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

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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.

Five Lovecraftian Doctor Who Monsters

From its earliest days Doctor Who has flirted with horror (except when it went full-on relationship with horror under Philip Hinchcliffe). The show has given us pre-Romero zombies in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, the Frankenstein send-up The Brain of Morbius, and the Dracula-inspired State of Decay. But has Doctor Who ever called upon the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft? Maybe not intentionally (although some of the New Adventures novels tackle the Mythos outright), but the classic series of Doctor Who has occasionally invoked Lovecraftian nightmares. Here are five monsters that leave me with that Lovecraft vibe.


 

The Animus

  1. The Animus

    While not high on the list of fan favorites, the First Doctor story The Web Planet features the Animus, a creature that has enslaved a population and nearly destroyed a planet. The Animus could control the minds of anyone who looked at it, as well as controlling anyone who wore gold. The Web Planet author Bill Strutton intended the story to be an allegory about cancer. As such, the Animus was a cancerous cell that infected the ecosystem of a planet, turning its own population against one another. The inhabitants of the planet Vortis were based on insects (ants, moths, grubs) and the Animus was envisioned as spider-like. When the effect was realized on set, it looked appropriately tentacled. Even the Doctor couldn’t fight against the control of the creature’s mind. The Mythos opportunities were later taken up by New Adventures authors and the Animus was categorized as a Great Old One.


     

    The Yeti

  2. The Great Intelligence

    Steven Moffat brought back this Second Doctor adversary in the 2012 Christmas special The Snowmen and provided it with an origin story. The original creation by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln was more mysterious. In The Abominable Snowmen, a Tibetan Lama entered the astral plane while meditating. The Great Intelligence latched on to his consciousness and followed him back to the mortal plane. The Intelligence’s desire was corporeal existence. He augmented the Lama’s scientific knowledge to create robotic Yeti. The Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria defeated the creature, but it returned to our plane in The Web of Fear. The exact nature of the creature was never revealed. Once again, New Adventures authors added The Great Intelligence to the Cthulhu Mythos by identifying it as Yog-Sothoth. It is currently unclear if the three portrayals of The Great Intelligence (classic Who, New Adventures, and new Who) are compatible.


     

    Fendahleen

  3. The Fendahl

    The Fendahl were a gestalt creature composed of a core and Fendahleen, which are eyeless, limbless creatures with fins and tentacles. They fed off the psychic energy of humans. They were thought to have been destroyed on pre-historic Earth, but the core was discovered by a group of scientists who believe the core is a pre-historic human skull. Their attempt to study it leads to the core being activated and Dr. Thea Ransome is turned into a new core. It doesn’t help matters that one of the scientists, Dr. Maximillian Stael, was part of a Fendahl-worshipping coven who wanted to see the Fendahl return to Earth. The Doctor and Leela encountered the Fendahl in Image of the Fendahl.


     

    Rutan on the stairs

  4. The Rutan at Fang Rock

    More than any other story The Horror at Fang Rock feels like a weird fiction story in the mold of Lovecraft. It is dark, brooding, and one of the best realizations of atmosphere in the classic series. The Doctor and Leela arrive at a lighthouse on Fang Rock, an island that is rumored to be haunted. One of the lighthouse keepers is killed and a ship crashes on the island soon after. The survivors are trapped on the island with a killer. While creatures from the sea are par for the Lovecraftian course, it is the atmosphere that really makes this story effective.


     

    Fenric possessing a human

  5. Fenric

    The Seventh Doctor story The Curse of Fenric ticks quite a few Lovecraft boxes. It has creatures from the sea, ancient ruins, mythological threats, and a non-corporeal being desiring a body in our plane of existence. To make matters worse, he has a grudge against the Doctor and has been playing a game of wits against him for who knows how long. Fenric is revealed to be a force of evil that had existed since the dawn of time. Like The Great Intelligence and the Animus, Fenric was added to the Mythos when The New Adventures identified him as Hastur the Unspeakable, though this version of Hastur has little connection to the King in Yellow that Call of Cthulhu gamers are familiar with. Fenric returned in the Big Finish story Gods and Monsters.

