Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Doctor Who 52: 02 – Ten Reasons to Watch An Unearthly Child (SE)
Introducing Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child…
The first ever Doctor Who story begins with ordinary people who follow someone extraordinary to a blue box that’s bigger on the inside than the outside and travels in time and space.
The best idea in the world hits the ground running: William Hartnell’s fantastic Doctor; a mysterious girl who’s both genius and hopeless, living in a junkyard; mind-expanding maelstroms of light and noise; prehistoric power struggles; throwing people into another time, throwing violence, dirt, role-reversals and every emotional and physical trial at them. Their world, and ours, will never be the same again.
I restarted these posts again last Wednesday with the first Doctor Who I ever saw – celebrating the series’ fifty-third anniversary. Now it’s time to go back to the very beginning. Again. Which I can pretend is completely appropriate, because the very first episode, An Unearthly Child, was repeated a week later, immediately before The Cave of Skulls, the second episode of this story, was first broadcast. It’s almost as if I planned a repost – I mean, a ‘Special Edition’ – on its own fifty-third anniversary. So this is another post that I wrote originally last year with the idea of fifty-two-weeks’-worth of idiosyncratically selected Doctor Who. I hope it’ll still go on to be an exciting variety but, again, with my timing as reliable as the TARDIS, the next one may turn up later or sooner or just vanish completely. I’m having fun so far, though.
This is the point where I’d usually say to press “Play All” on the DVD. Just this once it’s more complicated than that. If you’ve bought An Unearthly Child as a DVD on its own or as a download, that probably works. If you have it – as I do, and probably the best value, as the other discs are excellent too – in the Doctor Who DVD box set The Beginning, then it’ll make things much simpler and much more watchable, although it seems weird, if you press “Play All” but then skip forward seven chapters. I’ll explain later.
Ten Reasons To Watch An Unearthly Child (warning: spoilers lower down the list)
1 – The Beginning.
From the first second, everything says ‘This is a television programme like no other.’ On Saturday 23rd November 1963 Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire’s incredible music and Barnard Lodge’s swirling howlround titles first grabbed people like nothing on Earth. The direction’s terrific, the lines memorable and the actors superb, and by the end of just the first episode you’ve been plunged from an ordinary school into the astonishing futurism of the TARDIS and then an eerie prehistoric wasteland. It’s inspired, but it delivers on all of that inspiration. This may just be the most brilliant piece of television ever… And there are still three episodes to go of this story alone, or, if you take a longer view, at minimum at least another eight hundred and twenty-seven more to follow. And counting.
2 – The Doctor.
“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?”I first saw An Unearthly Child when it was repeated in 1981. Tom Baker had just stopped being the Doctor; I knew there were others, I’d even thrilled to many of their adventures on the page, but I’d not seen any of them. This wasn’t just spellbinding, but startling. The Doctor here is so different from the Fourth Doctor even at his most alien – he’s so different, I know now, even from how William Hartnell’s character will become as he shows different facets from the brilliantly sparkling git in his introduction. This story introduces the central mystery and the TARDIS perfectly, but is it the right place to start with the Doctor? Well, of course. What other story can be more exciting to discover for the first time? And where else can you see the Doctor discovering humans are people for the first time and starting to become the character we know? He’s as ruthless and hostile-seeming here as you’ll ever see him, but by the second episode, he’s already saving the companions he’s previously chewed out and kidnapped, then starting to cheer them up, then before the story’s out making his first of many moral judgements. Though his instinct is first to explore then, when that lands him in tricky situations, to escape, he’s already starting to flex his brain to achieve more than that.
