Friday, December 5, 2014

The Second Doctor Era: A Summary

Patrick Troughton as the Doctor in
The Power of the Daleks
When William Hartnell left the series in 1966, many thought it impossible that anyone could take over the show from him, so indelible was the mark he left on the role. Even his successor doubted the idea. Interviewed in 1986, Patrick Troughton said, "I didn't think it was a particularly good idea of the BBC to replace Billy [Hartnell]. I thought it was pretty silly, really! I didn't see how anyone could follow him."

In hindsight, aside from the concept of regeneration itself, the choice of Troughton to replace Hartnell was perhaps the most brilliant choice anyone associated with the show ever made. To have the courage to opt for a completely different characterization of the Doctor, to not just look for someone to impersonate Hartnell, freed the production team to simply choose the best actor for the part. Reportedly, Hartnell himself thought Troughton was the only actor capable of the job, and his performance proves this. Indeed, it was his continued brilliance in the role and the aspects of the Doctor's personality he chose to emphasize, that ensured that the series could seamlessly replace the lead actor and continue forward.

Troughton immediately put his mark on the role. When reading the initial scripts of his first serial, he objected to the authoritative, verbose character as written. His feedback was to make the character more of a listener, less likely to dominate the room, but rather to lull his enemies into a false sense of security,  manipulate the situation, and then spring his trap. This was motivated partly to suit Troughton's vision of the character, but also to suit his preference to have less technobabble to spout. Troughton's view of the character dovetailed nicely with Sydney Newman's idea to make the Second Doctor more of a "cosmic hobo", a happy wanderer rattling around time and space in his unreliable TARDIS.

From L to R: Ben (Michael Craze), the Doctor,
and Polly (Anneke Wills)
This interpretation of the new Doctor served to create an altogether warmer, more vital and anarchic figure than the First Doctor. Whereas the First Doctor was a kind of cantankerous grandfather, Troughton played the Doctor as crazy favorite uncle, popping into your life to make things interesting. He shared many qualities with his predecessor, such as a kinship with the underdog, a fierce morality, a brilliant mind, and a spine of steel. But it was how he applied those qualities that differed. He was more likely to disguise his motives, less forthright, quicker to use manipulation and subterfuge, even with allies. He was more excitable, more likely to show outwardly when he was overwhelmed, which created a more vulnerable side than Hartnell's imposing Doctor. This was a result of, in my opinion, Troughton's greatest skill as an actor, namely that he always played to the highest stakes of the given circumstances of the script. No matter how ridiculous the plot, or how silly the monster, Troughton always gave the scenes the weight that the circumstances called for. This skill is all the more important when the scripts are not up to snuff, as they sadly often were during his era. His performance alone often could convince the viewer of jeopardy and high stakes, even when the scripts or production values feel short.

L to R: Jamie (Frazer Hines) and the Doctor
In short, Troughton created an altogether different character that somehow was still recognizable as the Doctor. A lesser actor would have either copied Hartnell or not been able to bring in those touches of the familiar. It's this magical quality that has made him a favourite of fans (and his successors in the role) ever since.

Sadly, while Troughton gave one of the most satisfying performances of any Doctor, he was fated to star in an era where Doctor Who was frankly hugely uneven. Lacking the bold experimentation and varied stories of the Hartnell years, Troughton's era is marred by an over-reliance on both the base-under-siege formula and the monster-of-the-week formula. Whereas Hartnell's era benefited from its ability to tell all kinds of stories from action-based science fiction to historical drama to comedy, the production teams of Troughton's era concerned themselves with simplifying the series down to its most successful iteration and then repeating it, over and over, until what once seemed fresh became stale. Starting off strong in Season Four, budget concerns motivated the production team to utilize this formula almost entirely in Season Five, and the result is a feeling that the series had become formulaic. Classics were made using this formula (The Web of Fear), true, but a greater variety and a bolder spirit could have produced more stellar examples like The Mind Robber.

In the end, Sherwin and Bryant's feeling that the audience was tired of adventures through time and space to alien planets with silly monsters was somewhat true, but I think that had more to do with the lack of variety within the stories themselves than the audience tiring of the format itself. It makes for an uneven viewing experience, where the exceptional work of Troughton and the regular cast, as well as some solid direction on many stories, almost make up for the variable quality of the stories.

But the decision to bring the Doctor down to Earth for his seventh season would result in one of the boldest, most sophisticated and most consistently brilliant seasons of all.

Jamie and Zoe (Wendy Padbury) are menaced by robots
during The Mind Robber

Best Second Doctor Stories: The War Games, The Power of the Daleks, The Web of Fear, The Evil of the Daleks, The Mind Robber

Worst: The Space Pirates, The Dominators, The Underwater Menace

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