tirsdag den 10. marts 2009

Who Review #2 - An Unearthly Child

Without further ado, let me get stuck in as there are several hundred episodes to get through!

An Unearthly Child was the first episode, originally broadcast at 5:15pm, Saturday, 23rd November 1963. It was put back a day because of the assassination of President J.F. Kennedy.

The first thing to note is the music. I simply love the Delia Derbyshire/Ron Grainer/BBC Radiophonic workshop theme tune. It is instantly recognisable; furthermore, I know a few electronica fans who love the show because of the innovative incidental music realised by the workshop. In a 1993 documentary on the show, Toyah Wilcox (80s pop singer and Whovian) related how she instantly cried as a child as soon as she heard the theme tune because it reminded her of scary things, which I think is cute.

The story begins with two school teachers, Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), discussing their rather curious pupil Susan (Carole Ann Ford). She seems to be brilliant at science and history but duff at other things. What's more, she appears to live in a junkyard. They go to the address, wait for her, see her go in, but seemingly vanish. Looking around the yard, they see a Police Box; she must be in there, they conclude. This is where they meet an old man. They want access to the Police Box but the old man is unhelpful. When they hear Susan, they burst into the Box, only to discover it is bigger on the inside than the outside and hums from scientific instruments. The old man is Susan's grandfather, the Doctor (William Hartnell). Ian and Barbara discover that the Police Box is called the TARDIS and can travel anywhere in time and space. The Doctor refuses to let Ian and Barbara go. The teachers fall unconscious as the TARDIS dematerialises. It arrives in a barren landscape, where someone's shadow falls across the foreground.

Early Doctor Who didn't have story names as such, they were put on later, only episode names. ("The Gunfighters", in 1966, was the last story to have episode names before the New Series in 2005.) There was surely something nice about that in that you didn't know where the travellers would end up next. The very best example of that was "Mission to the Unknown", which didn't feature any of the cast, had a few Daleks and was followed the week after by the TARDIS turning up in Troy for four episodes, with no Dalek in sight! ("Mission..." was a prelude to the epic 12 part Dalek story to follow.) I suppose its sentimental to think back to a bygone time where you were kept second guessing and where there wasn't much in the way of information on future episodes. These days we have all the spoilers and rumours flying about the internet. Everybody knew Davros was coming back at the end of last season!

An Unearthly Child is the name of the entire story but also the name of the first episode. (There was a pilot episode but it only differs to this one in very small details; viz. sound effects, costume and a few, different scenes.) It works well. One can only imagine what kids thought in 1963 as Ian and Barbara walk in to the TARDIS. This was no show about Doctors, as some people actually thought! I guess I like this episode so much because I have the advantage of already knowing the show and its history. What it lacks in novelty is made up for by being the original episode - it is seeing how what I love started. There is a lovely scene, in retrospective: Susan thinks Britain is on the decimal money system but realises it hasn't been implemented yet. That scene gives me a feel that she is a time traveller.

The other three episodes of the story (Cave of Skulls, Forest of Fear, and Firemaker) have been somewhat panned in fandom, although I don't think that is entirely fair. The story revolves around an internal struggle in a caveman tribe who have lost the ability to make fire. Our heroes have to save their necks and find a way to escape back to the TARDIS. (They do when Ian makes fire in best Boy Scout fashion and they use that to illuminate skulls to fool the tribe into thinking they are dead.) There are some good scenes in it.

The late and great first producer of the show, Verity Lambert, wanted the Doctor to be a really anti-establishment figure who was also tetchy and a little bit scary. Ian and Barbara think Susan is being held captive by this mysterious old man - in this day and age of media coverage of sexual abuse, there is something in those first scenes with the Doctor where you instantly don't like him. Obviously, there is nothing of that sort - he just doesn't want him or his granddaughter and their TARDIS found out. Later, he lifts a stone and you realise he is prepared to kill an injured caveman to escape. An old woman is murdered by one of the tribe seeking leadership. And a forest scene is a little scary - if you are four, but I shall be using a kid's eyes in these reviews, at times - because of the unknown beasties you hear but don't see.

It's interesting to see how primitive society is presented on TV. (An early remit of the show was that it should be educational. So much of the Hartnell tenure was set on Earth, in historical times, with not a trace of sci-fi. The historical format was dropped in the second Troughton story "The Highlanders" - set in 1745 Scotland and the Jacobite rebellion - and only returned the once in the Davison story "Black Orchid".) This story is just complete junk when it comes to primitive man, and indeed is similar to much that is shown on TV fiction; at least it isn't like that crap "The Flintstones". I sometimes wonder how much this anthropological twaddle hinders the socialist case - "you can't change human nature; humans have been like this since time immemorial", etc is oft heard when somebody argues against the socialist case.

On a final note, this is so 60s! The clothes are fantastic and would probably cost these day's Mods a pretty packet down Carnaby Street. Jacqueline Hill had a sort of beehive hairstyle all the way through her time in the show. William Russell was the suit and tie, "Boy's Own" hero. And in one of the first scenes where we see Carole Ann Ford , she is listening to a transistor radio and some Brit pop, like any teen girl of the time would do. Needless to say, you wouldn't imagine any of them farting, let alone kissing and flirting; unlike the innuendo and such in post-2005 NewWho.

There are some bright spots in the very first story, but it admittedly a shallow story line. It gets ******, with a little arrow up for being the first story.

In my next review, the story that made Doctor Who into an overnight success.

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