Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

There is one Doctor Who story from the original run about which fans have no shame, and it's this one.

There was a strike. The programme couldn't be made in studio, so it was mostly shot outdoors. Location work in those days was always done on film. The result was the four glossiest-looking episodes of the original run, period. Even the few shots that did make it into studio were spared from being captured on garish videotape, to the point where today they are often mistaken for likewise being location-work.

So, for one dreamy month in 1970, Doctor Who looked every bit as great as The Avengers did. In fact, it could have easily been mistaken for that show, featuring as it did a well-spoken Englishman charging around Her Majesty's countryside in a vintage car, complete with a brainy female assistant in tow. Even Steed's, sorry, the Doctor's asssociates are upper-class Brits, specifically his new boss, who's the very Brigadier of an international army.

After the ten-part intergalactic black-and-white comedy runaround that was The War Games, it all comes as a bit of a shock. No really, it does.

Not only was the TV series Doctor Who now in psychedelic COLOUR for the first time, but it had new opening credits, new theme-music, a new logo, and oh yes, an entirely new cast, including a new actor in the lead role.

Outgoing actor Patrick Troughton appears in neither a handover scene to Jon Pertwee, nor a recap of the last episode's cliffhanger. The TARDIS lands, and Pertwee just falls out of it, even wearing a different outfit. Poor Jamie and Zoe don't get a mention either. Was there anything in this new series that they hadn't changed?

The sub-plot here even takes-apart the show's established exciting intergalactic formulae, stranding the Doctor on Earth and having him take a job with the government. When the final line has him giving his name from now on as being "Doctor John Smith", it seems like someone at the BBC has had a Poochy moment.

"Doctor Who's pretty good at the moment," they must have thought, "we'll fix that."

Don't get me wrong, most of the elements of this story come together very well - plot, script, acting etc. Even the music is great. The scene in which the Doctor silently sneaks around the hospital plotting his escape would probably have been left silent on videotape, and fallen somewhat flatter as a result.

Even the effects, well all right most of them (not those rubbery tentacles in part four), look terrific, purely thanks to the virtue of simply being on film. On tape, just how much fuzzy blue CSO would there have been around General Scobie when he met his waxwork double, on a studio set in front of a back-projected drive?

How it looked:

How it almost looked:

(Original image courtesy of The Doctor Who Image Archive)

Given that this was all something of a new beginning for the show, it's an absolute tragedy that the production team didn't look at these episodes and commit to shooting the rest of the series like this every week from now on. Sure it would have cost them a few more shillings, but just what kind of a reputation might 1970s Doctor Who have gone on to enjoy, instead of the rubbish-looking one that it ultimately got?

However, I'm only really examining one side of that coin here, in terms of results. While these four shows all look great, I'm afraid it has to be said, they all sound atrocious.

Out on location, those were real rooms that the characters were discussing events in. With real reverb. A lot of real reverb. Any film unit worth their salt really should have got those microphones in closer.

Episode three contains a scene that finishes with Jon Pertwee dubbing his final line in post, in contrast to the preceding dialogue, with no reverb. Episode one features one of the Brigadier's lines to Liz getting speeded-up to fit the footage of her. Hmm.

Still, while I am an advocate of good sound in film, there's no mistaking that these four episodes are, overall, wonderful quality.

However, had I seen these as a kid, then I suspect my heart would have sunk at the change to the storyline's status quo. "Hey kids, your favourite space-show's going to be stuck on Earth, in the near-present day, with a different cast from now on, isn't that GREAT?"

Fortunately, I first saw this in my twenties, when I knew that it had only lasted like this for two seasons, so I actually did think that was great.

Doctor Who - splendid eras, all* of them.

* generally speaking

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