Monday, November 18, 2013

All There in the Manual

Librarian in the TARDIS - Unearthly Revisited, Part 1

Title: An Unearthly Child
Written by: Anthony Coburn
Team TARDIS: First Doctor, Susan Foreman, Ian Chesterton (joins), Barbara Wright (joins)
Adversary: There really isn't one! (not for the first episode, at least)
Originally Aired: November 23, 1963

Synopsis (from TARDIS Wikia) -
Susan Foreman is a mystery to teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, seemingly knowing more than she should about the past... and the future. Their curiosity leads them to follow her home one night, only to find that her 'home' appears to be a deserted junkyard. In the junkyard, they discover a police telephone box and a strange old man, who claims to be Susan's grandfather, and calls himself the Doctor. The journey of a lifetime is about to begin...

My Review:

I'm baaaaaack!

While my 50th Anniversary reviews of Librarian in the TARDIS are complete, the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary celebrations are far from over. This Saturday is The Day of All Days and what other fitting tribute would there be than to revisit the story that kicked off this fantastic story of a strange old alien and his time-traveling police box?

I thought about reviewing “An Unearthly Child” all together as it’s own little Bonus Review, but the more I thought and wrote about it (just from memory - I hadn't watched it for a while), I realized that every episode is packed with so much detail and nuance and I didn't want to miss anything good. And I’ll probably get other chances to discuss and dissect this story (and others like it), but the thoughts I had felt right for the 50th. So, without further ado - let’s get started with Episode 1!

(Screencaps from Tragical History Tour)

A Mild Curiosity in the Junkyard

I came to Classic Who in an interesting way. I mainlined New Who in a little over a month, watched the Paul McGann TV Movie, then found a copy of “The Five Doctors” on YouTube that incorporated elements from New Series (and probably gave a fanboys a fair number of heart attacks, now that I think about it). After the glorious sampler plate of “The Five Doctors,” I wanted to dive into Classic Who headfirst. Problem was, I wasn't sure how to begin. I knew there were any number of points I could start with, but honestly - I was intrigued by Susan. I didn't know much about her, other than she was the Doctor’s granddaughter and how cool would it be to get some of the Doctor’s personal background? (how precious was I?) I took the same attitude I did with New Who (and that I do with any new show that I start watching), that I really ought to start from the beginning so I can get all of the background and have a good foundation for these characters and stories. I don’t like missing out on inside jokes and references, quite honestly.

So, First Doctor it was. I located a copy of “An Unearthly Child” (*cough*) online and went to town.

Well - I first went to the junkyard.

One wonders how close this guy came to being the Doctor's first human companion.
The initial opening shots of the junkyard (complete with the police officer that recently became the longest-running character in the show, thanks to a certain little tribute trailer) are, quite simply, a brilliant choice for starting things going. Director Waris Hussein deserves all kinds of praise for this because it would have been so easy to start with the ordinary, everyday scenes of Coal Hill School and then ramp-up to the fantastical revelation of the TARDIS. But starting with the little tour of the junkyard (with the theme tune still playing hauntingly in the background) sets up for the audience that all is not normal in this sleepy little corner of London. There is a mystery to be solved and we the audience are clued in on it right from the beginning. This is not going to be a typical educational show for kids - this is going to be spooky and intriguing and FUN! And, even though I knew it must be coming, I got a real thrill out of seeing the police box through the fog and that strange, tell-tale humming just beneath the surface.

Now that I think of it - why a junkyard? The TARDIS had camouflaged itself as a Police Box - it could have easily been set out on the street corner, right? But the junkyard is another brilliant choice - either by the director or the writer, I really don’t know who it was but they were genius for doing that (I wonder if anyone’s ever asked that question). Junkyards have their own creepy atmosphere - it’s a place where no one ever goes, full of things that nobody wants anymore. It could be dangerous to go inside, even. It’s like putting the Wardrobe to Narnia in the Spare Room that no one uses - it’s a place that is unclaimed, unused, unorganized. Anything could happen (and it probably will).

Phew - two whole paragraphs on the first minute of screen time! Boy, I’m glad I split this thing up!

“Thank You For The ‘We’”

Now that the mystery and atmosphere of the show has been sufficiently set up, it’s time to bring in the mundane and ordinary - a tried and true formula that has been a storytelling staple for Doctor Who for 50 years. Coal Hill School. Just your average, run-of-the-mill secondary school with a bunch of average, run-of-the-mill students racing to get out of the building as the final bell rings before their average, run-of-the-mill teachers give them more homework or get after them for running in the hallways. Average. Run-of-the-mill. Nothing to write home about. Nothing at all.

