Tag Archives: Barbara

Defense: Planet of Giants

Planet of Giants came out last September on DVD, allowing us to inaugurate the second season in proper fashion. This serial may seem a poor candidate for the defense, as its relative lack of action and plodding dialogue meant that even its creators cut it from the planned four episodes to the rarely seen three.

The serial starts in very promising fashion. While attempting to return to 1960s Earth, the TARDIS experiences a malfunction. Although at first it appears to have arrived without incident, the Doctor and Barbara, Ian and Susan quickly discover that things are not normal at all — they have arrived shrunk to only an inch high!

"We are NOT taking that home with us."

“We are NOT taking that home with us.”

This is a very different sort of predicament than the usual fare, and sets this episode off from any others I, at least, have seen. Moreover, they discover that the wildlife surrounding the TARDIS is all dead, which sparks another mystery. Unfortunately, this part of the serial is the least successful, as there are frequent cutaways to dialogue between individuals previously unknown to us and of which the main characters are unaware. This is a very kludgy way to clue us in on the mystery, and reduces the suspense, as we quickly figure out what is wrong, and the only question remains whether the Doctor and his friends can figure everything out.

Leave it to Susan to sleep on the job.

Leave it to Susan to sleep on the job.

The story is redeemed, in my view, by the very creative way the design team constructed the various “giant size” sets, as well as the special effects used in other scenes. I feel this serial has the best set design of any serials to this point, with the possible exception of the lost Marco Polo, and rates very well with any of the First Doctor episodes. Such objects as a briefcase, drain and plug, notepad, and telephone are constructed very believably, and the characters have appropriate difficulty manipulating things that are far larger than they are. In point of fact, most of the sets were constructed quite simply, but that makes their success all the more noteworthy.

Noteworthy! Ha ha! It's a joke, get it! I am so clever.

Noteworthy! Ha ha! It’s a joke, get it! I am so clever.

Tension is set up fairly adroitly as the Doctor ends up down a drain with a full sink above and a plug about to be pulled, and later faces a pet cat who is looking for something to play with. The cut-down plot ends up working in the serial’s favor, as it would no doubt drag endlessly with an additional episode of padding. They probably ought to have adopted a policy of cutting out an episode’s worth of footage after filming every serial these first few seasons.

The Doctor has an insight.

The Doctor has an insight.

A masterpiece Planet of Giants may not be, but it definitely has enough to make it stand out from the other serials before and after, and for that alone I encourage a verdict of Not Guilty.

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Prosecution: Reign of Terror

The Doctor and his companions visit Revolutionary France, a period that is “the Doctor’s favorite period of Earth history” according to Susan. As I think I have mentioned before, I like these period pieces, as they add variety to series. Although the modern episodes have included more visits to Earth’s past, it seems that every occasion ends in an encounter with aliens, as if humans alone were not interesting enough. Alas.

The serial begins with the kind of uneven portrayal of Revolutionary France that characterizes it as a whole. The travelers find themselves mistaken for French monarchists, and are arrested by a group of rustic sans-culottes. So rustic, in fact, that they have difficulty pronouncing the word “guillotine”! Only the Doctor manages to escape, through the clever tactic of being knocked out. As the farmhouse is set ablaze by the revolutionaries, the fate of the Doctor is momentarily uncertain.

Susan displays her inhuman balancing ability, standing upright while unconscious.

Upon being taken to the Bastille, the three companions immediately try to escape, led by Barbara. Although as a history teacher she ought to be the centerpiece of the episode, she fails to accomplish much in aid of the group. In this instance, characteristically, her efforts to mount an escape attempt are foiled when Susan goes into hysterics after seeing some rats. Ah, how far the intrepid traveler in time and space we met in An Unearthly Child has fallen!

Susan in one of her more useful moments.

Meanwhile, the Doctor comes to and begins to make his way to Paris. There is an amusing interlude in which he is obliged to engage in manual labor, but he quickly escapes and eventually blends in by purchasing a French bureaucrat’s outfit using a ring in his possession. Which is very strange, given that the ring was said in earlier episodes to be a futuristic device. (The ring reappears later in subsequent episodes, so maybe he has a drawer full?).

In Revolutionary France, the man with the goofiest hat makes the rules.

The middle episodes are a bit goofy. There are many times in the first season in which the plot revolves around the travelers becoming separated, in order to prevent them from leaving. This is taken to extremes in Reign of Terror, as every member of the group ends up in prison or in front of a firing squad at one moment or another. Ian, as usual, shows the most pluck, and Susan is the least helpful in escaping. In the process, they become involved with a counter-revolutionary underground, something which seems to phase nobody except Barbara, who delivers an impassioned defense of the French Revolution (you go girl!). The aristocrats say they only know each other by their Christian names, but this leads to an inconsistency as one of the ringleaders is called D’Argançon.

“We are fighting for our God-given right to crush the peasantry beneath our feet.”

The writers attempt to inculcate some suspense by including that British bugbear, Bonaparte, as the rival to Robespierre. However, the Consulate wasn’t established until 1799, well after the death of Robespierre. Napoleon was actually a protégé of Robespierre, and was placed under house arrest after the Thermodorian reaction. Thus, his role in the serial is ahistorical.

“Welease me! Don’t you wascals know I am Wobespierre!”

In the end, some inspired fast-talking (and snazzy dressing) by the Doctor can’t rescue this story from its uneven pacing, non-French-speaking French, and ahistorical history. I ask the jury to find Reign of Terror guilty.

C.U.S. Ratings:

Susan: 4 (gets captured)

Barbara: 4 (gets captured)

Ian: 5 (conveys dying words of British agent, which don’t prove of much use, but form a plot point)

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Defense: The Sensorites — A Well-Developed Alien Species

Just as The Aztecs marks in some sense the coming-of-age of the historical episodes of the first season, so The Sensorites marks a major development in the science-fiction episodes. That’s not to say that future episodes won’t have their share of goofiness (wait until The Web Planet!), but that the deeper sci-fi that attracted me to Doctor Who in the first place first appears in this serial.

Neither The Daleks nor The Keys of Marinus presented a fully-developed alien society. It’s easy to be influenced by the multitude of later Dalek-oriented episodes, but we learn very little about Dalek society in their first appearance, other than their penchant for extermination. Nor are the Thaals or the Voord much more than thinly-characterized groups. In Peter Newman’s story, however, we find a fully-articulated alien society, different enough from our own for misunderstandings to occur, but possessing deeper similarities, a tension that has made for much science fiction of the ‘self-reflecting’ category over the years — seeing human society from the outside.

The serial begins with a classic situation — the travelers come upon a derelict spacecraft, it’s location unknown, its crew senseless or raving. The crew is revived and the Doctor and companions learn that the spaceship is under the influence of the Sensorites, an enigmatic telepathic race that is able to influence humans, particularly if they are under emotional stress. The audience is thus primed to expect another race of ‘bad guys’, but as they investigate further, they find the truth is much more complicated.

Hi there!

Peekaboo, I see you!

Susan has one of her few bright moments in this story, as she finds herself able to communicate telepathically with the Sensorites. This was welcome, as her ‘unusual’ nature, hinted at in An Unearthly Child, had largely disappeared, replaced by screaming and general uselessness. (Not to blame Carol Ann Ford, as she was constrained by the sexist writing her character was given).

When the travelers finally reach the Sensorites’ home world, the Sense-Sphere, they find a society very unlike our own. All of the Sensorites look alike (a play on our propensity to think all foreigners “look the same”), and their society, government and architecture are all based on different principles than our own. Credit to Newman and the designer, Raymond Cusick (creator of the Daleks) for putting together a coherent alternative society.

The Sensorites turn to be, on the whole, much less malevolent than they appeared at first. This doesn’t remove the tension, however, as conflict nevertheless occurs due to misunderstanding and mistrust between the travelers and the Sensorites. Rather than appearing to be a monolithic group, like the Daleks, rifts are shown among the Sensorites themselves regarding the appropriate attitude to take towards the strangers among them. In fact, this episode is remarkable with respect to the amount of time none of the main characters are on screen. We are shown lengthy conversations between the Sensorites regarding the travelers, which goes a long way to make them a fully-rounded people.

SafetyDance

Little known fact: "The Robot" was invented by the Sensorites. They taught it to Ian and Barbara, who introduced it to the dance floors of London after their return to Earth in 1965.

Peter Newman’s script seems to present his attitude towards human conflict; that in any interaction between two peoples, there will be suspicion and mistrust on both sides, but that this is ultimately ill-founded. Rather, it is up to men (or aliens!) of good conscience to make a leap of faith and trust the other side. It is ultimately an optimistic view of human relationships. It suggests that there are no truly irreconcilable viewpoints, and that all intelligent beings ultimately want the same things. Which could serve as a motto for Doctor Who as a whole, apart from beings like the Daleks and Cybermen.

Hartnell’s Doctor, often a bit of a spectator in some of the early episodes, is in fine fettle in this story. He confronts the Sensorites early in the episode, showing a hint of ruthlessness in exploiting their weaknesses to compel them to negotiate. Later, he takes charge of the investigation into the poisonings in the Sensorite city, and journeys nonchalantly into the tunnels beneath the city. On the whole, this is one of his finer performances from the first season.

Sizing them up

The most perplexing aspect of the Sensorites are their reverse beards, which grow upwards instead of downwards.

The weakest part of the story are the supporting human characters. The ‘sane’ crewmembers, Maitland and Carol, are less-developed than most of the Sensorites, while the third crewmember, John, spends most of the serial babbling incoherently as a result of Sensorite mind control, leaving little room for character development.

But these small flaws pale beside the serial’s strengths. In short, The Sensorites points the way towards what Who could and would become. Acquit!

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Defense: The Crusade (1st Doctor)–Acting Greats, Shakespearean Intrigue, Strong Women

The Crusade is riveting Who that you should make time to watch. It’s Episode 14 from the second season of the First Doctor, and a four-parter. It’s on the “Lost in Time” Hartnell collection, and two of the four episodes exist in audio format only, though its easy to find the many stills stitched together in order to accompany a listen in various place online. The Crusade deserves your precious time for four reasons:

1. Character driven, actor-fueled high intrigue from start to finish. The storylines in The Crusade are bookended by two acting greats representing mortal enemies, Julian Glover as Richard, and Bernard Kay as Saladin. Just over one minute in, Julian Glover’s sonorous tones seize our attention. He was only thirty years old at the time, and the same commanding presence he’s reliably been since. The perfect choice for Richard, Coeur de Lion, or Melek-ric, as the Saracens called him. (Note that fourteen years later he appears as Scaroth with the Fourth Doctor in Douglas Adams’ The City of Death.) Interestingly, Julian Glover notes in the commentary to Episode 3 that he was hired for The Crusade just after having completed the 1960 television serial, “An Age of Kings,” which was director Peter Dews’ BAFTA-winning soap-opera style rendering of Shakespeare’s history plays. Douglas Camfield saw Glover in Age of Kings, and wanted talent like Glover and Jean Marsh in Who. A wise casting decision.

