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Thoughts on DOCTOR WHO: LOST IN TIME

I’ve just belatedly finished watching the Doctor Who: Lost in Time: The Hartnell Years DVD I have out from Netflix.  I’ve already watched the first of the two Patrick Troughton discs, but then I learned about the Hartnell one and figured I should see that right away, because it should’ve come first (Hartnell, of course, was the original Doctor, Troughton the Second Doctor).  Anyway, the set is a compilation of the surviving fragments of DW serials that were erased by the BBC back when they did that sort of thing.  The Hartnell disc contains one complete story, “The Crusade,” though only the first and third episodes survive and the other two are only in reconstructed audio form (without even any production clips or text descriptions).  I tried reading the relevant portions of the novelization as I listened, so I’d know what was going on, but it didn’t work well; even though the novelization was by the same person who wrote the episodes, David Whitaker, it substantially restructured the story and the dialogue so I couldn’t really follow along.

Still, “The Crusade” is a very impressive serial, surely one of the finest DW serials of its day if not in general, and it’s a shame the whole thing doesn’t survive.  It’s one of the pure historical adventures that they did roughly every other serial in the Hartnell era, with the Doctor and his companions encountering King Richard the Lion-Hearted and Saladin during the Third Crusade.  Whitaker’s writing for the historical figures in the story is borderline-Shakespearean, not quite iambic pentameter but very elegant and poetic and clever.  And the actors, including Julian Glover as Richard, Jean Marsh as his sister Joanna, and Bernard Kay as Saladin, are definitely Shakespearean in their training and performance.  It’s a delight to watch, not just for the classy performances and beautiful language, but the richly drawn characters and intense drama among them.  It’s such a striking departure from the clunkiness of a lot of the more sci-fi-oriented serials of early DW.  In fact, the downside of “The Crusade” is that it becomes a lot less interesting when the focus turns away from these grand historical figures and their worldshaking concerns to the more petty escapades of the Doctor and his companions, which by necessity unfold on the periphery of historical events.  It’s like we’re getting to see scenes from an unwritten Shakespeare play about Richard I, but then we don’t get to see the final act because we have to focus on the Doctor and companions getting reunited and back to the TARDIS.  It’s kind of a letdown.  But it’s still an impressive serial overall.

The drawback with “The Crusade,” of course, is that it features Arab/Mideastern characters played by white actors in makeup, and there are plenty of Orientalist stereotypes on display, such as the evil emir who abducts Barbara and the desert bandit who tries to kill Ian.   Saladin himself is written and portrayed as a nuanced, dignified figure (and Richard as a flawed, often petulant man), yet the makeup on Bernard Kay, the dark face paint and angular eyebrows, makes him look more like a 1960s Klingon than a believable Salah ad-Din.  (One nice touch is that when the actors say “Saladin,” they emphasize the third syllable so that it does sound a lot like “Salah ad-Din.”)

The DVD also contains the only three surviving episodes of the 12-part epic “The Daleks’ Master Plan” and the final episode of the rather silly “The Celestial Toymaker.”  It’s a shame that so much is missing, but we do get to see surviving footage of Adrienne Hill as Katarina, the first companion to die (though she was only in 3-4 episodes in all); Nicholas Courtney (the future Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart) in his first DW role as Bret Vyon; and Jean Marsh (again) as Bret’s sister Sara Kingdom, the second companion to die (though she was only in this storyline so it’s questionable whether she was officially a companion).  It’s good to be able to see these characters in action after only reading about them before.  The villain, Mavic Chen (Kevin Stoney), is not so impressive, however.  The concept of his makeup design was interesting; he was evidently conceived as a man of the year 4000, a mix of all modern ethnic types — he had tightly curled blond hair, dark skin, and epicanthic eyes.  Unfortunately the makeup was no more convincing than Saladin’s, and it still comes off as an Orientalist stereotype, or at best kind of silly-looking.  There’s also a council of alien villains who are kind of bizarre, but interestingly differentiated by body language as well as makeup — one walks with his arms stuck out to the sides, one has a peculiar bouncing gait, etc.  Some are a bit silly in execution, but still, I’m surprised none of the books or audios have followed up on any of these races.

Not much to say about the “Toymaker” episode.  Judging by the novelization and other stuff I’ve read, the serial was rather weak and fraught with problems; it was caught in the transition between script editors and producers and thus went through several very different drafts, and it was written in such a way as to cover up Hartnell’s absence (probably due to his increasing illness by this stage) through the rather silly expedient of having the titular Toymaker, a godlike trickster anticipating Star Trek‘s Q, render the Doctor invisible and inaudible except for a badly double-exposed hand to  move the pieces on a game board.  It’s really only notable in that the Toymaker was played by Michael Gough, the future Alfred from the Burton and Schumacher Batman films.

Some of the best stuff is in the special features, especially the compilation of “off-screen” footage (meaning footage obtained by pointing a film camera at a TV screen) which includes fragments from various episodes.  The compilation includes several key departures that I’m glad to have seen.  First is a portion of one of the missing “Daleks’ Master Plan” episodes, specifically the very intense moments leading up to Katarina’s self-sacrifice; the actual moment itself is lost, but the buildup is powerful stuff, knowing what’s going to happen.  There’s also a portion of “The Savages” with companion Steven deciding to leave the Doctor and saying his goodbyes — and, most importantly, the last moments of “The Tenth Planet” leading up to the Doctor’s first regeneration!  It’s remarkable to finally get to see that pivotal moment in TV history, the very first time the Doctor regenerated (or “renewed himself,” as I think it was called at the time).

I wish they’d make more complete sets of these.  I gather that every missing episode of Doctor Who has been fully reconstructed in audio, thanks to fans tape-recording the show off the air.  And I’ve seen reconstructions using production photos or stills taken from TV (“telesnaps”).  I gather there have been audio CD releases of all the missing episodes with narration added, but I’d like to see video reconstructions with the complete soundtracks, stills, surviving film fragments, and text descriptions as needed — to get as close to the original experience as possible.

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