Hartnell's unusually hammy and OTT here (I know his detractors would claim he always is, but it's not an opinion I share), almost as if he's getting a little tired of the whole thing. But although Ian Stuart Black would improve on his satirical penmanship with The Macra Terror, this is still pretty interesting stuff, playing neat twists with generic SF values to create a masked social commentary.
With a working title of The White Savages and Frederick Jaeger in black face, some might question the political motivation behind this one. Yet it could very easily be argued that it opts for Who's traditional reversal of types - the black leader as the perpetuator of enslavement - as an inverse aesthetic take on social commentary. Certainly, despite detractors of his private views, Billy plays the Doctor as a capital L liberal here, offering us "Exploitation indeed! This sir, is protracted murder!" in the following instalment.
It's a story of two directions. On the one hand it's trying to do something different with the programme and take it into previously unexplored directions. On the other it could be viewed as a stock Who story, and the principle plotlines are ones we've seen many times before in only three years of the programme being on air. I can understand it being overlooked, but some polls have seen it fall into the bottom thirty stories… that does surprise me.
There's a nice build in menace with this one, where we find that the populace knew about the Doctor and his travels right from the first episode. Here we learn more of their covert experiments, and also see a more scheming side to the first Doctor, as he pretends to be pals with the Elders, all the time keeping his suspicions secret. Hartnell also gets to show some moral righteousness, which is to be treasured.
Episode four has the most existing material in the archives, but even then that's only 41 seconds at date of writing. (The third has just three seconds of footage, and nothing from the first two episodes exists). Although Black is skilfully adept at this kind of sci-fi satire, as the superior Macra Terror would later attest, he also wrote the next four weeks of adventure and proved to be even more skilled with a straightforward Doctor Who vehicle. One of his weaknesses as a writer seems to be maintaining a narrative. This has two strong opening episodes and two slightly flat closing ones.
We're led to believe that the intelligent scientist Jago is only aware of conscience when he receives a level of intellect akin to the Doctor's, and the resolution is an underwhelming "smash things up" conclusion. It's all okay, but oddly unsatisfying - you're left with the opinion that in a parallel universe they made another version of The Savages, but one that fully exploited its potential…
The Savages is good, if not exceptional. However, I have a feeling that if ever it was to be found then it would the subject of much reappraisal.
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