Sunday, 29 December 2013

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

(If this post were to have an Avengers-style subtitle, it would be, In which we discover what the team who created Adam Adamant Lives did before they created Adam Adamant Lives.) Blogging is a funny thing: once you start a blog it seems to take on a life & direction of its own, dragging its author behind it. It can also be very therapeutic, because the blog can show the blogger what he's actually thinking: if you keep it with any regularity there is no real hiding! The point of this is that when I started this blog I said to myself that I would not blog about The Prisoner (way over-analysed on the internet already), or about Doctor Who (far too much competition). I've already found myself breaking one of these decisions: this post marks my breaking the other one. Don't get me wrong, the tags list at the top of the page will show that I'm hardly the sort of person who would *not* watch Doctor Who, & indeed I do, in fits & starts. My favourite Doctor is Christopher Eccleston, & the one I grew up with was Tom Baker. Sadly my associations for this adventure are almost completely negative: it was broadcast when I was a child, it must have been around the time of The Five Doctors, & I can remember a friend, who was much more into sci fi than I've ever been, talking excitedly with his mother about this broadcast.
I, however, was bitterly disappointed when I first saw the first episode of the first Doctor Who adventure. To me it creaked like an old gate: coming to it 30 years later it obviously still creaks like an even older gate, but I suppose my tastes have matured somewhat in this time. It is a little surprising that I could not take to it, since it was with that family (possibly a few years later) I first saw The Prisoner, & around that time I was watching repeats of The Avengers, which changed my outlook on the world forever. I have only just discovered that Doctor Who was intended to have a serious educational purpose, in the field of history, obviously. This BBC milieu is what differentiates this ( &, to a lesser extent, Adam Adamant) from the other series I will typically write about in this blog: Doctor Who is BBC, the others will always only ever be ITV. At this time there was an intellectual, almost class, division between BBC & ITV viewers: the BBC boradcast worthy, intellectual things, you got more plain entertainment on ITV. It was exactly the same divide as a generation before, between theatre & music hall.
Coming back to it, I don't dislike Unearthly Child in the way I did when I was one myself. I do think it surprising that it birthed a series which is still going fifty years later. Unearthly Child is frankly something of a dog's dinner of a plot. The majority of it was supposed to be the second episode, but when the production of the first episode fell through parts of that were bolted onto the second episode & Unearthly Child is the love child that resulted.
Around this time Cathy Gale-era Avengers episodes were being broadcast on ITV: in Avengers terms it is usual to think (in the absence of the rest of Series 1) of those as being the earliest production values. I would venture to say that this comes across as earlier. It seems much less sophisticated, it feels much more like a stage play. The cave people are frankly unconvincing. The production moves at the pace of a very elderly debilitated snail.
William Hartnell is for me the high point of this adventure: I'm only surprised to find he was only 55 when this was made: I have commented before on how often people in old telly shows look older than a lot of people that age do now, & have been forced to put it down to more smoking. He died at only 67 of heart failure. His character is supposed to be old, he is placed as a grandfather, he refers to himself as old, but is one of the liveliest things in this adventure, so lively. He brings a remarkable vividness to the character. The reason he was cast as a grandfather was to avoid any suggestion of sexual impropriety in him having a female travelling companion: no fear of that now! I am pleased with the changes made in Susan's personality between the unaired & final first episodes: in the original version she comes across as most peculiar. Her teachers make out that she's like 'other' humans, but she's not really!
If I had to compare this to something, in production terms (obviously not plot) it feels like Quatermass. I'm sure I'll review tham at some point. It's a pity: the issues of escape, evasion, culture shock, & co-operation that are very well raised in this adventure leave me relatively cold, largely because I just don't take to the caveman setting. Of course what I'm really writing about here is the historic moment at which the world first heard the Tardis sound effect, produced in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop with a piano & a key. This is of course another historical thing, now closed for nearly 20 years, which is also soo old-fashioned in the way sound effects would have been produced in the 50s & 60s. As a child I wanted to work in the Radiophonic Workshop particularly, or I would have settled for anything in television I suppose. Not Blue Peter though, don't be silly.
It is only looking at it now I'm struck by the interesting role played by the TARDIS. When I first saw Doctor Who, police boxes were already long-gone. The received wisdom, as we know, was that the TARDIS would morph into a shape to fit in, but got stuck in police box mode. This is obviously true, but doesn't describe the appearance of the TARDIS in this episode: a police box would not have been in a scrap yard, it would not have fitted in at all. What the TARDIS's appearance really indicates, is that the Doctor, or the technology, has got it slightly wrong. This is a recurring theme here, the Doctor ought to fit in but there's always something slightly wrong. His Edwardian clothes in the 1960s are another example.
So all in all, coming back to this adventure, it's pretty much what I expected it to be. It has some fairly major weaknesses of writing - especially being two episodes bolted together - & generally gives little suggestion of surviving to be the cult season it later became, aided of course by the useful get-out that it helps to have different actors play the Doctor. I don't feel I'll be rushing to watch it again, but it's not bad for a moment in history.
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