Doctor Who: Season One Retrospective

Welcome back everybody. Last time, we closed the book on the first season of Doctor Who, bringing the first chapter of this massive undertaking to a close. In keeping with the spirit of this project, I went into this almost completely blind, knowing next to nothing of the show beyond its basic broad strokes. It was an interesting experience, tackling something this long-lived from the ground floor. 

So, what’s the verdict? Well, that’s a bit complicated. Obviously the show hasn’t always aged gracefully. Special effects have come a long way in the last fifty years and the show’s production values weren’t always top-notch to begin with. Yet despite all of that, it retains a certain of handmade charm and manages to come alive in small doses. William Hartnell’s performance is a standout for me, investing the Doctor with a gruff, stubborn quality that really breaks from your typical sci-fi hero.

But what about the episodes themselves? Are any of these things actually worth watching?

Admittedly the output here is something of a mixed bag, but there are a few episodes that are well worth seeking out, particularly for those interested in the character’s history.

So without further adieu, here’s my take on the most (and least) watchable episodes of Season One.

Serial One: An Unearthly Child

BBC

BBC

I definitely recommend giving the first episode a watch. It’s a solid intro that does a good job of laying out the basics of the series, introducing the Doctor and his strange time machine through the eyes of his first companions.  

It may also well be the strangest pilot of all time, with a grumpy, mean-spirited old man forcing a pair of confused school teachers to ride shotgun on his jaunts through time and space. It’s really strange just how unlikable the Doctor is. I suspect the producers were shooting for a Sherlock Holmes-style eccentric, but he’s isn’t so much eccentric here as he is just plain mean. It’s definitely a far cry from his more modern incarnations. 

With that one under your belt, you can probably go ahead and tune out for the rest of this arc, which sees the Doctor and his crew journeying to prehistoric times. What follows is three episodes worth of hairy, grunting cavemen yelling at one another about fire, which is not the most compelling of material.

Serial Two: The Daleks

BBC

BBC

Of all these stories, this is probably the one most relevant to modern Who fans, introducing the Doctor’s most recognizable foes. The Daleks are very different from anything else appearing in Season One. Featuring some clever design work and a simple, yet iconic look that has served as the characters’ visual basis for the succeeding fifty years, it’s easy to see how they became such a staple of the series. 

Unfortunately, the story here is a bit of a slog. It clocks in at a lengthy 7 episodes, much of it spent with the Daleks humanoid enemies the Thals. There’s not nearly enough going on and the writers fall back on a constant cycle of capture and escape in order to pad things out.

The Daleks are cool though and watching them deliver trays of food to their captives is something that should be experience by everyone at least once. 

Serial Three: The Edge of Destruction

BBC

BBC

Moment for moment, The Edge of Destruction has the most entertaining moments of season one. Settle in for such surreal moments as a blade-wielding Susan, people screaming at clocks, and a seemingly drunken Doctor trying to maroon his companions in space.

You won’t understand what’s happening and you won’t care. If only the rest of the series could be this delightfully unhinged. Plus, at a breezy two episodes, this is the most accessible serial by far.

Serial Four: Marco Polo

BBC

BBC

There’s really no reason to weigh on this one, since you can’t watch it anyway. The first victim of the BBC’s regrettable junking policy, this entire serial has been lost to the ages. The original audio survives, synched up with still photos into a kind of visual slideshow called a tele-snap. This appears as a bonus feature on The Edge of Destruction DVD. My advice, don’t bother. The history episodes are typically among the show’s least interesting stories, designed to add an educational component to the series. 

Serial Five: The Keys of Marinus

BBC

BBC

As crazy in many ways as The Edge of Destruction, but far more tedious, The Keys of Marinus was concocted as a quickie replacement after an earlier script proved problematic. William Hartnell was also on vacation for part of the shooting time, leading the producers to create a series of stand-alone adventures loosely connected around an attempt to locate several computer keys.

While the disconnected nature of the stories makes it pretty hard to care about the arc as a whole, I can definitely recommend a few of the episodes themselves. The Velvet Web is particularly gonzo, with Barbara facing off against a squad of telepathic, disembodied brains, while The Screaming Jungle sees Susan, Barbara, and Ian stumbling into a jungle that screams…and kills!

Serial Six: The Aztecs

BBC

BBC

One of the more dramatically satisfying offerings, the Aztecs distances itself from the series’ pulpier aspects in favor of a straightforward time travel morality play.

Landing in 16th Century Mexico, the crew of the TARDIS encounters the Aztecs. Barbara is mistaken for a goddess and uses her newfound political clout to try and end the Aztecs’ practice of human sacrifice, while the Doctor attempts to teach her that it is impossible to change history. It’s a theme that has long since lapsed into a time travel cliché, yet it remains important in establishing the show’s morality, laying down some much-needed ground rules.

Serial Seven: The Sensorites

BBC

BBC

This one smacks of wasted opportunity. It starts out strong with a first episode that plays out like a scenario from The Twilight Zone. Stumbling onto a stranded spaceship, the Doctor and his friends discover a group of Earth-born astronauts who are being menaced by unseen aliens. The setup is creepy and the alien reveal is especially well done.

From there, the tone changes significantly, falling back on a standard, yet serviceable aliens meet earthlings cultural exchange story before devolving into something else altogether in its final moments.

I’d recommend the first episode for its creepy atmospherics, but I wouldn’t invest any more time in it than that.

Serial Eight: The Reign of Terror

BBC

BBC

One of the most padded serials of the entire season, The Reign of Terror drops the crew of the TARDIS into France during Robespierre’s reign of terror. Unfortunately, the writers fail to pull anything interesting out of this historical backdrop and the action quickly falls into a tedious cycle of arrest and escape which ultimately amounts to very little. You do get to see Hartnell sporting some fantastic new clothes, but at a lengthy seven episodes, it’s just not worth it. 

Well, I guess that’s about it for now. There’s plenty of more Who to tackle, so be sure stay tuned as we dive into Season Two. 

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