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vlcsnap-00004The mighty Aztec civilization is at the height of its power, but its future hangs in the balance when the Doctor and his companions arrive. This story lets us glimpse the glory of the Aztecs–and their bloodthirsty practice of human sacrifice. Companion Barbara takes on the role of goddess and prophetess and is determined to save the Aztecs from their eventual destruction by ending human sacrifice. Will time be rewritten? And how does the Doctor’s first-ever on screen romance play out?

* * *

This four-part episode originally aired between May 23 and June 13, 1964.

It is a startling good story. I was really surprised. When I started watching Doctor Who from the beginning, I was dreading the historical stories, which I assumed would be among the most boring—particularly after the caveman story in An Unearthly Child. However, Marco Polo made me reconsider this assumption when it turned out to be surprisingly good.

This story is even better. It is better than the futuristic stories that come before it–better than The Daleks, The Edge of Destruction, and The Keys of Marinus. It is, quite simply, the best Doctor Whostory thus far.


It’s Against BBC Programming to Impersonate a Deity?

The TARDIS has landed in southern Mexico in the late 1400s, during the height of the Aztec civilization, before the arrival of the Europeans and the conquest of Cortez. Specifically, the TARDIS has landed inside the sealed tomb of an ancient Aztec high priest that has come to be regarded as a god.

The tomb is at the top of an Aztec pyramid, and it doubles as a temple. Budgetary limitations prevent them showing us the pyramid in long shot, but it is made clear to the audience that they are at the top of one.

The Aztecs mistake Barbara as the reincarnation of the high priest/deity (the fact he was male is not relevant, she explains, since the soul was regarded as being able to reincarnate as either gender). The Doctor, Ian, and Susan are then regarded as her servants.

Rather than correct them, Barbara embraces the role, with the Doctor’s encouragement, as it will allow them to figure out a way back into the sealed tomb so that they can regain the TARDIS and leave.

It quickly becomes clear that two of the main players in Aztec society are the thoughtful “high priest of knowledge” and the bloodthirsty “high priest of sacrifice.”


Giving Everyone Something to Do

This episodes gives each of the regulars something notable to do:

  • Although Barbara, as a presumed goddess, remains largely in the temple, her “servants” are taken elsewhere.
  • The Doctor is allowed to wander the city, and he is taken to a group of senior citizens, where he meets and becomes romantically involved with an Aztec wise woman—his first-ever on screen romance!
  • Ian is appointed the leader of the Aztecs’ army, which puts him in contention with the current leader, who is named Ixta.
  • Susan, after unwittingly violating an Aztec law, is placed in a ladies’ seminary (i.e., school) to learn the ways of the Aztecs. She proves a good student, but it will turn out that there is a limit to how far she is willing to go in honoring Aztec customs.


Human Sacrifice!

Matters heat up when Ian discovers that—in order to end the current drought—he will be expected to participate in a human sacrifice and must bring the victim to the site of the sacrifice and then hold him down as he is killed.

When Ian tells the Doctor about this, the Doctor shockingly tells him to play his part and not to make trouble. They can’t change anything, the Doctor explains, and they need to keep a low profile in order to escape.

When the Doctor tells the same thing to Barbara, who is expected to witness the sacrifice in her capacity as a goddess, she refuses.

At the beginning of the story, she lectured Susan about how the Spanish were so horrified by Aztec culture that they utterly destroyed it—both the good and the bad.

Now she says that she wants to use her role as a goddess to end human sacrifice and make their culture less horrifying so that it won’t be completely destroyed.


Rewriting History?

The Doctor tells her that she can’t re-write history—“not one line” (a phrase that River Song will use, much later, in Forest of the Dead). Whether he means that re-writing time is impossible or something that must not be done is ambiguous, and it remains so.

Matters begin to build to a head, and the time for the drought-ending human sacrifice approaches. Ian and his rival escort the victim to the temple, who lies on an altar stone. In keeping with the Doctor’s instructions, Ian holds down the victim’s legs(!).

Barbara then rejects the Doctor’s counsel and orders an end to the sacrifice.

Everyone is shocked—including the victim! He leaps up and declares that Barbara has denied him honor.

The high priest of sacrifice whispers that he should “honor us with your death,” and the victim leaps up on a stone block and then hurls himself off the pyramid—making this the second on screen suicide in Doctor Who (after the suicide of Tegana in Marco Polo).


The Aztec Empire Strikes Back

Barbara’s actions have endangered the whole group, because the high priest of sacrifice becomes convinced that Barbara is not really a divine reincarnation but rather a false goddess.

We thus have the main elements of conflict on the table:

  • How will the characters deal with the danger they are put in by the high priest of sacrifice?
  • How do they get back to the TARDIS and escape?
  • What effect do Barbara’s efforts have on Aztec culture?

Ian takes the lead in dealing with the danger, which frequently takes the form of his rivalry with the other military commander. The high priest of sacrifice engineers a conflict between the two, promising the commander wealth and glory if he kills Ian.

Ian turns out to be surprisingly good at physical combat, including hand-to-hand combat. At one point, he uses surprise to disable his opponent with his thumb (apparently by applying pressure to the carotid artery and causing him to black out), much to the amazement of the Aztecs.

The Doctor, meanwhile, tries to figure out how to get back into the tomb where the TARDIS is. The wise woman Cameca, with whom he has a budding romance, tells him about the man who built the temple. The man has vanished, but his son is still around and may have knowledge of how to get in.


Plot Collision!

These two plots intersect when it turns out that the architect’s son is, in fact, Ian’s military rival. Not realizing this, the Doctor gives the rival a needle with a plant-based drug that will cause unconsciousness, and he uses it to disable Ian in combat.

Though the combat is not supposed to be to the death, the high priest of sacrifice urges the rival to kill Ian, and he is about to do so when Barbara suddenly appears—having left the temple—and invokes her authority as a goddess, telling him to stop.

The high priest of sacrifice tells her, if she is a goddess, to save her servant, and she instantly puts a knife to the throat of the priest and says she will kill him if he doesn’t have the rival back off. Go Barbara!

Danger re-appears when the high priest of sacrifice has a poison prepared and he offers it to Barbara, in reconciliation, as a friendship drink. Ian realizes that it’s poison and waves Barbara off. She then insists that the priest drink first, and when he refuses she dramatically smashes the cup and condemns the priest for trying to test his goddess.


Just a Nice Cup of Cocoa

First_Doctor_CamecaAnother drink of friendship—a genuine one—occurs when Cameca shows up with cocoa beans, and the Doctor makes the two of them cocoa to drink together.

He knows this is an Aztec courting ritual, and he admits it when Cameca says that he has declared his love for her.

What he does not realize is that drinking cocoa with a woman isn’t just a declaration of love. It’s a commitment to marry, and the Doctor has just become engaged!

(Y’know, this Aztec wise woman looks like an older River Song, so there’s a potential retcon here.)


Double Wedding?

Marriage also seems on the horizon for Susan.

It turns out that there is an eclipse coming up, and there’s going to be another human sacrifice to make the sun reappear.

The intended victim of this sacrifice gets whatever he wants in the few remaining days he has, and through the machinations of the high priest of sacrifice, he goes to the lady’s seminary and asks for Susan in marriage.

Given that she is “one little maid” in a ladies’ “seminary” who is to marry a man willing to be executed in a few days time, it’s hard not to see this as an homage to The Mikado, and—given the popularity of Gilbert and Sullivan at the time—it’s hard not to think that the adults in the audience were meant to recognize it as such.

Susan, however, absolutely refuses, which is a major breach of Aztec protocol, and she is to be punished by having thorns stuck into her.



Aztecs_(Doctor_Who)Ian and the Doctor eventually engineer a way back into the tomb where the TARDIS is, and they don’t do it by simply finding a hidden button they can press.

