Directed by Derek Martinus
Written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis
134 episodes in and we have the biggest and most important moment of the show’s history. Doctor Who was no stranger to turnover by this point with eight companions having left the show already, but losing your lead actor, who is the last remaining original actor (and the only one with more than 12 episodes of experience) and the actor who essentially portrays the title character (or at least the character the title refers to) is a pretty damn huge change. Not only that but through the process of regeneration, it opened the show up to so much more. From a practical standpoint, the show certainly wouldn’t have lasted over 50 years if they couldn’t replace the lead actor now and again (unless of course this is Coronation Street) but in addition the process of regeneration kept the show fresh for years and established the Doctor as so much more than an old-time traveler. For one thing, this was the first confirmation that the Doctor was an alien. Sure, the show had confirmed he was from another planet and from the future before, but it had always either played coy with, or flat out claimed that he was, the question of if he was human.
The change was necessitated for one by the fact that William Hartnell was in his late 50s, of failing health, and unable to handle the heavy shooting schedule. Even dating back to Season 1, Hartnell’s health frequently forced him to disappear for spells and led to one of his most defining traits (though there’s always been the possibility that it was merely an act) his forgetfulness and stammering. While it forced the show to become far more thoughtful (and bring in action oriented companions in Ian and Steven) since the amount of action he could perform was minimal, it is certainly limiting to the show not to have much of an option there aside from the occasional Doctor beat down.
This is as good a time as any to take a look back on Hartnell’s run and the way his character developed, especially after Season 1. For much of that season, the Doctor was a bit of a jerk to everyone, argued regularly with his companions, and was generally arrogant. The arrogance never went away but it became a far more lovable part of his character. His care for and desire to have around the people under his charge seemed to waver, but his relationship with them became far less hostile. The show as a whole also built through some early growing pains as it figured out exactly what kind of show it was with the historicals brought on by the original education mission struggling with the sci-fi elements that were what worked best. By this point though, everything was comfortable as you basically knew what you’d get in terms of story even if the quality never ironed itself out (though quality between episodes did seem to level out and there were far less good episodes buried in weak serials and vice versa).
The serial also introduces us to the second biggest foes of the Doctor in the Cybermen. The Daleks had already appeared in five serials and represented 29 out of the first 126 episodes. While the quality of each was still up there, they were in danger of becoming overexposed (a problem NuWho certainly has never had to deal with…) and frankly the series had yet to come up with another quality recurring antagonist they could build episodes around. Even the Monk was consigned to a support role of the Daleks in his second appearance and would never be seen again. That’s not to say the Cybermen were all that great to start, because frankly they look pretty bad even by the standard of the show. Not Sensorites bad but far too close to them in appearance except with the awful facial hair replaced with some pathetic looking machinery. Tetsuo: The Iron Man this is not. Their silly dialogue delivered in a robotic almost sing song voice frequently starts before they even have a chance to open their mouths. As a concept, though, humans whose bodies were gradually replaced by cybernetic parts in an attempt to prolong their lives is a great one. They don’t understand why humans would want mortality or emotions, their ability to overcome such limitations is their civilization’s greatest success.
Set on Earth in 1986 in Antarctica (80’s Antarctica being a hotbed of alien activity) at the International Space Command headquarters and picking up where the last serial ended, the series deals with a mysterious approaching planet and mankind’s first contact with an alien race. The planet Mondas, which is literally just an upside-down Earth with no clouds, is the dying home world of the Cybermen. The soldiers at the outpost are understandably suspicious of a bunch of random people who appear randomly in Antarctica especially when one of them knows what is going wrong before they even do and Doctor Who has a habit (understandably so since it would get repetitive quick) of kind of breezing over just how weird it must be for the people on the other end of these encounters.
The Cybermen intend to steal energy from Earth until it is all gone but their plan gets somewhat muddy, possibly due to them lying to try and get what they want but at various times they seem to want to just wait until they’ve devoured all the energy, taking the humans to Mondas to make them into Cybermen, and destroying Earth so Mondas can survive. There’s also a Z-Bomb with the capability of destroying Mondas but also devastate Earth which Ben, Polly, and the station’s doctor have to stop and the serial winds up being both overcrowded with ideas and dragged out. The final two episodes are essentially a standoff as both sides want to destroy the other’s planet, with Mondas doing the work for them by collapsing on its own which kills all the Cybermen instantly. It’s an anticlimactic end to all the posturing but that’s not why we’re here.
The big moment is saved for the very end. There are a few moments of foreshadowing as the Doctor is “wearing a bit thin” and spends the third episode resting, and it’s clear towards the end of the serial that he’s coming to an end. It’s heartbreaking to watch, even knowing what’s coming as he’s never seemed older (his age being a defining factor throughout the run) and more frail. We watch him as he says he must go before collapsing and giving us our first look at regeneration to the sounds of the TARDIS. We only get a brief look at Patrick Troughton’s face but it’s a hell of a tease to end an episode on, let alone a serial.
– This would not be the final time William Hartnell would appear on the show as he would return for “The Thee Doctors”.
– The Doctor and his companions are so tough, they don’t even wear face protection while wandering about randomly in Antarctica.
– An approaching planet apparently poses no risk to Earth and they seemed shocked when it does.
– Polly’s delivery of the line “You’re a robot!” is just fantastically bad.
– “Imagine trying to tackle one of those things with a screwdriver.” Oh Ben, if only you knew about the Sonic Screwdriver.
– Episode 3 was a bit more obnoxious than usual to track down. I hate when media companies will randomly shut down only certain episodes, just to make it a pain to catch up on a show (see also QI) not stop it all together. I wouldn’t mind so much if I could actually rent it or stream the show on a site but that’s not always the case.
– Ben gets the chance to have some solo heroics and play a big part in saving the day.
– Sadly, we’ve lost the final episode of this hugely important serial though the regeneration scene remains (though it is not called by that name yet) and the last episode we do have, doesn’t even have Hartnell.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: Well I gave it away above but the newly regenerated face of Troughton leaves so many questions that will need to be answered next time and in the future.
Next Up: We get our first real taste of Patrick Troughton with the six episodes of the recently animated “The Power of the Daleks” on December 24th (or whenever I can get the write up done by after the last episode airs since it is Christmas Eve).
And because I can, here is my ranking of the best companions of the First Doctor:
7) Sara Kingdom*
Also, I know I just did this recently, but I might as well for the records provide a link to every review I’ve done for the First Doctor’s era.
“An Unearthly Child”
“The Edge of Destruction”
“The Keys of Marinus”
”The Reign of Terror”
“Mission to the Unknown”
“The Myth Makers”
“The Daleks’ Master Plan”
“The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve
“The Celestial Toymaker”
“The War Machines”