Saturday 1 May 2021


”It's not only his face that's changed. He doesn't even act like him.”
- Ben

Not Himself Today 

So… the first Troughton story. The first ever new Doctor story. All resorted to out of necessity, of course. Hartnell's ailing health meant he had to go. But it didn't just ensure the show's longevity. It became one of those vintage 'Who' concepts, a thing that everyone knows whether they watch the show or not, almost as classic as calling a Police Box a time machine. “The changing face of Doctor Who”, the line used on all those Target novelisations, becomes a core component of the character – that he doesn't have just one character.

And if the character can regenerate, then so can the show. It becomes not just futuristic but future-proof. It's a concept equal thirds deranged, ingenious and audacious. And like the Police Box, it's hard to think back to a time where it needed dreaming up.

It’s true that leads had been replaced on shows before. In 'Quatermass', such a forerunner for 'Who', it had changed with every series. But each actor played pretty much the same role, as if hoping you wouldn’t notice the join. Yet this inevitably opened the door to changing the character. Tarzan is both the Johnny Weissmuller noble savage and the Ron Ely gentleman-in-trunks, without anyone worrying about it too much.

Nevertheless, to make that diegetic – to change the character within the show and have other characters comment on it - was a bold step. It has a kind of double virtue – the ‘always on’ sense of a continuing show, with the advantages of a continually reset one, such as… well, Tarzan would be a good example.

So bold in fact, they nearly didn't do it. The Uncyclopedia deadpans “when the first actor to play the Doctor finally left the show... the casting director took the brave decision of replacing him with a look-alike in the hope that the audience wouldn't notice. Unfortunately the casting director was blind.”

In further evidence that 'Who' is beyond satire, this is very nearly true. They'd already used Edmund Warwick to stand in for Hartnell when the ageing actor was ill, or with whatever was going on in 'The Chase'. Which did indeed suggest a blind casting director. And their first idea for replacement was for him to return from invisibility in 'The Celestial Toymaker', but sporting a new face. Which suggests just a new face, rather than a new personality to go with it.

And some of that thinking does survive to the screen. Regeneration as a term hasn't been invented yet. Instead we have 'renewal', which suggests something more like resetting. Remember last time that Hartnell had commented his “old body” was “wearing a bit thin”. And Troughton is often demonstrated as something of a younger model. Two of his immediate acts are to find he no longer needs specs and leap over a boulder.

This bold step wasn't taken without nervousness. While New Who would announce a new Doctor as a media event, reserving the 'Radio Times' cover, Hartnell segued into Troughton mid-season. And it was accompanied by the nearest thing the show then had to a ratings grabber. (We’ll come onto that. But you’ve already guessed...)

A Time For Change

So why did they go bold not play safe? Of course Hartnell's character, devised largely on the hoof, had morphed considerably during his run. But what had really instigated change in the show was the companions' role. At first, with Vicki for Susan, replacement had been essentially like-for-like. Both of who, as soon as they started to act at all independently, headed off-stage. But that hadn't lasted, with Ben and Polly – now the sole remnants of the previous era – as living proof. Though new arrivals, they seemed strong enough to hold the join.

But now they went further than that. The show didn’t just change when it had to, it flagged change. The lead character didn’t just get replaced, he was shown to be replaced. And so, as paradoxically as it sounds, change became part of its tradition. The central character came to represent change.

I once wrote about the fan conviction that every enduring character starts with a genius creator and how that so often isn’t true, with particular reference to Superman. But the good Doctor’s possibly a better example. As noted ‘Who’ sage Andrew Rilstone has said “you can't say that 'Doctor Who' was created by Sydney Newman: he's the product of every writer who has ever worked on the series.”

And he’s not just right, he has to be right. It’s ancillary to the show having longevity. If it had tried to maintain absolute faithfulness to its original concept, it would have gone the way of most TV shows, which don't carry on for decades and which tend to stop when they're cancelled.

