Classic Doctor Who Retro Review – An Unearthly Child

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Retro TV has recently started screening episodes of the “classic” run of Doctor Who (the 1963-1989 episodes), two episodes a night between 8 – 9pm. Entire stories are also re-broadcast on Saturday afternoons if you missed them the first time around.

Many of these episodes have not been broadcast on American television for over 20 years and it’s been about that long since I’ve seen many of them too. When I saw them for the first time back in the mid to late 1980’s I was around 11-14 years old (yeah, I’m getting old!). Back then, they were usually shown only on PBS stations and were not shown as individual episodes, but rather were edited together to form one long, continuous story. As many of these stories are typically made up of 2 -6 individual half hour episodes (and more rarely as many as 10-12 episodes), watching them all at once can sometimes be a daunting task, for even the most dedicated Whovian. Many a time I have fallen asleep around episode 5 or 6!

Personally, I feel that the 4 part stories are the best as far as pacing goes. A tale of that length gives the writer plenty of time to properly set the mood and establish the setting, develop the characters and plug up any potential plot holes, yet keep things moving at a decent speed. 2 part stories can sometimes skimp on these things, feeling a little rushed and are the mostly likely to suffer from 2 dimensional characters and huge plot holes.

When you get into the realm of stories that are 6 parts or longer there often simply isn’t enough plot to sustain the enterprise, and the writers add lots of “padding” to stretch things out to the required length. This often takes the form of companions being captured and placed in a death trap, with a now distracted Doctor spending an episode or two rescuing them before finally being free to deliver the coup de grace to the baddies in the final episode. Sometimes this actually happens more than once and can get a little tedious.

Another issue with watching the classic series as opposed to the modern series that began in 2005 is the special effects. The series suffers from all sorts of dubious special effects and production errors. The sets wobble, stories set in jungles or forests are often obviously dressed up soundstages with rubbery plants and polystyrene rocks. Quarries double for alien landscapes when they actually do bother to film on location, boom mike shadows are visible and even stage hands can be seen sometimes. For some modern viewers, used to glossy productions all of this is too much to bear and they can’t take the stories seriously.

However, this has never been much of an issue for me personally. Many of the production errors are easy to miss and I don’t even notice them until somebody points them out. Unfortunately, once seen, they are difficult to “unsee” (thanks a bunch, fans who like to point these things out!). To me, enjoying these stories simply requires that you “suspend your disbelief”, which is really just a fancy way of saying to use your imagination to pretend that that rather silly looking creature that is obviously just a man in a hot, uncomfortable costume is actually as terrifying as the actors are trying to convince you that it is. Modern audiences have been a bit spoiled by great to passable effects (unless watching a Syfy channel production!) so this can be challenging for you younglings!

10437277_10203855356760094_71859235_nTo me, Classic Who is like the little engine that could. They try really hard to tell an ambitious, imaginative story with very limited resources, and I’m surprised that the end product actually often looks as good as it does considering the grandiose scale of what is supposed to be happening in the story. This is especially true of the 1960’s stories from the very beginning of the series which are currently being broadcast and are now over 50 years old in some cases!

In my opinion, the fact that everyone involved was crazy enough to try and convince an audience that a soundstage in 1960’s England was an alien planet, or Prehistoric Earth with their miniscule budgets is part of what makes the original series so endearing and is an element of the charm of Doctor Who which has been lost in the current version.

I was quite pleased to hear that these stories would be getting broadcast again, I’ve often been puzzled as to why they haven’t been on TV with the newfound popularity of Doctor Who in US. I can only assume that perhaps the BBC was concerned it would interfere with the sales of their DVDs of classic stories? I’ve noticed that some stories have been skipped (“the Aztecs” and “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”) and I wonder if these DVDs are still in print and that is why Retro TV didn’t broadcast them? So maybe they only have the rights to play stories that are no longer being sold as DVDs? I don’t know for certain, but that’s my theory. I’ll be briefly reviewing the stories that have been broadcast so far.

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An Unearthly Child (aka 10,000 B.C., the Tribe of Gum)

This is it! The very first Doctor Who story ever! And as such, I feel that it is essential viewing for anyone who dares to call themselves a Whovian, if for no other reason than to appreciate where the series started and how far it has come.

The first episode is quite nice, it holds up very well in my opinion. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. The rest of the tale happens in prehistoric times and involves the TARDIS crew being captured by a tribe of cavemen who are convinced that they can create fire. It’s basically a bad version of “Quest for Fire” which itself was a pretty lousy movie. The cavemen, thankfully do not speak too much like Tonto, Tarzan or the Frankenstein Monster thanks to the magic of the TARDIS translation circuits. However after episode 1 the rest of the story, frankly just isn’t all that interesting, despite attempts to create political intrigue over the question of the leadership of the tribe. Both parties vying for control of the tribe are pretty unlikeable, so it’s hard to really care much about who ends up becoming the mayor of Bedrock.

10617762_10203855356880097_73139746_nThe First Doctor, played by William Hartnell, is a really jerk in this story too, which might be pretty shocking to people who are used to the modern series. However, his character will soften up into a more loveable eccentric old grandfather-type after about 3 stories, so stick with it my friends! This a little thing called “character evolution” which too many modern productions don’t seem to be very well acquainted with.

We also get to meet the Doctor’s only known blood relative, his granddaughter Susan. She’s a bit annoying actually, but his is more the fault of the writers than the actress. In this story she gives one of her best performances, at least in episode 1 where her “unearthliness” is the central mystery. In most other episodes, she comes across as being rather whiny and not all that interesting.

It also introduces the characters of Ian and Barbara, two teachers from the Coal Hill School, which is (not coincidentally) where current companion Clara also works. They form a likeable enough pair and are really the central characters at this point in the series. In the early years of Doctor Who, the Doctor was physically pretty frail, so they usually had a somewhat brawny younger man to handle all the physical stuff. Ian is fulfilling that role at this point in the series history.

In this story we find out that the Doctor and Susan have had the TARDIS parked in a junkyard for the past 4 months, what they have been up to during that time is at least partially answered many years later in the 7th Doctor story “Remembrance of the Daleks” from 1988.

 

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