Monday, May 21, 2012

Episodes: An Unearthly Child - An Unearthly Child

Hey, it's a new series! Not Doctor Who, that's been around for almost fifty years. No, I'm talking about this series, in my blog - I'm going to take a close look at every single episode of Doctor Who, one by one, from the very beginning. I'm calling it "Episodes", because in a fit of dullness I called my series on the companions "Companions" and now I feel obliged to continue the theme. Given how often I update my blog and how many episodes there have been, I expect none of us will live to see the finish. Let's try anyway!

One note before we begin - I never intended this blog to be a review blog. Even when I thoroughly dissect/mock/insult a comic book, I don't consider it a real review - I'm just trying to be funny, or maybe highlight something I find interesting. If you want reviews, there are plenty of places on the internet to look, most of which will do it far better than I ever could. (And - unbiased plug -  if you want some amazing analysis, particularly of the episodes commonly held to be the "worst of Doctor Who" (as if there could be such a thing), check out Philip Sandifer's marvelous Tardis Eruditorum. In fact, don't click that link, click this one, start at the beginning, and work your way forward. Go now. My stupid dirty jokes will still be here when you get back.)

All this is meant to be is a recap of the episodes paired with my response to and thoughts about them, as I watch them. I've seen them all before, I'll see them all again. And no matter how much I mock, I truly believe Doctor Who is the best show on television. Ever. If you disagree, you're wrong and something in your brain is broken. Ok, let's go!

An Unearthly Child
An Unearthly Child

I'm not sure the original arrangement of the Doctor Who theme song has ever been improved upon. It's eerie and catchy and has a driving beat and it sounds like nothing else but itself. It was composed by Ron Grainer but much of the credit really has to go to arranger Delia Derbyshire, who was responsible for the electronic ethereal sound. I enjoy the modern series' dramatic orchestral arrangements too, but given a choice, I'll stick with the original.

The titles fade to show us a policeman - the first ever actor to appear in Doctor Who, and he doesn't even appear in the credits. His name's Reg Cranfield - you're an important part of history, Reg Cranfield, and we salute you! Whoever the hell you are.

P.C. Reg is on patrol this dark and foggy night. The theme music continues to play as he checks the lock on a gate - painted on the gate is: "I. M. Foreman, Scrap Merchant, 76 Totter's Lane". All's well, and he totters off to take his place in the footnotes of sci-fi history. But the camera moves forward as the gates open, revealing a junkyard full of...well, junk. The theme music finally fades - it's really been going on for an awful long time now - as the camera pans to a police box, which I assume the kids of 1963 would have recognized. (Maybe?) Besides the incongruity of a police box in a junkyard, there's also the strange electronic hum that the music has faded into. It's pretty cool - director Waris Hussein is doing a very good job of letting us know that something very strange is going on in this junkyard, without a single word of dialogue.

In the olden days of Doctor Who, every episode had its own title, just like...just like today, actually. But for most of the show's existence, stories were divided into multiple parts with one umbrella title. Since the first few seasons had no umbrella titles for multi-part stories, there's some disagreement as to what some of those titles should be. I'm going with the ones I like best, because it's my blog. This policy will occasionally lead to me looking like my title is stuck on repeat, as with this first installment, in which I'm looking at the episode "An Unearthly Child", the first part of the serial An Unearthly Child.

The camera zooms in on the instructions posted on the door (Pull to open! Neil Gaiman will make a joke about this that doesn't quite work in about fifty years.) then dissolves to...

Coal Hill School, where football and athletics are different, I guess? Is that a British thing? Maybe the house news explains it. We hear a teacher - who we'll come to know and worship as Barbara Wright - say the very first line of dialogue ever uttered in Doctor Who - "Wait in here please, Susan. I won't be long." Say it a few times. Roll it around in your mouth. Taste the history!

But before we learn who this woman is, who Susan is, why she's waiting and what won't take long, we get a quick glimpse of some Coal Hill students, one of whom should have been nominated for a BAFTA for Best Performance by an Extra.

Two girls are walking down the corridor talking, looking at a piece of paper (presumably a graded assignment or a report card), and a boy comes up between them and pretends to join in on their conversation. He says, "Oh, yeah," in a voice dripping with mockery, and then walks away, leaving the girls shaking their heads in annoyance. It all takes about two seconds and there's seemingly no point to it. I don't know if Hussein or writer Anthony Coburn included this scene, but it's brilliant. Apart from the boy's joke being so dumb it's kind of funny, it sets up the utter normality of the Coal Hill School. It is filled with perfectly normal teenage boys and girls, worrying about their grades and teasing/flirting with each other. The show has established a normal world, with a normal school and normal teenagers, which sets the viewers up for the stark contrast with normality that's coming up. (In this episode, and for the next fifty years.)

