The Case for Bingeing Doctor Who: The Black and White Years

"If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds, and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?"

There’s an understandable temptation, even among your more devoted binge watchers, to give the first six seasons a pass if you’re going to attempt to watch all of the original run of Doctor Who (1963-1989). You shouldn't.

The first six seasons of Doctor Who ran from 1963-1969 and were shot and aired in black and white. And they're fantastic. So why do they usually get ignored?

First off there’s the problem that a lot of it doesn’t actually, you know, exist. This is often a difficult thing for anyone younger than Gen-X to wrap their head around, but up until the general usage of VCRs and the beginning of the home video market, television was a thing that just happened once and then disappeared from the world forever. Videotape was expensive, and so would commonly be reused once a show had been broadcast. Film copies were often created of shows because that was the only workaround for the fact that different countries used slightly different formats and that rendered videotape unusable for foreign sales. It honestly never occurred to anyone at any point that every bit of video media ever created would one day be archived and accessible.

This is all a huge oversimplification, and if you’re interested there are lots of in depth books, articles and videos out there that dig deeper into it. For the purposes of our discussion, just understand that everything up until the end of Jon Pertwee’s run in 1974 was pretty much made, broadcast, and then recorded over with whatever the next program being made was. Eventually they realized their folly, and the recovery of the missing episodes is a whole other interesting tale all in itself. The important part is that out of 253 episodes airing in the first six years of the show, 97 are currently not in the archives. Stories were generally told over the course of six or seven episodes (although there are a couple of exceptions), and the missing episodes are pretty random. So, to take an example, the Patrick Troughton story ‘The Ice Warriors’ currently has episodes 1,4,5, and 6 in existence, while episodes 2 and 3 are not. This makes trying to work your way through the stories a bit frustrating.

But here’s the brilliant bit – Doctor Who fans have always been awesome. And thanks to that, almost from the very first episode there were fans putting reel to reel tape recorders in front of their televisions and forcing their families to be quiet during the broadcast. And thanks to that, while the visuals of 97 episodes are gone, the audio of just about all of it exists, in varying degrees of quality. Adding to this, a man named John Cura regularly took telesnaps of the shows as they were filmed, which means that most of the stories also have a library of still photographs. (The story of how Mr. Cura ended up doing this is more complicated than is worth going into here, but it’s interesting if you want to look it up.)



Earlier than you would imagine that the technology was available to the public, dedicated fans were marrying those pictures with those soundtracks, and creating what are commonly known as ‘Reconstructions’ of the missing episodes. Then, thanks to some byzantine Australian censorship laws which required fairly prudish editing followed by storing the actual film you trimmed out forever to prove that you did it, these also got an infusion of the occasional ten to fifteen second clip of actual footage married into the still photographs.

Adding still further to the situation, in the last few years BBC Worldwide has begun experimenting with commissioning animations of the missing episodes, and matching those to the available audio. Some of them done by the folks who did Danger Mouse, amusingly enough. This means, again for example, the official DVD release of William Hartnell’s ‘The Reign of Terror’ is the original live action for episodes one through three, suddenly becomes cartoons for four and five, and then returns to live action for the big finale in six.



With all of these in play, it's very possible to Frankenstein your way through those whole first six seasons, although it’s true that the soundtrack on a couple of them is pretty hard going. ‘The Savages’ in particular comes to mind (although it's a good story that's worth the effort).

So, that’s hurdle number one for bingeing the first six years. The second is more prosaic. As mentioned in the title, they’re in black and white. Doctor Who turned to color with the arrival of Jon Pertwee in 1970. For those who came to Doctor Who with the Russell T. Davies years, black and white television can be a deal breaker. It feels distancing just due to the level of unfamiliarity, which is natural given how long ago it stopped being the standard. And that's before you start to compare the effects available in 2020 to those in 1963.



Let's look at these one at a time.

The first of these hurdles can be seen as a strength. Watching the episodes in order, flipping from live action to still photos to cartoons and back is a testament to the amount of love and dedication that this show has always inspired. When you start from the beginning and see the quality of storytelling that they had to achieve to overcome the limitations of budget and time, you can see why. And make no mistake, there are some real gems in those first years. ‘The Aztecs,’ only the sixth story the show ever did, remains one of my top ten of all time. ‘The Dalek Masterplan,’ which stretches twelve episodes, three of which are live action, is some of the most enjoyable space opera you’ll ever see. Plus once you’ve seen it you’ll be able to join in on the debate that’s still going on 55 years later as to whether Katerina and Sara Kingdom ‘count’ as official companions. And it has the first appearance of Nicholas Courtney who’d leave quite a legacy later when he returned to play a different character, The Brigadier.

