Companion: Susan, Barbara, Ian
Written by: David Whitaker
Directed by: Richard Martin & Frank Cox
Background & Significance: Doctor Who was under threat of cancellation.
There's only a few times you can say that about. One time is during Michael Grade's attempt to completely shut down Doctor Who starting in the late late Davison era and continuing all the way through until the show's ultimate cancellation in 1989. Another was at the end of the Troughton era, during which the show was more or less floundering creatively and underwent a massive reboot to get it into a place where it was palatable to a brand new audience.
Now granted, by the time this episode aired the show was almost assuredly going to stick around for a while. "The Daleks" had done gang-busters for the show in terms of ratings and the BBC ordered more scripts and episodes immediately. There would be no interruption in the production process (remember that at this time Doctor Who was producing some forty plus episodes a year), but the production team required an extra week or so to prepare the elaborate sets for Lucarotti's forthcoming historical epic "Marco Polo", so to save on money and set construction script editor David Whitaker took matters into his own hands and wrote what's essentially a bottle episode(s) of Doctor Who set entirely on the TARDIS and featuring no one but our main cast of characters and the one character you rarely ever think of but who's around all the time...
So let's get to it!
And what Whitaker is doing here is really conducive to a two-part story. Granted, there’s no way we’d know watching this for the first time that it was two episodes long. Hell, there’s no real distinction at this point that there’s even “stories”. It’s just an extended, never-ending serial of adventures with each episode ending in a place where you want to tune in next week. It’s a novelty that I’m sad the show more-or-less lost as it went on, but sustaining that continuity would’ve ended up eventually cumbersome and less-good in the long run. And allowing individual stories really just gives Doctor Who long episodes and plenty of jumping on points, so I can’t complain.
What makes it fantastic is seeing just how much it dials into the fact that we know very little about Susan and how much Susan (despite being inherently problematic) really would be a gangbusters of a character if she were to come around today. As we see here, there’s something dangerous about her and Carol Anne Ford really plays that up for all its worth. Everything involving her and the scissors is enough to set even the most even-tempered fan on edge. She’s out of control, almost rabid and nothing anyone seems to say or do is able to stop her. There’s the notion that something got into the ship early on and that maybe it’s possessing them and the clear suspect is Susan because she’s vaguely homicidal here and it’s just so… dangerous. Imagine that storyline playing out today: the quiet companion going mad and total serial killer in a locked-down TARDIS. Someone go write that.
This use of space is really jarring and clever to represent the emotional chasm between these four characters who (at least in some way) still haven’t quite come together as the team you might expect them to be. And this is who they are when they are at “home”. Out there in the fantastic beyond the doors they come together as the team, but this inherent fracture is not something that can be sustained moving forward. They gotta figure out a way to come together, lest this lack of trust completely destroy any chance they have of surviving in whatever adventure is coming up next week. I mean, even seeing The Doctor alone in his own wide shot is shockingly stark in ways you can’t even imagine. It makes The Doctor look small amidst this massive ship of his.
This story is, of course, written by David Whitaker, and the thing I love about David Whitaker is how impossibly ambitious he is. We see it in something like “Evil of the Daleks” or even “The Crusade” where he’s constantly shoving Doctor Who into new and interesting directions. Hell, we talked about him just two weeks ago. But this is him really pushing the show into new and interesting territory. Hell, he’s changing the entire game of the show and before the show’s even through its initial thirteen episode order. It’s complete madness.
Think about that. That’s completely nutty. The Doctor’s spaceship is alive. And sure, it’s easy to digest now, especially after “The Doctor’s Wife” made concept reality. But it’s kind of a mind bending thing to deal with, and it even takes the TARDIS crew a few minutes to figure the whole thing out. And Whitaker even gives us a play in real time as they suss out what’s happening. From the start of the episode until The Doctor unsticks the fast return switch (or maybe it’s even a bit later) is all one big unbroken scene and it’s remarkably engaging even though it’s not ever really clear what the hell’s going on. You can always tell there’s a lot of explaining going on when multiple characters keep going “of course!” every few minutes and the “of course” features leaps in logic.
What’s wrong is the fast return switch. A spring came loose and the TARDIS is essentially fast returning back to all of its previous destinations and getting dangerously close to the beginning of time, which is where it started from. And okay… First of all? Fast return switch is remarkably clever and awesome on Whitaker’s part and that it’s stuck is a fantastic use for it. I also love that the solution is remarkably simple: things aren’t connecting the way they should. The trust between these four people is not nearly where it needs to be for their relationship to be okay and then… suddenly, something snaps into place and while things aren’t perfect they can at least move onto something else and the healing process can begin.
And yet there is communication and it gets everything settled. But it’s weird. Really weird. There’s nothing like watching The Doctor backed up against the console giving that monologue about the formation of a solar system and how fantastic that is to him. It’s scary and beautiful all at the same time. But it’s quintessentially Doctor, isn’t it? This is a young guy thirsty for experiences like that and it shows. The hunger in Hartnell’s eyes is why he’s totally underrated as The Doctor and the way he bounces from serious to cheery when explaining that they only have five minutes is really, really excellent.
That’s what I love about this: it’s really just a character piece about The Doctor learning to trust the people around him and how important that trust is moving forward. The Doctor denied that The TARDIS was a living, thinking machine, but with the help of his friends he figured it out and learned something about himself. And the fluffiness of the last few minutes of this is so damn delightful and cathartic. It’s nice to see the crew take a few minutes to themselves between adventures. It’s moments like this that I treasure on the show and what I miss from the Moffat era in general.
But it’s here and Whitaker does it in two episodes. It’s awesome.
And there's a reason why to this day they've never attempted something like this again. I mean, we'll see something similar next week, but that's only for the first episode. This is a story completely set in the TARDIS and revolving around The Doctor, his companions, and his trusty spaceship. And everything about this is magical. It's magical in both form and content. The TARDIS has never felt more like a living and breathing and strange place, before or since, really. The characters pop here in a way they really can't do later. And unlike the rest of the Doctor Who stories, Whitaker doesn't get to lean against a guest cast or crazy sets. It's very pure, very boiled down, and very personal.
And it's really just... everything I want out of Doctor Who. It's exciting, it's insightful. It's got a great plot. This crew is never better than it is here. As good, perhaps, but never better. And Whitaker's script is sharp and impossibly ambitious. It takes us across the universe and through time and space, to the very edge of destruction of the TARDIS herself and pulls us back. It's got slasher motifs that never come back (Susan takes the pair of scissors for no reason) and beautiful monologues. Richard Martin shoots the hell out of the first episode and Frank Cox really nails the character stuff in the second one. It's really beautiful and one of the best two parters in the entire Classic series. Sure, the bar is low, but god dammit is it fantastic. There's nothing like bizarre and ambitious Doctor Who. Nothing. And it's a high that the show never attempted to hit again.
I'm over the moon it holds up and it definitely goes on the short list of great Hartnell stories.
Next Time!: 2nd Doctor! Fake Jamie! Ticker tape! Toy Soldiers! Sword fights! Medusa! And The Master? Its our last regular entry before our victory lap tour of each Doctor in turn so let's go out with a real, real bang! "The Mind Robber!" Coming Next Tuesday!