Instead, they build a pulley that they can use to winch the door open. This involves a bit of work since the Aztecs don’t have the wheel, and the doctor has to construct the pulley himself.

As he does so, Cameca realizes that she is going to lose him, and at first she seems resigned to this fate.

When the moment arrives, however, she asks to go with the Doctor. He refuses to take her, and she poignantly tells him to remember her.

Before the crew can get back in the TARDIS, Ian is attacked one last time by his rival, and the two of them have a fight in Aztec warrior gear at the top of the temple. It ends when Ian hurls his rival off the top of the pyramid.

Meanwhile, the eclipse is happening, and the high priest of sacrifice is determined to off the intended victim—seemingly in the knowledge that the sun will reappear even if he doesn’t—so the act appears to be one of preserving his power and the existing order of things.

The victim is quickly laid on the altar, and we see the priest raising the dagger and preparing to strike when we suddenly cut away.


Did She Make a Difference?

Back in the tomb, Barbara is very disappointed that she was unable to rewrite history, and so the Aztec civilization will be destroyed—its good points along with its bad ones—when Cortez arrives.

The Doctor points out, however, that she did make a difference.

While the high priest of sacrifice was the main villain of this story, he had a rival who I haven’t discussed much up to know—the high priest of knowledge.

This man is portrayed as an older, wiser figure than the high priest of sacrifice (who is just bloodthirsty). When we first meet him, he is already having doubts about the necessity of human sacrifice, making him a natural ally of Barbara.

There is also a nice scene in which Ian tells Barbara that she’s looking at Aztec culture through rose colored glasses—that the high priest of knowledge is the odd man out here and that the majority of the population is in sympathy with the high priest of sacrifice.

The high priest of knowledge places his faith in Barbara as a goddess and is willing to undertake personal risk for her, but then his faith in her—and in Aztec customs in general—is shattered. He ends up leaving the city to live alone in the forest.

Barbara sees this as another failure on her part. Not only has she failed to stop human sacrifice, she cost an old man his faith.

The Doctor, however, tells her that the man found a new and better faith, and thus while they didn’t change the course of history, they did help one man.

It is not at all clear that the high priest of knowledge has found a new faith. For all we can tell, he leaves the episode an agnostic.

(On a happier note, in the bonus features they mention that the actor playing this character spent the last 10-20 years of his life as a very devout Catholic and is now buried in a cemetery alongside a number of monks.)

Despite the fact that this character’s fate may not be as rosy as the Doctor indicates, the Doctor’s speech points to what will become a major trope in the Doctor Who episodes set in the known past: The show won’t be changing the known course of history, but the Doctor and his team may be able to help individual people.


Final Evaluation

603px-TlotoxlAndIxtaI was very surprised by how good this story was. It is, frankly, the best of theDoctor Who stories thus far.

The plot is vigorous, and the Aztec costumes, sets, and artifacts are exotic and interesting to look at. It’s a pity that it was broadcast in black and white and we only have still images in color.

There is also a substantial amount of humor. I particularly like a scene in which Ian’s rival is telling Susan that he has killed Ian, and at that very moment Ian’s face appears in the background, revealing that he is not dead.

The story also tackles two major issues—the malleability of time and human sacrifice.

It doesn’t ultimately resolve whether or to what extent time can be changed, but this is an important question for a time travel show, and the presence of human sacrifice in the story gives the question special intensity.

One thing that is clear is that the Doctor’s conscience isn’t yet fully formed:

  • In The Daleks, he was too willing to use the Thals as canon fodder to help the group escape.
  • InThe Keys of Marinus, he was willing to help rebuild a planetary mind control device, though he  eventually expressed a preference for men having free will.
  • And in this episode, although he doesn’t approve of human sacrifice, he’s too willing to go along with it. He could express way more regret than he does about the fact that they won’t be able to change Aztec culture on this point. In particular, it’s hard to imagine any future Doctor telling Ian to play his part in the ritual and hold the legs of the victim.

The Doctor is thus not a fully formed character—he’s still developing into the Doctor as we will come to know him.

RATING: * * * 1/2



Keys_titleThe Doctor and his companions must undertake a series of adventures to recover “the keys of Marinus,” which will bring back to life an ancient computer bent on mentally enslaving an entire planet.

* * *

Having just finished a historical excursion, it’s now time for the Doctor and the TARDIS crew to take a futuristic romp.

This six-part serial originally aired form April 11 to May 16, 1964.

Technically, we don’t know whether this story occurs in the past or the future, but it takes place on an alien world with technology more advanced than ours, and that makes it futuristic.


Episode 1

Our heroes emerge from the TARDIS onto a beach. We know we’re on an alien world because of the unusually jagged and un-weathered rocks and mountains in the background. They don’t look like anything you’d find on Earth.

Having just come from the court of Kublai Kahn, Ian is still wearing a Chinese-themed costume, which he keeps on throughout this whole serial (though he occasionally wears other things over is, such as furs to protect him from the cold).

Moving along the beach, Susan wants to go swimming in the water, but when she accidentally drops one of her shoes into it, it turns out not to be water at all but acid, and the shoe dissolves! Yes! The TARDIS crew is standing on the shore of a sea of deadly acid–which is great sci-fi window dressing (in addition to the jagged rocks and mountains).

As the regular characters interact, we see several things approaching the shore that look like plastic water bottles with fins. It eventually turns out that these are meant to be much larger than plastic water bottles. They also aren’t plastic. Instead, they are one-man glass submarines.

While retrieving new shoes from the TARDIS, Susan is stalked by a man in a rubber diving suit with a weird headdress. He apparently came ashore in one of the on-man submarines.

Not all of his companions made it, however, as the Doctor, Ian, and Barbara find a sub that has an empty rubber diving suit within it. This suit has a hole, and they deduce that the acid dissolved the occupant. This represents a double failure: Not only did the protective glass sub fail, so did the protective rubber suit.

In the distance, beyond the jagged mountains, there is an impressive, futuristic building, and our characters head over there. They are individually taken prisoner by rotating panels in or on the building.

The guys in the wetsuits also invade the structure, but things go even worse for them. When one of them attacks Ian, he is flipped through a hole in the floor to fall to his death in the acid sea, below.

Eventually, our heroes make contact with a man with the completely arbitrary name Arbitan. He is dressed in white, monk-like robes, and he explains that at first he did not know if the TARDIS crew were hostiles, like the wetsuit dudes, but now he sees that they are not.

He shows them a huge, clear-plastic MacGuffin machine, which he describes as “the Conscience of Marinus.” Marinus, it turns out, is the planet on which they have landed.

He reveals that the Conscience of Marinus is a more-than 2,000-year old computer which originally served as judge and jury, and it was never wrong or unfair.

Already, many people in the audience are freaking out. Computers that decide right and wrong for everyone are notoriously dangerous in sci-fi and the whole concept is unbelievably creepy.

Despite this, our heroes don’t bat an eyelash, and, after quickly reviewing several radio programs’ ratings, Arbitron–uh, Aribtan–proceeds to say that the Conscience was eventually improved so that its reach was expanded (GAH!), its will was irresistible (GAH!), and no man henceforth had to decide for himself what was right or wrong–the Conscience did that for him (GAHHH!!!).

So, the Doctor observes, “it was possible to eliminate evil from the minds of men for all time.” Aribtan confirms this. (GAAAHHHH!!!!!!!!)

He then explains that Marinus had 700 years of really groovy, machine-induced subjugation of society before a man named Yartek discovered a way to resist the Conscience, and he and his followers–the wetsuit-clad guys, who we learn are called the Voords–started a rebellion. (GO, YARTEK! GO, VOORDS!)

“Unfortunately” the now-pacified Marinans were now too used to being machine-dominated cow-humans to resist the Voords, and their paradise disintegrated.

