GeekPlanetOnline's resident Doctor Who Correspondent Martin Thompson takes a deeper look at the adventures of a mad man in a box, along with his friends, foes and fandom. With over fifty years of rubber monsters, changing faces, dented police boxes, exterminations and pointed goatees to look at, he has more than a few things to say on the subject...
When rewatching Doctor Who, sooner or later you’re going to come up against the fact that there are 97 missing episodes. Luckily, and thanks to the fans back in the 1960s, we still have the soundtrack to every single story plus most were adapted into novel form by Target Books so that we can still enjoy them. Some enterprising souls have also put them together with the telesnaps taken of each recording, or made animations so each episode can still be seen in some form. These aren’t available for wide release but can still be found on websites like YouTube and Daily Motion. The same technique was used for the DVD releases of The Web of Fear and The Underwater Menace. Several orphaned episodes can also be found on the Lost in Time DVD boxset.
A couple of years ago I decided to plug this gap in my viewing knowledge by watching some of the recreations but where to start? The beginning? Too easy, plus it would be better to ease into the recreations by watching shorter serials. When I came to review The Tenth Planet for GeekPlanetOnline it hit me that I’ve never seen much of Ben and Polly, which is of course due to most of their stories being missing. They first entered the TARDIS in The War Machines, and were the companions present at the Doctor’s very first regeneration, so I thought that a Ben and Polly watch through, especially considering what a special period this was in the show’s history, would be the best way to dive into it. This was the beginning of Doctor Who's fourth series, which was a rare one in that we started with a different Doctor and companion to those we ended with. The First Doctor, Ben and Polly may start in The Smugglers but the Second Doctor, Jamie and Victoria finish it with The Evil of the Daleks. The only other time this happens is in season 20 when the Fifth Doctor, Tegan and Turlough start and the Sixth Doctor and Peri finish. Ben and Polly’s era takes us from 25 June 1966 to 13 May 1967.
First up, we have their only complete serial in existence, The War Machines. The First Doctor and Dodo Chaplet land in contemporary London and admire the newly opened Telecom Tower, which unbeknownst to them, is the centre for a takeover plot by supercomputer WOTAN. This is one of my favourite Hartnell stories, perhaps because of the then contemporary setting (although the swinging nightclub is a bit dated now). Dodo gets one of the worst companion send offs in the series as she gets sent away to the country to recover from WOTAN’s hypnosis. Enter Ben and Polly (played by Michael Craze and Anneke Wills respectively), a sailor on leave and a hip, young temp, like a younger Ian and Barbara. Ben was drafted in to take the vacated action man role and there's more of a will-they-won't-they vibe about the two. In this era of Who, companions aren't just invited in and have to stow away in order to join the adventure, so simply entering the TARDIS to return the Doctor's key to him is enough to start them on their trip. This is a very enjoyable proto-UNIT story and although the titular machines may look like they come from the Joker's arsenal, I would still buy a model of one like a shot.
Their first trip is a historical one in The Smugglers, which sees them thrown back to 17th century Cornwall. Sadly nothing but a few scraps of location filming exists for this one, which is a shame because it's a lovely little story. The main thrust of the plot is the search for Captain Avery’s treasure and in a nice timey-wimey way, we found out when the Eleventh Doctor later meets him in The Curse of the Black Spot. William Hartnell certainly doesn't look like a man running out of steam as he charms and twists the pirates and is almost delighted, before his new companions wander in, when he thinks that he’s alone once more.
Meanwhile, Ben and Polly truly feel like two people out of time with more fear of the century they’ve been flung back to than the wide-eyed wonder of the modern companions. There's a lovely scene in the jail when they convince their jailer that Polly is a witch, showing some wonderful playfulness in a dark situation. While Ben provides the brawn, Polly often proves herself as capable as Barbara in coming up with ideas to get them out of trouble. The Smugglers may not be one of the better-known stories but it’s a nice exploration of this time in history and it’s good to see location filming in a different area of the UK. It's a pity that this one has been lost to the tides of time unless, in an ironic twist, it will be found hidden in a Cornish church vault at some point.
Next stop, the Snowcap Base at Antarctica for The Tenth Planet in which Ben and Polly now seem to be dressing alike. This serial is complete bar one, very important, episode, which was animated for the DVD release. This story is our first introduction to the Cybermen and contained the First Doctor's regeneration. The Cybermen would become the main recurring villains of the Second Doctor’s era and this is perhaps the best exploration of their core concept, reflecting the 1960s fear of ‘spare part surgery’ leading to loss of humanity. Unfortunately due to William Hartnell's failing health it’s not quite the send off he deserves as he has to take more time off, with the spotlight falling on Ben to fill the gap. The Doctor should have been at his most resolute; standing up for humanity and arguing with Cutler and the Cybermen. Instead he simply peters out, but at least it feels right with his old body “wearing a bit thin”. This story plods along and isn't as riveting as it would like to think it is, but its place in history is assured.
The Power of the Daleks is another story with no surviving episodes and sees Ben and Polly deal with a rejuvenated Doctor who is quite different from his previous incarnation. Throughout the story the two companions echo the sentiments of the audience; one of the two is inclined to believe that he is still the same man while the other doesn't. Troughton is still feeling his way around the character here and he injects a cheeky burst of energy into proceedings. In fact his first few serials see the Doctor in a very wild, unstable state and if I were a viewer in 1966 I'm not sure that I would have stuck with the series with him as the leading man. Happily, I found that by The Underwater Menace the new Doctor sat better with me, as I knew he would from his future serials.
This is a cracking story though as the Doctor and co land on the planet Vulcan (no, not that one) where the Daleks are hiding out amongst human colonists in a subservient role. The machinations within the population of the base are a strong backdrop. Janly is the first of a number of strong women throughout the Troughton years and the chief scientist Lesterson, the man duped by the Daleks, is well played by Robert James. It’s a shame his physical performance has been lost. At one point Polly breaks down and, while today's companions would doubtless be out there with a baseball bat, this feels more real. Living a relatively cushy life in London she's now on a strange planet in the future, the man whom she trusted to get her back has undergone a complete physical and mental change, and alien death machines are trundling down a corridor outside. It's another powerful moment bringing home the realities of travelling with the Doctor.
The Highlanders is another historical tale and, like The Smugglers, has no surviving episodes but it does introduce us to one of the Doctor's longest running and best-loved companions - Jamie McCrimmon. However, trying to watch this serial without knowledge of the future, I wouldn't have pegged him as a standout, more the character of Kirsty who buddies up with Polly (who’s rather mean to her for some reason) for most of the story. The two form quite a double act especially in their regular encounters with Lt. Ffinch, a hapless member of the redcoats, and there’s a great villain in the form of Solicitor Grey. Troughton again dives into the dressing up box with both hands and has a lot of fun doing it although his character is still unstable and a little too eager about guns. Again, this was another enjoyable historical tale.
But wait – what’s that terrifying blob appearing on the scanner! Find out how our journey continues in the next column.