Rob Young once summed up the attitude of celebrated folksong collector Cecil Sharp: “Don’t seek the ‘original copy’; focus on the transformations themselves – for they are the substance of the song… the ‘original’ is not the authentic prototype; instead, it should be thought of as the equivalent of a composer’s first draft - ‘the source from which it is sprung’. Every subsequent iteration becomes more ‘real’, more ‘definitive’.” (’Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music’, Faber & Faber.)

So folk song isn’t like finding the source of the Nile, disregarding all tributaries as irrelevant. It’s more like trying to map and re-map an ever-morphing delta. And, effectively another product of popular culture, ’Doctor Who’ is in this way like a folk song. It’s title character can change considerably, but all Doctors are the Doctor.

Except it’s wider than that. Wikipedia states, without citation needed that “the BBC takes no position on the canonicity of [the show], and producers of the show have expressed distaste for the idea of canonicity.” Some characters seem born for fanfic, to be taken up by folk culture. And the Doctor must be pre-eminent among them.

And this is a further demonstration, as if we needed one, of the Doctor as a shamanic figure. The Doctor likens his new look to the metamorphosis of a butterfly, commenting “life depends on change... and renewal”. The shamanic ritual may be buried deep in our culture, like an ur-melody we’ve forgotten we know but still find ourselves humming.

But this also suggests something of its own era. For the production notes called renewal a “metaphysical change”, and likened it to an acid trip. If regeneration made ’Who’ timeless, it simultaneously fitted its times.

When did the changed self become a fixture of popular culture? When in doubt, people usually look to 'Sergeant Pepper'. And the iconic cover to that album featured not only the bright, psychedelic new-look Beatles but juxtaposed them against the neatly suited old Fab Four. (A metaphysical change brought on by similar means to the show's production notes, if interpreted slightly more literally.)

Though not released until June 1967, six months after 'Power' was broadcast, it was another symptom. Change was in the air. And one of the key things to be changing was attitudes to change. It had, needless to say, always happened. But no longer were things the way they were, which sometimes changed. Now there was change which sometimes took a break. And us, we were no longer beings made in moulds, we were now plastic and ever-morphing.

Look how Bowie, a few years later, took that concept and ran with it, even calling his compilation albums 'Changes'. In his Glam rock history ’Shock and Awe’ Simon Reynolds recounts how Bowie came to be seen as “a shapeshifter”; that musical dilettantism, once a sign of inauthenticity, in his hands became a virtue.

Gent Into Hobo

In some ways, the changes they didn't choose to make are as significant as the ones they did. Hartnell has not originally been seen as the protagonist of the show, but an instigator, in personality alien and remote. His taking up the starring role had happened by accident. But now it had they could reboot the character into someone more humanised, more explicable, more reassuringly familiar.

In fact they do the very opposite. This is where the Doctor's alien-ness really kicks in. Troughton's mystery doesn't just surround him, it becomes part of his nature. He's hard-wired to act inscrutably. The emphasis on Ben and Polly, reluctantly following a new-found stranger they don't necessarily trust, commenting on what he's doing, is actually very similar to Ian and Barbara in the early days. (See Ben's quote up top.)

I have now lost track of however many times I have said “this is the start of the show as we know it”. Nevertheless, the first Troughton story is the start of the show as we know it. It's the first to use the patented 'The... of the...' title formulation, as used in every 'Doctor Who' parody ever. (While the next, inevitably enough, would be the next Dalek story.)

Look how in his first story there's prototype versions of two things which become totemic to later 'Who'. The Doctor breaking out of a cell with a sonic lock presages the soon-to-arrive sonic screwdriver. But more important is the speedy way the story thrusts the badge of the murdered Examiner into his hand. As this becomes a free pass for him to investigate stuff, it becomes the sort of thing that's likely to happen in 'Doctor Who'. The psychic paper wasn't named until New Who. Yet here it is born.

