Doctor Who (Classic Series): An Unearthly Child parts 2-4

Overview

These three episodes constitute the first adventure by a TARDIS crew in Doctor Who. This adventure is marked by angry, resentment, and fear. Even though they follow closely from the events of An Unearthly Child, I have chose to group them separately to evaluate this story on its own merits. These episodes were written by Anthony Coburn and directed by Waris Hussein

making-fire
Making fire. Copyright BBC.

Story

The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan awake from their struggle to find they are in a new time period. While never explicitly stated in the story, it is clear that the author intended the setting to be prehistoric humanity. This is a story of tribes learning to work together, the Tribe of Gum and what I teasingly refer to as the Tribe of TARDIS. The Doctor is still dismissive of Ian and Barbara, but he no longer fears them. He has cast them all into the same fate. In some way, it seems the Doctor no longer cares what happens to the two teachers. He is now involved in figuring out where he is. Wandering off on his own, he is captured by a Kal, a prehistoric hunter who saw the Doctor light a pipe. Seeing the fire, Kal figured he could gain influence over the Tribe because “the leader is the one who makes fire.” Having lost his matches, the Doctor is powerless to grant Kal’s wishes. The time travelers are held captive as pawns in the power struggle between the outsider Kal and Za, the son of the former leader.

Characters

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Main cast. Copyright BBC.

In general, the characters are good. There is clear characterization and growth, especially among the leads, but not limited to them. Za and Hur grow and change as a result of their experiences with the Doctor and his companions. This change is believable. They incorporate the new information into their contextual framework. Coburn doesn’t present the time travelers as enlightened figures imparting modern ideals to the past, with Za and Hur accepting them and finding similar enlightenment. Such plotting would be a strong marker for bad historical fiction. Za is intrigued by the wisdom the travelers offer, but he still filters such wisdom through his historical context. This is what I appreciate about good historical fiction: the humans do no have our perspective. They are foreign; they are alien. Great change, then, is gradual and takes time. The change that the Doctor and his companions bring to the Tribe is not a change that upsets human history.

Sadly, the only problem I have with character in this story is Susan. Having seen the unaired pilot, I know that Carole Ann Ford could play the character different. Unfortunately, that version of the character was scrapped. Instead, we are given Susan Foreman as a teenager that seems more human than alien. I think that Susan was done the greatest injustice in this early era of the show, as she was typically written and portrayed as panicky, flighty, and silly. I think they were trying to make a character the kids could identify with, but in the end, the character often doesn’t work. I look forward to revisiting these early stories to see how she fares throughout. I know that Barbara has great moments ahead, but I can’t remember if Susan does.

Presentation

Generally, the presentation here is good. There were definitely some obstacles to overcome with the technology and the filming space. The cameras were extremely heavy and hard to move. The studio was small, and the TARDIS set was a permanent fixture. So, they did the best they could. Hussein creates some great shots with depth, framing a character in the background with characters in the foreground.

Other methods used to overcome obstacles worked at the time but don’t hold up. For example, to create the impression of running, we are given close ups of characters’ faces as they run in place and stagehands brush their faces with branches and leaves. It simulates a running effect, but it now LOOKS like a simulation. It was a good solution, but the development of film and television over the decades have caused this effect to not age well.

Themes

This story has some great themes. As mentioned before the struggles of the Tribe of Gum and the time travelers work in parallel. Just as the Tribe needs to learn to work together to survive the ice age, the travelers need to work together to survive their ordeal: being lost in time. Division will tear them apart and ultimately destroy them. As Ian says, “Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe.” When unified, the tribe can stand against outsiders. This cuts both ways, sadly. If the whole tribe chooses to reject wisdom, then the wisdom can be lost. The whole tribe can choose destruction. But I am continually fascinated that Za, rather than choosing to destroy the strangers and their potentially subversive ideas, offers an alliance. Maybe “offers” is to light a term. He basically chooses to imprison them indefinitely so he can learn from them. But, the growth he shows as a character in this moment, the acknowledgment of his own weakness as a leader and his desire to learn, is still fascinating.

Another theme, intended or not, is wisdom imparted from a higher power. There are certain fringe theories that human development escalated in prehistory due to outside influences (gods, aliens, a more advanced group of humans from a lost civilization). Intended or not, this story says the outside influence was time travelers, and the greatest wisdom they imparted was not fire, but the realization that a tribe that works together can improve the tribe and possibly survive great adversity.

Personal

Each time I watch this story, I am more and more impressed with its themes. But I never look forward to watching it. I never crave watching it. My enjoyment of the story is more analytical, not emotional. As a result, this story is more of an acquired taste. Modern viewers may have difficulty with it because the presentation is dated and almost foreign. However, there are a lot of gems to unearth if you are patient and willing to dig deep.

