Wednesday, August 28, 2013

An Unearthly Child - "You don't deserve any explanations. You pushed your way in here uninvited and unwelcome. "

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - An Unearthly Child - Details

Season 1, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #1) | Next Story | Index

The music, that brilliant theme, plays over the distinctive opening titles and it keeps playing as we follow a bobby into a scrap yard ... finally fading away only as we are given our first glimpse of the TARDIS. Fifty years later, we have the benefit of knowing how this all turns out, and is still in the process of turning out, but fifty years ago, just a day after the world saw the assassination of the American President, did this look as an intriguing and daft as I suspect it must've? You and I know that's the TARDIS, but when first broadcast, we're lingering a long while on shot of a police call box in a junkyard, aren't we? (How sharp and crisply new it looks here, not junky at all! That prop will get hammered pretty hard over the years and look pretty rough by the time we Americans first start getting hooked on this show some fifteen years later ... )

Having been introduced to the TARDIS, next we meet Susan at school, where she's been the topic of discussion between her history and science teachers, as she jams out to some twangy surf guitar rock on her transistor radio. She's got quite distinctive features and, in the context of a show we know is science fiction where we know already she's brilliant and odd, seems quite ... unearthly. If only she'd remained this intriguing a character instead of devolving to an hysterical screamer in the second episode. But in the first episode, I think it's safe to say it looks like it's going to be an interesting show if she's a main character.

As we are shown how brilliant she is, and how she seems to have knowledge of the future, the show also introduces the first of its many puzzling pseudo-scientific goofs with Susan's insistence on the need to use a fifth dimension to solve a problem. Now, sure, I'm aware there's some pretty exotic physics theorizing about dimensions beyond the three spatial and one temporal we're accustomed to hearing about -- eleven dimensions, or more, may be needed to make the math work out -- but to blithely assert the fifth dimension is space is, well, patently silly. For a show that ostensibly is out to inform as it entertains, it certainly has some interesting ideas about how to establish its credibility.

The DVD I have includes the original "pilot" that wasn't aired, and the reshot version that did air, which has some minor differences. The Doctor's costume is changed from a modern suit jacket and tie to his Edwardian-style costume. Gone, too, is the allusion to Susan being born in the 49th century.

The broadcast version feels a little simplified, and changes the manner in which Ian and Barbara end up getting kidnapped and hauled off ... and Susan threatens to stay saying she'd rather stay than go with the Doctor in the TARDIS -- a rather dramatic difference that strikes a wrong note for the viewer. Ian and Barbara getting knocked out upon take off is more silly looking: they just lie down, instead of it appearing the time travel effect knocked them out.

The interior of the TARDIS is more visually distinctive and has a niftier design than it has later, more objets d'art and chairs strewn about. It'll get starker over time and lose some of that character. However, those fabric walls with the painted roundels are not very convincing.

The un-aired pilot version has very somewhat different dialogue -- mercifully absent is the allusion to the "Red Indian" and their "savage mind," that creeps into the final version. Really could have done without that. In the original version, the Doctor asks Susan to consider what might have happened if Napoleon had knowledge of futuristic technology ... why that got removed and we got a needlessly racist bit of dialogue instead is a question, I guess, for the late David Whitaker, the script editor. I'm not aware if he was ever asked about it (a google search turned up no relevant results that I could find) so I guess we can only lament the unfortunate precedent of racial insensitivity that will crop up periodically throughout the run of the series.

Enter the Doctor. Shifty, crotchety, and clearly dissembling, he's a prickly character in the unaired pilot, somewhat more impish in the reshoot. We are, I think, frankly astonished that this character is at the heart of a show that will endure fifty years (inclusive of the Wilderness Years) and be an international sensation in its fiftieth year, perhaps more popular than ever. To some extent, I think we have to look beyond the Doctor himself to explain that, because this Doctor is no James Bond. He's much closer to Quatermass, from what I can tell, and unless you're British, or a hardcore Whovian, you're probably wondering who Quatermass is and if I haven't dropped an 'r' by mistake? (I haven't.) It's the TARDIS that makes this something more, and the brilliant decision later to introduce the phenomenon of regeneration, that give this thing legs. In the short run, I'd argue based on what I've seen so far it's actually Ian & Barbara who provide the likability quotient that give fans someone to root for and admire.

So much of it though, even here in its infancy, feels like Doctor Who: from that opening theme, to the TARDIS itself, the shock of the bigger on the inside -- it's remarkable how much is recognizably our show even at this early stage. That so much of that initial vision survives to this day is testament to the imagination and peculiar genius of producers Verity Lambert and Sidney Newman, script editor David Whitaker, Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainger who performed and arranged the theme music, the designers, and William Hartnell in bringing the character to life. I'll not always have kind words for his performances, nor for the way the character is written through much of Hartnell's tenure, but there's no denying he brings a certain brittle charm that allows him to walk the character through some unlikable actions in a way that suggests he's alien, not evil. Different, not defective. His Doctor is cowardly, imperious, and even ruthless, ready to kill the wounded Za to expedite his return to the TARDIS. And yet, we keep watching.

It's the first episode that gives us the glimmerings of the compelling, fascinating show to come. The three that follow are a bit tedious and underwhelming caveman tribal politics and barbarism. The one thing, for me at least, that sticks in mind about the latter three episodes is the brutality of the fight between Za and his caveman rival. That's a fight that ends with a large rock being lifted by Za as his foe lies beaten at his feet. We don't see the rock come down, but we see the horrified reactions of the TARDIS gang and we know that, no matter what anybody says, this is not a kids' show. Or, at least, not only a kids' show.

Stray Thoughts:

Worth remembering that there's no mention of Gallifrey by name, nothing about the Doctor having two hearts and the ability to regenerate. There's something to be said for leaving blank spaces and open doors in your pilot. Not nailing down every specific leaves room to grow and adapt.

Totter's Lane and Coal Hill School will be seen again. "Remembrance of the Daleks," will bring Sylvester McCoy's Doctor and Ace back the morning after the Doctor and Susan take Ian and Barbara with them to clean up some retconned in business about some Time Lord tech left behind by the Doctor. Clara will end up teaching at Coal Hill School -- and if we don't get some idea about what Ian and Barbara got up to after they left the TARDIS since we're spending time at the school again, I'm going to be a little peeved -- so we'll see the locale again a few times, including the beginning of the 50th Anniversary Special, "The Day of the Doctor."  "Attack of the Cybermen" will find the TARDIS back at Totter's Lane, too.

We call this "An Unearthly Child" now and do so referring to pilot episode and the caveman story that follows; but, when it aired, each episode had a name, not a number. This all gets mushed together as one story now, but it was a different experience for those watching at the time.

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