Doctor Who episode 34: A Race Against Death (18/7/1964)

Watching episode by episode from the start, it’s fascinating to watch the Doctor go from a slightly sinister antagonist for Ian and Barbara to the heroic central character in his own series. Aside from a slight, and perfectly reasonable grumpiness towards the flip-flopping First Elder, there’s not a hint of the selfish, suspicious anti-hero of An Unearthly Child. Instead, the Doctor’s pledging to find an antidote to the poison, cure everyone, and to top it off, go down into the caves under the Sensorite city to confront the problem at its source. 30 episodes earlier, he’d be plotting to steal back the TARDIS lock and leg it. Now, when he’s warned that ‘there are monsters!’ in the aqueduct, he’s positively excited by the idea.

Hartnell clearly relishes this elderly action hero role. He’s fine pottering about the Sensorite laboratory, and looks very comfortable chatting to rubber-faced aliens. But watch his utter excitement as he works out what’s probably behind the poisonings: ‘Noise and darkness. The two things the Sensorites dislike. There’s more in this than meets the eye!’ before he waves his torch and heads into darkness. We’ve seen the Doctor delight in his own cleverness before – when he works out whodunit in Millennius, for example – but never before has he seemed so in love with danger and monsters and life or death. It’s magnificent.

I think the Doctor Hartnell performs in A Race Against Death is basically it: the template for the character for the rest of the show. Hartnell utterly owns this episode: Jacqueline Hill is on holiday, William Russell spends almost the whole run time unconscious, and Carole Ann Ford gets about 26 lines, most of which are plot-clarifying questions. Despite Newman and Pinfield’s best efforts, does any of the audience really care about Ian and Barbara’s mission to return to 1963 any more? That’s literally so last year. This is the Doctor’s show now, as the cliffhanger – a close up on his face as something roars in the darkness – demonstrates.

Everything else in the episode is secondary to the Doctor’s brilliant deductive leaps. The Sensorite City Administrator realises he can steal the Second Elder’s sash of office and impersonate him, which is usually pointed out as a racist plot hole (the aliens all look the same to each other), but which Newman’s script actually goes to great pains to clarify:

Administrator: You must remember that the First and Second Elders are well known only to those in powerful positions. The people see them rarely, and mostly at a distance.

After last week’s plodding instalment, this is much more like it. Barbara is stranded in space. Ian is dying. The City Administrator ‘sees victory for all my plans’, and the Doctor is alone, in the dark, with the monsters. 34 episodes in and pretty much all the pieces are falling into place.


Next episode: Kidnap

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