Friday, October 8, 2010

Doctor Who from the Beginning: “An Unearthly Child”

This weekend I sat down and watched “An Unearthly Child,” the very first episode of Doctor Who, which was broadcast on the BBC on November 23, 1963. That was nearly 47 years ago! Wow, this show has been on the air a long time. I guess people love ’em some Doctor Who.

But will people today love this episode of Doctor Who from the early 1960s? That’s debatable. TV was just different back then. TV programs, especially on the BCC, were more akin to filmed stage plays than the mini-movies that modern audiences expect. The pacing was slower, there were no quick camera cuts, and the acting could sometimes be, well, theatrical. Taking all of that into consideration, though, I think the first episode of Doctor Who holds up rather well. It’s surprising the number of constants that have remained throughout the program’s long history. The Doctor is already a cranky know-it-all when he first appears, for instance. Yes, William Hartnell’s portrayal of the First Doctor is markedly different than, say, Tom Baker’s portrayal of the Fourth Doctor, but there are similarities such as the strange sense of humor and the condescension to modern-day humans. And he’s already traveling the universe with one young female assistant for company when we first meet him (although, by the end of the episode, he ends up with a set of unwanted older companions as well). The TARDIS, too, is here at he beginning, looking and functioning pretty much as we expect it to. The machine is even described as “alive,” a contention that I assumed came along much later.

Plot wise, the 23-minute episode is pretty straightforward. Basically, Susan Foreman is an odd 15-year-old kid who has been attending Coal Hill School for around 5 months. She knows some things that a kid in 1963 shouldn’t know (she apparently understands more about science than her teacher, including the existence of a fifth dimension), but she doesn’t know some things that a British kid in 1963 should know (how many shillings in a pound, for example). She does love listening to (and sort of dancing to) those crazy 60s tunes on her transistor radio, though, so that’s pretty normal. Although she’s also fond of saying things like, “I like walking through the dark. It’s mysterious.” Yeah, she’s weird. Concerned by her behavior, her science and history teachers (Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, respectively) decide to follow her home one night. That seems a tad bit like stalking to me, but I suppose they had good intentions, right? Truthfully, I think Barbara’s primary intention was to get Ian alone in a dark car; she invites him to trail Susan with her as if she’s asking him on a date. When the pair of teachers arrives at Susan’s address (76 Totter’s Lane; kind of a fairytale-sounding address, isn’t it?), they find a scrap yard owned by one “I. M. Foreman” (or so the sign says). In the junkyard they meet a secretive and ill-tempered old man who looks like he just wandered away from playing Ebenezer Scrooge in a local theater production of A Christmas Carol. Naturally, this is the Doctor. They question him about Susan, but he only laughs at them and denies any knowledge of the girl. He nearly convinces them to leave – until Susan yells to him from inside a police box (a common site in England in those days, although not in a junkyard). Of course Ian and Barbara rush in to the police box to investigate and are shocked to find that it is (altogether now) “bigger on the inside.”

Susan appears and explains that the police box is really her grandfather’s space ship/time machine, which is called a TARDIS. She tells them that the name stands for “Time And Relative Dimension In Space” and that she coined the term. Her claim doesn’t seem possible given that we later meet other time travelers with TARDISes of their own. Little liar. The Doctor gets some good lines in this scene. When Ian is confused by the Doctor’s description of the TARDIS as a ship, for example, the Doctor says, “Yes, ship. This doesn’t roll around on wheels, you know.” And when Ian tells him not to treat them like children, the Doctor replies, “The children of my civilization would be insulted.” The Doctor and Susan seem to be exiled from their own planet and people (not here identified), which makes secrecy imperative. When the Doctor explains to Susan that they cannot stay in the present if Ian and Barbara know their secret, Susan says that she would rather stay in the 20th century without him and the TARDIS, then. Wow. Talk about family loyalty! The Doctor doesn’t take kindly to this idea, so, instead of opening the door to the TARDIS to let Ian and Barbara (and possibly Susan) stay behind, he decides to kidnap them all to the Stone Age. Sensible idea! This Doctor (who we assume to be the First Doctor) is quite old, remember, so maybe his thought processes don’t always make the most sense…. After a trippy, psychedelic time travel sequence, the episode ends with the shadow of a caveman falling across the exterior of the TARDIS. Cliffhanger!

All in all, “An Unearthly Child” makes for an intriguing start to Doctor Who. It is mysterious and makes me want to know what happens next. I like the fact that the Doctor is given multiple companions, each with a purpose. Susan is the viewer-identification character, Ian is the expert in science, and Barbara is the expert in history. Given that the show was originally developed for children, these characters all make sense. I also like the sense of mystery that pervades the episode. Is Susan’s last name really Foreman, for example? Surely she just took the name from the sign at the scrap yard, right? Heck, for all we know, her name may not even be Susan. Maybe she’s the Student or the Assistant or something. And why are the Doctor and Susan on the run from their own people? What are they hiding from? The episode was definitely atmospheric with the fog and the darkness and the spooky junkyard (the black and white helps with this, too). And I can see why kids used to hide behind the couch when they heard the eerie theme song! If I had tuned into this in the 60s, I definitely would be back for the next episode. The idea that the travelers can go anywhere in time and space is too enticing to not check in again. And who could resist the promise of cavemen?

P.S. I know that some people refer to the first four episodes of Doctor Who (“An Unearthly Child,” “The Cave of Skulls,” “The Forest of Fear,” and “The Firemaker”) as a serial called An Unearthly Child. Given how different the first episode is to the other three, though, I have decided to discuss the first episode on its own. I will review the other three episodes in my next post as a serial called 100,000 BC.

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