Arbitan explains that his group always hoped to find a way to modify the Conscience and again make its influence irresistible, and so they removed the “five key microcircuits” (there’s the word “key” from the title) from it and hid them around Marinus in anticipation that they could one day be plugged back in and the whole of their planet could again be denied of free will and subjected to the machine of their making.

He’s got one of the keys, himself, but the other four have been cleverly hidden.

Although Aribitan has sent all of his followers in search of the keys, none have come back–not even his daughter.

When our heroes return to the TARDIS, they discover that Aribtan has surrounded it with a force field, and he will not let them leave unless they scour Marinus for the four missing keys.

This makes The Keys of Marinus precisely the kind of MacGuffin-hunt plot that I despise. It is mindless, paint-by-numbers plotting, in which the characters have to collect a series of items–frequently placed in unpredictable locations–that somehow enable the use of the Master MacGuffin (the Conscience of Marinus) at the finale of the series.

This is one of the worst, most-overused, most-predictable story structures out there.

What makes this worse is the fact that the Doctor and company don’t even blink when Arbitan won’t let them back into the TARDIS. Instead, they willingly accept his quest to retrieve the Keys of Marinus, without even seeming to care that the restoration of these devices will result in an entire planet losing its free will in the face of computerized domination.

I’m sorry, but Doctor Who should be fighting on the other side of this equation! He should be protesting the domination of men by computers and helping them throw off the shackles of their mechanical overlords.

To help the Doctor and companions find the missing keys, Arbitan gives them teleporter wristwatches (I think Apple is working on those) that have been pre-set to the general locations of where the keys can be found.

After they leave, a Voord appears and kills Arbitan.


Episode 2

Keys_202In this episode, the travelers go to the city with the improbable name of Morphoton. At first, it seems beautiful, and the inhabitants seek to satisfy the every desire of the TARDIS crew.

Something, however, is a foot, and while the gang is sleeping, a hypnotized woman places hypnotic devices on their foreheads.

Fortunately, Barbara’s hypno device falls off, leaving her unaffected. In the morning, we see things from her POV and realize that Morphoton is not the beautiful city it appears. It is run down and ratty, but the others continue to see it as beautiful.

Eventually, Barbara learns that the city is under the mental domination of a group of brains that have slug-like eyestalks and that live in glass cases. They are the Morpho.

Fortunately, Barbara is able to defeat the Morpho by smashing their glass cases, and everyone in the city is freed from their mental domination.

Among those so freed are a young man (Altos) and a young woman (Sabetha), who are two of Arbitan’s agents. The young woman, in fact, is his daughter, and she was wearing one of the missing keys around her neck the whole time. These two quickly join the quest to help find the rest of the keys.

It’s really interesting that the writers chose to have the second episode be about a mind-controlled city when they are trying to restore mind control to an entire planet. It’s even more interesting that the mind-control doesn’t lead to such great results in the city. Yet they don’t seem to draw any lessons from this about restoring mind control to the whole planet.

At the end of the episode, the Doctor teleports two jumps ahead of the others so that William Hartnell can have a vacation and be missing from the show in the next episode.

Episode 3

In this episode, the Doctor-less cast finds itself in a jungle that makes strange screaming noises. They also find and old building that is inhabited by an old scientist.

And they find a fake key.

The scientist is dying, but he knows where the missing real key is, and he gives Ian and Barbara the mysterious phrase D-E-3-O-2 and points them to his lab. Then he dies.

The jungle outside turns out to have been the subject of his experiments, and they are responsible for its screaming noises. They are also responsible for the fact that the plants are now animate and capable of attacking people.

The jungle starts to attack the lab, but Ian and Barbara are able to figure out that D-E-3-O-2 is not the combination to the scientist’s safe (as they first thought) but a chemical formula: DE3O2. They then find a flask with this label and retrieve the key that is buried in it. (Fun science fact: While O is the symbol for Oxygen, there are no elements at present with the symbols D or E.)

Episode 4

Ian and Barbara find themselves in a frozen wasteland, where a large trapper takes them in and helps them recover from near-frostbite.

Soon Ian goes in quest of Susan, Altos, and Sabetha, and in his absence the most amazing thing happens. It’s something I never dreamed I would see on Doctor Who–especially in an episode from 1964.

After Barbara is alone with the trapper, he tries to rape her! They don’t say that’s what’s happening, presumably so that the children in the audience don’t realize it, but that clearly is what is happening. After clumsily trying to woo her, the trapper starts chasing her around the cabin shouting, “I won’t wait any longer!”

Of course, he does not succeed, but it is a dramatic and disturbing scene. I’m gobsmacked that they put it on a teatime family program in the early ’60s.

Ian and Barbara are reunited with the others, and they find themselves in an ice cave looking for the next key. It turns out that it’s embedded in a block of ice that is being guarded by several motionless swordsmen.

The block of ice is in contact with a water pipe that the characters find is connected to a volcanic hot spring. They turn on the water and the block starts to melt, allowing the to take the key.

This causes the swordsmen to come to life, and they flee back to the trapper’s cabin, where he is swiftly impaled by one of them.

They then use their teleport watches to escape, and Ian finds himself looking at a glass case holding the next key. On the floor next to the case is a dead man.

Ian is then knocked unconscious.

Episode 5

It turns out that the characters are in the advanced city of Millennius, which has a guilty-until-proven-innocent justice system.

This is not so good for our heroes, because Ian is accused of killing the man found by the glass case and of taking the key (which is now missing).

Unless Ian’s innocence can be proved in court, he will be executed.

The Doctor, who had jumped ahead to this location, volunteers to serve as Ian’s defense attorney, and we have a rather awkward alien trial sequence, and the Doctor fails. Ian is sentenced to death.

Episode 6

Keys_601Fortunately, while the Doctor is failing, Ian, Susan, and Barbara uncover the truth, which is that the man was killed by agents of Yartek–the guy who figured out how to resist the Conscience of Marinus and who is apparently still alive all this time later.

After one of the agents confesses and the key is retrieved, the group heads back to the futuristic building from the first episode to give the keys to Arbitan.

Ian gives the keys to Yartek, who is very implausibly disguised as Arbitan, wearing the large plastic diver’s headgear (or whatever it is) underneath Arbitan’s monk’s cowl and sounding nothing like him.

It turns out that Ian isn’t such a fool, though, because he didn’t give Yarnek the correct set of keys. Instead, he deliberately gave him a set including the false key they found in episode 2.

This makes the Conscience explode when the keys are inserted, killing Yarnek and the Voord and leaving the inhabitants of Marinus free from machine domination.

The Doctor says that’s a good thing, that man was not meant to live by machine conscience alone, and the TARDIS crew leaves.


Despite the fact that this is a MacGuffin-hunt story of precisely the kind I despise, the individual parts of it work surprisingly well. The overarching story is totally paint-by-numbers, but at least the fact that they take us to so many different locations, with different story types, keep things moving and not feeling the same.

In episode 2 we had a apparently gorgeous city that turned out to be rubbishy and ruled by hypnotic brain slugs. In episode 3 we had a mystery in a jungle that turned out to be alive. In episode 4 we had a survival story in the arctic. And in the last two we had a courtroom drama in a technologically advanced city.

That’s a good mix!

It’s so good, in fact, that they would later recycle it as the overall plot of the 1978-1979 season, in which Tom Baker had to find all the hidden components of “The Key to Time” and reassemble an ancient device capable of stopping the entire universe. Arbitan and Yartek are paralleled in that story by the White Guardian and the Black Guardian, and we even have the bit about the latter impersonating the former in the final episode.

Apparently, the Doctor remembered this previous adventure, because he sees through the Black Guardian’s disguise and re-scatters the components to the Key to Time.

Despite its good points, this serial has a central flaw from the outset that is really hard to overlook–the fact that the Doctor and crew are attempting to help reassemble a device whose explicit purpose is to place an entire planet under mental domination.

That’s just wrong.

