not be writing a separate piece to cover the two episodes together. Suffice to say that the story averages;

(Higher than I would have expected a fortnight ago!)

From tomorrow it's going to be a test as I venture into the recons for The Roof of the World.

12 January 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day Twelve - The Edge of Destruction (The Edge of Destruction, Episode One)

Dear diary,

During the 1960s, the cliffhanger reprises at the start of each episode weren't always clips from the last episode. On some occasions, they were re-filmed at the start of the next for one reason or another - usually helpful if the scene carries right on from there.

It's a shame, then, that this isn't one of those episodes to re-film those few moments, as the story opens with the built-in-a-corner version of the TARDIS, before we're treated to the full set for the remainder of the instalment.

I didn't really get a chance to discuss it under An Unearthly Child, but I really do love the original TARDIS. It's so gorgeous, and so vast! Don't get me wrong, I love most of the TARDIS console rooms down the years (I think the Five Doctors version is my favourite, still, though), but this one has a size and atmosphere to it that just dissipates as the show goes on.

It's great to see it as the main setting for a whole episode (and another to come), and another great chance to see our four regulars given a chance to shine. I'd not noticed before doing this marathon that the first episode of all these first stories feature (more-or-less) just our TARDIS crew and no other characters. It's nice, since they're all so wonderful.

I warned a few days ago that there's likely be a few moans about Susan as I make my way though, but actually there's been a lot to praise over the last couple of stories. Here, Carole Ann Ford really uses the opportunity of such an unusual story to go completely over-the-top with her performance, but to some extent - it works.

All the regulars are reacting in a different way to this most unusual of scripts. To begin with, Ford plays it as though she's simply drunk, before resorting to hysterics further down the line. Perhaps my favourite performance though, is William Russell. He plays it as being so disconnected from everything right the way though, a bit baffled by everything going on around him.

There's one thing I'd told myself not to mention when it came to this episode; the infamous 'scissors scene'. It's something that gets commented upon time and time again when someone undertakes one of these marathons, and I simply didn't want to add my thoughts to the pile.

Bloody hell, though, it is a bit much, isn't it? As i watched, I realised I'd have to mention it - because it's really quite alarming. THe tension has already started to build in the story before we reach this point, but the way Ian turns around to find Susan stood beside the bed, scissors in hand ready to attack…

It doesn't help, either, that they're particularly long and sharp scissors! You could do some real damage with these things! There's another scene later on, where Susan holds the scissors ready to attack Barbara, which I think gets less of a look in when people talk about it, but both are quite dramatic. It's hard to believe that they allowed it on TV in 1964, and you definitely can't imagine it being allowed onto screens these days. Forget the Daleks, the scariest thing in the series so far is Susan wielding a sharp instrument!

Throughout the early days of Doctor Who, people always hunt for the magical moment that the character becomes the Doctor that we're most familiar with from the rest of the series. I've touched briefly this week on the fact that the character has already lightened up a lot since the first episode, but this one sees him very much back in his original role.

He's dark, and sinister, accusing Ian and Barbara of tampering with the ship, and (presumably) drugging them to keep them out of the way while he can figure out what the problem is.

For all that, though, there's a moment in this episode which, I feel, is the most key when it comes to the Doctor's evolution as a character, and it's the moment when Barbara tells him off. I feel it's worth quoting her speech here, as it's one of the very best we've seen in the series, and Jacqueline Hill gives perhaps her best performance to date to deliver it;

“How dare you? Do you realise, you stupid old man, that you'd have died in the Cave of Skulls if Ian hadn't made fire for you? And what about what we just went through with the Daleks? Not just for us, but you and Susan, too. And all because you tricked us. Accuse us? You ought to go down on your hands and knees and thank us!”

This is definitely one of the most surreal episodes that the show has ever given us, but it's one of the best, too, if only for the chance to see our team really sinking their teeth into things again.

8/10 
11 January 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day Eleven - The Rescue (The Daleks, Episode Seven)

Dear diary,

I've never noticed it before, when watching the stories all in one sitting, but the cliffhanger reprises at the start of the episodes are actually pretty damn useful, aren't they? As the titles played out on today's instalment, I became very aware that I couldn't actually remember how we left things yesterday, but a few seconds of the recap and it all came flooding back to me.

I complained yesterday that our whiny Thal had been irritating me for a while, but here he nobly sacrifices himself to ensure the rest of the party have a chance to continue onwards. It's a great moment, and really allows him to die with dignity. It's far more moving than any of the deaths we have in the final battle (though more on that later).

In his book The Writer's Tale, Russell T Davies says that it's important for characters to have flaws, as it makes it all the more wonderful when they overcome them. He gives the example of Rose Tyler being selfish - so her best moments come when she is completely selfless. This is the idea in motion during this death. We've witnessed fear and cowardice throughout the last episode, and here it's all made worthwhile by the single act of self-sacrifice.

