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Patrick Troughton: The Base Under Siege

PrintE-mail Written by Tony Cross Sunday, 14 August 2011

Journey Through The Whoniverse - by Tony Cross

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The obvious problem with discussing the Patrick Troughton era is that the majority of it no longer exists on video. We have to make our judgments about it either from the seven full stories that remain (I'm counting Invasion as extant) plus the sixteen orphan episodes. We can fill in the gaps with reconstructions or the BBC audio releases but fundamentally we're making guesses or using the fan hive mind to fill in the gaps.

The weakness in that approach is illustrated I think by Tomb of the Cybermen. This was lauded as a 'Classic' prior to its rediscovery but in my opinion turned out to be an (admittedly) atmospheric disappointment. So the question is would other Troughton classics stand up to rediscovery. I rate Power of the Daleks as one of Doctor Who's greatest stories but I have never seen it in its 'proper' form. Fury of the Deep has a real feeling of menace throughout but what would the weed creature wafting about in a BBC studio let it down. Equally would The Underwater Menace get quite so much criticism if its surviving episode was its' first or second?

Who knows. What it does mean is that my feelings about the Patrick Troughton era are even more tenuous and personal than about any other period of Doctor Who. I was wasn't even born when these stories were broadcast so I do not even have the vague memories of childhood to hang on to. I can only base my opinions on what survives.

I do know that my first encounter with the Troughton Doctor came in The Five Doctors and then before I reached the level of true geek in The Two Doctors. It was only later that I came to discover the original stuff. But even in those two stories you got a taste of Troughton's Doctor, even if it is something of an affectionate caricature in both stories.

Once I became a proper Doctor Who geek I went back to what existed. Picking up bits here and there. Watching video and then DVD releases. Listening to C60 cassettes drowned out by hiss that made them virtually incomprehensible. Then the BBC audio range and finally everything was out there in some format or other. That meant I could work my way through Troughton's entire era, which I did early this year. It's an enjoyable experience.

The first thing you notice in Power of the Daleks is how different he is to Hartnell. That might seem an obvious thing to say now but Troughton's the first actor to take the part from another actor. The series, previously a success, could crash and burn with a new actor. Troughton was taking quite a gamble. He must have thought long and hard about accepting what might have been a poisoned chalice. We do know that there are behind the scenes tales of Troughton making outlandish suggestions for how he should play this new Doctor, including (and how we must thank the Little God of Equity that he chose not to do this) blacking up. It was important for the Second Doctor to be different.

What we get instead is a more anarchic, more humorous and more uncomfortable Doctor. He is also less direct than the First Doctor. We - as an audience - like Ben and Polly, can't be sure that we can trust this person. Ben is certainly uncertain. Polly less so. It's a nice touch and the last time anyone ever reacts to a regeneration like that. After this regeneration is so normal it almost passes unremarked until the production team decides to add complications.

For the first few stories Troughton's performance is much 'bigger' than it will be later. Just as, gradually, his trousers were brought in from their flappy post-regeneration state, so is the performance. There's still an eccentricity in the later Troughton but it isn't quite so obviously sign-posted.

We do have a tendency to be less resistant to Troughton's Doctor. His Doctor is seen as the kindly Uncle to Hartnell's grumpy Granddad and his stories - missing or not - are often better and more fondly remembered.

However underneath the fun we get glimpses of a different, darker Doctor. He doesn't go out of his way to reassure Ben and Polly after his regeneration, as if he's testing them. He's manipulative when he needs to be - witness the way he plays with Jamie in Evil of the Daleks. Or how he helps Kaftan and Kleig to open the Tomb of the Cybermen, which was something they were unlikely to achieve themselves. This darker tendency, like his initial eccentricity, fades as time goes on but the Doctor's motives are never entirely clear and this "alien" aspect of Troughton's portrayal is easy to miss coated as it is with the fluff of amiability. There are layers to Troughton's Doctor that we sometimes miss. Perhaps because no one ever labeled what he was doing as some kind of 'masterplan' for the series and, when production teams changed, the Doctor lightened up.

Troughton's era is often called "The Monster Era" (even by actors who appear in it) but in truth it is the era of the base under siege. Whether that base is on the Moon, beneath London or a Tibetan Monestary, there are creatures menacing it. There will be traitors and a myriad of base commanders snapping under the strain. There will be sabotage. The Doctor and his companions will be suspected, blamed and locked up. It's a common thread throughout the Troughton era and it does mean a certain amount of repetition. In truth I think the scripts of the Troughton era are - generally - weaker than those of Hartnell, which might sound controversial but isn't meant to be. There are a lot of similar stories in the era, where monsters and guest actors could be interchangeable. It's often over-looked because of Patrick Troughton's performance.

Arguably the best actor to have played the Doctor, it is Troughton's performance that is the strength of the era. Almost every time he appears things improve. He adds a gilding of gold to some very average stories. It's no wonder other Doctor's often quote Troughton as their favourite.

