Thursday, 1 January 2009

January 2009, Week 1: An Unearthly Child


  1. "Silly, isn't it. I feel frightened. As if we were about to interfere in something that is best left alone..."

    Here we are kicking off the mission, and, well.

    That was rather splendid, wasn't it?

    These first four episodes are really two separate stories. In the first, two ordinary schoolteachers are taken from their own time against their will by the mysterious Doctor. And in the second, they have to escape from a tribe of Cavemen who demand the secret of making fire, or it's the Cave of Skulls for you, matey-boy.

    Some thoughts:

    In the very first episode, at the end, the Tardis obviously takes off. We see the world recede beneath us, and a flare of bright light rises into the sky, then dissolves into something else.

    The first episode of the second story actually sets up a lot of the mythology of the series.

    "That's not his name. Who is he? Doctor Who?" The first time this question has been asked. And it won't be the last.

    Susan introduces the fact that the Tardis should have changed shape. But hasn't. It must be broken.

    The Doctor can pilot the Ship - but only if he knows exactly when and where in Time and Space they are to start with. Which he doesn't because they took off from Earth in 1963 in a bit of a hurry.

    This Adventure Would Never Have Happened If:
    The Doctor hadn't gone off for a crafty smoke of his pipe.

  2. I must confess that until now I had only seen Episode one of this 4-parter, and it was a very long time ago.
    The first thing that strikes me about the story is just how brilliant an introduction to Doctor Who this is.
    Episode one is mysterious and exciting and feels very alien.
    From Episode 2 we are plunged into the template of what Doctor Who will go onto be, as the Doctor and his companions travel in time on their adventures.

    I admit. I am really surprised at how much I enjoyed this story. All four episodes in fact.
    There's no denying that Episode One is the pick of the bunch, but then, it's probably one of the best ever introductions to a new series ever.
    But the other episodes are also tremendous fun, and it's easy to ignore 46 years of advancement in production and just enjoy it for what it is.

    I thought the acting by the principle cast was excellent. The human companions are real products of their time, and both actors really are convincing.
    Susan is probably the weak link for me, but the actresses' naivety and slight awkwardness in her performance does add to the character's alien quality.
    Then there is the Doctor himself. Here, i was really surprised. William Hartnell is almost a bystander at times, watching everything unfold from a safe distance and showing a mixture of contempt and arrogance at everyone.
    At times you genuinely don't quite know what he will do or say, and he looks very devious.
    I can see some major reevaluation of favorite Doctors on the horizon!

    The prehistoric story is a reasonably slim one, but I liked all the tribe dynamics and the actors did a great job with making the dialogue seem authentic.


    What's good:

    The Doctor and his companions
    The mystery and sense of wonder.
    The style of the shooting, aided by the glow of Black & White.
    The design - The Tardis interior looks wonderful.

    What's bad:

    Being thrashed with twigs as the team run back to the Tardis.
    Susan's mental run, and fall face down into the sand, upon finding the Doctor has disappeared.
    Four people hiding in a small cave as an entire tribe gather inside. And the tribe don't notice them! - A tradition that will be carried forward for forty years...
    The rather frustrating onscreen delay in Episode 2, as The Doctor ponces about, before finally opens the Tardis doors.

    What's geek:

    I grinned like a child at the huge grinding thud as the Tardis engine kicked in, and remembered that the current production team do this as well. The Tardis flight of the seventies onwards was always a calm non-adventurous experience with the column rising and falling rather serenely. Then, as in today, A journey in the Tardis should be a big rollocking adventure.

    What? What? WHAT?

    The Doctor picking up that rock. Would he have done it?

  3. Yep. I think he would.

    Dear old Susan does fall into a blind funk of panic quite often, doesn't she?

  4. Episode 1 is a masterpiece even coming to it with the knowledge of 45 years of Who, it is brilliant the way the mystery
    draws you in. I Can only imagine how the 63 audience felt. The 3 pre-history episodes I can take or leave to be honest. Enjoyable, well
    acted, but not great for me. Some marvellous moments notably the Doctor
    with the stone. I still don't know if i believe his reason of drawing a
    map. All the main cast are superb and its interesting how ian is the
    moral centre and the girls the heart with the ctor being very self
    centred. Hartnell is great at conveying that he just wants to protect
    susan. I like the comparison between the tribe and the travelers both
    learning that community makes you stronger than 1 single voice. If i
    may i will give Unearthly Child 10, and 100000BC 6

  5. An Unearthly Child is a stunning chunk of drama. In the days before home video, when all I had was the Target novel and vague memories of the '82 repeat, I used to read and reread the first half of Uncle Terrance's book. I'm a big fan of the original crew and these are some of my favourite moments from their era, especially for Susan as after episode one she will become a shivering wreck unable to put one foot in front of the next.

