Saturday, April 20, 2013

Doctor Who: 1970

Episode 271: Doctor Who and the Silurians, episode 7
First broadcast: 5.15 pm, Saturday, 14 March 1970
<< back to 1969
The most un-Doctor Who that Doctor Who has ever been
Doctor Who and the Silurians, episode 7
How different would Doctor Who’s seventh season have looked to viewers at the time?

The show was now in colour but most viewers were still watching in black and white. UNIT – the Doctor’s new employers – had been introduced the year before and his friend Lethbridge-Stewart even before that. New companion Liz Shaw is not all that different from Zoe from the previous year.

The look of the series was also familiar. Spearhead from Space was shot on film but then the series was back to being made in a TV studio, with the same fixed-camera look it would keep til the end of the 80s. The design, eerie music and men in rubber suits were all just as they had been.

But there are two major changes to the show. First, it’s all set in one place and time. We never even see inside the TARDIS – instead, the Doctor drives to his adventures in a funny yellow car.

Previous production teams had tried to make Doctor Who more contemporary and relevant. But Season 7 does not strand the Doctor in the (then) present day. Instead, the four stories are set a few years in the future – one with more stylised uniforms and where the space race has reached Mars. This allows the show a bit of freedom to play with new technologies and kill off half of London with a plague.

This near future is pretty bleak. Part of that bleakness is the way it wa shot. For example, on the gas towers in episodes two and three of Inferno, the location, acting, music and direction all make this ‘real’ world so distubring.

But this future Earth is also a serious, professional place. We never see the Brigadier or Liz Shaw’s home or friends, or get any sense of their lives outside their work. Each story is about large institutions: UNIT, a plastics factory, a mining operation, the space programme, another mining operation. When we do meet ordinary people, it’s just to see them scream before the monsters kill them.

The monsters this year – all new creations – are generally good. The Autons and Silurians both quickly returned to the series and still crop up in the series today. The Ambassadors are creepy but their story doesn’t really warrant a comeback (though baddies wearing space suits are cool), and the less said about the Primords the better.

But this season is less interested in monsters as our own bad behavior. More often than not stories turn on the greed, ambition and paranoia of ordinary humans.

There’s greedy poacher Sam Seeley in Spearhead and General Scobie’s pride over the waxwork of himself. In Doctor Who and the Silurians the Doctor is as much fighting the self-interest of Quinn, Masters and Lawrence as he is the creatures – who, just when he’s made peace, the Brigadier blows up. The Ambassadors of Death turn out to be quite friendly, the deaths the result of their misuse by nasty humans. In Inferno, Professor Stahlman refuses to heed health and safety warnings and nearly destroys the world. In the process, we glimpse another Earth where even the Doctor’s friends are baddies.

It’s no wonder the Doctor so resents being stuck on Earth – another reason this season seems so cold and hostile. It’s very different from his usual attitude, that humans are his favourite species, Earth his favourite planet.

That's the second thing that's changed. This Doctor is unlike anything we’ve seen before. It’s not just the incongruous sights of him naked in the shower or sporting a white tee-shirt and a prominent tattoo – the most un-Doctor Who that Doctor Who has ever been. Even when he wears old-fashioned clothes and has that same mix of brilliance and mischief, this is a different man from the first two Doctors. He’s not a reluctant hero but willingly seeks out adventure.

The Doctor’s new-found dynamism often drives the stories – he alone makes a deal with the Silurians, goes into space to rescue Mars Probe 7 and crosses over to the alternate Earth.

Until now, the Doctor always had a male companion to do the fights and stunts, but the Third Doctor is an expert in alien martial arts. The Brigadier – who could have been given all the action – is often more of a hindrance than a help. Meeting the evil Brigade-Leader doesn’t mellow the Doctor’s opinion of his boss. He storms off in protest at the end of the season, and then has to come crawling back when he needs the man’s help.

It’s this relationship that defines the season. Professional, cold and uneasy, Season 7 is a bold, grown-up take on Doctor Who.

(A version of the above appeared as "Countdown to 50: Season 7" in Doctor Who Magazine #436 in June 2011. Thanks to Tom Spilsbury for permission to reproduce it here.)

See also: my friend Matthew on Spearhead from Space and the changes to the show.

Next episode: 1971


The Hand of Fear said...

Nice article - I'm enjoying these retrospectives. One small point - Mullins wasn't the poacher in Spearhead, he was the hospital orderly who sold out to the papers. The poacher was Sam Seeley.

0tralala said...

Bother. I shall change it now. Thank you.