That’s something I say on a regular basis – that what I do here isn’t primarily to discuss what Doctor Who stories are good or bad, but to discuss what’s interesting about them and to tell a story out of them. And that’s very important to understanding the blog.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions, and since Gallifrey Base is running weekly mini-forums going over the history of Doctor Who a few years at a time, I’ve been entertaining myself by actually bashing out short reviews of individual stories. So I figure why not compile them here. So in honor of my moving from cleaning up the Hinchcliffe era entries to making another pass over the Hartnell stuff, here’s my short reviews and ratings for the Hartnell era.
An Unearthly Child: Fairly marvelous. The caveman bits get unfairly slagged off because they stop being fundamental bits of the series mythology, but only because they’re fundamental bits of the mythology of a series that never got followed up on. The show that’s about the sheer terror of the TARDIS and the untrustworthiness of the Doctor isn’t one that would have run for fifty years, but it’s a damn sight better than most of the rest of Season One. 7/10
The Daleks: The first cliffhanger, and the shot where the camera pulls away from the TARDIS crew to reveal a room full of incomprehensible things. We have now exhausted the good parts of The Daleks. But holy GOD those two are good parts. 3/10
The Edge of Destruction: One of two stories in the first season that outright work. Its worldview is very strange – it feels more 1960s than anything else in the first two seasons save maybe The Space Museum – but it creates a fascinating collage of classic science fiction and surrealism. David Whitaker remains one of my absolute favorite Doctor Who writers. This is just a wonderful piece of television. 8/10
Marco Polo: I complain about the pacing on most of the first season, but this one takes the cake – seven episodes of meandering in search of a plot structure. This is in the period where the show was a serial that would spin its wheels fruitlessly for a random number of weeks before moving on to a new premise. By the standards of Saturday teatime entertainment merely tolerable. By the standards of something to watch voluntarily fifty years later, a car crash. 2/10
The Keys of Marinus: Unwatchable – everything that’s wrong with a Terry Nation script at one time. 1/10
The Aztecs: Hard to believe this was by the writer of Marco Polo. Everything that story gets wrong, this one gets right – it’s immaculately structured, and with so many dramatic character beats. Along with The Edge of Destruction, the two stories from the first year that really, unequivocally work. 9/10
The Sensorites: The pacing is, as with most of the first season, shot to hell. But the moments of pure charm really stand out. This is where Doctor Who first starts to act like the series we know, and while it’s miles from “working” I’ll never understand why people prefer Marco Polo, The Reign of Terror, or, God help me, The Daleks to this. 6/10
The Reign of Terror: A hot mess, and the point where Susan’s character thuds unsatisfyingly against the wall. The “oh no, I feel nauseous, I shall go to the guillotine after all” scene is one of the most painful in Doctor Who’s history. 3/10
Planet of Giants: This may be the first properly average Doctor Who story, although Jacqueline Hill is astonishingly good in it, and the effects are fantastic. Pacing’s shot to hell, though – losing an episode was the best thing that happened to this story. 5/10
The Dalek Invasion of Earth: Oh, I want to like it, I really do, but it blows every good idea it has in the first two episodes and peters out to a dreadfully unsatisfying conclusion enlivened only by Susan’s departure. Understandably influential, but it holds up absolutely terribly. 6/10
The Rescue: A story in which a man in a rubber suit is revealed to secretly be a man in a rubber suit. All comments about how obvious the resolution is miss the fact that absolutely nothing in the previous year of Doctor Who has come anywhere close to preparing us for the possibility that a man in a rubber suit might be anything other than a monster. Meanwhile, another obvious monster is just Vicki’s pet, Sandy. At two episodes the problems of pacing that plague much of the 1960s are erased, and instead we get what is very probably the best done story of the Hartnell era. 10/10.
The Romans: The trouble with a 1965 farce is that very little of it is still funny today, while the overtly rapey elements of Barbara’s plot are actively unfunny. Easy to see why it’s beloved by fans of a certain age, and fans with regard for the cinematic tropes this is playing off of will enjoy it, but for the most part this is thoroughly average. Watch the first and last few scenes and skip the middle. 5/10.
The Web Planet: Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles critiqued it as looking like television from the 1920s, missing the fact that there’s no such thing as television from the 1920s, and thus that The Web Planet is a fascinating look at what the silent sci-fi films of, say, Georges Méliès would look like if transplanted to television. In an era where strangeness was an aesthetic virtue unto itself, this manages to look like nothing else before or since. It’s the one Hartnell era story it’s still possible to experience as the grainy trip to a strange other world that the series was in 1965. Indispensible and classic. Yes, it’s slow, but so is everything in this era. Not everything this era is so full of fascinating moments. 10/10.