For me, William Hartnell’s performance here is one of the greatest of any Doctor in any story. He’s at first calculating and almost sinister – because he’s under threat. He becomes a lot more fun once the worst has happened and humans have forced their way into his TARDIS, seeing them much as he’ll call them “stupid apes” many years later. He might start off making life difficult for two nice teachers, but then he’s unexpectedly kind, then spoils it by hardly being able to keep his face straight (there’s an absolutely gorgeous touch at one point where he keeps having to turn away from Ian, smiling as if looking directly at him would crack him up). His unpredictability feels like a person, and a fascinating, charismatic one, even as you think ‘He can’t say that!’ He’s fiercely intelligent and utterly irreverent. He shows off outrageously. He has enormous authority but is anti-establishment to his core, and childishly sulks or shouts when he doesn’t get his own way. And he gets your heart in your mouth when he suddenly shows the ache of tragedy. Too many ‘wise old men’ characters are dull or paternal, but this one starts as an explorer who asks all the difficult questions, and it seems a natural progression from that to discovering the sheer fun of toppling empires – helped enormously by William Hartnell, who’d done the authoritarian roles and wanted something different. The Doctor is as different as you get.
3 – Susan.
“Of course, the decimal system hasn’t started yet.”The Doctor’s granddaughter is the start of it all: wanting to live like human people, she’s the brightest, strangest teenager at school. She’s an utter genius but makes incredible mistakes – in a brilliant gamble by the writers, she assumes Britain’s using its decimal currency nearly a decade before the actual switch, and there’s a great evocation of an alien way of thinking when she can’t solve a problem without adding other dimensions. Carole Ann Ford is convincingly alien even after being ordered to tone it down, treating teachers absently like just slightly dim people to patronise and then utterly confident when at home in a space-time Ship. In her very first scene, a teacher shows off with his pop knowledge, but only to highlight that Susan’s in a world of her own, grooving along to an aristocrat who’s masquerading as an ordinary person…
I knew Susan, Ian and Barbara first from outstanding novelisations of stories from long before I was born and that I never thought I’d see. For some reason, as a boy the TARDIS teams that felt most right to me from the books were three different groups of several different people around the Doctor. I wrote about Polly, Ben and Jamie a few days ago, and here’s another – the original crew. Each of the companions that really stuck with me are a mix of men and women, but especially each with one woman who shows she’s got a brain and some gumption, who can stand up to the Doctor. That really should have been Susan, but she doesn’t always make it. Fortunately, another woman decides to intervene…
4 – Ian and Barbara.
Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright are the most utterly reassuring people in this: 1960s schoolteachers who clearly know what they’re doing and are just the people to find out what’s strange about their pupil Susan. But, marvellously, though they always remain reassuring and endearing, they’re at the centre of everything about the way this show turns things upside-down.
Ian is a handsome authority figure and so obviously going to be the lead in any programme made in 1963, with actor William Russell a star who’d had his own series as Sir Lancelot, and who’s engaging from the word go. So it’s a treat that it’s Barbara who’s done all the investigating and only wants him to back her up – and that, after Ian’s sure there’s a perfectly normal explanation, he’s the first one to nearly have a nervous breakdown when the explanation’s nothing of the kind. He reaches one of the lowest of all companion low points on disembarking from the TARDIS for the first time, utterly bewildered by the Doctor’s prophetic poetry coming true around him, touching the cold sand, hearing the mocking cries of strange birds, then clapping his hand to his head for all the world as if one of them’s just capped his terrible day by dropping something on it.
Jaqueline Hill is fabulous, and Barbara starts by confronting point-blank the stereotyped ‘hysterical fantasist woman’ dismissal which Ian and the 1963 audience might be tempted to put on what she says, and is proved right. Then they take it in turns throughout to be the sensible one who’s coping or the one who’s losing it, just as they take it in turns to be helpfully the science teacher and the history teacher who can help us make some sense of the science-fictional or historical settings in which they’re going to find themselves. They make a wonderful couple.
5 – The making of Doctor Who.
Doctor Who was created by a remarkable group of people for the BBC in 1963 – the BBC’s iconoclastic Canadian drama supremo Sydney Newman didn’t just want a programme that would be unlike anything else in the establishment Corporation, but people that would shake it up. He made Verity Lambert the BBC’s youngest and only female drama Producer. The first director she chose was a young, gay Anglo-Indian, Waris Hussein. To the rest of the BBC, they were in the wrong place, at the wrong time – naturally, they became television legends. For some reason much of the BBC establishment fought them tooth and nail, but even given the smallest, oldest and grottiest of studios they still made Doctor Who incredible.
6 – Into the TARDIS.
“Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? Have you? To be exiles…?”The first mystery the show ever presents us with is a mysteriously humming police box in a junkyard, and it’s the mystery to which Susan’s mystery leads the two schoolteachers. From the moment Barbara and Ian plunge into the TARDIS, everything is astonishing. The dazzling scene that forms the second half of the first episode is just about the best the series ever has. All the mysteries we’ve encountered so far erupt into this one impossible place, abruptly, the biggest idea ever, in the smallest box, the world changing and the Doctor and Susan suddenly in their natural element. The TARDIS control room still looks extraordinary, but it’s the dialogue that’s really compelling. William Hartnell is absolutely commanding here, taking the script and flying with it from irritated to endearingly distracted, kindly to mischievously entertained, vulnerable to ruthlessly determined. And in a brilliant piece of mutual reinforcement, exactly at the point that the Doctor explains the TARDIS with reference to television, the television camera is telling us that he’s the lead character by pointing directly at him, the others backgrounded. Ian the handsome young lead character the viewers expected is left floundering – it’s not his show after all. And the Doctor’s judgement that humans would only fight over himself and his ideas if given the chance is proved right over the following episodes…
7 – Inspired games with role-reversals.
Doctor Who was designed as a drama aimed at children watching with their families, not just to talk down to them as a ‘kids’ show’. So in the very first episode we get the perfect deployment of the show’s anti-establishment ethos to get the kids on its side: show up the teachers. Susan goes from verbally patting “Mr Chesterton” for knowing something unexpected to exasperation with him being much stupider than she’d expected. It’s far more effective than making the teachers cartoon idiots or having child leads, especially when the Doctor joins in – an authoritative old man who acts like a mischievous child, but also talks down to authority figures who don’t like their own medicine at all, while children across the land must have enjoyed it immensely.
But it’s not just getting the audience on side. The role-reversals are crucial to the story and the developing relationships between our four main characters. The Doctor chooses a simile about television to explain the Ship’s dimensions, kindly thinking of a way within the teacher’s limited grasp to explain something incredibly simple that’s quite beyond his tiny mind, as Ian might to a child – made all the more delicious when Ian still can’t see and the Doctor can’t help but laugh. It’s a satirical pre-echo of the ‘primitives’ part of the story: the Doctor’s among primitives already. On moving from modern London to prehistoric cavepeople, the Doctor first regarding Ian and Barbara as savages prevents the audience from feeling too smug about the Tribe, but it also means he’s rapidly shoved together with the teachers so he can start thinking of them as semi-civilised. If they’d landed among the Daleks and Thals first, he’d probably have dumped the teachers, or at least spo-ken ve-ry slow-ly and clear-ly to them and apologised for bringing a pair of savages to meet futuristic peoples: ‘I’m sorry, you’ll have to excuse them, they’re from the Twentieth Century.’ Just as Ian becomes less narrow-minded and insular with the Doctor’s influence, the teachers’ presence gives the Doctor the opportunity to start learning from them more subtly, starting here. The Doctor’s moral sense, appropriately, is more a flickering ember and a wisp of smoke here than a beacon in the dark yet – but even in Twenty-first Century stories, he still has a ruthless streak without human friends to talk him out of it.
8 – Old Mother.
This is a grim tale, with its sweaty, dirty, horror brought home to us perhaps more than any other Doctor Who story by the raw emotion of our heroes. There’s not much humour after the hilarious put-downs of the teachers. But if you’re in the right mood for it, there’s an undercurrent in the horrible life of the Tribe that makes me laugh. On the surface, the story is a battle for supremacy between two alpha males, Za versus interloper Kal. But it isn’t just Kal who jeers at Za for not being the man his father was. The Tribe’s older generation are still around to threaten him with several varieties of conservative prejudice, and the worst of the lot is the Tribe’s Queen Mum, known as Old Mother or just “the old woman” (played superbly by Eileen Way). She hates fire and thinks it a waste of time, but still laughs at his impotent attempts to light up. It’s very hard not to see some sort of metaphor in Za rubbing his bone while his Old Mother gives a spiteful commentary on how unimpressive his manhood is. Za’s “woman” Hur – no, it’s not an especially feminist Tribe in naming its women – has problems with her father too, at one point shouting “You should lie on the old stone ’til your blood runs into the earth!” when he grumbles too much. It’s all deadly serious, but also very funny intergenerational conflict.
