Doctor Who Write-Ups

Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child (1963)

(This is the first of some “Doctor Who” recaps I wrote for a personal blog I all but “decomissioned” some time back.  Originally I had the foolhardy plan to make write-ups for the entire “classic” series, and I might still do that here, but for now I’ll just repost here the ones I have written, covering up until just after the Second Doctor’s era started.)

Synopsis

Ian Chesterton, a science teacher, and Barbara Wright, a history teacher, share their concerns about their eccentric 15-year old student, Susan. Barbara confides that when she went to meet Susan’s sole guardian, her grandfather, to talk about the sliding down of her homework grades, she could only find a scrapyard at the address on file. The two decide to literally stakeout the scrapyard in their car while waiting for Susan to walk back from school. While they wait, the two discuss how Susan is a brilliant student in science, math, and history, but doesn’t seem to grasp common knowledge facts like that Britain doesn’t have a decimal system for its currency and another time when she insisted that a simple math problem required five dimensions, not three. When Susan appears and walks into the scrapyard, Ian and Barbara follow, but only find an out-of-place police box and an old man. Instantly hostile and suspicious, the man denies that Susan came by and asks Ian, “Is it reasonable to suppose that anybody would be inside a cupboard like that?” After an argument Ian, thinking the old man kidnapped Susan, threatens to go to the police, but Susan comes out of the box looking for the man, whom she addresses as “Grandfather.”

Ian and Barbara barge in and discover that the interior of the box is somehow much, much larger than the exterior. “Grandfather” berates Susan for being responsible for Ian and Barbara showing up by insisting on going to that “ridiculous school.” He refuses to explain anything to their “guests”, but Susan calls the box the “TARDIS”, which she says is an acronym for the name she made up: “Time and Relative Dimensions in Space.” When Ian and Barbara demand the truth, “Grandfather” finally says, “We are not of this race, we are not of this earth. We are wanderers in the dimensions of space and time, cut off from our own time and our own people…” Susan begs “Grandfather” to let Ian and Barbara leave, but he sternly refuses, arguing that people in the 20th century can’t be allowed to realize that time travel is possible.  In the resulting argument “Grandfather” accidentally sets off the controls and the TARDIS embarks on the first of many, many accidental trips.

This unwanted destination is a barren (and budget friendly) landscape on Earth. The when is sometime in the Upper Paleolithic Era (at least that’s as far as my very shallow knowledge of prehistory takes me), a generation after one tribe of troglodytes discovered (sort of) how to spark fire. Actually, only one man knew how, so the tribe made him their leader, but by the time the TARDIS arrives he’s dead and never got around to teaching that trick to his son Za, who’s relying on prayers to the tribe’s god, “Orb” (the Sun), to grant that precious spark which he needs to keep up his claim to leadership (it’s a technocrat’s dream; government by technological innovators!). Back on the TARDIS, Barbara realizes something odd is going on while Ian, playing the rational British authority figure to a fault, clings to his skepticism, but poor Ian is so out of his element he doesn’t even know what to call their host.  He addresses him as “Doctor Foreman”, since Foreman was the name on the scrapyard sign, but “Grandfather” asks, “Doctor who?”, making a solid mark on British cultural history. The Doctor decides to step out to get his bearings and lights his pipe, which Kal, Za’s rival for the tribe’s leadership, sees and, thinking the strange traveler has the secret of fire, knocks him out and abducts him. The rest of the TARDIS’ motley crew soon enough follow the Doctor into captivity when they try to find where he went. This time their captor is Za, who plans on just saying the hell with it and sacrificing all the travelers to try to appease Orb. He’s stopped only by Kal, who is at least rational enough to realize that the strangers just might know how to make fire.