The fact that the Doctor, in the end, expresses a mild preference for men not living under the mental domination of machines does not redeem the fact that he has been willing to go along with the plan for all the previous episodes and never said anything critical of it–much less did he work to subvert the plan so that the inhabitants of Marinus could live free.

The story thus raises huge ethical questions that it fails to deal with properly, however interesting the individual episodes of the MacGuffin-hunt may be.

RATING: * * 1/2



susan-barbaraThe medieval Italian adventurer Marco Polo saves the Doctor’s life–and then demands the TARDIS as his own, planning to give it as a gift to the mighty emperor Kublai Kahn. How will the Doctor get the TARDIS back, and can he and his companions stop Kublai Kahn from being assassinated by a rival warlord?

* * *

Having narrowly survived an accident on the TARDIS, the Doctor and his companions now meet their first historical figure: Marco Polo.

This seven-part serial aired from February 22 to April 4, 1964.

This is one of a number of early episodes of Doctor Who for which no video copy is available. However, there is an audiobook version based on the sound from the original episodes, together with additional narration to convey what is happening visually.

Episode 1

The Doctor and companions have landed in an icy mountain range that turns out to be the Himalayas.

All is not right with the TARDIS, and the Doctor fears that they will freeze to death before he can repair it.

Fortunately, they meet a party of Mongols led by none other than the Venetian adventurer Marco Polo.

He is presently on his way to the Emperor Kublai Kahn, in whose service he has been for some years. In his traveling party are Tegana, the delegate of a rival ruler who is being sent to negotiate peace with Kahn, and Ping-Cho, a girl from Samarkan who is being sent to Kahn’s court, where she is to marry an elderly but important man.

Susan befriends Ping-Cho, who says that she is in her “sixteenth year” (which would literally mean that she is fifteen years old, the time before one’s first birthday being the first year). Susan says she is the same age, though who knows how long the years on Susan’s home world are.

As they are 7,000 feet above sea level, the Doctor is suffering from “mountain sickness” (i.e., altitude sickness).

Our heroes begin traveling with Marco Polo’s party, and the TARDIS is brought with them–it being explained to Polo as the Doctor’s “flying caravan.”

Polo, feeling that the Doctor totally owes him after he saved him from dying in the mountains, declares that he intends to give the TARDIS to Kublai Kahn as a present, thinking that this will please him enough to allow Polo to finally leave his service and go back to Venice.

The Doctor is apoplectic, but Polo explains that he will take the Doctor back to Venice where he can build a new flying caravan and then return to his distant, unknown home.

The party tries to impress on Marco Polo that this will not work, but he doesn’t believe them.

Meanwhile, Tegana is up to no good and secures poison to use on the caravan’s water supply in the Gobi desert.

Episode 2

Tegana’s plans to poison the caravan’s water supply are thwarted when Susan and Ping-Cho start following him out of curiosity and a sandstorm begins. After they are rescued from the storm, Tegana instead cuts the water skins open, intending to blame non-existent marauders for the act.

He is then dispatched to find an oasis, which he does, but he does not return with water.

Episode 3
Their water supply gone, everyone is really, really thirsty. Ian declares that the Doctor won’t survive another twenty-four hours without water. Marco Polo says none of them will.
Fortunately, in the night the Doctor and Susan are able to collect dew that condenses on the outside of the TARDIS, and it’s enough to enable them to get to a resupply depot, where Tegana rejoins the group.
While there Pingo-Cho recites the tale of Aladdin and the Assassins, pleasing everyone with her performance.
While that’s going on, Tegana sneaks off to a cave with lots of carvings that have eyes, resulting in it being called “the cave of 500 eyes.” There, he is informed that his master is preparing an army and readying to march on Kublai Kahn.
Tegana tells his confederates to attack the caravan and kill Marco Polo.
Barbara, who has followed Tegana into the cave, overhears some of this, but doesn’t realize fully what is being said. She is taken captive by Tegana’s associates, while he himself goes back to camp and pretends to be surprised by Barbara’s absence.
Episode 4
Barbara is rescued from the cave, but Tegana starts to drive a wedge between Marco Polo and our heroes.
First, he tells Marco Polo that Susan is a bad influence on Ping-Cho (she’s been introducing her to all kinds of foreign concepts like girls going out at night without a male escort to protect them in a bandit-filled land), and so Polo declares that the two friends can no longer associate with each other.
Second, Tegana tells Polo that the Doctor has a second key to the TARDIS. Polo had taken the first, but the Doctor made a second one and has been using it to sneak into the ship and do repair work. Polo then takes the second key from the Doctor. He also puts a guard on all the travelers.
The Doctor warns Marco Polo not to use the key on the TARDIS himself or it will be destroyed (apparently a reference to the security measure Susan mentioned in The Daleks).
The caravan spots the Great Wall of China and then begins traveling alongside the Yellow River.
Tegana arranges for his associates to massacre everyone while they are in the bamboo forest.
Episode 5

Ian is on the brink of helping our heroes escape, but he discovers a dead guard and aborts the attempt in order to thwart the planned massacre.

Ian suggests to Polo that they throw bamboo into the fire so that it will explode and frighten off the bandits, which they do.

Tegana kills one of his own confederates in order to maintain his cover.

Afterward, Polo is so pleased that he allows Susan and Ping-Cho to be friends again, and he takes the guard off our heroes.

He does, however, retain the two keys to the TARDIS, and Ping-Cho sees where he is hiding them in his diary. He makes her promise not to tell anyone.

A rider from the imperial court shows up and says that Kublai Kahn wants them to hurry up, so they must take horses and let their belongings (including the TARDIS) to come more slowly.

Tegana arranges for another associate to try to steal the TARDIS once the main party has left.

Learning that Susan will never be able to return to her home if the TARDIS is given to Kahn, Ping-Cho gives Susan one of the TARDIS keys (technically thus fulfilling her promise to Polo not totell anyone where the keys were).

Our heroes almost escape in the time machine, but Susan messes things up by going back to say goodbye to Ping-Cho and getting caught. We thus have . . .

Episode 6

Ian tries to save Ping-Cho by claiming to have stolen the key, but Polo realizes he isn’t telling the truth and knows Ping-Cho has betrayed him.

The girl overhears this and runs away, intending to return to her home in Samarkand.

Ian tries to convince Marco Polo to let the Doctor have the TARDIS because it can’t be duplicated in Venice and without it, he will not be able to return to his home, which is hundreds of years in the future.

Although Marco Polo has been remarkably openminded thus far–being prepared to believe that it can fly through the air because he has seen Buddhist monks make wine glasses fly through the air–but he can’t believe it can cross time.

One of the reasons he cites for his disbelief is the fact that Ian has just lied to protect Ping-Cho, proving he is capable of lying. Two points to Marco Polo!

Ping-Cho is discovered missing, and Ian convinces Polo to let him go after her, and afterward Tegana convinces Polo to send him after both of them, claiming that Ian will take Ping-Cho and flee in the TARDIS.

The party then arrives at the summer palace of Kublai Kahn himself! They are all instructed that they must kow-tow to the mighty emperor (ruler of the world!) by kneeling and touching their foreheads the floor or they risk being killed.

The Doctor, who is not feeling well at all after spending several days on horseback and having thrown his own back out in the process, strongly objects. However, since he could be killed, he makes the effort.

Before he can reach the ground, however, Kublai Kahn enters. Far from being a mighty warrior, he is an extremely old man who has difficulty walking and has lots of aches and pains.

Quickly, he and the Doctor start old-guy bonding and are soon fast friends.

Kahn tells the Doctor that Tegana’s master is marshaling an army in a place it’s not supposed to be, and he wants to hear the emissary’s explanation.

Meanwhile, Ian and Ping-Cho thwart the plan to steal the TARDIS, but they are quickly taken captive by Tegana, who reveals that he plans to give the ship to his master so that he can conquer the world.