    Needless to say I've watched the first episode (and the pilot) many times so no surprises with this viewing. The rest of the story though, I really don't know when I last watched it all, possibly whenever it came out on video. The biggest surprise watching it again is how much I enjoyed it. It can't sustain the mystery and oddness of An Unearthly Child but the caveman plot is really only a device to throw at these four (well, three) fantastic characters to see how they react - both to their surroundings and each other. That's where the later three episodes excel.

    That said there are some lovely touches, the language of the tribe is sometimes mocked but I love lines like 'I remember how the fire and the meat joined together', the jungle set is pretty effective and the background sound, the noises of this otherworldy place, are outstandingly alien and weird.

    If I was going to bang on I'd also point to the interesting fact that there's no indication that this primitive tribe is in Earth's past; obviously the music and opening titles are like nothing the world has ever seen; the mystery of the Doctors intentions towards poor old mauled up Zaa and that for the first episode of a science fiction/kids show isn't odd that An Unearthly Child is just twenty three minutes of adults standing about and arguing!

    Roll on The Dead Planet...

  6. Lovely review Rob.
    I felt exactly the same, as it seems we have both avoided those 3 episodes over the years. but they were a delight.
    As John says. When you remember that this was made in 1963, it really is an amazing achievement, but also incredibly brave in it's execution.

    I'm a fan of Jules Verne, who often used the devious and old scientist character at the heart of his stories. This definitely has echos of that.

  7. While we're on the very first episode...

    TARDIS roof! TARDIS roof!

    And then it disappears and isn't seen again till the TV movie.

    Damn, I'm geeky.

  8. (All righty, technickly it's a ceiling cos you're inside. Stop kvetching.)

  9. I LOVE that old Tardis.
    In the seventies and eighties it felt like a small studio set.
    Here it is this great big white mysterious time machine and yes, Lord Beckley. the roof, the roof! I loves that roof

  10. The first episode is as good as everybody always says it is. There was nothing like on TV back in 1963 when it first aired. And really, there's been nothing like it on TV since.

    The alien-sounding music and the strangely mesmerising visual effects, like a series of Rorschach blots moving and flowing, give way to policeman on a foggy night. The show starts off looking like a crime drama - except that this strange music is still carrying on underneath the scene, and the police box in the junkyard is revealed as though it were a mysterious and incomprehensibly powerful object. Then at the school, the story seems to become a social realist tale of a troubled teen with a hidden and worrying domestic life, being investigated by two teachers who are clearly very close friends, at the very least. Is this grandfather of hers abusing her? He certainly does nothing to dispel suspicion when he finally turns up at the junkyard, and Mr Chesterton?s suspicion that Susan is locked up inside the police box seems all too credible. Then Chesterton forces his way into the box, with Miss Wright on his heels...

    ...and we get one of the most astonishing scene transitions in televisual history. The dark grey world becomes dazzling bright, and the two teachers are suddenly, terrifyingly out of place. Chesterton blusters, but it's the image of Wright, in her long coat, sensible shoes and sizeable handbag standing incongruous in a world of gleaming white futurism that epitomises the baffling juxtapositions that are at the heart of this

    The grandfather is no less sinister now that the teachers are undeniably in his power. His every word is tinged with menace, and Susan's pleading with him only serves to make the teachers even more afraid. He abducts the intruders, moving his "Ship" off twentieth-century Earth in a sonic and visual assault that seem to burst in on the television drama, tearing the scenes apart and letting an alien universe flood in.

    The final shot is the most incongruous of all: a police box, an ordinary London police telephone box, perched awkwardly on a rock in the midst of a bleak howling wilderness. The image is astonishing, and genuinely surreal. Then a sinister shadow appears...

    In the next episode the apparent genre changes again. We'll spend much of the next three episodes in a cave full of primitive tribespeople. The iconography - skins, flint knives, stone axes - and the obsession with making fire linked to a deadly threat of cold, all suggest that these are prehistoric humans in the last ice age, but our four travellers never speculate about exactly who these people are. To be fair, they have more urgent

    The focus is on the tribe's politics. The tribe is humanity in microcosm, reduced to its most basic form, and the drama presents questions of political power and authority stripped right down to their essentials. It's remarkably effective. The dialogue has a small vocabulary, but it is dense and tightly written, and the cast go at it as if they were performing Julius Caesar. What really makes it all work, though, is the direction. The camera is fluid, moving in and out of the crowd during the rival leaders' debates, often jostling to get a good view past the extras that are in the way. It's as if we are a part of this tribe, just as urgently concerned as the rest of them with questions of survival and leadership.

