Companions: Susan, Barbara, Ian
Written by: Anthony Coburn and C.E. Webber
Directed by: Waris Hussein
Background & Significance: It all starts here.
In the early 1960s, the BBC sought to create a new science fiction edutainment children's television show. That show, as we all know, is Doctor Who, a show designed to focus on teaching children about science and history. There would be the eponymous main character, an elderly man traveling from place to place, taking the crew on wondrous sights and on adventures that were designed to expand the mind and broaden an understanding of the world to British children.
The beginnings are humble, and the first episode has very little to do with the next three, which are big on the historical leanings and edutainment and what have you. Most interesting, though, is the first episode itself. Where, of all places, does this show start? Does it hold up today? What can we learn from the original vision of this show and how does that inform our modern understanding and the current, revised version that came about forty two years after the initial broadcast of this episode? Not only that, but what do they get right?
1996 Movie starring Paul McGann. There's a reason that "An Unearthly Child" and "Rose" work more than the 1996 Paul McGann movie.
I think this all speaks to the brilliance of the creative team behind the first few seasons of the show, perhaps most important being Verity Lambert, the scrappy producer who demanded the show get the respect she felt it due, and brought a good sense of vision and all that to the proceedings. Likewise David Whitaker, who is totally rad if you ask me. I'm a huge fan of him and his sense of character and what it is he brings to the table in terms of story sensibility. You can actually kinda see that here, as it's VERY character driven, at least in this first episode.
I apologize for all this talk of the first episode, but that's where I focus my energies in this. Nevermind the next three. They're just okay, pretty standard, and nothing remarkably special. What's important, and why it's taken us so long to get to discussing this point, is the first outing, and why it works at setting up a science fiction television show that's coming up on fifty years old and how it is (after everything) still completely relevant and insightful to everything that came after. The vision, the focus, the energies, The Doctor, the everything. It all starts right here.
So let's get to it!
My friend Gary disagrees.
I remember when I was just starting to get into Doctor Who or I was about to get into it or something, I got to talking to my friend Gary (one of the many people who urged me to watch the show) and for some reason the classic series didn’t register with him. I remember him telling me he tried watching the beginning of the series (this story) and saying “It moves so. slowly.” So whenever I think about this, I’m always reminded of that and that one criticism ever leveled against episode/story. I think, because of that I stayed away from this story for a while. That said, while I understand the criticism (ESPECIALLY going from the speed/pace of the new series to this), I think it’s inherently flawed and wrong.
The most striking thing about it, I think, is the very specific focus on Ian and Barbara. This, of course, only makes sense and is something that Russell T Davies focused on when it came to reviving the series in 2005. It tells you the focus of the show, which is something that, when the show dips in quality, you can always point to: The show lives and dies by the strengths of its companions. Sure, The Doctor is fantastic in this first episode (and there’s much to say on Hartnell alone, but more on that later), but given HOW MUCH of this story is focused on them, it’s… it’s honestly rather striking.
If you look, they’re the best parts of this. There’s the Susan thing (more on her in a minute; I promise), but she’s just the catalyst that gets Barbara and Ian going. So much of it is spent introducing them and their dynamic and the mystery of Susan and what, exactly, is going on with her and how she knows these things. Yes, it’s slow, but it’s also strange to have something that’s so character-centric on a show that would (in many ways) be so very not as they would soon enter a world of science fiction and adventure storytelling in an era in which character would take a back seat to story.
I love the way this is broken down. Structurally, I mean. We open with a long tracking shot (which is totally rare for Doctor Who, at least in the Classic series) that introduces The TARDIS, which is strangely in a junkyard (what’s a police box doing in a junkyard?) and then cut to a school where Ian and Barbara are discussing their curious “new” student Susan Foreman and they discuss the mystery of how she’s so smart and what she’s doing in school. And then we get to actually SEE Susan and how peculiar she is (but don’t worry, that goes away quickly) and then they think about it more and see how she is not able to handle modern society. And then we get a lovely scene of them in the car (which is totally not creepy, them stalking a student like this) and then they investigate the junkyard, see the TARDIS, encounter The Doctor, manage to get into and stuck inside The TARDIS and then the TARDIS flies off to parts unknown.