Episode 7

An official of the emperor then arrives and takes them all into custody, saying that Kahn can sort out who is telling the truth about what once they are brought before him at the imperial palace in Peking.

Meanwhile, Kahn has relocated form his summer palace to his imperial one in Peking, where he and the Doctor are enjoying a game of backgammon.

The Doctor totally skunks the emperor, winning vast amounts of wealth (e.g., the entire island of Sumatra is just one of the things the emperor proposes wagering) that he has no intention of taking. He then wagers everything he has won against the TARDIS (which Kahn hasn’t yet even seen) . . . and loses! No TARDIS for him!

Soon Marco Polo announces the arrival of Tegana, who is accompanied by Ian and Ping-Cho in the custody of the official who arrested them.

Things go well for Ping-Cho, who is pardoned of any involvement in the alleged attempt to steal the TARDIS. She also doesn’t have to marry the elderly but important man she was scheduled to wed, because he took an elixir of eternal youth and died. (There may be a statement about the safety of Chinese herbal medicine in there or something.) Instead, she accepts Kahn’s offer to remain at his court as an honored guest.

Things go less well for Marco Polo, as Tegana reveals that there were several previous attempts to steal the TARDIS, which Polo has not reported to his emperor. Kahn is not satisfied with Polo’s explanations, and he runs the risk of losing the emperor’s favor, being expelled from his court, and being left vulnerable to his enemies.

Things also don’t go well for Ian, who is put in a cell with the Doctor, Susan, and Barbara. There, they compare notes and realize that Tegana is planning to assassinate Kublai Kahn, allowing Tegana’s master to swoop in and conqueror Peking in the confusion.

Escaping from the cell, they run into Marco Polo, and the group breaks into the throne room just as Tegana is about to kill the elderly Kahn.

Polo and Tegana have a duel, and Polo wins. Guards rush in and take the loser prisoner. Kahn tells Tegana that he will be executed, but rather than facing this fate, Tegana grabs a guard’s sword and skewers himself with it! Yes! An on-air suicide in a children’s program!

Afterward, Polo gives the Doctor a TARDIS key, and our heroes quickly get in it and escape.

Kahn isn’t mad, saying that the Doctor would only have one it at backgammon later. He forgives Polo and allows him to return to Venice.


Faced with listening to a seven-part historical drama, I was totally prepared to be bored out of my mind with this one, fearing that it would have lots of mindless running around like the cavemen sequences in An Unearthly Child.

Wow, was this serial a lot better than I expected!

While there is a good bit of escaping and getting caught again, it’s set in a framework that makes it more interesting than usual. Rather than escaping from and being re-interred at the same place (due to lack of sets), the fact that we cover so many different locations–the Himalayas, the Gobi desert, the bamboo forest, various way stations, the emperor’s summer palace, the emperor’s imperial palace–helps sustain a sense of forward momentum.

This extensive travel–covering hundreds of miles and taking, apparently, months–is unusual for the program.

One of the ways they convey the passage of time is with voiceover narration of Marco Polo reading his travel diary–also something unusual for the show, which normally does not use narration, much less narration from a non-recurring character!

(This narration is in the original audio; there is additional narration–not by Marco Polo–that was added later to explain what is happening on screen due to the loss of the video version.)

Polo himself is a complex character. He is likable, but he also frequently at odds with our heroes, planning on taking the TARDIS but compensating them by returning them to Venice and allowing them to make another.

When Ian finally tells him that this won’t work because the TARDIS is a time machine, he rationally refuses to believe Ian, partly on the grounds that Ian has just lied to him in order to protect Ping-Cho.

That kind of complex characterization–not a bad guy, but still at odds with our heroes and having rational motives–is really nice.

All of our main characters get to contribute to the plot, and the reversal of having the fearsome emperor Kublai Kahn turn out be an old man who bonds with the Doctor about their geriatric challenges is a really nice twist.

Speaking of geriatric issues, they’re really playing up the Doctor’s old age in these episodes. Every single serial has had the Doctor incapacitated by his frailty in one way or another: In An Unearthly Child, he can’t keep up with the others when running in the woods and loses his breath, in The Dalekshe suffers from radiation poisoning more than the others and a good bit of time passed out, in The Edge of Destruction he similarly loses strength when others don’t, and in this one he has altitude sickness and is incapacitated again as a result of having to spend days on horseback.

All told, this serial was the most enjoyable one yet, which I was very surprised by given that it was a historical drama that had no science fiction elements other than the TARDIS.

I really wish that it had survived in video form. Partly, I’d like to see how they handled Tegana’s suicide. British television is notoriously squeamish about violence, and I can’t help wondering if they cut away when Tegana stabbed himself or only gave us a partial view or something.

Mostly, though, I’d love to see it on video because of the elaborate sets and costumes. In the picture at the top of this review, you can see Susan and Barbara in period costume, and other stills I’ve seen from the series suggest that–for 1963–it would have been a visual feast. I’d love to be able to see all the locations they went to in this episode and all the costumes they used.

RATING: * * *



The-Edge-of-DestructionAs they hurtle toward the edge of destruction, the TARDIS crew turns on each other. Can they overcome their mutual distrust and paranoia before the TARDIS is destroyed?

* * *

Having just finished the first encounter with the Daleks, Doctor Who gets its firstbottle episode!

This two-part episode originally aired from February 8 to 15, 1964.

At this point, the BBC had only ordered thirteen episodes of the show, and between the four-part premier and the seven-part followup, there were two episodes left.

There was very little money left in the budget, and so they did a show confined entirely to the TARDIS, allowing them to save money on sets and actors (since only regular characters are featured).


Episode 1

After taking off from planet Skaro (which we don’t see), there is a disastrous explosion in the TARDIS, knocking everyone unconscious.

They begin to wake up, but they are injured and acting strangely. Susan and Ian both seem to have partial amnesia. Ian is weirdly detached, and Susan gets hysterical. Barbara is the voice of sanity.

The Doctor has a gash on his head, but Susan gets a special, striped ointment-laden bandage for it that will change colors as the ointment is absorbed and the wound heals (more Time Lord tech, not that we know they’re Time Lords yet).

Susan also declares that there is “something here . . . inside the ship,” and she asks Ian, “You feel it, don’t you?”

The TARDIS itself is acting strangely, and the doors open and close erratically when Ian approaches them. Susan tries the controls but is shocked into unconsciousness. Ian carries her back to her room and puts her to bed (her bed being a kind of curved lounge chair).

250px-The_Edge_of_DestructionHe then gets water out of the food machine that was introduced in The Daleks. When he comes back, Susan is up, has a pair of scissors out, and doesn’t recognize him. She threatens him with the scissors but then stabs the heck out of her bed.

Afterward, Barbara begins to entertain Susan’s idea that something has gotten onboard the ship–an animal, a man, or an intelligence of some sort, but the Doctor is incredulous. He an Ian go to check the ship’s “fault locator.”

Meanwhile, Barbara tends to Susan, who has retrieved her pair of scissors and is acting paranoid. Barbara demands that Susan gives the hidden scissors to her, prompting Susan to go crazy. The young Time Lady restrains herself long enough for Barbara to take the scissors from her.

When the doctor tries to find out where they are, the TARDIS’s viewer shows him still images of where they’ve been, including “the planet Quinnis of the fourth universe,” which Susan says they visited four or five journeys ago (thus shortly before the start of the series) and nearly lost the TARDIS.

The Doctor has been acting suspicious of Ian, and now he accuses him of sabotaging the TARDIS in order to “blackmail” him into taking them back to England.

Barbara flies into a rage and stands up to the Doctor, pointing out how Ian and she have helped the Doctor in their two previous adventures.

Then she turns around and sees a melted clock and freaks out. It turns out that everyone’s watches have melted, too, and she throws her away and breaks down in sobs.

Now the Doctor returns with a bunch of cups on a tray and announces that they all need to calm down and think, for they’re all overwrought. He says that the cups contain nightcaps.

