Monday, October 17, 2011

Doctor Who Review - Story #1 - "An Unearthly Child"

I know it's been quite a while since I began the "Doctor Who Review" and I realize now that I made a mistake in not starting at the beginning. So I've gone back and that's exactly what I'm going to do.

Airing a mere one day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the first episode of Doctor Who is entitled "An Unearthly Child" a moniker referring to the Doctor's Grand Daughter Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford). The show debuts in a junkyard, the "Foreman" junkyard at that, in an eerie scene with only the smallest hint of what's to come. We see a bobby pass by and we pan to a police box. Next we're whisked off to a London school where Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian Chesterton (William Russell) are discussing the titular lass and how difficult it has been to teach her. Even in this first exchange of dialogue we are treated to the overall arcing themes of the show, as Barbara says:

"She's waiting in one of the classrooms. I'm lending her a book on the French Revolution."

Ian replies "What's she going to do, rewrite it? Oh, all right. What do we do? Ask her point-blank?"

And there we have it, one of the major plot lines that runs through most of the almost 50 years of Who, can time be rewritten, and it's right there, in the initial episode. Either they decided that was going to be a theme early on, OR, more probably, the current writers and producers have watched a lot of old Who.

In any case, the two school teachers decided to follow Susan home after a weird conversation that they have with the 15 year old girl, and discover that she lives IN the Police Box with her Grandfather, the daffy old Doctor (William Hartnell). Soon enough the quartet is inside the box, which Susan informs them all is called the "TARDIS" or Time and Relative Dimensions in Space. In fact, Susan says that she made the name up herself! The old man is incredulous that Susan would bring these two outsiders into their lives, but somehow he understands their curiosity, he explains that he and Susan are aliens from another time and place, and that they have been around a lot longer than humans, but he cannot let them leave knowing what they know, in a panic, somehow the TARDIS is activated and off they go.

As we've discussed already, most of the pre 2005 Doctor Who episodes are multi-part stories, and this first one is no exception. The early episodes are all individually titled though, where later episodes are merely given a single over-all title with part numbers after. Episode 2 of Doctor Who is "The Cave of Skulls", episode 3 is "The Forest of Fear" and episode 4 is "The Firemaker". Once the TARDIS settles on a destination, our intrepid crew discovers that they've gone to prehistoric Earth, year unknown (The Yearometer on the TARDIS doesn't work properly), where they are soon captured by a tribe of cave people who are in search of fire. The next three episodes detail how the Doctor and his companions escape from the tribe and mediate a peace between the different factions of cave-people who then try to kill them.

It's actually pretty tame stuff when you get down to it. There's some caveman on caveman violence, and Ian acts like Prometheus by giving the Cave people fire, but in the end it's a pretty discardable story line. Though I wonder if the setting might be revisited at some point to see what's become of the newly fire-enabled primitives, who happen to speak with perfect British accents.

This first story is stark contrast to the current 11th Doctor episodes, in that there's practically no budget existent early on. Also the Doctor is, well, a dick. He refuses to actually tell Barbara and Ian the full story, and he also refuses to let them go. Of course within a couple of episodes they won't want to go home, but we don't know that quite yet.

Some interesting tidbits to note: there are actually THREE versions of the first 30 minute episode floating about. They're all relatively the same, though the second released version looks quite a bit better than the aired version. There's actually continuity with the aforementioned French book as well, as it will appear in a later episode. The first utterance of the show's title "Doctor Who" is in the second episode (Cave of Skulls), when Ian calls the Doctor "Doctor Foreman" - he replies "Doctor Who?" Since that's the major question going into next season's episodes, it's nice to see it all the way back at the beginning.

In the end while you'd think that the first episode is required viewing, sadly this is not. Other than the opening segment that is. The plot line of the cave people is about as disposable as they are. There's no one really to save, and the universe isn't really in danger at all, neither are our protagonists. Sure the Cave dudes get the drop on the feeble Doctor and his companions, but come on who couldn't outwit CAVEMEN who can't even start a fire. In fact, what the Cavemen call knives, we would call sharp rocks.

Then there's the TARDIS, the police box that's bigger on the inside. In her (yes I'm calling it a HER) first appearance she looks rather new I suppose. The inside is all pristine and smooth, with only a few human touches - such as the velvet chair that Susan spends some time sitting on. The console is familiar in it's hexagonal shape and the center rotor moves up and down in the old familiar fashion. The noises she makes are all very familiar also. And yet, it's not the same TARDIS that we all know and love. Even though we're told later that the Doctor stole her and that when he did she was already outdated and ancient, she looks damn good here. But funny, the Doctor can't really operate her properly, and oh did I mention the chameleon circuit? Well they don't call it that yet, but surely enough when the ship (for the Doctor says bluntly: "I use your own outdated terminology for any craft which does not roll along on wheels") doesn't re-configure itself upon materializing in the past both Susan and the Doctor are befuddled. Susan even points out a couple of her previous incarnations as a Sedan Chair and an Ionic Column. Perhaps the TARDIS is simply upset at the old Doctor for picking up a few more strays.

As the first companions Ian and Barbara are cemented in place in Whovian lore. They're the everyman/woman teachers that the BBC wanted to use as the viewers touchstone when dealing with time-travel. As such they're terribly smart and make good companions in this initial incarnation. Ian even quickly understands that if they're going to get out of trouble they need to rely on the fast-thinking wit of The Doctor. Susan is a bit more difficult to place and understand. While there's no mention of the Time Lords yet (that phrase wouldn't enter the lexicon of Who for a few more years) we have nothing put before us to say that she ISN'T his actual Grand Daughter. Over the years of course we would find out that the Doctor has had a family, but what becomes of Susan after she leaves the TARDIS during the second season (oh damn, Spoilers!) remains somewhat of a mystery. Seems odd that such a close relation would be all but forgotten, but unfortunately she is. Whether she is a Time Lord is also up to debate, as she shows virtually none of the later facets of being a Time-Lord other than traveling in the TARDIS. In the unaired pilot version she claims to be from the 49th Century, but that line is cut from the actual aired broadcast. In the opening episode of this arc she tells Barbara and Ian that she's been on Earth for about five months, and that before that she had a few other adventures with the Doctor.

Should you decide to watch the first Doctor Who story, you can do so right now! The video is available on several sites, though if you try to watch it on YouTube you'll miss the second part of "The Cave of Skulls". I watched most of it Here, and both versions of the pilot are on YouTube. You can also read a transcript of the episode Here.

As to merchandise for the episode, there's of course the First Doctor action figure with TARDIS, featuring his walking stick and funny little cap. A single carded version of the figure was a Forbidden Planet exclusive.

Note that the version of the First Doctor figure in the 10 & 11 figure sets is slightly different (he's wearing different pants), and the Black and White version is also a costume variation that is not on the same model. Character Building also has a version of the First Doctor in their 11 Doctor Set of Micro Figures in Lego Scale. Back when the Role-Playing game was produced there were miniature versions of Hartnell as well.

Other merchandise includes a Target Paperback adaptation written by Terrance Dicks, which I believe is actually still in print, though original copies are readily available for reasonable prices. There's also a comic book adaptation and the obligatory VHS/DVD sets. I'm sure there's more stuff out there, especially vintage pieces such as television guides and other paper ephemera, but after about 40 years the supply of old stuff dries up and becomes much more valuable.

Next time I'll continue the series with the first appearance ever of The Daleks!

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