Final rating: 8/10

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Doctor Who (Classic Series): An Unearthly Child

Overview

Despite having already covered the classic era of Doctor Who, I have wanted to dive back in using this new review format. I used the classic era to jumpstart a regular writing/posting habit many years ago, and I hope to do so again. The format, then, is to review complete stories. Once I finish a serial, I will post a review. My goal is one review per week until I get caught up. And yes, caught up means the new series, which will likely be well in to the Chris Chibnall era.

One more thing to clarify: I’m approaching An Unearthly Child as a stand-alone episode. While there are character conflicts that continue throughout the 4-part story, An Unearthly Child works well as its own story. It introduces all the main characters and concepts in a mere 25 minutes. The episode doesn’t wait around, and just hits the ground running. It’s a bit impressive.

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Image from Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child. Dir. Waris Hussein. BBC 1963.

Story

An Unearthly Child starts with Barbara and Ian, the history and science teachers at Coal Hill School, discussing Susan Foreman, a mysterious student. She is a gifted student, but she also has some strange gaps in her knowledge of present-day England. She doesn’t fit in. Oddly, she it sounds like she is the type of genius that just can’t be bothered with ordinary, mundane things. But she doesn’t fit in to this proper British school and Barbara wants to know more about her. Barbara follows Susan home one night. Susan, apparently, lives with her grandfather in a junk yard. Enlisting Ian’s help, Barbara sets out to confront this situation. The two teachers follow the young girl into the junk yard, and immediately lose track of her. They find an old police telephone box that seems to be connected to some sort of power source. They are discovered by an old man, who turns out to be Susan’s grandfather. Then, they hear Susan call out from inside the police box. Thinking Susan is being held against her will, Barbara forces her way in. The police box is bigger on the inside, and the inside is full of high-tech gadgetry side-by-side with antique furniture and a clock. Susan’s grandfather refuses to let the teachers go, hits a switch, and propels the police box through space and/or time. The episode leaves their destination in question.

It is no surprise that successful “reboots” of Doctor Who model themselves on this episode. The companions are introduced. We get a feel for who they are. The companions face a mystery. Through that mystery, they come to meet the Doctor and encounter the TARDIS. Each episode of the new series that introduces a new companion (a soft reboot, in a way) uses this pattern. Where this episode differs, however, is the mystery of the Doctor and Susan. They were introduced without 50+ years of lore and fan-baggage. As a result, there is no attempt to explain who the Doctor and Susan are beyond “exiles in the 4th dimension.” In a way, it’s fun to adopt this mindset and let the show provide its own answers. (Sometimes these answers are very different from what the show has become.)

This episode sets up a mystery, and as Ian and Barbara investigate the mystery, they find more questions. They are forced into a larger world, not by choice, but through kidnapping. It’s an interesting starting point.

Characters

BARBARA: I feel frightened, as if we are about to interfere in something that is best left alone. Don’t you feel it?

IAN: I take things as they come.

There is surprising depth to these characters. The quotes above give a concise encapsulation of who they are. Barbara is curious but has a sense of right and wrong. Ian is more relaxed in his approach.

Susan enjoys the world she is in, despite her struggles, but feels very close to her grandfather. She will do what he says, regardless of what she wants. In a way, she is trapped by his over-protection. The Doctor is suspicious, calm, and calculating. He seems dangerous and untrustworthy and at this point. This is especially true after he kidnaps the two teachers.

Personally, I think the episode stumbles a bit when Barbara tries to explain to Susan that the TARDIS is an illusion. She rejects what she has seen. Ian has difficulty with this as well, explaining that he doesn’t expect the mysteries of time travel to be solved in a junk yard. While I think this is a lapse of character, it does reinforce the idea that adherence to the status-quo is a strong desire. Susan’s inability to fit in started this adventure, and now the teachers must stare it directly in the face. They reject it.

Themes

Decades of stories that portray a call to adventure (Luke in Star Wars, Harry in Harry Potter, Bilbo and Frodo in Tolkien’s novels) always start with a realization that the status quo doesn’t work any longer. The characters often take a first step into adventure, but then reject it. However, the first step cannot be undone, and so they are forced out against their will. Luke wanted to leave home, met Obi Wan, started gaining knowledge, but then refused the call. He returned home to find his aunt and uncle killed. He then returned to Obi Wan. (Okay, it doesn’t quite work with Harry Potter, but his pre-called life was tangibly unpleasant as opposed to existentially unpleasant.)

There is a similar, though rearranged, call here. Barbara and Ian are firmly in the status quo, but their call comes from their observation that Susan is not of the status quo. They actually want to mold her giftedness into something that would work for the world as they see it, but Susan either can’t (because of her grandfather) or won’t (if she has any choice, which she probably doesn’t). And so, the teachers investigate. They are soon forced to stare the call directly in the face as they enter the TARDIS. But the Doctor won’t let them leave, and now they are trapped—for better or for worse.

