Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Celebrating 48 Years Of Stockholm Syndrome

Doctor Who
An Unearthly Child
Season One, Story One

Strange white shapes swirl in the blackness.  A mesmerising tune throbs and wails.  The strangeness gives way to a junkyard shrouded in fog and darkness: a police box, more like an obelisk, stands among the detritus, a strange hum emanating from within.  The first ever episode of Doctor Who begins.

What more can you say?  The opening gambit of schoolteachers Ian and Barbara following the mysterious Susan home from school, only to find a police box guarded by a deceitful old man, is strange and thrilling.  Ditto what they find within: the TARDIS, a glittering spaceship that’s a lot bigger on the inside.  And just when you think it can’t get any more amazing, the old man refuses to let them go, flicks a switch and sends them hurtling aimlessly through time and space.  If you think the post-2005 Doctor is starved for company, get a load of this guy: he takes hostages.

Mine now.
William Hartnell is mesmerising as the Doctor.  He’s unquestionably the leader, but it’s still up to William Russell’s humanely strong Ian to fight the battles, and earn the audience’s sympathy.  The Doctor, on the other hand, is a lying, selfish, callous individual, quite happy to offer cavemen the secret of fire if it means his own survival and willing to cave in a man’s skull just to speed up his escape.

He’s a far cry from the lovely wizard with a magic wand we’re more used to nowadays.

I agree that the original Doctor is a far cry from his modern counterpart, but I don’t think it’s because he’s a lovely wizard now.  He might run around yelling a lot more, but he’s still lying, selfish and callous.  I think the difference is that these days he stands on a chair and yells at the top of his voice ‘LOOK AT ME, I’M LYING’ and we’re meant to think that’s impressive and acceptable, whereas back here, it’s not acceptable and that’s why it’s good.

But the modern Doctor would never kill a man purely to speed up his escape.  This Doctor just doesn’t care about human life.

When the 10th Doctor euthanizes that Cyberwoman, he doesn’t get her permission or try to help her, he just decides she’d be better off dead and kills her.  Where’s the companion to step in the way and say, ‘no, that’s not acceptable’?

That’s all incorporated in the Doctor now.  He’s happy, sad, compassionate, angry, fire, ice, salt and vinegar, puppy dogs’ tails…  William Hartnell was part of an ensemble, with each character offering a different thing, but now the Doctor does it all himself, with a bit of optional eye candy to pass him his test tubes and twist her ankle.  Or, these days, shout at people and fancy him a bit.

That was a rhetorical question.

We never quite know what to make of the Doctor, which makes each adventure – leaping from one place to another with no hope of a set destination – more thrilling.  We miss all that unpredictability these days, the unreliable TARDIS and the danger of coming aboard, possibly never to see your home again.

There’s a heck of a lot to love, and this is only the first adventure.  But, well, yeah… it’s not perfect.  Don’t get us wrong: the premise and the first episode certainly are, and there are marvellous moments later on, like the Doctor contemplating murder and Ian putting a stop to it, cementing (in one brilliantly clipped exchange) one of the reasons the Doctor needs companions.  But as time-travel adventures go, a run-in with cavemen isn’t the best they could have come up with.  It’s only four (twenty-minute) episodes, and it feels pretty long at that.

"Fire good."
"Second.  Me table motion?"
It’s not that the cavemen aren’t interesting; if you’re going to set up time travel then this is the starkest contrast you can make to the present day, and it’s a clever background to form our main characters against – showing that compassion and humanity are more important than power and self preservation.  (What’s that, is the Doctor learning from his companions already?)  The power struggle between Za and Kal mirrors the uneasiness between the Doctor and Ian, and very well at that.

It’s an unexpected move opening Episode Two with the grunting beardies rather than the four travellers.  Then there’s a couple of shocking murders later on, one idly observed by our four heroes, and a perilous trek through the jungle.  If the whole thing was a bit shorter, it’d be positively action-packed.  But it’s mostly talking.  Episode Two is practically a non-event, consisting almost entirely of ‘fire’ this, ‘leader’ that and other tedious caveman back-and-forth, rather than some character development for the Doctor and co.  We said it was unexpected; that doesn’t mean it’s good.

Episode Three is the first in a long line of ‘escaping-only-to-be-recaptured’, although they do stop to save a life and do interesting character stuff, so it’s excusable.  But what a shame that after all the talk of saving his life, all Ian needs is a wet hanky and Za magically gets better one scene later.  Way to completely undermine the crux of an episode.

Still, despite the occasional lack of pace, the caveman debating society and the embarrassingly wobbly camera, this story has drama, fear and thrills in an intensity that’s both shocking and satisfying.  By the end, there’s a shared sense of curiosity and excitement among the travellers, all trapped in the same predicament (regardless of who kidnapped whom), far from home in a spaceship that doesn’t work properly.  There’s an intricate and important balance between the four.  It’s a wonderful dynamic, and we’re looking forward to exploring it.


  1. I wish Doctor Who was still black-and-white. Adds a frisson of... Damn. Why did I have to use that word? Now I've ruined everything!

  2. New Who certainly lacks the drama and fear of the original series. It's all showy effects and shouting now. There's no intensity to it. It's just dumb.