Saladin sees less screen time than Richard, but one wants more, given Kay’s superb, thoughtful and humanizing performance. He already proved his mettle as resistance fighter Carl Tyler, one of the standouts in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, and here returns in a more substantial role. More on his stellar performance below.

Apart from Glover and Kay, the acting is solid in Crusade: Jacqueline Hill is luminous. (Saladin says, “her beauty lights the room”: and it’s accurate–Hill is especially good here–vibrant, assertive, demonstrating how indispensable she is to these early episodes’ success). Jean Marsh (later cast as Sara Kingdom in The Daleks’ Master Plan) is great in a significant part, playing Richard’s headstrong and politically cunning sister, Lady Joanna. Smaller but equally memorable parts include the duplicitous merchant Luigi Ferrigo (Gabor Baraker), and the colorful Bazaar shopkeeper Ben Daheer (Reg Pritchard). The latter shines in a small role with delicious Simon Fisher-Becker-like bigness (of stage presence, not girth!). With few exceptions, nearly every role in The Crusade is linked to the complex web of illegal schemes or political maneuvering to curry favor with one of the warring sides. This complexity is a triumph of early Who writing.

2. It all begins with swashbuckling action. It throws the viewer instantly into the mix–there aren’t epic battles fought on-screen, but The Crusade hooks you immediately, outlining the greater war being fought. In the first moments, not one but two simultaneous swordfights break out involving the Doctor and Ian both on the defense. Barbara disappears, taken captive. And they realize they’ve stumbled into something big: the Doctor hears the Saracen name for King Richard, “Melek-ric.” (This stuff thrills me, and it’s great for hooking kids and adults alike on history (and science)–it starts those wonderful conversations, which Classic Who was so good at starting.)

They learn they’re in the woods outside Jaffa in the Holy Land. Barbara is a prisoner of Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria. All this in the first ten minutes. If this is what Who was aspiring to with “the historicals,” I want in–bring it on. Fantastic job bringing the viewer into the action. A little slow in the beginning of Episode 4, with the dual imprisonment of Barbara and Ian and some languid dialog, particularly the hokey accent and scheme of Ian’s captor. You’ll wince at the repeated (but not necessarily inaccurate) caricature of a middle Easterner intoning those “you are my truly, truly brother” lines; but that’s quickly resolved, and it’s the exception to the rule of complexity and great writing in this four-parter.

3. Fantastic writing, every bit as good as (better than?) Moffat’s Nu-Who Scripts. David Whitaker is the writer here, and my new fave Dennis Spooner is the script editor. The Crusade is a spectacle of pacing and wonderful writing, proving Whitaker every bit as able to write captivating scenes as did Spooner in The Romans. For one example, the meeting between the Doctor and Ben Daheer, at 13 minutes into Episode One, and the following scenes, are emblematic of the rich comic turn Who took, as I’ve argued earlier, after The Romans. Watch how the subplot is revisited in Episode 2 to great comic effect. For a second example, see (approximately 20 minutes into the first episode) the quick-paced questioning of Barbara by Saladin and his brother, and her beautifully nuanced and timed responses:

Saladin: You rode into the woods?
Barbara: No.
Saphadin: You walked into it?
Barbara: Not that either.
Saladin: You arrived?
Barbara: Yes. In a box.
Saphadin: In a box? Ah, you were carried into the woods.
Barbara: Yes.

Hill’s acting sells the scene. Watch Hill’s delightful expression after that final “Yes.” Anyone that blames Who for bad acting or writing hasn’t paid attention. This scene immediately reminds one of the tightly written, and equally well acted, parley between Alex Kingston and Matt Smith in The Big Bang:

Doctor: Are you married, River?
River: Are you asking?
Doctor: Yes.
River: No.
Doctor: Hang on. Did you think I was asking you to marry me, or asking if you were married?
River: Yes.

Continue to watch past Barbara’s “Yes,” and the scene facilely segues from comedy to discussion of life and death matters. It works. And it’s followed by another fantastic scene involving the rest of the TARDIS crew and Julian Glover’s King Richard, furious at the loss of his friends and refusing to help the Doctor and companions save Barbara from death. That’s just the first episode. So well written is The Crusade wordplay throughout that, like The Romans and The Big Bang–it’s pure joy to watch. It’s about the characters. Thus, of course, this is Who at its finest. For the opposite end of the spectrum, see my assessment of The Web Planet.

Another choice example of the stellar writing is in Episode 2, at 17:00, where another three-actor scene unfolds, “Who’s on first” style, as the Doctor is blamed by the Bazaar shopkeeper Ben Daheer for stealing clothes. Reg Pritchard as Daheer, here as in his first appearance in Episode 1, nearly steals the scene. It’s great writing, a humorous, conniving addition to the plot, and a well-used opportunity to provide some clever moments to Hartnell’s Doctor (not to mention the moral questions it poses: is it morally acceptable for the Doctor to have stolen items, for his personal use, from a thief?).

Whitaker uses Richard’s play for peace with Saladin as the basis for the most compelling scenes involving the serial’s bookend historical figures Richard and Saladin. The two never actually meet, but are always talking about each other. The writing for Glover particularly shines. See, for example, at 4:20 in Episode Two, as Richard laments how his sister receives jewels from Saladin’s brother, while both sides “armies do we both lock in deadly combat, watering the land with a rain of blood, and the noise of thunder is drowned in the shouts of dying men.” It’s Shakespearean. Richard is one of British history’s most romanticized Kings, so Whitaker’s willingness to forward the most noble reading of this episode, should be unsurprising–but it’s passionate, wonderful stuff all the same. Particularly satisfying, and a nod to what Who later becomes–where the Doctor “knows everybody that is anybody”–King Richard takes an immediate shine to the Doctor. Also notable, in Episode Two: “We dub you Sir Ian, Knight of Jaffa. Arise Sir Ian, and be valiant.”

The realpolitik wisdom-versus-ambition dialog at 13:00 in Episode 3 between Saphadin and Saladin, likewise, is tremendous; Bernard Kay’s Saladin, his expressive, haunted face, and his considered delivery of each line, conjures up the young Paul Scofield the following year in Man for All Seasons (1966). And at the beginning of Episode 4, the scene with Leicester, Richard, the Doctor, and Vicki is edge of the seat intrigue, particularly beginning at 6:12, where Richard admits to the Doctor and Vicki the political maneuvering required to keep the loyalty of men like Leicester, and maintain the support of the Church in Rome. The dialogue again is Shakespearean, directly conveying the dilemmas and court tensions faced by the king. Vicki despairs after Richard departs: “Can’t we tell” Richard that his campaign is doomed to failure? No, “history must take its course,” replies the Doctor. Whatever license Whitaker takes romanticizing Richard’s intentions, The Crusades remains satisfyingly a gripping “historical.”

4. Strong female roles. Finally, focusing on Richard’s play for a marriage-driven end to the Crusades allows not only for a broad portrayal of Richard, but also an assertive role for Jean Marsh. Richard wants to use Joanna as a bargaining chip to secure an alliance and peace. Richard dictates a letter through his scribe proposing an alliance with Saladin, promising to deliver Lady Joanna to Saladin’s brother Saphadin for marriage. Richard hopes this will secure the peace, making Richard and Saladin brothers. Joanna, though, will not be used. The Episode 3 scene where she confronts and threatens Richard, and where Richard accuses the Doctor of having leaked the plan to Joanna, is pure fireworks.

Likewise, demonstrating the evenhandedness that Whitaker applies to both sides of the conflict, Barbara’s capture by Saladin’s men, and faked rescue by El Akir, allows Whitaker to humanize Saladin. And Barbara is no potted plant, attempting three escapes. She’s given shelter by Haroun ed-Din (George Little), and if we didn’t already know El Akir was bad, we find that he kidnapped Haroun’s oldest daughter, killed his wife and son, and burned his house; the stakes are raised, as Barbara’s rescuer announces that he has vowed to kill the Emir El Akir. Haroun insists that Barbara must kill his younger daughter, then herself, if El Akir finds them. But, Barbara refuses–making good on the humanitarian instinct that failed her in The Aztecs, and despite the Doctor’s advice to not interfere with local customs. When El Akir’s men capture her, Barbara finds herself imprisoned along with Haroun’s oldest daughter in El Akir’s harem. Here, she tries, unsuccessfully, to escape the second time. While Barbara’s role is weaker than Joanna’s, she still makes her mark: she orchestrates an escape for Haroun’s younger daughter, giving herself up to El Akir’s men.

So while the scope of each of Joanna’s and Barbara’s roles are somewhat constrained by the story, neither of them “accept their fate.” Both woman are used as pawns, and neither accepts it. That’s refreshing to see, and very modern, particularly in a 1960′s period piece about the twelfth-century Crusades.

The Crusades is a fine and worthy successor to The Romans. Acquit!

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Prosecution: The Web Planet–Early Who’s Weakest Hour

Last week and during my vacation, my good pal Mith and I got together for gaming, good company, and something we’d been planning for some time: we sat down for a Whoathon of epic proportions. We watched a good 24 episodes of consecutive Hartnell Who plus sundry special features, including some lost episodes and recons. We’d recommitted to watching “it all.” And “all” included, problematically for my sanity, The Web Planet. Even worse, our Whoathon started with The Web Planet. But having watched it one and a half times before (once interrupted by sheer boredom), I was well prepared for what lay ahead. My opinion didn’t change. And so, I represent the Prosecution–this one’s bad. Really bad.

So what do you need to know about Who’s 13th serial, The Web Planet? Well, primarily the three reasons it’s so bad. It’s well worth a watch if you’re a completionist as I am–there are interesting concepts explored, and some pushing of technical boundaries in making a 1965 BBC sci-fi serial. But these interesting concepts ultimately, as you’ll see, fail. In any case, watch it or no, you’ll be well suited knowing these three things about Web Planet, and moving on to the far superior 14th serial, The Crusade. And in no particular order, here are the three things you need to know.