And so, it would seem, the deeper theme of the episode is that once you take steps to investigate this mystery, this call, this place where the status-quo breaks down, you have altered your fate.

Presentation

I’m grading this one on a curve. This is 1960s British television. Decades of film and television innovation have not yet happened, and most of the framing for the episode is done similar to stage productions. It’s actually fun to watch for shots that attempt to frame all the characters in a shot. It’s fun to see how director Waris Hussein works with depth.

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Image Source: Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child. Dir. Waris Hussein. BBC 1963.

And I’m particularly impressed with the shot of Ian and Barbara in the car.

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Image Source: Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child. Dir. Waris Hussein. BBC 1963.

It is difficult, however, to watch some of the camera movements. The cameras used at the time didn’t have lenses that could zoom, so the cameras had to be physically moved. This causes problems with focus and framing. We often lose sight of the characters in the shot. Sadly, these moments haven’t aged well, though they were standard at the time. But I don’t want to detract from evaluating presentation due to the technical limitations. Instead, I want to see how they used what they had, and I think that An Unearthly Child did quite well. It’s a solidly shot episode.

Personal Enjoyment

Sadly, I wasn’t really engaged with the episode on this viewing. I’ve seen it many times, so there aren’t a lot of surprises. I still enjoy it because Ian and Barbara are some of my favorite Doctor Who companions, but at this point, we are still just putting pieces into place. I know what the pieces are, and so I’m ready for the adventure. But still, An Unearthly Child is immensely watchable and, technical considerations aside, holds up well for the era.

Final Rating: 7/10

Religious Authority in “An Unearthly Child”

This is the first in what I hope to be a semi-regular series exploring how religion is used in Doctor Who. I’m not sure how often I will update this series since the next few months will be very busy for me, but this particular one has been on my mind and I want to get it out there as soon as possible. I don’t plan on covering every episode of Doctor Who because I don’t expect every episode to have religious themes or subtext. However, quite a few stories comment on religion, explicitly and implicitly, and I think it would be fun to explore this.

Doctor Who: Year Zero

The Doctor and Susan check the year on the TARDIS console.
Image from Doctor Who: “The Cave of Skulls.” It is owned by the BBC.

In exploring the origins of this new television show, the decision was made to explore origins in a very historical way, to cast our view back to the dawn of human civilization. The Doctor kidnaps the two teachers Ian and Barbara in an act of self-defense, and the TARDIS arrives at year zero. We can quibble about the idea of “year zero,” but in terms of the new show, it is the beginning—nothing had come before. It truly is year zero for Doctor Who.

But along with that, we have prehistoric humanity. Years are arbitrary expressions of time used to categorize information. Even the term “prehistoric” has a categorical meaning: that which happened before we recorded it. It is an era of mystery and uncertainty, part of the long chain of events that led to where we currently exist, but we still don’t know what happened then.

And as far as Doctor Who at this point is concerned, it is year zero. It is a new calendar to mark a beginning. Yes, things happened before, but what matters most is what happens right now, in this story, with these characters. Maybe the TARDIS knows more about what its occupants need than they do. It recognizes this is their beginning.

The Tribe of TARDIS

I love the way Anthony Coburn and Waris Hussein set up the conflict in this story.

Za and Hur of the Tribe of Gum debate who these strangers are. Kal, the usurper who found the strangers, insists they arrived from a magical tree and they can make fire. Za believes instead that they are part of another tribe, one from the mountains. Za is more right than he realizes.

Just as Za and Kal fight for political authority, so do the Doctor and Ian struggle against each other. While the latter struggle is less political, it is still no less a fight for survival. The Tribe of Gum will die out if they do not have food or fire, for an ice age is coming. The Tribe of TARDIS, on the other hand, will die if they do not work together to escape. In his intense need for fire, Za wants to sacrifice these strangers to Orb (the Sun) so he may be given the divine flame that will keep his tribe warm to survive the cold. He who has fire is the leader. Those are the terms. Thus, fire is both practical and religious. It meets a physical need while being an authoritative sign from the divine Orb.

And Orb has withheld its favor. Za does not have fire. But neither does the usurper Kal.

With Orb’s silence, the conflict unfolds politically. Kal’s best political weapon is to attack Za’s authorizing agent. If Orb grants authority and that authority is seen in the creation of fire, then Za is obviously not a leader. Where is his fire? Does Orb truly speak to him? On the other hand, Kal brings food to the tribe. Surely fire is not necessary to survival, but food is! So, with Za sitting around waiting for Orb to give something that he doesn’t seem willing to give, Kal is feeding the tribe.

This opposition becomes ideological very quickly, as the immediate need—food—is put against the impending need—heat. In reality, both are needed, but the easiest way to for Kal to usurp power is to make the conflict an either/or, to simplify the solution to the problems the tribe faces.