Meanwhile, Barbara has ducked into another classroom to talk with her colleague, science teacher Ian Chesterton. Barbara teaches history, and is having a problem with one of her students, fifteen-year-old Susan Foreman. Both teachers have noticed that Susan is brilliant - Ian thinks she's holding back on revealing just how much she knows so as not to embarrass him. Barbara suggested that Susan specialize, and offered to work with her at home - Susan said that would be impossible, as her grandfather disliked strangers. (We will soon discover this to be a massive understatement.) Barbara, suspicious, got Susan's home address from the school, but when she arrived, all she found was a junkyard. Barbara suggests a stakeout - they'll drive to the junkyard, hide, and when Susan arrives they'll see where she goes and follow her. Ian agrees, because that doesn't sound as insane and possibly criminal to him as it did to you when you just read that. 

Meanwhile, back in Barbara's classroom, Susan is listening to some groovy rock and roll on her transistor radio and anachronistically dancing the hand choreography from Spring Awakening. The two teachers enter, and Ian offers Susan a ride home. Susan declines, dismissing Barbara's warning about fog and saying she likes to walk through the dark because "it's mysterious". Perhaps she doesn't know Hot Topic hasn't been established yet and she's hoping to get some shopping in on the way home.

As the teachers leave, Susan flips through the book on the French Revolution that Barbara has lent her, muttering, "That's not right!" The book has no text or pictures on the front or back covers besides the magnificently generic title, The French Revolution. I'm not sure if Susan has found a mistake, or she's just dismayed at the quality of textbook the Coal Hill School is providing for its students. (Maybe Barbara self-published?)

With Susan's book bit having given them enough time to run over to the next set (the show was filmed "as live" in those days), Ian and Barbara pull up in front of the junkyard at 76 Totter's Lane. Although Barbara insists they're there for Susan's own good, Ian suggests it's more because they're both just curious. They have a little flashback sequence, reminiscing about the various ways Susan has freaked them the hell out.

The first takes place in Barbara's history class, and it's my favorite of these three sequences because it shows Barbara not even making a token attempt to stop the students from openly mocking Susan for being different. She is seated dead center in the room while all the students laugh at her and Barbara scolds her angrily for not knowing that Britain isn't on a decimal system of currency. That open cruelty and lack of sympathy is thoroughly unlike Barbara, but I suppose it's understandable that she'd have a hard time keeping control of her class while reading in her lines off-screen from the junkyard set.

The second sequence is in Ian's class, as she argues with him that the experiment he's having them do is pointless and obvious. I only bring it up because Carol Ann Ford, who plays Susan, is marvelous in this scene, as she is throughout most of these early episodes. It's a shame how much the writers will let her down in a few stories' time - but I'm getting ahead of myself...

The teachers finish reminiscing. I kept waiting for one of them to say, "That child...she's so...unearthly," but they didn't, because Anthony Coburn is a better writer than I am. Susan arrives and enters the junkyard gate, sneaking a glance over her shoulder in a completely non-suspicious manner. Ian suggests that maybe she's just meeting a boy, and Barbara hopes she is, because "it would be so wonderfully normal." I'm wondering what kind of adolescence Barbara had, that she considers meeting a date in an abandoned junkyard normal.

The teachers follow Susan in, but there's no sign of her. After calling out for her with no response, Barbara stumbles upon the police box from the start of the episode.

They hear that same electronic hum, and Ian puts his hand on the box, feeling a vibration. (That's what she said.) They suddenly hear a loud deep cough coming from outside. It's clearly coming from a man, but Barbara still asks, "Is that her?" She gets smarter, I swear. The duo hide, and the gate opens, giving us - nearly twelve minutes into the episode - our first look at the Doctor.

He moves towards the police box and begins to open it, when Susan calls out to him from inside. Barbara calls out, "It's Susan!" and the Doctor spots them. The teachers come forward, and explain that they're looking for Susan Foreman. 

The Doctor is completely dismissive of them, and the pair quickly become convinced that something criminal is afoot, that the old man has Susan locked up in the tiny police box. William Hartnell, as the Doctor, is wonderfully sinister in this scene - in retrospect, we can see that he's trying to get rid of the teachers so he can slip into the TARDIS and get away, but watching this for the first time it's perfectly plausible that this creepy old man has a teenage girl locked up in a box.

