In television, as in life, it is sometimes better not to go back, not even in dear old Doctor Who's Tardis. The original television time machine often returns in repeats - no doubt all over the world - from the very first episode. Still, even the tonic of seeing the deeply unpleasant original Doctor Who - William Hartnell in a shocking bathing cap and wig affair (at least, one hopes it was a wig) - cannot stop the melancholy. Nostalgia is best left retrospective.
It began reassuringly enough, with that theme like the massed twanging of rubber bands - and the grainy, black-and-white menace of all the best early British drama. There was the Tardis1, looming in the shadows of a cockney junkyard. A creepy oboe insinuated goodness-knew-what on the wonderfully gothic background track. The camera panned. The tension built.
Then, alas, the characters opened their mouths, and the mood dissipated pretty quickly. How thoroughly alien the once-ubiquitous BBC English now sounds.
- Yooooo go farst, we shall follow yoooo!
- But I CAWNT go orn!
- But you MOHST! We orr ORRRL in DEEEN-jah!
It is also alien today to watch popular television that is absolutely devoid of colloquialisms. Not so much as a 'bloody hell!' is uttered as a pair of deadly earnest schoolteachers - the Doctor's first stooges, Ian, and Baaah-bara - are transported through time and space back to caveman days. By golly, they've been cross. Ian's tie is all skew-whiff and Barbara's back-combing is succumbing to gravity. But essential civility has been maintained.
Verbalised to Death
As with so much vintage television, Dr Who is also an unsettling reminder of how short our attention spans have become. It is so talky! Every single piece of action is verbalised to death in advance in a way that would never be tolerated today. The conversations are like something out of a JB Priestly2 play.
Even the cavemen, in their ill-disguised BBC vowels, have long exchanges about what has just happened and what to do next.
- Zar has killed the Old Woman!
- The Old Woman is dead?
- Yes it is so.
- Where is Zar?
- He is gone.
- Gone? Where has he gone?
- He is not here. We must find him!
- Yes, we must find Zar!
Then you get to see each caveman running through the 'jungle' - in fact, bouncing about on a trampoline with a fierce expression while the props department sticks fronds and twigs in his face, for BBC studios were not immense in those days. Then the chasing party will come to a halt in 'a clearing' for more chattipoos.
This used to be absolutely standard television grammar. You had to have somewhere where the characters could stop breathlessly and tell one another what had just happened and what would happen next. It's probably the same 'clearing' they used on Bonanza, Star Trek, Lost in Space and F-Troop.
Dodgy Special Effects
The special effects would make any self-respecting six-year-old scoff. There are flashing lights and early synthesiser music, and that's about it. In one scene a caveman hits another over the head with a plainly polystyrene boulder, which the resultant corpse then sent wafting away with a flop of his dead foot. But there's not a lot of point watching this on today's terms. After Alien, dinosaurs and the Spice Girls, there's not much fright left in an art deco Dalek in a wobbly tin skirt. The point about Dr Who is not how quaint it seems now, but how much ground it broke in its day. For one thing, it was science fiction at a time when most people hadn't a clue what the term meant. It was more imaginative than most other television. Over time, it took on immense complexity in terms of its writers having created a world, and being forced to sustain it. And best of all, it was generationaly subversive.
Today, even The Simpsons has lines designed to be appreciated by grown-ups, rather like Shakespeare's bits for the groundlings. Dr Who made no concessions to adult sensibility. One's parents thought it incomprehensible (they were hard put to follow the plot of Mission Impossible at the time) and vaguely disturbing.
In an age where television was new and scarce, and all of it watched avidly by everyone, Dr Who took children on a ride their parents couldn't for the life of them join in. And despite the now stagey - but then standard - BBC melodrama of the early dialogue, it wasn't patronising. You had to frown to keep up with the logistics of it. And it was tough. Few children remained unrattled by the Daleks. At the same time, few did not subsequently drive their parents mad with chants of 'Crush - Kill - Destroy' and 'Ex-ter-min-ate!'
Years later, the episodes grew snazzier and wittier, and the successive Drs Who (he has had a number of regenerative lives) grew sexier. But, if watched with an indulgent eye, the early outings are a treasure - even if they do give today's young further evidence of how totally lame their parents are and always have been.
But Wait, There's More
Fans of the show will be interested in The Lost Episodes.