Saturday 25 April 2020


First broadcast: January 1965
Written by David Whitaker
Ye Olde Plot Spoilers Contained Below!

”A lonely orphan lives under the thrall of a sinister creature called Koquillion.”
- From the BBC guide

'The Rescue' is another of those ‘oddity’ early episodes they’d slip in between the big serials - a slender two episodes slid into an era of long storylines. When Carole Ann Ford left the original plan had been to replace Susan with another character from 'Dalek Invasion of Earth', but when that had fallen through the Tardis had taken off a passenger light. At this point David Whitaker had just left his Script Editor’s position, so there remained no BBC rules against him contributing scripts in their own right. However it’s notable he’d previously written 'The Edge of Destruction' (also a two-parter) to get the series out of a similar hole and (so say some) contributed without credit to 'Keys of Marinus'. Even the incidental music is out of the can (recycled from 'The Daleks').

Which might suggest two things;

- this was another episode to be flung together extremely quickly, and (more importantly)

- everything that happens here is with a view to introducing Susan’s replacement – Vicki.

Up to now stories have always started aboard the Tardis, the sole exception the very first episode. Things kick off here with a long scene focusing on Vicki. Science fiction is commonly stereotyped as a genre disposed to Big Ideas, with little interest in characters. But here we have a whole storyline devised just to wrap around one character. (Even 'An Unearthly Child', for all that it focused on Susan, used her more as a springboard to introduce the setup of the series.)

And strangely the result is the most 'Scooby Doo'-ish episode of early 'Doctor Who' - there's a monster who's very obviously a man in a mask. More strangely still, it’s also a story about child abuse. Tomb of the Anorak has suggested that at the series’ start, Ian and Barbara initially fear the Doctor might be molesting Susan. Which might be retro-fitting modern concerns, but here it becomes an idea which can’t be ignored.

In the storyline only the young Vicki and the apparently crippled Bennett have survived a spaceship crash. The other survivors have ostensibly been killed by the natives, particularly the malevolent Koquillion who holds the survivors in fearful thrall. But in fact Bennett, a convict being transported for trial, has killed both crew and natives and is merely disguising himself as Koquillion to keep Vicki obedient. Plus, you imagine, for kicks.

(Vicki seems unable to recognise Koquillion’s clearly wearing a mask, one which is even revealed as a mask within the story! However absurd this may now seem, though, its just another example of the ‘theatre logic’ which perpetuated in 'Who' at the time. If you’re unable to accept such suspension of realism, you really shouldn’t be watching shows from this era at all!)

This fits neatly with the Freudian theory that the child is unable to reconcile the nurturing and commanding sides of the adult, but instead imagines them as two separate people - an internalisation of the good cop, bad cop scenario. And let’s remember Bennett has killed Vicki’s father - effectively replacing him. (Her mother is said to have died earlier.) This tendency is magnified in the case of child abuse, where the child has things done to them they are incapable of coping with, so cannot help but give it the aspect of a nightmare. And as for the magic pointy destructive stick Koquillion’s always carrying… well, Freudian readings, enough said.

But what of Vicki herself? Will Whitaker just clone the screamer Susan sadly became, the whinger we’ve all grown so non-fond of? Or will he seize the chance to create something bigger and better? Actually what he does is press the ‘reset’ button and start the second season with a story very similar to 'Unearthly Child' – the young girl and adult whose unusual circumstances Ian and Barbara blunder in on. (It may also owe something to 'Forbidden Planet', the girl and the man crashlanded on an apparently dead alien planet actually the remnants of an alien civilisation, the girl's innocence made manifest in scenes of her communing with apparently dangerous animals.)

As we’ve seen, Susan’s original characterisation was a take on the futuristic nature of the teenager. In the untransmitted ‘pilot’ episode, she‘s even specifically from the future. Similarly Vicki is from a future Earth. She insists to Barbara her name’s not short for Victoria, a subtle underlining of her modernism. (Ironically, we will later get a Victorian Victoria!) As with Susan and her time travelling status, there’s an emphasis on the child not being listened to by the adults. This is at its height in a nice twist where Barbara shoots a sand monster to protect her, only to be told by a distraught Vicki it was a pet which she’d tamed.