The Crusade: Lurking behind the quality episodes is a shambles of an overall plot that is one of the later gasps of the “Doctor Who as an ongoing serial instead of as discrete stories” approach. It thus watches rough today, though probably isn’t helped by two missing episodes. One that it’s easy to see why is good, but somewhat harder to actually enjoy. 8/10.
The Space Museum: Episodes 2-4 go off the rails, yes, but not so far off the rails as to be unmanageable, and it is in many ways the story Vicki always needed to have. The Barbara/Ian/Vicki team is my favorite Hartnell crew, and I really fail to hate any of their stories. This is clearly weaker than those that came before, but in a very easy-to-like way. And episode one is marvelous. 6/10.
The Chase: I read it redemptively, and stand by its interesting content on a thematic/metaphoric level, but other than the gobsmackingly good scene of Ian and Barbara’s departure, this is unwatchable, if at times rather lovable. 2/10.
The Time Meddler: There’s much fun to be had here, but everything about how it’s presented now undermines that. The great version of this story is the one in which a historical that looks like it will someday be called The Saxons gets completely invaded by the Monk. The version where we know that up front and watch it as the first appearance of another Time Lord is, on the other hand, faintly tedious. 8/10.
Galaxy Four: A story that unambiguously shoots for “average Doctor Who,” so we may as well just give it the rating it’s looking for and go home. Lovely direction and design, though. Glad we can see an episode now. 5/10.
Mission to the Unknown: Neat, if inscrutable on many levels. It’s a story nobody ever goes looking for except out of a sense of completism. Because of that it does quite well for itself, as it’s better than you’d expect and, more to the point, different than you’d expect. 6/10.
The Myth Makers: Cotton’s two stories are absolutely marvelous, but this is the one where the sudden turn to bleakness after three episodes of comedy works the best, crashing as it does into the bleakest epic of Doctor Who. Points off only for a truly crap departure of a truly great companion and, secondarily, for the cynicism of the whole thing. 8/10.
The Daleks’ Masterplan: Cynical and often downright mean-spirited, the show cannot actually handle a story of this moral complexity. This is where Hartnell functionally ends as a Doctor, reduced to running around chasing the plot and unable to respond to any of it meaningfully simply because neither character nor actor are built for this sort of story. Some truly classic individual moments, but mainly a disaster. 4/10.
The Massacre: So much is lost by having to rely on the audio of this story. The parts people love are understandably brilliant, but when you remember that this is the fourth story in a row to end with a horrible and senseless massacre it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth and makes you wonder if John Wiles actually likes Doctor Who. This is the capstone to a staggeringly bleak run of episodes. Hartnell’s final monologue is nice, but mainly in that it’s the last time he gets to do anything remotely like it. On its own merits this story might be quite good, but it’s hard to extract it from the dire context. 6/10.
The Ark: Racist tripe about subhuman dark-skinned people and how they need white people to watch over them. The first two episodes are at least well-made, but the back half is a structural trainwreck. 2/10.
The Celestial Toymaker: Easily the single worst Doctor Who story ever, and that on its own merits. Add the racism and you need numbers below 1. 1/10 because that’s where the scale leaves off.
The Gunfighters: Hilarious, whimsical, full of mad and wonderful ideas, and the first Doctor Who story since The Myth Makers to feel like one. The received wisdom that this is one of the worst stories ever outdoes The Twin Dilemma as the most unfortunate legacy of Doctor Who in the 80s. 9/10.
The Savages: Lovely ideas, and a needed tonic after two appallingly racist stories. (It is, of course, meant to be a race reversal story where the whites are enslaved and we realize how horrible we’re being.) Steven gets the best companion departure to date in that it’s actually set up. How has nobody ever written a story following up on him? Still, it’s all a bit pedestrian and hard to get excited about. 6/10.
The War Machines: Easy to see why people liked it, but it’s been done so much better so many times that it’s hard to figure out why anyone would opt to watch this particular iteration of the contemporary Earth story, and the cynicism of how Dodo is written out is hard to avoid. 5/10.
The Smugglers: As straightforward an example of the historical romp as exists. I’m still unconvinced there’s anything interesting to say about this story. (Note that I used it as an excuse to talk about the Target novelizations.) 5/10.
The Tenth Planet: There’s so very much wrong with it, but thankfully the wonderful perversity of what’s right with it outshines it. The Cybermen have never been better, and for all its absurd plotting it does a breathless thriller miles better than The War Machines did. Hartnell gets a fantastic swan song, and episode four is the greatest cliffhanger in Doctor Who history. 8/10.