I can't help but think that if the death itself had been the cliffhanger, with the final shot being of Ian staring over the edge into the abyss below, then it may have been more memorable, and packed more impact.

I do have to take issue with the final battle here, though. It feels very much like after they've managed to break into the Dalek city, it's all a bit too easy. It's a scene replicated in Journey's End, the Doctor's companions working together (and here with the Thals, too) to overcome the Daleks, shutting off their power and kicking them into a corner.

It's a shame that after such a long time of building them up to be these imposing creatures, they're defeated with the flick of a few switches at the end. I wonder if things would have worked better had this episode been given over entirely to a final battle? The few Thal deaths we do witness during it feel completely arbitrary, just there to make the stakes seem higher.

It's especially laughable when it's described moments later as 'The Final War'!

I'm glad that there's enough time at the end to include a proper 'goodbye' scene, though. In the last story, the TARDIS crew departed in a hurry, running for their lives and fleeing in the ship. Here, they've made friends, and they get to properly see them go. Susan's given a present, Barbara gets a kiss and the Doctor gets to fill them with hope about the possibilities of the future.

He's very clearly a different character already to the one I first met just over a week ago, and different, too, to the version at the start of this story. Here, he's far more kind-hearted - pleased that he's managed to help the Thals, and excited by the possibility to build a new world.

The whole team has changed, really, and this is exemplified in the final scene aboard the TARDIS, where they seem perfectly casual with one another, ready for the next adventure instead of worrying about how to get home. It's a shame to see that the set has been created in miniature in the studio, as the size of the TARDIS during this era is one of the best things about it.

At least the next story has plenty of opportunity to show it off…

As for the story as a whole…? Well, I've enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

Watching an episode a day has already started to become an interesting way of viewing the series, as it's allowing my time to sit and digest everything I'm seeing, instead of heading right into the next part. The Daleks is certainly better in the first half than it is in the latter, and I think this is what's ruined previous viewings of the serial.

Watched as one, it could start to feel a bit like running through treacle towards the end, but taken at a slower pace (as intended), you realise that there's plenty to love as you go along.

I certainly think there's some changes that could be made to have some more impact - as I've mentioned above, the final battle needs a bit more room to breathe, and Episode Five is far too padded for my liking. Perhaps the first three episodes could tell the story of the TARDIS crew exploring and escaping from the Dalek city, Episodes Four - Six could be the struggle to get back inside (it's supposed to be a near-impossible feat, after all!), and then Episode Seven could feature the battle on a larger scale?

Still, I'm pleased to have enjoyed it more, and I'm really glad that I'd not gotten sick of it by the end as I had with An Unearthly Child.

Next Episode: The Edge of Destruction

10 January 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day Ten - The Ordeal (The Daleks, Episode Six)

Dear diary,

Well, the good news is that yesterday seems to have been a bit of a blip. I've found myself enjoying today's instalment much more again. It's not all been plain sailing - I started the episode with a heavy heart, worried that I'd not be able to get the momentum back for the rest of this story, but actually (and this isn't a sentence I expected to ever say), watching a group of people make their way through a system of caves is rather good.

I think it's helped that unlike yesterday's episode, in which most of the running time was spent with characters telling us what's going on, or what has been going on, or what will be going on, today has seen our two distinct groups take action.

Before I talk about the stuff in the caves, I'm going to focus a bit on the Doctor and his little 'team'. The Doctor here is far closer to the man we've come to love over the years, taking a gleeful delight in breaking the Daleks' equipment when he thinks he's putting them out of action. I love the way he happily smashes away at their power supplies with the end of his walking stick.

I'm less keen on the idea that they can hide in the heart of the petrified jungle and make a (fairly detailed, it would seem) map of the Dalek city. A few episodes ago, they had to be right on the edge of the jungle before they could see it, and it was at least an hour's trek away. Equally, I'm sure that the Daleks' sensors could only reach the edge of the jungle. Have they boosted their power or something, and I've just missed it?

Either way, the shot of the Daleks surrounding the Doctor and Susan is fantastic, and should, I think, be more iconic that it is. There's also a fantastic scene where the pair are forced to sit cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by the Daleks. It's well shot, and helps to make the creatures seem especially menacing.

On the whole, there's a lot of rather good direction in this episode. Some of the shots during the cave sequences is very well done - there's a great shot of one of the Thals jumping the ravine, with the camera positioned behind him, so you can see all the way down to Ian in the distance, and across a ravine.

I praised the set design yesterday, commenting that it didn't look as though it was filmed in a tight studio. There's lots of good stuff on display here, too, with several shots framed specially to make the tunnels look long and thin. They feel dangerous, too, and we're shown just how tricky they can be to traverse at several points throughout the story.

Antodus, a Thal who's feeling more than a little out of his depth, has irritated me a lot of the way through the episode. He's spent most of it complaining that he can't go on with the adventure, and looking for excuses to turn around and run away back to the other Thals in the jungle. Actually, though, he's the person I'd be if I were on this adventure. Maybe that's why he bothers me?

