Thursday, 27 December 2007

The Original Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child (Story 1, 1963)

English Science Fiction has always enjoyed a wonderful, offbeat, colorful status relative to that coming out of North America. In the colonies, there has never been a shortage of googly-eyed monsters, flying cars, Disnified or Roddenberried visions of futuristic technotopias, or Joseph Campbell-style mythology dressed-up with laser swords and space ships. But compare that to the sheer wry madness of British Sci-Fi, and especially the chief amongst them...

When setting out in the early 1960's to develop new children's programming in a Sci-Fi vein, the British Broadcasting Company was very specific about what they did not want to see: the illiterate style of American drive-in monster movies. The BBC did have a few previous successes to work from, including a live teleplay of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine in 1949, the mysteriously disastrous first manned flight in space in 1953's The Quartermass Experiment, and the astronomer Fred Hoyle-penned 1961 series A for Andromeda, about a radio signal from space that instructs humanity to build a supercomputer that in turn gives them instructions on how to create an alien woman. In an interoffice memo, it was determined that the subjects faring best for the new show were psychic phenomena and time travel. Time travel would be especially preferred, since it could fill the quota for educational content by having the characters go back in time to historically and scientifically important periods.

Not long thereafter, the first and best of that (literally) immortal icon of Science Fiction debuted: Doctor Who.


Of course, the good Doctor has changed quite a lot since 1963. Not the least of those changes have been the actor: to compensate for new actors taking over the role, the mythology of the Time Lords of the planet Gallifrey was developed, each of whom can regenerate themselves 12 times into whole new bodies and personalities. Most audiences in North America remember Tom Baker's pacesetting performance as the Fourth Doctor, with his floppy hat, grinning English smile, six+ foot scarf and robot dog K-9 in tow. Baker has faced stiff competition from the latest, Tenth Doctor David Tennant, whose high octane adventures through time and space have made the character more popular than ever.

Of the ten actors to portray the Time Lord, only a select few have really been able to capture the essence of The Doctor. Granted, all have done a fine job of acting like The Doctor... but some are The Doctor. Baker and Tennant are among them. Another is Paul McGann, who served as the Eighth Doctor in only one television movie and is otherwise filling out his role through audio-dramas. Despite the quality of his movie, McGann certainly looks exactly like how one might envision a British time traveller, complete with frock coat, cravat and pocket watch.

Age the youthful McGann about 70 years, and he could easily be the First Doctor. Played by William Hartnell, this ancient, irascible old codger in Edwardian garb is the quintessential Doctor. He is no stuntman, that is for sure, and that changes the pace of his adventures from what modern viewers might expect. However, if handed a description of Doctor Who the program, the condescending but grandfatherly old rogue scientist portrayed by Hartnell is likely what one would come up with.


In this legendary initial story arc, we are introduced to Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright - a high school science teacher and history teacher respectively - who are vexed over a strange student of theirs, Susan Foreman. Susan, it seems, has knowledge far outstripping that of even the most advanced thinkers of Earth, while at the same time having a very poor grasp of everyday, local affairs (for example, she was shocked and embarrassed at forgetting that England was "still" on the Imperial measurement system "at this time" rather than on Metric). Taking matters into their own hands, they follow her home one night... to a junkyard in Totter's Lane.

In the junkyard, with Susan nowhere to be found, they run afoul of a bitter old man until they hear her voice coming out of a blue police telephone box. Despite the efforts of the old man to stop them, they burst into the box to rescue Susan, only to find that somehow, it's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Fearing reprisals by both the authorities of Earth and of his home planet - from which he and Susan are on the run - this old man called The Doctor closes the door of the strange ship and spirits the pair of teachers back to the year 100,000 BC.

At this point, we launch into the ostensibly educational, historical content that makes the first Doctor Who adventures so unique. Viewers, originally a Sunday audience of children, are treated to a barren, ice swept prehistoric world where cavemen live by one rule: he who commands fire, commands all.

Much of earth in 100,000 BC stretches any scientific credulity, to be sure. What it lacks in hard science, however, it makes up for in good cinematography and some surprisingly intelligent writing. There are points when this glimpse into man's conquest of fire is more genuinely engaging that it really ought to be. Though it does help that the titles of the various episodes melodramatically fire up the imagination: "The Cave of Skulls", "The Forest of Fear" and so on. Nevertheless, two of Doctor Who's traditional hallmarks are here from the outset in quality writing and directing compensating for terrible costumes, sets and effects. It's only the modern Doctor who would benefit from cinema-quality aliens and environments. Back in 1963, it's pure Science Fiction cheese that rises above the occasion.

This impromptu crew survives its first adventure in prehistory, but it won't be that easy. The Doctor had to beat a hasty retreat from his home planet aboard a ship - "Time And Relative Dimension In Space" or the TARDIS - that he doesn't really know how to work quite properly yet and which seems to be broken. That its chameleon circuit is locked in the shape of a 1960's British police call box is the least of its problems. There is no way to program the ship to return to Ian and Barbara's own time. They are lost in space, and their next destination is a desolate world called "Skaro", with its inhuman occupants, the villainous Daleks...

2 comments:

Biblioadonis aka George said...

Wow...

Another Dr. Who/Disney Geek.

Who knew there were two of us?

I do think that David Tennant is the best. But I really like the sixth Doctor, too.

Cory The Raven said...

I wodner what is in the water/kool-aid to get us loving both Disney and the Doctor? ^_^

Something never quite sat right with me about Colin Baker. But then, I never really got that acquainted with the Doctors beside the 1st, 4th, 5th, 8th, 9th and 10th.