Just look at him - madman with a box, indeed! Just as Ian is about to go and fetch a policeman, the police box door opens slightly and Susan calls out again from inside. Ian holds the Doctor off while Barbara runs through the doors.

Here's another first in an episode that is, quite naturally, full of them - the first reaction to the inside of the TARDIS, and the most believable. She doesn't say a word, she doesn't blurt out anything about it being bigger on the inside. She's completely silent, staring in incomprehension while her mind tries to take in the impossibility of what she's seeing.

Ian charges in after, and doesn't do any better. The Doctor - who is finally introduced as Susan's grandfather - spends a few minutes trying to answer the teachers' questions about where exactly they are, but nothing he says makes any sense to them.

Susan explains that they're in her grandfather's ship, called the TARDIS - a name she coined from the initials Time And Relative Dimension In Space - and that in it they can go anywhere in time and space. Barbara and Ian still don't get it, and Susan's perplexed by their lack of comprehension. The Doctor, who's been hilariously and dickishly condescending throughout this entire scene, offers a metaphor to Susan as an example: "Now, now, don't get exasperated, Susan. Remember the Red Indian. When he saw the first steam train, his savage mind thought it an illusion too." Oh 1963, you lovable old racist!

Susan and her grandfather reveal that they are from another time and another world, and that they are exiled, "wanderers in the fourth dimension", unable to return home. Barbara and Ian don't believe a word of it. Susan tries to convince the increasingly sinister Doctor that the teachers are no threat to them, but he's made up his mind - he can't let them leave.

The teachers run for the doors, but they won't open. The Doctor laughs mockingly as Ian scrambles around the control panel, trying to find the one that will open the doors.

The old man goads Ian into trying a switch, which promptly electrocutes him. The Doctor's a bad guy in this episode - have you picked up on that yet? Ian and Barbara are the stars of this show; our demi-title character is their antagonist.

Susan begs the Doctor to let the teachers go, but he insists that if they do, the Doctor and Susan will have to leave as well to avoid being hounded by the authorities when Ian and Barbara tell the world. Susan declares she won't leave the twentieth century, that she's never been happier, and that she'll stay behind if the Doctor leaves. Surprisingly, her grandfather quickly agrees, and moves to the console to open the doors. Of course, he's lying, and instead he sets the ship in flight.

The Doctor's decision to kidnap the school teachers has come in for a lot of criticism as irrational - why not just let them go, and take off with Susan? But Susan has just insisted she'll stay behind if he leaves - if he opens the doors to let the teachers go, she'll run out right behind them and he may never see her again. What I find more interesting are the choices he offered Susan before she gave her ultimatum - he lets them go and he and Susan leave Earth, or he doesn't let them go and he and Susan stay. But suppose Susan had agreed to this, and wanted to stay? Did he plan on keeping Ian and Barbara prisoner in the TARDIS forever? Throughout this scene Susan seems absolutely terrified on behalf of these teachers she's grown so fond of, but the idea that her grandfather would kidnap them doesn't occur to her, so...what's she afraid of? Is the Doctor willing to murder Ian and Barbara to keep his granddaughter safe? Given how much of a threat the show is painting the Doctor as, I think that seems likely. It's only when he sees that Susan is willing to leave him forever to stay with them that he chooses what he sees as the only remaining option - take them all away.

Susan tries to wrestle him away from the console, but he fights her off. The take-off is presented far more dramatically than it will be in later episodes - Ian and Barbara pass out, London recedes on the monitor, and that weird camera effect from the opening credits superimposes itself over everybody's faces. I suppose it would have gotten pretty tiresome to do this every time the TARDIS takes off for the next fifty years, but it certainly does establish the ship's flight as a very big deal.

In the quiet moment after their landing, we see, just for a second, a look on the Doctor's face that might possibly be regret. William Hartnell is a good actor. Forget about the fluffed lines that he becomes unfairly known for. He's very good, and that's all I'll say about that. (Not that I'm not going to make fun of the fluffed lines once they start happening.)

Outside, we see that the ship has landed on a barren landscape, and a sinister shadow appears, watching. Next Episode - The Cave of Skulls!

Sneak preview - it is not nearly as exciting as it sounds.


  1. I hope you are going to continue the companion posts as well--I really enjoy those.

  2. I do plan too, although I have a few other posts I'll probably get to first. Jamie's next up, and that'll probably be a big one!