DOCTOR WHO is rightly regarded as a British TV classic and is something of an institution to anyone above the age of 20 who can remember chilly winter Saturday evenings sat with the entire family watching the tales of this intergalactic busy-body which regularly presented some of the freshest, imaginative and often downright frightening science-fiction drama seen before or since.
Running from 1963 (on the day of the Kennedy assassination) to 1989, DOCTOR WHO is the tale of a mysterious time-travelling individual known simply as 'the Doctor'. His MO is to battle evil wherever (and whenever) it exists accompanied by an ever-changing (and mostly inter-changeable) series of companions. The Doctor's time machine (the Tardis) is bigger on the inside than out and outwardly resembles a London 1960s Police Box (the chameleon circuits becoming 'stuck' on a previous trip to Earth some time before we joined the Doctor on his adventures). As the series progressed, the Doctor became less mysterious and we gradually learnt a lot more about his background and his home planet (Gallifrey) as well as his race of fellow Time Lords.
It was the intention of the shows creators to have many of the Doctor's adventures taking place in historical settings but, following the debut of the massively popular Daleks (mutant creatures encased in protective pepperpot-shaped mobile devices) the series placed ever-more reliance on the attraction of alien creatures and monsters to create tension and danger for the Doctor and his team. The mold was therefore cast and, throughout the life of the show, the audience was treated to a dazzling array of alien marauders of all shapes and sizes including Cybermen, Sontarans, Silurians, Sea Devils, Yeti, Ice Warriors and, of course, Daleks.
The series often shamelessly (but usually effectively) borrowed entire plot lines from classic literature and movies as varied as FRANKENSTEIN, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, Dracula and assorted Shakespeares and Sherlock Holmes. The show was also famous for its shaky production values, creaky effects and cliff-hanger endings, yet the writing was often imaginative and a wonderfully endearing quality of whimsy and eccentricity combined with a strong air of moral responsibility permeated the show throughout.
One of the many imaginative quirks of the programme was the ability for the Doctor to regenerate at times when he is close to death. This interesting and effective device partly explains the series longevity as it paved the way for the central character to be realised by seven different actors (William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davidson, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy respectively), each bringing their own unique interpretation to the role.
Two movies were made in the 60's with the Doctor (Peter Cushing) pitted in both cases against the Daleks (which at the time were at the height of their popularity) and a further 'movie' (actually shown only on TV) arrived in 1999 after the main series had been cancelled with Paul McGann in the central role.
16 years after being axed, the show was revived by the BBC in 2005 with Christopher Ecclestone in the key role accompanied by a charismatic assistant played by Billy Piper. The shaky sets and dodgy effects were gone, some money was devoted to the series (for the first time) and a healthy dose of post-modernism added to the mix. Even the BBC seemed unprepared for the great popularity of the new series which illustrates how under-appreciated the strength of the basic format is.
It is to the everlasting shame of the BBC that their archives no longer contain many (mainly black and white) episodes that were purged in the 1970's due to the mistaken opinion at the time that they would never be watched again and had no commercial value. The video market that has erupted since the mid-1980's has shown how short-sighted this decision was and DOCTOR WHO (along with many other classic BBC series) has lost many of the best earlier stories for ever. Occasionally a missing episode or some lost footage has turned up wrongly labelled or in the hands of a collector somewhere and the discovery in 1992 of all four episodes of the classic 'Tomb Of The Cybermen' from 1967-8's fondly remembered 'monster season' reminded us just how good some of this lost material was.
Although most regular viewers have their favourite Doctors or seasons, few would argue that the classic period ran from it's start in 1963 to 1977, mid-way through Tom Baker's occupation as the Doctor. Fans relentlessly debate the issue of which are the best stories but few would argue with my selection of the following as classic DOCTOR WHO, although some of these have missing episodes. The Dead Planet (1963), The Tenth Planet (1966), The Evil Of The Daleks (1967), The Tomb Of The Cybermen (1967), The Ice Warriors (1967), The Web Of Fear (1968), Fury From The Deep (1968), Terror Of The Autons (1971), The Daemons (1971), Day Of The Daleks (1972), The Sea Devils (1972), The Three Doctors (1972), The Ark In Space (1975), Genesis Of The Daleks (1975), The Pyramids Of Mars (1975), The Seeds Of Doom (1976), The Talons Of Weng Chiang (1977) and Earthshock (1982).
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