Politics has changed very little, it seems.

Dichotomies

“Old men see only as far as tomorrow’s meat,” Hur says. But the old men have earthly authority. Without Orb’s divine approval, the old men become the council that grants leadership. Za, however, brings vision and innovation, both through fire and in the wisdom he gets from the Doctor and Ian.

Ian advises Za on tribal strength.
Image from Doctor Who: “The Firemaker.” It is owned by the BBC.

“Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe.” It is a lesson that was imparted by both the Doctor and Ian.

And yet, up to that point, the Doctor and Ian were in a similar conflict. The Doctor could only see as far as potential discovery and capture—an immediate need, an immediate fear. He kidnapped Ian and Barbara. He was willing to kill Za to guarantee their escape. Ian interfered in this latter action. While Ian also valued escape, he wanted to do so ethically. He did not want to violate his principles.

So, once more, concrete versus abstract, meat versus fire, Machiavellian tactics versus ethical tactics, immediate need of escape versus impending need of unity.

Both the Tribe of Gum and the Tribe of TARDIS must learn the same lesson:

Struggle is not stronger than the whole tribe.

Divine Authority?

It is after Ian and the Doctor learn to work together that Ian succeeds in starting a fire with sticks and leaves. He even has a moment where he defers to the Doctor’s leadership. They have learned their lesson, and now they can impart their gift of knowledge, their gift of fire.

But who grants the authority of fire and leadership? The terms were clear in the beginning: Fire is the sign of leadership, Orb gives fire, but Orb won’t give fire without a sacrifice.

Ian made fire, but only Za saw it. And as Orb rises above the tribe, Za must make a decision about the Tribe of TARDIS. The turning point comes in the cave when Kal returns in secret and tries to kill Za. Instead, Za kills Kal. He then emerges from the cave with a flaming branch.

Kal is killed, Ian gives Za fire, and now the tribe acknowledges Za’s authority.

Za emerges from the cave with a flaming torch.
Image from Doctor Who: “The Firemaker.” It is owned by the BBC.

Sacrifice, fire, authority.

The terms were fulfilled. The divine right of leadership was upheld because events unfolded according to the prescribed terms. The religion wasn’t subverted; it was upheld. And so the question becomes, was this a humanistic unfolding of events, where Kal’s death coincidentally occurred before Za was given the fire created by Ian? Or was Kal’s death a necessary sacrifice in order for Za to be given the fire?

Regardless of your interpretation, the fire became an authorizing object for Za’s leadership. But, in an interesting turn, Za gives fire to the tribe, an act that will, with time, remove the divine authorization of fire. Is Orb still divine? The story doesn’t really address this, but it is telling that Orb is the ruler of day and that night is feared. Za’s last statement in the story is that with fire, night becomes day. Has Orb entered the world as fire, bringing light to the darkness? Or has the fire removed the need for Orb as an authority, leaving the tribe to make their own way without fear?

For an exploration of the relationship between the construction of authority and the role myth and religion play in that dynamic, I recommend Bruce Lincoln’s Authority: Construction and Corrosion. His ideas lurk beneath the surface of this post, so the very least I can do is give him a shout-out. Not that he needs that from me.

Doctor Who – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (The Missing Adventures)

Where Can I Find It?

Book Finder is a great resource.

Written by

Christopher Bulis

What’s It About?

Book copy: ‘There’s no such thing as magic,’ the Doctor said.

But the land of Elbyon might just prove him to be wrong. It is a place, populated by creatures of fantasy, where myth and legend rule. Elves and dwarves live in harmony with mankind, wizards wield arcane powers and armoured knights battle monstrous dragons.

Yet is seems that Elbyon has secrets to hide. The TARDIS crew find a relic from the thirtieth century hidden in the woods. Whose sinister manipulations are threatening the stability of a once peaceful lane? And what part does the planet play in a conflict that may save an Empire, yet doom a galaxy?

To solve these puzzles, and save his companions, the Doctor must learn to use the sorcery whose very existence he doubts.

Cover for The Sorcerer's ApprenticeThe system took care of everything

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice changed my mind about something.

Up until this point, I was approaching Doctor Who as a semi-unified whole. By this, I mean that I was slotting Missing Adventures, Past Doctor Adventures, and Big Finish in to where they would have happened in the original Doctor Who chronology. I am now convinced this is wrong for me to do. By its very nature, due primarily to release schedules for the DVDs (and the VHSs before them) Doctor Who can easily be experienced piece-meal. We can pick up a Fourth Doctor adventure here, a Second Doctor adventure there, a Tenth Doctor adventure afterward and so on and so forth. But I have wanted to see the trajectory of Doctor Who over time. Because of this, I need to craft an artificial headspace in which each era speaks for itself, and by “era” I don’t mean “First Doctor stories, then Second Doctor stories, then Third Doctor stories” and so on; I mean stories written in the 1960s, stories written in the 1970s, stories written in the 1980s, stories written in the 1990s, and you get the idea. And even though Peter Darvill-Evans states in the introduction to Goth Opera that the Missing Adventures “slot seamlessly into a gap between television stories,” they don’t. Not really.