1. An enemy needs periodic anthropomorphizing to hold the audience’s interest. Peter Jackson, in his masterful Lord of the Rings trilogy, made the risky choice to not represent the Big Bad Sauron with any human form throughout his series except in the brief prologue, showing the Big Bad fighting the alliance of Men and Elves. Rather, through the three movies Sauron was represented as a flaming eye, seated atop a large, and faraway tower in Morder. This worked so well in Lord of the Rings since there were proxy enemies aplenty: the Nazgul, Saruman, the orcs in Moria, as well as Gandalf’s (channeling Tolkien’s own words) masterful prose describing the all-too-humanlike enemy and threat Sauran once had been.

In contrast, The Web Planet’s Zarbi, the heroes’ threat through much of the serial, are actors wearing clunky, if impressively bulky, ant suits, who issue streams of repetitive (guaranteed to drive you nuts) electronic chirps that convey nothing of notable complexity. Not so much as an R2-D2-style humanizing with baleful chirrups and whirrs. Nope, these Zarbi are essentially mute drones. The Menoptera, in fact, say as much, telling us the Zarbi are little more than “cows.” How’s that for a thriller–rampaging, mind-controlled cows threaten the heroes for over two hours. And that’s what The Web Planet essentially is.

The Animus, who is revealed as the “real enemy” as the serial wears on, should be built-up so that the viewer will care. But the Animus is never given the full Sauron-treatment. That amazing scene of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, inside the rocket-ship in Episode Three of State of Decay and waxing nostalgic over childhood tales from Gallifrey of the Great Vampires, is a wonderful example of how such a disembodied enemy can be built-up simply through compelling dialog. It’s much like the scene early in Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf finally gives Frodo the full story of Sauron the Deceiver. The original crew members in State of Decay serve as chilling stand-ins and reminders of the omnipresent threat of the Great Vampire itself, just like the numerous smart, and Machiavellian, minions of Sauron. That gradual development of the “lore” of the enemy, and the notion that the minions are either zealous believers in some greater evil, or tragic and unwilling servants, gave me frissons of excitement. But there’s no such buildup here, either properly villifying the Animus, or giving us any buy-in to care about the enslaved Zarbis’ plight.

In fact, our Zarbi lack anything more than mute worker-drone “cow status.” The Animus is given little air time until the final minutes of The Web Planet. The Animus appears briefly merely as a disembodied voice in Web Planet Episode 2; only suddenly, in the final moments of The Web Planet, do we actually see the Animus. Small wonder we don’t care about the Animus, except to be thrilled that its destruction means we can finally leave the godforsaken planet Vortis.

2. Ballet moves in a sci-fi serial, generally, look like trash. I actually liked the bee-like Menoptera. After the nonsense Zarbi, the fact that the Menoptera could talk with the TARDIS crew, and had dreams and goals, was refreshing. Sadly, and tragically, given the amount of time spent developing and rehearsing their ballet-like “unique” movements, they’re mesmerizingly preposterous-looking. Their three-beat, ascending lilting sentences, with accompanying elbow waves and closing paws, are so distracting as to both sound like giant Swedish insects with speech impediments, and drown-out any substantive content in the Menopteras’ lines. The effect is all the more distracting when it’s clear that not all the Menopotera actors care enough to complete the effect: the upstart “invasion force” Menoptera that appears later in the serial does none of the bobbing or vocalizing–he merely waves his elbows and hands. His apparent recalcitrance to engage in the “Menoptera dance” jars us out of any suspension of disbelief (or catatonic state) that the serial managed to eke out of us.

So too their underground cousins the Optera: they sound and look like gruff, gutteral guys hopping around in felt outfits with big eyes and felt tentacles attached to their heads. But they don’t always hop: sometimes the actors decide to walk. And it jars us back to how spotty The Web Planet is. And the subpar triumvirate is complete with the Larvae Guns: they’re often mounted on small carts, rolling smoothly across the landscape–except when they aren’t, and the actors decide to crawl, again breaking the Vaseline-smeared ambiance.

Credit is due, though, to The Web Planet’s semi-thrilling invasion sequences: the scenes of Menoptera gliding through space down to landings on the Vortis surface are fantastic. Suspension wires are nowhere to be seen. And the fight scenes are among the best in the six-part serial. Much time was obviously spent getting these fight and landing scenes right, and it shows.

3. From there to here, from here to there, gaffes on Vortis everywhere. If Hartnell is known for “Hartnell fluffs” or line flubs when the rest of the serials sailed relatively smoothly about him, The Web Planet is famous for how nothing quite seems to work. The actors’ performances are lackluster: one scene where Ian sits on an Vortis bluff, William Russell looks almost detached and impassive while talking with the Menoptera Vrestin about his hopes for retaking its homeworld–a scene that should be filled with trademark William Russell enthusiasm. In that same scene, and all the scenes on the surface of Vortis, Vaseline is smeared on the camera’s lens filter so the scenes look “otherworldly.” Instead, it simply makes the serial look annoyingly smudged and blurry. Multiple times, the plot device of hanging a golden yoke on characters necks–including the necks of the Zarbi–fails simply because the yoke keeps falling off the characters’ necks.

Bill Hartnell sums it up:

Best quote of The Web Planet goes to the Doctor, speaking to the Animus as a creaky plastic shell descends and the disembodied voice booms at him, inviting him to step inside the shell: he dismissively gestures towards the prop, calling it a hairdryer. It sums up the entire creaky Web Planet mess for the viewer.

I, for one, was so irritated by so many of the Web Planet’s failings that I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of the Isop Galaxy.

Convict!

Lime

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Prosecution: The Aztecs

Early Who tried to rotate between “historical” and “sci-fi” episodes, something foreign to this Who watcher for whom actual time-traveling into the past was a rarity for Doctors 3-5 (although this has thankfully been revived for the new episodes). So after visiting the Marinus, the travelers set down in ancient Mexico. This immediately made the episode interesting for me, as I am an archaeologist by trade, and the Aztecs are more unfamiliar to most western viewers than even the Cathay of Marco Polo.

John Lucarotti wrote this story, and Marco Polo as well, so it’s interesting to compare them. This is actually the third ‘travel into the past’ serial, if you count An Unearthly Child. In the first two, the travelers were separated from the TARDIS and the story was relatively simplistic, if at times convoluted: find the way out of there. The Aztecs is much more interesting, as it adds a twist. No longer are the party mere passive observers. The Aztecs poses a much more interesting conundrum: can one change the past? If one can, do you have the moral obligation to try and prevent what you perceive as morally wrong behavior. And if you can’t (or won’t), does that make you an accomplice to the crimes you witness?

The Aztecs begins with the TARDIS setting down in a historically inaccurate combined pyramid temple/tomb, belonging to the high priest Yataxa. As possessor (via theft) of the high priest’s bracelet, Barbara is understood as an avatar of the priest, and a semi-divine being. She appears in the midst of a struggle for power between the priests Autloc and Tlotoxl. The latter is the High Priest of Sacrifice, and looks unkindly upon Barbara’s attempts to stop the practice. Autloc is more flexible (and perhaps more manipulable). (Note: The sacrifice is to bring rain to quench a long drought, so the god being sacrificed to is likely Tlaloc, though I don’t think this is mentioned in the episode).

High Priest Barbara

I think you could use a few more feathers there.

The main story involves the party trying to find a way to get back inside the pyramid, to the TARDIS, and Barbara’s attempts to change Aztec culture from the top down. Through it all, Tlotoxl (played in an over-the-top Shakespearean fashion by John Ringham) works behind the scenes to expose Barbara as a fraud and to kill the travelers.

malvolio?

Maybe I’ll overact a little bit, hmmmmm??

A subplot involves Ian’s enlistment as an Aztec officer and his struggle with the rather stupid warrior Ixta, who feels the honor should be his. Another involves Susan’s arranged marriage to the wonderfully named Perfect Victim. Most of these are dull and tedious, the only amusing moment coming when The Doctor inadvertently proposes marriage to the wise woman Cameca by giving her a cup of cocoa, which she accepts. The Doctor’s first wife!!

Marriage bells

True love for The Doctor?

While the fighting scenes are comical and Ixta’s incompetence more farcical than suspenseful, Barbara’s struggle with her unexpected position — and responsibility — are far more interesting. For once, she is the center of a story, and Jacqueline Hill plays the role well. I think that Barbara intuitively knows that her efforts to stop the practice of human sacrifice are a fool’s errand, but her persistence is reasonable and helps develop her character. In fact, I find everyone’s nonchalant acceptance of their impotence at the end rather off-putting. Even admitting the impossibility of changing a culture overnight, I would have a hard time taking it all in stride. Should Barbara have let the sacrificial rites go on before her, observing them as was her role, without lifting a finger? Isn’t that rather cold-blooded? The episode leaves these questions hanging, for the viewer to ponder after the fact.

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Defense: Keys of Marinus

noswimmingplease

Not the best vacation spot.

Fresh from their visit to medieval China, the travelers come to Marinus. There they uncover a complex mystery: a strange structure with no obvious entrance; a sea of acid, and several minisubs piloted by humanoids in wetsuits — the Voord. This sets up the frame story for the plot, which reads like something I would have developed as an RPG gamemaster in high school: The building houses the Conscience of Marinus, which has the ability to control the thoughts of everyone on the planet. The machine is inactive, its control keys hidden away by its guardian, Arbitan. However, Marinus is under threat by the Voord, and the machine is both the biggest threat to the planet and the only weapon that can defeat the Voord. So the travelers are coerced by Arbitan to obtain the story’s maguffin: the keys to operate the mechanism. Most of the remainder of the plot consists of small single-episode setpieces that involved a subset of the characters, as they split up to find the keys. Unfortunately, the sets and costumes for Marco Polo ate up much of the design budget, and the wide variety of settings for each episode no doubt required further economies, so that the locations for the serial come across as particularly chintzy. Since the serial is divided up into mini-adventures, it makes the most sense to me to review each on its own. One interesting element is the wrist-transporter, which allows its owner to travel through space in an instant; a handy plot device!

mmmm...brains

Barbara having a little brain to brain talk.

The Velvet Web is a classic sci-fi plot: the apparent paradise that turns out to be far different than it appears. This is due to a hypnotic trance created by several brain-stalk creatures that appear to be distant cousins of the Gamesters of Triskelion. This episode introduces us to Altos and Sabitha, Arbitan’s servant and daughter, respectively, who are involved in later episodes. Otherwise this episode is not particularly noteworthy, apart from the fact that Barbara ends up as the hero, as she defeats the aliens’ attempt to induce hypnosis and she manages to destroy them with the help of Sabitha. At last the women get something to do!

shorts

Couldn’t find the really short ones, eh Altos?

