1963 Doctor Who: time travel TV

Doctor Who is a British science fiction drama about a time travelling alien called the Doctor and their human companions. The show first broadcast in black and white in 1963 with William Hartnell as the Doctor. Since then, there have been 39 seasons.

Including Hartnell, thirteen actors have played the Doctor. In 2017 Jodie Whittaker became the first woman to perform the role. Regular changes to the Doctor’s appearance are expected because the Doctor is able to regenerate their form.

Everyone has a favourite Doctor. Mine are the versions of the Doctor played by David Tennant (2005–2010) and Matt Smith (2010–2013). In part my preference is due to liking the actors. But it’s also because of the stories about the Doctor’s human friends. Over the years the show has varied in tone, depending on the writing, cast and direction. (There was quite a lot of romance between 2005 and 2013. Matt Smith, in particular, was a bit of a heart throb!)

You can watch seasons 1 to 26 of Doctor Who on the streaming service BritBox. I signed up yesterday and watched the first two episodes. I’d never seen them before and knew only that Hartnell played the Doctor as an elderly man with white hair.

I didn’t know what to expect of season 1 of Doctor Who. I thought it might be too old fashioned to be watchable, but I was wrong. The acting is good. The story is well set up. And although the scenery looks like a stage set, there’s a pleasure in seeing the artistry that went into it.

I was surprised to see how young the Doctor’s face looks in season 1. He dresses and behaves like a man in his 80s but he’s only in his 50s. In 1963 the life expectancy for British men was 70. So there was presumably less of a sense that 55 is “quite young really”. (Although of course, the Doctor character is almost immortal, so perhaps his speech and clothing were intended to express that.)

The first two episodes are both part of the same story. They introduce the Doctor and his brilliant granddaughter Susan. Then they travel back to what is presumably the Stone Age in Europe for their first adventure. Each episode ends with a very dramatic cliffhanger. In those days viewers had to wait an entire week to see what would happen next. As I’ve yet to see episode 3, I don’t know how this story is going to end.

Watching classic television is a great way to see how different our values are to those of the past. I’ve recently been rewatching the late 1980s seasons of Star Trek, and have been surprised by how many aliens are blonde, scantily-clad women.

The 1960s are even further back in time, so it’s no surprise that some aspects of Doctor Who have dated. Before the first episode a warning flashes up to let viewers know that racist stereotypes are used in the show. Unfortunately, the Doctor gives a speech that describes indigenous North Americans in very unkind terms.

There’s no defence for being racist. For context rather than defence, it should be pointed out that Doctor Who was not exceptionally prejudiced for its time. Indigenous people were exoticised and othered until relatively recently in British popular culture. In the 21st century the internet has built connections and understanding between Europe, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand in a way that just wasn’t possible in 1963. So thank goodness for that.

I will watch more William Hartnell episodes and intend to explore other science fiction TV shows of the mid to late 20th century. If you have a favourite show of this type, you’re welcome to leave a comment to let me know.

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