…with some brief thoughts on "An Unearthly Child," the first-ever episode of DOCTOR WHO.
As I've mentioned previously, my exposure to pre-2005 DOCTOR WHO has been scattershot and selective at best. With "An Unearthly Child," I've backtracked all the way to the beginning of the show and am now working my way forward and in sequence. On a weekly basis, every Friday Docback will have at least a passing reference to whatever "older" episodes I've watched since the previous Friday - this will include audio adventures of the "lost" episodes, and whatnot - although other subjects will, of course, be presented along the way as well.
"AN UNEARTHLY CHILD"
A small part of me…a tiny part of me, really…wishes I hadn't seen any DOCTOR WHO before "An Unearthly Child," as it's hard not to weigh this episode against elements I already know will come later. On the other hand, watching AUC unfold was quite fascinating, and I was quickly impressed by exactly how many DW "conceits" were put into place so early in the life of the show (the use of what we'd come to know as "The Vortex" in the opening title sequence as well as in the story's time/space transition, for example, one character's assertion that The Doctor's Police Box is "alive," and the introduction of requisite "Doctor Who?" jokes).
This story starred William Hartnell as The Doctor - bringing us the first and possibly most abrasive of the eleven interpretations of the role thus far. Hartnell's Doctor is impatient, irascible, condescending, and is both showing and feeling his age. He's angrier than many of his later incarnations - less taken by the wonder of the universe and the exhilarating potential of the worlds and people within it. He seems tired and somewhat beaten down here - a fascinatingly weary interpretation of a role that, in later iterations, is very much larger-than-life.
AUC finds The Doctor and his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford - this character says she invented the "TARDIS" anagram) inadvertently traveling back to pre-historic times with teachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill). In the past, these unwitting explorers encounter prehistoric mankind, which is embroiled in dense tribal politics surrounding fire, or rather lack thereof. Seems that whoever possesses the ability to "make fire" is essentially the default head of the tribe. Poor Za, who is angling to become leader, is unable to make fire by pumping his fire bone between his hands - an unfortunate sexual innuendo borne out by the sequence's actual execution (check out 2:28)
The Doctor is bagged by Kal, a caveman with an uncanny resemblance to Ringo Starr in a movie called CAVEMAN…
…who sees The Doctor lighting his pipe (no wonder he's not feeling well), and drags our hero back to the caves assuming that his control of someone who can make fire (The Doctor) will default him into tribal leadership ahead of Za. Of course, it's not that easy…
Paradoxically, one element I truly appreciate about "An Unearthly Child" is also a criticism I'd level towards the show. I love the notion that DOCTOR WHO is often about how The Doctor and his shenanigans affect the people around him (this quality got me hooked on "Blink" - the first episode of the post-2005 era I watched), and here it takes quite a while before we actually encounter The Doctor. This is an effective and atypical storytelling device which serves the show very well on the whole and lends it more credibility than it otherwise might have. I.e. it makes complete sense that a character as grand as The Doctor would have significant impact on those he encounters, or those waiting to encounter him, and DW as a whole is to be commended for embracing and visualizing this conceit.
On the other hand, "An Unearthly Child" is very much establishes our hero characters (The Doctor and his companions) as windows into the events around them - they're more like observers than proactive participants here. A little of which can work nicely - but it's never fully counterbalanced. By the story's end, we feel that our heroes were more or less swept up by what was happening to them instead of asserting control over what was happening to them - a malaise which can't remain interesting for long. The original STAR TREK would approach many stories similarly - with Kirk & Co. being swept up in someone else's events - but in that show, our characters invariably did something…for better or worse…to push along what was happening, and advance the story a bit. In AUC, The Doctor and his cohorts are very much watchers and their generally ineffectual approach made it difficult for me to remain consistently engaged with the story.
While "An Unearthly Child" is filled with an ambitious style that was sometimes not as smoothly executed as its makers had clearly intended (camerawork in particular), this story serves as a tantalizing portent of DOCTOR WHO's overall potential and emerges as one of the most earnest, atmospheric pilots launch episodes I can recall seeing. For all the little details that didn't work as well as they should have, you can feel the effort behind the scenes, and sense the complete investment of the actors in this tale. These people clearly believe in what the show they were putting on screen, which is an essential component to our embracing it as well - and a component that is often missing from a number of television and film productions. It's esoteric I admit, and possibly even subliminal. But I strongly contend that audiences can tell when talent is invested - as opposed to when they're simply going through the motions. Here...they're clearly and admirably invested.
As a case in point: there's a moment in the story in which Kal begs The Doctor to make fire - The Doctor refuses. The oddly Shakespearean performances of the prehistoric humans in this tale, compounded with a decision for some actors to subtlety "break the fourth wall" during these episodes (there are points when characters seem to be addressing the camera/the audience rather than each other), would've made the potential for comedic disaster here extremely high. But this moment doesn't play shamefully, and the desperation mentioned above emerges as utterly sincere and even slightly affecting. No small accomplishment in Science Fiction such as this, especially given the budgetary restraints and challenging circumstance the people making this show were regularly facing.
Fire equals power and leadership. If only life was that simple now. Or maybe it is…
UPCOMING DOCTOR WHO BOOK SIGNING IN LONDON
I received a press release about a cool-sounding DOCTOR WHO book signing at Forbidden Planet in London. A few months ago a friend sent me a link to Forbidden Planet's site, and I'd be in big, big trouble if they shipped to The States (which I don't believe they do).
I know a number of Docbackers enjoy the DOCTOR WHO books, so I thought I'd pass this information along.
Per the press release...
NAOMI ALDERMAN, GEORGE MANN, JONATHAN MORRIS
Bringing down the barriers of Space Time - FORBIDDEN PLANET are delighted to be hosting a triple DOCTOR WHO signing with Naomi Alderman, George Mann and Jonathan Morris on Saturday 25th June 1-2pm at the Forbidden Planet Megastore, 179 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H
In Alderman’s Borrowed Time, Time is the business of Mr Symington and Mr Blenkinsop. In Mann’s Paradox Lost, it’s London 2789 – and the remains of an ancient android are dredged from the Thames. In Morris’ Touched by an Angel, Rebecca Whitaker has died in a road accident – and her husband is given the chance to go back and save her.
CHRIS ACHILLEOS, TERRANCE DICKS, CAROL ANN FORD, FRAZER HINES
To celebrate the release of BBC Books’ six classic Doctor Who titles, each featuring Chris Achilleos’ stunning cover art and based on some cult classic early stories. Forbidden Planet are delighted to be hosting a signing with Chris Achilleos, Terrance Dicks, Carol Ann
Ford and Frazer Hines on Saturday 16th July 1- 2pm at the Forbidden Planet Megastore, 179 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H 8JR.
This series of books feature the very best in classic Doctor Who tales, and, as well as fantastic new a series of new introductions by Neil Gaiman, Charlie Higson, Gareth Roberts, Stephen Baxter, Russell T Davies and Terrance Dicks.
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coming next week
"The Daleks" and more