Further adventures in old-school Whovianism

I posted a while back that I had started dipping into the vast catalog of classic Doctor Who serials, and since then I’ve watched a few more. As befits the show, I’ve been jumping around in time, watching adventures of various Doctors. These are three I’ve watched and enjoyed since my last post (WARNING: contains spoilers!):

“The Aztecs” (1964)

The first Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions–Susan the Doctor’s granddaughter and her former teachers Ian and Barbara–materialize inside the tomb of an Aztec temple in pre-Columbian Mexico. As they emerge from the tomb, Barbara is hailed by the Aztecs as the reincarnation of one of their gods. She then decides to use her new influence to steer the Aztecs away from the practice of human sacrifice. This raises the suspicions of the high priest of sacrifice–the conniving Tlotoxl–who then tries to reveal Barbara as a fraud. Meanwhile, the Doctor tries to figure out how to get back into the tomb, which is sealed behind them, so they can escape in the TARDIS; Ian goes into training to become an Aztec warrior and develops a rivalry with his competitor for the top warrior spot; and Susan enters a “seminary” to learn about the Aztecs’ religious ways and is faced with a possible forced marriage to an upcoming sacrificial victim.

This story is interesting in a number of ways, particularly from the perspective of later Who. First, apart from the obvious time-traveling, there’s no sci-fi element to this story. The setting is purely historical, unlike in the Doctor Who revival, where any trip to a historical period invariably includes an encounter with an alien or monster of some sort, Second, the Doctor seems to adhere to a time-traveler’s version of the prime directive–he urges Barbara not to try to change the Aztecs’ practice of human sacrifice because you can’t interfere with history. It’s not totally clear if he means that it’s impossible to change history or just a really bad idea, but ultimately Barbara fails. The crew of the TARDIS is lucky to escape with their lives, much less change history in any meaningful way.

The Doctor isn’t particularly heroic here–his overriding concern is to get himself and his companions out of the situation A.S.A.P. He’s certainly not interested in saving the victims of human sacrifice. There is also an amusing subplot wherein the Doctor becomes “engaged” to an Aztec lady in the process of trying to get information from her about how to access the temple. The episode comes down pretty strongly against trying to interfere with the Aztecs’ practices, and the Doctor seems a bit more cold-blooded and manipulative than in some of his other incarnations.

“City of Death” (1979)

The fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companion and fellow time lord (“time lady,” I guess) Romana are on holiday in Paris in 1979 (the Doctor has an amusing line about how 1979 may not exactly be Paris at its peak). They inadvertently discover both that someone is trying to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and that someone is messing with the space-time continuum. They meet up with a hard-boiled detective type who’s investigating crime in the art world, and the three of them are led to a certain Count Scarloni. But of course, the count is not what he seems–he’s an alien who arrived on Earth in prehistoric times and was subsequently splintered into multiple selves existing at different points in time when his space ship exploded. He is trying to build a machine that will allow him to travel back to that point and prevent the explosion of his ship (and in some way that was not quite clear to me, saving his entire race). This elaborate project is financed by the selling of priceless artifacts like Gutenberg Bibles that he is able to acquire via his selves existing in past eras. The completion of the time machine will be funded through the sale of multiple copies of the Mona Lisa (painted by Leonardo himself, who is being forced to make them by a past version of the Count). But of course, no one is going to buy a Mona Lisa when they know the real one is hanging in the Louvre, so the Count has to steal the original so he can sell his copies on the black market.

Once the Count realizes that the Doctor and Romana are able to travel in time, he forces Romana to help him complete his machine. But if he’s successful in his quest, it will actually prevent the existence of the human race because it turns out . . . the explosion of the ship actually provided the energy that caused the primeval ooze on Earth to begin generating life! So the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan the detective follow the Count (whose real name is Scaroth) back in time using the TARDIS and stop him from preventing his ship’s explosion (in what is frankly a rather anticlimactic scene).

This episode was written in part by Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, and it’s pretty much pure fun. There’s plenty of witty banter, and Baker is in fine form as the fourth Doctor. It was partly shot on location in Paris and includes some nice exterior shots of the city. Scarloni/Scaroth makes a great villain, and there is actually some pathos to his plight.

“Earthshock” (1982)

This has the fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) and his companions Tegan, Nyssa, and Adric showing up in a network of subterranean caves on Earth in the 26th century. A detachment of soldiers, led by a Lieutenant Scott, is investigating the mysterious deaths of a group of archeologists who were excavating the caves, and when they encounter the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa, they assume they’re responsible. But it turns out that the archeologists were killed by some creepy faceless androids who were down in the caves guarding a bomb. The Doctor disables the bomb but traces the signal controlling it back to a freighter in space headed for Earth. The Doctor, his companions, the soldiers, and the surviving archeologist follow the signal back to the freighter in the TARDIS. They eventually discover that the culprits behind the bomb are the Doctor’s old enemies the Cybermen, who are stowed away on the freighter and who are planning to attack an interplanetary summit taking place on Earth among leaders who are joining forces to fight the Cybermen.

Since the Doctor has disabled their bomb, the Cybermen have to resort to plan B, locking the freighter itself on a collision course with Earth. The Cybermen’s leader takes the Doctor and Tegan back to the TARDIS and forces them to leave Adric–who’s a boy-genius science whiz type–on the freighter along with the freighter’s captain and first officer as well as Lieutenant Scott. Meanwhile, Adric is trying to disable the controls the Cybermen have placed on the freighter’s navigation, and through some kind of hiccup involving the warp drive, the ship starts to travel backwards in time–65 million years to be precise. The Cyberman leader thinks this is even better than his original plan because now it looks like the collision will prevent human beings from ever existing at all. But the Doctor points out that what the freighter will actually do is cause the extinction of the dinosaurs! And this of course will actually pave the way for the emergence of humanity. The Doctor and his companions then overpower the Cyber-leader and his henchman on the TARDIS, but unfortunately Adric is still on the freighter as it collides with the Earth and is destroyed. He had stayed on board when the others evacuated on an escape pod for the noble (but ultimately unnecessary) purpose of disabling the Cybermen’s controls and steering the ship away from the Earth. The episode ends on quite a downer with the Doctor speechlessly staring at the TARDIS view screen, on which they just witnessed Adric’s demise.

I really enjoyed “Earthshock”–it was tense, fast-paced (at least by classic Who standards), and packed a pretty solid dramatic punch with the death of Adric. But the Doctor himself seems rather passive and even ineffectual throughout the serial. Not only does he not come up with some brilliant scheme to defeat the Cybermen, he isn’t even able to save his companion. In contrast with some of the other incarnations, the fifth Doctor (at least here) seems somewhat hapless. I gather from what I’ve read that this was something the people in charge of the show at the time did on purpose. They wanted to portray a more vulnerable Doctor to change things up after Tom Baker’s nigh-infallible Doctor who laughed in the face of danger (or at least offered it a jelly-baby). But the problem here is that it’s hard to see why we’re supposed to regard the Doctor as particularly heroic. He’s compassionate and noble, but he doesn’t really do much (except when he blasts the Cyberman leader at point-blank range with one the Cybermen’s own guns, which seems rather un-Doctor like). I’m curious whether this characterization carries through the other fifth Doctor adventures.

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