Saturday, 6 June 2009

Doctor Who: An Unearthly 100,000BC of Gum

And so it properly begins...

An Unearthly Child

"This doesn't roll along on wheels, you know!"

There are many small differences from the pilot episode here, but I feel by far the most significant is the Kenneth Williams impression at the start*. Doctor Who just wouldn't have turned out quite as good without this, I feel...

The direction shows the same brilliance we saw in the pilot, although downsides include the contents of the junkyard (not as visually impressive) and Susan's dancing (marginally less funky this time round, I feel). But the real big change here is the character of the Doctor. Yes, a lot of the lines are different, but it's largely the subtly different way that William Hartnell pitches his performance that makes him crucially that much more likeable. The chuckle is less sinister, and the absent-mindedness is played up so as to soften the edges of the character.

The Doctor's line about the "savage mind" of the "Red Indian" raised an eyebrow. Appropriate in a series from 1963 that we get such a Mad Men moment...

One connection I've never made before is the scene in the classroom when Susan insists to Ian that she can't just use A, B and C to represent the three dimensions. Apparently D (time) and E ("space!") are also needed. Could this be foreshadowing the dimensions of the TARDIS interior, with the bigger inside being evidence of an extra dimension, "E"?

Feel free to give me a virtual slap if that was overly pretentious.

A brilliant episode, probably one of my favourite pieces of drama ever.

The Cave of Skulls

"Just open the doors, Dr Foreman!"

"Eh? Doctor Who? What are you talking about?"

The cavemen we see here are very stereotypical, with no attempt at accurately depicting the palaeolithic. But then again this is allegory, not history as such, so perhaps we shouldn't judge it on those terms. This isn't really a historical, but a socio-political allegorical play (this is very theatre-influenced telly, more Armchair Theatre than Forbidden Planet) with the tribe as a very simplified microcosm of society. No doubt there'll be some political overtones along later! The language used by the cavemen is very interesting- very heightened and stylised, with a definite rhythm and everyone articulating their thoughts very directly. All the Stone Age figures are very childlike- Za is particular seems to be basically all id.

Incidentally, are they eating their meat raw without fire? Is this safe?

The scene where Ian and Barbara leave the TARDIS and step into an unknown environment for the first time is wonderfully written and performed. Some great dialogue: "If you could touch the alien sands and hear the cries of strange birds and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?"

The exterior scenes are cleverly shot, with the angles not making it too obvious what a small studio this was all being filmed in! Although that obvious polystyrene rock in the cave is a bit unfortunate.

The Doctor smokes the coolest pipe I have ever seen. But unfortunate consequences follow, leading to Susan going hysterical. This is the point where she starts to really annoy me for the first time...

Oh, and "Fire will kill us all in the end!" Bit of a nuclear weapons subtext here, methinks!

Overall, great drama, and in my opinion totally undeserving of its reputation as a boring runaround so far- the story's on course for a 5/5. But we shall see...

*As pointed out in the Discontinuity Guide. It's particularly hard to review this story without unknowingly plagiarising other people, I've read so many reviews over the years...

The Forest of Fear

"Fear makes companions of all of us, Miss Wright."

Ian says "split right open", not "split open!" They obviously redid the reprise! This manages to look impressive in spite of clearly not being overburdened with cash, and lot of that is down to Waris Hussein's direction. By avoiding wide shots and being clever with his camera angles he even manages to make tiny Lime Grove not look absurd when supposed to be a forest.

Barbara's been the most level-headed character, so it's genuinely shocking when she becomes hysterical, really bringing home the situation they're all in. It must be said, Jacqueline Hill does hysterical acting slightly better than Carole Ann Ford.

We now have a power struggle between Ian and the Doctor (the males, I notice!) over leadership of their "tribe"; by now it's clear that the TARDIS "tribe" and Za's tribe are being written to parallel each other in some rather interesting ways.

Interesting how Hur is shown to be both brighter and more courageous than Za; she manipulates him into following the escaped prisoners.

The Doctor is much more than the antihero of legend here; he's seriously nasty to a degree not often acknowledged, and hard to accept as the Doctor we would get to know- this is more reminiscent of the Doctor of the pilot. He shows no empathy for the injured Za, is impatient with the others when they tend to him and, most noticeably, seems to almost give up in despair in the Cave of Skulls. Babs gets a great line: "You treat everybody and everything as something less important than yourself!" It's Ian and Barbara who are the heroes of this programme.

Hur does not understand the concept of altruism, and is genuinely confused as to why they are helping Za. But the Doctor's attitude is not far removed. Whether or not he means to kill Za, it's certainly performed that way. the look Ian gives the Doctor afterwards seems to leave little room for doubt. This is a very different Doctor, and it's genuinely hard to imagine it can be the same character. These unpleasant aspects won't so much be developed as quietly dropped later.

A character called "Old woman", eh? Could Anthony Coburn not think of a name?

The Firemaker

"Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe".

Suddenly, the Doctor starts being useful- his trick with the knife is very clever. Kal's a bit thick really, whereas Za is shown as capable of learning things.

Oh look- it's a fight, and the first of many rather obvious film sequences. It's also patently obvious that Ka and Za are not interacting with any of the others. But of course Za comes out on top- he has learned the value of community while Kal is still stuck in the selfish individualism of the tribe. There's a definite theme of community versus individualism going on here and we can see it in the dynamics of the TARDIS tribe as much as Za's- both tribes gradually learn these lessons throughout the story. It's often said that the plot of this story is basically escape, get recaptured, escape, get recaptured. But that's missing the point- the real story is both the TARDIS crew and the tribe learning to depend on each other rather than just themselves. I don't know why, but I somehow suspect Anthony Coburn was not exactly an ardent Thatcherite.

Hee hee. They're just running on the spot while being brushed with twigs. An oddly unnecessary embarrassing moment.

An historic moment- the very first TARDIS dematerialisation as seen from outside! Although it's unfortunate that most of the following TARDIS interior scene takes place in front of what is clearly a cardboard photographic blow-up of the TARDIS roundels! You can get away with so much in black and white...

Tsk... bloody Susan and her radiation gauge! Bet she was the one in charge at Chernobyl...

Overall, a fantastic start. It's often said that the last three episodes are a dull runaround, but I found them gripping throughout with excellent writing, direction and performances. Perhaps the tone was a bit off for a family show at times, and the characterisation of the Doctor seriously misguided, but I won't argue with the quality of the drama. Easily a 5/5.

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