Thursday, 20 January 2011

TV Review 1: An Unearthly Child, written by Anthony Coburn (1963) – 10/10

Broadcast: 23rd November – 14th December 1963

The Doctor – William Hartnell
Susan Foreman – Carole Ann Ford
Ian Chesterton – William Russell
Barbara Wright – Jacqueline Hill
Za – Derek Newark
Hur – Alethea Charlton
Old Mother – Eileen Way
Kal – Jeremy Young
Horg – Howard Lang

Main Production Credits

Producer – Verity Lambert
Story Editor – David Whitaker
Writer – Anthony Coburn
Director – Waris Hussein
Designer – Peter Brachacki (Episode 1 only) and Barry Newbery
Costumes – Maureen Heneghan
Incidental Music – Norman Kay
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Special Sound – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):
Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, two school teachers from Coal Hill School, are perplexed by a mysterious student of theirs – Susan Foreman. One night, to satisfy their curiosity, the two teachers follow Susan to her home address, and find only an abandoned Police Telephone Box in an old junkyard. However, the Police Box is more than it appears. Upon forcing themselves inside, Ian and Barbara discover that the Police Box is in reality a Space and Time Travel Machine that is incredibly bigger on the inside than out. Within the machine are Susan, and her equally mysterious grandfather, who only refers to himself as ‘The Doctor’. The old man though, refuses to let Ian and Barbara go, now that they have discovered the Space/Time Ship, called a ‘TARDIS’, and instead sets the craft in motion. Once the Ship stops, they all find themselves back in time to just after the Ice Age, where a tribe of Prehistoric Man is trying to re-discover the secret of fire. The four Time Travellers are forced to stick together in order to survive, and eventually escape this barbaric period of Human History.

Story Placement
Between Time and Relative (Telos Novella) and The Daleks (TV Episode)

Favourite Lines
Barbara Wright – ‘Silly isn’t it. I feel if we’re about to interfere in something that is best left alone.’
The Doctor – ‘The point is not whether you understand...what is going to happen to you?’
Barbara Wright – ‘But you are one of us! You look like us, you sound like us...’
Susan – ‘I was born in another time, another world.’

The Doctor – ‘If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds, and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?’

The Doctor – ‘Fear makes companions of all of us, Miss Wright.’

The beginning of all beginnings. In fact, I’d even argue that An Unearthly Child is the best beginning of any TV show, ever. Forget Spearhead From Space, Rose, or The Eleventh Hour, the first episode of An Unearthly Child is the best introduction that Doctor Who could ever have. The genius of that first episode is of course the fact that the story is told through the lives and actions of The Doctor’s future companions rather than those of The Doctor himself, a setup which has been copied and used as a template for many Doctor Who stories over the decades that followed. This approach not only effectively conveys the more human aspects of the situation, but also makes the story much more fascinating and interesting to watch, as the audience are removed from any preconceptions about the story (and the programme), which creates a genuine sense of mystery and foreboding that grips the viewer throughout.
The mystery is also upheld through the masterful characterisations of the Doctor and Susan, who both betray an aloof, but cold detachment from their surroundings – a clever way of hinting at their true alien natures. Susan in particular is quite nervous, perhaps as a result of being less experienced to Time Travel than the Doctor, but is rather dreamy too, which also adds to her mystery, and makes the story more compelling. The Doctor is equally, if not more compelling in his first appearance. He comes across as a sharp-witted, whimsical and very elusive character, while clearly being highly intelligent, only explains and reveals what he has to. His secretive and slightly mercurial nature created a layer of mystery around the character that we only really began to understand at the climax of The War Games, six years later.
It’s worth noting at this point that the interpretations of these characters were originally much darker and harsher in the Pilot episode (which was an earlier trial production of the first episode of An Unearthly Child). Here, the two alien time travellers were much colder, but also had much more great lyrical dialogue that was immensely quotable like:
The Doctor – ‘We are not of this race. We are not of this Earth. We are wanderers in the fourth dimensions of space and time...’
The Doctor – ‘Think what would have happened to the ancient Romans, if they’d possessed the power of        gunpowder; if Napoleon had been given the secret of the aeroplane? No my child, we both know that we cannot let our secret loose into the world of the twentieth century!
Susan – ‘But you can’t keep them prisoners here!
Ian – ‘You can’t keep us prisoners anywhere’.
The Doctor – ‘I cannot let you go school teacher. Whether you believe what you have been told is of no importance! You and your companion would be footprints in a time where you were not supposed to have walked’.