Now, when I hit “play” on “An Unearthly Child,” I had no idea that the Doctor had ever traveled with more than one companion at a time. Well, that’s not entirely true - I’d been floored when I saw “The Five Doctors” and saw that the Doctor was accompanied by (what I thought he was at the time) a redheaded guy who probably worked in investment banking (that would have been Turlough. Seriously - I was completely clueless). So, I was more than a little surprised when the story didn't start with Susan, as I expected, but with her teachers.

To be perfectly, 100% honest, I had never even heard of Barbara Wright or Ian Chesterton. Which is really weird to me now because I’d known about Sarah Jane Smith and I’d heard of Tegan and Nyssa and Peri and Ace and the Brigadier and Jamie and Susan, but the Doctor’s first human companions were a complete surprise to me. Looking back, I like that Ian and Barbara were a surprise to me - probably because I was going into Classic Who thinking that I knew all the backstory the show had to offer and there was no way that I could be surprised in any major way (in my defense - I was still so very new at this and I didn't have any veteran Whovian standing by the guide me in this).

This will be the only time I fangirl-squee over these two this entire week. Seriously. The ONLY time.
(Yeah, you know I'm lying).
But what I totally love about these initial scenes with Ian and Barbara is how fast I went from “Who in the world are these two?” to “Holy crap! They’re amazing!” And really, they haven’t even done much - just expressed concern over a student that they've both had problems with. But you do get the sense that, while they’re both very set in their ordinary lives, they also have a lot of potential to be absolutely magnificent. It’s much the same with Rose Tyler when the series came back. And this isn't the first time (as I’ll point out here in a bit) that Russell T Davies took cues from the Classic Series when he was crafting New Who. Ordinary people with ordinary lives on the brink of an extraordinary adventure.

Something else that I hadn't clued into until much later, but that I really love, is that from the get-go Ian and Barbara have a really strong relationship with each other. Whether you “ship” them romantically (as I do) or if you just think they’re good friends, there is an unmistakable bond between these two that carries the first few stories (and, arguably, much of the first season) and that bond immediately creates a bridge between the story and the audience.

I know I’m getting ahead of myself here, but there are moments when the Doctor is being downright unpleasant and unlikeable that it’s really jarring (especially if you’re coming from New Who). But then Ian and Barbara say something to each other about it you’re back on board with the story.  For myself, it was reassuring that I was still watching the same show that I'd fallen in love with - there was an unspoken promise that this irascible old man would most certainly become the character that I knew and adored, I just had to give him time to get there. And really, that’s what kept me watching throughout these four episodes - I was still getting used to the different format coming from New Series Doctor Who and I hadn’t quite gotten my feet under me (so to speak). But I had Ian and Barbara to connect me to the rest of the story and as long as they were doing awesome things (which is pretty much all the time), I fell right in with everything else. They’re two of the absolute best companions ever in Doctor Who - and I’d even argue the foundations for these two characters are the basis for all future companions.

“What Are You Doing Here?”

So, Ian and Barbara go poking around in the junkyard looking for Susan (no way she could possibly be in that old police box... that's humming?) And - eleven minutes into the first episode - the title character arrives, waving his scarf around to clear the dust and examining all the junk lying around the place. Ian and Barbara (rather politely) ask this mysterious old man if he’s seen a young girl and the old man completely blows them off. It’s obvious the Doctor is hiding something - and Susan doesn't make it easy for him to keep his secret hidden, still calling out to her grandfather from... somewhere?

William Hartnell’s first appearance as the Doctor sets the tone for his character beautifully - indeed, it sets the tone for how the Doctor is going to treat Ian and Barbara, at least for the foreseeable future - but it also gives him room for character development. They’re bothering him. They’re in the way. They’re going to expose his closely-guarded secrets. Still, underneath all that bravado and bluster lies the beginnings of a spark of that very first Team TARDIS. Even before their characters truly know each other (as far as the story’s concerned), William Hartnell, William Russell and Jacqueline Hill positively sparkle in this first scene together and you just know that this is the start of an amazing team (well, I was excited about it, anyway).

The start of a beautiful friendship (eventually...)
A Thing That Looks Like a Police Box

One of the coolest things about the Doctor Who’s revival in 2005 is how much stuff Russell T Davies not so much “borrowed” as outright stole from “An Unearthly Child” when he wrote “Rose.” Both episodes start out with the Doctor’s soon-to-be companions in their normal, everyday lives. Both progress as the result of these normal, everyday lives being disrupted by the smallest weirdnesses. And both introduced the inside of the TARDIS - not in this grand, upscale camera shot, but by the companion’s initial reaction. The audience saw Barbara’s face before we saw the inside of the TARDIS and the same thing would happen with Rose 42 years later. It’s a genius move to create a sense of wonder in the audience, by first creating a sense of wonder in the characters we've already connected with (Hey, don’t fix what ain’t broke!)