Hartnell had taken up disguises in his time. But whatever disguise he took on he always looked the part, hitching his thumbs into his waistcoat and imposing his authority. (In 'Reign' he comments “my voice seems to carry some weight.”) Troughton’s endlessly brandishing the badge, sometimes even proclaiming “I have a badge!”, like a clown with a crown. If he's the Lord of anything it's Misrule. And, in something we'll come onto, no-one actually listens to him very much – badge or not.

Because in a sense Troughton's Doctor is a disguise. In Sydney Newman's famous phrase, he was a “cosmic hobo”. Ironically, Hartnell - at least early Hartnell - was something of a hobo, amblingly bumping into schoolteachers one week, cavemen the next and aliens with funny feet the month after. But Troughton can look like a hobo precisely because that's what he isn't. He's less wanderer, more freelance detective.

His habit of searching out clues with a magnifying glass soon established, it's common to assume his nearest cousin is Sherlock Holmes. In fact it's quite a different kind of detective, and not even an English one. Columbo wasn't to appear for another two years. Yet, like Troughton's Doctor he's a crumpled little man, devoid of gravitas or natural authority. With both, it's their adversaries who are the important people, with the big plans. And, while distracting them through displays of clownishness, both quietly demolish those plans, bring down the mighty.

”It’s Like a Promise”

Troughton’s defining quote, even if he didn’t make it until his fourth appearance, was: “There is evil here and we must stay. There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.

Andrew Rilstone goes so far as to assert that Troughton's little speech “defined what 'Doctor Who' was about for ever after. I think that … Hartnell was a gentleman scientist who travelled the universe and got involved in quarrels… but that wasn't his prime motivation… the Troughton era established him as a crusader who fought evil.” (NB He says this in his comments section.)

Hartnell's equivalent speech comes at the end of 'Reign of Terror' - “our destiny is in the stars, so let's go and search for it”. Notably it shows up without any real narrative context, he just ups and says it. And the show often resembled its lead character, exploring hither and thither, as it grew up through happenstance and extemporisation, making mistakes but somehow surviving them. It’s lack of a formula made the highs higher, but also the lows lower. It ran without a safety net.

And Troughton defines his stories equally. There no longer any need to be a conveniently inconvenient rockfall or mislaid parking ticket to keep him from the Tardis. To Hartnell's “among the stars” he counters flatly “we must stay”.

Hartnell's Doctor was created, accurately or not, to represent a generation – part of a family unit for a family show. The docu-drama 'Adventure In Space and Time' made great play of the actor watching the show with his own grand-daughter. The time traveller was less beyond than out of time, his clothing and mannerisms chosen to represent an era.

Here, the changed scenario goes hand-in-hand with a changed central character. It’s like the two sides of an equation. Because there is the shadow of evil, cast darkly over our no-longer-impregnable walls, there must also be the hero. Troughton's Doctor is not just eccentric but idiosyncratic, irreducibly otherly.

They come from one corner of out-there to assail us, he from another in our defence. In short, he becomes an emblematic hero. Think of his quote from the much later 'Name of the Doctor', “My real name… that is not the point. The name I chose was the Doctor. It’s like a promise you make.” All that is seeded here.

So, to misquote Bagpuss when the Doctor changes the Whoniverse cannot help but change with him. The... to use a word I have just made up... Hartnellverse was for the most part strange, exotic and wondrous. Troughton stories are closer to Sixties spy fiction - strewn with clues, surveillance and deception, stirred with a sense of pop Surrealism. And they take place less in the grand span of the cosmos than in drably locked rooms. In something you don't get points for noticing, besieged bases were soon to be common.

And, before we wax too lyrical, these were already an SF staple, in Hollywood films we'll shortly be hearing a whole lot about. Not to mention a means to turn cost-effective limited sets to your advantage. But as soon as the Doctor's given the role of the Joker, we need a pretty straight pack to deal him into. Cryptic, playful and inventive, he's the very antithesis of the closed bureaucratic mind. And what better visual correlative for that closed mind than the besieged base?

But, I hear you ask, what adventures did this brave new Doctor get up to..?

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