Continuing on the gravy train of “things I like”: Susan. Seriously. This is some of the best Susan I’ve ever seen. I can pretty much guarantee you that’s because of the insane importance placed on her character (as opposed to later when she (more often than not) becomes a plot device of sorts) and the strange alienness that Carol Anne Ford brings to the part. Although I will say that she has NO idea how to blend in, which makes sense. But it’s also INCREDIBLY awkward to watch her be SUCH a know-it-all and then realize what she’s doing. It’s a bit snotty and character but I think it goes a BIT too far in the way these sorts of things tend to go as the slow march towards the psychological realism of now begins.
What I love about Hartnell in this is the way he plays The Doctor. You can tell The Doctor is a very nascent character here and this is probably the best Hartnell I’ve ever done seen. He refuses to let Ian and Barbara go, realizing that allowing them to have knowledge of the TARDIS would jeopardize contaminating the timeline, which he doesn’t seem to mind in his later incarnations.
Not only that (and we’ll touch on this a bit more), but he’s VERY cold. He already mentions here in the first episode that he’s not human, although it takes a long time before that’s fleshed out further.
There’s just a lot to love. It’s a very claustrophobic and mysterious first part to this four part story, or even this fifty-years-and-ongoing story and one that still resonates today. It’s slow, but incredibly methodical and it brings in all the great things that are lovable. We see the TARDIS for the first time, and we end with a mysterious shadow coming upon the newly landed TARDIS. It’s just a perfect, wonderful bookmark and a tremendous first episode that does nothing but sum up what it is the show is all about.
And then… well… as Steven Moffat says… it “betrays the lie that it's just the Sixties” and then we’re stuck back in… well… standard Doctor Who.
For starters, you go from something that’s so much about the characters who make up the TARDIS crew, introducing them, providing a setup, some mystery and intrigue, to something that is just mad boring. I mean the entire second episode of this is just caveman politics about fire and internal clan power plays by those in charge of the clan. There’s much talking in metaphor (the orb is the sun, by the way) and posturing and wheel spinning.
On the one hand, it’s the first proper adventure of the TARDIS crew, and the first episode does SUCH a good job setting all this up that suddenly we’re in part two and we’re in something that’s COMPLETELY different and not as compelling. That’s the other hand. It’s just not compelling, it hasn’t aged well (as opposed to the first episode, which REALLY has), and it’s fairly derivative. Not only that, but I’m not exactly quite sure what to make of the educational value of this? It’s certainly got that bend to it in places but I don’t see it as exactly prevalent. At least not yet.
For one thing, I really love The Doctor in this. It’s very obvious that he’s a young character and not quite The Doctor we all know and love and I love that you can see that here. I mean, there’s something to be said about him trying to weasel his way out of dealing with the situation at hand simply by offering the natives a technology they clearly don’t have (thereby breaking The Prime Directive). We see it perhaps more definitively in their next story, “The Daleks”, but here, The Doctor makes a concerted effort to not get entangled in events. Perhaps he still hasn’t shaken his Time Lord sensibilities?
Sure, there’s the caveman politics, but that’s mad boring. Honestly, I don’t much care about that at all. I don’t care who’s who or who had fire at one point or who that guy’s mother is or who had the fire chief last winter or what the orb has to say or any of that. It’s just boring. And it goes on for such a long time. I mean we have pages and pages of cavemen arguments and it’s just… why? In what world is this the world we want to live in? I mean, even the cliffhanger of them getting locked in a cave full of a bunch of cracked skulls? Come on, try harder.
Doctor Who, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s kinda weak.
There are some good bits, though. The Ian and Barbara stuff is really good. And Susan when she’s not being… you know… Susan is at the very least compelling. And there’s also a bit where The Doctor smokes a pipe (which is really only in the script because guy thinks the matches is some kind of magic that gets The Doctor spontaneously generating fire out of his fingertips) which is a total plot device, but I like to refer to it as “mega pimp" because The Doctor is totally smoking a pipe and it’s awesome…
Doctor Who, which is a shame. I mean, even the cliffhanger resolution is lame. We saw a shadow moving across the plains towards the TARDIS and it’s totally ominous and mission statey, and what is it instead?