Still, we end the episode with him dangling from a cliff, so perhaps he'll have less to whine about tomorrow?

Next Episode - The Rescue

9 January 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day Nine - The Expedition (The Daleks, Episode Five)

Dear diary,

The bubble had to burst some time, didn't it? I'm not sure what it was, but tonight's episode just didn't really grab me in the same way that the first four instalments of The Daleks did. Perhaps my elation at enjoying the story for the first time yesterday was premature?

I think it lost me towards the beginning, during long discussions about the morality of asking the Thals to fight the Daleks, simply to get back the Fluid Link. It's an argument we had yesterday (not quite, but along the same lines), but there it was much more succinct. Here it just seems to drone on, between Ian and Barbara, then Ian and the Doctor, then Ian and the Thals, then the Thals themselves…

By the time things really got moving, I'd already let my attention slide. It's not all doom and gloom, though, but I do have one more little niggle before I talk about the good stuff.

The cardboard cut-outs of the Daleks are quite effective the first time they appear on screen. No, really, they are! When they're all pointing toward the camera, you could actually mistake them for other Dalek props. Well, if you squint.

What you have to remember, though, is that I'm watching this episode on a 21" iMac, in a darkened room, and using a print that the Restoration Team have spruced up for DVD release. Watched on a grainy 1960s black-and-white TV (and trust me, I know, we used to have one in our apart room while I was growing up), it would have been quite effective.

It's later, though, when you see them from an angle and realise just how thin they are, that the effect if ruined. There's even one shot where there's two practically leant against a wall! A shame, as there's some shots of the city in close-up during this episode, which just help to reaffirm my comments yesterday about the success of the effects in the tale.

Anyway; time for some better stuff. Ian tempting the Thals into battle is well handled, and it gives Williams Russell an chance to really shine. I'm on Ian's side of the argument, though. Much as the travellers need the TARDIS to leave the planet, it is more than a little selfish to ask the Thals to risk their lives to help them.

The swap setting is rather well done; it really is tricky to tell that this series is made in a studio as small as it was. There's another chance to get some good effects in, as they gaze across the lake to the Dalek's water pipes, and the use of dripping water in places really helps to sell the effect.

One other thing to note - the Doctor muses that his 'little trick [with the Fluid Link] has really rebounded on me'. Not half! It it wasn't for his curiosity in the first episode, he'd possibly not have met the Daleks for a long time!

Ho hum, hoping tomorrow returns some enjoyment to the story for me…

Next Episode - The Ordeal

8 January 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day Eight - The Ambush (The Daleks, Episode Four)

Dear diary,

If there's one thing I could change about this marathon, it would be how much I know about Doctor Who.

For the early years of the programme, each episode had its own individual title (much like the modern series), but because each story was spread over several weeks, the viewer never quite knew how long each narrative was going to last for.

Now, I know that The Daleks is a seven-episode-story, so I know that there's still another 75 minutes of story to go, but if I'd not been so sure about the length of the stories, then today's cliffhanger would have had a bit more impact. The first story was four episodes long, and since this one builds up to the TARDIS crew headed back to the ship until the last thirty seconds or so, I'd have been in the same mind about this story, I'm sure.

As it is, the cliffhanger feels weak. I know the story's not over, so it feels like a way to extend it pointlessly.

Still, this isn't the complaint it might appear to be. By the time I'd reached the fourth episode of An Unearthly Child, I was bored of the setting, bored of the guest cast, bored of the story and more than ready to move onto something new. I worried briefly that this may turn out to be the case with all the stories - that I'd become so used to watching a Doctor Who in one or two sittings to the point I couldn't enjoy it in this way.

Thankfully, though, and still much to my surprise, I'm still enjoying this one. I've spent the day eager to get home and tune in, and I'm already looking forward to tomorrow. Huzzah!

It helps that, quality wise, this story has remained pretty damn consistent for me. I've been enjoying it all along, and while it's not quite perfect, it's certainly better than some tales. Today's instalment continues to give me things to smile at, and I'm particularly keen to focus on one aspect; the effects.

Back in the first episode of this tale, I commented that the Dalek city looked pretty good, and that the props themselves were rather well made, too. In this episode, we're treated to several special effects - certainly more than we've had in the series up to now.

The lift looks fantastic - I'm assuming here that they've not built an actual lift in the studio, but have created it with some camera trickery? Maybe someone more familiar with it can let me know in the comments? Though the shots panning down the lift shaft as it rises and falls do become a bit repetitive after a while.

Especially impressive, though, is the effect of the wall being blistered when a Dalek gun hits it. Done with some form of split-screen effect, it works surprisingly well. Though we don't get actual rays from the Daleks' guns for some time yet, this story does a perfectly valid job of making them seem like a powerful weapon.

