18 May

Well, we've watched Doctor Who as far as The Edge of Destruction [*].

The Doctor Who Appreciation Society showed Unearthly Child at Panopticon 2 in 1978; and the whole of the first story the following year. The moment when the radiation dial flips to “danger” and the words: “Next Episode: The Dead Planet” appear on the screen were almost too painful to endure. Words like “legendary” and “iconic” don’t come near describing the status these stories had in the 1970s. We knew that The Dead Planet [*] was the first Dalek story. We knew the plot. We knew the story via the somewhat parodic but pretty good on its own terms movie version with Roy Castle. I eventually saw it at the British Film Institute in 1983. Jeremy Bentham interviewed Raymond Cusick before it started. The idea that I can now just push a button and make it come on my TV screen is at one level mind-blowing and at another level rather a let-down. Ordinary people who don’t love Doctor Who in the way that it ought to be loved can now watch the Dead Planet [*]. People who don’t have a history with it. People who didn’t send postal orders to Jeremy Bentham and wait for his loose leaf histories of very early Doctor Who, with script extracts and a line drawings, to come through the door in plain brown envelopes. People who didn’t read them and re-read them as if they were sacred texts. It’s like Douglas Adams said: actually seeing a quite good old TV show can’t possibly be as exciting as missing the greatest piece of drama in the history of the universe.

(I first saw An Unearthly Child [*] within months of first seeing Star Wars. That never occurred to me before.)

There is not much to say about these stories that hasn’t already been said. Everything is filmed in a studio, even the jungles and caves. Some of this is more obvious on a great big TV in 2020 than it would have been on a little small screen in 1963: but William Russell (Ian) had come straight to Doctor Who from Sir Lancelot which had National Trust castles and English forests and stunt men on horses. Doctor Who must have looked a little small scale even by the standards of the day. Some of the not-particularly-special effects probably did work better on an old 625 line TV. I don’t think it would have been as obvious then that the corridors in the Dalek city are elongated using painted backdrops as it is now,  or that they use cardboard cutouts to bulk out the number of Daleks in a couple of scenes. William Hartnell is a legitimate character actor and understands about close-up and gesture and delivering his lines to camera. Jaqueline Hill is a proper stage actor who delivers all her lines with the same conviction I am sure she brought to Ibsen a year or two earlier. Even when she obviously has no more idea what is going on than we do. William Russell acts his macho socks off hoping against hope that he will one day get his chance to be a square-jawed macho film-star. Carol Anne Ford plays Susan Foreman. There is no doubt that this is armchair theater rather than armchair cinema but this was an age when most towns still had repertory companies and most people were familiar with stage conventions. But occasionally, the medium of television is used to great effect. The gradual shift in point of view as Barbara gets lost in the deserted city and we realize that we are seeing her from the point of view of an unseen spy still packs a punch.

Of course I am biassed, in the sense that everyone is biassed. On the one hand we already know in advance what the thing with the sink plunger that threatens Barbara at the end of episode five is going to turn out to be; and the first time one of the robot things uses the word “exterminate” it has a resonance which it didn’t have at the time. Some of us are irrationally attached to old things, and original things, and black and white things, and some of us are irrationally attached to Doctor Who, so old, original, black and white Doctor Who pretty much sends us off at the deep end.

There are problems. The Dead Planet [*] is a very good five part story which runs to seven episodes. Terry Nation can’t resist sending half the heroes off on a trek through a monster-populated swamp, even though the theatrical effects can’t possibly run to monsters, or a swamp. (One of the spear carries says: “Since we are in the middle of a monster infested swamp, and since someone has already been menaced by stock footage of a giant squid, I think I will go down to the water, by myself, and lean right the way in order to refill our water flasks.” It does not end well.) The social attitudes are dated: Ian is perpetually volunteering to do the dangerous stuff because he is a Bloke. The Doctor shares the information that the TARDIS is going to blow up and kill everyone in five minutes with Ian, but he keeps it from the Girls. The Thals are pacifists, and everyone absolutely takes it for granted that they are Wrong. It is mistake to shift the point of view from the kidnapped school teachers to the cave men so early in Episode 2 of Unearthly Child [*]. And of course Edge of Destruction [*] makes no sense whatsoever. It makes no sense interestingly and even grippingly, but the last five minutes are so silly that they wipe out the rest of the story.

However, I think these stories work in a way that a lot of later Who fails to work. (By "later" I mean 1966, not 2016.) The later stories had a lot of things which these stories don’t have — any trace of a sense of humour, for example. But these have one thing which later stories don’t.

