Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Growing Up with the Doctor – Part 2 (1966-1969)

While the Hartnell era is somewhat fuzzy in my memory, my memory of the Troughton era is much stronger indeed. This is often called "The Monster" time, and with good reason. The historical stories were phased out, and I can remember little of the "Highlanders".
In its place, we had monsters, usually revealed in a cliff hanger moment. These were the scary moments clearly designed to make small children suddenly shudder in fright. The Moonbase, when the Doctor goes round the medical lab, and asks if the crew have checked the beds. Just as he comes to one bed, the Cyberman whips off the sheet and stands up. It's sudden, and it was (to a young boy) quite unexpected.
It is astonishing how often the monster was kept under wraps for one whole episode, suddenly appearing just right at the end, but that writing, keeping the monster in the shadows, also made the reveal more effective. It couldn't happen easily nowadays, but back then, the main source of information for the Doctor and television in general was "The Radio Times". A few cryptic remarks, "The Doctor faces an old foe" was as much of a spoiler as you got!
It was the "jump out" at you aspect of Doctor Who which made it so compelling. Again, in Tomb of the Cybermen, at one cliff-hanger, a Cyberman suddenly swings out, and a weapon is fired. Probably adults could see that was going to happen, and when I look at these scenes now, they seem much slower than I remember them, but I am looking with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, it was not "behind the sofa", but it was perhaps, hide behind hands, peering out to see what was about to happen. That moment which made you shudder briefly.
And there were other scary moments. I have vivid memories of the often maligned "Underwater Menace", with the fish people – they swim convincingly on wires when seen in grainy 425 line television. Polly is strapped down. They are going to operate. She is going to be surgically altered to become a fish person. And a needle appears in the hand of the medical scientist. Cut to a shot of a fish person, then back as Polly screams, struggling. You don't get cliff-hangers better designed to scare children than that!  And it remains a vivid memory, and I do wonder if my dislike of needles and injections dates from that early visceral image!
I used to have lots of nightmares, with various monsters invading my sleeping hours, though probably my avid reading of a cache of my father's old Horror Comic Books did not help either. I was never that worried about the nightmares, because the Doctor was always there. It was very much as G.K. Chesterton said – the dragons were already in children's nightmares, but the fairy tales introduced St George to slay the dragon. Although my nightmares were peopled with Daleks, Cybermen, Vampires, and Zombies! And I didn't have St George, but the Doctor in his trusty Tardis.
Another maligned story was the Krotons. I rather liked the Krotons, although a lot of criticism has been given to this story in later years. For a child, however, it was a great story, Troughton delivering a wonderful performance, and the crystalline Krotons very different, and speaking in a South African accent. Of course, as a child, I did not notice that; I thought they had Jersey accents, which are quite similar in some respects! A monster that spoke in a local accent – how cool was that?
Monsters abounded, and they were not for the most part, generic monsters, but had their own distinctive traits. The Daleks, of course, returned with their electronic voices - "Exterminate!" Then the Cybermen returned, their strange buzzing voices, "You will be like us". And the Ice Warriors, semi-reptilian, given a wonderful start with Bernard Bresslaw from the Carry On Films, giving a hissing performance that suggested an alien trying to breath our atmosphere, and full of menace. I've always considered him a hugely underrated actor. The Yeti came, on the hillside in the Tibetan mountainside – really Wales, and the sibilant voice of the very ancient and possessed Buddhist Abbot, moving Yeti like chess pieces on a board. Around that time, there was an mild influenza epidemic, and our classes at school were decimated, so for about four to five weeks, we 'd have lessons where we did not work, but just played chess. And here were chess Yeti pieces on a board; the mundane become sinister.
And the beginning of the Mind Robber, with its white void, and strangeness, still sticks in the memory; I had no idea it was an addition at the start of a story, occasioned by the script editor, after another story had run short.
But the monsters were at their best down to earth – the Yeti in the Underground, with the glowing pulsating web, and when we went to visit relatives in London, and travelled by London Underground, it seemed that the monsters could be very close indeed, just luring in the shadows. Likewise, the iconic image of Cybermen walking down the steps outside St Paul's Cathedral grounded the story, and made it more terrifying. I didn't visit other planets, but I did go on tube trains in London, and visit St Paul's Cathedral. The monsters could be just round the next corner, or under the manhole cover.
And through it all, there were the companions and Doctor. I remember especially the last companion; Zoë was a clever as the Doctor, and definitely short, petite, and attractive to an eleven year old boy. And Jamie, of course, seemed to have been there forever; the perfect foil to ask the Doctor questions, and do any fighting.
One remembers some stories, and not others. The Moonbase, the Tomb of the Cybermen, the Wheel in Space, the Invasion – all stick in the mind, as do the Ice Warriors and the Seeds of Doom. The Yeti are memorable, and I have fond memories of the Quarks, and the ending of Enemy of the World. The novelisation annoyed me, because it told the ending in a different way to how I visualised it, Salamander falling through the vortex. I'm pleased to see from clips of the newly discovered episodes that my memory was right, and it still looks surprisingly good as an effect.
The War Games went on for ages and ages, but never seemed boring. At first, it looked like a historical, but suddenly General Smythe with his hypnotic glasses, and console hidden behind a panel made it mysterious and compelling; and I loved the idea of the different time zones. In my memory, a Roman army was heading towards the crew, and here memory misleads me, as it is one man with a chariot and a rather paltry few soldiers tagging alongside in the real version.
While I enjoyed watching Doctor Who, the Troughton Doctor never had the effect that the Pertwee one would have on my intellectual development. The series drifted between fantasy and science fiction, and the Doctor was a hero, but he was not yet the scientist-hero.
At school, we also had very limited experience of science. Most lessons were English, French, History and Mathematics, and when our fifth year teacher, Anton Dupoy, introduced a few very basic scientific experiments, it had the feeling of something new, but unfortunately something rather on the fringe of the school curriculum.
But as the Troughton era drew to a close, the first men were landing on the moon. I remember coming down in the morning, awakened by my father, to watch the grainy, shadowy image of Neil Armstrong stepping forth onto an alien world. I amassed a scrap book, cutting out with scissors and pasting in all the press cuttings I could find. The graphic work by artists in those days is something that has sadly been a lost and dying art, but it was very engaging; I still have a vivid picture of the jagged line connecting earth with the moon, with the caption, "President Nixon's historic telephone call from the White House to the Lunar Surface".
The age of science was just around the corner, beckoning, but I still felt a sense of sadness as Patrick Troughton's Doctor whirled around and faded away from our television screens.

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