The Daleks cutting through the door to reach the TARDIS team is just one of the shots from this story that gets visually referenced many years later for Chris Eccleston's swan song Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways (The other being the first shot of the Daleks' sucker arm in Episode One), and it works just as well here as it did in 2005.

Aside from the effects, the music has also been particularly good this time around. There's a scene where the Daleks hide from the Thals, and their movement in unison out of sight, coupled with the effect of the incidental music really helps sell the tension of the scene. It's fairly easy to see why the Daleks were considered so scary at this stage - here, they're not the single-person tanks they'll later become, but scheming, manipulative little creatures encased in metal.

The Doctor has softened a bit here - already he's becoming a different man to the one I met a week ago at the start of this experiment. When he sits with the Thal woman, looking over the history of Skaro, there's a wonderful mix ofd the excited explorer I enjoyed so much at the start of the last story and the cuddlesome grandfather he'll later become.

And yet, there's still flashes of the original Doctor in here. The debate over weather they should stay and help the Thals or simply leave while they have the chance ('The Thals are no business of ours') is strongly reminiscent of the same debate in the last story, with the teams still being equally drawn.

Still, I'm glad to see that this story isn't wearing me down in the way I'd expected. I'm certainly enjoying it more this time around than during any other watch I've ever done of it…

Next Episode: The Expedition

7 January 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day Seven - The Escape (The Daleks, Episode Three)

Dear diary,

A complaint that I often see levelled at the classic series is that it's pacing is just far too slow and plodding. I tried to get my girlfriend to watch an episode once, and she'd practically fallen asleep before the end of Part One.

Now, I've got a bit more of a tolerance for the pace of 60s telly. I'd say around half my DVD collection is stuff from the 50s/60s, so I'm used to watching telly at that pace on a day-to-day basis. Except for Doctor Who.

For some reason, I always seem to sit and watch a classic Who story in a single sitting. You know what? It really doesn't do it justice. Frankly, I'm shocked that I've reached the end of Episode Three of The Daleks, and I'm still thoroughly enjoying it. It's been a while since I last saw it, but I seem to remember being more than a little bored with it by this point.

Taking things an episode a day, though, I'm really enjoying the way that the story is building. Each episode is slowly introducing us to another element. In the first episode, we've got the jungle and the city, then the Daleks show up in part two. At the start of this episode, we're introduced to the Thals, and more of them arrive during these 25 minutes.

This particular instalment also sees us given lots of backstory to both our guest races for the tale. We're given something of a history lesson via Susan and Alydon, and start to understand more about them.

What's interesting is how easily you forget the Daleks' story while watching. I know them as the scourge of the galaxy, feared by everyone and main enemy of the Doctor. While watching along, though, you quickly forget all of that, and find yourself swept up in the thrust of the story.

Aside from the introduction of new elements, the story itself is moving along at a comfortable pace for me. We've had the regulars locked up in a cell for the best part of two episodes, but the end of this one (as the title suggests) sees them making a break from their prison, via the inside of a Dalek casing.

And it all feels just right. The speed at which the Doctor and Ian deduce how Daleks work, before closely studying one bringing them food, is spot on - just long enough for it not to be easy for them, but not so long that you tire of their deductions. The same is true of the story involving the radiation sickness. In some respects, it feels like they've been sick for ages, but actually it's only been the last 45 minutes or so.

There's lots of little things to love in this episode, like the iris on the Daleks' eyes moving. I'd not noticed it before in this story, but it's quite unsettling when it contracts in during the Daleks' speech about giving the TARDIS team sleep, food, and false hope.

Then there's the first almost-mention of the Daleks' most famous catchphrase - when one suggests that the solution for the prisoners breaking the camera is 'extermination, then?'.

I also want to draw attention to Carole Ann Ford in this one. I mentioned earlier in the week that I'm not a great Susan fan, and it bugged me yesterday when she scoffs at the suggestion there could be something inside the Dalek casing, but it has to be said - she's great here.

She's very much the focus of this episode, meeting Alydon outside the TARDIS at the start, and being the go-between for him and the Daleks, while also being present in the cell for the rest of the narrative. She's obviously had a very busy evening in the studio this week!

But it pays off. The moment when she explains to the Daleks that she's signed their message 'Susan' because it's her name is the best performance we've had from her since the very first episode. She's really relishing having a lot to do.

And then a cliffhanger that wills me forward. I'm looking forward to the next episode, but I'm happy to wait until tomorrow. This is starting to feel like a vital part of my evening, now…

Next Episode - The Ambush

6 January 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day Six - The Survivors (The Daleks, Episode Two)

Dear diary,

Doctor Who and the Daleks. It's always 'and the Daleks', isn't it? When people at work find out I'm a fan of the show (not that it's any real secret. The last couple of weeks, colleagues have actively been seeking me out to say how much they loved the Christmas special, as if I'll feed it back to the production team), they always make comment about remembering the show from childhood. And then they tell me how mud they loved the Daleks.