9 – The Doctor invents courtroom drama and Columbo.
“This knife has no blood on it.”By the start of part four, Za’s cleverer but nastier rival Kal has murdered Old Mother and pinned the blame on Za and our heroes. Things look bleak. Kal’s great strength has been as a demagogue, yet as he waves Za’s stone knife before the Tribe, weaving his story before them, the apparently frail old Doctor shows he can not only defeat a physically much stronger opponent with superior brainpower, but beat him at his own simple declamatory style and even muster the physical force to drive him out. It starts with the Doctor’s simple observation that Za’s knife has no blood on it, and from that point Kal unravels: he calls it a bad knife for not showing what it has done; the Doctor needles his vanity, saying it’s much better than his; Kal falls for it, proudly pulling out his bloody weapon; and the Doctor parades it around the Tribe like a prize lawyer. Rousing the whole Tribe against the strong fighter, he throws a stone at him and gets everyone else to do the same, forcing the murderer to retreat under a barrage of rocks.
It’s a terrific scene. William Hartnell is outstanding, slipping effortlessly between quiet, naturalistic instructions and a theatrical display of Stone Age rubble-rousing, but it’s a brilliant idea, too: years before Columbo ever aired, Doctor Who invents the format. The TV audience has already seen the murderer, and the Doctor exposes him through a combination of psychology, demagoguery and forensic evidence. And while he’s settling the rivalry between Kal and Za, at the same time he’s settling with argumentative teacher Ian just exactly who is the leader of the TARDIS crew, and the star of the show (fifty-three years later, he still is). Just as with the Twentieth-Century humans, the Doctor can speak their language and then get into their mindset and manipulate it, which makes you wonder just how much he’s talking down to our level, too.
10 – An optimistic and wonderful show that’s “steeped in death” (as Russell T Davies put it many years later).
“Well, fear makes companions of all of us, Miss Wright.”Mass death prompts the Doctor to make his first moral judgment; being forced together in the same setting starts our heroes bonding. The Tribe’s struggle for power is fed by the fear they all have of death, from the cold, from the tiger, from each other. And Waris Hussein’s brilliant direction uses images of death as a motif throughout. Skulls keep recurring in close-up, from the smashed dummy in the junkyard, to an attack on the Doctor cross-cut with an animal skull and smashed equipment to suggest the violence it doesn’t quite show, through the Cave of Skulls and several dead beasts, to the climax when it all comes to a head. Are we meant to associate them with palaeontological discoveries of early human skulls and therefore the deep past, or the Tribe’s animalistic nature, or simply the visceral closeness to death in a constantly dangerous environment?
Though Doctor Who doesn’t have its first really full-fledged ‘undead’ story until William Hartnell’s final adventure, most of his first season has some hint of it, and how is the very first story resolved? By using a combination of the idea of the undead and special effects to frighten the people watching, which is what the series will be doing for ever after (and, with the Tribe obsessed throughout with fire and using skulls to terrify our heroes, it’s the perfect con to employ at the climax).
And then our heroes start running.
What Else Should I Tell You About An Unearthly Child?
Seriously, on just this one DVD – at least the one in The Beginning – press “Play All” and then immediately skip the first seven chapters.
“It’s true! Every word of it’s true!”Here’s why. The BBC had more than one go at making the very first Doctor Who episode. Sydney Newman, the BBC Head of Drama who more than anyone else had driven through the initial idea of the show, didn’t like the first version they shot – mainly because of technical problems and the Doctor being too harsh. For the second go a few weeks later, there were minor changes to the script, significant changes to the way the Doctor’s played and Susan became much less ‘unearthly’. That was the version that was transmitted, led into the following three episodes and the following fifty-three-and-more years, and it’s the version I’ve given reasons to watch above. The first attempt was retrospectively called the “Pilot” episode, and miraculously still exists, in multiple pieces (they had another go on the spot to fix some of the technical faults, which means there are actually three versions of some of the first ever episode). It’s fascinating, and I love it. But I love the final version more, despite preferring Susan weirder, some brilliant alternative lines and getting to see what the Doctor’s like when he’s really alienating and without a sense of humour. It’s great, but the ‘proper’ version is better – not least because it doesn’t seem like our four leads are going to kill each other within a fortnight.
