[16 June 2010]
Begin at the beginning. That’s an maxim I’ve always followed and even if it’s years after the fact, I’ve trained myself to ignore the contemporary and embrace the old. In comics, I look for first issues. With music, I’ll get the first album and move ahead from there. Beginnings aren’t always best, though. Sometimes the voice of an artist or a piece of work isn’t found for a while.
With many television shows it’s sometimes necessary to start at the beginning. Imagine picking up Lost in the middle of the fourth season without ever seeing the plane crash or the hatch or the polar bear. Without beginnings the meat of a piece can lose both its context and its dramatic impact.
It’s not impossible to find the beginning of Doctor Who. In the US, there are plenty of DVD and VHS collections of stories from the long-running BBC series available, but the Doctor’s presence isn’t the same in the states as it is in the UK, even with the popularity of the current series. I came to the Doctor late, though he was long known to me. I have vague memories of Tom Baker’s scarf going back to elementary school when I thought anyone with a British accent must be a genius.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized Baker wasn’t the only Doctor. He was the fourth and that’s part of what’s made finding these stories and watching them such a pleasure. There are, of course, the familiar sign posts: the TARDIS, the female companion and strange and sometimes shabby-looking costumes that are as imaginative as they are cheaply made. Then there’s the theme song, which is probably the greatest in science fiction, if not all of television. Seriously – have you heard it? (If not, see below.)
Even without starting at the beginning of the Doctor’s adventures, there is always a new beginning, a new Doctor and a new story.
In The Curse of Peladon, the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and his companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning) crash land on the planet Peladon and are mistaken for the Earth delegates of the Galactic Federation. The two soon become involved in the talks regarding Peladon’s entry into the Federation and are suspected of sabotage when one of the King’s advisors is killed and the entire conference is threatened by an ancient curse.
Much of the story centers on the struggle between King Peladon’s (David Traughton, son of the second Doctor, Patrick Traughton) desire to bring his people into the galactic community and Hepesh (Geoffrey Toone) the high priest’s allegiance to the ancient traditions of the planet. This tension was inspired by the real life debate at the time over whether Britain should join the European Community, a fact detailed in the DVD bonus feature “The Peladon Saga-Part One”.
On the surface, the story is like so many other science fiction shows on television. There’s the King’s ridiculous velvet shorts and the giant green eyeball with the high-pitched voice that happens to be the Federation delegate from Alpha Centauri. Despite all this, the story works. The sets, though they obviously did not break the studio’s bank, give the impression of a fully realized world. There is a lot of running around candlelit hallways and hiding in secret caverns, and the details left out of these dark places are filled in by the viewers’ imagination.
Jon Pertwee’s Doctor exudes a natural charm and strength whether he’s dealing with the King, calming the bickering delegates, or fighting the King’s champion, Grun (Gordon St. Clair). Watching Pertwee in action, though, there is a sense that, no matter who plays the part, the actor doesn’t inhabit the role, the role inhabits the actor.
Bonus features include the making-of featurette detailing the story’s production and historical context. Watching the story one doesn’t sense the influence of contemporary politics on the production, but after viewing this feature it gives the story an incredible depth even without a deep knowledge of British politics of the ‘70s.
“Warriors of Mars” is a history of the Ice Warriors of Mars, seminal villains from earlier serials that make good in this story. Audio commentary by script editor Terrance Dicks and actor Katy Manning is fun but not always engaging and the still photo gallery remains any DVD’s least essential feature.
This is just one of many incarnations of Doctor Who to discover and enjoy. Those who’ve followed the Doctor for years already know how absolutely fun this show can be. For the rest of us, its only the beginning.