Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Classic Who: The Beginning [An Unearthly Child]



Courtesy of BritBox, I am doing the sort of beginning to end view of classic Doctor Who (1963-1989) I always wanted to. Oh, there's a bunch of unavailable episodes and missing episodes too, but as a long-time fan of the show, I only have seen the Pertwee Era through Sylvester McCoy, and now I can make serious inroads into the Hartnell and Troughton eras, of which I've only seen isolated stories.

(Any idea where I can find the dreaded recons, y'all?)

So, to make the exercise more edifying, I'm watching only as I work out (yay, reason for fitness!), and will add some thoughts on each story as a recurring feature on the blog.

Tonight: An Unearthly Child

Properly speaking, the first episode is part of the larger story called by this title, or 100,000 BC. Improper speaking has its uses, however; I actually think that Phil Sandifer is right to break out this first episode from the larger story:
An Unearthly Child was rewritten by Anthony Coburn from an original script by C.E. Webber, and was reshot before transmission, both facts that I think serve to separate it in a meaningful sense from the three episodes that follow. Thus I, in a viewpoint that has essentially no credibility in mainstream fandom, opt to treat An Unearthly Child as a one-episode story preceding a three-episode story entitled 100,000 BC.)

An Unearthly Child is a simple character piece. Only four characters meaningfully appear - Susan Foreman, a teenage girl, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton, a pair of her teachers, and The Doctor, her cranky old grandfather. The story is mostly about Susan - the eponymous child lacking earthiness. Her teachers are at once enamored with her and scared of her. Enamored because she is a genius, and they know it. Scared because she is the wrong sort of genius. She knows things that people aren't meant to know. She speaks of the future - at times quite rightly. In a moment of inadvertent brilliance that makes this episode sing nearly 50 years later, she predicts the decimalization of British currency, though the writers could not have possibly known about it.

So this is where it starts. A mysterious Police Box, and a magical girl, and a mystery that two regular, unimportant people can't quite get over. A mystery that brings them out on a cold London night to 76 Totters Lane to try to find out where this girl came from. There, they meet an old man. Smug, superior, and unfriendly, he does not want them there. This is his mysterious girl, and his mystery.

And then it goes wrong. They force themselves past him, into the blue box, and fall out of the world and into another. It is another triumph of design in the show - a stark white of iconic 60s futurism would age gracefully into retro-futurism. And, of course, bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
A long quote from another writer in what purports to be my own reaction. But Sandifer puts it very well. A few thoughts of my own:

1. The atmospheric opening, with the Delia Derbyshire version of the theme, complete with that really nifty middle eight, is both unlike anything else I've ever seen on Doctor Who, and yet somehow prophetic of the show as a whole. What with the foggy night, the helmeted policeman, and the dingy grey palate, we could be watching Odd Man Out, the morbid noir featuring--oh, right, that'd be William Hartnell. So right off the bat, we're off-balance. The Doctor in his first appearance (billed, as he would be for much of the old show's run, as "Doctor Who"), is everything Sandifer says, but he doesn't mention the hint of cruelty in the Doctor's electrification of the console, and stepping away from it to let Ian try to open the door. The Doctor is uneasy, afraid, and to cover his fear, he is mocking and derisive--almost all his lines are gibes at Ian and Barbara, and even Susan.

2. Or he's genuinely mean. We don't know, yet, not really. I mean, we're a grand total of 25 minutes into the longest serialized sci-fi show in history. Maybe the hints of fear and concern I'm reading into Hartnell's performances aren't really there--I could be retrojecting elements of the Doctor as he becomes into this maiden voyage.

We're in the land of C.S. Lewis; like Aslan, the Doctor isn't tame.

But he may--just may--be good.

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