I’ve been slowly but surely working my way through old episodes of Doctor Who, rejoicing in the wobbly-setted delights of the first four doctors. I’m currently concentrating on a chunk of episodes from Pertwee’s tenure in the 1970s, some of which I vaguely remember seeing on UK Gold many moons ago, most of which is entirely new to me.
It’s become something of a cliché to talk up the rubber monsters, the hammy acting and the all-round low-budget feel of the show’s yesteryear, but, Christ, some of it’s downright hilarious. Last week, I saw a Northern Irish bureaucrat screaming in terror as he was slowly eaten by a plastic armchair; a posh old toff wailing miserably as he was attacked by a ridiculous, scrunch-faced plastic doll who’d come to life and leapt onto his neck from a mantle-piece, and Jon Pertwee himself reacting to a malevolent phone cord trying to strangle him to death. Granted, these are events out-with the normal sphere of human experience, and thus reasonably difficult to react to with any measure of verisimilitude. Even more difficult considering the special effects technology that was available at the time. In most episodes from that era the poor actors had to feign death in response to nothing more than a series of increasingly daft sound effects and shimmering blobs, that were only added in post-production. Meaning they were actually reacting to absolutely nothing. However, in all cases the director appears to have shouted from off-camera: ‘BOGGLE YOUR EYES OUT, THAT’S IT! LIFT YOUR HANDS UP LIKE A HEROINE IN A SILENT MOVIE WHO’S ABOUT TO BE HIT BY A TRAIN! THAT’S IT! SCREAM LIKE A SHOT TORTOISE! NOW STICK YOUR TONGUE OUT LIKE YOU’VE JUST BEEN STRUCK DOWN BY A STROKE MID-WAY THROUGH TRYING TO MAKE A BABY LAUGH! THAT’S IT! THAT’S PERFECT!’
I do like Pertwee though. A lot. I like his haughtiness, his abruptness and his occasional bouts of silliness. Pertwee’s doctor and Capaldi’s share much in common, although Capaldi tends to accentuate the doctor’s strange otherworldliness, while Pertwee always strived to put the ‘Lord’ into Time Lord. However, Pertwee’s Doctor was a Lord who seemed to have a fondness for poor people and the less fortunate, which is a rare Lord indeed.
The act of criticising a piece of television for the crime of reflecting the society in which it was created is a little like shooting fish in a barrel, but the way that race was handled in some of the early Who stories can’t help but make me cringe. I keep expecting Jeremy Clarkson to materialise alongside Pertwee’s Tardis in a time-travelling Porsche, muttering about ‘woeful indoor plumbing’, ‘spears’ and ‘laughable head-wear’. Hindsight’s 20/20 I suppose. The great Roman orator and lawyer Cicero owned a slave, George Washington owned slaves, and we all used to hum along to Gary Glitter songs.
It’s still uncomfortable to watch, though. In the Troughton serial ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’, an archaeological expedition team has a giant, ox-like, black slave/henchman who trundles in its wake, issuing monosyllabic grunts and clobbering people. In the Pertwee serial ‘Terror of the Autons’, a circus baddie has a giant, ox-like black slave/henchman who trundles about the circus, issuing monosyllabic grunts and clobbering people. In ‘Mind of Evil’, the Master has a black limo driver. That could just be the law of averages. There were probably a lot of black limo drivers in those days, and there may even be a fair few of them today, I don’t know; I don’t have the statistics to hand. However, perhaps less forgiveable, that same serial features a Chinese lady whose every appearance on screen is accompanied by plinky-plonky, mysterious oriental music, which registers as a little lazy and gratuitous to modern ears. Thank heaven for small mercies though. At least the lady wasn’t required to ride around on a ceremonial dragon whilst eating rice and shouting about communism.
And let’s not forget this line, uttered by a Scotsman in the opening seconds of the Tom Baker serial ‘Terror of the Zygons’:
MUNRO: Hey, listen, Willie. With tomorrow’s supply ‘cop trip, can you no send over a few haggis?
Hey, Munro, Groundskeeper Wullie wants his patter back! I guess the contrast between the two Who-eras is only made starker by how inclusive and reflective Nu Who is of contemporary British society. Are we ready for a black, asian or female Doctor Who? Well, I’m ready, insofar as I wouldn’t care one way or the other. It’s not a case of ‘We should have a non-white male as Doctor Who’ and more a case of ‘Why shouldn’t we have a non-white male as Doctor Who’? The only problem the show would face if it recast along those lines would be our own history, which has discriminated against women and non-whites for long millenia. Every time a non-white Doctor Who travelled to earth’s past, the storyline would invariably have to tackle racism and prejudice, which would become incredibly tiresome for the actor in question who presumably would just want to be left alone to dash along corridors brandishing a sonic screwdriver and shouting at Daleks.
Still, I’m enjoying my little journey through time (on-screen and off), despite the fact that my partner will occasionally walk past the screen and offer her considered opinion on classic Who in all of its glory:
“How can you watch this awful, awful shite?”
Or should that be Who?