The Screaming Jungle is even less interesting — the team end up in a jungle of mobile plants and flimsy traps, set up by the guardian of the key, a man named Darrius. Ian and Barbara have to figure out a puzzle to get the key and escape, but much of the tension is weakened by their ability to pop out whenever they need to with a twist of their transporters. At least the hypnosis of the previous episode was more insidious.

The Snows of Terror is meant I think as a character study; Ian and Barbara are rescued from the cold wasteland in which they materialize by a taciturn loner named Vasor, who turns out (surprise surprise) to be not entirely trustworthy. Cellophane caverns and stock footage of wolves are the main antagonists here, along with the Slow Moving Silent Knights Who Scream, who turn out to be the guardians of the key. Another ho-hum episode.

so.....slow.....

Our special ability is moving very slowly and awkwardly. What? You don’t put your best men on a job like this, do you?

Sentence of Death turns out to be the saving grace of the serial, however, as this is in my opinion the best episode of Dr. Who to this point in the series’ history.  Ian appears in the location of the 5th key (albeit alone, for some reason), and find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Framed for murder, he must go on trial for his life, in a society in which the accused are presumed guilty. The alien courtroom will be a commonplace among sci-fi television, but it is played to good effect here, as the danger to Ian is palpable. This episode also sees the appearance of the Doctor familiar to fans of the series. Hitherto Hartnell has played the Doctor as a curmudgeonly, often cynical opportunist, perhaps playing off his character’s back story as a fugitive wanderer. In this episode, however, the Doctor is upbeat, even brash, confident in his ability to get Ian off. This marks an important change in the personality of the Doctor, one that will have great resonance in later stories and seasons.

The following episode, The Keys of Marinus, continues the melodrama and Ian is finally freed by a combined effort of the Doctor and all of the companions. Terry Nation does a good job maintaining suspense and providing a false resolution before coming to the denouement. It’s good to see all of the companions play an active role at the same time, and Nation plays with the now-established characters (as he did in several preceding episodes) by having Ian, usually the man of action, forced to cool his heels and wait for the others to rescue him.

By contrast, the final stage of the story is anticlimactic; the Voord take over the tower of Arbitan and a struggle for control of the Conscience of Marinus ensues. Nation plays well with a twist introduced earlier in the plot, but the sequence of events is predictable, and the outcome of all the shenanigans is merely that nothing happens, other than the characters manage to escape Marinus. In short, an uneven story with a few moments of brilliance.

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Defense: The Romans–Early Who’s Finest Hour

No time to mince words here: my main man Mithradates gets it exactly right when he says I’ve found I don’t have the time.

And so back to square one, regeneration-style. That is, this time it’s the same: but different. Per my original intent, I’m going to shoot at reviewing all the Who I watch. Also per that intent, I’m going to take a side–this one is on the Defense side. And, per my intent, I’m going to try to cobble together a vote between Mith and myself. But no time to waste–I’m going to push out the bare essentials, get it in the post, and let you peel back the onion yourself. My goal, as modified, is to get to you, dear reader, the essence of the episode. What to look for. The “bare necessities,” as it were. And so, onwards.

The Romans:

1. The First “Perfect” Hartnell Who Serial: I love Unearthly Child, Edge of Destruction, and The Aztecs, but in comparison, The Romans excels in every category. It’s the first virtually perfectly paced episode of Who, and credit goes to the writer, Dennis Spooner. Dennis Spooner, who also wrote the First Doctor’s Reign of Terror (due for re-release on DVD in 2012, with two reconstructed missing episodes), went on to a well-deserved successful career writing for The Avengers, The New Avengers, Bergerac, and many other popular British television serials in the 60′s and 70′s. His early-career involvement in Who paid dividends, raising the bar in Who. The play between these three parallel plots of the Doctor and Vicki, Ian and slave Delos, and Barbara and “Caesar Nero,” is flawlessly executed. We’re treated to three great plots: The Doctor, stumbling on a murder victim and assuming the victim’s identity (with resulting hilarious plot reverberations), then becoming Nero’s bosom buddy; Ian, getting the Gladiator treatment and picking up a friend on the way; and Barbara, sold into slavery and pursued relentlessly by the Emperor. At the 2012 GallifreyOne convention, actor W. Morgan Sheppard commented that good writing such as Steven Moffat’s makes acting effortless, while bad writing makes convincing acting terribly difficult. That’s clearly the case here: for the second time, Who is graced with Spooner’s talents, and the team congeals in a way we’ve never seen before. Watch also for some great casting choices: Derek Francis as Nero and the subtle but wonderful Michael Peake as Tavius. The tying-together of the three plots in Episode 4 results in quite a few great moments of acting. Simply put, The Romans is the first nearly perfect Who story. (Caveat: haven’t seen Reign yet, but have seen or listened to all the rest.) Watch it.

And by the way: I’m a Spooner fan now. Spooner is cool.

2. Cinematography Shines: Well, except for that awfully cut stock footage of lions, it does. Note how Christopher Barry blocks the scenes, using minimal movement of the actors in relation to each other to keep the action interesting. For example, note the blocking of the actors in the villa–the Doctor in the foreground, Ian reclining behind him, neither looking at each other, but the faces of both key for to the scene’s progression. A second example: in the market scenes, Ep. 1, at about 6:30, we have the slave trader in the left foreground, and far in the distance, on the right, extras are milling back and forth to “fill out” and populate the marketplace, with good use of “crowd noise” played. It’s utterly believable, unlike, say, the Thal tribe in Daleks or the population of the Aztecs, which seemed to never go very convincingly beyond the key players themselves. Scene after scene, cut after cut, Romans is crisper and better than most of the Who before it. And watch for the three-odd live-theater-like moments where the characters break from the proceedings and stare directly at the viewer; interesting choice, and it works, given the comedic tones of Romans.

3. Great Use of Incidental Music: the incidental music seems so much better in The Romans than past episodes. I haven’t done a careful study. But perhaps because it’s historical serial, it was easier to identify “appropriate” music to set the mood. Just by way of example, the playful music during Vicki’s skip down the stone path at the beginning of Episode 1 ends clearly (unlike earlier episodes where the scene changes blurred with other scenes’ music), and the ominous music begins on the nose as the camera shot changes and we’re shown the thug sharpening his gladius. The same precision cueing is evident when we see the thug attack “the original” Maximus Petullian, and the music and camera shot glide, in unison, to reveal both the body hidden in the bushes, and the music’s end note. Again–have done no careful study, but while watching I noticed something palpably different about how The Romans uses incidental music, versus previous episodes. I think it comes down to precision cueing and good choice in music.

Bottom line: I’m thrilled more and more with each watching of The Romans. Watching from the beginning, while I loved Unearthly Child, Edge of Destruction, and Aztecs, and see the seeds of so much later Who in those three serials, it’s The Romans that first fully, with abandon, attempts to sell me on the First Doctor and William Hartnell in his own right, in a way I was sold on Tom Baker in 1978. The Romans deserves a full acquittal.

Lime

 

 

 

 

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Who Verdict on “The Daleks”: Acquittal!

Lime, J, delivers the opinion; Mithradates, J., concurs only in the result: I take issue with my colleague’s apparent willingness to overlook the massive plot holes that rip Titanic-sized logic holes in the serial for me. I also take issue with his implicit conclusion that there is a resolution to these plot holes (“We don’t know how, or whether, these things interrelate, nor their true significance. [But t]he rest of the series is dedicates to tracing the web of clues…”).

However, despite the fact the episode makes absolutely no sense to me, I’m compelled to acquit by my esteemed colleague’s powerful eighth point, that among the “amazing number of plot twists” we find “A new and powerful enemy–the Daleks.”. My colleague has convinced me with this irrefutable logic, and with him, we have both agreed to Acquit! Don’t miss this one!

[Additional comments by Mithradates: I think the plot hangs together a bit better than Lime implies. My understanding of the major plot point is as follows: The Thals believe the Dalek city to be dead and lifeless. And it is, to the casual visitor. The Daleks believe the surface to be lifeless. The Daleks would like to return to the surface, but they reason the radiation levels are too high to survive. So they seize upon the anti-radiation drug as an avenue to restoring their rule over all of Skaro. Unbeknownst to them, however, the radiation is something they need to survive. Now, the hole in this is that the Daleks should know their subterranean city is irradiated. After all, the Doctor finds the geiger counter that informs him that radiation levels are high within the Dalek city itself. I can only surmise that radiation levels are lower underground than at the surface; the Daleks may have reasoned that they could survive the lower levels of radiation underground (if barely -- if they started out looking like the Thals they have suffered greatly), but the higher levels on the surface would be too much. That's reading a lot into the dialogue, granted, but I think much of it is implied, at least on my viewing.]

Who Verdict on “The Daleks”: Full Acquittal!

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Prosecution: “The Daleks” Daleks are kinder, gentler, dumber.

“Warning shot” Daleks

Yes, the first foray to Skaro for the Doctor was where he met a kinder, gentler Dalek race. The cliffhanger scene of Episode 1 is the world’s first glimpse of a Dalek: we see only an arm-stalk and sucker point-of-view shot, closing in on a terrified Barbara, spreadeagled on a metal wall. For those of us from Who‘s future, it’s a thrilling piece of history. And, it’s precious imagining what must have run through the minds of those children who’d never seen a Dalek before–what could be threatening Barbara?!
Our second glimpse is in Episode 2. We hear the first Dalek words ever, the unimpressive: “You will move ahead of us and follow my directions. This way.” The Dalek’s eye stalk swivels a full 180 degrees to face the TARDIS crew: “Immediately!” it commands. Man, these toilet plunger dudes are bossy. It’s this scene, the command and eye-swivel, that evoked the first frisson of excitement in me, reminding me of “my” Daleks. Authoritarian, abrupt, Dalek-like is this–to me, this scene is really where the Daleks are born.

Strangely, the rules of engagement of The Daleks Daleks are even more restrictive than those of five hundred years earlier in Genesis of the Daleks. In this second-ever scene featuring Daleks, Ian doesn’t take kindly to being bossed around, and he runs. This is somewhat counter-intuitive given Ian’s character: he and Barbara are the level-headed ones. And in my experience, when being bossed around by an entirely new race, without more information, running just doesn’t seem called for. But apparently Ian’s had it with being kidnapped by the difficult Doctor, and the bossy tin pots have pushed Ian over the edge–and he runs.

