Thursday, October 17, 2013

Season 4 Overview

Polly (Anneke Wills, left) and the Doctor
(William Hartnell, center) face off with a Cyberman in
The Tenth Planet
Throughout the 26 year run of the classic series, Doctor Who faced several moments where the survival of the show was very tenuous indeed. Moments where, if a single element had not come together, the series would have ended. Surely there was no moment more fraught than the one where William Hartnell left the series that carried his character's name and Patrick Troughton stepped into the role.

The idea that the leading actor of a series could be replaced was certainly unusual, though not unheard of, but it was an idea that was risky in the extreme. The further idea that the lead actor could be replaced by another actor, playing the same character, was even more unusual. And the even further idea that the new actor could play the character in a completely different way, with a completely different look, than his predecessor, is something that could only happen in Doctor Who. The fact that so little had been revealed about the character and that the series had already established itself as the kind of show where anything could happen, is what allowed such a fantastic development to take place.

Indeed, replacing William Hartnell with some sort of Hartnell clone probably would have been a disaster. The choice of Patrick Troughton was inspired in many ways, but the one most necessary to the success of the concept of regeneration was his very difference. It was Doctor Who's progenitor Sydney Newman who first came up with the idea that Troughton's Doctor should be a "cosmic hobo" and that set Troughton down the path to creating one of the most beloved incarnations of the Doctor.

The fourth season opens with the series feeling a little old hat, it must be said. This is more the result of the lacklustre opening story than anything else. William Hartnell's swan song, The Tenth Planet, is a much better story overall. Though it has its problems, it is also more a part of the pacier, more action-driven direction the series had begun to take following The War Machines.

Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills) meet the Second
Doctor (Patrick Troughton) in The Power of the Daleks
But if the fourth season under the leadership of producer Innes Lloyd and script editor Gerry Davis had a quicker pace and slicker action, it did feel far less innovative and delightfully bizarre than the three seasons that preceded. Lloyd and Davis felt they had found a golden formula for Doctor Who, one that would minimize sets and cast members to maximize the budgets, while also delivering a steady stream of popular monsters old and new to thrill the kiddies. This was the "base under siege" formula, where the Doctor would arrive at an isolated location, clash with a small cast of characters, and encounter an alien menace. The problem with this formula, of course, is that it resulted in formulaic stories.

While this strategy would really flourish in the following season, it has its beginnings in the fourth season, indeed The Tenth Planet can be seen as the first true base under siege story. While this did reap some rewards, it also meant that gone were the experimentation that resulted in comedies like The Romans and The Gunfighters, or surreal weirdness like The Web Planet and The Celestial Toymaker. It's true these stories didn't always work, but it showed that Doctor Who was willing to try anything, and it gave some relief from the sameness of some of the more straightforward rampaging monster stories. This formulaic quality certainly wasn't helped by another major decision to scrap the historical stories.

From this point forward, Doctor Who becomes much more of an action-adventure series. Yes, it's still science fiction, and it's still wonderfully inventive, but for a long time after this season, the tone of the series is far more rigid. It's tales of the Doctor battling monsters, invaders and villains in a science-fiction setting with a healthy dollop of horror. This is by no means bad in and of itself, but it does mean the show loses some of its strangeness.

A Dalek menaces Victoria (Deborah Watling) and
Jamie (Frazer Hines) in The Evil of the Daleks
This being said, season 4 has many things to enjoy about it, particularly the wonderful performance of Troughton, the introduction of Frazer Hines as Jamie MacCrimmon, as well as two of the greatest Dalek stories ever. The production team begins mining horror tropes to great effect, a practise they had dipped into previously, but in this season and the next they go all out to create two years of stories that sent a generation of children behind their sofas.

A lot of this has to stem from Lloyd and Davis who created a sense of stability within the programme following the tumultuous times following Verity Lambert's departure. This would continue into the fifth season, one that would rely on monsters and the base under siege format even more heavily.

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