Just some Caveman, staring at the TARDIS like it’s your seven year old as he/she veg's out on whatever’s on. Maybe there is drool. And then we get into Caveman politics. It’s just a shame. That’s why I really like “The End of the World.” You introduce all the stuff and then you break the bank. This? Not so much. Cavemen. Cheap, lazy, boring. No drama, no tension. None of that. Just running around talking about how to get fire and how to make it (which is just a guy rubbing a bone back and forth in his hands). Granted, that’s a TYPE of fire, but I don’t think that’s what they were going for here.
I’d change that last sentence, but screw that.
Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with running. I do love running, but it really does accomplish nothing in the grand scheme of things. That said, it’s a welcome change to everything, as the entire episode is spent running away from everyone and everywhere and all that tremendously silly instead of us getting tons and tons of pages and minutes and minutes and minutes of boring caveman politics and exposition and blah blah blah don’t care.
For one thing, there’s Hartnell. Given that this story is a lot about setting up and establishing all the various characters, The Doctor’s characterization strikes particularly strong here. For one thing, he’s perfectly willing to out and out murder an eviscerated caveman just to expedite their escape. It’s only Ian, the voice of reason, who keeps him from doing that. While the action is inherently un-Doctor like (murder? Please.) I don’t mind it because it shows how far The Doctor’s come. They can get away with it because The Doctor’s so nascent as a character and because Ian actually calls him on it and tells him it’s a bad thing to do.
It really speaks to not just the role of the companion, but the role of Barbara and Ian as characters in The Doctor’s life. Having a granddaughter doesn’t give The Doctor the compassion he is so lacking, at least early on. No, it’s Barbara and Ian who give him that humanity he rapidly gains over time with them. I mean, other companions have greater effects on their various Doctors (the most important, I think, being Rose on the 9th Doctor or Evelyn Smythe on the 6th Doctor in the Big Finish audio series). But it also provides a sense of continuity to the first two seasons. The Doctor very clearly cares about what happens to his companions (perhaps it’s guilt) but at the same time, he’s also not opposed to some actions against them.
Oh, and one of the cavemen has a mustache. Is that a thing? Is that caveman fashion or something? Cuz you’d think cavemen would only have beards and such. But no, this one has a mustache. Just thought I’d point that out.
What we have, essentially (after part one; have to keep qualifying that) are two different stories. There’s the story of the crew of the TARDIS and their first major adventure together, how they deal with each other, what they think, how they act, what they do as they attempt to run back to the TARDIS… and then there’s the story of the cavemen and their silly attempts to make fire. What makes this problematic for me is the giant disconnect between the two stories. While they’re going on at the same time, they feel horribly divorced from each other.
I mean, take this part. All the parts that are good are when the TARDIS crew is interacting with the situation at hand. And yet they’re placed in the cave for the good portion of this episode and don’t do anything except make fire for a bunch of jerks on the vague hope that it’ll allow them release to race back to the TARDIS. But these bits are actually really good. I love how they’re forced to band together to figure out how to get out of the situation, and I’m reminded always of the end when there’s that fantastic race all the way back to the TARDIS that just…. I love it.
I can’t say I care too much. I think it’s just because I have no idea who these characters are. The two main dudes both want the same thing, I don’t know who the chick woman is, and the rest of the cavemen have VERY few lines, if at all. And it’s all quite derivative. It feels like all the cavemen are retarded (as opposed to just not being incredibly wise) and useless. These cavemen should know how to hunt and be fierce. Not only that, but how do the cavemen not have fire if they had it at one point? That just seems silly to me. And then you realize that these people put so much more focus on fire rather than "who is the strongest" or "who felled the beast" and it all just kinda falls apart...
For one thing, it’s yet another strong showing for Hartnell. I love his use of logic to beat the cavemen at their own games of lies and falsehood. Seriously, the knife thing is simple but also incredibly subtle because of The Doctor’s ability to manipulate people into getting what he wants out of them. It’s very reminiscent of Tom Baker down the line, or even maybe McCoy. Of course, he then turns around and encourages the throwing of stones at the evil caveman (I care so much about this that I totally know their names) which is…. A little brutal and un-Doctory. But I will forgive it.
