Monday, January 10, 2011

I Was a Dad Once: An Unearthly Child

It is 5:16 PM, November the 23rd, 1963. Gerry and the Pacemakers' "You'll Never Walk Alone" is the number one single. It will go on to become the anthem of Liverpool FC, at the time of writing still narrowly the most successful English football club of all time. Since 6:30 PM the previous day, the BBC has been running news coverage of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy.

At twenty seconds past the minute, eighty seconds off its scheduled airtime, normal programming resumes with the first episode of a new children's science fiction serial, Doctor Who. The opening credits are a futuristic psychedelic blur that seems oddly quaint as the symbol of youthful revolution has just been gunned down in Texas. The theme music, ostensibly written by Ron Grainer was, for all practical purposes, realized by Delia Derbyshire, who arranged Grainer's score by splicing tape together and speeding/slowing a sample of a single note being plucked on a string, white noise, and some testing oscillators. Derbyshire would, in her later life, be recognized as an unsung hero - a pioneer of electronic music - but received no on-screen credit because the BBC's policy was that members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop would remain anonymous. The credits themselves were done by distorting footage of a pen light being moved around.

The effect is mysterious and chilling. The credits give way, although the haunting theme music does not, as a camera moves around an old junk yard, finally coming to rest on a Police Box. This sequence is hard to comprehend in 1963, as there is nothing particularly strange about a Police Box save for its apparent location in a junkyard, which, by virtue of being a junkyard is sort of, by definition, a place full of odd things. And yet the camera lingers, stressing the strangeness of this object that does not yet have strangeness.

With 48 years of history to contend with, Doctor Who has inevitably changed. One must ask, then, when it became Doctor Who. The answer, it seems, is right here, as mysterious, haunting theme music gives way to an iconic shot. Never mind that the shot cannot possibly be read as iconic in this original context - everything about the camerawork and the music tells us it is iconic. Everything tells us this Police Box is the most important thing about this show. Before we see a single character, before we see the Doctor, before we see a hint of science fiction, we see a Police Box.

(An Unearthly Child,the first episode, is usually treated as one story along with the following three episodes. Because in its first seasons Doctor Who had individually titled episodes instead of story arc titles, the name for this story is disputed. The other names all refer to the plot elements of episodes 2-4, which are, for all practical purposes, a completely different story. An Unearthly Child was rewritten by Anthony Coburn from an original script by C.E. Webber, and was reshot before transmission, both facts that I think serve to separate it in a meaningful sense from the three episodes that follow. Thus I, in a viewpoint that has essentially no credibility in mainstream fandom, opt to treat An Unearthly Child as a one-episode story preceding a three-episode story entitled 100,000 BC.)

An Unearthly Child is a simple character piece. Only four characters meaningfully appear - Susan Foreman, a teenage girl, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton, a pair of her teachers, and The Doctor, her cranky old grandfather.  The story is mostly about Susan - the eponymous child lacking earthiness. Her teachers are at once enamored with her and scared of her. Enamored because she is a genius, and they know it. Scared because she is the wrong sort of genius. She knows things that people aren't meant to know. She speaks of the future - at times quite rightly. In a moment of inadvertent brilliance that makes this episode sing nearly 50 years later, she predicts the decimalization of British currency, though the writers could not have possibly known about it.

So this is where it starts. A mysterious Police Box, and a magical girl, and a mystery that two regular, unimportant people can't quite get over. A mystery that brings them out on a cold London night to 76 Totters Lane to try to find out where this girl came from. There, they meet an old man. Smug, superior, and unfriendly, he does not want them there. This is his mysterious girl, and his mystery.

And then it goes wrong. They force themselves past him, into the blue box, and fall out of the world and into another. It is another triumph of design in the show - a stark white of iconic 60s futurism would age gracefully into retro-futurism. And, of course, bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

The show is Doctor Who already. A show about a magic box that can take you anywhere. A show about running, and escape. But the Doctor is not yet the Doctor. He is scared. He is running. He wants to go home, and can't. He wants to protect his granddaughter. But more than anything, he wants to be free. He'll throw Susan away to be with Ian and Barbara if that's what it takes. But he is so scared of the idea of anyone having power over him that, even with Susan promising him again and again that they are good people, he will not just let them go and let everything return to normal.

So in a mad, daft gesture, one that doesn't make any sense at all, he runs. It is the first moment of depth in the cantankerous grandfather. He runs. And the mysterious swirls of the credits return, and a strange wheezing, groaning noise echoes out, and the TARDIS is somewhere else. Ian and Barbara, helpless, unconscious on the ground, have fallen out of the world, dragged along by a madman with a box.

