Sunday, 26 September 2010

“Make way for the Doctor, ye swabs!”

Audio soundtrack of missing story, written by Brian Hayles, directed by Julia Smith, 1966

I love listening to an episode of sixties Doctor Who before I go to bed – it seems right, curling up in the dark with a blanket and the ‘throbbing menace’ of the original theme coming through the headphones. Hartnell’s era particularly has the right atmosphere to be a bedtime thing.

The Smugglers is immediately unpretentious and direct, in a way that means it doesn’t seem dated, and translates well to audio (recalling the comparable Highlanders). There are no baffling decisions here; it does what it needs to straightforwardly and effectively: Ben and Polly are introduced as time-travelling companions proper (with a healthy amount of scepticism); the Doctor is re-established as an authoritative but charmingly heroic character; and the TARDIS is dealt with with a minimum of fuss (the newbies’ reaction to it is obviously less effectively than Ian and Barbara’s, but in a way more appropriate to the direct adventure we get here, rather than the almost punishingly dramatic An Unearthly Child).

It’s noticeable that Hartnell’s performance is particularly strong here; very confident and assured – which makes the endless harping on his Billy-fluffs a particularly horrible disservice to a consummate actor). The directness of this story – bam, Ben and Polly in the TARDIS; bam, seventeenth century Cornwall; bam, pirates – also does favours for the Doctor, showing how great Hartnell was in the role: fiery, authoritative, amused, gracious, pompous, perceptive. His chuckles and constant amusement also make him very likeable (although he never becomes twee).

This story also made me appreciate the truth that this far back the Doctor just isn’t the action hero we’ve become used to; I like the idea that over his lives, he’s developed into a more explicitly heroic figure (although I suppose also more conventional, so whether that’s a good thing depends on your outlook).

I love Ben and Polly’s respective reactions to their predicament – her thinking it’s all a great adventure, balanced by his grumpy pragmatism. Their adaptation to the Doctor’s lifestyle may be less realistic than Ian and Babs’ (their sixties Londoner precursors), but then this is a different sort of period and story. The “pretty young vagabonds”’ investigations are great, with their looking for clues – but I particularly love Ben (ie, the sorcery scene, posing as the Doctor’s apprentices; and, “What are you screaming for?” “Oh, nothing, mate, we’re just happy”). Ben and Polly actually feel like there’s a clear concept behind them, perhaps unusually for early companions (a cooler, more dynamic, modern duo) – in a way Steven, Vicki, or Dodo, don’t.

As Patrick Mulkern points out on the Radio Times episode guide, there is nary a note of incidental music here, but I didn’t even notice; simple atmospherics like the creaking timber and seagulls’ calls during scenes on the Black Albatross, crows in the graveyard, and the echo in the crypt, work brilliantly instead. It feels like a conscious decision (as in, say, The Birds), rather than a budgetary constraint.

The story may be lousy with clichés (which put me off the telesnaps – though that’s hardly the fullest way to experience a story), but in practise, the story comes alive nonetheless, because rather than in spite of the familiar setting and devices it employs. Cherub in particular (great name for a pirate!) is appropriately vile and larger-than-life for the lurid genre exercises the historicals had become by this period, with his “touch like an angel’s wing … with that knife”: “I’ll have the words spilling out of him, like blubber from a whale!”

It may in part be to do with its effectiveness on audio (the first episode warrants barely any additional narration, and introduces only Joseph Longfoot and Cherub in addition to the regulars), but The Smugglers is so much better than stories like The Tenth Planet that, though not necessarily ‘acclaimed,’ still have inestimably greater status. Though understandable (The Tenth Planet is sci-fi, not a ‘boring’ historical, and features the Cybermen’s debut and the first regeneration), it’s such a shame that a direct, effective story like this (though equally understandably) barely has any reputation at all.

There aren’t any big, crowd-pleasing concepts (flying buses or historical celebrities), but this story could be made today with only the most superficial of changes, down to the script itself – it’s just a shame it wouldn’t be, exactly because of its lack of ‘big concepts’.

Even though a relatively undemanding story (with a lot of its colour already filled in, due to the archetypes it’s dealing in), it strikes me as going some way to explain my love for the period of Doctor Who it comes from. I really love the sixties and so, whilst listening to this story, I couldn’t help but try and work out why.

There is a brilliance peculiar to the best of the sixties - this is the closest I can come to defining it:

Sixties DW is well-written, but economically so – there’s no obsession with development and arcs. The new series’ focus on ‘real people’ can seem overplayed, while the eighties is mainly lacking in realistic characterisation; the sixties is well-balanced between this – likeable, easy to grasp, well-written characters, but without an excessive desperation to load dialogue with button-pushing ‘significant,’ emotional moments.