Happily for Ian, these Daleks are nice: refusal to cooperate apparently requires only a temporary paralysis ray to the offender’s legs. Unlike the Daleks we know from Genesis and every other story, these Rules of Engagement require warning/nonlethal shots first. Lucky Ian.

And if Ian repeatedly disobeys the Daleks? Even luckier Ian! The Daleks warn that a second instance of disobedience will result in… Nope, you guessed wrong, not extermination–instead, permanent paralysis of the legs! Man, these Daleks are nice! But as you’ll see, kindness doesn’t survive their first serial, though after reflecting on the seven episodes I can’t quite figure out why the Daleks’ rules of engagement and strategic outlook suddenly changed. Needless to say, it works out in the end: regardless whether it makes any sense, the reflexively nasty Daleks that emerge by the end are much, much better villains.

It’s not until Episode 4, the third time the Daleks engage, that the Daleks finally progress to their storied “examination.” It’s in the run-up to the ambush of the Thals that we discover the Daleks’ intent in inviting the Thals to partake of a sample of the promised “unlimited supplies” of “fresh vegetables” and food bounty carefully laid-out in the entrance building to the Dalek city: “make no attempt to capture them–they are to be exterminated.” But this still isn’t “our” Daleks: this slaughter is entirely premeditated, well thought-out beforehand, carefully planned. So really, nowhere in The Daleks are the Daleks the knee-jerk bloodthirsty, exterminate-for-any-obstreperousness foes that we love to hate.

What exactly indicated a need to convert the Daleks we first encounter into all-death all-the-time is probably the writer’s realization that any metal-enclosed faceless race that plots the wholesale destruction of another species by pouring radiation into the atmosphere probably shouldn’t have any redeeming qualities. The writers probably realized that temporary paralysis of foes is an unrealistic (and not a tension-building) M.O. for what turned out to be, ultimately, a conscience-less species.

Slowly the Dalek history emerges. We’re on Skaro, the 12th planet in the solar system. 500 years ago a neutron war rendered the planet nearly inhabitable. Two races fought in the war, each believing the other totally annihilated: the Thals and the Dals (five centuries before, in Genesis of the Daleks, these Dals called themselves the “Kaleds”). The atmosphere now registers radiation at dangerous levels.

The Thals apparently are the least curious race in the universe, never having thought to descend down to the Dalek’s city for five centuries to discover if their adversaries were totally destroyed by the neutron war. (But they are curious enough to stalk strangers in the forest and leave nondescript and unlabeled vials of anti-radiation medicine in the off chance the strangers can figure out what the vials are for!) Susan isn’t bothered by this, gushing on about how the Thals are “perfect” and “magnificent people.”

The Thals believe themselves to be the only survivors of the neutron war, and they port around their entire history inside a small metal box. Their history appears to be stored on 16mm film reels and on artistic representations of the Thals and Daleks painted on hexagonal black slates. We’re treated to the art of what the Thals looked like pre-neutron war: basically blonde pseudo-Norse warriors. The Doctor sees, but the viewer does not, the hex art depicting what the Daleks used to look like.

Not only do the Daleks lose any chance at a conscience by the end of The Daleks, but several other tropes are set so firmly after this serial’s critical success with its 60s’ audience that The Daleks never escape them to this day: (a) the odd, misshapen archways of Dalek corridors; (b) the lovely dual-pulse throb of the Dalek control room introduced in Episode 2 is almost exactly the same as the one we hear in RTD episodes; (c) the Dalek’s penchant for circular dials and circular view screens; (d) the spastic sucker-stick movements. Yes, today’s Daleks are the epitome of throwback sci-fi.

Dangerous Doctor/Ian Ascendant

Right from the beginning, as in Unearthly Child (my review of Ep 1 here) the Doctor continues to confront Ian and Barbara. Ian blames the Doctor for “uprooting” them, and the Doctor counters, justifying his kidnapping of the two teachers, that they “barged in” to his TARDIS. And after seeing the magnificent and gleaming buildings of the city in the valley, the Doctor sabotages the TARDIS by removing the mercury from the “fluid link,” schemingly devising a plan to visit the city to find replacement mercury. Luckily, he quickly admits in the beginning of Episode 2 that he sabotaged the TARDIS so that he could investigate the fascinating gleaming city.

What’s beautiful and a great piece of acting is Ian’s reaction to this admission: “you fool you old fool,” Ian storms, “it’s time you faced up to your responsibilities. You got us here, now I’m going to make sure you get us back.” This is prelude to Edge of Destruction, where the Doctor, as I’ve discussed, turns the corner and makes Who what it is today. And it’s also a demonstration yet again that Ian and Barbara are us–the Companion as viewer.

This is becoming Ian’s hallmark: confronting the Doctor’s constantly putting the crew and others in danger without consideration of the risks. In Episode 5, Barbara realizes the crew will never be able to leave Skaro until they can recover the fluid link, which Ian accidentally left behind in the escape from the Dalek city. The Doctor hatches a plan to have the Thals attack the Daleks as a diversion so the crew can slip in and recover the fluid link. But again it’s Ian that opposes the Doctor, rejecting that a fluid link is sufficient spoils for a Thal war party that has no weapons. He explicitly tells the Doctor that he’s challenging the Doctor’s leadership of the TARDIS crew.

It’s a nuanced series of scenes, and Ian eventually adopts the Doctor’s plan, admitting to Barbara that without the fluid link, the crew will die on Skaro. Ian takes a further step and adopts the Doctor’s manipulative tactics, searching desperately for what will make the Thals fight. First, he callously threatens to destroy the entire remaining history of the Thal race–the film reels and hexagonal art pieces. But the Thals don’t bite. Second, Ian threatens to kidnap and deliver to the Daleks the pretty blonde Thal Dyoni, the prominent Thal Alydon’s love interest.

This works, and Alydon launches himself at Ian, slugging him. Alydon then gives a Henry V at Agincourt-worthy speech, calling the Thals to fight with the crew: either we die here for lack of food, or we wait for the Daleks to kill us, or we go now to the city, where there is ample food. Alydon points out that the Thals’ and crew’s interests are the same. It’s a good speech, well delivered–in fact, of the six episodes of overacted and hammy Thal characterizations, this speech is a standout. One great line: “There is no indignity in being afraid to die. There is a terrible shame in being afraid to live.”

But Ian’s turnaround rings untrue: it’s unusual and out of character that Ian’s solid moral compass would swing from principled to manipulative, a la the Doctor’s reviled tactics, so quickly. Moreover, proving pacifism wrong by threatening Alydon’s love interest smacks of simplistic plot development by the Who writers. And finally, that threatening Alydon’s love interest would not only turn around his pacifism, but make an inspiring military leader able to belt out an inspiring “join me to the death” speech, is just unbelievable. Still–the speech is great, no matter how Ian got Alydon there.

The continuity concept

On display again is the show’s early years’ serial-to-serial “continuity” concept, where each story flows seamlessly into the next. Not only does the TARDIS lurch at the end of The Daleks into the very crash that begins the next serial, Edge of Destruction, but one of the primary themes of Edge is seeded in The Daleks. Right at the beginning of Episode 1, Barbara asks Susan if there isn’t some device in the TARDIS that records their journeys. Yes, Susan says: “there’s a meter affixed to a great big bank of computers. If you feed it with the right sort of information it can take over the controls of the ship and deliver you to anyplace you want to go.” Hence as much as Barbara wants the Doctor to take them back, Susan says, the Doctor’s forgetfulness prevents him from being able to enter the “right sort” of information! Too bad Susan is always screaming, because one would think, as brilliant as she is–she reads books in Unearthly Child at inhuman speeds–that she’d be able to enter the “right sort” of data. (As I sit in the car on vacation with my kids writing this and listening to The Sensorites, I know that Susan will be taking a lead, non-screamer role in future episodes, so her early brilliance in Unearthly Child seems set to return.)

Bottom line: Ponderous, and Muddled

Overall, The Daleks is a piece of Who history that shouldn’t be missed. But it suffers a few critical flaws.

First, it’s slow moving. Whole episodes are Web Planet-painful in their long, slow, sequences in which little is said and little happens. Episode 1 is solid. Episodes 2, 3, and 4–over an hour–are just painful, and witness endless scenes of Ian rubbing his legs, the captive crew languishing in the Dalek city, and Susan’s annoying fawning over the “perfect” Aryan Thals (compare and contrast with the “master race” spouting Daleks… Is this meant to point to a flaw in Susan, or is it simply a bias in the writers? Most latter day “classic,” RTD, and Moffat Who sport a Doctor in a virtual love affair with alien life of all levels of “prettiness.”)

Episode 5 is a return to form, with the inspiring (but plotwise problematic) Alydon speech calling the Thals to war. Episode 6 is back to painful pacing with long slow scenes in the caves leading to the Dalek city and painful acting by the doughy and cowardly Thal Antodus who persistently whines, eating up way too much screen time, that he wants to return home, and eventually, and literally, drags down the expedition. Episode 7 is another mixed bag, graced by the thrilling and well paced (but idiotic and humongous plot hole) mass-test of the unknown Thal drug and later scheming to irradiate all of Skaro’s atmosphere.

Second, it makes no sense that 500 years would pass, but neither the Thals nor the Daleks have any idea that each other exist. After all, the Thals have been encamped, of all the possible places on Skaro, on the plateau directly overlooking the Dalek city.

Third, the Daleks progress from bossy and utilitarian tin pots–they explicitly reason that they will preserve the TARDIS crew because they may have some use in the future–to bloodthirsty and irrational: “the only interest we have in the Thals is their total extermination” and “tomorrow we will be the master race of Skaro!”. But this progression is on a dime, and it doesn’t survive the common sense test, if applicable to tin pots from Skaro.

They turn this corner only after inexplicably mass administering the Thal’s anti-radiation drug to Sections 2 and 3 of the Dalek City. Why the Daleks would, after 500 contented years within their sealed city, run a mass trial of an unknown drug, is mystifying. Or at least, there’s no given motive. We know the atmosphere still registers radiation at dangerous levels, and started to kill the TARDIS crew. Also: why the Daleks would want to leave their city, since to move they need the static electricity delivered through their city’s generator and metal floors, equally is a motive that escapes me. I suppose they could be fickle in their philosophy, as Alydon of the Thals turns out to be, but I don’t get it. I’d think since they appeared at first to be utilitarian and somewhat logical, the solution to stopping Dalek deaths from anti-radiation drug overdoses would be to kick the habit of mass-administering unknown drugs. But that’s just me.