These are my favorite Lovecraftian Doctor Who monsters, but I’m sure there are others. Let me know of your favorites or any I have forgotten in the comments.

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.

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

Doctor Who: Hunters of Earth (Destiny of the Doctor)

Written by Nigel Robinson

Directed by John Ainsworth

Susan Foreman is finding her place at Coal Hill School. She is growing close to a young man named Cedric. But suspicion falls on Susan and her grandfather as teenagers begin hunting anyone different . . .or alien.

Cover for Hunters of Earth

“It’s all in the beat.”

Note: Even though this is a First Doctor story, this review contains spoilers for series seven’s “The Name of the Doctor.” If you don’t want to be spoiled, read until the paragraph with the 50th anniversary logo next to it.

I go in to pre-“An Unearthly Child” stories with a large amount of skepticism. The inherent logic involved in story telling is that the story begins at the most-interesting starting point. Anything prior to this point may be relevant to the plot, but if it were essential to it, the story would have started earlier. Based on the basic premise of Doctor Who, we aren’t supposed to start with his origin. There would be no mystery if we did. As a result, any story taking place prior to the show’s beginning is filtered through 50 years of mythology, and these stories must walk a fine line, holding in tension the mystery of the character at this point without revealing too much later mythology that developed.

And it needs to be good, something special. I am personally in favor of visiting this period as little as possible and reserving such visits for writers who can tell exceptional stories. Many of the stories from this period of the show do not really contribute much to the Doctor Who mythology, nor are they distinctly Hartnell in feel. So far, “Quinnis” is my favorite because Marc Platt is able to capture the feel of the First Doctor while providing some great world-building and character moments.

“Hunters of Earth” is set during the Coal Hill days of Doctor Who—a period of the Doctor’s life that the show only covers in one episode. The problem with setting a story here is that it gives the Doctor too much to do, risks him exposing his presence when he is explicitly trying to remain anonymous. And so, in order to give us a story in which the Doctor keeps a low profile but still has a mystery to solve, Nigel Robinson gives us a story that isn’t terribly compelling. I tend to find Robinson hit or miss, but I admit I haven’t read anything of his work in over ten years. Of recent experience I have this story and “Farewell Great Macedon,” which was an adaptation he did for Big Finish of Moris Farhi’s unfilmed script. That story was excellent, but how much can be attributed to Farhi and how much to Robinson?

the Coal Hill announcement board“Hunters of Earth” is in the style of The Companion Chronicles line, but it is in the third person rather than the first. It is narrated by Carole Ann Ford (Susan Foreman), and deals with her attempts to integrate into Coal Hill. We are given nice moments between her and the Doctor in which she is able to influence him to be more considerate. I especially appreciate that the story is has a couple of science fiction elements, but is largely historical. We don’t have an alien invasion at Coal Hill or anything like that. Everything is kept low key, and even the characters who suspect Susan and the Doctor are not of Earth are few and willing to keep the secret. It is an interesting story which attempts to not overshadow the beginning of Doctor Who. It keeps things quiet. Unfortunately, it is this unassuming nature which is both a blessing and a curse. It doesn’t insist that the Doctor’s story begins here, but neither does it capture you and make you think it was a great experience.

Of course, I suppose the same could be said of any of Doctor Who’s secondary canon. Why bother? If it was so important, we would have got it already. Fair enough. Many Doctor Who fans only want to look forward, not back. They don’t want or need new stories with previous Doctors. They are happy with what the show gave them. For my part, I like the Companion Chronicles, and I am particularly drawn to the First Doctor stories because this era gives me something no other era does—straight historicals. It is a part of the First Doctor era, one that I would love to see brought back just because I love history and love learning about “real history” (i.e. aliens were not behind historical events). But I also like the different approach to science fiction in the 1960s. It was a time of optimism and anything could happen. In the First Doctor’s era you truly didn’t know where you would be transported to from story to story (in some cases, from week to week). And so, while “Hunters of Earth” isn’t a particularly compelling story, I’m happy it was made and I will listen to it again.