Of course, no allegory about modern reactions to technological advancement is complete without a shrill reactionary, and in this case it’s an unnamed old woman who wants to stick to the good old days of relying on furs for warmth. She frees the travelers on condition that they promise to leave and never return, which isn’t a hard demand to meet. However, the old woman is killed by Kal and Za, egged on by his mate Hur (no relation to Ben *rimshot*), gives chase, but they’re stopped and attacked by an unseen prehistoric beast. Ian, Barbara, Susan, and the Doctor hear the encounter and backtrack to find Hur sitting over a badly wounded Za. Despite the Doctor’s pleas that they return to the TARDIS immediately, Ian wants to give Za first-aid (a reasonable decision not just for ethical reasons; as Ray Bradbury taught us, Za’s death in the past might have, say, stopped “Friends” from ever being filmed in the present!). When the others aren’t looking, the Doctor tries to resolve the impasse by bashing Za’s head in with a rock (this ain’t David Tenant!), but Ian stops him in time and forces the Doctor to agree to take Za back to the TARDIS.

Unfortunately, the tribe locates them before they can get that far, and Kal tries to hit the two proverbial birds by both capturing the travelers and getting the tribe to turn against the unconscious Za by accusing him of killing the old woman. Instead the Doctor tricks Kal into showing everyone telltale evidence that he had actually done the deed and convinces the tribe that, if Kal is capable of killing one of them to reach his ends, then he’s perfectly willing to kill any of them. In perhaps the first instance of democracy in action, the tribe drives Kal off by pelting him with stones. When Za recovers to find himself the tribe’s new leader, he thanks the Doctor and his companions by imprisoning them yet again. So they give the cavemen what they want by using dry sticks and friction to make a healthy fire – while in the meantime Kal tries to sneak back into the cave, which leads to some hardcore caveman-on-caveman fighting, with Za as the victor and Kal’s brains decorating the cave floor – but Za, showing real pragmatism over moral thinking like so many politicians to come, determines that he should just keep the strangers around perpetually since they probably know all sorts of other nifty tricks. That night Susan has the idea of taking a skull from a skeleton in the cave and lighting a fire under it, scaring the tribe long enough for the crew to make a getaway. However, instead of being able to pilot the TARDIS back to England in 1963, the Doctor, who is maybe less adept at piloting the TARDIS than he admits, lands the TARDIS in a swamp somewhere. Also no one happens to notice that the TARDIS’ radiation gauge has its needle all the way over in the red range…

(To be honest, I’ve watched both the aired and unaired versions of this episode several weeks ago. Despite differences in dialogue and the Doctor’s personality – he generally comes across as more hostile and even more cruel in the unaired version – I didn’t take good notes and I suspect both versions are sort of muddled up in my mind. Well, it’s not like I’m being paid for this!)

Commentary

I really wasn’t sure what to expect when I decided to follow this 46-year old television show from the very beginning, being familiar with only a handful of John Pertwee and Tom Baker episodes, much of the Sylvester McCoy run, and, of course, the “new” series. I wasn’t surprised at the very low production values (after all, I am a fan of much of the BBC’s output from the ’60s and ’70s) or the occasional flubbed line that would have been corrected on even low-budget TV shows today (I’m also a fan of “Dark Shadows”). Nonetheless it was a little jarring that the show, long before it became a cultural phenomenon transcending audience expectations, would not really be much more child-centric. Maybe – well, no, there is not much of a maybe there – it just speaks to how watered-down and flavorless American children’s programming of my time was, but I couldn’t help but notice the various threats of horrific death, a teenager being all but outright verbally abused by her caregiver, and lots of shots of skulls that had been bashed open.

Still, the show at this early stage is still what we’d call “edutainment”, a purpose that it would more or less jettison within a year, at most. There are occasional little science tips, like Susan and Ian teaching the audience about the scientific principles of making a fire. Above all, while I’m sure people much more informed about the Stone Age than me can pick it apart, it is clear that there was some research done on Paleolithic times. The usual prehistoric stereotypes – active volcanoes, dinosaurs, mastodons, and so on – are mostly absent, although to be fair all that might have largely been due to the showrunners’ commitment to low budgets than to scientific accuracy. Whatever the case, the show takes time to try to present a prehistoric society’s stumbling first steps toward forming a religion (and it does make sense that the first thing a nascent human society would worship would be the sun) and political and social structures. Obviously they’re still hitting some snags, like figuring out that human sacrifice isn’t really a necessary step toward fire making (although then again it arguably doesn’t hurt either), but progress rarely runs smoothly.