Troughton is also fortunate with his companions, who - with the possible exception of Ben & Polly - are fondly remembered by fandom. Ben & Polly stayed a short-time, linking the First and Second Doctor's eras but as soon as Jamie McCrimmon appears their time is numbered. Three companions is too many. Writer's struggle to find convincing plot lines for all the characters and apparently the decision to add Jamie was a spontaneous one, which meant that he spends a chunk of the Moonbase unconscious. That's not a criticism of either Anneke Wills or Michael Craze. I like them as companions. They make a great pair, the Sailor and the Duchess. I'm particularly fond of Anneke Wills in The Highlanders and Michael Craze in The Macra Terror (especially when he's playing the brain-washed Ben). However they were pretty much sidelined in their final story, The Faceless Ones.

Frazer Hines as Jamie is one of the series most fondly remembered companions. His relationship with Troughton was clearly a good one. Male companions weren't so unusual in the 60s and Hines takes his chance and runs with it. Clearly having a whale of a time, he makes Jamie fun, brave and loyal. He quickly takes time travel in his stride.

Jamie and the Doctor are joined first by Victoria Waterfield (Deborah Watling) who is probably the first companion to become increasingly frightened by the lifestyle the Doctor and Jamie live. Having lost her father to the Daleks and been hustled through time and space facing terrible creature after terrible creature she finally decides that what she needs is stability and settles down with the Harris' at the end of 'Fury from the Deep'. Her acceptance by the Harris's seems a little easy but the reason for her departure seems natural. She can't take it anymore and for the second time in the programmes history - the first being Steven's angry departure from the TARDIS at the conclusion of The Massacre - the true cost of being a travelling companion of the Doctor is set out for us.

The Second Doctor's final companion, Zoe, joined in The Wheel in Space. She's a slightly fussy smart-arse scientist who seizes her chance to see more of the universe when she gets it. It's a lovely performance by Wendy Padbury.  The Zoe, Jamie and Second Doctor team are among my favourites in the series history. The chemistry between the three of them is palpable. It makes their departures in The War Games truly heart breaking. They won't remember the Second Doctor except as a fleeting one-off presence. It's one of the series saddest moments and it seems so unfair (both on them and the Doctor).

So I like the Troughton era not so much for the stories but for the performance of the regulars. Troughton almost never fails to be brilliant. He can handle the straight stuff and the funny stuff. He never seems to be acting, which is probably the best compliment you can give an actor. He just is the Doctor. There's so many good Troughton moments that it is hard to pick a favourite: hiis taunting of Klieg at the end of Tomb of the Cybermen; the touching little scene between him and Victoria earlier in that story; the 'some corners of the Universe' speech; his anger at Travers and Waterfield in Evil of the Daleks...the list goes on and on.

My favourite stories of the era: Power of the Daleks (which shows the Daleks at their most devious and manipulative), The Faceless Ones, Evil of the Daleks (more manipulative Daleks and the 'dizzy Daleks', to whom I love), The Web of Fear (which introduces us to Lethbridge-Stewart), Fury of the Deep (which is a slice of pure atmospheric joy), The Mind Robber, The Invasion (which brings back Lethbridge-Stewart and introduces UNIT) and The War Games (which sees the Time Lords at their most pompous and high minded and, even though it is ten episodes long, never drags for a moment).

Perhaps the best thing about the Second Doctor's era in the end is that - despite the over-use of the base under siege story type - it feels like fun. It's not as dark as the latter William Hartnell era was, although there is pain, death and horror as in all eras of Doctor Who. It's creepy and scary but with a certain lightness of touch (at least most of the time). In some respects the Troughton era feels more like the template for new Doctor Who than more recent eras.

Reading back I seem to be damning the Troughton era with faint praise, which isn't my intention at all. I adore the Troughton era but having watched it all in order I'm convinced now that I love it because of Troughton and his companions rather than the scripts or the myriad of monsters. It's the central performance that makes Troughton's period in the part such a pleasure.

Yes, there's some good stuff in there but also, if we're honest, too much of the same kind of stories. Whilst sometimes these base under stories are done well, sometimes they're not. The Troughton Cyberman stories in particular seem to suffer from a degree of plot sameness. I mean the Moonbase is the Tenth Planet redux in the first place. I suspect none of this mattered too much at the time and again the artificiality of watching these stories at compressed speeds over a short time period makes the repetitiveness more obvious. They're not bad stories, they're just not that different to one another. If only the quality of the average Troughton story matched that of Power of the Daleks. But that is probably too much to ask. There isn't a lot in Doctor Who history that matches the quality of that particular story.

In the end though the quality of the stories is surpassed by the quality of the performance. Patrick Troughton can add something to even the most banal stories and for that reason - as well as the good companions - I can enjoy the Second Doctor's era.

 


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