Two more points of contention. First, I didn’t particularly enjoy the in-jokes, primarily the “my dear Doctor, you have been naïve” joke. This line is particularly associated with the Master, and having a character utter this completely misleads the plot development. For a moment I was ecstatic as I contemplated a confrontation between the First Doctor and the Master. (And really, how awesome would that be? Harnell’s crotchety, irritable Doctor against a Delgado-style Master would have been wonderful. Think of the insults! The witticisms!) When I discovered this was merely a joke, I was completely taken out of the story.

50th Anniversary LogoSecond, “Hunters of Earth” is part of the larger Destiny of the Doctor line, which is a series of eleven audiobooks commissioned for the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. As such, they attempt to weave an arc through the eleven stories that will pay off with the Eleventh Doctor. I like this idea. I think it is an interesting opportunity. I can’t speak for whether or not it works because I haven’t listened to all of them yet (indeed, I only have the first three), but so far the extent seems to be the Eleventh Doctor contacting his former selves and offering a clue for their current crisis. I’m not sure this is the opportunity I wanted to see. I think what I wanted, but never saw, was what Steven Moffat implied (and failed to deliver in a satisfying way) in “The Name of the Doctor,” namely an Eleventh Doctor villain who is attempting to destroy the Doctor in different time periods. Sure, this would be difficult to accomplish in eleven stories, but I think it could be done by coming up with a compelling villain with a distinct method for operating, then placing symbols or symbolic plots throughout the different stories (which also serve to fill in the back story), culminating with the Eleventh Doctor being victorious. It would be complex; it would need a lot of coordination, but it would be a lot of fun.

Instead, I fear these will turn out to be standalone stories that may be loosely connected rather than essentially connected. Granted, anyone who has kept current with the releases may see if I am completely wrong.

On another note, how cool would it have been if Destiny of the Doctor set up something in The Day of the Doctor? Or of Clara’s splintering through time happened in these stories and the Great Intelligence took different guises in the Doctor’s past as Clara did. Missed opportunities.

Bottom line, “Hunters of Earth” may prove forgettable, but if you are a First Doctor nut (as I am) it is a perfectly average story. Nothing amazing, but nothing horrible. Since there are a lot of 50th anniversary releases to get this year, pick it up through digital download to save yourself some money.

50th Anniversary Blues

One of the many 50th Anniversary Logos. (Source: The Doctor Who Site
One of the many 50th Anniversary Logos. Source: The Doctor Who Site

I’m halfway through “The Armageddon Factor.” I had hoped to finish it sooner, but I’m in that end-of-semester rush to get everything done. Two projects are due next week, then I have finals the following week. In the face of such things, Doctor Who just has to take a back seat. I’ve even fallen behind on watching the new series, which I’ve actually been enjoying this time around. While I have occasionally been irritated with what Steven Moffat has been doing with the show, I applaud his efforts to bring in new writers. A show cannot celebrate and embrace its potential to do anything and go anywhere if the same writers are brought back again and again. I genuinely appreciate the classic series’ diversity of writers—which sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed—and I have wanted to see more of that in the new series.

But moving on to the main topic: I am somewhat perplexed that in what should be a celebratory time for all fans of Doctor Who, I feel slightly indifferent. Fifty years is a big deal, especially for a show that appeared dead when the 90s arrived. But over the last couple of months as details were confirmed about the 50th anniversary special, I struggled to find excitement. A huge question popped into my head: what could Doctor Who do to celebrate the 50th anniversary that hasn’t already been done—or that would even be possible? It was practically a given that David Tennant would return; he was vocally a massive fan and a multiple-Doctor story is an anniversary tradition. But Christopher Eccleston returning was extremely unlikely (and confirmed to be not happening). Many classic series fans would love to see a classic-era Doctors, but that seems unlikely as well since many are either dead or no longer look the part. And let’s face it: we want this 50th anniversary special to connect in some way to the history of what has come before. We want a special that celebrates its roots while looking toward the future. Regardless of how one feels about the James Bond film Skyfall, it understood this on some level; it set the final action piece at the Bond family home. The movie tried to connect in some way to the past, to connect in some way that was more than just a few clever lines used to reference previous films.

