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Doctor Who: The Rescue (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Rescue originally aired in 1965.

Oh, but Doctor, the trembling’s stopped.

Oh, my dear, I’m so glad you’re feeling better.

No, not me, the ship.

– Barbara and the Doctor

The Rescue is a surprisingly sturdy two-parter, following directly on from The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Despite the fact it’s noticeably brief, the adventure is fairly important in the grand scheme of Doctor Who, representing the first time that the show has a recruited a new companion since our bunch of time-travelers departed Earth. However, it’s also a well-told little story, and one which emphasises the relatively subtle shift in the Doctor’s character and role in the story.

While An Unearthly Child and The Daleks presented the character as a cantankerous and untrustworthy trickster, the show has gradually pushed the character into the role of the hero, culminating in the Doctor’s successful attempt to save the whole planet Earth in The Dalek Invasion of EarthThe Rescue continues this trend, presenting the Doctor as a genuinely sympathetic and compassionate old man, pretty far from the grump we first met.

The version of the Doctor we see in The Rescue feels a lot more like the character we’d come to love over the rest of the show’s fifty-year history.

Here' there be monsters...

Here’ there be monsters…

I do like that Susan’s departure at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth isn’t glossed over. The Rescue doesn’t quite linger on it. There are only a few lines in which characters discuss her fate, and the Doctor only slips up and calls Barbara “Susan” once early on, but the episode acknowledges that her departure means something. It’s a lot more acknowledgement than the show would give some of the companions who followed, where it seemed they were barely out the door before the Doctor had picked up a suitable replacement.

There is a sense that is is a tightly-knit family which has just lost a member, which is a far cry from the “four people stuffed in a TARDIS” dynamic back when the show began. Both Ian and Barbara are very understanding of the Doctor’s state. “Look, Ian,” Barbara explains, “all the old associations are still in the ship. You can’t expect him to say goodbye to Susan and then forget about her the next minute.” Indeed, the Doctor never explicitly mentions Susan outside a slip of the tongue when referring to Barbara, but her absence hangs over his actions here.

Call a Doctor...

Call a Doctor…

Initially, he seems rather bored and almost depressed. He sleeps through the TARDIS landing, and secures himself alone time inside the ship while Ian and Barbara explore. However, he displays a somewhat surprising amount of warmth towards the poor trapped Vicki on the planet surface. His willingness to recruit her to the crew (especially considering how wary he had been of Ian and Barbara) suggests that he wants to fill an emotional void left by the departure of his granddaughter.

The interactions between the Doctor and Vicki are strangely touching, with the Doctor seeming quite sympathetic to the young woman’s situation. It’s quite difficult to believe that this is the same selfish and manipulative schemer from An Unearthly Child. William Hartnell’s compassion with Vicki seems to foreshadow the more mellow and sympathetic moments from various future incarnations of the Doctor, most notably Patrick Troughton’s heartfelt conversation with Victoria in The Tomb of the Cybermen.

A hole lot of trouble...

A hole lot of trouble…

“Well, you haven’t got the sort of face that kills things,” Vicki observes at one point in The Rescue, a statement which seems much more ironic after seeming the Doctor brandishing a rock as a bludgeon in An Unearthly Child. It’s a mark of how far he has come as a character, which would be something the second season would touch upon quite a bit – especially in The Chase, where this new and gentler Doctor would confront a Dalek doppelgänger who behaved more like his old self.

Perhaps the departure of Susan made him more sympathetic to the plight of others. Of course, the Doctor has already become a hero in a broader sense. In episodes like The Sensorites and The Dalek Invasion of Earth, the Doctor has fought for what he deems to be right, a far cry from his early status as more of an anti-hero. However, The Rescue is something more intimate. Although the Doctor does confront attempted genocide, he’s not really drawn into a story about an entire civilisation under threat.

Altar-ed states...

Altar-ed states…

Instead, he’s just empathising with one person. This is quite important for the character, because Susan was really the Doctor’s anchor in the first year of the show. You got the sense that Ian and Barbara could get eaten by random space monsters, but the Doctor wouldn’t be too bothered as long as Susan survived. It served to humanise him to an extent, to demonstrate that he really wasn’t a manipulative sociopath.

With Susan gone, that leaves a bit of a void. To be fair, the show has already warmed over the dynamic between the Doctor and Ian and Barbara, to the point where the duo can affectionately joke about their first adventure with him. However, The Rescue realises that the Doctor needs something a bit stronger than that, and it introduces Vicki. Vicki isn’t really defined too well as a companion, save that she is a young girl. She fits the same role in the TARDIS dynamic as Susan did, so her arrival doesn’t shake up the cast too much.

Looking closer...

