In defence of: Doctor Who and the Savages

Hartnell, the legend. Image:  BBC website.

Editors’ preamble (ramble): During the 1970s, the BBC, under the order of Pamela Nash, followed a policy of wiping and decommission of a lot of their archives (due to various reasons). Amongst the several tapes to meet a nasty end there were several episodes of Dr. Who. There are surviving photographs as John Cura, a reknown photographer, took telesnaps so artists could use them in their portfolio. These photographs are the few visual companions that exist to many a classic show and the BBC kindly hosts them on their website. No copyright infringement is intended. Why not check the BBC’s Classic Doctor Who website after you read this post? Here’s the link.

So many words over the years have been written about Doctor Who. However of all these words, the smallest proportion would probably be attached to this 1966 adventure. There are many stories from the William Hartnell era of Doctor Who that could be described as undervalued gems but for me, this one takes the cake.

Last year, Doctor Who fans were asked to vote by Doctor Who Magazine on the 200 Doctor Who stories that had appeared up to that point. The Savages gained the least votes. Less than 41% of the people who polled bothered to give the story a rating.

Despite it being so unloved, it is an important part of the series in a lot of ways. It is the first story that has an overall title instead of a title for each individual episode and it sees a long standing companion leave. It feels removed from other Hartnell stories, like a change is starting to take place.

Lapel action Hartnell. Image:  BBC Website.

So why is The Savages so undervalued?

Probably because it is in the perennially overlooked one from Season 3, and more importantly, because nothing from it exists in the archive, as the BBC wiped several tapes during the 70s, some of them including Doctor Who. Listening to the surviving audio (recorded by devoted fans who recorded the audio from their tellies – yay for piracy!), it is really hard to understand the indifference towards it and I am here to give it some well deserved love.

The synopsis sounds like a clichéd sci-fi tale: the TARDIS lands on an idyllic world to find that the rulers of this world (called The Elders) are exploiting a group of “savages” by draining their life force so they can maintain their civilised society. I am not going to argue against the overused premise, but the story does so much with the initial ideas (which also include The Elders knowing all about our beloved hero), relying a lot on atmosphere to hook you into a story that is a hard sell due to no visuals existing.

The script by Ian Stuart-Black is brimming with really intelligent dialogue and plotting. It would be very easy to fall into pulp Sci-fi territory but Stuart-Black never allows this to happen. The whole moral sci-fi element of the “monster” not being who you would expect had already been done in the first story of this season (Galaxy 4), however here it is done with much more aplomb.

The director is Christopher Barry, known within the series for his work on The Daleks, Power of the Daleks and Creature from the Pit (one I wish the BBC had introduced to a furnace). From some surviving photographs (called telesnaps), it seems Mr. Barry reused some of his directorial tricks that made The Daleks such a wonderful (and creepy) story. He even reuses a cliffhanger, but the context implied changes. I won’t spoil this for you.

Cool companions Dodo & Steve. Image: BBC Website.

One part of this story that undeniably stands out it’s the music. Although important, music in Doctor Who can be hit and miss. I am a firm believer that stories like The Silurians and The Sea Devils have their reputation ruined slightly by ill judged music that ruins the mood (Yeah, what’s with the medieval flute? – Ed.), but thankfully this doesn’t happen here. This story has some fantastic evocative music scored for a string quartet by Raymond Jones, setting the mood just right.

Best of all are the performances. Jackie Lane as Dodo has a lot of critics but I have to admit I have always had a soft spot for her. At times she can be way off the mark but really puts in a good performance in this story.

Peter Purves is much more consistent in his performances in the series and for me this story is second only to The Massacre (Missing too, sniff – Ed.) for the best of Purves. As much as I love the show, old Doctor Who could at times botch characters leaving scenes but Steven’s really fits, you could imagine him taking on this role as leader of The Savages with relish (even if he’s a bit of a stuffed shirt).

Stuffed shirt & armed? Jack Bauer, methinks. Image: BBC website.

By all accounts William Hartnell was starting to slow down at this stage of his era, though watching his performances in Series 3, I find this hard to believe. Just like the following story (The War Machines – another cracker) he still delivers a powerful performance. Shame so much of Season 3 is missing, as listening to him perform is a marvel, really settled into the role. He is truly my favourite of all The Doctor’s and Series 3 is probably my favourite Series from his time.

Out of the guest cast, Fredrick Jaegar is probably the stand out star as Jano. His is a strong performance, especially his Hartnell impersonation, pitched just right. I also have to mention Claire Jenkins as Nanina. I enjoy her in this story for lots of reasons, not just because of her acting skills. One of the beauties of 1960’s Who.

In some ways, The Savages is the closest that 60’s Doctor Who gets to the new series: no one actually dies (a Steven Moffat staple), slightly off kilter humour (Russell T Davies’ signature) and some clever reinventing of old tropes. I could imagine a shorter version fitting into New Who without looking at all out of place.

“I want it on DVD too, my dear”. Image: BBC website

It upsets me that this wonderful story is undervalued but it could have been so much worse. The working title was the very un-PC “The White Savages”, which I am sure could have made it have an even worse reputation.

Seriously, dust this story off and give it a whirl, you might just find that you are surprised. The story is well written and performances make you more forgiving of any missteps.

Love Hartnell’s facial expressions. Image: BBC Website

Words : Stuart Burcher.

Images: From the BBC Classic Doctor Who website.


Classic Doctor Who (BBC). Photonovel. Classic DW (twitter).

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