And yet you can already see the spiral starting to sag. With each new girl companion the writers would attempt to mend their ways and set up a stronger character, only for her to fall back into another damsel in distress a few episodes down the road. At the point she’s introduced, there’s already clear limits to Vicki’s unearthliness. Whitaker has pressed the reset button, but not very hard.

It’s not just than Maureen O’Brien looks or acts less interesting than Carole Anne Ford. (Though there’s none of the iconic moments, such as when Susan strokes the transistor radio she’s listening to.) Susan was a time traveller, who didn’t ask for nor need Ian and Barbara’s help. The story's based around a mystery, but that mystery is her rather than something that happens to her.

With Vicki all this is reversed. She’s living not in a working timeship but crashed spaceship, she’s in need of rescue. If she’s from Ian and Barbara’s future, that detail presents no real obstacle to them relating to her as they would any other young girl. She may be in her teens, but crucially she’s a child in a story about parent figures. (The story relies on a double-think about her age, where she's both a hopelessly trusting child and a futuristic teenager. Freud's theory, needless to say, is about very young children.)

Vicki seems to have been plucked from a girl’s comic of the era - orphaned, put upon, unheeded but always dutiful. Poor-block housing is replaced by a broken rocket ship, dogs and horses by aliens, and wicked step-uncles by wicked step-uncles given to wearing masks to make them look like aliens. She’s made an orphan, partly to allow her to step aboard the Tardis more easily but also as a shortcut to not worrying about giving her much of a backstory.

One interesting aspect of the story is that the counterweight of Bennett is not the fatherly Ian but grandfatherly Doctor. While Vicki gushes about how she’s taken to him, he’s presented as a very ‘humanised’ figure – a sweet old man who natters amiably to himself and takes frequent naps. Only when he confronts Bennett does the commanding Doctor take the stage. (And even there he comes to need his own rescue…)

The emphasis on her also serving to highlight him, the Doctor does well by the story. At one point, busy with the Tardis controls, he calls to Susan to help him - then checks himself. It’s a brief moment, and for that very reason infinitely superior to the outbursts of grief porn that pass themselves off as character-based drama today.

Unfortunately, even at two episodes, the story finds time for longeurs. Caves and tunnels would seem this era’s version of quarries and corridors, characters always end up wandering them when in want of a better idea. Ian and the Doctor’s meanderings (complete with death traps as poxy as they are pointless) seem so removed from everything else, you start to feel they’ve somehow been trapped outside of the story and are trying to find their way back in it. The one respite during these scenes are the amusing monsters, who look remarkably like they’ve wandered in from 'The Clangers'. (Only less scary than that description would suggest.)

The ending is also weak, and something of a cheat. Not content with just making Bennett a child abuser, he's also made responsible for colonialism. For in an act of micro-genocide he's supposed to have killed off all the native Didonians. (The name’s presumably meant to make us think of Dodos, and progress from there to Mauritian islanders, native Americans, Tasmanians and so on.) The way he bumps off the actual peaceful natives then reinvents them in his own savage image is actually quite neat, and a reasonably accurate shorthand for the way the culture of the colonial era worked.

Two then turn up at the end to confront him and rescue the Doctor, in a similarly timely manner to the woodchopper arriving to rescue Red Riding Hood. Silent and accusatory they drive him to his death, leading you to wonder if they’re merely projections of his guilt. Unfortunately later scenes disallow that notion, raising the question of what they’ve been up to all this time.

Even if we were to somehow accept their miraculous reappearance, their ‘journey’ would merely be a repeat of the Thals – a peacefully blonde race unfortunately driven to violence through self-preservation. They even look like Thals! If they can't be gult projections then perhaps Ian and Barbara might have followed the Doctor’s trail, then donned Didoan masks to menace Bennett - playing his own trick back upon him.

Some speak of the Hartnell era as if it was very bad apart from when it was very good - in other words, a few classic episodes push up a generally low batting average. There may be some substance to that view, but 'The Rescue' is the counter argument. It should be commended for putting its focus on the character of Vicki, and the way in which it marshals the combination of all its resources in presenting that character. Somewhat paradoxically, then, its main drawback is the character Vicki is actually given. (Let's just overlook those tedious bloody caves…) While you wouldn’t reach for it first when attempting to win over a skeptic, the Whoniverse would be the poorer without it.

Coming soon! From tragedy to farce...

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