Why I love 1960’s Doctor Who

Today is the 51st Anniversary of the broadcast of the first episode of Doctor Who. The series started the same year in which, according to the old rhyme, sexual intercourse began (between the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP apparently) and the day after the assassination of JFK. There are some people who regard 1963 as the beginning of the postmodern era. Perhaps that explains why the series has lasted so long, evolving through a variety of styles and with a central character who radically changes every few years. The fluidity that is such a vital part of postmodernism seem woven into the series’ very DNA. It also explains, I think, why there is something so special about those early episodes.

I was born in 1975, by which time Doctor Who had run for twelve years and Tom Baker was the series’ leading man. I only discovered the Sixties episodes through video and DVD releases and the occasional repeat. When I did find them though, I instantly connected with them. The visuals, however low budget, appealed to me enormously.This was a world of geometric sets, angular jungles and unwieldy yet aesthetically pleasing robots.

Mechanoid

Mechanoid (Doctor Who – The Chase)

To watch Sixties episodes of Doctor Who is to enter a different television landscape to the one we have now. One where everyone is rather middle class, women tend to scream and twist their ankles and a small set with a painted backdrop stands in for the Gobi Desert. And yet it’s also an imaginative and playful place, sometimes deliberately camp and comedic and at other times offering up visions of a post apocalyptic London laid waste by aliens and stalked by robotized zombies.

Daleks in the Wasteland (2)

Daleks in the Wasteland

At the heart of the series’ success in those early years lay two vital factors. Firstly, there were the Daleks. Of course. The Daleks remain the series’ most enduring and successful contribution to pop culture. Mutated aliens in armoured casings, obsessed with their own purity and the extermination of all other life. Creatures who have utterly disregarded the body and, perhaps unsurprisingly, tend to come up with the most gloriously outlandish schemes for universal conquest. As much as kids liked – and like – to be scared of the Daleks they’ve also always loved them. As many kids have pretended to be a Dalek as have ever pretended to be the Doctor.

The Daleks secured the popularity of Doctor Who in the Sixties, most notably in 1965 when Dalekmania swept the UK alongside Beatlemania (rather charmingly, a clip of the Beatles performing Ticket to Ride features in the third Dalek story ). They also demonstrate one of the most interesting aspects of those early years: the design work. Even with a tiny budget, Doctor Who at this point was noticeably referencing some of the most significant artistic movements of the time. Pop Art, Op Art and Minimal Art all make their presence felt . The results were often more conceptual than practically sound, which in a way added to the sense of a series being what we would now call on-trend. The Dalek design, which in some respect seems to make no sense and yet which is both beautiful and threatening is perhaps the ultimate Pop Art alien.

The other factor that helped establish the series’ popularity was its leading man.

The First Doctor

The First Doctor – William Hartnell

William Hartnell came to the role of the Doctor late in his career and was reportedly unhappy with many of the previous roles he had played, which tended to be gruff, authoritarian type. The initial idea for the Doctor was of an aloof and rather abrasive alien. Very quickly however, Hartnell softened the character, lending him a mischievous edge. While his Doctor could be vain and loved to be the centre of attention, often this was played with much the same twinkling humour that Tom Baker and David Tennant would later bring to the character. Hartnell shone in scenes where he was verbally jousting with a villain or a fool but he shone just as much when playing up the character’s foibles. An otherwise disappointing story set in the Wild West was saved by the superb comic timing of his performance.

Sadly, William Hartnell’s health deteriorated as the series went on and in his later episodes, his struggle is all too apparent. Nontheless, he was not only the first actor to play the character and win the love of the audience, he introduced aspects of the Doctor that future actors would return to.

As well as the Doctor and the Daleks there were of course many other weird and wonderful aliens and situations that appeared in the series during the mid Sixties. Few were to return in later years but in Hartnell’s very last story, The Tenth Planet, a race of cyborgs who were to haunt the Doctor on numerous occasions made their debut.

The Tenth Planet

The Cybermen – The Tenth Planet

The Cybermen who appeared in The Tenth Planet were very different to the more streamlined later versions. With cloth faces and clunky chest pieces, they were rather ungainly, even a little ramshackle. But their visible eyes and sing-song voices made them a grisly, tragic medical nightmare worthy of Mary Shelley.

These low budget and yet bold adventures had a big impact on me. They fired my interest in the visuals of the Sixties and they still influence some of my digital art. The sheer confidence of them, the inventiveness with such limited resources has been an inspiration too – it’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it. And most of all the willingness to experiment. Flying from the court of Nero to a world of fibreglass insects in the space of a few weeks takes real imagination.

So tonight I’ll be taking some time to watch William Hartnell, the very first leading man of Doctor Who, travelling forever through time and space.

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