    Our first encounter with Za not only sets up the plot, it gives us a key insight into why the tribe is in such a sorry state. Za is trying very hard to create fire, but he lacks the mental models that would allow him to understand why his current approach isn't working. He puts ashes, "dead fire", onto the kindling not because he is stupid, but because he is trying to model the concept of "fire" in his mind starting from a basis of no knowledge and understandably getting it quite wrong. Similarly, when Kal carries in the unconscious Dr. Who (and the moment when his checked trousers appear in shot in this primitive cave environment is yet another of the jarring juxtapositions that run through this story), he thinks the old man must have fire inside of him. It's not such a stupid idea - he's seen him apparently shoot fire from his fingers, and breathe smoke. The Doctor is lucky they don't just chop him in half there and then.

    Meanwhile the other travellers are faring little better. One of the impressive things about this story is they way it takes time to explore the psychological impact of events on the main characters. Faced with the suggestion of unlimited travel in time and space, Ian is sceptical. When shown the reality, he moves from scepticism to denial, only slowly accepting the truth of it. Barbara is more open-minded and intellectually flexible, helping Ian with his own psychological struggle. It's only later that she begins to crack, when faced with physical danger and the prospect of a brutal death in a primitive age. Then it's Ian who copes better, and who helps Barbara to overcome her trauma. Ian's a smart enough chap, but he's clearly happier doing than contemplating. Susan is unfazed by time travel, as we might expect, but completely goes to pieces when her grandfather goes missing. This is more than just fear for her relative's safety: without her grandfather, she would be effectively alone in the Universe.

    There's a political struggle going on among the travellers, mirroring the tussle between Za and Kal. Ian Chesterton and Dr. Who both clearly feel they should be in charge. This is a debate about the future of the show itself. Is it about present-day people getting into adventures thanks to the mysterious Dr. Who? Or is it about the Doctor, travelling through time and space with his human companions? William Russell may be every inch the conventional leading man, but it's Hartnell's show from the minute he walks on screen. Chesterton's rueful acknowledgement of the Doctor's leadership while making fire for Za is the first indicator of how the show will develop from here on.

    Ground-breaking it may be, but it's still a Sixties adventure serial, and it can't help but show it from time to time. The limitations of time, money and studio space are evident on occasion - though much less often than they might be, thanks to some excellent set design by Barry Newbery. More jarring to modern viewers is the transition from video tape to film in the big fight scene between Za and Kal. In itself, it looks splendid - so much so that one wishes the entire serial had been done on film. And to be fair, director Waris Hussein handles the shift back to video very nicely. But there's still a sense that the fight takes place in a different world to the rest of the drama, and for a story which has so effectively built up a tight, claustrophobic world that's a real pity.

    Where the show really shows its age is in the roles of the female characters. It's not as bad as it might be. The women are real characters, well performed, with important contributions to the plot. The suggestion that Za might fancy Barbara is a brief character point, not the driver of the story. Hur in particular is the most complex character in the story, and Alethea Charlton's performance does a lot to hold the show together. So perhaps it's a little harsh to complain that the women are nonetheless relegated to secondary roles, or to wince at Ian's "Surely you're not going to let the women do it" when he bullies Dr. Who into helping to carry the stretcher. These are just reminders that we are time travellers too, in a way: when we watch these old shows, we are tourists in a time with different values, sensibilities and norms.

    The story ends when the travellers, having given the tribespeople the gift of fire and a few new political ideas, escape from imprisonment and are pursued by the ungrateful cave dwellers back to the Ship. They dash inside with the tribe hot on their heels, Dr. Who activates the controls...

    ...and with the same harsh, tearing sound as we heard in the first episode, the Ship fades away and vanishes! A stone spear flies futilely through the space that the Ship used to occupy, and the tribe stare, wide-eyed and gaping. They've never seen anything like this before - and neither have we.

    It seems Dr. Who can't control his Ship, whether through breakdown, insufficient data, or sheer inability. Whatever the reason, and despite Barbara's desperate pleading to be taken home, the Ship lands in a strange, unnatural forest. And, unnoticed by the travellers, the radiation counter is reaching maximum. We end with the ominous caption "Next Episode: THE DEAD PLANET". Our travellers may have escaped the tribe - but have they landed in even greater danger?

  11. May I just agree with the comments on the performances of the tribe. Alethea Charlton is a standout, particularly good after the attack on Zar with the whole jealousy thing. I also think praise should go to Derek Newark and Eileen Way, who also do a marvelous job of conveying the struggle going on in the primitive minds and to fathom these strange people who have turned up. They really lift the whole story and give the caveman dialogue a kind of weird eloquence.

  12. Charlton, Newark and Way are all dead now. Alethea Charlton was only 43 when she died. What was that Tom Baker said about being entertained by dead people? We're doing a hell of a lot of that on this mission.

  13. I remember very clearly watching the very first episode. And as it was all done live, imagine how brilliant it was; it's very easy to criticise now when each scene can be shot time and again. I also remember that it was repaeated the following week. What I did not recall (but I was only very young) is JFK's assasination on the same day; or even hearing about it the next day.