In the very first serial of Doctor Who ever, the Doctor’s first two companions follow his granddaughter into the TARDIS, where he proceeds to yell at them and then kidnap them and then take them to meet cavemen. Honestly, that’s what happens. If you’re intrigued, then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor.
I think it’s important to know where a series comes from, and I think that, rather naturally, the whole Mark Does Stuff idea facilitates that nicely. I’ve always been the kind of person who wants a complete picture of something. When I listen to music, I listen to full records. When I like I band, I find everything they’ve released and I organize my vinyl records at home by band and then the order those records were released. I find the concept of serialized fiction, either books or television or films, to be endlessly entertaining. I like the idea that an entire world can become so expansive and detailed that years or numerous novels can be spent exploring it.
When I first decided I was going to tackle Doctor Who, sometime in the fall of 2010, I initially thought it would be absurdly fun to watch all of it: All forty-seven years of the show, in order, from beginning to end. At the time, I had no idea that so much of the show was missing, or that there was so much that I’d have to tackle. I knew there was a long break before the “new” series started, but I thought it was much longer than it was. I initially didn’t even know any episodes of the show were produced in the 80s!
While I have always started at the beginning, I made a decision that maybe the sheer volume and challenge was a bit too much for me to try to accomplish, as I didn’t want to spend so much time on one series. I worried that I’d get bored with the show. (LOL NOT POSSIBLE) I worried that after having left Buzznet to start my own site, I would lose my audience if I was on the same series for over a year. (Also not the case, as I’m discovering that I exist in some weird vacuum of fandom, with people coming and go between the two sites I run based on what I’m doing, with some people re-appearing since I finished Harry Potter now that I’m doing Avatar.)
I’m very, very satisfied that I started with the new series and that I became so quickly obsessed with Doctor Who, that I’ve gotten the chance to watch some truly incredible serials from the classic series, that I can continue to watch serials and review them in the future, and that in exactly a week, I will be POSTING A REVIEW FOR SERIES SIX. A;DKFJA ;LSKJFA;DSKLFJAS ;FDLK
(Sidenote: Who do I know in the Bay Area who has BBC America? I have no cable and it doesn’t look like iTunes is putting up the episodes the day after they are. TRAGEDY. I CANNOT MISS THIS.)
So, given this lengthy introduction, I wanted to lead this all into a statement I probably should have made at the beginning: Boy, is it fucking weird to watch the “first” episode so long after I’ve started a project. I mean, I can’t think of doing this with anything else. (Well…wait. Wasn’t there an original Battlestar Galactica series? I’m probably going to skip that. SO MUCH FOR THIS STATEMENT.)
I’m really happy I watched “An Unearthly Child.” That statement has no real qualifier. I am! I mean, parts two through four are pretty awful and I don’t even care! I mean, this shit was made in 1963 and there are large parts of it that still hold up well almost forty-eight years later.
The condition of this serial in terms of quality is what most surprised me. I think that perhaps the show’s creators wanted to do a serial that wasn’t so heavy on special effects for this introduction to the show, so, for good and bad, a lot of “An Unearthly Child” deals with dialogue. I mean, that’s not unlike the show in general. Nearly every classic serial I’ve seen has a lot of talking. Well….a lot of the new episodes do to. The Doctor likes to talk, doesn’t he?
Here we also see so many of the seeds sown for what would become staples of the series, and I can’t seem to find a way to express how exciting this was. The first time we see the TARDIS! Time travel! Smarmy dialogue! Dapper outfits! Companions! Oh god, THIS IS SO COOL. This is literally the first time these things ever appeared on screen! NERDGASM!
Let’s talk about the First Doctor, William Hartnell. I want to see more of his era, as I imagine he’s developed a lot further than what I saw in these four episodes, but holy shit. He is such a douchebag. I guess I’m used to the Doctor being so silly and sarcastic about his knowledge of time and space, and I’m used to him joking with humans when they first meet him, a sort of playful toying with their emotions. I understand that Ian and Barbara do follow Susan “home” and basically break into the junkyard in order to find out what she’s doing. I mean, who wouldn’t be peeved at that? But the Doctor, for the entirety of this serial, is pretty much openly hostile to Ian and Barbara. I could understand it at the start, but it continues. First, they’re being rude and trespassing. Then they’re not smart enough. Then they’re too close-minded. Then they KNOW TOO MUCH. (Thankfully, no one actually says this, but isn’t that basically the scenario here? The Doctor can’t let them go because they’ve seen too much. So allow me to show you even more, perpetuating this ridiculous cycle.) Then they’re too friendly. Then the Doctor tries to smash Za’s head in???? WHAT????
