Sunday, March 05, 2006

My Review of Doctor Who's "An Unearthly Child"

Written by Anthony Coburn
Directed by Waris Husein

The Doctor (to Ian/Barbara): “Have you ever wonder what it’s like to be wanderers in the Fourth Dimension, to be exiles?”

Oh please, don’t be coy, do tell us what’s like Doctor. The first serial that started off an entire legacy and things open with Susan Foreman listening to her music while waiting for a book on The French Revolution. Hardly earth shattering stuff but there’s something not quite there with Susan and that’s before it’s pointed out to viewers.

Nevertheless her school teachers, history teacher Barbara Wright and science teacher Ian Chesterton both seem banded in their suspicions of the girl. It’s not that they have a dislike for Susan, it’s just through flashback we see at one point she’s excels in one subject while sort of flunking with another.

But it’s the way that Susan flunks that is suspicious when she mentions different systems and disrupts one of Ian’s classes as a result of her inconsistency. Instead of trying to talk to Susan, Ian thinks the better option would be to follow Susan and Barbara agreed to that plan without any hesitation.

Another thing that shot the alarm bells is where Susan lives – a junkyard with no houses nearby and when a suspect old man seems to have Susan locked in a police box, that’s when the real questions are beginning to fester. Who is this old geezer and why is he so adamant that Barbara and Ian stay away from his police.

To answer these, the police box happens to be a spaceship with the ability to travel in time and space and also the ability to be bigger on the inside and change shape (though for some reason it’s now remaining a police box). In other words, he’s an alien of sorts, Susan is his granddaughter and both of them have been exiled from their people. He’s also less than happy with Susan’s attachment to earth life as well.

What is perhaps more inconvenient is that this old man is called The Doctor and is far from happy with the array of questions, hostility and scepticism that Ian and Barbara inflict on him throughout the serial. It’s sort of brave to present The Doctor here as a cantankerous old grouch because although William Hartnell is excellent in the role, I admit to having difficulty with warming to his Doctor in the same way I’ll have warming to the Sixth Doctor 21 years down the line.

Conceptually the TARDIS is a great looking exterior and the theme tune is evocative and quite haunting. What’s also great is that while Susan might obey her grandfather, both Ian and Barbara have no problem with questioning his authority or the logic of time travel. It’s also interesting that in his attempt to explain it properly, The Doctor uses the invention of TV as a defence mechanism. It’s too bad for him that Ian is generally having none of it.

In terms of trips, instead of space, we’re given a time journey into 100,000 BC where a battle with cavemen and their quest to get fire is the source of the tension for this episode. The Doctor is the first to get snatched by the tribe and pretty soon Ian, Barbara and Susan all get abducted too.

Dynamic wise, the cave people are okay to an extent. There’s an ongoing feud between Kal and Za/Hur for the role of leader and eventually the former meets his end but it’s the sabotage of the Old Woman that’s slightly more interesting. The TARDIS team jump back and forth between being allies at one point (when they give fire to the cavemen) and captives at the other (when they want to leave).

To deal with the cavemen problem Susan is smart enough come up with the plan of using skulls and flames to help their escape is one of the most inspired things. That and the fact that when do get away the serial ends with the TARDIS’ radiation detector marking “Danger”. I certainly can’t wait to see what that leads up to.

Also in “An Unearthly Child”

The original story line for this story was entitled “Nothing At The End Of The Lane”. There had been a theory that originally the entire first season of the show could’ve been a psychotic fantasy of Barbara Wright. It’s a good job that everything was real then, huh?

Ian: “Let me get this straight. A thing that looks like a police box, standing in a junkyard, it can move anywhere in time and space?”
Susan: “Yes.”
The Doctor: “Quite so.”
Ian: “But that's ridiculous!”

The titles of the four episodes of this story are An Unearthly Child, The Cave Of Skulls, The Forest Of Fear and The Firemaker.

The Doctor: “You still think it's all an illusion?”
Ian: “I know that free movement in time and space is a scientific dream I don't expect to find solved in a junkyard.”
The Doctor: “Your arrogance is nearly as great as your ignorance.”

Ian: “So that when we go out of that door, we won't be in a junkyard in London in England in the year 1963?”
The Doctor: “That is quite correct. But your tone suggests ridicule.”
Ian: “But it is ridiculous. Time doesn't go round and round in circles. You can't get on and off whenever you like in the past or the future.”

Originally the names for the Doctor's companions were to be Bridget ("Biddy") instead of Susan, Lola McGovern (instead of Barbara Wright), and Cliff instead of Ian. I think the names we got for them are better.

The Doctor (of the TARDIS): “It's still a police box. Why hasn't it changed? Dear, dear. How very disturbing.”

It’s in this episode that the meaning of TARDIS is established. Susan explains to Ian and Barbara that it stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space.

Barbara (to The Doctor): “You treat everybody and everything as something less important than yourself.”
The Doctor: “You're trying to say that everything you do is reasonable and everything I do is inhuman. While I'm afraid your judgement is at fault, Miss Wright, not mine.”

A pilot version of the first episode was made and exists in various versions. It’s included on the DVD which was released on a set called The Beginning in January 2006 which contained “An Unearthly Child”, “The Daleks” and “The Edge Of Destruction”.

The Doctor: “Just as long as you understand that I won't follow your orders blindly.”
Ian: “If there were only two of us, you could find your own way back to the ship.”
The Doctor: “Aren't you a tiresome young man?”
Ian: “And you're a stubborn old man.”

The bones used in the cave of skulls were real bones taken from an abattoir and were very unpleasant to smell under hot studio lights.

Za: “They have strange feet.”
Hur: “They wear skins on their feet.”

Somewhere in this story the alias John Smith also surfaces as well. I think it might have been when The Doctor first talked to Ian.

Ian: “Just a minute. Did you try and take us back to our own time?”
The Doctor: “Well, I got you away from that other time, didn't I?”
Ian: “That isn't what I asked you.”
The Doctor: “It's the only way I can answer you, young man.”

Standout music: Susan is listening to John Smith and the Common Men during the start of this story.

For an opening episode of an iconic series, I can’t help but feel that “An Unearthly Child” falls a little on the mundane side. That isn’t a bad thing considering the heights this show will soar to in it’s 40 plus years of existence. Cavemen aren’t especially compelling and while Susan is slightly annoying, she’s watchable. That being said its Ian and Barbara who I tend to root for a little more during this era of the show.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

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