And so, what I would truly like to see in the 50th anniversary special is the First Doctor. Yes, this is partly because I have become a huge fan of William Hartnell over the course of this blog, but it is also because the Hartnell era planted everything this franchise grew from. This may well happen; I know there are rumors to the effect, but as we all know in Moffat-era Who, rumors are often just rumors.

I actually feel sorry for Steven Moffat and the BBC. How can they possibly live up to the anticipation? How can they fulfill the expectations of all fans? As mentioned earlier, a multi-Doctor story is the main tradition. Bringing back an old companion? It’s been done (“The Five Doctors”, “The Two Doctors”, “School Reunion”). Release novels featuring previous Doctors? It’s been done (Virgin’s Missing Adventures, BBC’s Past Doctor Adventures, The Wheel of Ice). Release a comic that features one incarnation of the Doctor per issue? It’s been done (IDW’s The Forgotten). Audio dramas featuring classic Doctors? Also done (The Companion Chronicles). Everything that is being done is a variation on these themes, and while there’s nothing wrong with that per se, I sometimes feel that we are getting some of the same old material with a 50th Anniversary label slapped on it. Everything falls to the quality of the stories (as so much often does), and the stories are actually a mixed bag. And so, I come away from this celebration feeling that all we are getting is more of the same.

I’m not saying all this to be depressing (that’s just an added bonus). I’m saying this because in a news forum I saw a group of fans criticizing Moffat and the BBC because they weren’t really trying to celebrate the anniversary; they were only milking it for more money. The fans complained that Moffat and the BBC only wanted ratings and didn’t want to pay tribute to the classic series, only the current series. And I guess my response is: what do you want? What do you want from the 50th anniversary? What could Moffat and the BBC possibly do that hasn’t already been done? I’m can be as critical of new Who as anyone, but I’m willing to cut Moffat some slack here. Is it possible that the 50th will be a letdown? Absolutely! And I think it is our fault because we have expected so much from Doctor Who over the course of these 50 years. It is done virtually everything it could possibly do—it even came back from the dead! How could Doctor Who possibly top that?

When it comes to my personal celebration of the 50th anniversary, I’m just going to be excited for everyone who ever worked on the show. It is insane that a science fiction television series survived for 50 years. Congratulations to everyone who has ever contributed to that. And hooray to Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert, Waris Hussein, David Whitaker, Donald Wilson, C.E. Webber, Anthony Coburn, William Hartnell, William Russell, Jacqueline Hill, Carole Ann Ford, and all the crew and cast that delivered an amazing show which has done the impossible.

Verity Lambert poses with the original TARDIS crew. (Source: Tardis Data Core.)
Verity Lambert poses with the original TARDIS crew. Source: Tardis Data Core

Doctor Who: A Big Hand for the Doctor

Cover image for A Big Hand for The Doctor.
Source: Eoin Colfer web site. Copyright 2013 by Puffin.

Who Wrote It: Eoin Colfer

Official Blurb (from Amazon): Eleven Doctors, eleven stories: a year-long celebration of Doctor Who! The most exciting names in children’s fiction each create their own unique adventure about the time-travelling Time Lord.

London, 1900. The First Doctor is missing both his hand and his granddaughter, Susan. Faced with the search for Susan, a strange beam of soporific light, and a host of marauding Soul Pirates intent on harvesting human limbs, the Doctor is promised a dangerous journey into a land he may never forget . . . .

First Line: “The Doctor was not happy with his new bio-hybrid hand.”

A Big Hand for The Doctor isn’t so much a book as a short story with chapters. It draws heavily from Peter Pan and even drives that point home in the epilogue. And while I don’t know that I would say Colfer captured the feel and tone of the First Doctor era, I do think he captured a quasi-Target novelization feel. In fact, Colfer admits that he came to Doctor Who through the Target books. So it is actually quite fitting that he write a Doctor Who book for younger readers.

