Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Happy Anniversary "Doctor Who"!

47 years ago today Doctor Who debuted on television. 47 years and eleven Doctors -- the longest running sci-fi TV show ever. And it all started in 1963.

So, to commemorate, I thought I'd break the "Doctor Who Grab Bag" tradition and just review the very first episode -- "An Unearthly Child".

I'm not going to go into too much background on how the show got up an running -- it's actually a pretty long and complicated tale. Needless to say, Doctor Who didn't just spring from some writer's head, fully formed like Athena. It's also a very interesting story which gives a peek behind the curtain at how shows are brought to TV.

Second of all, there are now two different versions of "An Unearthly Child". For decades the version which was broadcast on TV was the only one people knew. In more recent years the original 'pilot' episode has been found and is available on DVD with the first serial as an extra. The pilot is slightly different -- some of the dialogue is different and some of the pacing is different but the story itself is largely the same. The pilot was produced to show to the bigwigs at the BBC to get the series finalized. The BBC asked for some changes before broadcast and so there were some script tweaks, the whole episode was actually re-shot (because editing at that time was practically non-existent so they couldn't just cut scenes or reshoot one scene and then drop it in to replace a previous scene.

For the purposes of this review I'm looking at the broadcast version rather than the pilot version.

Also, there is some argument among Who fans about this story. Some insist that "An Unearthly Child" is a story unto itself even though it leads directly into the first serial. Some say that it is merely the first installment of the larger first serial. Again, for the purposes of this review I'm treating it as a separate episode.

And now, let us meet the Doctor for the very first time!

The Plot: School teachers Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton find something strange about one of their students -- Susan Foreman. 15 year-old Susan is a curious mix of genius intellect and ignorance and she seems very much a stranger in a strange land despite the fact that she claims to be a native. Trying to solve the puzzle, Ian and Barbara follow Susan home one night to confront her about the dichotomies in her life. There they find Susan's mysterious grandfather and an even bigger mystery in who and what Susan and her grandfather are. The two teachers are about to embark on a journey of a lifetime....

My Take: It has to be said that the story suffers a bit from being studio bound. Of course most things were in those days but here there are times when you can hear the "roominess" of the sound quality and where things just look too much like a sound stage. On the other hand, though, in order to hide that sound staginess the set dressers added a lot of shadows, darkness and fog which add to the atmosphere and really give the story a creepy edge and a sense that anything can happen. The setting puts one in mind of Gothic horror rather than sci-fi and that helps make the sudden reveal of the interior of the TARDIS so surprising. We go from darkness and shadows to bright white light and gleaming chrome. It's very effective.

Modern viewers will likely find the pacing very slow. It's kind of a talky story in which everyone stands around discussing things rather than doing. It is only in the last few minutes in which everything really takes off. Some of the dialogue is a bit repetitious but there at the end everything really starts to take off. Ian and Barbara have gone from the ordinariness of their classrooms and students into another world -- one which they cannot comprehend and so they try to make up stories to convince themselves they are not seeing what they really are.

The performances, though, are pretty top notch. Again, modern viewers will like find Carol Ann Ford as Susan overplaying her part. In truth, she's a little better in the pilot version of the story. Jacqueline Hill and William Russell, however, are fine and natural as Ian and Barbara. There is also an instant chemistry -- an easy rapport between the actors -- which really sells the idea that Ian and Barbara are long-time colleagues and friends.

The biggest difference people are likely to see in in William Hartnell. Most people are used to seeing his First Doctor in his more 'grandfatherly' mode. Charming, slightly befuddled at times, and warm. Here they are introduced to a cagey old man who is arrogant and dismissive. He's actually not a very nice person and that is especially borne out by the fact that he outright kidnaps Ian and Barbara to keep them from revealing what they have seen. No, it would be several more episodes before Hartnell softened the performance.

It's also interesting to see how much is set here. The TARDIS interior would change slightly over the years but the bulk of it would retain the white color scheme and the large roundels on the walls up until the series relaunched in 2005. There is also the first appearance of the familiar dematerialization sound which is still a part of the series.

Overall, though... Unless you are a Doctor Who fan who is interested in seeing how it all started this may not be the story for you. It's a great story, it's brilliant in it's own way, but it lacks a lot of punch. In all actuality, the pilot version of the story is a bit better with some better dialogue, better explanations and a bit more moodiness. But if you have the tolerance for a slower pace and more dialogue heavy scenes "An Unearthly Child" is worth half and hour of your time. The dialogue works and none of it is clunky or stupid and, of course, the last few minutes of the story are really hard-hitting and dramatic.

It's where everything began and all of the stuff we've come to expect -- all of the roots of the show are right here for everyone to see and get re-acquainted with.

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