Some closing trivia

The first Daleks story is rife with interesting trivia. Here’s a few: (1) Ridley Scott, famed director of Blade Runner and Gladiator among others, was assigned to design the Daleks–their shape, look, and feel–but a twist of fate interfered with Scott’s schedule, leaving Raymond Cusick to take the job. How the Daleks might have looked different had that not happened! (2) The Daleks almost wasn’t produced, since, according to the first script editor David Whitaker, the Daleks themselves were seen by some in the BBC as “too childlike” and inpinging on the goal to make Who an educational show. (3) the Who writers intended the Daleks to be retired after The Daleks–only because they took England by storm did they return. As it is, the Daleks have appeared in 102 Who episodes since 1963–more than any other enemy, according to this super-handy data sheet released by xxnapoleonsolo in June 2011 (4). As Episode 3 ends we see the first ever glimpse, and the only one on screen in this serial, of what’s inside the shell: in the closing shot we see a clawed hand creep out of under the cloak the Doctor and Ian wrapped the mutant in. Funny trivia: evocative as it is, it’s just a joke shop gorilla hand smeared in grease!

Lime’s advice: The Daleks is historic, but plotwise it barely holds water. Four episodes are painfully slow, and the Ziggy Stardust Thals are burdened by some of the worst acting this side of daytime soaps. Convict!

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Prosecution: Marco Polo

Many of the early Dr. Who episodes were lost when the tapes containing them were wiped by the BBC (talk about your idiotic decisions!) Marco Polo is the first episode for which we have no video. This is actually rather surprising, as it was a “showcase” episode that aired in some 72 countries. That at least presents some hope of an old tape being found in Portugal or somewhere one of these days. Fortunately, an audio recording survives, as well as many period stills, meaning we can get a good idea of what the episode was like.

It is clear from the number of sets and the sumptuousness of the costumes that Verity Lambert opened the bank account to produce the episode, no doubt buoyed by the decision by the BBC to keep Dr. Who on the air. Perhaps too enthusiastic, as lack of funds was to seriously affect the quality of the sets and costumes for the next episode, Keys of Marinus, as we will see.

The episode begins among the snowy peaks of the Himalayas, where the TARDIS arrives, damaged. Hartnell’s pessimism and irritability is again strange to those of us raised on the latter Doctors. (“We’re all going to starve to death!” he shouts, at one point).

Good luck getting delivery up here

Here they are discovered by none other than Marco Polo, who inexplicably is traveling through the Himalayas on a journey from Samarkand to Peking. This is akin to passing through New Orleans on a trip from Denver to Albany. At any rate, Marco Polo is escorting two travelers: Tegana, who is a peace envoy from Nogai Khan to Kublai Khan, and Ping-Cho, a well-bred young woman from Samarkand who is to be married to an elderly Mongol noble. Marco Polo agrees to take the Doctor and his companions along with him, along with the Doctor’s caravan, the TARDIS, which they admit can move from place to place. A flying conveyance being of great value, Marco Polo denies them access to it, and decides to offer it to Kublai Khan in exchange for permission to return to Venice.

This is a major plot point, although it is also a major plot hole. The main tension throughout the episode is between Marco Polo and the travelers. Both have a legitimate desire to go home. Both need it to effect their passage. So why, then, does it not occur to anyone to offer to take Marco Polo back to Venice in the TARDIS??? Now, there might be a reason why the Doctor or Susan do not make this offer. Perhaps they feel that giving Marco Polo a glimpse of advanced technology will alter the timeline. Maybe they know that the Doctor cannot actually control where the TARDIS goes (this has been strongly implied, although never explicitly stated, in the series so far). That doesn’t explain why it never occurs, say, to Ian, Barbara, or Marco Polo himself. This also reminds us it’s about time for Ian and Barbara to start getting a little miffed at the amount of time it is taking them to get home. If the Doctor can’t get Marco Polo to Venice, then he can hardly get Ian and Barbara back to 20th-century England. Yet they have never expressed frustration, resignation, or acceptance of this state of affairs. In this episode, they spend weeks traveling under primitive conditions, by our standards. Yet their reactions are entirely based on the short-term situation, not the long-term fact of their indefinite exile from their own time.

Oh, the indignity!

One point of interest: Up until I saw the above still, I had no inkling that the TARDIS was moveable by conventional means. I always felt that part and parcel of its large interior space and impenetrable doors was immovability. Who knew the TARDIS could be rendered completely harmless by the simple expedient of tipping it over so that the doors face down?

The middle parts of the episode are devoted to the long, arduous journey to Peking and the plotting of Tegana, who wishes to finish off the expedition. Why exactly he wishes to do this is unclear. He mentions Nogai is planning a sneak attack on Kublai Khan under cover of peace negotiations, but surely his safe arrival in Peking would be useful in maintaining the fiction of those negotiations?

Follow me all ye who call yourselves Gourdenes!

At any rate, Tegana fails twice to kill the party — an attempt to poison their water supply is foiled by a sudden sandstorm, and the subsequent attempt to kill them in the Gobi by slitting their water gourds does not succeed when the Doctor discovers condensation on the walls of the TARDIS. I am not sure how the latter is physically possible, but no matter. Barbara and Susan become suspicious of Tegana, and Barbara follows him to the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes. There she is captured, and there is much inintentional humor as she is pursued by a series of searchers, in defiance of Marco Polo’s orders not to go looking for her.

Marco! Polo! Marco! Polo! Oh, come on, don't tell me that joke didn't occur to you, too.

In all of this mess, Marco Polo doesn’t come off very well, and I think the writers do a great disservice. Not to the historical figure, but to the character. We come to know the inner thoughts of Marco Polo via the narration of his periodic journal entries. Never mind that this behavior is anachronistic, it gives us a window into the character that we never get from the Doctor or his companions. Marco Polo comes across as a strong leader, honest and forthright. He pursues his own interests, sure, but he is not heedless of the needs of others. However, the development of the plot makes him seem like a complete dolt. He regularly loses control of the expedition, with various members wandering off at regular intervals without permission. His belief in Tegana over the testimony of Barbara and others is believable given the class-oriented nature of that society, but it does him no favors. He nearly leads the party to disaster in the Gobi desert, and is only saved by serendipity. He confiscates the key to the TARDIS, but manages to lose it twice. Most damning, his mission at the start of the episode is to bring Tegana and Ping-Cho to Kublai Khan. He manages to lose both of them along the way, coming before the Khan empty-handed. He does redeem himself by defeating Tegana in a duel when Tegana tries to kill the Khan, but the character, played with great dignity by Mark Eden, deserved better.

But even worse is the behavior of the Doctor. In this episode he is almost completely worthless. That he spends much of the episode sulking in his tent is bad enough (yes, Hartnell couldn’t be present to film the whole episode, but couldn’t they come up with a better explanation?) But what does he do? His discovery of condensation inside the TARDIS is pure luck. He fails to get the key to the TARDIS back from Marco Polo. When they do encounter Kublai Khan, the Doctor befriends him and wins great wealth playing backgammon with him, but fails to persuade him to give up the TARDIS. They only get away when Marco Polo decides to be Mr. Nice Guy and give them the key to the TARDIS at the end.

Way to make yourself useful, Doctor

The one member of the expedition who does something useful is Ian. He manages to get the key to the TARDIS away from Marco Polo the first time, though their escape attempt is foiled. Ping-Cho risks her life to give them the key for the second escape, which is discovered when Susan, who I am disliking more and more, just has to say goodbye to Ping-Cho before they leave.

Although there is much to recommend Marco Polo — not least the setting, the epic sweep of the episode, and the lavish production qualities — the plot holes and the poor performance of the Doctor and friends leads me to suggest a verdict of Guilty. Need I add that Tegana, being a main character, has to be played by an Englishman, unlike most of the extras? And the cringingly offensive portrayal of the way-station keeper, Wang Lo, also played by a non-Asian, of course. Even Kublai Khan, I see, was played by a Westerner. God, the Sixties were backward.

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Mithradates reviews The Daleks

Hello again. We seem to have gotten out of order here — my colleague was reduced to such a state of torpor after watching The Daleks that he pleaded an inability to write on the topic. My reaction was much more positive, so I have taken it upon myself to set down a few words on the series. I will focus most of my discussion on the first two episodes, as they set the tone for the whole thing.

What set The Daleks above An Unearthly Child for me was the keen air of foreboding that it established in the first episode. The TARDIS flies out of control and ends up in a mystery location. Not even the Doctor knows exactly where or when they have arrived. Susan reports that all environmental sensors check out normal. Except that we see the radiation detector rapidly increasing after Susan looks away from the display.

A brief exploration outside leads to the first mystery: the explorers discover a dead forest, turned entirely to stone. In addition, they find a strange creature, made of metal — a robot? If so, who made it, and why?

The Doctor and Ian look at the mechanical lizard

The second mystery comes when they reach the edge of the forest, and look out over a strange city, unlike anything any of them have seen before. Like the forest, it appears completely lifeless. Unlike the forest, it is clearly made by intelligent beings. Who constructed it? What happened to them?

The Doctor’s curiosity is piqued. This is the first glimpse we get of the irrepressible curiosity that will become the Doctor’s hallmark, and a clear change from the grumpy Doctor of the first series. Unlike An Unearthly Child, when he was trying to keep Ian and Barbara from nosing into his business, the Doctor is in his element here, even if he sorely misjudges the danger of the situation.

On the way back to the TARDIS, Susan lags behind, and becomes alarmed when she feels somebody touch her from behind. We see a shadow, flitting out of the shot. Who is it? Is it one of the builders of the city? An ally, or an enemy? The mystery deepens when the rest of the party discovers a mysterious box lying on the ground outside the TARDIS, containing a number of glass vials. What could they be for? Were they left there deliberately, or dropped accidentally? Is there a connection with Susan’s visitor?

The fourth plot point comes when the team return to the TARDIS. After messing about with the TARDIS’ controls, the Doctor announces that one of its components is damaged, and that mercury is needed for it to become operable. Only we have seen the Doctor remove the component from the TARDIS, deliberately sabotaging it. It is clear that the Doctor does not yet trust his companions, and is willing to behave selfishly to meet his own priorities.

The Doctor and his companions then proceed to the city, which appears to be completely deserted. The floors are smooth metal, apparently bearing a consistent static charge. Why? The set designers did a bang-up job here, creating an architecture that looks truly alien. The doors are not sized nor shaped for human entry, and there appear to be no stairs or definable spaces, just elevators and corridors. While wandering through the maze-like interior of one building, Barbara becomes trapped in a room, which turns into an elevator, carrying her downwards, to a fate unknown.