My friend Phil (Born 23rd of November, 1963, which officially makes him cool!) is always coming up with new tidbits. 'Was there one with the Daleks in an old Victorian house?' 'What's the one where the soldiers come back from the future, and there's Daleks in the sewers?' 'Didn't they team up with the Master one time?'.

Even my mum, who can't bear the show, has memories of hurriedly leaving the room when the pepper pots from Skaro arrived on the scene.

The point I'm trying to make is that the Daleks are absolutely synonymous with Doctor Who. What's so magical about them is that they're the first aliens to appear in the series, aside from the Doctor and Susan. Every other alien adversary the Doctor has faced has come after he fought the Daleks.

And it's lovely to see just how many hallmarks of Dalek law actually appear in this story. The design, the voice, the 'heartbeat' noise in the heart of their city… all these things survive to this day. Oh, sure, they've changed a bit down the years - the Daleks are rarely as articulate as we find them during this episode, but they're still basically the same creatures.

I have to confess, I love their first appearance here. Discounting the plunger at the end of the last episode (and it's really hart to imagine how scary that would have been on first transmission. Would anyone have really guessed it might be an alien? Or did a nation of children think Babs was being menaced by a plumber?), we don't see them until the Doctor, Susan and Ian emerge into a room full of them.

And there's the style of these models. There's something wonderful about the 1960s Daleks - it's no wonder that Big Finish choose to use them for the majority of their audio plays. Equally, Steven Moffat has recently sung their praises, claiming that the Daleks work best when they're small like this. Ironically.

But, before we go much further, and before I appear to be a real Dalek fanboy… I have a confession to make.

My name is Will, and I don't really like the Daleks.

Yes, yes, I know! I've just waxed lyrical about how they're the iconic villains, how great they look, how important it is for the Doctor to have this enemy… but I just… don't care for them. Give me a Cyberman any day.

Which is why I'm pleasantly surprised with how much I'm enjoying this story so far. By stripping things back to the pace of an episode a day, I'm finding myself able to concentrate on things other than the fact that this is 'the first Dalek story'. I went in expecting to be a bit bored by the whole piece, but actually - what we've had so far is quite good!

The Daleks here are interesting, because I'm seeing them with more personality than I'm used to, and I'm switching off before Dalek fatigue sets in. In many ways, like the last episode, this is 25 minutes focussed on just out four main characters. The Daleks are there, too, but it's hard to engage with them - being faceless machines and all.

The cast is still giving it plenty of enthusiasm and effort. All of them are on fine form still, but throwing an enemy into the mix gives them something to play off. Doctor Who at this stage still feels more like a serial than it usually does. The characters are growing, and they refer back to recent events. It's almost soap-like, with the TARDIS team as the central family of focus.

One other thought, without much of a home. I love the way the TARDIS doors open, and the jungle is just there, outside. There's something magical about that, and I'm so glad it's been brought back for the 21st century series. A black void beyond the doors just isn't as inspiring as this is, and while it's only a product of the way the set's been constructed, I love that the roundels glow when the lighting flares outside.

Next Episode - The Escape

5 January 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day Five - The Dead Planet (The Daleks Episode One)

Dear diary,

I couldn't wait to get home today and start this one. Can't tell you how happy that makes me. Historically, I've never been that fond of The Daleks as a story (or as creatures, but we'll come to that in a day or two), but today, it was all I could think about to get home and stick another episode of Doctor Who on. I'm five days in and already it's just becoming a part of the routine. This pleases me no end.

In some ways, it's because I'm predisposed to like The Dead Planet. Like the very first episode of the series, it's one featuring (more-or-less) just our regular four characters. I've praised them enough this week to not need do it again here, but I love them being given a chance to shine like this.

The Doctor's back in his adventurer/scientist/explorer role, as we saw during The Cave of Skulls; eager to get out and examine the petrified jungle. Once he catches sight of the city below, there's no question about it - he has to go and explore. Of course, doing this leads to a life-long battle with a group of evil pepper pots, but still, for now he's as excitable as a child.

His whole character has mellowed somewhat here, too. He's still not the Doctor we know and love (and won't be for some time, yet), though he's got his darker side. Removing the Fluid Link and draining the supply of mercury, just to have an excuse to visit the city, against the wishes of his three companions? That's devious, but it's wonderful. He's lighter, though, in general. He laughs a few times here, and seems - at times - to genuinely enjoy having Ian and Barbara with him in the jungle.

When they find the metallic creature frozen to the rocks, he chides Ian for not being able to conceptualise it, though seems to relish the chance to explain it to him. Equally, he's softer towards Barbara, asking her to talk with his granddaughter, and even admitting that the age gap can be something of a problem between them.

This whole episode feels more like Doctor Who than anything we had during the last story. There, they were dumped into the strange new environment and instantly victims of circumstance. Here, they have a bit more time to explore and actively engage with the adventure. It feels like the whole of An Unearthly Child was there to set things up, and now we can be on our way with the adventure.