After everyone is asleep, the Doctor sneaks around the TARDIS and goes to the control room. He suddenly turns around and a pair of hands seize him around the neck.


Episode 2

Ian turns out to be the one strangling the Doctor. Suddenly, Ian looks disoriented and faints. Barbara comes in and argues with the Doctor. Then Susan appears and sides with the Doctor against the schoolteachers.

The Doctor proposes putting Ian and Barbara off the ship, even though they don’t know where they are and it might not be a survivable environment. Susan is trying to convince him otherwise when there is a terrible noise, which Susan identifies as the danger signal.

It turns out that the TARDIS’s fault locator has entirely lit up, signaling that the ship “is on the point of disintegration.” This convinces the Doctor that Ian and Barbara are not to blame.

Barbara becomes convinced that the ship has been giving them clues to what is wrong. The Doctor initially says, “My machine can’t think,” but he amends this by saying, “Think not as you or I do, but it must be able to think as a machine.”

The Doctor gives Susan and Barbara a meaningless task and then confides to Ian that they have only five minutes before the TARDIS blows up.

The Doctor deduces from the pictures shown on the screen that they have been thrown back to the beginning of a solar system, which is drawing the power from the TARDIS and causing their problems.

Upon leaving Skaro, the Doctor used the “fast return switch” to go back to Earth, but they’ve apparently overshot it and gone back to the beginning of our solar system. Upon examining the fast return switch, they find it’s stuck. The Doctor fixes a spring in the switch and the TARDIS returns to normal.

Everyone is safe.

In the wake of these events, the characters make up to each other. The Doctor, in particular, eats a lot of crow and apologizes profusely to Barbara, who he credits with saving their lives.

Later, after they’ve landed on a cold planet, the Doctor further apologizes to Barbara, and she is willing to forgive him.

As they are going outside, the Doctor comments to Ian that the Ulster coat Ian is wearing was given to him by Gilbert and Sullivan–the first historical name drop on the show.

Outside, Barbara and Susan have found a gigantic footprint in the snow.


Necessity really is the mother of invention. The budgetary limitations of the original order of thirteen episodes forced the production crew into a bottle episode that ended up being quite watchable.

The fact that it’s only two episodes long helps. That makes it approximately the length of a modern Doctor who adventure, which means it doesn’t drag in the way the six- or seven-part adventures tend to.

Although television is, in general, much faster paced now than in the early 1960s, it makes one wonder why they didn’t do shorter serials back then. Presumably, one of the reasons would be budget. The serials can’t all be bottle shows, meaning you have to construct sets and costumes and hire guest actors, and if you’re going to go to all that expense, you want to get your money’s worth, leading to longer adventures so that new sets and costumes have to be constructed too frequently.

This adventure definitely has flaws. William Hartnell, in particular, has a lot of stumbles over his lines. More importantly, the who situation is only semi-coherent.

What really works, though, is the fact that, without guest monsters or cultures, this serial is devoted to the relationships among the characters. It puts them in their strongest conflict with each other yet and ends up bringing them closer together (a la the Epic of Gilgamesh).

Up to this point, Ian and Barbara have been reluctant and resentful companions, but after their relationship with the Doctor is tested in this series, they are able to establish a better foundation for their relationship.

There are also a number of nice smaller touches in the show. For one, we get to see more of the TARDIS, including the sleeping area.

There’s a particularly nice bit when the Doctor is unconscious at the beginning of the show, and he stirs and cries, “I can’t take you back, Susan! I can’t!”–apparently a reference to their home world.

Just before this, Ian takes the Doctor’s pulse and declares that his heart seems okay. The fact that he has two hearts hadn’t been established yet (though, in fairness, a human surgeon also failed to notice the second heart in the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie).

The idea that the TARDIS itself is trying to warn the characters in a weird, non-human way also adds depth to its character, and this theme will be brought to its furthest development (so far) in the 2011 episode The Doctor’s Wife.

RATING: * * 1/2



1963_DalekHaving finished their prehistoric first adventure, the Doctor and his companions find themselves in the first futuristic adventure of the series.

This seven-part (!) serial first aired from December 21, 1963 to February 1, 1964.

This serial also gives us the Doctor’s archenemies, the Daleks.

Episode 1

This episode contains some interesting moments of character development dealing with Ian and Barbara.

Unlike future companions, these two school teachers did not volunteer to go galavanting about space and time with the Doctor. They unwittingly ended up on their first adventure in 100,000 B.C., and they want nothing more to do than go home to 1963 England.

Barbara, in particular, isn’t coping well and says she can’t rely on anything anymore, leading Ian to suggest that she can rely on him. (Yeah, he totally digs her.)

Ian also displays a practical turn of mind when he points out that the TARDIS will not be able to get them home if anything happens to the Doctor, so they need to go with him and protect him, even if he is marching into danger. (Apparently the idea that Susan could pilot the TARDIS doesn’t occur to them.)

This episode also has lots of science fictiony window dressing, which is good, and actually rather well done given the budgetary limits on the show.

The characters find themselves in a strange, white jungle, where all the plants have apparently fossilized in place, without being buried.

Susan finds a fragile but intact stone flower and is gushing about what she’ll do with it once she gets it back to “the ship” when Barbara screams and Ian thoughtlessly crushes the flower (huh?).

The reason Barbara screams is that she has found a threatening animal–also petrified, but made of metal instead of stone. The Doctor doesn’t know what it is, but he says it was always made of metal, even when alive, and perhaps used magnetic powers to pull metallic prey animals to itself for food. (That’s pretty cool!)

Encounters with dead metal animals give Barbara a headache, and so back on the TARDIS, Susan gives her a clear liquid drink that is apparently the timelord equivalent of aspirin. Either that or vodka. Either way, Barbara declares it delicious.

The Doctor and Susan also show of a machine that dispenses food which looks like slices of tofu but which taste like anything you want. Ian and Barbara say they want bacon and eggs, and so the timelords dial up slices of tofu that taste like bacon with one bit and eggs with the next. Barbara declares them delicious also.

Another device they show off is a pair of spectacles that have special disks stuck to the lenses and that function like binoculars. They use them to stare at a dead, futuristic city they spot in the distance.

The Doctor hastily and erroneously concludes that the planet they are on is entirely dead, which is nice because it shows he can make mistakes.

When Susan says some unknown person tapped her on the shoulder out in the jungle, the Doctor declares this impossible in view of the planet’s lifelessness, and nobody believes her, causing Susan to become a hysterical teenager.

To calm her down, Barbara gets to deliver the scintillating line of dialogue:

It isn’t that he [the Doctor] doesn’t believe you. It’s just that he finds it hard to go against his scientific facts.

Somebody starts knocking on the outside of the TARDIS, though, proving that the planet isn’t as dead as the Doctor said it was.

He’s determined to go explore that maybe-not-so-dead city, but the others want to go home, and he grudgingly obliges and starts the TARDIS. It refuses to take off, however, and the Doctor declares that a “fluid link” is broken and they need to get more mercury for it.

Ian suggests that they go to the dead city, because every dead city is bound to have an abundant supply of mercury lying around.

Emerging from the TARDIS, our heroes find a box of glass vials lying on the ground–apparently left by whoever was knocking on the outside of the TARDIS.

Episode 2
barbaraDaleksIn the dead, futuristic city, Barbara gets separated from the others.

This is a staple of early Doctor Who: One or more of the characters gets separated from the others so that he/she can be threatened, attacked, captured, etc. In fact, that happened to the Doctor himself in the previous episode.

Now it’s Barbara’s turn, and she is appropriately menaced by an unseen thing which will soon be revealed to be a Dalek.

While she’s gone, everyone realizes that they are really not feeling well at all, and they soon discover that the environment they are in is highly radioactive.
The Doctor says that the presence of buildings in the radioactive environment is explained by the use of neutron bombs, which kill living things but largely leave buildings alone. (This is a surprisingly accurate statement for a children’s show in 1963!)

