Saturday, July 16, 2011

Doctor Who #1: An Unearthly Child

My recent trip to the UK, and to Forbidden Planet, gave me new resolve. I'm tired of only sort-of grasping what is going on in Doctor Who. This has frustrated me since about 1977. Enough. I am going to watch every episode of Doctor Who, starting at #1, and continuing until I catch up. I know what you are going to say, though. You're going to say... "But.. a lot of the early episodes are missing... you won't be able to do it." Screw that. Yes, the BBC inexplicably has lost videotapes of 108 of the 777 episodes. But, fortunately, they have the audio recordings of every single episode, and have been kind enough to have created radio dramas out of them by adding narration to cover the visuals (and they're good, too). Combine that with photographs that exist of the missing episodes, and it's good enough for me -- it's certainly enough that I can follow the story. Because that is what is amazing about Doctor Who. It is one continuous story thread that has been told over nearly fifty years, and could easily go another fifty. It builds on itself in a significant way, making it necessary to go back to the beginning to fully understand it.

It is also well known that I have a time travel obsession and this is definitely part of that. Whatever.

These things are going to have spoilers... but seriously, 48 years is past the statute of limitations.

Okay, so -- Story #1: An Unearthly Child. 

The DVD is kind enough to include the pilot of the first episode of this four part story. To be clear, the first episode was filmed twice... Once as a pilot, and then a second time when they filmed the rest of the story. What is startling are the differences between the pilot and the "real" first episode. In the pilot, the Doctor is an incredibly mean cuss. Very rude, constantly shouting in anger -- he seems like a truly dangerous character, with really nothing likable about him. In the re-filming, his character has softened... whereas before he was intensely angry all the time, afterwards he fluctuates between a softer anger, and by being distracted by his scientific curiosity. This makes him just as rude, but not as threatening... more eccentric, less psychotic. Curiously, this bears a striking parallel to the pilot of Phineas and Ferb -- in that, Phineas is a very snarky little boy -- in all future episodes, Phineas is much more likable and thoughtful. It's as if, in both cases, the writers were concerned there wouldn't be enough conflict in the show, and so they made their protagonists want to fight the world (if the Doctor and Phineas actually are protagonists, which is not completely clear) but then they realized that this was unnecessary, and only makes them unlikable.

What is amazing is how much of the entire series is set forth in this episode -- the Police Box, the nature of the TARDIS, the broken chameleon circuit, and even the fact that the Doctor and Susan are exiles, unable to return home, though they hope to, one day. One certainly wonders who Susan is... The Doctor really has a granddaughter? This implies a lot.

Another difference between the pilot and episode 1: In the pilot, the St. John Ambulance cross is clearly visible on the door of the TARDIS. But in the re-filmed episode, it is not clearly visible: it appears to have been painted over. Interestingly, the cross seems to come and go in future episodes.

Anyway, story summary: Susan has been attending a local school, her teachers, Ian and Barbara find her an eccentric genius, but are concerned about her sporadic performance in school, so they try to meet her at home, which is a junkyard, where the meet the Doctor, and after a confrontation, the four of them enter the TARDIS, and continuing their dispute, the Doctor takes them back in time to prove he's not a liar, and they end up at approximately 100,000 BC, somewhere on earth... (somewhere that has British cavemen). They get enmeshed in a violent tribal dispute centered around the ability to make fire. Through clever tricks they eventually help the tribe and escape to the TARDIS, which takes off, and lands on what seems to be an alien planet.

Some weird things happen in the story... it would appear, at one point, that the Doctor plans to murder an injured caveman, to keep the companions from spending time helping him! Overall, though, this story really did set the template for everything that was to come... "Where are we? I want to investigate! Something's gone horribly wrong! A local dispute! We're trapped! Let's escape! We have to go back! We're recaptured! We solved a problem through our cleverness! We made it out just in time!" There's no running through corridors, but there is a lot of running through a dark forest, which is close enough.

Quotes and Notes:

  • "I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it."
  • "One day, we shall get back... one day... one day..."
  • "Your arrogance is nearly as great as your ignorance." 
  • Susan's last name is Foreman...?
  • Ian examines the door of the TARDIS: "There must be a secret lock somewhere..." when the lock is in plain view!
  • Susan was born in the 49th century. 
  • "Still a police box - Why hasn't it changed?"
  • The TARDIS has a (broken) "yearometer"
  • There is a radiation meter, as well, and the Doctor has a (short-lived) portable Geiger counter.
  • The Doctor carries a notebook, where he writes down the coordinates of everywhere they have been, among other things.
  • The TARDIS has some kind of atmospheric analyzer. 
  • "Make fire or I kill you now."

When I saw my first William Hartnell episodes, back in the 80's, I was so disappointed... the visual quality and sound quality of the episodes was so bad, I could barely follow what was going on, and further, I came in in the middle of things, not knowing who anyone was. The DVD versions are dramatically improved through digital restoration, and it's very exciting to start at the beginning, and be able to follow a fifty year story thread! It's kind of crummy that episodes are missing... but... I must admit that the scavenger hunt nature of the whole experience (Stories 1-3 are sold in a box set, Story 4 is on a hard to get CD collection, 5 and 6 are sold separately, 7-9 haven't been released, but are on the youtubes, etc...) enhances things... it almost feels like I'm going on the same imperfect, ramshackle, gappy time-travel experiences as the Doctor! So... if I can keep up my rate of two stories a week, I'll be caught up in about two years... for I show I've been watching for thirty years, that's not too bad.


  1. If anything I've seen and heard about Dr. Who is indicative, you'll watch the entire series and be no closer to understanding it! But worth the watching anyhow, I'm sure.

  2. Whoa, I totally made this resolution myself like half a year ago. I wasn't aware of the audio dramas though, that's helpful to know.

  3. I really liked Clara. I really felt connected to her, and what she was feeling. She really is a pretty tough girl. She goes through a lot emotionally in this book. She is stuck in a love triangle that I will honestly say is not bad as far as love triangles go. It seems like most every YA book has them, and they get a bit annoying after a while.