However, it’s easy to see why these versions of the characters were softened up in the reshoot of the first episode. These would be the regulars that the audience and even children would have to relate to week after week. Despite how much great drama there is to watch and hear in the pilot episode as a result of the more darkly defined Doctor and Susan, to insure Doctor Who’s appeal, it was just as much a good thing to make them warmer and more likeable.
The other two central characters, Ian and Barbara are very strong too. Ian is a very charming and dynamic gentleman who was intended to be the hero of the programme in its early stages, but thankfully becomes so much more due to his down-to-earth nature. Barbara on the other hand is a conscientious and caring woman that has been slightly hardened by her life experiences, and yet is also very independent and open-minded. The framing of their characters as school teachers also gives them a welcome air of authority, which comes in handy very quickly when they have to confront the difficult Doctor. Both of them are two of Doctor Who’s most believable characters ever, and also two of the strongest companions in the show’s entire history.
Back to the story though, the introduction of the TARDIS ten minutes before the end of the first episode is a supreme game-changing moment for the story, let alone the series itself. Although we seasoned Doctor Who viewers often take the TARDIS for granted as a mere plot device these days, the dramatic impact made by its first arrival into the programme cannot be overestimated. This defining television moment exploded the scale of the story from an intriguing, gripping and personal mystery to an adventure into Time and Space that could literally go anywhere. It was a moment that was truly magical, and yet feels far more fascinating and substantial than the magic doors of Alice in Wonderland and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that have clearly inspired part of it, perhaps due to the glorious technological machinery that the TARDIS appears to show us. Other viewers may see the original TARDIS interior as cheap and cumbersome, but I don’t. It still looks as amazing to me as an adult, as it did when I was a child.
We then move into the iconic first take-off sequence that is very cleverly done through the eyes of the TARDIS as London disappears into the mystical waves and shapes of what would much later be termed as the Time Vortex, created in the same manner as parts of the programme’s original title sequence. At this point I feel I should also praise the work of both Bernard Lodge and the Radiophonic Workshop.

