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

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”

Za emerges from the cave with a flaming torch.

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 and The Unearthly Child

A novelization by Terrance Dicks

While attempting to satisfy their curiosity about an unusual student, teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright find themselves trapped with a mysterious old man at the beginnings of the ice age.

I wrote in a previous post that my preferred Target novelizations were those that took the opportunity to flesh out characters and situations in greater detail than the episodes on which they are based or for the author of the story to give a greater indication of his or her vision of the story than was achieved on television.  Doctor Who and The Unearthly Child does not deliver this.  On the latter point, it can’t.  The original story was written by Anthony Coburn while the novelization fell to the prolific (by necessity) Terrance Dicks.  Now, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with how Dicks adapted this story.  It is perfectly by the numbers and by reading it, you get an accurate vision of what was on the screen.  So accurate that when you actually watch the episode, you see very little difference.  Dick’s adaptation was written about nineteen years after the original broadcast, so I don’t know if he was drawing from scripts or the episodes themselves.  There will be some minor deviations and differences.  I imagine it would be hard to write for The First Doctor when Dicks has written for the Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth by this point.  So much development has come to the character and certain ideas of who The Doctor is have changed in the intervening years.  Despite this, Dicks reproduces the Hartnell Doctor quite well.  The characters are reminiscent of who they were on the screen as well.  Of the changes, the most-striking that I noticed was when the idea for using the skulls and fire were devised.  In the televised story, Susan began inexplicably playing with the fire and skulls, which gave Ian an idea.  In the novel, this scene is played much more naturally.  I honestly think it works better.

In my review of the televised An Unearthly Child, I played with the idea of cave-man politics not being so far removed from modern day politics.  In the novel, the political nature of the struggle between Kal and Za is much more explicit.  In fact, this struggle is juxtaposed a bit with the power struggle between The Doctor and Ian.  It isn’t masterfully written, but the idea does seem present and I think the story is better for it.  Likewise, the parallels between Ian and Barbara’s primitive nature (in comparison to The Doctor) and the prehistoric humans are quite striking.  Setting the beginning of an epic (well, long) journey in the dawn of civilization may be a bit heavy-handed, but no more so than beginning a novel range at the point of the first written-epic (see Timewyrm: Genesis).  Yet, as a way to draw parallels between the lead characters and how they could potentially relate to one another, it works great as a metaphor.  Likewise, the TARDIS crew, forced together by circumstance, must learn to work together to survive while at the same time showing Za and his tribe how to work together to survive the ice age.  In many ways you could say that The Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara are the founders of human survival and civilization due to the lessons they taught the tribe.  Those in humanity’s future helped those in humanity’s past to survive and flourish.  How very Moffat.

The more I ponder this story, the more I think about the novel, the more I am coming to like it.  So while Doctor Who and An Unearthly Child may not offer much more than the story upon which it is based, it does help one to re-evaluate the story and engage with it in a deeper and more meaningful way.  The story that Coburn (and here, Dicks) crafted really does work, despite being a bit slow and boring at times.  But metaphorically and structurally, it seems quite ambitious and does achieve some wonderful symbolism.

Excellent passages

First description of Susan:  “She had a way of observing you cautiously all the time, as if you were a member of some interesting but potentially dangerous alien species.”

“Kal saw his hopes of leadership dissolving in the laughter of the Tribe.  He grabbed The Doctor by his shoulder, lifting him almost off his fee.  ‘Make fire, old man!  Make fire come from your fingers as I saw today!'”