But neither should they have to. While it is a fun detail that Ian starts The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in his “Marco Polo” attire, the story doesn’t seamlessly fit between “Marco Polo” and “Keys of Marinus” because the very approach to science fiction (and Doctor Who) are not the same between the 1960s and the 1990s (when Apprentice was published). Thus, The Missing Adventures line are best read after Doctor Who went on indefinite hiatus in 1989. They are best read along with The New Adventures because they used the same writers and thematically conversed with one another. Between the two publication lines, these novels are a conversation about how to evolve Doctor Who from what it was to what it could be. They are the evolutionary gap between classic Doctor Who and new Doctor Who. And this gap needed to happen. I’m writing this as I’m making my way through “Trial of a Time Lord,” and if nothing else, ToaTL is evidence that the show needs a new path, a new direction. Doctor Who needed to evolve in a way that JNT and Eric Saward could not make it evolve. The novels offered writers, both fans and professionals, the opportunity to force Doctor Who to evolve through trial and error, seeing what works and what doesn’t. The true trial of the Doctor was not on television, it was in these novels. They are the vital gap for seeing the transition from the old series and the new.

All this to say, after The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I will probably not be slotting in Target novels, Missing Adventures, and Past Doctor Adventures into my blog’s chronology without creating the artificial, temporal headspaces. My new approach to Doctor Who is grouping around publication/air dates. Since Doctor Who involves time travel, how unreasonable is it to posit that as the Doctor travels, his past actively shifts and changes? Perhaps one mark of a Time Lord is that such changes don’t destroy the psyche. Perhaps one danger of interference in time is that greater interference causes greater temporal flux, leading to new adventures arising out of this flux.

As for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice itself, the novel is entertaining. Bulis manages to capture the voices of the lead characters, but I am far more interested in his deconstruction of fantasy and mythology. While the story revolves around the mystery of a planet where magic exists, the tropes of fantasy and mythology are the clues to the mystery. The entire story is a meta-commentary on a genre, not evaluating worth, but providing structure and stability to a system that has grown extremely unstable. Here I go in to some spoilers, so abandon reading if you want to approach this story fresh.

The central mystery revolves around an ancient race that had nanotechnology. The technology took care of all their needs and comforts, which led to boredom. So, a group from this race altered the mandate of the technology, and the planet changed. The intellect of the race was suppressed. Humans eventually colonized the world, but by this time the nanotechnology was manifesting thoughts and desires. Human religious ideas incarnated on the planet, creating horrors of every kind. Even people of the same religion would manifest conflicting gods if their theologies were different. One man figured out what was causing this horror and chaos, and he determined that he must erase religion from the minds of the colonists. The only problem with this was, in a system in which all imaginings became real, eliminating religion was only a temporary measure. Any conflict would play out. Thus, he used the technology to re-write the consciousness of all the colonists so that the myths of King Arthur and Merlin became the reality of the people. The ideas present in the mythological stories defined a new reality.

These are interesting ideas, and they even spark a question about mythology as religion. Do these stories of legend become the stand-in for religious belief, only devoid of belief in deities? These are fun questions to ask. It is also fun to identify the myth/fantasy tropes in the novel. Even the Doctor starts to identify them and use them to his advantage. But in the end, once you know the secret in the story, the re-read value diminishes. I have read this novel twice. I loved it the first time; I enjoyed it well enough the second time. Since the tropes are a part of the narrative, essential to the narrative, the story becomes incredibly predictable once you know the secret. There is nothing left to grip the reader.

That said, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is an enjoyable first read. The story works well and the characters are realized well. But this may only be an adventure you embark upon once.

Doctor Who – The Beginning (The Companion Chronicles)

Where Can I Find It?

Big Finish

Written by

Marc Platt

Directed by

Lisa Bowerman

What’s It About?

Ad copy: When the First Doctor and his grand-daughter Susan escape through the cloisters of Gallifrey to an old Type 40 Time Travel capsule, little do they realize the adventures that lie ahead… And little do they know, as the TARDIS dematerializes and they leave their home world behind, there is someone else aboard the ship. He is Quadrigger Stoyn, and he is very unhappy…

Cover for The Beginning

I was playing with a chair which should have been housebroken

Marc Platt seems to be Big Finish’s go to writer for major revisitations of classic series stories. He wrote the origin of the Cybermen (Spare Parts), the return of the Mara (The Cradle of the Snake), the origin of Magnus Greel (The Butcher of Brisbane), and with The Beginning he visits a pre-Unearthly Child time period for the second time (the first being Quinnis). And while Big Finish has many excellent writers, Platt is one of my favorites. I enjoy the way he layers concepts in his stories, weaving together ideas that reflect one another. The Beginning is no different as the title is a clever play on words and expectations.