While searching for Barbara, the Doctor, Ian and Susan find a room containing scientific equipment. Finally, something the Doctor can understand! Unfortunately, the message is deadly: the planet is bathed in radiation, and the party has only a short time to live. Shortly thereafter, they finally meet the inhabitants of the complex: a strange group of beings who call themselves the Daleks. For fans of the series, this moment is pregnant with ill omen.

What are they? Robots? Or living things within a shell? Their voices suggest the former, but the Doctor and Ian find out the latter is true.

The Doctor & friends meet the Daleks for the first time.

So at this point, we have encountered an amazing number of plot twists and developments:

1. The dead forest and its mystery.

2. The dead city and its mystery.

3. Susan’s visitor

4. The strange box found outside the TARDIS.

5. The Doctor’s treachery — does it conceal a hidden agenda?

6. The odd alien architecture of the city — what does it indicate about those that built it?

7. The imminent threat of death by radiation poisoning.

8. A new and powerful enemy — the Daleks.

This is a very high level of suspense-building, and it is done masterfully. We don’t know how, or whether, these things interrelate, nor their true significance. The rest of the series is dedicated to tracing the web of clues introduced during the first two episodes. Now, my colleague will say that the denoument was a bit tedious. There is, I admit, a lack of tightness to the remaining five(!) episodes, and a certain amount of dramatic padding. (Really, being captured and escaping not once, but twice?). As well as some unfortunate wardrobe choices:

When you've endured generations of radiation poisoning, fashion sense is the first thing to go.

All that aside, however, the sheer brilliance of the beginning is easily enough to put The Daleks above both An Unearthly Child and Edge of Destruction.

Verdict: Acquittal!

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Lime reviews Edge of Destruction: “What’s going on here?!”

Doctor Who is about two things: (1) a really cool time-traveler and his really cool time machine; and, (2) the stand-ins for the audience, or the Companions. Edge of Destruction, in two quirky episodes, gave us the Companions, as we know them today. Here’s how, and why you must watch Edge:

1. Small budgets do wonders for artistic creativity. The 7-parter The Daleks, featuring miniatures, metal-ish Dalek corridors, explosions, and several Daleks themselves, had gone over-budget. And the production team faced another impending 7-parter, Marco Polo–a costume drama, also with miniatures and elaborate sets (and one of the “lost episodes“). Budgets were tight. Series script editor David Whitaker was tasked with writing a two-parter on the cheap.

Whitaker also faced another problem. Unearthly Child and The Daleks portrayed The Doctor as fiercely distrusting of Ian and Barbara, his “kidnapees.” If Who was to have any legs, this dynamic had to end: somehow, that plotline needed to disappear to both permit further character development, and to free up script space for more engaging and ambitious ideas.

Whitaker’s solution was a product of tight pursestrings and deference to the preceding two serials. But, it was genius. Using only the TARDIS set and the cast of four regulars, Whitaker penned an amazing two-part story. None of the cast knew of the budgetary origins of the spartan script, though Jacqueline Hill guessed–incorrectly–that the Marco Polo costumes simply weren’t ready yet.

And so the cast threw themselves into the script with gusto. As written, it risked becoming little more than an avant-garde moody-artist piece with disjointed, stilted performances. As acted, it’s very satisfying, from Ian’s dazed recovery in the beginning, to Barbara’s strong performance overall and particularly in her substantial speeches (directed at the Doctor) in both episodes, to the Doctor’s transformation from possibly malignant manipulator into the “protector of companions” we have today.

One additional note: it’s interesting that Peter Brachacki, designing the TARDIS control room, made one of those budgetary constraints calls that carried through to today’s TARDIS. He saw a 3″ piece of molded plastic with a repeating pattern of round holes. He liked it so much that he had that very same piece of plastic photographed and enlarged, and printed: it became the 2-dimensional console room walls of roundels, repeated and modified for the next half-century of Who. Now that’s cool. And, again, it was initially simply “on the cheap.”

2. Barbara vs. The Doctor, or, The Birth of the Companions. The audience is roped-in with Ian’s incredulous outburst, early in the first episode, just under ten minutes in. We’re yanked into the story because Ian’s disbelief exactly mirrors what we, the audience, are thinking: why are the regulars passed out, draped over the TARDIS console and floor? Is this performance art?

Barbara immediately takes the baton from Ian, and carries it through the remainder of Edge. She, as Ian, and as the Companions always do, is the conduit to the audience–she’s us. She immediately assumes care for the Doctor, waking and comforting him, and calms the unbalanced Susan. We cheer as she forcefully rebuts the Doctor’s unreasonable accusations against her and Ian. Her fiery rejection of the Doctor’s suspicions presage the final, seminal scenes of episode two. It must have been a recognition of Jacqueline Hill’s strong performance in rehearsals, and it was a smart move, that several of Ian’s lines were transferred to Barbara.

Finally, it’s Barbara that solves the underlying mystery: she pieces together the clues and saves the day, only moments before total annihilation. The scenes that follow witness the birth of the modern Who Companion. Barbara stares into space, hurt by the pain the Doctor inflicted on all of them; and when the Doctor formally, if stiffly, acknowledges his debt to her saving the TARDIS, Barbara flinches, and bolts from the room.

But the Doctor, in a new and significant turn of character, pursues her. He sits close to Barbara on the couch–the gap between the characters is finally physically narrowed. He explicitly admits his failings–and narrows the psychological gamp. He, in essence, tells her that by learning from Ian and Barbara, he has finally discovered himself. And so the rift from the first episodes is bridged. The Doctor now is not mistrusting, distant–but is the Doctor, grandfatherly, self-admittedly flawed, and protector of his companions. This is the birth of the Companion.

The physical closeness continues: he offers his arm, and he and Barbara walk to the console room. And the Doctor even offers his arm, or hand, to Ian–it’s hard to tell if it’s a Hartnell flub or improvisation–and they walk out to join Susan for a snowball fight. And this new dynamic is our dynamic today: Doctor as protector of companions, as grandfatherly figure. When you watch the concluding scenes of Edge, you’ll see the birth of modern Who.

3. “My machine can’t think!” The second innovation was equally a product of budget. Constrained to the TARDIS as the only set, and the regulars as sole cast, Whitaker needed dramatic tension. Whitaker’s brilliant solution was to bring the TARDIS to life: the eerie poltergeists plaguing the TARDIS, we learn, were the TARDIS itself leaving clues for the crew. The TARDIS doors open and close by themselves in response to the crew’s actions; the scanner displays the same sequence of images, repeated several times; the “fault locator” lights and warning bells activate, inexplicably, every 15 seconds; the TARDIS causes physical pain to the crew, but only when they approach certain parts of the console; the TARDIS displays misleading indicator lights on machinery that is otherwise working perfectly.

It’s the origin of the idea that the TARDIS is alive. Directly from Edge we get the power source that’s “held down” by the time rotor, the “heart of the TARDIS,” that reappears in Arc of Infinity, Terminus, Boom Town, and Parting of the Ways. We get here the first indication that the TARDIS is sentient, that the TARDIS has mind of its own, revisited en force in The Doctor’s Wife. Interestingly too, we get the first inklings of the Matrix: in Edge, just after Susan drops the bomb that she and the Doctor had, earlier than Unearthly Child, visited the planet Quinnis “in the fourth Universe,” we learn that the TARDIS records all the Doctor’s journeys. This returns in Trial of a Time Lord.

4. The Doctor’s crazy-manic love of science. It’s telling that Sydney Newman required Verity Lambert to subscribe to “New Scientist” and read it, monthly. One directive of early Who was to feature science front and center, and be educational.

Here, the Doctor’s turnaround involves a lengthy speech by Hartnell–the first such speech by the Doctor–about… science! It begins with the Doctor leaning back against the TARDIS console, the lighting strikingly altered for the scene–the Doctor lit in dramatic chiaroscuro–and the camera slowly tracking towards Hartnell (this was before the BBC had zoom lenses).

Hartnell was nervous about the speech’s length, famously forgetful of his lines. But it’s a fine performance: you can almost see hubris and the hunger for serious actor’s cred in his eyes during this soliloquy. He deserves it: it’s a memorable speech, and it conjures images of Baker’s toothy grin and wide eyes wondering at some scientific anomaly, or Tennant’s luscious drawl at a newly discovered alien species, “awwwwww, you’re beautiful!”.

Hartnell thus delivers, and we get the paradigm for future Doctors’ zealous-manic love of all things science.

5. Who trope: the unintended consequences of small actions. Whitaker had one final puzzle piece to place: if the TARDIS was the fifth cast member, what caused the chain of events? Whitaker’s answer, human, or unintentional error, was brilliant and is one of the repeating and often most successful themes in Who. The cascading consequences of small, unintended errors underlies some of Who‘s best episodes, including one of my favorites, Gridlock, but also The Doctor’s Daughter and many others.

So Edge is weird, quirky, but it’s uber-cool.

A few final observations: (1) it finally fully dawned on me in watching Edge the extra bells and whistles from the interior of Hartnell’s TARDIS that were transferred to Eleven’s: the bulky rectangular grid of square panels that disappeared in Who’s early years, reappears beautifully in Eleven’s console room. And as I’ve noted before, there’s the hanging thingie of concentric circles that’s Hartnell era, as well as the faux CRT scanner that is so steam-punk lovely. (2) first true on-screen date with the Doctor’s Wife (well, they’re going out, but before both sides realized it was a date, you know, a sorta Emma and Mr. Knightly thing going here). (3). The Daleks, the 7-parter just preceding Edge, introduced the Doctor’s longest standing enemy and gave us the words “Skaro” and “Thal.” Edge, in contrast, is the avant-garde moody art piece that gave us a sentient TARDIS and the modern Who companion. Edge: for depth of substantive impact on Who history, it’s the hands-down winner.

Who Verdict: Acquittal. Watch!

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Mithradates: Unearthly Child

Howdy folks. I’m Lime’s erstwhile interlocutor. Like him, I grew up on the third, fourth and fifth Doctors. In effect, my exposure has been limited to what has shown on American TV. I have watched some of the newer episodes with Eccleston and Tennant, but don’t get BBC America. I never saw an episode with Patrick Troughton (unless you count The Five Doctors) until a couple of years ago; my first William Hartnell serial was late last year. So I’m going into this without a lot of background. I happen to be a huge Trekkie, so may be making lots of references to that series in my reviews.