The best way I can put it would be this. A story can be a line, a sequence of events, one after another, driving you towards a conclusion. But a story can also be a circle, a space which you sit inside and move around within. Moby Dick is a line; Middlemarch is a circle. The Clangers is a circle; Dangermouse is a line. (There are long straight circles and curvy lines, of course and some people like both cats and dogs.) The first thirteen episodes of Doctor Who are circles. The planet Skaro and the Stone Age and the TARDIS are places we visit. There are groups of characters with relationships and rapport and a sense of community. You stay in each place long enough that you feel you have started to know your way round it: the cavemen’s; meeting cave; the Dalek’s control room; the cell where the Daleks imprison our heroes; the underground ledge which they spend and inordinate amount of time getting across. I have never really understood why the TARDIS thinks that the best way of informing the Doctor that one of his switches has jammed is to make Susan attack Barbara with a pair of scissors. But I never doubt that I am watching Susan attacking Barbara — not a couple of actresses going through the motions because the script tells them to. I have a sense of being on a strange time machine with a crazy old coot; and of being told by a rather strict chemistry teacher that I have to jump across a fifty foot ravine. The early Doctor Who was working very hard to pull viewers inside its self-supporting world on a weekly basis. It mostly seems to have succeeded. Movies say “look at the spectacle”. Theater says “come inside”.

[*] Before I had Jeremy Bentham’s Adventure in Space and Time I had the Radio Times 10th Anniversary Special and so far as I am concerned all Doctor Who stories take the titles of their first episodes and that’s just the way it is.


Mike Taylor said...

It's very interesting to read this perspective, especially in contrast with Gavin Burrows' very different takes. (I assume you have read/are reading these?)

Some day, I must actually watch these episodes.

Gavin Burrows said...

Not just the take, I think Andrew's whole approach is different to mine. He often seems to be asking just what it was got people so into this, why it wasn't just another TV show. What made the special? About fannishness (in the broad sense of regular viewers) without being fannish. I have literally no idea what I'd say if asked about that. I'd probably just send people here.

Andrew Rilstone said...

A long time ago I said that there were three ways of writing about Doctor Who. Or anything else. "What does Doctor Who mean to me?" "What does Doctor Who mean?" and "What is Doctor Who like?"

1: "I remember that November very well. My Mum was Catholic and still shocked about the news from Dallas. There was literally a Police Box on the corner of our street: I went to a school very like Susan's although my chemistry teacher, Mr Baxter, was nowhere near as nice as Ian...".

2: "Unearthly Child is about anxieties about the English education system and the invention of "the teenager"; it anticipates both Beatlemania and the Crossland Report. Ian and Barbara represent traditional educational authority, which is undermined by a teenager (with a transistor radio) who knows more than they do, and an old man (with an equally mysterious machine) who thinks on a different level..."

3: "Unearthly Child exemplifies what has been called "the magic of Doctor Who": it's all about selling you the fantasy of the TARDIS so that you will accept the Cave Men and the Daleks when they come along. It makes you wait an inordinately long time before introducing the title character; it is vital that we accept Ian and Barbara as real teachers and Susan as a real schoolgirl so that we can be surprised by the unreality of the TARDIS interior...."

Most of us move between the three different approaches, of course. But I tend more towards the third "talk about how the text works" and less towards the second "unpack some of the things the text is saying." I think I take this approach even when I'm trying to drill down in greater depth, as with the long Spider-Man series. It's even how I'm approaching the Bible: I'm more inclined to say "At this point in the story, Jesus says something baffling" than "Let's try to work out what this baffling thing might possibly mean."

Mike Taylor said...

This comment is itself a rather brilliant bit of analysis. I would of course happily read all three kinds of essays — and I very much like that you and Gavin relibably supply two of them.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Thanks. Of course I do the subjective stuff as well. The Ludicrous RPG Book is about 80 pages of What Dungeons and Dragons Means To Me.

Gavin Burrows said...

Ah, but I still contend you do a 4. You may need to go through 1 and 3 to reach 4, but it's not inherent in them. (If you see what I mean.) For too many people, text just means "script", they see it in a reductive way.

And to drag things down to one of my nerdish obsessions, the title character of 'Unearthly Child' is actually Susan. I will go on to explain why unless I receive payment in Bitcoin. Repeat, Bitcoin.

Gavin Burrows said...

Uh, "why this is important", should have been. You could perhaps guess literally why.

Mike Taylor said...

Is there anyone else the title could possibly refer to?

Gavin Burrows said...

Well the show's called 'Doctor Who' while as any flue kno there's no-one of that name in it. So naming the first episode after an actual character could be seen as an unusual step.

Mike Taylor said...

To be fair to the mostly rancid New New New Who, I do like the way it often titles episodes in ways that actively mislead the views. The Woman Who Fell to Earth, Demons of the Punjab, Fugitive of the Judoon, and most interestingly Can You Hear Me? all had titles that turned out to mean something different from what we assumed.

Gavin Burrows said...

Also that Chibnall classic 'This One's Worth Watching, Honest'.