Looking closer…

However, The Rescue also suggests that the Doctor is especially protective of her. He shows her the same gentle side he showed to Susan in the first year of the show, but it feels different here because she’s not a blood relative. The Doctor’s compassionate behaviour towards Susan demonstrates that his companions don’t need to be related to him in order to make him protective or considerate or compassionate. It suggests that the Doctor’s compassion those in terrible situations extends beyond immediate family.

“Now, I’ve listened to all you’ve said and I’ve thoroughly understood,” he gently assures Vicki. “We’re here to help you. This is all we’re going to try to do. You know, we’re not going to ruin things for you.” It’s a very sweet and considered sentiment, and you can see how the Doctor’s personality is shifting. William Hartnell’s Doctor is becoming less of a cantankerous old man and more of an affectionate grandfather figure – only his affection isn’t just reserved for his blood relatives.

A nice bedside manner...

A nice bedside manner…

The Doctor might have already been established as a hero, but The Rescue cements the idea that he’s also a fundamentally decent and sympathetic person. Even the fact that he might not really know what he’s doing – something which made him morally ambiguous and reckless in The Daleks – becomes an endearing character quirk here. When he returns to an old word, he admits it was more by luck than through skill. “Fancy landing back here again. I wonder if I were to tell Ian that it was deliberate, whether he’d believe me or not?”

When Ian offers a logical deduction the Doctor should probably have figured out first, the Doctor rather politely acknowledges it, with a grin on his face. “Very good, yes. Very intelligent reasoning. So good I might have said the same thing myself.” The Doctor isn’t quite a dashing know-it-all hero, but the show is changing his tone a bit. Whereas the limits of his knowledge would provoke temper tantrums and reckless behaviour before, here he’s a bit more modest and a bit more playful.

Gripping...

Gripping…

Indeed, The Rescue is the first time the show is tasked with recruiting a new companion. So it marks a bit of a shift in how TARDIS travel is portrayed. Ian and Barbara were trapped in the TARDIS by their own curiosity. They adventure while (at least nominally) attempting to get home. However, Vicki isn’t tricked into getting into the TARDIS. She doesn’t sneak in failing to realise what is going on. Instead, she is actively recruited by the Doctor.

The Doctor sells travelling in the TARDIS as a wonder. For a man who initially didn’t want anyone but his granddaughter on baord, he really makes a compelling case. “And if you like adventure, my dear, I can promise you an abundance of it. Apart from all that, well you’ll be amongst friends.” It’s a pretty massive reversal from An Unearthly Child. And Vicki begins a tradition or new recruits, as she immediately notes the size of the inside of the TARDIS. “It’s huge.”

Talk about a cliffhanger!

Talk about a cliffhanger!

The Rescue is also the first time that we get a glimpse of the Doctor’s stoic moral outrage. Confronted by Bennett’s attempted genocide of the planet’s population, the Doctor is clearly horrified and disgusted. It’s a lovely moment from Hartnell, who underplays the Doctor’s contempt. “You destroyed a whole planet to save your own skin. You’re insane.” It’s all the more striking because Bennett isn’t an evil space alien or a monstrous grotesque creature. He’s just a regular guy with a bomb and a silly suit.

The Rescue is actually very well written by David Whittaker. It’s a wonderfully tight little adventure. One would only need to make a few adjustments here and there (and up the budget quite a bit) to make it work on television today. Whittaker also seems to grasp how two-parters on the show work, realising that it’s very difficult to put a “game changing” cliffhanger in the middle of a two-part episode, due to difficulties structuring. Instead, the cliffhanger here is a matter-of-fact “Ian’s in a bit of danger/no, he’s fine.”

This man, this monster!

This man, this monster!

There’s also the fact that The Rescue is really quite astoundingly clever on its own terms. The episode’s twist – a rather wonderful one – is that the monster is just a guy in a silly outfit. It’s a reveal which works so well because Doctor Who has taught us to expect that the guy in a silly outfit is really a monster, so the twist that he’s just a guy in a silly outfit upsets our expectations rather beautifully. It’s a very clever, very “meta” twist.

I like the way that these early shows played with audience expectations and the realities of the BBC’s budget. The Web Planet is another story which plays with audience expectations – albeit in the opposite direction. And, yes, I am more fond of that particular adventure than most, if only because I tend to like it when the show winks at the camera.

Wel-suited to the role...

Well-suited to the role…

Director Christopher Barry also does an excellent job bringing the show to life. I love that wonderfully atmospheric shot as the Doctor waits for Bennett to arrive in the temple. The camera angle and the soundtrack lend the scene a strangely epic sense of scale, despite the fact that the set-up is actually remarkably modest. Barry also does the best he can with the cheap thrills that pepper the episode, giving a sense that The Rescue is more of a fun light run-around than an epic adventure.

I really like The Rescue, and I don’t think that it gets the attention or the praise that it deserves. It’s a pretty fantastic piece of sixties Doctor Who.

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