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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

Hi there, Andrew here! It is my plan to join my wife in the prcoess of reviewing- complementing her fantastic reviews of Stargate: SG1 episodes with a few of my own humble musings on the classic episodes of Doctor Who.

Now, to start, a brief intro on my history with The Doctor:
Growing up, I actively disliked Doctor Who. Saw a few old episodes out of context as a kid, weirded me out.
I was re-introduced to Who (after being intruiged by a trailer) with Series 3 of the New Who with the phenomenal episode 'Blink.' I followed the next three episodes (The Series 3 finale- and for those of you wondering, by the by, in England they use 'series' to describe one year of a TV show the way we use 'season'), then immediately downloaded and jumped onto watching the New Who from the beginning. I followed it for about 1.5 seasons before Sarah came to join me, and we both rebooted back to New Who, Series 1. We carried all the way on through Series 4, and somewhere in the long, dark recesses of the Gap Year, between Planet of the Dead and Waters of Mars, we decided to take the plunge and start on the TRUE Series 1.

For those of you that don't get my jabbering about 'New' Who, the series, in brief, went like this: Doctor Who was designed as a science fiction/educational show for the BBC in 1963. The show was about a man (known only as 'The Doctor'- Not 'Doctor Who'! That's the name of the show, not the man (note from Sarah: Even though I know this to be true, it still takes an extreme amount of energy for me NOT to refer to him as 'Doctor Who".)) who traveled around with his companions, an ever-changing roster of individuals who accompanied him on his journies, in his spaceship/time machine, the TARDIS (or Time and Relative Dimensions In Space). The ship itself was designed to blend in with it's time period; if one were to travel to the era of ancient Greece, the ship would look like a Greek column; In ancient Perisa, a sedan chair. If one were to travel to the old west, it might assume the shape of an outhouse. Or visit easter island, and the outside appearence would probably be one of those giant stone heads. The only catch was, the TARDIS was broken; it had taken the shape of a Police Box- a sort of phone booth/temporary holding cell for petty criminals that was employed at the time- and was stuck looking that way, no matter where it went. And so, The Doctor (who was not a very good pilot and seldom knew where the ship would end up after he took off, thus making each adventure an exporation of the new location in which they'd randomly landed) and his comapnions would travel throughout time and space to the past and the future in a Blue phone booth (which, due to alien techonology, was far bigger on the inside than it was on the outside- although it was the size of a phone booth, the interior was spacious and contained many rooms.)

The show was intially designed as an educational program- each story would alternate; a future story with science fiction adventure to keep the kids hooked in, followed by a historical story set in the past and designed to provide educational programming to encourage children to learn about history. (Sadly, after about the first six years, the educational element was dropped and the show became pure sci-fi... though of course we fans aren't complaining! :-) ) The show changed formats several times; for a period, the Doctor lost his ability to fly the TARDIS and became an Earth-bound ally of a sort of British Men In Black/X-files organization fighting off alien threats to Earth, then alter returned to his space travels... ah, but I still haven't dealt with the primary reason for this digression- The 'Old' vs. 'New' Who.

Bear with me for one more rabbit-trail, and all will be explained. You see, the Doctor was eventually revealed to be a Time Lord, a human-looking alien with two hearts... and the ability to 'Regenerate' after a mortal wound or injury- more or less 'rebooting' his body like you would re-set a computer; the resulting man would still be The Doctor, and have all of the Doctor's knowledge and memories- but a completely different physical appearence and personality. This allowed the show a great longevity; when your main actor decided to leave, the show ddin't ahve to end- the Doctor just regenerated, changed appearences, and was played by a new actor. Thus, all incarnations of the Doctor are known by their 'regeneration'- the original Doctor, played by William Hartnell, is the 'First Doctor'- the man he changed into in the show's fourth year was the Second Doctor, etc. (On average, Doctors tended to stay around 3-4 years, with the exception of one of the most famous, Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor. The guy with the scarf, curly hair, and big teeth. If you've seen the old Doctor Who, he's probably the one that you've seen.)