The trouble is, if you just press “Play All” you get a version of the Pilot episode, An Unearthly Child. Then the first episode, An Unearthly Child, which is a different version of the same thing. Then the next three episodes, which finally get on with more of the story. So while I often go back and watch the Pilot version as interesting in its own right, it’s a confusing place to start. If you skip the first seven chapters on the DVD you’ll start where the producers intended you to, it’ll make a lot more sense, and you’ll get the best version first. As you play on through the rest of the story, I suppose I should point out that some people think the second, third and fourth episodes are a different story, or not as good, or even disposable. They’re wrong. See above.
“Footsteps in a time in which they should not have walked.”Sometimes this whole story is given a different title – usually “100,000BC” or “The Tribe of Gum”. Back in 1963, just as with Doctor Who today, multi-part television stories weren’t given overall titles, just titles for each of their individual episodes. This year’s been an exception to a post-2005 run of mostly one-episode stories, but when the series started almost every story had several episodes. It’s one thing to list a story as, say, “The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar”, but calling the very first one “An Unearthly Child / The Cave of Skulls / The Forest of Fear / The Firemaker” is cumbersome and, by the time you reach 1965 and start on a story that’s twelve episodes long, all gets a bit silly. After 1966 until 1989 they just gave every story one title, no matter how many parts it was in, but for those early stories people like to disagree. Some adventures had what might have been an internal BBC title or maybe just a description to file all the episodes together, but though those are occasionally used by pedants, the only titles the public saw on TV or in the Radio Times were for the episodes. So call this one “100,000BC” if you like, although there’s no evidence that’s when it’s set, or “The Tribe of Gum”, although none of the Tribe call themselves that. This first story is titled An Unearthly Child on the DVD. The novelisation’s called An Unearthly Child too. And it starts by getting us curious about an unearthly child. It’s “An Unearthly Child” for me.
Eternal thanks to many people at the very beginning, particularly BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman, Script Department head Donald Wilson, script editor David Whitaker, scriptwriters Anthony Coburn and before him C. E. Webber, director Waris Hussein, soundscapers Delia Derbyshire, Dick Mills and Brian Hodgson, legendary producer Verity Lambert, and, of course, William Hartnell. The Doctor.
And, if you need one, my score:
I’d give 10/10 to the proper transmitted version of An Unearthly Child, the first and possibly even best episode of Doctor Who – or of television itself. And I’d give 9/10 to the next three episodes. So I considered giving the whole story 9 ½. But I’ve decided half-marks are weaselly, so I won’t be awarding any. That means this and a handful of other stories coming up in the 52 that might be 9 ½ in my head will be rounded up to:
If You Like An Unearthly Child, Why Not Try…
The Pilot version of An Unearthly Child, obviously, which is weird and jarring but also brilliant. Every other Doctor Who story featuring William Hartnell makes him kindlier and funnier – which was what the actor wanted anyway. So you might instead pick a story from Doctor Who’s second season, where the Doctor’s personality is more fully formed.
Deep Breath is for now the most recent of all the many new beginnings for Doctor Who, 2014’s introduction to the current Doctor. It’s a very different adventure, but like William Hartnell, Peter Capaldi plays a Doctor in a much older body, one who’s abrasive and alienating at times, or funny, or brilliant, and I love them both. Surrounding a new Doctor with familiar friends from the previous Doctor to help him and us adjust to his new self has a touch of Robot, too. I could also point out that it’s in London but has characters from prehistoric times, and that the Doctor’s companion is a teacher at the same Coal Hill School where Ian and Barbara taught and Susan mystified, but – despite that – Deep Breath really isn’t very like An Unearthly Child at all. Still marvellous, though.
The beginning… What, another one? Fantastic!