There's a few other things I want to draw attention to, but I don't have much to say about them, really. One is the model of the city. I've seen people talk of how rubbish it is; but actually, I really like it! It's got a very 1960s sci-fi feel to it, but it's very well realised. This episode was remounted and re-shot a few weeks after the first recording, so I'm guessing it allowed them more time to work on the model. While I'm on the subject, the shot of the TARDIS team looking over the valley toward the city works very very well. So n'yer.

The second thing I wanted to draw attention to, and sticking with the theme of 1960s sci-fi, is the TARDIS' Food Machine. What a wonderfully 60s idea. I love that the food comes out in little blocks and that Ian is surprised by this. I can't imagine this particular set of TARDIS occupants getting their food any other way, so I'm more than happy to see it here. I can't remember it showing up on many other occasions (though a few spring to mind), but it's perhaps my favourite bit of TARDIS kit.

Ian and Babs must be shattered by the time they get some sleep in this episode, mind. They taught a whole day at Coal Hill, followed a pupil home and then spent several hours playing capture and escape with some cavemen. I'm surprised they didn't slap the Doctor when he first suggested they go explore the city below…

Next Episode - The Survivors

4 January 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day Four - The Firemaker (Episode Four)

Dear diary,

I'm only four days in, and watching Doctor Who in this way is already having an effect on me. I'm used to watching the 'classic' series in one sitting, or at least a few sittings across a single day/weekend. My pattern for the last nine years has been to buy the DVD, rush it home and watch it, for the most part.

But on the way back from work earlier on, pondering what to cook for dinner before sitting down to watch The Firemaker, I realised; I was ready to move on from the whole cave man set up and see something different. Not that I've not been enjoying it - I have - but I've just had enough of this setting.

It feels as though I've been watching this particular story for absolutely ages, rather than just a few days. It's a strange sensation, and I'm not sure I entirely dislike it. It's far closer to the experience of watching the programme week-by-week on first transmission. I'll defer to older fans for this, as I wasn't born until the show's dying years in the 1980s; did stories seem to stretch on for ever? This would have taken a month to watch in 1963, and the next story would have taken almost two!

I've therefore spent much of the afternoon wondering why I'm feeling this way. As I've said above, I'm still enjoying this story, despite the slight blip in Episode Two, but at the same time, every time Za and Her come on the screen, I just want to move onto something different.

I'm wondering if it may be the weight that this story holds? This is the very first story, so obviously it has to do an awful lot. It establishes huge swathes of the series (and the next story makes another huge contribution to that), but it's quite unlike anything else the series has ever done.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that the cave-men-looking-for-the-secret-of-fire storyline is mere window dressing. This whole story is about the Doctor and Ian, and the way that they interact together. Ian tells the tribe that he is not the leader of their group, but there's an on-going power struggle with the Doctor right up until the end of the story and their return to the TARDIS.

The story is very much about these characters and the way that they interact with each other. I've commented before that the first episode of the series didn't feel especially distinct from a lot of 190s telly, and this is true to some extent as far as this episode. Yes, we've been through time and space to get here, but it's still not particularly 'out there'.

With the next tale standing at almost twice the length, I'm interested to see if I'll end up with the same feeling of simply wanting to move on with things.

Now comes the interesting bit, where I'm going to have to sum up my thoughts on the story over-all. I've been rating episodes individually as I go, which was the main reason for doing this marathon an episode a day. I'm interested to see how I react to stories where one episode lets them down, or picks them up.

Taking the ratings for An Unearthly Child, The Cave of Skulls, The Forest of Fear and The Firemaker, I'll be giving this story (which I'm titling over-all as An Unearthly Child, no arguments, please);

Do expect some graphs and charts and figures once we reach key stages in the marathon. Love a bit of figure analysis, me. There'll be some thoughts about my ratings system at the bottom of today's post, too.

I think, on the whole, I like An Unearthly Child, but it's just not Doctor Who as we know it. I like a lot of it because of the history and what it begins. I've mentioned a few times that people often say it's one episode, followed by three mediocre ones, but actually, there's a lot to love.

As I seem to keep saying, these episodes are about the characters themselves. Doctor Who characters aren't often given as much thought and development as our quartet are in this story, and it's lovely to see. At the end of these few episodes, I feel I know the Doctor and Ian well enough, though Barbara has had little to do overall.

My main complaint, I guess, comes down to format. I stated yesterday that Episode Three avoided the trap of being 'capture-escape-capture', but looking back, that's very much the whole story. They're captured by the tribe in Episode Two, escape for Episode Three, are re-captured for Episode Four, before making another escape.

It's not the end of the world, though, and I'm glad to say that I'm excited to be moving on to a new time and space, so perfectly teased in the final moments of this story…

* * *

And now, a word on my rating system. Often online, I see ratings of '9' or '10' being thrown about far too easily. I've seen it said in some forums that people wouldn't rate a story below a '6'.