So, 'what is with all of this Old and New business, Andrew??' you may ask, glaring with irritation at the imagined avatar of my meandering, wandering ramblings of explanation and seeking to pin me down to a solid answer with a withering stare, or barring that, to pin by hands to the keyboard with a very sharp kitchen knife so as to prevent me from typing any further non-sequiters, as your mounting frustration continues to roar through your veins and you feel the start of a throbbing headache coming on...
(Note... that last may contain a bit of supposition on my part.)
Well, I shall tell you. At last.
Doctor Who ran from 1963 to 1989 in a serial format (a series of half-hour episodes linked together by to-be-continueds; every 2-6 forming a complete story) and covering seven Doctors in it's 26 seasons. After that, the show was canceled. An abortive attempt to revive the show was made in 1996 with a made-for-TV movie (featuring an 8th Doctor) in hopes of starting the series in the USA. It failed.
Finally, in 2005, the series started up again witha 9th Doctor, a far higher budget, and a standard single-episode format. It is still ongoing, now up to the 11th Doctor. This re-launched Series is known as the New Who (and it is FANTASTIC!) and started over from Series 1; but technically it's Series 1 was also Doctor Who's Series 27!

So, what you will see in these reviews- which will be far shorter than this introductory entry- are overviews of the episodes from the original, 1963-onwards Doctor Who series; albeit written from the perspective of someone who has overviewed the history of Doctor Who from the New series. Eventually- though it may be sometime in coming- we should work our way all the way through. But for now, we begin with the origin of the Doctow Who franchize itself, the 4-episode serial "An Unearthly Child." I'll give a brief synopsis, my review, and finally, a rating!

Serial Title: An Unearthly Child
Series: 1
Episodes: 4
An Unearthly Child
The Cave of Skulls
The Forest of Fear
The Firemaker
Doctor: William Hartnell
Companions: Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford)
Schoolteachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright (a science teacher and a history teacher respectively, in keeping with the shows intended alternation between sci-fi and historical education)- colleagues and friends with just the slightest hint of potential romance- have noticed something strange about their new student, Susan Foreman. At times, she seems very... different. Out of place. Almost... unearthly (Note from Sarah: *wink wink* get it?). On a whim, they decide to follow her home, one of approximately 3,952 things that were not as creepy to do in the 60s as they would be today- or perhaps were, but nobody noticed.
They find, to their surprise, that she returns to a junkyard, belonging to an I.M. Foreman (from whom she's taken a psuedonym last name) and there, encounters the Doctor, a gruff, brusque old man and Susan's grandfather. (As of 30+ Series' later, we still have yet to learn anything further about the Doctor's family, children, or history with Susan!)
After Ian and Brabarra stumble into the TARDIS, the Doctor, who does not want them revealing his secret, abruptly blasts of the TARDIS, rather roughly, knocking them all unconscious and shanghaing Ian and Barbara into time and space.
The first episode ends here, and is really the true pilot; the remaining three episodes are more like a sequel, thought technically still part of the same story.

After landing, the Doctor steps outside to survey the area (he is a meticulous explorer and scientist), and stops to smoke his pipe. He is observed a caveman of the paleolithic age, the time period in which the TARDIS has landed. The Doctor is knocked unconscious and kidnapped to the enclave of the Tribe of Gum. Za, the potential leader of the tribe, whose father, the previous tribe leader, did not pass on the secret of making fire to him before he died, is engaged in a power struggle. The cavemen, who worship Orb (the sun) and value fire above all else, are expecting fire from their new leader, and soon- and Kal, a stranger from another tribe- considered to be another strong contender for leadership- having seen the smoking Doctor, now sees the stranger as his ticket to fire-making dominance.

Ian, Barbara, and Susan charge and attempt a resuce, but are easily overpowered (Note from Sarah: Expect this to very much become the norm. Susan and Barbara pretty much get captured every other show. Susan actually pretty much exists just TO BE captured, but at least Barbara seems to really add to the show with her knowledge and least she does after a couple of episodes). Za, the tenuous leader, orders them taken to the Cave of Skulls to be sacrificed to Orb. He believes that Orb will then be pelased and return the secret of fire to him.

In the cave, filled with bones of previous victims, all killed by a blow to the head, the group truly unites for the first time, working together to use the sharp shards of bones to cut the ropes binding them... (Ropes? Those are some pretty advanced cavemen!) An elder who fears fire and does not want it's return enters the cave via a secret passage and frees them, turning them loose so that fire does not return. A pursuing Za is greivously wounded by a wild animal, and tensions mount as the two British school teachers insist on helpng the injured man. Back with the cave-people, Kal stirs up rebelion, claiming that Za was the one who set the strangers free; he is appointed the new leader.

