Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

Not So Classic Who

I treated myself to an afternoon and evening watching "classic" Who. Specifically The Space Museum from 1965 and The Talons of Weng Chiang from 1977- both of them available for free here.

The premise for The Space Museum is satisfyingly creepy. The Doctor and his companions land on a seemingly deserted planet and set out to explore a huge, Borgesian museum, full of space junk. There are anomalies. They leave no footprints in the planet's dust, they reach out to touch the exhibits and their hands pass right through them, the people who eventually appear can't see them. Finally they enter a room in which the main exhibit is the Tardis, with themselves in glass cabinets alongside. Roll credits.

The second episode quickly resolves the mysteries- and we're off on a far less interesting ride involving alien oppressors and rayguns and escapes and fisticuffs.  The oppressors look like Gary Glitter and the people they're oppressing are lank-haired, public schoolboys with two sets of eyebrows.  

It's all very cheap. The heavy old cameras don't move much- and the sets are so small the characters don't move much either. If they're running away from something and need to exchange ideas they have to stop to do it.  The dialogue is dogged and largely humourless.  The acting is variable- ranging from competent to lousy.  I don't know if the show went out live, but there are several instances of an actor- mainly Hartnell and the chief baddy- stubbing their toes on a line and carrying on regardless. I remember Hartnell fondly- but he's a performer of limited range- and after an hour and a half I was beginning to find his doctorly mannerisms- the lapel clasping arrogance, the sly laugh, the aggressive, interrogatory "hums"- repetitive and annoying.

The Talons of Weng Chiang comes from the Tom Baker era- and features on most fan lists as one of the best stories ever. It's better than The Space Museum, certainly- it has a budget and employs a better class of actor-  but what else are we comparing it with?  The story is Sherlockian spoofery, heavily indebted to late period Hammer Horror, or- in other words- derivative and silly.   Also, with its heavy reliance on stereotypes of oriental villainy (its chief baddy is a yellowed-up white man in mandarin robes) it's very hard to absolve it from the charge of racism.

I was around for all the Doctors-  I watched the show as a kid, as a young adult and as a parent-  and It's been puzzling me why hardly any of the stories have stuck in my mind.  I now have my answer. It's because they're rubbish. Through most of its long history Dr Who was this great idea, indifferently executed.  If you're a fan of new Who and think it would be fun to search the archives, by all means do, but don't expect too much. New Who has its faults, but on every level- writing, acting, production values- it's a big advance on what went before.
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