Audiences and companions' first entrances into the TARDIS, from 2005 and 1963
And here comes The Exposition! In general, exposition can be really boring if not handled well, but for setting up the whys and wherefores of how this new science fiction program will operate - I have a damn hard time imagining that Verity Lambert and company didn't set up the entire Doctor Who mythos right from the very beginning. Even though I've heard stories about how most everything was done on the fly and by sheer luck and coincidence, the story is told with such utter confidence in everything that’s going on, you absolutely believe that there is already a plan to reveal the Doctor and Susan’s home planet and the circumstances of their exile. Sure, they don’t outright mention Gallifrey or Time Lords or regeneration (and those things wouldn't even be invented until years later), but coming from New Who, I feel like there’s a certain amount of mystery to be explained later. Indeed, there’s an unspoken promise that it will be explained later, but right now we've got the universe to explore!

Not exactly an average Parent-Teacher Conference, is it?
Here’s kind of an odd example of what I’m talking about - I've recently gotten into the show Person of Interest. Over the show’s first season, most of what we learned of the reclusive-yet-lovable genius billionaire Harold Finch was directly tied into the background of the Machine he built for the government that spies on people. We learned very little about his personal life that wasn't related to that project. But in Season 2, we do get more of his backstory that we knew must be there, but it was never a point of discussion in Season 1 because there were other things going on that directly related to the premise of the show.

The Doctor is very much a Harold Finch-type character - reclusive, eccentric, standoffish at first, but just a big squishy teddy bear once you come to know him. We know he’s protective of his granddaughter (and rightfully so - we don’t know the nature of the Doctor and Susan’s exile, but we know enough that the situation is dangerous for them both).

I've really got to talk about Susan here. Because what makes this Team TARDIS work is the connection that Susan has to her grandfather, but also the connection she has to 20th century Earth and, by extension, her schoolteachers. While the Doctor insists that he merely “tolerate[s] this century but [doesn't] enjoy it” in this first episode, Susan has already fallen in love with this planet, its customs and people. I have no doubt that love eventually inspires the Doctor to adopt Earth as his second home planet. There are other reasons that come later (in these reviews, in fact!) that the Doctor would start to soften his attitudes about Earth, but it wouldn't have happened at all if it wasn't for the innocent and sincere curiosity that Susan exhibited from the outset. Susan’s heart and tenacity make her a very unique companion - these qualities don’t get exhibited much in other companions (I think you could make a case that Jamie is that way - possibly even Rose, in some ways) and that really endears her to me. Here’s a young girl whose was obviously very close to her grandfather. She’s got his same desire to explore new worlds and she gladly tagged along for the ride when he ran away from Gallifrey. She enrolled in a primitive school on a primitive world in order to more fully understand the people of this planet - which, that has courage written all over it. And she doesn't shy away from a challenge. Sure, she’ll have moments where she’s scared out of her wits - who doesn't? But you have to admire a girl for trying new things!

Wanderers in the Fourth Dimension

And here’s the moment of truth. Ian and Barbara try to leave the TARDIS, but the Doctor locks the doors and takes off with them still inside - looking positively horrified at what could possibly happen next. Not much is said after the TARDIS takes off - there’s an extended sound effect of the TARDIS taking off, Ian and Barbara are knocked unconscious (because of the stress of first-time time traveling? Heck, I don’t know - it never happens again), scenes of London fall away as the ship rockets off into space and time...

...and comes to a stop on a desolate, rocky plain with a menacing shadow stretching across the landscape. The credits roll and the theme tune plays. Jaws are picked up off living room floors across the UK. For the second time in two days, history has just been made. This time it’s not an assassination an ocean away, but one scrappy little family tea-time program that’s going to be the talk of the town - a program that won’t soon be forgotten.

(Okay, I’m just imagining how things would have been for the average television viewer in the UK in November 1963 - but it’s as good as anything else, right?)

We're not in Shoreditch anymore...
There’s just so much packed into this one little 22-minute episode that I could have gone on and on about characters and story and plot elements. The writing is tight and engaging, there’s just enough mystery left to keep you excited for the next part - which will be the topic tomorrow. While “An Unearthly Child” has the reputation of being a stellar piece of television and the succeeding three episodes... not so much, I’m certain I can find something compelling to talk about in each one. Hell, it was good enough for the audiences to stick around before the Daleks finally showed up.

(Aw man... I wanna go watch this episode again!)

Next Time, on Librarian in the TARDIS: Unearthly Revisited -
Part 2 - Caveman politics - bah! Let's talk character development!

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