Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Doctor Who – Episode 1 - a review

Doctor Who – Episode 1

An Unearthly Child

A Review by Adam Manning

Doctor Who begins with the TARDIS.  After a shot of a policeman glancing at a junk yard on Totters Lane, for the first time we see the enigmatic form of a police box.  A common sight then, an item from a time gone by now, the opening sequence for Doctor Who sets a tone of mystery and forebdoing.

The episode introduces Barbara and Ian, two teachers at a school near to Totters Lane. They are an immediately attractive couple with warmth, familiarity and an understated closeness.   The subject of their conversation is one of their pupils, Susan Foreman, and her peculiar behaviour. The sense of mystery from the first scene in the junkyard is given a particular shape by the girl and this expository sequence is intriguing.

I managed to watch the pilot episode as well as the original and the differences between the two are quite telling. In the original episode that was broadcast, Susan is more innocent and sweet and seems a much more likely school girl in her mid teens than the petulant, knowing older adolescent suggested by the equivalent performance in the unaired pilot.

This engaging trio of characters propels the story along to a new scene, set back in the junkyard.  Here at last, seemingly by accident, we encounter the extraordinary character of the Doctor for the first time.  Barbara and Ian, investigating the enigma of Susan, the Unearthly Child, follow her to her purported home at Totters Lane and enter the gates that we saw in the first scene.  Susan is nowhere to be seen and then, hiding behind what looks like the remains of an old staircase, they see the figure of the Doctor, looking somewhat dandy with a smart hat and cloak.

The teachers, Ian and Barbara, are throughout touchingly concerned about their pupil and the encounter with the Doctor heightens their alarm until eventually, hearing Susan’s voice, they burst through the doors of the TARDIS and enter the fantasy world of the console room inside.  The writing and structuring is admirable as the tension builds to the point of the reveal of the inexplicably larger interior.

Though in the episode broadcast on Saturday 23rd November 2013 the Doctor grins and smiles with more impish charm than the pilot, he continues to be arrogant, condescending and a bully who ultimately cannot stop himself from acting maliciously.    This is all rather different from how the Doctor eventually became to be written.

The row between the teachers and the Doctor continues inside. The Doctor implausibly tries to explain how the interior is larger than the exterior and Susan explains that the name TARDIS was her creation, something that never again seems to fit within what we know about the Doctor’s past.  Another point of illumination comes when the Doctor gently mentions that he and Susan, his granddaughter, have had to flee from their own people and are not from Earth.  These little touches fire the imagination and the rationing of the background only increases the hunger to learn more.

This scene in the console room gives us some very memorable lines which herald so much of the series that is to come. “A thing that looks like a police box, standing in a junkyard, it can move anywhere in time and space?” This wonderful line, delivered so well by William Russell, effectively sums up the whole series for the audience in one sentence.

At another point William Hartnell, in his prime in the role that he loved, wistfully asks, “Have you ever thought what it's like to be wanderers in the Fourth Dimension? Have you? To be exiles? Susan and I are cut off from our own planet - without friends or protection. But one day we shall get back. Yes, one day....”  Again, this line helps sum up so much about the series and indeed very little background was added to the Doctor for many years beyond this point.  The whole series has been set out in a short conversation. Interestingly, it foreshadows one of Hartnell’s other most cherished performances when he says goodbye to Susan at the end of an adventure on 22nd Century Earth.

The performances are all splendid.  This scene conjures up in the imagination a wildly exciting premise for the series, breathlessly outlining that the whole universe of space and time, and perhaps even beyond, is within reach and ready to be adventurously explored.  An attractive quartet of characters already seems suitably etched in the understanding.

Given that the Doctor’s general practice now is taken to be kindly inviting his companion’s along for the ride, it is something of a shock that here the Doctor concludes the episode by kidnapping Susan’s teachers, with little justification and a certain amount of trickery.  Yet within the confines of just the episode, the Doctor has a touch of malign capriciousness.  In a way not seen really until the beginning of the new series some forty years later, the TARDIS’ passengers are thrown to the floor when it launches into whatever random journey awaits them. Barbara and Ian even pass out.

The mood of dark mystery concludes the episode as well with a final shot of the TARDIS towering over a broken wasteland while only the shadow of a new figure appears, the character himself off screen to the side, unseen.

An Unearthly Child is an impressively successful opening for Doctor Who. It’s pervading sense of mystery is applied to all of the elements of the series, with the exception of Barbara and Ian who act as a believable centre from which the rest of the imaginary world can be viewed.  The fantasy context is set out in a richly detailed manner that intrigues the audience and the sharp performances bring out the intelligence of the setting.  The setting of the old, dark junkyard, with its antiques and clutter, cleverly accentuates the brightly illuminated, futuristic minimalism of the TARDIS interior.  Perhaps reminding us where the TARDIS is standing, the interior has a few old antique chairs and what looks like a hat stand.  The console itself is a beautiful hexagonal design.

Such a stunning debut can only make the viewer wander what will come next.

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