To me, though, this simply defeats the point of rating something out of ten in the first place! Surely '10' is the absolute pinnacle, '1' the nadir, and '5' just pretty average? I've been rating these episodes as I go along purely on gut instinct. An Unearthly Child, for me, contains a couple of episodes that are little more than average, and a couple that rise above that.

So, this is my scale of '1-10' ratings. I'll be using these definitions in my mind as I continue in the marathon…

10 - Perfect. The absolute pinnacle.
9 - They don't get much better than this.
8 - Fantastic!
7 - Well above average.
6 - Above Average.
5 - Average.
4 - Below Average.
3 - Poor.
2 - Dreadful.
1 - Why am I doing this, again?

3 January 2013
 

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day Three - The Forest of Fear (Episode Three)

Dear diary,

A lot gets made in this episode about the moment that the Doctor prepares to kill a caveman to make his escape. So much is made of it, in fact, that in my head it's this big moment where he picks up a large rock and holds it above the man's skull.

Of course, in actual fact, it's little more than the Doctor picking up the stone and turning it in his hand. His intention is clear, and when Ian asks the Doctor what he's doing, neither one of them says it aloud, but they're both aware of what could have happened. It's better this way, than the version in my head. Far more subtle. The entire interaction is sold on the skills of Hartnell and Russell, their interaction and the direction of the brief scene.

This is a stronger episode than the last - far more enjoyable. Even the scenes with the cave people were more to my taste, and I wonder if it's simply because I'm getting into the story more? It's certainly not got the problems that many later Doctor Who stories develop in Episode Three, where it becomes little more than a sequence of capture-and-escape.

Here, we're presented with an episode mostly involving our heroes running away from their enemies, and then coming around to help them. It may not sound all that far removed from a traditional Episode Three, but here we're treated to a hefty dose of character development.

It's often held up as something that the modern incarnation of Doctor Who does very well, but here it's in evidence just three weeks in. The Doctor and Ian are still suspicious of each other, but they've softened. The Doctor is being stubborn for the sake of it, and Ian simply refuses to let him get away with it.

But the Doctor is already warming to his new companions. He tells Barbara that 'fear makes companions of us all', and that's certainly in evidence here. He agrees with Ian that they must remain hopeful of an escape, and he tries to comfort his fellow travellers before they're set free from the cave.

He reverts somewhat to being less helpful when faced with the prospect of helping the cavemen. Having watched as his would-be-captor is mauled by a wild animal, he's very willing to use the opportunity to escape for freedom. Ian is of the same opinion - it's Barbara and then Susan who convince them otherwise.

Like the sequence with the stone, much gets written about how the Doctor at this stage in the series is so very far removed from the hero figure we know and love from much of the show's history. This is the first example of why it's Ian and Barbara that turn him around, teach him to be more forgiving of others and more willing to help.

We'll see this theme coming up more and more over the next few weeks, but it's nice to see that it's already begun as early as this.

Next Episode: The Firemaker

2 January 2013
 

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day Two - The Cave of Skulls (Episode Two)

Dear diary,

The common conception of An Unearthly Child as a story is that it's a brilliant first episode, followed by three instalments of dross. I've always riled against this - I love to be a bit different, after all. That said, the scenes with Kal and Za fighting over leadership of their tribe are bloody dull.

The first few minutes of the episode, following an extended reprise of the fabulous cliffhanger from yesterday are just boring. There's no other word for it. Watching Za (The son of the great Fire-maker, don't-cha-know) rub his hands above a pile of sticks, while promising that today is the day the Great Orb will show him the secret of fire is… well…

I should explain. I've set myself a few rules for this marathon, aside from the whole 'no more than one episode a day' thing. One of these rules is that I'm not allowed to play with my phone at all while I watch. If I'm busy playing Angry Birds, then I'm not realign getting the full benefit of watching through, am I? Anyway, the point is that it's not a good sign if three-and-a-half minutes into an episode, I'm glancing toward my phone and wondering if it's too early to break that rule.

Things do pick up once we join our four time travellers in the TARDIS, though. Yesterday, I commented that there would be plenty of time to praise these four, and this seems like an ideal opportunity. The Doctor and Ian confronting each other around the TARDIS console is a marvellous scene; Ian simply refusing to hear what the Doctor is telling him (he almost goes full-on Victor Meldrew when Barbara tells him she's willing to accept it!), and the Doctor treating him as a child in return.

Hartnell and Russell really have a great time with this material, though you do rather side with Ian on the debate. Yes, fair enough, they've just entered a police box in a junk yard and found it to be bigger on the inside, but that's no reason to simply believe that they've actually moved just because the TV on the ceiling shows an image of a desert. For all Ian and Barbara know, the Doctor could be watching an episode of Zoo Quest.