With the help of Norman Taylor (BBC Technical Operations Manager who originally created the effect) and Hugh Sheppard (Camera Operator), Bernard Lodge discovered a new form of visual video effect, created from inducing video feedback when an operating camera is pointed at the monitor screen through which the camera’s signal is broadcast back to the production team (these days a director). The effect occurred when a stray light hit the monitor screen, and sent the video feedback into ‘swirling’ images of black and white (quoted from Norman Taylor). The famous titles were created when the feedback was induced deliberately and mixed with the standard white caption of ‘Doctor Who’ into the camera as a further experiment. The result is to be frank, amazing. In fact I would say this is probably Doctor Who’s best ever title sequence ever. No I’m not just saying that for sake of this review, I really do think it’s the best. Sure it may not be in colour, and the quality of the raw titles footage may have deteriorated a bit over the many decades, but the patterns created look so natural, that they can’t help but be immensely captivating and fascinating to watch. The flow of the white shapes and lines are so unusual, but seem so real, like the movement and flicker of fire flames that you really can imagine that the Space/Time Vortex is unfolding past you. Furthermore, because of how natural and real it looks, it will always be better than any amount of expensive CGI because it appears alive and uncontrollable like nature itself unlike the calculated and moderated images from a computer. In short the discovery of this new technique, later termed as the ‘howlaround’ effect, is nothing short of genius – which is also why it is so enthralling to see an extended version on the TARDIS take-off sequence.
The sound of the TARDIS itself was also pure genius too. Created by Brian Hodgson as part of the now legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop, it really does feel like the sound of the Universe, as you hear the audible ‘tearing of the fabric of reality’, as Hodgson so eloquently put it himself, and is every bit as iconic now as the image of the the old 1960’s blue Police Box that represents the exterior of the TARDIS. An even greater legend came out of the Radiophonic Workshop however – Delia Derbyshire. Just as John Barry did with Monty Norman’s James Bond theme, Delia took the basic original composition from Ron Grainer and expanded upon it, determining what would become the definitive sound of what Doctor Who music should be like. Of course, the majority of her musical input into Doctor Who rarely ventured beyond its title theme, but what a title theme it is! Delia Derbyshire took one written composition, arranged and realised it electronically to create a visionary masterpiece of electronic music, and the best TV theme of all time! Such is the sheer quality and cultural impact of the music she created, that her original 1963 arrangement of the theme stands as a major and key piece in the entire history of electronic music that in my mind at least, is unsurpassed. The legacy of Delia Derbyshire’s work (as well as the Doctor Who theme) stands as a beacon of achievement to all students and lovers of music everywhere.
Back to An Unearthly Child, the first episode ends on another iconic image, as the TARDIS’ Police Box exterior stands alone in a barren desert, in the large shadow of a bemused caveman...
Unfortunately, here’s where the critical consensus ends. Almost everyone agrees to the brilliance of Doctor Who’s opening episode. As to the remaining three episodes of An Unearthly Child though, the perceived critical opinion is that they are of little to no consequence. A failed early experiment into the ‘historical’ format of Doctor Who stories, and is best ignored in favour of The Daleks. However, as you can probably tell by my rating of the story, I greatly disagree with the critical reading of those episodes. It is true that there are small periods of padding in the script, particularly in episodes 3 and 4, as the Time Travellers escape, get recaptured, and then escape again. However, if you look in detail at the journeys of the four lead characters throughout episodes 2 to 4, you’ll see that the real story behind An Unearthly Child, aside from the first episode introduction, is not about how a tribe of Cavemen regain the secret of Fire, but in fact how our 4 new lead characters react to this hostile world, which although our own, is just as alien a world as Skaro would be in The Daleks, a couple of episodes later. The story is also about how the four Time Travellers go from being strangers, unwillingly thrown together into an impossible situation, to eventually come together to survive, beginning a big character story arc, concluding in The Edge of Destruction, as the four leads gradually turn into the heroes we know and love.
So in short An Unearthly Child is an experiment, but it’s an experiment into what makes our characters tick. For instance, Susan becomes tense and occasionally hysterically at being faced with their difficult situation, but quickly moves into action when called for. Meanwhile Barbara’s strong composure falls away to uncertainty and feelings of helplessness, but holds onto her moral instincts for strength, as signified by her support of Za, after being badly wounded by a Tiger. Ian, on the other hand, like any other sure-minded scientist, finds himself in denial, but doesn’t take long to accept humble pie; becoming the better man and supportive friend that Barbara needs him to be. The Doctor though is the one going through the most fascinating character development.
After his smug little victory over Ian, he is frustrated by the breakdowns of the TARDIS’ instrumentation. During the Caveman encounter he cleverly manoeuvres himself in order to stay alive, but unlike the now wiser Ian, actually remains in denial when he is at fault. At this stage the Doctor is still very much of an anti-hero, and quite a cold character in the manner of his thinking. This is represented best when the Doctor is caught by Ian with the Caveman’s rock knife, in a great moment, when it’s subtly suggested that the Doctor was about to ruthlessly murder Za so the Time Travellers could make good on their first escape. Some commentators have oddly railed against this scene, claiming that the Doctor is acting out of character, but because this occurs a good number of episodes before the resolution of the Doctor’s character arc (and change in character) from anti-hero to hero in the last part of The Edge of Destruction, I would suggest that actually this is completely in character. Perhaps some of those commentators were purely thinking in terms of the way we know the character of the Doctor to be during the majority of the programme and failed to notice this point.
So as our Time Travellers unknowingly leave for their famous visit to Skaro, I ask you to look back and notice An Unearthly Child’s true worth. It was an experimental first leap for a programme that had yet to find its feet, but my goodness what a giant leap it is. An Unearthly Child is a truly groundbreaking story, not just because it started Doctor Who off to a resounding success (even if not all the viewers realised it at the time), but also because it is a groundbreaking piece of television too. It set the template for many good drama pilots to come and many more besides. However, even its success would be partially swept away in memory by some of the many great adventures that were to come...

Score: 10/10