    There is a misconception of the sixties as being twee or quaint (which is arguably truer of Troughton’s years?), but, though I guess it has its moments in this respect, so do all eras, and it’s probably more to do with the production values than the tonal content. In fact, Hartnell’s era is often quite full-on (another thing I admire it for) – for example, Judith’s apparent rape in The Time Meddler, Vasor forcing himself on Babs in The Keys of Marinus, and her considering stabbing a child to death to save her from soldiers in The Crusade. The Doctor’s less developed ‘moral obligation’ helps to give this impression, too: misanthropic endings where the Doctor leaves carnage to play out unaided (The Massacre, The Myth Makers) would be unthinkable today, at least not without a lot of overwrought blubbing and emoting, or a lesson being learnt (cf The Fires of Pompeii).

      In fact, there’s a sense of all-round conviction and commitment, especially in the era’s most high-minded stories, which trumps all the other periods for drama (in grown-up stories like The Crusade, etc). It’s not over-eager or flagrantly crowd-pleasing (at least from a modern PoV, which can only be an asset), and doesn’t talk down to its audience (eg, An Unearthly Child – which is unthinkable as a kids’ show, or even family viewing today; it’s so bleak and harrowing!).

      The unknowableness of the lost stories gives the era a fascinating sense of mystery. Similarly, this era isn’t – and never will be – overexposed through interviews or behind the scenes footage or justifications, which stops me feeling jaded about it. The experimental variety of the stories (ie, the run of The Myth Makers' tragedy-as-farce followed by the pulpy Saturday-serial sci-fi of The Daleks’ Master Plan, and The Massacre’s deadly serious, Doctor-lite religious drama) adds to this unknowability.

        More than anything, I think it’s the dated look of this period of the show that puts people off, but to my mind stylised visuals liberate it from the constraints of effective special effects or even realism (think false perspectives and painted backdrops, which don’t impair the stories – and which I love the theatricality of). This also makes it seem intriguingly unique and timeless because it doesn’t use the same visual language of anything on TV today. It actually looks quite beautiful, and is more intrinsically stylish and (despite being low budget and small scale) cinematic than arguably any other period (no-one could mistake the fuzzy colour showing up the seventies’ insubstantial sets, or the eighties’ flat overlighting, for a feature film, whereas the sixties is broadly comparable to then-contemporary features).

          The first two Doctors, while admittedly favourites of mine, I would also contend are among the best (and yes, that’s a different thing) – much as I love every Doctor, many of the later ones seem quite contrived as expectations of ‘Doctorishness’ are all too established. There are less limits to the earliest ones; they’re so wildly different, and both brilliantly likeable (Hartnell’s giggling is so infectious). Equally though, I love Hartnell’s inaccessibility – the opposite of today’s focus-group culture; he is difficult, yes, but it makes him more intriguing. 

          Even the variety of companions makes the era seem broader than, say, the Sixth and Seventh Doctor’s two-companions-each: the First by contrast has ten companions (including Sara Kingdom; and why wouldn’t you?!). That alone gives so much variety; it feels like there are numerous eras within the era.

          Even though Steven (much as I like him) is essentially Ian mk II, and Vicki (ditto) and Dodo are essentially retreads of Susan, the variety of companions (and partly because of the obscurity of some of them) adds to the era’s alluring mystery. (The First Doctor/Steven/Dodo combo, say, is practically unknown to me – something which can’t be said of really any combination since the sixties. That obscurity is so appealing; Peri, for example, has a ubiquity that can’t measure up to the mystique certain early companions have just because they aren’t fully knowable (and even if they aren’t perfect).)
              I recently came across an unfortunately typical comment, apparently calculated as being as annoying as possible, saying: ‘I never have and never will be interesting in the first two Doctors and the dull and inferior B&W era of the show’. I really shouldn’t rise to that, but it does rile me.

              If that is actually your considered opinion then fine, but someone who doesn’t have the critical faculties to back up such a ridiculously generalising and closed-minded comment like that is clearly a moron. I suppose I get the last laugh though, as the sixties has all the things I want from Doctor Who: visual strength, directness, intelligence, conviction, imagination, and variety.

              Ha, ha.


              1. very well written article - i've never dipped into the smugglers at all - neither the novelisation nor the audio, but you have my interest piqued!

              2. hey, thank you very much!

                the weird, infuriating double-spaced formatting that blogger has foisted on me kind of made me mad when i posted this, so i'm glad someone's actually appreciated the content.

                also, it hadn't crossed my mind before, but you've made me want to give the novelisation a go now too!

                thanks again