On one level, the most obvious one, The Beginning refers to the Doctor and Susan’s flee from Gallifrey. The audio hits the ground running, with the Doctor, Susan, and a mysterious trunk making their way through the bowels of the Citadel. They arrive at a bank of time capsules and pick one in haste. While I didn’t particularly care for The Name of the Doctor, there is a nice reference to that story, and then the adventure begins in earnest. With the stolen TARDIS, however, comes Quadrigger Stoyn (played by Terry Molloy), a TARDIS mechanic who was doing repairs on the damaged ship. Stoyn has never left Gallifrey, and he is horrified at his predicament. And so, The Beginning refers to where all this started, but graciously leaves certain details—such as the reason for the Doctor and Susan’s escape—in mystery. I appreciate this discretion.

On another level, The Beginning refers to beginnings in a more cosmological sense. The Doctor, Susan, and Stoyn arrive on Earth before the emergence of human life. It is here where Platt’s layering becomes truly fascinating to the Religious Studies side of my interests. At the beginning of human life is the ancient cosmological idea of Order and Chaos. Many ancient near eastern texts have this duality at the core of their worldview. Even passages of the Old Testament are probably best understood as Order and Chaos rather than retro-fitting Platonic or Enlightenment ideas onto the interpretation of texts. And these ancient texts are clear in the view that Order is benevolent and Chaos is malicious. Order is embodied in divine beings who keep the weather clear and the crops growing (order in nature) and society at peace (order in humans). Chaos, on the other hand, is embodied in divine beings who create storms and natural disasters (disorder in nature) and society at war or ridden with crime (disorder in humans). And at the heart of The Beginning is an alien race seeding order into the cosmos, taking the disorder of creation and bringing it into a peaceful alignment. But as this function is somewhat mechanistic (for what is more orderly than pure logic and no emotions), the ordered existence of life has no growth, no struggles and perseverance, no free will.

Into this ordering process steps our chaotic-good-aligned Doctor. The experiment by which the alien race attempts to bring order is interrupted and humanity is created. Disordered life rises on Earth. The aliens decide the experiment has failed and the only option left is to destroy the Earth. The Doctor and Susan intervene. In a way, Marc Platt upends the ancient near east duality by making our hero a god of chaos who, with the best of intentions, introduces chaos into humanity before they emerge. Put another way, he puts an aspect of himself into humanity which subsumes the aspect of Order. By doing so, the Doctor has created, in this moment, every human-involved battle he has ever fought. He has bound himself up with the destiny of humanity. He has created humanity, not in a physical sense, but in a psychological/spiritual sense. The price of free will becomes the ability to choose evil. The price of struggle and perseverance is pain and suffering. The Doctor, then, is god but also Satan. And the great irony of this act of creation is that the First Doctor, at this point in his career, is probably the most selfish, least moral of all his incarnations (until the Sixth).

Quadrigger Stoyn becomes the other villain of this piece. He wants to get home and he realizes the Doctor has no intention of returning him there. Thus, Stoyn is willing to use whatever methods necessary to get control of the TARDIS, to get home. Stoyn is memorably played by Terry Molloy, but I don’t think we get enough of him in this story to really understand his motivations. All we know is that he is a mechanic who is experiencing his first trip off Gallifrey, and that it is against his will. And the other threat Stoyn brings is his willingness to turn the Doctor in to the authorities, to the Fetches. Since this story is also the first in a trilogy involving Stoyn, these details may be fleshed out later.

It is probably good to go in to this story knowing that the reasons the Doctor and Susan left Gallifrey are not revealed. Apart from Stoyn, the Gallifreyan elements are minimal and The Beginning could just be another pre-series adventure. But by tying the beginning of the Doctor’s life to the origin of human life, Marc Platt has given us something we never knew we wanted (or at least I never knew that I wanted): a reason why the Doctor’s life is tied up with humanity.

An Adventure in Space and Time

Written by

Mark Gatiss

What’s It About?

BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman has hired Verity Lambert to produce a family-oriented sci-fi drama called Doctor Who. Actor William Harnell, hoping this part would break him out of type-casting and put him on the road to more legitimate artistic work, is cast in the title role. This is the origin of Doctor Who before it was a world-wide phenomenon, when it was just a tiny show fighting against the odds to become a success.

I Don’t Want to Go

Doctor_Who_-_An_Adventure_in_Space_and_Time_PosterThat was the point where I lost it completely. These words which caused inward groaning when uttered by the incumbent Doctor in 2010 caused out-and-out bawling when uttered by David Bradley as William Hartnell in 2013. “I don’t want to go.” And the emotion still floats behind my eyes.

