Confession #19: I Love the B&W Era

In honor of today's 48th anniversary of the first broadcast of Doctor Who (that would be An Unearthly Child, in 1963), I thought I'd talk a bit more about the early years of Who and why they're worth your time to seek out if you've never had the opportunity to see them before.

For a general sense of what they're all about, check out my recent posts on the First and Second Doctors' eras, where I give a broad overview. Let me express a bit more love for that whole black-and-white era, though. There's a special something - maybe you could think of it as an innocence - that doesn't necessarily carry over into the color/modern era. The show is so earnest and new and takes itself so seriously, even though it also clearly knows it's a bit rubbish in places.

Admittedly, it took me a while to warm to all that. Coming as I did straight off Series Four with Ten and Donna, I was taken aback at first, even though I knew I was stepping into the Wayback Machine when I sat down with An Unearthly Child that first time. Forty-five years' worth of technological advances are nothing to sneeze at, especially where television is concerned. So even though I'd steeled myself for bad (by modern standards) effects - having grown up with Star Trek, I thought I had an idea of what it was likely to look like - and the black-and-white view, I wasn't truly prepared.

It helps to remember that broadcast television was still relatively new at the time (in the US, at least, it had really only been happening at all for ~15 years), and that many of the actors came from a theatrical background. (Granted, many BBC actors today also have a background in theatre - but they are also well trained in how to perform for television.) They were used to stage work, and often times that shows; on screen, stage acting tends to come across as extreme over-acting. But when directed properly, the acting fits on the screen well enough. However, the sets and shots are often relatively static, as in the theatre.

Many of these early stories - especially Hartnell's (One's) - sit easier with a modern viewer who's willing to think of them as stagecraft instead of as television. Among other things, it makes the infamous line flubs more forgivable. Since they really didn't have the time or resources to reshoot scenes that included errors like that (and due to Hartnell's deteriorating mental health, they were sadly frequent), we get to witness them today. I like to think of it as a charming example of the "show must go on" attitude necessary for performing a play (which, in essence, is what they were doing; watch a few extras some time to hear the actors talk about rehearsing and then shooting all in one go).

When we move onto Two, things smooth out a bit in that department, just due to the cast change. It's still charmingly hokey, though. And I suppose there's an element of faux-nostalgia, too, because so many of them are lost. It tends to make one cherish the stories we still have (even the less-than-stellar ones). Aside from that, though, Troughton (Two) was just a damn good Doctor.

The show had progressed to a point by Two's time that it didn't quite have to be so deadly serious all the time. More blatant humor crept in, and it stopped trying to be so "educational," with pure historicals and science lessons (a la the use of light and magnets in The Dalek Invasion of Earth). Instead, it focused more on telling unique stories (which sometimes came off beautifully and were other times frankly disastrous) just for the sake of telling them. And there are times, as I watch Troughton, that I can totally see how that fact that he's Matt Smith's favorite comes out in Eleven's character.

So all that is my rather long-winded way of saying those early years of Who are really quite magical. You owe it to yourself to try out some of the better specimens; I think you might be pleasantly surprised.

Oh, and...

Happy Birthday, Doctor!


PaulGreaves's picture

The black and white era is often wrongly overlooked, yet without it's success the programme wouldn't be with us today. Hartnell and Troughton are both excellent in their own ways, however it's Ian and Barbara who are the real stars of the early days. You can forget your Rose, Martha and Amy's. They're drops in the ocean compared to the best schoolteachers ever to travel in time and space. Without them, the Doctor wouldn't be the person he is today!

By PaulGreaves --


mrfranklin's picture

I love Ian and Barbara! Can't even tell you how excited I am about the prospect of meeting William Russell at Gally in February! :D

By mrfranklin
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