The Hartnell Doctor is one of my favorites. I’m actually quite critical of portrayals. I don’t know that Colfer completely nails it, but at the same time, I can just about imagine the Doctor of this story hasn’t yet become the darker, more suspicious figure that we meet in An Unearthly Child. Colfer’s Doctor is one who is safer for the kids—maybe The Doctor from the third season rather than the first–but still a bit grumpy.

Typically, I don’t enjoy stories that are set prior to An Unearthly Child. These stories tend to have too much awareness that they are pre-series. The only one I have enjoyed is Quinnis, but then Marc Platt writes the First Doctor and Susan quite well. But with A Big Hand for The Doctor, I’m actually willing to cut Colfer some slack because he isn’t making a big deal about the pre-series setting. We aren’t in 1960s England, tied to Foreman’s Yard and Coal Hill. We are in the early 1900s, and The Doctor is fighting space pirates who steal the souls of children. And I can just about see the First Doctor risking his neck to protect children from evil creatures such as these because I think William Hartnell would improve.

And that’s the bottom line for me. A Big Hand for the Doctor may not reflect the 1960s stories as they aired, but it reflects something I think William Hartnell would have liked: a protective, time-travelling grandfather. Isn’t that kinda what the First Doctor is, after all?

Final Verdict: Unpretentious and not weighed down with gravitas. A Big Hand for the Doctor is a quick read and a nice little tribute to Doctor Who as seen through the Target books. At just under $3, it is well worth the price.

The Three Doctors (Doctor Who)

A photo of the three actors who have played The Doctor
Image copyright by BBC.

Seeing as how it took me a month or so to watch this story, I’ll go ahead and review it by itself. Besides, it was an anniversary special, so it was rather important.

The Three Doctors

Who Wrote It: Bob Baker and Dave Martin

What’s It About: Mysterious antimatter creatures appear on Earth and start abducting whatever they touch. The Time Lords realize this is connected to a power drain in their own systems. Left with no other Time Lord to solve the mystery, they call on The Doctor—ALL of them!

The Three Doctors is a great story for two reasons. First, it involves all three of the actors who had played The Doctor up to this point, and second, the TARDIS is finally repaired and The Doctor has his memory of time/space travel restored. The Doctor finishes this episode a free man. He is no longer imprisoned on Earth.

It was wonderful to see Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell again. Sadly, the latter was in ill health, so his involvement was somewhat minimal. Troughton, however, was on top of his game. Watching this story made me realize how much I missed both actors. It also reminded me why I enjoy the character that the Seventh Doctor (skipping ahead a bit) became: a wise and manipulative figure who often disguised himself as a fool. The moments where the Second Doctor began prattling on about his recorder just to test the limits of Omega’s emotional control were classic misdirection. I was reminded of Tomb of the Cybermen, when The Doctor followed Klieg along the control panel and covertly fixed his miscalculations.

This is also the heaviest Time Lord mythology episode so far. We learn that the power used by the Time Lords is from a black hole, and this black hole was created at the expense of Omega’s life (Omega being one of the great Time Lords of the past). The mythology is being filled in, and the Time Lords are becoming less mysterious. They are becoming beings that can be quantified and known, which can serve to strip away their mysterious and godlike qualities. Of course, we have yet to see the story in which Robert Holmes deals the final deathblow to the enigmatic Time Lords.

By the end of the story, we learn that Omega doesn’t quite exist any longer. For centuries he was kept alive by sheer will, and it was this will that allowed him to survive in a universe of antimatter. His will kept him sustained as he ached for revenge against the Time Lords. By the time the Doctors met him, Omega’s physical body had been so destroyed by the technology he developed to bridge the matter and antimatter universes that his will was all that remained. This actually reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce. This book takes on the concept of the afterlife and posits that the actions and attitudes we take in life make us into who we are. The Christian concept of sin, therefore, becomes the impulses we give in to which change us, making us less human and more impulse. If we allow our anger to rule us, we eventually become anger. If we allow our addictions to rule us, we become that addiction. In the case of The Three Doctors, Omega ceased being a physical creature and became a disembodied spirit of the will for revenge.

With the end of this story comes the end of The Doctor’s exile. Jon Pertwee’s tenth season has begun, and I’m excited to see where we go from here.

My Rating: 3.5/5