Wednesday, November 19, 2014

An Unearthly Child — Blogging Doctor Who

A friend recently wondered about getting access to the classic episodes of Doctor Who, although when I noted that I have nearly all that have been released,[1] she actually declined my offer that she borrow them, stating that she didn’t want to come between a man and his collection of Doctor Who DVDs. She then suggested that I might make a list of those that are worth watching.[2] Which got me thinking, if the DVDs are going to be of any use whatsoever, then someone should watch them, and that someone is going to be me.

This is, by the way, the second time that I’ve blogged about Doctor Who. I really should blog more about science fiction and fandom, and there’s a perfectly good reason why I haven’t done so.[3] The prior time was offering my view to all the people who wondered how the events of the 50th anniversary episode could happen, what with the time lock and all.

The BBC released Doctor Who to DVD in a sort of crazy order. Okay, they couldn’t possibly start with “An Unearthly Child” (Story 1) and work all the way to “Survival” (Story 159) That would be crazy from a sales and marketing point of view. On the other hand, they also couldn’t release the Must Have episodes, and then drop down in quality and interest to the worst ones (though they did that to an extent). It did mean that if you were waiting for a particular episode, sometimes the wait was maddeningly long. I’m specifically thinking of the wait for “The Face of Evil,” the last of the Tom Baker episodes to be released. It’s not a fan favorite, though it’s one of mine. When I bought the DVDs, I’d usually get a small stack of them, and watch them in order, though that order might be First Doctor, Third Doctor, Fourth Doctor, Seventh Doctor.

The thought has been there of watching the whole series, end to end, as best as I could. So I pulled the first volume, “The Beginning,” off the shelf and started to watch it. According to the packaging, there are three stories, here, but it’s really four. Their list is “An Unearthly Child,” “The Daleks,” and “The Edge of Destruction.” During this period, each episode has an episode title, serial titles wouldn’t come until later. I would separate “An Unearthly Child” from the three episodes that follow it, except now I’m going to put them back into a single story.

There are a few good bits of continuity in the first episode. First, it’s made quite clear that the Doctor and Susan are aliens (in the subsequent movie, Peter Cushing plays an eccentric inventor, but quite human). We got that right off the bat. But the big surprise is that for his first human companions, the Doctor kidnaps them. None of this, “you’ve helped me in this dangerous situation, would you like to travel time and space with me?” Ian and Barbara are unwilling passengers on the Tardis.

A quibble on Susan's refusal to solve an equation in three dimensions, noting that you also need space and time. First, X, Y, and Z are spatial dimensions. We got space. Second, no one needs all three dimensions to find the length of a line (1) or the area of a square (2). These things have no dimensionality in those other dimensions.

I know that fans point to an odd thing in the first episode: as the Tardis dematerializes, Ian and Barbara pass out, and it’s clear that the trip is painful for the Doctor and Susan. This is, luckily for the characters, never repeated. The Doctor tells Susan earlier in the episode that he found a replacement piece for a faulty item on the Tardis.[4] We don’t see him having any time to effect repairs before his unplanned escape from 1963, so perhaps the malfunctioning part makes for a more gentle trip when working properly. We can assume there was a moment before they took off again that he fixed it.

This is sort of a package deal, but I still wouldn’t say “yeah, watch the first one, skip the next three.” The three subsequent episodes, “The Cave of Skulls,” “The Forest of Fear,” and “The Firemaker” form a continuous story. There are a series of alternative titles, for which Wikipedia has some explanation, however, I personally like the first and last episode titles. As “The Firemaker” would have worked as a title for all three.

It’s known that the series was pitched as having an educational aspect, hence Barbara the history teacher, and Ian the physics teacher. This was our history lesson (I suppose) on the transformative effect of reliable fire. Big technological leap. We are told that the Firemaker is the leader of the tribe, but the old chieftain has died without passing the secret along to his son. The tribe all have names like “Horg,” “Hur,” “Kal,” and “Za” (all of which I had to look up, because unfortunately, they don’t stick with me at all). We have a stranger from another tribe who is lording over this one, because of his strength and hunting prowess. On the other hand, he’s a pretty terrible leader, willing to lead by fear and violence.

The Doctor and his companions become subject to this fear and violence. The Doctor is captured, everyone goes to rescue him, and it goes downhill from there. The story ends up being quite inventive, and I enjoyed it even though I had seen it before. One amusing aspect is that the primitive tribe simply doesn’t understand certain concepts, and so the Doctor and his companions eventually have to start thinking about how the tribe thinks. Once that happens, the communication barriers fall.

Eye Candy for Gay Timelords
(I'm retconning this into the review, since I decided it's a category I want to cover.) Everyone other than the regular cast in this story is covered in furs and dirt and many of them have more than enough hair for a 1980s heavy metal band (and the episode titles actually sound like something such a band would put out). Did any of their children start hair bands, inspired by the sight of dad in his caveman getup. No eye candy in this one.

So, Is this a Must-See?
That’s the big question, right? Is this something you’d put on your list of Doctor Who episodes if you weren’t going to watch all of the surviving and reconstructed stories of the classic era. The answer here is yes, and not just because this is the first one (although that strikes me as a good enough reason). I was very pleased when the 50th anniversary episode started off with the original graphics.

At the end of the episode, no one faints as the Doctor, still refusing to take them back to 1963 London, heads off to another location. Problem is, the Doctor doesn’t really know where they are. Teaser the next installment: Yeah, this is another must-watch episode.

Final note: I thought of waiting to post this, maybe taking a chance to re-re-watch the first four episodes, but today, November 19, 2014, is the ninetieth birthday of William Russell, the actor who played Ian Chesterton. On the occasion of Mr. Russell's birthday, I salute him, and I'll be watching him.

Onward to "The Daleks"!

  1. The last two Troughton episodes are not yet in my collection, and I suspect a few more reconstructed episodes are in the pipeline. Update: Are now.  ↩
  2. Which I still need to do. I won’t be posting it on here, as I promised yet another friend, that I wouldn’t to “listicles,” which just goes to show how averse I am to writing anything that looks like clickbait. You’d think I didn’t actually want people reading my blog.  ↩
  3. Which I won’t get into here.  ↩
  4. Confession time: I watched this a week ago, and had I thought about blogging my way through Doctor Who, I might have taken some notes.  ↩

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