Wednesday, 21 February 2018

An Unearthly Child

Chapter The 78th, which - seriously - is still compelling, even today.

Two comprehensive school teachers in 1960s London become curious about a pupil based on odd comments she makes in class, and recent bad homework, so they stalk her mercilessly. They find out her address, stake it out, waiting for her to come back one afternoon, then follow her into her home which turns out to be a pan-dimensional craft for traversing the space-time continuum. Disguised as a Police Box. In a junkyard. The schoolkid's Grandad turns out to be a space-wizard and grumpy to boot. Threatened by the possibility of intrusion on his privacy if the teachers tell anyone about him, he starts up the ship, and whisks all four of them off to Earth circa 100,000 BC where they get involved with a tribe of cavemen trying to rediscover the secret of fire. Narrowly avoiding getting their skulls smashed in, they escape again in the ship (named the TARDIS). But it's knackered and the space-wizard (called the Doctor) doesn't know how to steer it properly, so he can't take the teachers home and they all have to go off and have adventures together. The End. The Beginning...

Some targets are so vast that the problem isn't hitting them, it's whether one's arrows are going to make any impression greater than a pinprick. The blog's random travels have landed it upon the very first story of Doctor Who, a phenomenally successful creation which has continued on from this beginning for more than 50 years giving enjoyment to millions of people across the globe: what is there that I can say about it? "There were leaders before there was fire" and "Fear makes companions of us all" are the Who equivalents of "To be or not to be" or "Is this a dagger I see before me?" - dialogue that's become a quote with its own life, and therefore that takes you out of the surrounding action just a bit. I've watched these four episodes so many times over the years that it's impossible to come to them fresh any longer. For this reason, I wanted to watch alongside at least some of the family, but throughout the half term holiday, no one was particularly interested.

I started watching an episode each evening late, and got halfway before having to start again when suddenly they changed their minds and were interested after all. In the end, we all (me, the Better Half, and the three kids, boys of 11 and 8, girl of 5) watched together; the eldest child wandered off here and there for the middle episodes, but everyone else watched silent and rapt for the duration - the more quiet it is in our house, the better something's going down, so this was a good sign. Another good sign was that everyone wanted to watch the next story the second that episode 4's cliffhanger ending faded from view. Not many comments from the assembled, but the Better Half ventured the opinion that the background hum of the TARDIS would drive her mad in a couple of hours if she had to live there.

The only annoyance with watching on DVD is that the Play All option includes the 'pilot' episode first before the four episodes of the story proper; this was a version of the episode An Unearthly Child recorded earlier, with certain differing script details and production elements, which were then tweaked for the rerecorded version that was eventually broadcast. If one were to actually sit down, hit that button and not touch the remote again, the experience would essentially be to see the same introductory episode run through twice, putting off the caveman episodes by 25 minutes - and who would want that? 

First-time round:
Beyond the odd clip I caught here and there on Swap Shop or before turning over to something else, my first sustained viewing of Doctor Who was when I tuned in partway through The Forest of Fear, episode three of An Unearthly Child. More details of the circumstances of my stumbling across the programme can be read here; it was the 4th November 1981 and this story was the first of a season of archive Doctor Who repeats stripped across weekly evenings on BBC2. Watching this time, I tried to pinpoint the moment I joined the episode; it's been a long time, but my best guess is that it was only a few minutes in, when our heroes are escaping into the eponymous forest, pursued by cave-people. I was intrigued enough to keep watching, and to tune in the following day for The Firemaker, and the following week for a Patrick Troughton story, The Krotons, and then another story, and then another two more. And then I tuned in a few weeks later when the next proper series started broadcast. The rest is history (and science): I was hooked.

I finally got to see the first two and a half episodes in early 1990, when the VHS release of the story was released. That previously un-broadcast 'pilot' version of episode 1 was released on The William Hartnell Years VHS compilation the following year, and a few months after that an alternative edit of it was shown on BBC2 as part of a day of programming dedicated to Lime Grove, the historic but rubbish studios where the story was made. 

For some obvious structural reasons, the first four episodes of Doctor Who are often treated as two separate entities - one part intriguing set up in a school and a junkyard, three parts caveman adventure. Years ago, fan journalism invented a separate overarching title for parts 2-4, "The Tribe of Gum", though that seems to have fallen out of fashion lately. As I'll discuss in more detail later, this is to a certain extent dictated by prejudices of taste. A lot of people don't like the caveman nonsense, and think it detracts from the justly esteemed opener - the caveman idea was done even at the time only because the production team had no other options, and with reservations. But it's not true: although a lot of series bible set-up elements, and ideas from previous drafts by other writers, are incorporated into writer Anthony Coburn's episode 1, all four episodes were commissioned and written by him, and directed by a single person, Waris Hussein. It's intended as one four episode piece. There is a through-flow both in the narrative details - An Unearthly Child subtly establishes that Ian carries no matches, which will be crucial later on - and wider themes.

The tribe is struggling to find the right leader, confused about what the right values are that would dictate the decision. They have previously assumed that it was all to do with the special Orb-given skill, making fire. When it looks like nobody possesses this skill, how and who will they choose? The familiar Za, even though he seems more prone to inaction, or the newcomer, Kal, who's bringing in more food but may also be a liar and an egotist. Mirroring this, the newly formed TARDIS tribe is struggling to find a leader, and a shared set of values. Characters have agency, including all the females (this story has four great roles for women, two regular, two guest cast, and Doctor Who and The Doctor treats them all as reasonably or unreasonably as the males - whenever, if ever, the sexism set in, it wasn't there from the beginning).