Unearthly Child was unexpected in some ways. When watching Tom Baker and the TARDIS, I always figured in the back of my mind that the sets and special effects (even the theme song) had changed since the series began. After all, John Pertwee had a futuristic car that disappeared in later episodes; I figured there were lots of such tweaks and changes from Doctor to Doctor. And there were so many references to the bum chameleon circuit that I thought it must have worked at one point. So I was unprepared to see the same old TARDIS that I was familiar with (granted, with a few small differences).

This Doctor is very different than the ones I grew up with. Baker, of course, is archetypal for many of my generation, so much so that the newest Doctors mimic his manic personableness. Pertwee was more restrained, of course, but even he was something of a man of action. Hartnell, however, appears in this first serial as a bit of a misanthrope, finding strangers unwelcome and wishing above all to be let alone. He also has much less of a moral compass, as seen when he looks ready to kill the caveman Za after he is incapacitated by a wild animal.

As for the episode in general, my response was much less favorable than my colleague. I felt Ian and Barbara didn’t react quite realistically to being brought across time and space, and subsequently being captured. Neither seem the least concerned about missing their classes or getting fired from their jobs, although such mundane concerns would come quickly to my mind. Conversely, Susan seems very excitable for a girl who was raised by the Doctor.

I also found the caveman plot rather tiring. Of course, I happen to be an archaeologist, so I am sensitive to anachronisms. Granted that the cavemen are a bit more sophisticated than is typical for the 60s, but nevertheless they are clearly anatomically modern (as implied by the original title, 100,000 B.C.) Humans by that time had long mastered the use of fire — it beggars the imagination to conceive of a tribe that has lost the ability to make it. More significantly, they are depicted as being unsophisticated to the point of being rather child-like. There is no reason, however, to think that early humans had social lives any less rich, or language skills less developed, than people in more recent times.

This would be tolerable if it didn’t make the whole drama somewhat farcical. We have four modern humans held prisoner by a group of about a dozen primitives, none of whom exhibit much intelligence. It diminishes the suspense for me markedly. In this respect the next serial, The Daleks, is a considerable improvement. Moreover the second half drags too much, padded as it is with a recapture (a failing also seen in The Daleks). Nevertheless, the curiosity value was high enough to keep me watching even through the slow patches.

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Lime: Unearthly Child, Ep. 1

I first watched Doctor Who in or around 1977; it was a Tom Baker episode–the Fourth Doctor, teeth and curls, all that. My first introduction to the First Doctor wasn’t until The Five Doctors–and that wasn’t even the real deal, it was Richard Hurndall. The original actor, William Hartnell, died in 1975, shortly after appearing in the Third Doctor’s episode, The Three Doctors.

But there is a brief opening clip to The Five Doctors, an excerpt from a real Hartnell episode, which I instantly fell in love with back in 1983 when The Five Doctors aired. Partly because it was so, well, inscrutable. I memorized it instantly, typed it out on our trusty IBM Selectric typewriter, and read and re-read it to myself, amazed at having just seen a black and white incarnation of my Doctor saying something so mystifying. I think I’ve got it still pretty much verbatim, stored away upstairs. I trotted it out every once in awhile as a kid, to myself, when I needed inscrutable inspiration. It goes like this: “One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, and no anxieties. Just go forward in your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.”

It was never just the words, but it was the decades-long show, the angst over whether it would be continued, the exceptionalism of the character of the Doctor, and the conviction that Hartnell gave those words. All that carried through the decades and combined to make quite an impact on my young mind, an impact far greater than any of the pithy quotes of Star Wars, Star Trek, Buck Rogers, or any of the other numerous sci-fi or fantasy fare I consumed as an adolescent.

I didn’t see Unearthly Child, or any Hartnell episode, until the advent of Netflix instant streaming introduced me to Hartnell and the 2005 resurrection of the show revived my active interest in the show overall. At first viewing, with my kids, I surfed through it, preoccupied with work, letting my kids enjoy it. But scenes stuck in my mind. This was am amazing debut, aired first the day after President Kennedy’s assassination, on November 23, 1963. I ordered it again, and rewatched it with my friend Fredegar. Here’s what struck me:

First, as all the initiated know, the title song by Ron Grainer, and arranged in “electronica” by the fantastic Delia Derbyshire, is for all intents and purposes identical to the title song today, right down to the drumming and droning base beat, and the heroic soaring section that simply lifts the spirits to hear. My young son loves that part, and started singing to the old original just as he does now to Matt Smith’s title sequence. Derbyshire’s arrangement of the Grainer tune is one of the very first all-electronic television themes, and it is pure genius.

A bobby walks to, and away from, the doors of a junkyard in misty London, a junkyard whose doors read “I.M. Foreman, Scrap Merchant, 76, Totter’s Lane.”. The Grainer theme plays as the junkyard doors squeak open by invisible hands and the camera glides through the doors, swinging right to alight on the windows of a (we know to be blue) Police Public Call Box, which seems to be the source of a strange, mid-pitched hum. Our first glimpse of a prop that kids will gleefully adore for the next 60 years and counting.

And cut to the Coal Hill School, where students leave classes in a rush, and we follow a proper and attractive history teacher, Barbara Wright, leaving class and sitting down to commiserate with a fellow teacher, the dashing Colin Firth-like Ian Chesterton, about her terrible day–caused by an overly precocious student, the 15-year old Susan. And so the stage for mystery and curiosity is set: Ian agrees, Susan knows more of science than he’ll ever know, but Susan only lets her knowledge out gradually, to not embarrass him. Ian thinks Susan is a genius, and worries tongue in cheek about having to hand his class over to his student. Barbara, in contrast, wants to give Susan some guidance, has already obtained Susan’s home address–76 Totter’s Lane, which the viewer already knows to be a junkyard–and Barbara herself has now discovered, having visited the address to confront Susan’s grandfather about Susan’s suffering homework. And so Ian, with Barbara the proxies for the audience and the only characters we’ve had any extended interaction with, is drawn into the mystery. Who is the genius girl that lives in a junkyard?

Cut to the history classroom, where we first see Susan, the genius. Commentators make much of this scene: Susan, a pixie-like short-haired brunette, angular and attractive, if odd looking, dancing to 60s music, holding a radio to her ear. Ian and Barbara enter, we learn that Susan insists on reading and returning the voluminous book on the French Revolution Barbara lends her the next day: she needs no longer. Susan declines a ride home, Ian and Barbara leave, and Susan opens the book, eyes alighting with concern on some statement of fact about the Revolution exclaiming “that’s not right!”. Another mystery.

The teachers drive through the night fog and park across from the junkyard, waiting for Susan to arrive home. Ian insists the mysteries will have a simple explanation; Barbara disagrees, noting that Susan doesn’t even know how many shillings are in a pound. A third mystery. A flashback to students laughing at Susan, who shrugs off her mistake at thinking Britain had moved to a decimal system: “of course it doesn’t… It hasn’t started yet.”. Susan arrives and walks through the junkyard doors. The teachers follow her into the junkyard.

At first we see everything but the Police Box. Two mannequins. Mysterious music. Then the Police Box in the background as the two search the junkyard for Susan. And they see the Box, touch it–notice it is humming. Why is it here, instead of on the street where the public can use it to summon the police? The sound–the vibration–Ian exclaims, “it’s alive!”. And then coughing, someone is coming. They hide.

An old man, with a black Karzai hat and flowing white hair, a pale scarf and a dark coat, arch looking, enters the yard and starts to open the Police Box. Susan’s voice comes from nowhere: “There you are, grandfather!”. Ian makes his move and approaches the old man, says he’s looking for a girl, Susan Foreman. (The old man is holding a silver device–some think this is the first appearance of the famed Sonic Screwdriver.). The old man denies any knowledge defensively, distracting himself with an old painting that he’d never noticed before. Ian insists on looking inside the Police Box: the girl’s voice had to come from somewhere, and she’d totally disappeared.

But before the Doctor can turn their attention, Susan again calls from the Police Box. Ian and Barbara push themselves in, and are confronted by the blinding white and constant hum of, well, the bigger-on-the-inside TARDIS. Susan quite calm and comfortable. Hexagonal console and–as seen again now finally in the Eleventh Doctor’s TARDIS–the hanging concentric metallic circles on the ceiling. The roundels on the white walls. And the coatrack, and a few other sparse furnishings, including a fascinating metal clock. At the Doctor’s command, Susan operates a control on the console and closes the doors. Susan tells the teachers she indeed lives in this strange Police Box, which is bigger on the inside.

Three times in this sequence the Doctor looks straight at the camera and talks to us, the viewer, while ostensibly talking to Ian or Barbara: first, telling us that he’s not hindering us finding Susan–”if you … want to make fools of yourselves I suggest you do what you said you’d do–go and find a policeman”–muttering “insulting” after that line: second, once inside the TARDIS and in response to Ian and Barbara’s confusion, telling us “you don’t understand, so you find excuses”; third, “the point is not whether you understand, what is going to happen to you, hmmm?”

And then we learn: Susan and this Doctor are cut off from their own planet, exiles, but “one day, we shall get back.”. But the Doctor determines that Ian and Barbara now too must be exiles from their planet. They barged into the TARDIS, but now cannot leave–they will tell others about the Doctor and his ship. Even Susan refuses to help Ian and Barbara now. And so the Doctor operates some controls, the center column rises and falls, and we see London shrinking as this TARDIS falls through the wavy white feedback loop we saw first in the show’s title sequence.

In sum, the first episode of Unearthly Child is a triumph of acting, pacing, cunning camera angles, and story. And it gains richness with repeated watchings. I would be surprised if any of you could watch and not be amazed at what the BBC accomplished back in 1963 in the very first episode of Who.

And what’s more, the three quotes from Hartnell said directly to us have some bearing as we delve ever deeper into the mind of Steven Moffatt, director of the Eleventh Doctor (and writer of several RTD-era stories), and Moffat’s Grand Plan for Who. I’m mystified by that plan. Some dislike it. Many are thrilled. But what keeps all of us coming back for more in some sense relates to those three questions. If we don’t like it, we can stop watching, change the channel–abandon the mystery. If we don’t understand, well, we can explain it to ourselves however we want to–and we do. Witness the explosion of interest and talk in all things Who over the last half-decade. Finally, we come back because we want to find out what happens to our Doctor, and the characters we care about. And as Hartnell says the second half of the third one, he turns right back to Ian. Because after all, that’s what this is all about: the characters.

Thanks, William Hartnell. For all the line flubs to come, you were a fine, fine actor. Small wonder the show has lasted this long, after having you as its first leading man.

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