Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but until recently rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between. This has changed in the last couple of years as I have been using birthday and Christmas money to buy some of the old episodes, usually enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. This year, though, my wife and I bought a year of Britbox for each other as a gift, which gives me access to nearly all of classic Who.
Starring William Hartnell as the First Doctor.
Companions: William Russell as Ian Chesterton, Jacqueline Hill as Barbara Wright and Maureen O’Brien as Vicki.
Written by David Whitaker. Directed by Christopher Barry. Produced by Verity Lambert. Script Edited by Dennis Spooner (albeit uncredited, apparently because he had just started the job and the story was written by his predecessor and thus he had very little to do).
Format: 2 episodes, each about 25 minutes long (individually named The Powerful Enemy and Desperate Measures).
Originally Aired: January 1965 (Episodes 10-11 of Season 2)
The Rescue is the first classic serial that I have finished watching the entirety off of Britbox. Since I last wrote about The Dalek Invasion of Earth (which precedes The Rescue), you might think I am now going through the show chronologically, but I’m not. Indeed, I’m in the middle of watching Revenge of the Cybermen with my two youngest daughters and Tomb of the Cybermen on my own. On this occasion, though, I had a spare hour with just my middle daughter, so I suggested watching a two-parter. I let her pick from the available options–something with the First, Fourth or Fifth Doctors (there are Sixth Doctor two-parters, but they are longer episodes). She chose the First, and so here we are!
The Rescue is an easy story to overlook. It’s only two episodes long, it doesn’t feature any familiar villains, it’s not loaded with beautiful historical design, and it seems to only exist as an excuse to introduce Vicki, the show’s new companion (a suspiciously similar replacement for Susan, who had just left).
And there is truth in all of that, but in dismissing The Rescue one also misses out on its strengths, and it certainly does have them. First and foremost is the primary role that the Doctor actually takes in the story. For people unfamiliar with the First Doctor’s era, this might sound strange but the truth is that often in the early days of the program, the Doctor himself was in the front and centre of his own show. For a variety of reasons, including William Hartnell’s inconsistent health, the Doctor was often more of a mysterious figure in the background, while co-stars Ian and Barbara were at the heart of the action. Or at the very least, the three frequently shared the lead of the program.
Now as a result, I came to love Ian and Barbara, but here in The Rescue, things are different. This is the Doctor’s show–Ian and Barbara are important characters, but their role is clearly supporting ones. The Doctor is the one who solves the mystery, literally leaving the others behind so he can go and confront the story’s villain, only explaining what is going on after it is all over.
And then later it’s the Doctor who forges the bond with newcomer Vicki, after Barbara in particular has alienated the young orphan. While the audience has always seen the Doctor as a bit unpredictable and even dangerous, for Vicki he’s the reasonable one, the trustworthy one. It’s an important shift in the show’s dynamic which helps to set the stage for the two school-teacher’s eventual departure later in the same season, establishing the idea that neither the Doctor nor the series are actually dependent on them.
The story itself is a bit slight, due to it’s shorter-than-normal length, but it’s still a reasonable one. Because of the limited production budget, it’s impossible to know that the Koquillion is actually meant to be a guy in a costume, and not a terrifying alien creature. The man beneath the mask, Bennett, is unremarkable by Who standards but actually makes for a plausible and quite menacing villain. He’s no Dalek, obviously, but he’s got compelling motivations and is a legitimate threat to the travelers. And the reveal that he is Koquillion works quite well.
The story also has good design and decent production values, doing a reasonably solid job establishing its locale. The only real disappointment in this department is the actual inhabitants of Dido, who turn out to be just dull-looking humanoids, rather than anything more interestingly alien. It almost feels like the show ran out of time or money to develop them properly, and someone just ran out and grabbed a couple of guys and dressed them in some spare costumes. Almost anything would have been more interesting. But other than that, the story is pretty solid, even if it’s over quickly.
A final note is that The Rescue contains quite a lot of world-building and continuity. There are references to both Susan and David Campbell, of course. But there’s also the idea that the Doctor has been to Dido before, which is the first time that the Doctor has ever claimed that about a story’s location aside from earth.
And apparently, this story features the first time that the TARDIS landing is heard to be audible from outside the ship. That’s common today, but at the time was new–before this, the TARDIS seemed to land silently. This is not only an iconic part of the series, but it’s actually been important in numerous stories since then, including into the modern era (off the top of my head, I’m thinking A Christmas Invasion and The Day of the Doctor). It’s interestingly that it apparently all got its start here.