Doctor Who is almost 60 years old. It’s a startling thought and even more so when you realise that aside from the odd ‘hiatus’ it’s run has been mostly uninterrupted. I bet if you went back in time and told that to the original creators they’d look at you funny, not least because you’re claiming to be a time traveller.
Over the decades this show has evolved, it’s mythos is a patchwork built by generations of writers, actors and directors, each adding on to what came before. Things that we consider fundamental to Doctor Who now didn’t even exist back at the very beginning. Time Lords, telepathic circuits, even the sonic screwdriver didn’t come into being until well into Patrick Troughton’s run. What were, originally, one-off throwaway lines have now become universe shaking facts. To take a recent example, the basis for the Timeless Child reveal comes from one scene in a Tom Baker episode way back when. I can’t think of any other show that uses continuity to this extent and that brings to me the subject of today’s discussion.
Why does the Doctor love the Earth so much? Why, out of all the big wide universe is it here that they choose to return to time and again? Now the Doctor has answered this question a couple of times over the show’s long history, often talking about our potential and those one-in-seven billion people that make the rest tolerable, but what made them look here in the first place? What made a wanderer in the fourth dimension stop and take notice of this little blue ball out in the vastness of space? For me there’s one moment, an often over-looked moment I feel, that explains this.
First, let’s set the scene. We’re going back to the very beginning of the show and it’s first story, ‘An Unearthly Child’. For those that haven’t seen it, and you really should watch the first episode at least it still holds up tremendously, here’s a brief overview. Two school teachers, Ian and Barbara, are perplexed by a strange student, Susan. Curious, they decide to follow her home (because there’s nothing creepy about that at all), where they see her go into a junkyard. In that junkyard is a police box and a rather curt and suspicious old man, the Doctor.
Now, this is not the Doctor we all know and love, not yet. This is not his second home, he is not Earth’s defender, in fact he comes across as having a very low opinion of us Earthlings. Apart from referring to us as savages at one point, he also practically laughs in Ian’s face as the man struggles to get his head around the idea of the TARDIS being bigger inside than out. Of course one thing leads to another and the TARDIS ends up thworping the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara back in time to the caveman era. There the travellers find themselves in the midst of a leadership contest and locked up in a cave of skulls (I have so many questions about that, but now is not the place to talk about them).
That brings us to the third episode of the story, ‘The Forest of Fear’. Old mother frees the Doctor and friends and they quickly escape into the forest, only to be pursued by Za and Hur. While they hide Za is attacked by an animal and, against the Doctor’s protests, Susan and Barbara run back to try and help. They and Ian tend to the caveman while the Doctor just stands there and complains. Finally Barbara snaps at him,
“You treat everybody and everything as something less important than yourself!”
And it’s true, this is the Doctor at his most self-serving and self-interested. Here he’s as arrogant as so many Time Lords he’s lambasted over the years, but in fairness we don’t know how long it’s been since he left Gallifrey. He and Susan were on Earth for five months, but before that? Maybe Earth was their first stop? Maybe this is the Doctor’s first real interaction with people outside of this own species? He didn’t exactly come across as sociable in the 60s.
That brings us to the all important moment. While the others are busy putting together a stretcher to carry Za, the Doctor picks up a rock. The intent is clear. Za is holding them up, the rest of the cavemen could be on them at any second and they need to get back to the TARDIS to be safe. If only Za wasn’t here right now. In one moment the Doctor is more than ready to beat a man’s skull in to serve his own interests, until Ian catches him.
“What are you doing?”
“I…I was going to get him to draw our way back to the TARDIS.”
For me that’s the moment the Doctor first takes notice of humanity. For all his intellect and the supposed advancements of his people, here is a ‘savage’ whose nobility far outshines the Doctor’s own. It’s a moment of shame and it’s not a big deal in the episode. Outside of one lingering look from William Hartnell it’s never dwelt upon or mentioned again, but when you look back over the first Doctor’s character arc it’s a fundamental point. In the future, whenever the Doctor is criticising a human for falling prey to their worst instincts, it’s this moment I imagine them flashing back to. Ian and Barbara showed the Doctor what humans are truly capable of when they listen to their better angels, that is our potential. To help whenever we are needed, whether it’s asked for or not, whether it puts at a disadvantage or not. That is what we can be.
Anyway, what do you think? Am I making too big a deal out of one moment? Are there any fundamental moments you can think of for the First Doctor, or any Doctor really? Leave your answers in the comments below.
My thanks to Edd for giving me this opportunity to ramble on about a show I love, hopefully it won’t be the last time. I’m Chris Joynson, aka Neverarguewithafish, I’m a writer and blogger and if you want to chat with me you can find me on twitter @ChrisGJoynson. See you out there in the vortex. Thworp thworp.