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Sunday, 19 October 2014

A massively insightful commentary on the history of Doctor Who. Hahahaha, not really.

Fandom is a funny old thing, with Doctor Who fandom being funnier than most. And I'm not just talking about fans of the modern era.

As an example, it used ti be a commonly accepted fact of life that The War Games was a bit rubbish. As anyone who has seen The War Games; and possesses even a modicum of taste; will attest, The War Games is, in point of fact, a stone classic. Fandom, see. Can't be trusted.

There's another little piece of received wisdom about classic Who that has not, unlike the War Games nonsense, been re-examined and corrected in recent years. Indeed, it keeps being trotted out, time and again, whenever anyone wants to attempt to explain what they see as the relative flaws of the era in question. And that piece of received wisdom is...

Actually, I'm not going to tell you. Yet. Instead, I'm going to go on a little trip down memory lane and I want you to see if you can figure out what you think I might have a bee in my bonnet about this week. Go on, I dares ya. Just to warn you though, it's going to be a long one.

Doctor Who launched in 1963. We all know this. It's opening episode introduced us to what would turn out to be the first of many TARDIS crews; The First Doctor, played, in a somewhat bewilderingly aggressive manner to those who came to the show later, by William Hartnell; schoolteachers Ian and Barbara, whom the Doctor kidnapped (see aforementioned aggressive nature); and Susan. The less said about Susan the better.

The original awesome crew. And Susan.
This crew was a surprisingly durable one, surviving intact for a whopping 50 episodes, before episode 51 saw the first regular character departure. It was Susan, and The Doctor basically just stranded her in a post apocalyptic wasteground with a bloke she'd known for all of a couple of days. Because The Doctor hated Susan as much as everyone else did.

We weren't down to three characters for long though, because the very next week saw the introduction of Vicki. Vicki was everything that Susan wasn't, and everyone loved her. Unfortunately, their love for Vicki wasn't enough to keep Ian and Barbara aboard the TARDIS once they got a chance to return home, and 26 episodes later, that's exactly what happened.

Look at them there. Can't wait to get away.
This would have left The Doctor alone with Vicki, if not for the fact that in that same story, intrepid futuristic space hero Steven had shown up, and tagged along. Hurray!

Aren't I rugged and cool? Yeah.
From there, the changes came thick and fast. Vicki left, and was immediately replaced by Katarina, who promptly died. Sara Kingdom was around for a cup of coffee, before she died too, and Steven started to develop a complex. Then Dodo showed up, and he learned a valuable lesson about being careful what you wish for.

Dodo proved too much for Steven to handle, so he jumped ship next, leaving The Doctor all on his lonesome to deal with the annoying one. Luckily for his burgeoning reputation as Not A Dick, he wasn't forced to leave her stranded somewhere nasty, by the fact that she just decided not to come with him in the very next story, so he picked up sailor Ben and receptionist Polly. Just like that, the three person crew that had become the norm was all present and correct again.

Then the Doctor lay down for a nap and woke up as Patrick Troughton.

Ben was a sailor you know. And Polly put the kettle on a lot.
Shortly after that, Ben and Polly were joined by Jamie, bringing us back up to the original crew quotient of four, then left and were replaced by Victoria, knocking us back to three. Victoria not to be confused with Vicki, who was way better, although Victoria looked incredibly fetching in a posh frock. So there's that.

This iteration of the crew lasted a decent while, but all good things must come to an end, and for this we should be grateful, because sometimes they're replaced by better things. Case in point; Victoria left, and along came Zoe. And Zoe was fab.

That catsuit was very popular, let me tell you.
The Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe would have many travails together, before eventually being separated by a smug set of pricks known as the Time Lords. I hope they don't show up again.

You'll note that we've had three or four person TARDIS crews at all times until now. For those raised on the modern era of one Doctor/one companion, when putting Rory in the titles was seen as a radical move, this might seem odd, but it was very much just the way it was. Doctor Who was an ensemble show, not a two hander.

It is of course at this point that Doctor The Third shows up. Doctor The Third is brilliant, as evidenced by the fact that he is played by Worzel Gummidge, and you don't get much more brilliant than that, as I think we can all agree. He's also stranded on Earth, with no functioning TARDIS (thank you Time Lord pricks) so the definition of companion/TARDIS crewmember becomes more fluid. Even here though, there is always an ensemble feel.

The Brig! Worzel! Liz! Concentrated brilliance.
The Doctor joins up with UNIT, and works alongside The Brigadier, Liz Shaw, and Sgt. Benton. Later, Liz is replaced by Jo Grant, and Captain Mike Yates becomes a regular presence. Yes, even stranded on Earth, the Doctor has a team around him.

Worzel and Jo Grant. Slightly diluted brilliance.
Once the Doctor gets the TARDIS functioning again, and restarts his travels, it's true that he tends only to take along Jo; rare indeed is the instance of The Brig, Benton or Yates setting foot inside the hallowed console room; so there is the occasional story from this period where you could say that the show had fumbled its way into the two hander format. The Doctor always returned to Earth though, and the UNIT lads were always there to greet him.

Of course, Jo eventually left. She was a very popular character, and her departure may have harmed the show, where it not for the fact that she was replaced by Sarah Jane Smith. I'll say no more. It's Sarah Jane Smith.