In this first episode, the questions are obvious. Why is he running? What is he afraid of? Where has he taken Ian and Barbara, and what is going to happen to them? Already, in the first episode, Doctor Who is about its own mystery. About the question of what Doctor Who is going to be. It doesn't know yet. It doesn't know what it will become. Doesn't know the history and wonder that's coming. Perhaps it's even scared of that history. Running from it.

But that history is here. Right here, in this first episode, with its haunting theme music and impossible knowledge of the future and obsession with a Police Box. The episode was clearly made 48 years ago. It is not timeless. But it feels, every second of the episode, like Doctor Who. It feels like it was made by people who knew what Doctor Who was. It's impossible. The fact that a Police Box would look out of place everywhere in the universe within six years, that the theme and TARDIS console would be iconic, that Britain would go to decimal currency, none of this could have been there in 1963. But watching it, that knowledge does not feel like a secret history, but like a real history, there and unfolding in front of us. And when we stare into it, it is impossibly big.

It is 5:40 PM on November the 23rd, 1963. American President John F. Kennedy has been dead for less than 24 hours. And everything in the world has changed. Forever.

Do you own An Unearthly Child on DVD yet? If not, consider buying it from Amazon via this link. I'll get some of the money if you do.

9 comments:

  1. "The answer, it seems, is right here, as mysterious, haunting theme music gives way to an iconic shot. Never mind that the shot cannot possibly be read as iconic in this original context - everything about the camerawork and the music tells us it is iconic."

    This made me squee a bit with delight. (Demythologizing cult/iconic objects is, from one PhD candidate nerd to one post-doctoral nerd, where I get my rocks off.)

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  2. The Halsbury Committee on Decimalisation reported to Parliament in September 1963, so decimalisation was no more a surprise in November 1963 than was the prospect of a female Prime Minister in 1975.

    I do agree, though, that "An Unearthly Child" is a discrete story followed by a three-parter.

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  3. True enough - the writers could have known about it, but it was hardly a certain proposition. And unlike Terror of the Zygons (which falls into the maddening problem of figuring out when the UNIT stories are meant to be set) decimal currency was in no way a sure bet in November of 1963 - it was a conscious decision to make a disjunct between the viewing public and Susan - one that has, ironically, failed completely in hindsight because now Susan is actually closer to the viewing public due to that guess. The Unearthly Child she originally represented has become the somewhat stranger Our-Earthly Child.

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  4. Absolutely spot on. Next time someone doesn't believe me when I not only cite Hartnell as my Favourite Doctor but go as far as to say the show never fulfilled the giddy avant garde promise (or premise) of it's earliest episodes I'll point them in the direction of this blog. Well done.

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  5. Its the pregnant pause at the end of the episode, when the TARDIS vworps off into the unknown that we first have the inkling of what it is that makes Dr Who special. We have mysteries piled upon mysteries and, given that the machine defies physics and space and time, that one dematerialization puts us anywhere, at any time, in the universe. Thats the biggest tabla rasa in the history of storytelling right there.

    And I bet that it doesn't eventually say "hello sweetie"

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    1. Or "timey-wimey" (a creation for the 10th Doctor, but sadly continued (and given more prominence) for the 11th... :(

      It is indeed fun to watch the same show over the decades and see how different producers use it... and each era can reflect the era in which it's made as well... social mores, fears, allusion, allegory, metaphor, etc...

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  6. On whether this should be seen as part of 100,000 BC:

    Here in Australia, channel 2 showed most of Old Who at an episode a day between 2003 and 2006, free to air and without ads. I, then a child, watched it. To me, it seemed very clear that An Unearthly Child was a one episode story, followed by a three episode story.

    And in general, the division between stories did seem pretty clearcut, despite the linking cliffhangers.

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  7. "But-- it's so much bigger inside! How...?"

    "In electrodynamic theory, space expands to accomodate the time necessary to encompass it."

    ...sorry, WRONG version!

    : )

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  8. As much as I enjoy these reviews, I can't tell you how much I disagree with your decision to treat "An Unearthly Child" as separate from the episodes that follow it. It'd be like announcing that 'The Wizard of Oz' was actually two movies shown back-to-back, one set on Earth and another completely different one set in the world of Oz, and you can tell when one movie ends and the other begins because one of them is in black-and-white and the other is in color. Or like saying that 'Alice in Wonderland' is actually two novellas, published together in an anthology, with one set in the real world and the other in Wonderland.

    Stories like this, about people falling out of the world and going on an adventure, are inherently going to have an opening that feels very different from the rest of the story, because you have to establish the world they're falling out of in order to get people to empathize with the protagonists' disorientation. (And yes, at this point, Ian and Barbara are the protagonists.) If you wanted to argue that the story doesn't end with "The Firemaker", and that in fact the first story doesn't really end until "The Planet of Decision" when Ian and Barbara returned to Earth, I'd buy it more readily than I do your assertion that Part One is a different story than Part Two.

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