Monday, June 25, 2012

Old Who Reviews - Serial 001: "An Unearthly Child"

"I have no matches! I cannot make fire! I CANNOT MAKE FIRE!"
~The First Doctor

So here's the very beginning of "Doctor Who".

We meet the First Doctor, played by William Hartnell, who starts out as kind of a dick, and if one thing is going to remain consistent over the decades, I guess that should be it.

This first serial, also known as "100,000 BC", is only partially an origin story. The first episode out of four deals with the very basics of the setup. We meet two school teachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, who can't seem to figure out that their student, Susan, is a time traveler, despite how terrible she is at hiding that fact. I'm sorry, but if anyone I knew ever said something peculiar and then followed it up with, "Oh right, that hasn't been invented yet," or something akin to that, I'd probably immediately ask them if they were a time traveler. Maybe that's just because I'm genre-savvy, but still.

Anyway, having nothing better to do, the two teachers follow Susan home and end up finding the famous TARDIS, where the Doctor emerges, insults their intelligence, and tries in vain to drive them off. However, they discover the truth about the Doctor and his granddaughter -- that they're aliens, exiled from their home world and bouncing along the fourth dimension until they can one day return home. Shenanigans ensue and the Doctor accidentally takes the two school teachers hostage and they travel into the year 100,000 BC, or thereabouts.

This first episode is probably the only part of this first serial worth watching, and not just as a fan of the new stuff, but in its own right. It's cool to see the origin point of the series.

The rest of this serial is downright excruciating.

We basically see stupid people rolling around in a cave screaming about not being able to make fire. And we also have cavemen (see what I did there?). The plot can be summed up pretty simply. The Doctor gets roped in by nearby cavemen to make fire for them. The other three stumble along as well, though it's unclear why or how they got there. The characters all incite political unrest in the cavemen society until they eventually escape and go to the next time period.

This drags on for three episodes.

I realize I'm holding a nearly 50-year-old television show to my own standards, but good lord, it's not like pacing hadn't yet been discovered.

On a side note, I'm shocked that humans from 100,000 BC can identify the Doctor as an "old man". I somehow doubt they've ever seen anyone older than 40. I'm surprised they don't consider him to be some kind of deformed creature, what with his wrinkled face and white hair. They also mostly just seem concerned with the Doctor's ability to make fire, not as much with what he's wearing or the way he behaves and communicates. I know the TARDIS translates for them, but I would think cavemen wouldn't be this verbal.

I also love how when they're all put in restraints and left alone in a cave, their first instinct is to try and cut the restraints with rocks and pieces of bone rather than UNTIE them. It's just rope. Probably crappy rope. And these are cavemen, not Boy Scouts. They can't even make FIRE. Those knots can't be very good.

And don't get me started on the politics. Who knew you could make cavemen this freaking political? There's a guy whose dead father used to provide fire so he just waits around for fire to come to him, there's another guy who's trying to be the new leader by learning how to create fire from the Doctor, there's the tribe elder who's afraid of fire, there's random other people who encourage or discourage the aforementioned parties... and none of them are interesting or likable because... well, because they're all cavemen.

While the serial itself ends up being a low-rent, crappy, prehistoric "Game of Thrones", it does provide us some insight into the four main players. For one thing, the Doctor learns to take some responsibility and get along with the bloody humans. For another thing, we start to learn the role each character takes in the series.

Ian is what the writers assume is the character the audience is most likely to relate to and is thus the most competent and gets the most to do. This means he does most of the exposition, most of the talking

The Doctor gets incapacitated a lot and is condescending and snarky (some things never change).

Susan screams a lot and worries about the Doctor.

Barbara also screams a lot and gives Ian something to protect. Well, she does also get to do quite a bit, but not nearly as much as Ian. Still, she's more proactive than the Doctor, so that's something. For the 60's this could have been a lot worse.

Anyway, this isn't the worst thing I've ever seen. To be honest, given the premise, I can't imagine cavemen being made much more interesting than this, so bravo I suppose. Regardless, this serial didn't have to be four episodes long. And really, I have a hard time understanding what the whole point of this serial was. What was the theme they were trying to explore? The nature of humanity? Technology? Morality? Compassion? It's pretty sloppy overall.

I give this serial 4/10.

You can pick it up (as well as a few of the other serials in this season) from this DVD volume available through Amazon: "Doctor Who: The Beginning"