This wasn’t the only tear-inducing moment for me. I estimate that I cried by varying degrees every ten minutes or so. I blame this blog for that. If I had never set out to watch and write about every Doctor Who serial, I would have never spent the time to go beyond passively viewing Doctor Who. I never would have tried to understand context. I never would have searched for information about the people behind the characters. In short, I never would have developed an appreciation for the Hartnell Era of Doctor Who. I love this era, particularly the years Verity Lambert ran the show. The stories produced during her tenure were diverse, ambitious, and surprising. They were intelligent and compelling. They succeeded beyond any expectation when one learns what they were working with. And if An Adventure in Space and Time is accurate in this capacity, they were successful because they were industry outsiders fighting to prove themselves. Lambert was a woman fighting for respect and success in a male-dominated BBC. Waris Hussein was of Middle Eastern descent fighting for respect in a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant [although I cannot entirely verify the “Protestant” aspect in this case]) culture. William Hartnell was fighting to show he, and elderly actor, could be successful despite being type-cast as grumpy, humorless sergeant majors or gangsters in an industry that would be increasingly driven by youth (although that may not have been as much of a hindrance in 1963). The struggle of the outsider is encoded into Doctor Who’s DNA, and it started here, in 1963, driven by a group of creative people who needed to prove themselves to the insiders.

And this is what became clear in Gatiss’s telling of this story. Doctor Who became the success story whereby the outsiders won and gained victory.

It is funny to me that when it comes to his Doctor Who stories, Mark Gatiss is very hit or miss for me. But I have seen stories he has done for Marple and Sherlock and I have loved them. An Adventure in Space and Time is at once a Doctor Who story and not a Doctor Who story. Symbolically, there is a struggle, albeit a real-world struggle. The Doctor, as represented by the show rather than the character, helps them to succeed and overcome. But it is also a docu-drama, part documentary, part fiction. And Gatiss masterfully teases out the insider/outsider story to great effect. At its core, An Adventure in Space and Time is William Hartnell’s story, but it intersects with Verity Lambert’s story and Waris Hussein’s story. And while I would have liked to see David Whitaker (my favorite of the early writers and a down-right influential script editor), I understand the need to focus on the people who best bring out the theme of the story. Gatiss does this beautifully. This is probably my favorite of his work.

I can’t say enough about David Bradley. This man is amazing. In recent performances he has played grumpy or down-right villainous characters (Red Wedding anyone?). In Adventure he performs wonderfully as William Hartnell, showing the cantankerousness of the man, but also the sensitivity, the brokenness, the spark of hope, and the humanity. By all accounts Hartnell could be difficult to work with, but he could also be sensitive and caring. Humans are hard to peg down; we are contradictions. Hartnell was no different, and while he may have been polished up a bit nicer in Adventure (depending on which accounts you read), the complexity of the man comes through. I love that they portrayed the story of Hartnell’s apology to Carol Ann Ford after chastising her.

While it was never likely to happen, I wish William Hartnell could have seen his legacy. In a way, he saw a glimpse of it. He died in 1975, at which time Tom Baker was at the beginning of his tenure. But to me, a fifty-year celebration needs to acknowledge the role of this man who became the first embodiment of the Doctor. William Hartnell founded this character. He provided the grumpiness. He played the trickster. He out-smarted the villains. He struggled with the loss of companions. Every Doctor since him has been an exaggeration of one or more of the traits established in this first era of the show. And while visiting past Doctors is fun, I wish we could see him one last time, providing the voice of authority on what it means to be the Doctor.

Thanks to Mark Gatiss and David Bradley for recognizing and sounding that voice.

My Rating

5/5

bradley-hartnell

Doctor Who – The Five Doctors

Doctor Who Story 129 – The Five Doctors

Written by

Terrance Dicks

What’s It About?

Someone has reactivated the Time Scoop, an ancient Gallifreyan device which pulls creatures out of time and deposits them in the Death Zone, where they fight for the amusement of the Time Lords. The targets of the Time Scoop are the Doctor’s previous incarnations. The goal: to play the Game of Rassilon.

No! Not the mind probe!

Art from the Five Doctors DVD coverDoctor Who is just weeks away from its 50th anniversary. In the meantime, I’m celebrating the 20th anniversary with “The Five Doctors.” More so than “The Three Doctors,” which celebrated the 10th anniversary, “The Five Doctors” is the general model for how Doctor Who anniversary stories tend to go. They feature the return of Doctors and companions. Much of the beginning sets up how the Doctors and companions are brought out of their own continuity or time stream and placed in this new story. They face a challenge that can only be overcome by combining their efforts. As a result, anniversary stories have a tendency to drag in the “getting the team together” act because there are only so many ways you can make this act interesting from a storytelling perspective. Instead, act one becomes more of a reunion, driven by the return of previous Doctors. Thus, this act succeeds or fails based on the actors and the excitement created in the viewer by reconnecting with old favorites. Anniversary stories, then, can be difficult for fans who are not familiar with previous Doctors or who (shudder) do not like previous Doctors.

