Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Best Out of a Bad Situation

Title: The Forest of Fear
Written by: Anthony Coburn
Team TARDIS: First Doctor, Susan Foreman, Ian Chesterton, Barbara Wright
Adversary: Cavemen and a really scary forest
Originally Aired: December 7, 1963

(Note: Soooo... Tragical History Tour had a bit of a tragedy in that their photo hosting service went toes-up on them (at least, for the next 24 hours). Thus, I'm going to have to do without screencaps for this post. Yes, I could try to make my own... but no one really wants me to do that because they'd look horrible. We'll just have to make-do with some links to Tumblr).

My Review:

I left the review of “The Cave of Skulls” on a character development cliffhanger. Now, have you ever been scratching a dog’s tummy and all of a sudden the dog started thumping it’s hind legs, meaning that you’ve found the sweet spot and you’d better keep scratching there because, oh boy, that’s just right? (okay, maybe it’s just my dog that does that). That’s me when a story gives me some great characters with great development. That’s probably why I stuck with the First Doctor’s era so long when I was first getting into Classic Who. Lots of veteran fans tell you not to plow through Classic Who from the start because you’re going to get bored. Well, in my case, that was most certainly NOT true. It started in the previous episode, but it really ramps up in “The Forest of Fear.”

Now, I've always considered the four-part serial known as “An Unearthly Child” to really be two stories. The first episode is its own stand-alone plotline and the subsequent three episodes are another story arc. Which makes “The Forest of Fear” the second part in a trilogy. And, generally speaking, the second parts of trilogies are usually the weakest installment. The story neither begins, nor ends. It’s just there to (hopefully) move the story along until it can be concluded, but not to actually end. I can think of several book trilogies that this applies to - the second book in the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth is kind of a muddled, meandering mess and the second book of the Matched trilogy by Ally Condie sticks out like a sore thumb between two very good installments. Also, traditionally Classic Doctor Who has this thing where the second-to-last episode of a serial is more or less killing time until the final episode comes in to end the story and interest kind of lags a bit. So... “The Forest of Fear” already has the deck stacked against it.

That’s not to say it’s a terrible episode. It’s just not the best that we've been given up to this point. And that may say more about the quality of the first two episodes than it does about this one. Because there are still good things to say about it - but they’re a bit more subtle and require some retconning to make work. Luckily, I've spent quite a bit of time on Tumblr and this “headcanon” stuff is like oxygen (which is kind of hard to come by over there, what with all the breathless fannish-flailing. I regret nothing!)

Fear Makes Companions of Us All

When last we left Our Intrepid Heroes... they’d been captured, tied up, and tossed into the Cave of Skulls. Things look pretty bleak for Team TARDIS. So bleak, in fact, that this scrappy little group of time-travelers - thrown together by the most bizarre circumstances - actually start to work together to find way to get out of the situation they’re in. And this, dear friends, is where the famed Man of Action Ian Chesterton comes to the forefront. Ian’s skepticism and doubt has completely vanished at this point. There’s no point in trying to deny that this weird stuff is happening anymore - Here is a problem and he’s going to solve it by being the default leader of the group.

I talked in the last review about how Barbara was the one willing to accept time travel and Ian was the one who had to be convinced of the reality of the situation - really, he only gave it a chance when he saw how adamant Barbara was about it. In this episode, there’s a bit of a role reversal which I find completely fascinating. It’s not a straight-across-the- board sort of thing, but Barbara’s given into despair and panic and Ian’s the one who has to pull her out of it. Personally, I rather like that trade-off between the pair of them. They both have their strong moments and their weak moments, which makes them each such realistic and relatable characters. This episode is chock full of moments where Ian and Barbara are shown to be almost perfect foils to each other. Really, I can’t think of any of their stories where that doesn't happen at least once. Some of that is down to the writing (I remembering reading somewhere that early drafts of these scripts did include hints of a romantic subplot between Ian and Barbara - oh, hey, here it is!), but I think most of that is because William Russell and Jacqueline Hill have such awesome chemistry together. Their performances create such a unique relationship between these companions and it gives me chills every time I see it (someone said recently that Ian and Barbara are Classic Who’s version of Rory and Amy before they got married. Can’t say that I disagree).