The enjoyment continues outside the ship, when the travellers set off to explore. I love that the Doctor carries a bag with him, and that Susan insists he'd never go anywhere without his note book. The Doctor really comes across as a scientist, here, taking his geiger counter outside and seeming positively thrilled by the chance to study the rocks and find out where they are.

He spent a while in the last episode telling us how much he disliked being settled in 1963 (though he tolerates it), and so he's clearly enjoying the freedom here and now. His concern that the TARDIS hasn't changed shape to blend in with the surroundings is one of the lines from this story that's often quoted, but I've never noticed how much it's set up as a mystery.

I've always taken it for granted that the TARDIS looks like a London police box because it was stuck that way after a time in the junk-yard, but you forget that it's explained away like that so early. Susan later draws attention to it, commenting on how unusual it is to have not changed. It almost feels like they're setting this up as an on-going mystery, though I'm not sure if that's the case. I've never noticed it before, so I'll be interested to see if it's brought up again, or forgotten after this point. 

Now, Susan. I'm going to have to address this topic at some stage, so we might as well do it here, because it's already started. Susan really gets on my nerves. She's fairly hysterical in this one, when she finds the Doctor has gone missing, and there's a lot of shrieking, and jumping on cave people's backs.

Be warned. There's likely to be more than one moan about Susan over the next couple of months…

Next Episode - The Forest of Fear

1 January 2013
 

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Dear diary,

Hello! Happy New Year. 2013 - surely this is the year to be a Doctor Who fan? Anyway, resolutions made (same as ever, I promise to visit the gym more. I'll go later. Or maybe tomorrow.), and it's time to settle down to watch the first episode of my marathon.

Now, let's be under no illusions, right here from the start. I'm not coming to 'classic Doctor Who cold. Not even slightly. Since I saw my first episode way back in 2003 (weyhey! it's been a whole decade. I've only just noticed that!), I've seen a large chunk of televised Who. There's a few select stories that I know nothing about, but for the most part, I know what's coming.

This is especially true of An Unearthly Child. It's hard to imagine, with this year seeing the final few releases for the DVD range, but there was a time I didn't have (almost) the entire series sat on my shelf in shiny disc form. I didn't get to see this first episode until 2006, when the 'Beginning' box set was released. Since then, I've seen it plenty of times.

I like that I had to wait to watch it way back when! I can still remember picking it up from Woolworth's on my way to college, and some of my friends looking at it in a lecture. We'd had the Ninth Doctor by this point, but Doctor Who still wasn't 'cool' among most of my friends at the time. It took David Tennant to bring many of them into the fold.

But they were genuinely interested! Because here was a Doctor Who DVD of a story made some forty-three years earlier! Yes! It had that much history! Brilliant! Fantastic! And their excitement only made me more excited! It was bad enough that I had lectures and classes all day, I wanted to get home and watch the first episode!

Of course, the mistake I made upon actually getting home was to select 'play all' from the menu, so I watched the pilot episode first, assuming it was the first episode, then got very confused when the second instalment was the same thing with some subtle changes to it.

Since then, though, I've seen it plenty of times. It must be up there with The Five Doctors in terms of how often I've sat down to watch this episode. There's a common conception among Doctor Who fans that these 25 minutes are bloody brilliant, and some of the best the show has ever produced.

And you know what? Much as I'd love to be all contrary, they're right!

It's quite hard to watch this story in isolation. 50 years of history have attached a significance to this opening episode that it just wouldn't have had on its first television outing. I've read plenty of blogs that describe the opening shot, which tracks from a policeman in the fog, through the gates and unto the mysteriously humming Police Box as being 'iconic', but it simply wasn't. Not then, anyway.

We've given in this meaning in the years that have followed, because we know that 25 minutes later it'll be stood on a rocky plain, and then in a few weeks it'll be on Skaro, then captured by Marco Polo, before being sent off to Marinus, etc, etc. It's bloody difficult to take this episode for what it is; just another piece of TV.

This time round, though, I'm in the right frame of mind. Just before Christmas, Network DVD had a massive sale of their archive titles. I've spent the last few weeks sat in front of episodes of Danger Man, The Saint, 1960s episodes of Coronation Street and The Army Game. Just a few weeks ago, I was watching William Russell ride a horse around Camelot as Sir Lancelot!

My screen has been more black and white than it has been colour in the last month or so, and you know what? This episode fits right in. It doesn't feel ground-breaking. It's not iconic. It's just another piece of drama. It's very good drama, don't get me wrong, but in the context of the day, it's just another half-hour programme.

But you know what? It's better for that! I've never enjoyed this episode more than i have tonight. I've never seen it so detached from the weight of what's to come. There's plenty of good dialogue, and the four main cast turn in performances which I'm sure I'll be praising over the next few months, but it's a surprisingly low-key start to this most famous of series.

It's so very tempting to move right on. I know many people who watch this one episode and then skip the next three, but this first cliffhanger is a great one. This first episode might be little more than normal, but the last few seconds promise something bold and different to come…

Next Episode - The Cave of Skulls

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