But while “The Three Doctors” began the multi-Doctor story, “The Five Doctors” became the model, which is interesting because “Five” is really a conglomeration of Doctor Who tropes, many of which were defined directly or indirectly by Terrance Dicks. There is a “Death to the Daleks” style dungeon crawl. The entire premise of the Death Zone is a reproduction of the premise of “The War Games.” And the Time Lords are very . . . well, they deserve their own paragraph.

In his analysis of “State of Decay,” Philip Sandifer brings up the idea that in the classic series the Time Lords had three distinct portrayals: the Terrance Dicks version (“The War Games” – Pertwee era), the Robert Holmes’ version (“Genesis of the Daleks” – “The Deadly Assassin”) and the Andrew Cartmel version (the McCoy era). I’ll briefly focus on the first two since I haven’t made it to the McCoy era yet. The Terrance Dicks Time Lords are somewhat godlike, but the godlike qualities are based in elevated technology. They possess the technology that is indistinguishable from magic. They are separate from the lower races like a deist god, but at one time they were more active and that activity led to legend, hence Omega vs. Rassilon, the vampires, and the Game of Rassilon. However, they are not gods, they are godlike (Cartmel will weigh in on this with his third view). The Robert Holmes version of the Time Lords is far more cynical, and it turns the Time Lords into bureaucrats. These Time Lords are not gods, nor are they godlike. They are merely an advanced civilization, but they are a dying civilization. They are dying because the no longer truly remember who they are; they do not understand themselves. But because they are so far advanced, they do not look like they are on the decline.

With “The Five Doctors,” Dicks straddles these views. President Borusa, a character created by Robert Holmes, is representative of the bureaucrat Time Lords. He is, then, a stand in for the Holmes version. Dicks subjects Borusa to the Time Lords of legend, and Borusa is defeated. Symbolically, it seems Terrance Dicks is suppressing the Robert Holmes version of the Time Lords; he is weighing it and showing it to be wanting. (This analysis is even more interesting, I think, when you learn that Robert Holmes was originally commissioned to write “The Five Doctors.” He gave it a shot, gave up, and Terrance Dicks was hired.) Looked at another way, Borusa represents political secularization and Rassilon represents myth (or magic or religion). Borusa is allowed to live forever, although in the way many heads of state live forever—in sculpture. But the Brand of Rassilon will outlive Borusa because myth is better at branding since it captures the imagination. It provides narrative.

This idea of immortality derived from winning the Game of Rassilon is fascinating because in a pre-“Deadly Assassin” mythos it would be meaningless. “The Deadly Assassin” asserted a regeneration limit (thus symbolically assassinating Doctor Who, according to Sandifer) thus condemning Time Lords to mortality on a different scale. The JNT era has reinforced this in dialogue more than once. Doctor Who has offered multiple ways around this Holmes-imposed limit, but none of them have stuck. “The Five Doctors” can only work with this regeneration limit. The Doctor himself is offered immortality, and he refuses, stating immortality is a curse (which, again, The Black Guardian trilogy reinforced). In a story celebrating 20 years of the show and knowing there are only six season left for the classic series, I almost wonder if this can be read as a recognition the even Doctor Who as a show has a shelf life. Or perhaps, instead, Doctor Who needs periods where it is away from our screens so it can renew itself in other ways. Being on continually, year after year, may cause too strong a bond of continuity and pressure to do more of the same. Certainly the Fifth Doctor era has waffled between looking forward and looking backward, the former view creating some fascinating stories, the latter creating a mixed bag. But by being off the air for a time, it can allow new writers and producers to come up with a new approach, one that could be controversial to fans of what came before but appeal to people who join this new approach. In its current Cymru incarnation, Doctor Who has yet to grow stale, so the new series hasn’t reached that point yet. (I say this despite occasionally being really annoyed with what Steven Moffat does with the show, but credit where it is due, it is still moving forward with unprecedented quality. It works for many new fans, just not always for this old, curmudgeonly fan.)

Ultimately, though, “The Five Doctors” really isn’t a new or groundbreaking story. It is Terrance Dicks by the numbers, but Terrance Dicks by the numbers can still be fun. And truly, that’s what “The Five Doctors” is—fun. It is great to see Troughton and Pertwee again. It is great to see Sarah Jane and Susan again. I’d say it was good to see the Brigadier again, but that is a given; besides, his appearance is somewhat undermined by having seen him recently in “Mawdryn Undead.” But in all, “The Five Doctors” is a fun nostalgia fest, but divorced from the nostalgia, I’m not sure it is very effective.

My Rating

3.5/5; for the Peter Davison/Terrance Dicks commentary, however 4/5