Saturday, 3 June 2017

Walking Through Eternity: 1.1 An Unearthly Child

Hello all,
I know it's been a long time since posting, and I am hoping to write a post about what I've been up to shortly in the future, but in the meantime, I'd like to introduce a brand new series of posts for you all!
   As many people know, my favorite TV series of all time is the beloved, long-running science fiction series Doctor Who. Through over 50 years, it has been a wonderful slice of television joy and I count myself proudly as one of the people who has a wide knowledge of both the classic and the new series. Naturally, as we've been together for over three years now, I thought it time I introduce my partner, Finn, to the great joys of the series. But where to begin? With the new stuff? The fourth Doctor? The seventh Doctor? The Third? And then, I realised that the best place to start was at the very beginning! While I have done most of the stories, I have never done them in order, from the start. It was something I was saving for my bucket list, but why not knock it out now? So, for the foreseeable future, my partner and I will be slowly working through the great Doctor Who journey, while I post my thoughts on the stories up shortly after. I am also endeavoring to include some special coverage of some of the wide variety of Doctor Who spin-off media available, such as novels, comics and audio adventures. I look forward to seeing you on this journey, as I present the TARDIS key to you and invite you to take it!

1.1 An Unearthly Child

4 episodes. Broadcast 23rd November - 14th December 1963. Written by Anthony Coburn. Directed by Warris Hussein.

Synopsis: A pair of schoolteachers, Ian and Barbara, are fascinated by their student, Susan's, odd behaviour. Unable to explain why, other than pure curiosity, they decide to visit her home. But the address she provided is an old junkyard. How could this possibly be where she lives? And could it have something to do with that angry old man guarding that oddly alive police box? After the Doctor kidnaps them and transports the TARDIS to the days of cavemen, he, Ian, Barbara and Susan must make fire or face a brutal death.

Isn't it iconic?
It's hard to imagine what it would've been like sitting down to this series 54 years ago, especially not after all that has happened since. But let's paint a picture for a moment. First, some context. The day Doctor Who was first broadcast would live down in history. It was the day JFK was shot and killed. The world was suddenly a very different, scarier place. The news told the story, the world was in shock. And then, a mere half-an-hour later, the opening bars of the Doctor Who theme began. The scariest, most alien sound anyone had ever heard. The world was changing, the tune seemed to say, why not find some comfort in this strange, wonderful little show?
   To the viewers back in the 60s, this represented a new beginning, something vastly different than they'd ever seen before. Ironically, the feeling is much the same to a modern day viewer. This isn't the Doctor Who we know either. There is no fun, likable central character. The first Doctor, as played by William Hartnell, is irascible, frustrating and oh, so very, very alien. Some might go so far as to call him unlikable, but that's exactly the point. This is a man who kidnaps his granddaughter's school teachers because they stumble upon his weird bigger-on-the-inside spaceship. A man who smokes a pipe. A man who almost kills one of the cavemen with a rock. The first Doctor is both young and old, grumpy yet with a twinkle in his eye. What early Doctor Who presents, particularly in its first season, is the story of an alien traveller who, through contact with the kindness of humanity, learns to be a little less horrible. It's only at the conclusion of that character arc that we begin to see a Doctor we recognise, but it's only early days yet.
   What's even stranger than the Doctor's behavior is that he's actually not the protagonist of the series. That role is undertaken by Ian and Barbara, the aforementioned kidnapped schoolteachers. They are the protagonists of the series, through whose eyes and experiences allow us to see this strange new world. They keep the Doctor and the stories grounded, ensuring that their very human, relatable reactions ensure something scary is still enjoyable.
   The story's adventure with the cavemen is not as fondly recalled as it's iconic opening episode, but it's here that we get to see the series' great strengths and weaknesses. Weaknesses out of the way first; the cave politics are even more dull than they sound there, and the long scenes of the group just talking to one another are very odd. One could say that this is just a factor of the story not aging well, but as we shall see the rest of Doctor Who's first year doesn't really fall prey to this, so it must just be an odd writing choice. There are also moments when it looks a bit ridiculous, particularly when the TARDIS team run through a jungle that is clearly a back production with an extra waving some sticks in the actors' faces. That hasn't aged well.
   But the strengths! This is Doctor Who at its most nasty with a real sense of threat that being in such a dangerous situation provides for both the characters and the audience. It's seen in the constant mention of death or the prison cell where the gang is held up, filled with skulls and bones. This is an incredibly hostile, unpleasant environment. It's also a situation that plays up Ian and Barbara's kindness, allowing the Doctor to change as well. A key scene features the two stopping to help a man that had been chasing them, but who was wounded by a creature. The Doctor wants to leave the man, going so far as to grab a rock and almost drop it on the man's head, but Ian catches him, and scolds him. They have to help him, it's the right thing to do, the human thing. It's the beginning of change for the character, and it will happen a lot throughout this first year.
   Another key strength of this story is the dynamic between the characters. After only four episodes, we have a family established, with each character fulfilling a specific role. The Doctor, the alien presence who pushes the characters into unfriendly and unfamiliar circumstances; Ian, the action man and skeptic; Barbara (my dear beloved Barbara), the heart of the group, believing in the impossible; and Susan, the annoying, childlike audience stand-in.
   Ah, Susan. She's a character I really struggle with. In her first appearance, she's a mysterious, alien presence, very much the Doctor's granddaughter. When Barbara gives her a book on the French Revolution, she memorably flips through the pages, stating "that's not right!" It's such an unforgettably odd entrance, setting up great things for her character. But after such a mysterious entrance, she becomes the go-between for her grandfather and Ian and Barbara, settling disputes, but never actively being a very engaging character. It doesn't help that she has an annoying tendency to scream, cry and whine at the smallest things, but the big problem is she's just not very interesting. But that's a problem for another story.
   So, what to make of all this? I keep returning to that first ever episode and the way it's instantly iconic and atmospheric. A policeman walks through a junkyard, past an old police box. It buzzes, as if it's alive. But it couldn't possibly be. Could it? How wonderfully alien.
   Or later in the episode, when Ian and Barbara meet the Doctor in the junkyard, worried for Susan's wellbeing. They think he's trapped her in the box, so they push past him and open the doors into a massive, open, white space. Even when you know it's coming, as any person who watches this, even if they've never seen Doctor Who must, it's still awe-inspiring and unforgettable. As the ship departs and arrives on an alien planet, still in the form of a police box, one has to wonder did the creators of this little show know how iconic they were going to be? How this series would last for 54 years and is still going strong? How despite constant changes it still manages to be the same basic show? It seems impossible, but as anyone who loves Doctor Who knows, as soon as you hear those opening bars of the theme tune, you know that anything is possible.
"If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?"

— The First Doctor

Grade: B

Next up: The Doctor meets his most dastardly foes in The Daleks!

Regards,
David Gumball-Watson

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