Nostalgia for an age yet to come

While enjoying the whizzy new Matt Smith led series of Dr Who with the kids, I’ve also been watching some very old William Hartnell episodes that I got in a box set for my birthday.  The footage, dating back to 1963, looks as alien to me in 2010 as the Daleks must have looked to the Doctor’s earthly companions.  It’s black and white of course (colour not being adopted until the Jon Pertwee era), and with the kind of graininess that makes you think they must have carved every frame out of wood.

I’ve heard it said that early Dr Who footage looks as old as a Chaplin film. With magnificent pretentiousness, I’m going to admit that it reminds me of footage of the theatre of Jerzy Grotowski, films of which I saw as an undergraduate. Scoff if you will – I would, if someone else said the same – but they’re both grainy, black and white, and teetering between being spooky and plain ridiculous. And if that isn’t enough, Carole Ann Ford (who plays the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan) bears a striking resemblance to Grotowski’s lead actress, Rena Mirecka. Check out the photos below.


The pace of Harnell-era Who is positively leisurely. Episodes dawdle along like a tortoise laden down with heavy luggage. The Matt Smith Who would fit the events of a William Hartnell episode into the pre-title sequence. Nonetheless, there’s still plenty to like.

For one thing, Hartnell’s Doctor is a really interesting character. The modern Doc strives with every fibre of his being to protect not just the whole of humanity but also all those who are inhuman. Hartnell’s Doc gambles (for the Tardis in a game of backgammon) and smokes a pipe (thus being enlisted by cavemen to show them the secret of fire). He’s even a tiny bit evil. At one point, he contemplates sticking a sharp flint into a caveman’s skull. On another occasion, he endangers his companions’ lives by pretending he needs some mercury for a broken fluid link, and later plans on leaving them behind to die of radiation sickness. What an excellent role model for the kids of the early 1960s!

Something else I like about Harnell-era Who is that it’s beautifully composed. The stark contrasts in the black and white tones are bold and exciting – far less bland than the dull washes of the early colour years. The designs of the costumes and sets feel utterly classic. I challenge you to look at shots of the original Tardis interior and not to want to go in and have a nose around. There’s a stylishness about British television set design in the black and white era that’s rarely achieved today.

In the early 1960s, British TV drama was produced more like theatre than film, but the composition of shots and edits is simple and elegant. The episode title is often overlaid on a still image, perhaps a character staring at something, but it’s not a still as such – the actor is actively staring, and you can see them breathing. There’s something oddly enjoyable about that.

Then there’s the music. The sounds produced by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop are extraordinary, and really manage to put the appropriate eeriness in there. It’s extraordinary to think that people like Delia Derbyshire were making sounds which two decades later would send bands like the Human League into the charts, given that she was doing this before the synthesizer was commercially available – and certainly unavailable to her. The original version of the Dr Who theme was made with improbably-named gadgets like wave modulators and far from being played on a keyboard, it was assembled, note by note, on reel-to-reel tape.

To sum it up, there’s something tremendously appealing about seeing what the future looked like to those who lived in the past.

One thought on “Nostalgia for an age yet to come”

  1. That’s one of the beauties of science-fiction, imagining the future: whether it’s the rain-soaked slums of ‘Blade Runner,’ the techno-wizardry of ‘Minority Report’ or the clapped-out and tired technology of the Millenium Falcon in ‘Star Wars;’ it’s about how we might evolve.

    It’s amazing how some visions of the future date quicker than others: the world of ‘Alien’ doesn’t seem to have aged at all…

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