The group is re-captured and returned with the healing Za to the cavemen. The group manages to turn the tables and reveal Kal (who had killed the fire-fearing elder to cover his tracks) as a murdered- driving him off into the woods; a less-than-grateful Za returns them to the cave of Skulls, to either give up the secret of fire or be sacrificed to Orb. What a jerk.

Back in captivity, the group re-bonds, Ian defers to the Doctor in a show of respect, Kal returns, battles Za, and dies (probably not the best plan of his neanderthal life...) Za, despite recieving basic knoweldge of fire, decides to keep the handy strangers around permanently, and Ian and Susan comes up with a plan to create 4 makeshift torches, topped by a skull set in the flames, the apparition of which scares the superstitious cavemen long enough for the group to escape to the TARDIS and take off, for whatever unknown destination may await them...

A little uncertain. Comments I made at the time seem to indicate I enjoyed it greatly; now, about one year later, it has taken a distinctly less impressive turn in my memory. I think it was overall enjoyable... but fairly poor compared to what came after it.

At this point in the series, the Doctor hasn't been established as an alien- in fact, the first filmed version of the pilot indicates he and Susan to be humans from the far future of Earth, a line omitted in the final project. (This concept was adapted in the film series which cast Peter Cushing- Grand Moff Tarkin to you Star Wars fans- as Dr. Who- a human with the last name of Who that has a doctorate- that invents a time machine. There were two movies, with plans for a third, that adapted existing stories from the first couple of years of the program into movies. These are decidedly NOT canon with the rest of the series!) Thus, while the Doctor has some alienesque moments- his smug superiority that Ian and Barbara 'wouldn't understand' what they're being exposed to- very much of the Doctor's alien nature is not really present. Indeed, the Doctor's two hearts wouldn't be established for several years!

William Hartnell as the Doctor is at first very gruff, superior, impatient, unlikeable. Fortunately, he mellows greatly in coming serials to become my second favorite Doctor to which I have yet been exposed (4 of them) and a very funny, genial character. (David Tennant, the 10th Doctor, ret-conned this brilliantly, implying that this first incarnation of himself, still very young compared to his 900+ year lifespan by that time, was 'always trying to be old and grumpy and important—like you do, when you're young.')
Ian and Barbara are a bit dull here, and both Barbara and Susan do little more than act as screaming damsels- thankfully, all three will expand into better characters as the series progresses. Well... Ian and Barbara will, at least...

I really think this story would be far more interesting if it turned out that they were in another planet's prehistory.

Great moments:
Not as many as one might like; this story is somewhat dull and the epitome of 'humble beginings.' From William Hartnell's line flubs- there was seldom time in early production to do a second take, so if the actors messed up, they just kept it in the show, and Hartnell did frequently- to The Doctor being so anxious to return to the TARDIS and escape that he nearly murders the wounded Za by smashing his head in with a rock just to keep Ian and Barbara from delaying the group to help him- this is not the Doctor's finest hour. Fortunately, the Doctor never displays such dark tendencies again, and the flubs become a very humorous source of bemusement for the audience, looking back on dear, departed Hartnell- who likely would not have been nearly so dear had he remained the gruff, pedantic Dcotor from this serial. Even so, after the incredible episodes of the New Doctor Who, I had expected this serial to be a slog-through, with no likeable Doctor AT ALL until at least the 4th; I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the first two episodes, and how much I liked the first Doctor.

Only one thing truly annoyed me about this episode... but I don't think I'll harp on it much as this board is only 'an illusion,' and the keyboard I'm typing with is a figment of my imagination, and the room I'm standing in apparently isn't real... or at least, one might be led to believe so by Ian and Barbara's rather thick-headed inability to accept what they were seeing when they first entered the TARDIS. They took the Denial Award and then some, with Barbara rather preosterously exclaiming that "Can't you see this is all an illusion?" and various related speeches to Susan while they're STANDING IN THE TARDIS. I mean, I've heard of denial, but telling someone to their face that the room you're both standing in is an illusion? That's pretty dense. :-)

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Blessings of Orb; more on the strength of it being a pilot that established the characters and cocnepts well than anything else- even if said characters needed quite a bit of refinement after to become the truly likeable people we would later meet.

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