In any event, they’re all coming down with radiation poisoning and will die if they don’t get treatment.

Before they can sign up for Obamacare, though, a bunch of Daleks take them captive, shooting Ian so that his legs become paralyzed.

Eventually, they are reunited with Barbara in a holding room, where they explain to her about the radiation sickness.

The Doctor, in particular, is not feeling well. It’s interesting that, this early in the series, the Doctor is portrayed as a fail old man. In the previous episode, he lost his breath while running from cavemen and had to stop despite the danger. He suffers more than the others in this episode, too.

It’s understandable that the writers are trying to play him and Ian off each other with an old man/young man dynamic, but given that Bill Hartnell’s health problems would lead to his departure from the show just three years later, it’s hard not wondering how much this was affecting the show right from the beginning.

Soon the Daleks start interrogating the Doctor, assuming him to be one of a race of surface dwellers known as the Thals, who have an anti-radiation drug. They think that the Doctor and his companions have run low of the drug and have invaded the city to search for more.

The Doctor has no idea what they are talking about, so they helpfully tell him that “over 500 years ago” there were two races on the planet–the Daleks and the Thals, that they had a “neutronic war” and–well, you can fill in the rest.

The Doctor realizes that the glass vials they found outside the TARDIS may be “anti-radiation gloves . . . drugs,” he says, in a blown line (increasing problems remembering his lines would lead to his departure from the show in 1966).

Unfortunately, he is too ill to go get the vials, as is Barbara. Ian still has paralyzed legs, and so Susan must bravely go back to the TARDIS–though she is a terrified teenager–to get them.

It’s also good that she goes because, apparently, the TARDIS lock has a defensive mecha nism with twenty-one slots, and if you put the key in the wrong slot it will cause the entire lock mechanism to melt, stranding you in space and time. Nifty, huh!


Episode 3
Starting back to the city, Susan meets a Thal, who is not a hideous mutation at all, despite what the Daleks said. In fact, he’s blond, and Susan declares him “perfect.”

The Thal explains that he was the one who startled Susan in episode 1 and that he left the supply of gloves–drugs–and is amazed that they haven’t taken them yet. He says he’s now come back to show her how to use them. (Um, right.)

In addition to being surprised to learn that the characters haven’t used the drugs that he didn’t stay to explain how to use, he’s also surprised to learn that there are Daleks living in the city.

Realizing that the Daleks will take the gloves–drugs!–for themselves, he gives Susan a second supply, when he says to keep hidden.

Next we know, she’s back in the city and everyone in the holding room is getting better. Susan tells us that the Daleks took one of the drug supplies and she thought they were going to take the second, but they changed their minds and gave it to her. (I guess that hiding things didn’t work out so well or something.)

Susan also gives us a rather lengthy lesson in Thal agriculture, explaining (to make matters brief) that the Thals are starving, have had to go in search of food, and that they will all die unless the Doctor and companions can work out a treaty with the Daleks on behalf of the Thals.

So the Daleks force Susan to write a treaty with the Thals in crayon, totally planning on betraying the Thals.

The Doctor and crew get wise to Dalek treachery, however, and manage to escape by having Ian impersonate a Dalek who is taking the others to be questioned. (Technically, they capture a Dalek by breaking its electrical connection to the metal floor using a Thal cloak as an insulator; then they use the cloak to scoop out the gooey creature inside the Dalek, allowing us to get a glimpse of a hideous Dalek claw; then Ian gets inside the Dalek contraption and they bluff their way through the halls.)

Episode 4
In this episode we have lots of skulking about the corridors of the Dalek city, getting threatened, getting separated, and getting reunited.

Eventually, everybody but Ian heads out to the woods, and he remains behind to warn the Thals that the Daleks are luring them into a trap when they come to pick up the food promised by the treaty.

He gives the warning and they escape back to the Thal camp in the woods, where we spend the rest of the episode.

The Thals are all blond, they wear silly costumes, and you can tell which ones are women by the weird wire headdresses they wear (also by the fact that they are played by women actresses).

One Thal woman shows the doctor some hexagonal plates that she says contain the entire recorded history of their planet, which the Doctor says is more than half a million years. These plates also contain maps of their solar system and other solar systems, as well as pictures of what the ancestors of the Thals and the Daleks used to look like.

The ancestor of the Thals looked like crude drawing of a medieval knight, and they don’t show us the ancestor of the Daleks (then called “Dals”).

Ian tries to convince the Thals to man up and fight the murderous, xenophobic Daleks, but they insist that they wont.

The Doctor is ready to ditch both the Thals and the Daleks, since their fates are, y’know, none of their business, but just as they are about to get into the TARDIS, it turns out that Ian doesn’t have the precious fluid link that the Doctor gave him for safekeeping. The Daleks took it from him when they searched him. Without the link, the TARDIS can’t take off, and so we get . . .

Episode 5
The Dalography of Skaro as illustrated in The Dalek Pocketbook and Space Travellers Guide (1965)

The Dalography of Skaro as illustrated in The Dalek Pocketbook and Space Travellers Guide (1965)

Barbara doesn’t care, though. She just wants to go home and is happy to use Thals as cannon fodder.The Doctor totally wants to use the Thals as cannon fodder to help them get the precious fluid link back. He’s totally heartless about it, as if the Thals will simply be tools in battle, which is really rather shocking. It’s so shocking that Ian confronts him about it and says he won’t have the blood of other people on his hands.

Susan proposes a balance: They’ll get the Thals to fight the Daleks both for their own good and for the precious fluid link.

The Thals, however, still don’t want to fight, stating that there mustn’t be any more wars because the last one devastated their planet.

Ian, however, is able to provoke one of the Thal men to violence, however, when he suggests taking his girlfriend to the city and offering her to the Daleks for experimentation.

Meanwhile, back at the city, the Daleks who have taken the Thal anti-radiation drug are getting sick and malfunctioning. This is probably because they are not Thals. It also may be related to the fact–which they state–that they need radiation to survive and need to increase the radiation in their environment, possibly by setting off another neutron bomb. (So naturally they were taking an anti-radiation drug.)

The Thals hold a war council and overcome their scruples against war. It is then decided that they will mount an assault on the city, with one party providing a distraction while the other sneaks around the back of the city and infiltrates it by going through a dangerous swamp filled with weird creatures.

One weird creature, which we don’t actually see, forms a cool-looking whirlpool and drags a Thal to a watery death (no budget for a rubber tentacle, I guess).

Episode 6

Lots of paint-by-numbers writing in this episode. Having made their way through the sooper-dangerous swamp, one party of Thals (with Ian and Barbara) skulk about endlessly in tunnels below the Dalek city.

Meanwhile, another party of Thals uses reflectors to shine light on a Dalek tower to create a distraction.

Also meanwhile, the Doctor and Susan discover that the city is run by static electricity and short out an electrical panel, causing them to be immediately captured.

The Daleks then announce their intention to kill all the Thals so that they can be total masters of Skaro (telling us the name of the planet).

An interesting moment comes when one Thal in the tunnels gets an attack of the willies and wants to ditch the mission, citing the fact that they are all doomed.

This same Thal later fails to jump across a ledge and ends up hanging from a rope that is tied around his body, yelling that he can’t hang on any more (which is . . . why it’s tied around his body?).

Episode 7

The Thal who is safely tied with the rope around his body then makes a heroic sacrifice by cutting the rope so he can fall to his death, preventing Ian and another Thal on the ledge above from falling to theirs as well.

It’s interesting, but up to now there hasn’t really been any discussion of what the teams are going todo once they get into the city–just that they’re going to fight the Daleks somehow.

Eventually, the whole gang gets together in the Dalek city and attacks the control center, upending and immobilizing lots of Daleks, who die. The Doctor also defuses the neutron bomb that they were going to set off.