I’m hoping that I am making these statements out of pure ignorance. (You will never see those typed words again.) Somewhere along the way, the Doctor had to evolve into the more nuanced, humorous, and curious figure that I’ve seen along the way. Unless this is Hartnell’s Doctor? Unless something happened to make him this bitter and cynical? Maybe? There are hints of some sort of story about why he and Susan are traveling on their own, and I actually don’t know what other information we learn over the course of the First Doctor’s tenure. (THAT’S KIND OF EXCITING, SO DON’T SPOIL THIS FOR ME.)
Either way, I do have to admit that if this was the first I’d seen of the show, I’m definitely left wanting more. Who is this man? Why does he travel through time and space? Where are he and Susan actually from? Does the TARDIS actually change form over the course of the whole series? It’s mentioned here that it is supposed to change with the surroundings, but it seems to have gotten stuck.
The first fourth of this serial is pretty fantastic, I must say. It’s exciting and weird and kind of abrasive and you’re left wondering at the end of the first part: Where on earth is he taking them? Then you have to correct yourself because even that phrase doesn’t apply to the Doctor. He can travel to other places off Earth! Seriously, WHERE IS MY TARDIS.
From here on out…man, this is one of the strangest stories that I’ve ever seen Doctor Who do. When I say that it’s awful, I mean that there’s really not much that I may have enjoyed unironically. (Does that make me a Doctor Who hipster? A Whopster?) The cave men and women we see for the next three parts talk a lot. THEY DO A LOT OF TALKING. A lot of their conversations are brunt and kind of absurd. How do they understand the intrinsic complications of leadership and inter-party politics, but they cannot comprehend the very concept of friendship?
There’s a really common thing that happens on television and in movies, where overly complicated and ridiculously dramatic plots seem to take place because the characters on screen simply don’t take ten seconds out of their day to just state the obvious or be direct. I cannot tell you how many times during the parts two and three that I yelled JUST START A GODDAMN FIRE at any of our time travelers. There were numerous moments where they were alone or not preoccupied and if this tribe of people wanted and feared fire, COULDN’T YOU HAVE STARTED ONE HOURS EARLIER?
Unlike virtually every Doctor that comes after him, the First Doctor seems intent on doing one of three things:
1) Getting the fuck away from this place.
2) Not getting involved in any way, shape, or form.
3) Insulting any and every thing that is a living organism.
I know I’m seeing a very small portrait here, one that will be developed and changed, with a character who will grow and adapt and become something so different, but good lord, the Doctor is so distracting throughout this story. Sometimes I feel that Susan, Ian, and Barbara (especially those last two) were the ones trying to save everyone while the Doctor just puttered about. And smoked sand? What the hell did he put into that pipe?
Like other stories we’d see in the future, the Doctor and his companions are essentially thrust into a civil war of sorts here in “An Unearthly Child,” and I haven’t commented much about the plot itself. I know it sounds like I hated this serial, but I honestly didn’t! It sort of became like an alternate Mystery Science Theatre 3000 for me, as I yelled shit at the screen and laughed and groaned. Truthfully, I actually had a great time watching this serial. But I can’t ignore that aside from all of that, the plot of this story bored me. It did! I’m sorry, but that’s how I felt. So much violence and nonsensical posturing over fire. Fire that could have taken like five seconds to create?
But if they had taken the easy way out, I would not have seen:
- Za, the lovechild of Eric Bana and Will Forte. Yep, get that out of your head. I dare you.
- Barbara scream at a dead boar. YOU’RE IN CAVEMAN TIMES, SURELY THERE ARE WORSE THINGS THAN THAT.
- The homoerotic subtext to Kal and Za, culminating in them rolling around in the sand for a few minutes, their shanks shining in the light of a BBC studio set.
- The REALLY DISTURBING AND BRUTAL KILLING OF KAL. What the fuck, that was so jarring and kind of realistic? Did the show get in trouble for this?
- The Cave of Skulls, which was apparently named and capitalized by the cave folk as a sacred place, yet they didn’t understand FRIENDSHIP. God bless this serial.
- Ian creating fire, a surefire method of escape, and GIVING IT AWAY IMMEDIATELY. Thanks, Ian.
- The parade of gothic imagery of the skulls on fire. So poetic.
- The spears getting thrown at the TARDIS and the TARDIS disappearing, seemingly taking those spears with the TARDIS since we never see them pass through it or land or anything.
It’s a loving sort of disdain. I swear!
Next week, you can expect a review of the opening episode of the sixth series of Doctor Who, “The Impossible Astronaut,” wherein my review will merely be 45 minutes of the audio track of me hyperventilating to the return of this show. Until then, happy watching!