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A la recherche du Doctor Who

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With its shoddy sets and echoes of the British empire, early Doctor Who does not stand up well to the rigours of time travel. But for Simon Winder, who, like the Doctor, turns 50 this year, these surreal stories reawaken a sense of childhood wonder

The first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast on 23 November 1963, a date particularly oppressive for me, in part because of my own devotion to the programme, but more significantly because I was born about 48 hours later. Each BBC announcement about the 50th anniversary is a further personal hammer blow: my life as a child may have progressed in lock-step with the Doctor, but I will not myself be given the same cheery option to regenerate.

Golden jubilees are meant to offer a pause for mature reflection of a happy-and-glorious kind. This works poorly for Doctor Who. Whatever my failings at least I have been continuously alive during this period. By contrast, for at least 16 years the Doctor was off the air completely. Indeed, a strong case could be made that perhaps for the last 12 years of the original run (roughly from the introduction of the plastic, laser-gun-wielding robot dog K-9 onwards) the series became just too hopeless to count. Time and again, the later episodes have the air of the memorable, gurning, murderous lighthouse-keeper in "Horror of Fang Rock" (1977) – a mere alien simulacrum, with the real thing left as a carcass in the basement. Then there's the problem of whether the revived programme really has anything much to do with the original at all, thus hacking the golden jubilee down to a mere first 15-year run of Doctor Who, a long time ago.

Chris Marker's extraordinary short film La Jetée (1962) is in part about the difficulty of time travel. The prisoner who is subjected to the scientists' experiments can only go back having been blindfolded and drugged. Stifled, nauseous, mentally ravaged, he glimpses the past and can only in part comprehend it. This rule applies when we try to go back in time to enter the world of early Doctor Who. The process is less rigorous – clicking on to YouTube while perhaps munching a biscuit – but the effect is no less suffocating. Not unlike the victim of La Jetée, our ability to understand what we are watching is terribly curtailed. Doctor Who in the 1960s was made never to be seen again: television was different back then. If you were the wrong age, or were out of the house, or had no access to a TV, then you could simply never see that apparently superb episode of "The Power of the Daleks" (1966). Actors, technicians and designers worked to create a single, 25-minute blast, to be watched by 8 or 9 million people and then mostly forgotten. In the 1970s most of the recordings were destroyed – they were obsolete, contractually unusable and taking up space. The later invention of a massmarket video technology that allows us to pick through the surviving debris – painstakingly reassembled from the most unlikely sources – shows us the transgressive price we have to pay. Straining to understand what we can see, it turns out these are daft children's programmes, crudely acted on wobbling sets and with lines routinely fluffed.

But once the initial sense of dismay subsides (one oddity – the Doctor disappears at irregular intervals from the storyline simply because William Hartnell was on holiday or unwell), there are genuine pleasures and continuities. Indeed, watching the very first story, "An Unearthly Child" (1963), it is striking how quickly all the key elements that dominated (off and on) the following 50 years are in position: the Doctor's erratic and unbiddable nature – crucial to so many plotlines, his relationship with his assistants, the chaotic working of the Tardis. Very rapidly too – certainly by the time of the second story, "The Dead Planet", which introduced the Daleks – the Doctor has taken on a sort of grandeur, becoming a curious blend of Faust, the Wandering Jew, the Archangel Michael, Prospero and Mr Chips.

Doctor Who's dated, metropolitan Britishness is striking in these early episodes, as are the ways in which they preserve ways of pronouncing words that have drifted in the subsequent half century. Everything about the programme makes sense only in the context of the dying days of the British empire, its assumptions incomprehensible if the Doctor were Danish, say, or Chilean.

The first incarnations of the Doctor (Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee) are all specifically imperial figures. In story after story the Doctor arrives in the manner of a harassed, well-educated district officer. He is introduced to the local "Big Man" and learns of his subjects' specific issues (generally being rubbed out by killing machines with no morals and a single chronic weakness) and then sorts them all out. He is constantly separating warring tribes, educating them, introducing new technologies.

These actors' military backgrounds and demeanour, barking out commands to the locals and scolding those who step out of line, give everything a sort of Swingin' Safari atmosphere. With Hartnell's first assistants being school teachers (one even teaching stone-age man how to use fire), the early stories have an enjoyably bizarre flavour of late imperial do-gooding, with the Planet Skaro more like a lightly disguised Malawi than somewhere genuinely alien. The poor Thals, Xerons and so on immediately fall into line, simply because they are being told to do so by people with British accents – whereas their enemies are patently Nazis, Thuggees, Marathas, Zulus and the rest, who the Doctor disposes of with a moral flaming sword.

This extraordinary British self-confidence extends to the outer limits of the universe. Not only do ...

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  • APA 6th ed.: Winder, Simon (2013-11-02). A la recherche du Doctor Who. The Guardian .
  • MLA 7th ed.: Winder, Simon. "A la recherche du Doctor Who." The Guardian [add city] 2013-11-02. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Winder, Simon. "A la recherche du Doctor Who." The Guardian, edition, sec., 2013-11-02
  • Turabian: Winder, Simon. "A la recherche du Doctor Who." The Guardian, 2013-11-02, section, edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=A la recherche du Doctor Who | url= | work=The Guardian | pages= | date=2013-11-02 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 July 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=A la recherche du Doctor Who | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 July 2024}}</ref>