The Daleks are, apparently, all dead, and their endless war with the Thals has ended. Advantage: Thals.

The Doctor bids the Thals farewell, talking about how they will now be pioneers rebuilding their planet, trying to learn about the Dalek machines and their secrets. He says he was once a pioneer among his own people, though he’s too old for that now.

Barbara shares a romantic moment with a Thal that she’s taken a shine to (so she’s into Ian maybe not so much right now).

Then they all take off in the TARDIS for parts unknown . . . and disaster strikes.


Despite its flaws, this serial is actually pretty good for the time. It’s certainly way more interesting than the caveman part of An Unearthly Child. There is also a lot less paint-by-numbers writing than I expected when I put in the DVD and saw it had a seven parts!

There is some nice character development, and, while it is much slower paced than it would be if made today, the story is fairly straightforward. It may even make more sense than a lot of later Dalek stories.

The Daleks aren’t fully formed in this episode. While they are clearly murderous and xenophobic, they don’t have the “Exterminate! Exterminate!” thing going yet.

They also aren’t invincible, time traveling menaces that have whole galaxies in their tentacles. They’re the last batch of a dying race that is confined to a single city.

It’s easy to see why they caught on with children in 1963. They have the whole Nazi-vibe going, which makes them menacing, and the sorta-tank-like metallic shell, but the very fact that they aren’t bipeds keeps them from getting over-the-top scary. If they were fully mobile actors in rubber suits, they would be much scarier for children.

The fact that Daleks “aren’t very mobile” is pointed out more than once in this episode, and its pointed out that this is where the humans (and Thals) have an advantage over them, despite their superior technology. This helps keep the threat they pose from being overwhelming.

In 1965 this serial was remade as a full-color motion picture, with a bigger budget and other improvements. It starred Peter Cushing as Dr. Who and was titled Doctor Who and the Daleks.

RATING: * * 1/2



35mmThe epic re-watch begins here, where it all started, with the very first episode of Doctor Who, titled An Unearthly Child.

This four-part serial was broadcast from November 23 to December 14, 1963 (before I even existed!).

This first series introduces William Hartnell as the very first Doctor (pictured).

We don’t get to him straight away, however.


Episode 1
Episode 1 begins with the opening credits of the program, which features the first broadcast arrangement of the familiar Doctor Who theme song, with its eerie thrumming (identified, nearly 50 years down the line, as the heartbeat of a Time Lord; see Story 202, “The End of Time”) and soaring organ riffs.

The opening credits also featured an uncanny, abstract shifting pattern. It wasn’t yet the tunnel-like time vortex of later seasons. The elements of the pattern have a rounded, organic quality, a bit like the blobs in a lava lamp, though that is clearly not what they are. However this effect was produced, it must have made a striking effect on the original, British viewing audience.

Together with the eerie theme song, the visuals must have signaled the audience to expect something weird, strange, otherworldly–and unlike any other show then on the BBC.

When the episode itself begins, we get a fog-bound shot of the I. M. Foreman junkyard at 76 Totter’s Lane, in London. Amid the junk, we see a battered, disused police box, though we don’t yet know its significance.

The scene shifts to Coal Hill School, where we find two teachers–Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright–who are discussing one of their students–Susan Foreman (note that her last name seems to be taken from the name of the junkyard owner).

Ian teaches science and Barbara teaches history. Both are floored by the amazing knowledge Susan displays, coupled with her stunning ignorance on other matters. Susan is the “unearthly child” of the title.

We then shift to meet Susan herself, who is listening to zippy ’60s tunes on a transistor radio.

The teachers follow Susan home after school and trace her to the junkyard we saw at the beginning.

They also find–and touch–the police box that we saw earlier. When they do so, they note a “faint vibration” and Ian declares that it’s alive. (How literally this is meant in the first episode is not clear; it will be taken very literally in later seasons.)

We then meet the Doctor (not yet named), who tries to bluff Ian and Barbara away from the police box, from which the two teachers heard Susan’s voice come. The Doctor seems happy, confident, and mysterious.

Everything changes when the teachers suddenly find themselves inside the police box, which is dramatically larger–as well as futuristic–on the inside.

The Doctor tells Susan that he knew something like this would happen, that if they remained in one place for too long this would occur.

Susan identifies the Doctor as her grandfather.

When queried about how the police box can be larger on the inside than the outside, the Doctor compares it to portraying a large building on a television screen–the latter being something that can exist in a much smaller house.

Susan also says that she was responsible for calling the police box, which is “a ship,” a TARDIS–the acronym standing for “Time And Relative Dimensions In Space.”

The Doctor also says that he is not from this century, but he tolerates it. He indicates that they are “wanderers in the fourth dimension” (i.e., time), that they are “exiles,” cut off from their own people, without friends or protection. But the predicts that one day they shall go back.

Susan says that she was born in another time and on another world. (In an unbroadcast version of the episode, she said they were from the 49th century.)

A crisis occurs when the Doctor plans to take Ian and Barbara with them on a time journey. Susan objects and is even willing to leave her grandfather to stay with Ian and Barbara in 20th century England, but an accident occurs and we hear the soon-to-be familiar wheezing of the TARDIS as the time rotor on its central console moves up and down.

We then get a glimpse of abstract graphics that mirror the opening credits and foreshadow the later time vortex.

The episode ends with the TARDIS materialized on a primitive, desert landscape.

Episode 2

The original idea for Doctor Who is that it would be a series that shifted between the past and the future, with Ian (the science teacher) serving as a guide to the future and Barbara (the history teacher) serving as a guide to the past.

Having begun the series with an episode that contained a lot of world-building of a futuristic nature, we now shift to the past.

The TARDIS has landed 100,000 B.C., and its crew finds itself in the midst of a bunch of cave people.

Unfortunately, we also run into a problem that is characteristic of many of the early Doctor Whoserials, where the plot slows down to a dramatic (or, rather, un-dramatic) degree.

We also have the first indication that the TARDIS does not travel in a controlled way. The Doctor does not know when and where they are. He says that he wishes the TARDIS would not keep letting him down.

The Doctor also refers to the title of the show when Ian refers to him as “Doctor Foreman,” and he replies, “Doctor who?”

The Doctor further comments on the fact that the TARDIS still appears as a police box and has not changed. He finds this very disturbing, indicating that the malfunction in its ability to change form has occurred very recently.

Susan also notes that she doesn’t know why the TARDIS hasn’t changed. She further says that it has been a column and a sedan chair but it hasn’t happened this time, indicating that this is its first malfunction concerning shape.

Meanwhile, Doctor Who is lighting his startlingly large and ornate pipe, indicating a difference in children’s broadcast standards now and then, when a grandfatherly figure could smoke his pipe in peace–unless he is whacked over the head by a caveman, which the Doctor promptly is.

The fact he has matches and is able to light his pipe and make fire come from his fingertips massively impresses the cavemen.

Episode 3

At this point, the Doctor and companions get embroiled in inter-tribal, fire-making politics, with lots of being captured, being let go, running around in the jungle, being menaced by animals and cavepeople, etc.

In other words: mindless, paint-by-numbers “action” designed to fill airtime without really requiring the writers to think very hard.

Unfortunately, this will be all too common in coming episodes.

On the other hand, there is a bit of character development, as both Ian and Barbara challenge the Doctor when deciding what to do at various junctures, and he defends himself, revealing that there is some truth both in his point of view and in that of the companions. This presents both the Doctor and the companions has having limitations and as having something to bring to the table.

From a writing point of view, that’s good!

Episode 4

In this episode, we get more inter-tribal, fire-making politics. Boring!

Finally, the Doctor and companions make it back to the TARDIS and take off.

They land on a strange planet that will introduce them to their first futuristic adventure.

RATING: * 1/2 (would be less, but the first episode, set in 1963, brings the average up)