(Not to mention providing Tumblr with some excellent out-of-context screencaps for all your shipping needs).*

Well, that fills the shipping quota for this review (pun very much intended) - what about the other half of Team TARDIS? At this point, Susan’s just sort of... there. Though I do have to say that, given how the Doctor is acting, Susan deserves some admiration for being as positive and cheerful as she is in this episode. Because the Doctor is a far cry from the “can-do” hero that I had come to know from New Series Doctor Who. Honestly - I really like that he’s a bit of a coward early-on in this incarnation. This takes some ret-conning, but when have Whovians ever been shy about that? The First Doctor has even said that he doesn’t like Earth or the 20th century - but his granddaughter loves it. The Doctor holds nothing but disdain and contempt for Ian and Barbara. And, honestly, Ian doesn’t think very much of the Doctor either. The only reason Ian just doesn’t take Barbara (and maybe Susan) and leave the Doctor behind is because the Doctor’s the only one who knows how to fly the TARDIS (well, Ian’s sense of honor and decency probably plays a part in not wanting to leave a frail old man behind for the cavemen to... do whatever it is the cavemen would have done). In the grand scheme of things, this does wonders for the Doctor’s characterization and growth.

Any Hope Is Better Than None

And then, we come to the famous “the Doctor almost brains a caveman with a rock scene.” Which, I totally missed that on first viewing. After Team TARDIS has been fleeing through the eponymous Forest of Fear for the past ten minutes, the caveman-leader-dude and his ladyfriend - who have been pursuing Team TARDIS at this point - get attacked by some ferocious creature (totally off-screen because I highly doubt any kind of zoo animal was in the BBC budget at the time). After much screaming and an implied bloodbath, the caveman is seriously injured - and Team TARDIS can get away! Except... Barbara feels bad about leaving the poor caveman to die and she goes to try to help. Recognizing that this would be the right thing to do, Ian and Susan follow suit. And the Doctor... picks up a rock and decides that he is going kill their would-be attacker because that means they’ll get out of there quicker.

(Never let it be said that the Doctor was one to follow the crowd).

But the Doctor doesn't get the chance to follow through with his plans because Ian stops him almost as soon as the Doctor picks up the rock. And it’s just such a fast moment, but the Doctor is lost for words - almost for the first time since we've met him. And it’s more than just this one little plan has been foiled or that he’s cross that he hasn't gotten his way (as Susan says) - but I think this moment is when the Doctor starts to think that maybe humans aren't so beneath him as he once thought. He sees how Ian and Barbara are concerned over the injured caveman, how they clean him up and work to take him back to the safety of his tribe, even though it may mean they get captured again. And the only reason I think that this starts to change the Doctor is because that’s the kind of quality that I saw in the Doctor’s later lives. He doesn't seek to kill anyone and he doesn't look for violence or trouble. Obviously, something happened to change him and all that started with Ian and Barbara showing kindness and compassion to an adversary. If nothing else, that’s what “The Forest of Skulls” should be remembered for - the tiniest moment that started the Doctor on his path toward being better than he started out being.

Certainly, the Doctor’s character development goes on over the course of a very long time and we don’t actively see it played out on screen (beyond noticing differences in how William Hartnell plays the Doctor as time goes on - but you actually have to be paying attention to it because the change is so subtle). There’s a lot of reading-between-the-lines involved, but that’s something I totally enjoy and love, which is why I adore the First Doctor’s era so much. I've said this before with Classic Who (and I’m certain to say it many more times), but there is tons and tons of depth to these stories and so many people fixate on the effects or the low-budgets or the fact that these were filmed “as-live” or even that they’re in black and white and never see beyond those ticky-tack, nit-picky things to find the delicious meaty chunks of plot and story and character. And that’s totally unfair to these stories - but then again, that leaves more for me to enjoy. So - there!

*All joking about screencaps aside, Katie and Claire of Unwilling Adventurer actually go out of their way to provide context and analysis in everything related to the First Doctor's era. They're the best fan-create resource on the Hartnell era that I've ever seen online and I highly recommend their most excellent Tumblr.  As a bonus - here's their analysis of "An Unearthly Child" that they posted on the anniversary last year.  But don't think they never have their fangirl-flaily moments - oh, boy do they ever fangirl! :)

Next Time, on Librarian in the TARDIS: Unearthly Revisited
Part 4 - This story is ending, but the adventure never ends!

Previously -
Part 2 - Baptism By Fire

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