A veritable smorgasboard of heroic heroes

And then (I may be simplifying) The Doctor gets a bit cocky, and dies of radiation poisoning.  Cue Tom Baker. At this point, The Brig, Benton, and Sarah Jane are joined in the little UNIT headquarters thingy by Doctor Harry Sullivan. Doctor Harry gets a bad rap, but Doctor Harry is awesome. So there. Indeed The Doctor seemed to think so, because when he does a runner in the TARDIS again, it's Harry he takes along for the ride. And Sarah of course, because you'd be a fool not to.

I'm a prattling fool, but my supporting cast will carry me, so it's all good
So we have The Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Harry, off on a nice bunch of adventures in which they fight a nice variety of monsters for 20 episodes. At which point Harry stays behind and The Doctor and Sarah jet off on their own.

Now the show has fallen into the two hander format. It's season 13. Remember that.

Sarah Jane stuck around for another 30 episodes before doing a bunk, then Doctor Tom had a month on his own, before Leela showed up for 40 episodes, after which we got Romana for 26 episodes, and then the second Romana arrived on the scene.

LEELA! Stop murderising people!
Not even gonna think of a caption for this one. Just look at her!
And then this lady arrived.
It was all go.

A season and a half later, something happened. Adric arrived. Everyone hates Adric, for the most part; although I don't really get it myself, but his main claim to fame in the context of what I'm writing here is not that he is one of the most unpopular companions ever, so much as that he brings to an end the epic run of the show in which the TARDIS crew was only two strong. The epic five year run. Five years out of 18. Just saying.

Not long after Adric showed up, Romana left. I don't think she liked him very much. It was Steven and Dodo all over again. But it was ok, because almost immediately Nyssa and Tegan arrived, bringing the TARDIS crew back up to four. Just like the good old days, it was. I bet the fans of the day were ecstatic. Soon after that, the Fourth Doctor became the Fifth. As was inevitable, if you've been paying attention.

Oh Adric, Adric Adric. If you only knew.
Not long after that Adric came a cropper; turns out all the algebra in the world can't save you from going splat when you crash a big spaceship; but that still left three regulars in the TARDIS. When Turlough showed up, we were back to four, and then Nyssa left, taking us back down to three. It was a rollercoaster ride of emotions for those of us keeping count, I can tell you.

As the Fifth Doctors time came to an end though, the crew began to thin out. Tegan did a bunk when she saw one too many deaths; there's a limit to the amount of violence even an Aussie can stomach, it would seem; and we were down to just the Doctor and Turlough. Unless you count Kamelion, but since I didn't even bother to mention his introduction, and he hadn't appeared since that introduction, we clearly don't.

Oh Fine! Since he was in the next story, I guess he does count after all. My bad. He's brought back purely to die of course, but an appearance is an appearance. Oh, and Turlough leaves as well.

So, does that mean the Doctor is all alone? Of course not. That'd never work. So, as Turlough left, Peri joined, and we were at the start of what breast lovers everywhere refer to as the golden age of Doctor Who.

He doesn't know it yet, but she's about to get him killed
From this point on the remainder of the classic era was entirely a two hander; one Doctor/one companion. Peri stuck around for a while, seeing in the Sixth Doctor, then gave way to Mel, who saw in the Seventh Doctor before leaving to make way for Ace, who saw out the series.

Peri. I liked Peri
Mel. I didn't not like Mel

Ace. I fecking loved Ace
So, let us recap; for roughly a five season run during the Fourth Doctors era, the show was a two hander. Then, for the last 5 or so seasons (the final 3 of which were so short they didn't amount to as many episodes between them as season one had) it was a two hander again. For the entire rest of the run, there were two, or even three companions/regular supporting characters at any given time.

So, have you figured out yet what the bee in my bonnet is? You probably have, haven't you? It's quite simple.

Overcrowded TARDIS.

Overcrowded TARDIS. I keep hearing the phrase over crowded TARDIS, and everytime I hear it I want to scream at whichever person; whose opinions on virtually every other aspect of Doctor Who I probably respect and admire; has spouted it this time. It seems that the received wisdom, never questioned, among fandom is that during the Peter Davison/Fifth Doctor era, the show suffered from an overcrowded TARDIS.

But Davison had, at various times, two or three companions. More than subsequent Doctors, certainly, but a fairly standard number for the show, for the vast majority of it's run prior to this era. So why this constant assertion?

To my mind, it's fairly simple. It's not that there are too many people in the TARDIS, it's that the people in the TARDIS aren't very good. They aren't well written, either as individuals or as a unit. No-one ever complained that the TARDIS was overcrowded in season one because when you have one weak link in a group of four; coughSusancough; you can live with that. Similarly, nobody ever accused the early Fourth Doctor stories of having an overcrowded TARDIS, because the Fourth Doctor, Harry and Sarah played off each other so beautifully.

So maybe the Fifth Doctors era doesn't suffer from having too many characters; maybe it suffers from the dynamics between those characters. Maybe if Adric had been less obnoxious; Tegan less stroppy; Nyssa less wet; Turlough less surly; and they had been allowed, just from time to time, to be friends sharing a great adventure, rather than squabbling brats asking their long suffering babysitter "are we there yet?", the show of that era would...well, it would still have flaws, because which era doesn't? But maybe we would agree that an overcrowded TARDIS isn't one of them.

Told you it was going to be a long one. To be fair, I could probably have made the point in half the time, but where would the fun be in that? Join me here next time when I write about something or other vaguely related to sci-fi on the telly.

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