Katerina.  Does she count?  Answers below.

It’s helpful that most of the first season still exists, so you can get a good run of the show as broadcast before experiencing the first reconstruction. (It’s a seven parter called ‘Marco Polo.’ Guess who the guest star is. Don’t worry, it’s really good.) Finally, by the time you get through the first 134 episodes and it’s time for William Hartnell to leave the show it feels like a genuine tragedy to lose him, as opposed to the curious footnote his Doctor tends to be thought of today. Troughton doesn’t take long to make the Doctor his own though, and one of the really interesting thing about watching his three seasons is just how much of Matt Smith’s Doctor is based on his performance. (Deliberately. This isn’t a criticism. Matt Smith fell in love with 'Tomb of the Cybermen' while developing his take on the character.) Notice particularly the way they both use their hands.

Yes, there are a few duds in those first few years. ‘The Sensorites’ can be a bit of a chore, although it’s hard not to like its general optimism. 'The Web Planet' is usually politely referred to as a ‘bold experiment,’ which is… not inaccurate. It has Martin Jarvis as a giant butterfly. That’s certainly bold. It’s a bit of a slog at six episodes, but once you’re through you get Julian Glover as King Richard Lionheart which is as amazing as you’re imagining. His scenes with his sister Joanna, played by Jean Marsh, make you wonder if the story even needs the Doctor and his friends.

Another legitimate problem with those early stories is the frequent ‘blacking up’ of English actors to play minority parts, not to mention a few instances of casual racism. All I can say about them is that it was the early 60s, and the practice wasn’t thought of as being racist at the time. I mean, obviously it is racist, but the degree to which ‘it was of its time’ allows you to forgive it and enjoy the story is entirely up to you.

So, learn to embrace the black and white stories. Once you acclimate to it (which really doesn't take much time at all) it stops distancing you from the story, and as a bonus opens up a whole bunch of classic movies that you might want to check out. Making the effort to piece together the reconstructions, cartoons and remaining footage makes the thing a journey in and of itself, and one that’s well worth taking.

Jamie McCrimmon.  As played by Fraser Hines.
Sam Heughan's character on Outlander is named Jamie Fraser.
I'll leave you to your own conclusions.

The extant episodes are available on Britbox, as are some of the animated episodes. Reconstruction are generally available online, particularly on YouTube (other streaming services are available. Try to stay legal). Because the BBC was generally pretty chill with people making them since no one was trying to make any money out of it. They are however pretty quick to yank them if a missing episode turns up and they’d prefer you pay for the DVD to watch it. DVDs of most of them are available, and there are even sites devoted to fanmade artwork for DVD cases of missing stories if you’d like to burn a reconstruction to disc and mock up a case for it to fill a hole in your collection.

Take the journey. You won’t regret it.

If you just want to check out the highlights of the stories that exist completely:

-- 'An Unearthly Child' - The first adventure. Don't believe anyone who tells you that only the first episode is good.

-- 'The Aztecs' - Four episodes, all of which exist. No monsters, just history. And the Doctor gets the love subplot. Magical.

-- 'The Gunfighters' - It's supposed to be a comedy. It's amazing how many people don't get that.

-- 'Power of the Daleks' - Six episodes, all animated. BBC America actually did a prestige broadcast of these when they were made.

-- 'The Enemy of the World' - Lost for over 40 years, we all thought it had been a dud. Then in 2013 they found all six episodes in Nigeria and it turned out to be absolutely fantastic.

-- 'The War Games' - The ten episode long swan song for Patrick Troughton's Doctor and the black and white era. Conventional wisdom says it's too long. Conventional wisdom is wrong.

Also highly recommended: Mark Gatiss' 'An Adventure in Space and Time,' made as part of the 50th anniversary. A wonderful dramatization of how the show came to be, how William Hartnell came to leave it, and if you don't cry at least once, I assume you are dead inside.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.

2 comments:

Billie Doux said...

A terrific read, Mikey -- thank you. I love how passionate fans can make such a difference. Doctor Who is certainly a special case. I remember original Star Trek fans used to make tape recordings, too, because that was all there was. At least until they started running the show five nights a week in the 1970s.

Chris said...

The timing of this quite eery as I was just contemplating yesterday if I should start watching Doctor Who and if yes, should I start with the revival or the true first season? I guess I'll just give these a try then :D

Are people seriously turned off by black and white? I never understood that.