Wednesday, 20 January 2010
"I’m sorry. It’s all my fault. I’m desperately sorry"
Review: AN UNEARTHLY CHILD
Written by Anthony Coburn, directed by Waris Hussein, 1963
An Unearthly Child is such a strange story to watch: we know how ‘important’ it is, as the first of a thirty-season-long saga – but at the same time, it appears to have very little to do with the series at large. The pattern of pulpy thrills, alien planets and BEMs was established in The Daleks, while many of the key trappings of this story were quickly jettisoned: its brutality, its conviction and depth of characterisation. This, though, is hardly surprising – Doctor Who could never have survived being continually pitched at this exhausting level.
I don’t feel An Unearthly Child itself needs defending; unfortunately, the following three 100,000 BC episodes do. I was aware this time round how unpleasant and, in fact, difficult they are to watch – though not in the way many people seem to think (ie, ‘It’s slow and the cavemen are grating’); rather, because of its punishing tone. It’s hard to believe this was the pilot of a kids’/family show. There is an almost post-apocalyptic sense of desolation, while Barbara’s reaction to this incomprehensible turn of her life is the closest we’re ever likely to get to a truly realistic reaction to the fantasy of Doctor Who. The unreasoning terror of her freakout in the forest is quite astonishing – the anguish and incomprehension packed into the line, “What’s happening to us?!” is a far cry from Rose or Martha’s more recent, pop-culturally aware introductions to the Doctor’s world.
I have a particular respect for these pre-historic episodes. Cavemen would not be an obvious choice for any story today, let alone a season opener; just look at the pains the Russell T Davies series went to be crowd-pleasing with flashy broad strokes. While a series this long-running cannot be expected to remain static in its tone, I can’t help but feel that in putting spectacle and cheap thrills over an approach this persuasive, something has gone wrong. Because this story, which should seem so absurd (1960s schoolteachers meet primitive cavemen! That doesn’t sound like a winner, does it?), is an amazing, taut piece of drama.
The Forest of Fear is particularly tense, gruelling, and harrowing; the bickering and the Doctor’s cynicism is so much more realistic and – I would argue – compelling than the pulling-together blitz spirit of the new series. By contrast, this is a story of arbitrary violence – even including the cold-blooded murder of an old woman. The world of 100,000 BC is a cold, distrustful place. Even the off-screen animal attack on Za is unpleasant, simply through atmosphere and the actors’ reactions.
It isn’t easy viewing – whereas Rose, by comparison (the Unearthly Child of the new series), bends over backwards to be ‘accessible’. This story certainly wouldn’t go down so well with a primetime audience today, and that is a crying shame – that no-one has the conviction to do something as simple but solidly made as this.
This simplicity allows the story to function as what it was: the series’ introductory story – and it’s more than ably supported by the spare but effective music, and beautifully effective, almost stylised sets. Though clearly very much of their time – not a problem, in my eyes – details as simple as the realistically grassy, uneven ground in the forest keep it convincing.
Fandom’s seemingly ingrained sixties-bashing – or, rather, -apathy – ticks me off because the earliest stories, most completely represented by this story, are arguably so much better than practically everything else that was to follow. For forty years. That’s pretty impressive.
I’m not saying An Unearthly Child is the best-ever example of Doctor Who, but it’s certainly one of the best pieces of television to come out of the run. In fact, I would contend that almost no Doctor Who story works as well as TV (regardless of its merits as Doctor Who). Which is something of a cliché when it comes to this story (though one mainly applied to the first episode alone) – but the whole four episodes are almost incomparably better television than the vast majority of the subsequent run. (It’s easiest to back this up with exceptions to the rule: the best historicals, maybe Talons, are also great TV, Doctor Who or no – in the sense that I think Lawrence Miles has said The Deadly Assassin is great Doctor Who but crap TV, and vice versa for Revelation of the Daleks.)
This very first story managed to succeed in all the ways the majority of later Doctor Who stories – by comparison – fail, because there was no pressure to live up to what had gone before. (Although it helps that it’s rather gloriously directed; often in Doctor Who the director appears entirely AWOL. I love the surprisingly frenetic bits like the fight in the cave and the final chase through the forest.) There are no real gimmicks (besides the TARDIS, which is more of a plot device anyway, or the Doctor’s Edwardian costume, which is about as nondescript as an Edwardian costume could be), because the series didn’t need to outdo the previous five, ten, or twenty years… So there’s no need for sonic screwdrivers, UNIT, or excess continuity. (Not that I’m saying continuity is always bad – with the wealth of past that Doctor Who has, it’d be stupid to ignore it; it’s just that drawing on it does change the shape of the series.)
So, this story, above all others, managed – and continues to manage, on rewatching – to remain pure and to the point, and not pulled out of shape by the history preceding it, or a wish to outdo the past. There’s nothing campy or postmodern or self-indulgent here, and it’s all the better for that.
Everything in this story shines because of that; the Doctor is an enigma – end of. Ian and Barbara are normal, real people – not pyromaniacal teenagers or knife-wielding savages, or even investigative journalists. The TARDIS is just ‘a ship’ – no artron energy or cloisters, or even a wardrobe room. Going back to the very beginning is so refreshing: it is Doctor Who stripped back in a way that would be impossible now, even if you wanted it to be. Even a brand-new franchise which hit the reset button couldn’t avoid working in the shadow of forty years of television stories, books, continuity, and fandom. Doctor Who at its most basic, and effective, is, I think, really something to cherish.