Okay, remember how I mentioned that Verity Lambert was all about pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable to be shown on television? So there’s this scene in this part where the two vying-for-power cavemen have a wrestle and it’s lovely and epic and totally awesome in the way old school Doctor Who is awesome. But the thing ends with the one guy strangling the crap out of the other guy and the other guy letting out a giant scream and then the one guy bashes the other guy in the head with a giant rock.
Oh yes! That one thing. I love watching the TARDIS crew get beat to crap. When they all stagger into the TARDIS at the end it’s totally magic. But it reminds me of how rare it is to see The Doctor beat to crap. When does that ever happen? I think that’s why I like the scene when The Doctor faces off against the Time Lords in “The End of Time” or The Doctor throughout “The Caves of Androzani”. I love watching him slowly deteriorate as the story goes on. It’s something that you NEVER see happen to The Doctor because… it doesn’t. Granted, the show exists in this world of mostly bloodless action adventure, which is fine for what it is, and I don’t complain about that. But it makes the occurrence of blood and messy a strong thing. So seeing Hartnell beat to crap here is kinda interesting, especially because he’s never like that again, really.
Finally, the end. I love the way these stories all bleed into one another, the final few seconds of this becoming the first few seconds of “The Daleks” and the way that this sets up that good ol’ Sliders paradigm of “We are lost and need to find our way home.” I love that and it provides a loose story for Barbara and Ian to follow over the course of the next two seasons.
Great stuff, that is.
Final Thoughts?: I think if I had to give this story an overall rating, it'd be firmly "Solid".
The other three episodes aren't bad. I don't think they are. I mean, I've CERTAINLY seen worse Doctor Who and worse Hartnell. It's mostly that this isn't exactly the sort of story you'd expect out of Doctor Who's first showing. Okay, logically, it makes sense. Why wouldn't the first story be a story about caveman times? It's generic, time travely, simple, base. What's not to make sense about that? But it's that sort of thing that makes it not stand out. Compare this to the stunning majesty of the second episode of the new series. "The End of the World" is a proper story that shows the scope of the show and introduces the ideas by giving you a breathtaking and powerful episode. But here it just... it just feels standard. Good in places in its own ways. But it's so weak in places (caveman politics) that it's hardly the best of things.
Which is why the first episode is so strong.
Let's cut to the chase on this one. The first episode is a frakkin masterpiece. It's a stunning piece of character work filled with mystery and intrigue. Not only that, but, besides the pace, it's aged incredibly well. And even then with the pace I think it's not so bad that it's awful. If you like the old series, it's actually paced perfectly fine, and it's a great intro to Barbara, Ian, Susan, and The Doctor. It's across the board stellar. It really does an excellent job of setting up not just the current TARDIS crew (which is a great crew), but also the series as an entity. Everything that the show is and does is all present in the very first episode.
Same with Hartnell. I love that we have the rawest Doctor we've ever seen here. He's totally different from how he is later and that only makes this stronger. You can see WHY The Doctor's story STARTS here. This is the event that sets his life on the course it's still on today. We start to see the influence those around him exert on him. It's just strong. And Hartnell kills it. It's a great showing from him. Totally fantastic and well done. He's so bitter and mean as an old man. but it gives his character a place to go. So it works, in a good way.
It's nice to know, honestly. The show that's been going on for fifty years has such a strong and solid showing right at the outset. Even though there are major missteps later, I love that the first showing is strong in the best of ways and that it's so dialed into the formula for what the show eventually becomes.
It's a must see, and not even because it's the first. If that doesn't say it all, I don't know what will.
Next Time!: 4th Doctor! And in burgundy! Nyssa! A wizened old Keeper! A mysterious guy! A mysterious statue! An edenic tale of epic proportions! And some actual good Adric. How about that? The blog's anniversary gravy train continues with a double shot this week. First up is Cassandra with "Keeper of Traken!" Coming next Monday!