What's great is that there's no villains here, everyone is empathetic, but complex. Though efforts are made to display their primitive thinking, the two lead cavemen are still shown to be canny political operators, making the most of the twists and turns to improve their standing. Kal is not necessarily the wrong person to lead, until he murders Old Mother, stepping beyond the moral boundaries (of the audience and the tribe). This is mirrored in the Doctor's musing on similarly killing a defenceless man; Ian stops him before it can be much more than an idea, and thereby saves the Doctor who then steps up and gets to be properly Doctorish for the first time, when he tricks the murderer into revealing the murder weapon and implicating himself. Hartnell is magnetic to watch in that scene, and everywhere else. Watch his very first scene - he walks in midway, and with a few deft gestures, pulls focus and thereafter dominates. The direction is uniformly excellent: only in these early stories does the staging and performance reach this level of reality, the regulars grimy, sweaty, and in genuine panic for their lives and liberty.

I haven't even talked about the first episode's brilliance. It has its flaws (they become obvious after watching it so many times) but they're superficial, and it still is the benchmark of how to do a series opener in 25 minutes. I can't add much more to what's been said and re-said over the years. Even within the space of these few scenes, the characters are shown to have depth: Barbara and Ian both admit to themselves that their motives in checking up on Susan are not 100% pure, and so - like in the best horror stories - the trials that await them are not wholly undeserved, having been brought on by their curiosity. The moment of precognitive doubt as Barbara steps out of the car, wondering what they're getting into, is wonderfully in keeping with this. If you've never watched the pilot version, though, it's worth a go to see how much it was improved in the broadcast version. Every decision made was the right one, creating more mystery about the Doctor and Susan. One thing that rightly remained unchanged between the two versions, though, is the marvellous cliffhanger: the shadow of a caveman falls over the scene of a Police Box standing incongruously in a primitive landscape.

An Unearthly Child and Battlefield are both season opening four-part stories (the very first and very last seasons of the original run, as it happens); both contain references to school, history and science (if one counts Ace's bomb-making in Battlefield).

Deeper Thoughts:
It wos not just the Daleks wot wun it. I've read that some foreign countries picking up Doctor Who episodes for broadcast in the 1960s may have skipped the three cavemen episodes altogether. You just about could go from the cliffhanger ending of An Unearthly Child to The Dead Planet, first episode of the following Dalek story, without too much audience head-scratching: our heroes have arrived in another desolate landscape with another someone watching the TARDIS. And, nobody at the time could check the previous episode or pause the current episode to wonder too long why the regulars' clothes were suddenly in need of changing: blink and you'd miss it. For the reasons I set out above and more, though, such a decision would horrify me - whatever one thinks of the caveman story, it's a bit much to go from separating it out to excising it. It doesn't surprise me however. It was after all how the original tie-in novelisation was rewritten. Narratives are powerful things, and a narrative that's popular can be more powerful than one that's true. The overriding creation myth of Doctor Who is that it had an intriguing intro episode that was unfortunately overshadowed by a huge contemporary news item in JFK's assassination aftermath; luckily, along came the Daleks, which turned the show into a hit, and it never looked back... unlike JFK who looked back, and to the left... [sorry, Good Taste Ed.].

There's a lot of truth in this narrative, but it's not the whole story. Doctor Who was performing well for its early episodes, but the Daleks did turn it into a ratings sensation. Arguably, this was even more impressive than it seemed, as that first Dalek story was a rush commission rather than something that had months of thought and planning like the first story. And the Daleks are a great concept, visually and conceptually, for which everyone involved should be justly proud. But the best bad guys are only as good as the heroes who come up against them, and they are defined by those heroes' reactions. This is why the Daleks have never found much of a life without the Doctor. This is the disappointment of reading a comic strip in a Doctorless Dalek annual, and why Dalek author Terry Nation's Dalek-only TV show never found sufficient backing - the heroes were too clean-cut and dull; the Daleks on their own weren't enough, they're only one side of the coin. It was like Moriarty was deprived of Sherlock Holmes and was up against Dan Dare instead (in fact, scratch that - that sounds like it would be awesome!).

The three cavemen episodes set up the regulars, and flesh out their characters. The team then start the Dalek story ready to meet the big bad nemesis and take things up a level. It wasn't planned that way, it was just luck, but it worked. To recap: our heroes are an old man so desperate not to lose his granddaughter he kidnaps two teachers rather than risk her running off if he let's the two of them go, who's willing to kill a defenceless man just so he can escape quicker. Ian isn't a saint either, he's stubborn and aggressive as well as stoic and brave, and needs Barbara to remind him of basic compassion. He likens the cavemen to animals, and has just as many issues projecting his superiority as the Doctor. Barbara can't help but follow her curiosity even when she can feel its going to lead to something terrible. Susan is hyper-intelligent but young and naive. The conflict between the regulars is also very carefully calibrated - not enough to be off-putting, but enough to develop the characters and propel the action.

Step back a moment, forget about the caveman's outfits and speech patterns being a bit risible, and see the quality and depth that's been put into the script. Imagine what the first story of a teatime kids' show could have been like, if they'd underestimated the audience: a bunch of bland people, including one unreliable oldster, adrift in time and space trying to find their way home. It could have ended up like a British Lost in Space. And Lost in Space was shit.

In Summary:
The origin, you might say. And one of the best, all four parts of it. So there.

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