The most interesting thing to Whovians is how the character of the Doctor starts out. Generally William Hartnell’s Doctor is known as the meanest and most unforgiving Doctor, which is fair, but before the first season is done he does already evolve into a friendlier and more benevolently paternal figure. Comparing the unaired version of the episode with the one that eventually saw the light of broadcast, it’s even clear that the showrunners had decided to smooth over the character’s rough edges at the very beginning. What’s fascinating isn’t just how different the character is from his successors, but how similar. The absent-mindedness (which I think really came back in force with David Tenant’s interpretation), the use of intelligence and subtle manipulation rather than brute force or weapons to achieve goals, the intellectual and alien aloofness bordering at times on arrogance, the occasional manifestation of a ruthless streak, and the question of whether or not the Doctor is just extremely lucky or if he’s aware of things that aren’t even apparent to his Companions or even to the audience are all there. It is difficult, if not impossible, to judge William Hartnell’s Doctor without comparing him to the others unless you’re a complete virgin to the series, but Hartnell’s version of the character is still unique enough to come across as more than just a prototype of what’s to come, while some less enamored of the messianic tendencies of David Tenant’s interpretation might even find Hartnell’s flawed, irascible Doctor to be the perfect antidote.

Sign of the Times

Britain didn’t actually decimentalize its currency system until 1971, eight years after the first episode aired, so a time traveler like Susan is right to be confused.

Continuity Notes

Obviously the big thing is that we have the first appearances of the Doctor and his first Companions: Susan, Barbara, and Ian. Along with that the Doctor and Susan are the first Time Lords (although they’re not named just yet) to make a debut, along with the first reference to Galifrey (which likewise has a name that hasn’t been thought of yet).

It’s the first appearance of the TARDIS. Susan and the Doctor also explain that, conveniently enough, the TARDIS’ camouflaging capability is malfunctioning, so it’s stuck in police box form. Even as the BBC’s budgets for the show improved, the police box became too iconic to change, even when the whole idea of a police box became archaic.

Susan claims that she “named” the TARDIS. Arguably this is contradicted in later episodes, where it turns out that there are many other TARDISes and they’ve been around longer than Susan or (maybe) the Doctor, but it can be explained that Susan was the first one to name the TARDIS in English, not Gallifreyan.

Quite a bit of the framework for Doctor Who’s mythos is already established from the first episode on: the Doctor and Susan are from an extremely advanced alien race (or, as the Doctor humbly put it, “I tell you, before your ancestors turned your first wheel the people of my world had reduced travel to the furthest reaches of space into a game for children!” ) and from another time, and have for some reason or another become separated from their homeworld. It’s never made exactly clear why the Doctor and Susan are travelling, although later in the series it’s hinted that the Doctor may have been exiled or at least left voluntarily after some kind of falling out with other members of his race. Susan, for whatever reason, shared his fate. There are also a lot of details about Susan that have, to date, not been filled in, like what happened to her parents and how she ended up with the Doctor. While it’s established that she and the Doctor have been in 1963’s London for about five months, it’s not even said exactly how long they’ve been together or if the Doctor had raised her, but there are references to past adventures they had together, making her the first Companion. In fact, it wasn’t until the new series, where various episodes like “Father’s Day” and “The Doctor’s Daughter” had fleeting mentions of the Doctor’s family, that viewers even received definite hints that Susan actually was the Doctor’s biological relation.

Not to upset any hardcore Whovians out there, but the show’s attitude toward time travel shows itself to be pretty inconsistent from day one. The Doctor is worried about the ramifications of people in the twentieth century finding out that time travel is a scientific reality, but when it comes to mucking about with the discovery of how to make fire…well, que sera sera.

At the very end we also have the first “appearance” of Skaro, a world that becomes pretty important early on in the show’s run, but more on that next time.

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