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The Context of 'Doctor Who' Part 2


When Patrick Troughton took over as the Doctor in Doctor Who in 1966, the producers probably thought that they would be wrapping up the series soon. Never before had the lead character in a television series changed actor while a) still pretending to be the same man and b) acknowledging that there had been a change. This was the magic of ‘regeneration’: clearly, in shows before Doctor Who, a lead actor had been replaced, but either this had been glossed over in the script with the audience expected just to swallow the change and go along with it (as in the American sit-com Bewitched, in which the actor who played the husband was replaced with a look-alike without any mention of it in the show), or the new person was recognised to be a distinct character, not the same as the one who had departed. Only in Doctor Who was this remarkable transformation in the Doctor supposed to be a transformation in the character himself. His companions at that time, Ben and Polly, were as shocked as the rest of the watching nation as this new figure regained consciousness after the change had occurred:

The Doctor: [the Doctor awakens and mutters to himself] Slower. Slower. Concentrate on one thing. One thing. It's over. Hmm, hmm, hmm. It's over.

Ben: Doctor?

The Doctor: [the Doctor turns and stumbles over the console. Mutters to himself] The muscles are still a bit tight.

Ben: What are we gonna do?

Polly: It is the Doctor. I know it is... - I think.

We take this for granted, a dozen regenerations later - it’s part of the woof and warp of the series now. But in 1966 it was on a parallel with having King Lear suddenly regenerate into the Fool while remaining the same person: a ridiculous idea, surely? The first thought on the part of the millions watching, in the days before this kind of thing would have been ‘leaked’ via social media or even discussed beforehand through magazines, was that this must be a temporary change, part of the storyline - William Hartnell’s Doctor would be back soon enough, and all would be explained as part of some kind of techno-magical trick on the part of some enemy. Even those who suspected that Hartnell was very ill - and again, this would not have been very many back in the days before social media chatter - would have presumed that a new actor had been drafted in for a story or two to give Hartnell a rest. Someone as stable and central as the Doctor could not possibly be switched in this way. And even if he had been, surely it should have been with someone equally old and wise-looking? Geoffrey Bayldon had been approached but turned the part down, afraid of being typecast as an old man (ironically he would going on to achieve stardom as the ancient wizard Catweazle in his own show). Producers were taking an enormous risk by choosing a younger, almost completely different actor, who would portray aspects of a personality totally at odds with Hartnell’s interpretation.

And yet ‘The Power of the Daleks’ continued with no hint that anything would be reverted. The next story, ‘The Highlanders’ (now unfortunately entirely lost) also ended with no further reference to the First Doctor. To all intents and purposes, William Hartnell had really left the stage. There was a sadness, a nostalgia that ensued for a while: audiences wanted ‘their’ Doctor, the curmudgeonly grandfather figure, to return. It was a bit of a gear shift to go from him to the much more active, humorous and altogether more extroverted personality which Troughton portrayed (having struggled for a while with the idea of playing the character as a sea captain or even a pirate). And yet the switch was in some ways reflective of the times: gone was the old wise man to whom others had to be deferential, who represented in his appearance a bygone age; here was the more dishevelled, uncertain, sprightly character with a Beatles haircut, representing the post-Fab Four 60s. The Second Doctor was excited to travel, sought adventure for the sake of it, and was eager to show the wonders of the universe to his companions. He explained his approach to Victoria (Deborah Watling), after her father was killed by Daleks in an earlier episode:

Victoria: You probably can't remember your family.

The Doctor: Oh yes, I can when I want to. And that's the point, really. I have to really want to, to bring them back in front of my eyes. The rest of the time they... they sleep in my mind and I forget. And so will you. Oh yes, you will. You'll find there's so much else to think about. To remember. Our lives are different to anybody else's. That's the exciting thing, that nobody in the universe can do what we're doing.

Of course, this was hugely ‘centripetal’: the audience’s attention was not just drawn to the character of the Doctor himself, as opposed to the events of the story, it was magnetically stuck to this huge change for a period. Doctor Who as a show stood on the threshold of collapse: this radical experiment would either fail or transform the whole thing at its core.

It turned out to be a genius move: Troughton’s acting, generating so much warmth and charm, gradually bridged the gap and opened up a whole new aspect of the character, one which was to be profoundly influential from then on. ‘The Doctor’ was fundamentally redefined: he was to be able to be not just the ‘wise old man’ archetype, but a fool, a clown, a source of action and amusement rather than a mentor or scientifically dispassionate observer.

Introducing Jamie, the 18th century Scottish youngster, played by Frazer Hines, helped: Jamie could run around, fight, do things, and also, in his ignorance of even 20th century technology, act as a foil for the Doctor and other companions. Troughton’s and Hines’ chemistry was evident on screen and lasted for almost the entire duration of the Second Doctor’s tenure. Audiences warmed up.

But there was another sea-change, date-coincident with the Troughton-Hines partnership: the educational element which had been part of the series since its inception and which was encapsulated in the purely historical tales, died when Hines joined the Tardis crew. There was never again to be a story without a science fiction component. This was more deeply significant than was even perceived at the time: it marks a subtle but distinct change of genre for the show in its long history, from ‘educational historical drama with an entertainment feature thrown in’, to a piece of entertainment with no educational ‘duties’. In a sense, Doctor Who had thrown off the shackles of the post-war, authoritarian BBC, with its remit to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ and joined a freer, more psychedelic era in which the world, at least on television, was a source of amusement rather than a place in which to learn. Second Doctor stories cranked up the dial on aliens and action; Daleks in the Victorian era, Cybermen attempting to conquer the world through the sewer system and marching down the steps of St. Paul’s cathedral, Ice Warriors, the Yeti-controlling Great Intelligence attempting to invade London through the Tube network, all added up to a more dynamic period, one which seemed grounded more in the Britain of the late 60s. Like the Tardis itself, the show cut loose from the past and journeyed wherever it wished, often against the wishes of its supposed captain. As police boxes themselves disappeared from Britain's streets, so the Tardis became a thing unto itself.

The Doctor had become a rebel, and the show had become a diversion.

It’s perhaps hard for us now, looking back with the knowledge of hindsight, to appreciate that this was all built on the biggest and riskiest mystery of all: who was the Doctor? Very slight hints and clues had been given as to the character’s past, but even the writers didn’t have a back story for him. This didn’t matter when the emphasis was so much on the adventure itself - in fact, it enhanced the story. The lead character was a free agent in almost every sense, able to step in and out of time and space independent of any concern or framework. We were whisked along through wild adventures like the companions who briefly accompanied him, and when we returned to Earth we were none the wiser as to who he was. It was an exhilarating time, during which our attention was not on the Doctor but on the events which took place around him.

This was all soon to change. The centripetal motion which had started in Hartnell’s time was to suddenly grow very strong. It all came together in one supremely dramatic moment in the heart of an episode of the serial ‘The War Games’: the Doctor sits cross-legged and meditates. A cube appears, piece by piece in front of him, then vanishes. Jamie asks what he is doing, and the Doctor tells him that he is sending a message to his own people.

This was a shockwave at least equivalent in power to the departure of Hartnell: we had never had any link of this kind to the Doctor’s background before. On tenterhooks, young (and old) audience members around the country watched (in the sure and certain knowledge that television at that time was ephemeral and that there was no ‘record’ button or recourse to DVDs or YouTube) as the Doctor summoned the Time Lords.

Doctor Who was about to set off in a completely new and different direction again.

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