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21 June 2015 @ 08:31 pm
The Randomiser: An Unearthly Child  
We'd watched the first episode of An Unearthly Child a couple of times during the 50th Anniversary so we decided to start with The Cave of Skulls, this being the second episode of the very first story. One could argue, in fact, that the first episode basically stands alone as a one episode introduction to the concept of Doctor Who while the next three then form their own self-contained story. You certainly don't lose out on much plot-wise by omitting the first episode although it is probably the most interesting of the four.

Episode 1, introduces the key concepts of Doctor Who, episodes two to four focus on a bunch of cavemen and their search for fire. The logic of going back to the stone age for the first story in a series about time travel is fairly obvious, however the story we get isn't the most riveting one you could hope for. It is terribly theatrical. "They're very articulate, these cavemen," tame layman observed as Za (the old chief's son) and Kal (the outsider) declaim about the opposing virtues that are needed in a tribal chieftain. The characters could almost be out of Shakespeare (though sadly the dialogue could not) - we have the "rightful king" in Za, (almost) fatally obsessed by his search for the one symbol that would cement his control (the ability to make fire), the pretender in Kal, the female power behind the throne (Hur) and the foolish older generation (Horg - who represents, broadly speaking, the opinion of the tribe as it vacillates between Kal and Za - and Old Mother with her superstitious fear of fire). The story is basically one about a power struggle and is ultimately on the side of rule by right of inheritance. While the Tardis crew (and their ability to make fire) are tightly caught up in this, they are not the drivers of the action so much as helpless catalysts that set the final power struggle in motion. One feels that, at some point, the story had grandiose ambitions but it is undermined by the inherent bathos of a bunch of 1960s television extras pretending to be cavemen, not to mention that all the high concept speeches of the main cast are interspersed by a fair amount of grunting (presumably to indicate the primitive nature of the participants).

It is also nothing like Doctor Who as we now know it, or even as it was to become just a short while later. It feels like it belongs to another age, when theatrical style still had a firm grip on the television vocabulary and where action is very much subsumed to words (even in a story such as this with its knife fights and forest chases). Possibly its strange awkwardness derives precisely from the fact that Doctor Who did not yet know what kind of a thing it was. These three episodes of An Unearthly Child hover awkwardly between the childish and the adult, the theatrical and the televisual, and the Tardis team as onlookers and the Tardis team as protagonists. It's interesting from a historical perspective but, at the end of the day, has comparatively little to recommend it, in its own right.

metanews coding: <a href=http://louisedennis.livejournal.com/300243.html?format=light>The Randomiser:An Unearthly Child</a> (LJ) <i>Discussion of the first ever Doctor Who story</i>.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/161071.html.
daniel_saunders: Leekleydaniel_saunders on June 22nd, 2015 08:12 pm (UTC)
I disagree about treating the first episode as stand-alone: the story is very much about Ian and Barbara and the Doctor and Susan learning to trust each other, with themes of leadership rivalry between Doctor and Ian paralleled by that between Kal and Za. I do quite like the story overall, but you are right that it does seem terribly dated.
daniel_saunders: Leekleydaniel_saunders on June 22nd, 2015 10:06 pm (UTC)
Also: stupid of me to forget: the first episode has the Doctor compare (in a very un-PC way) Ian and Barbara to the "Red Indian" who saw his first steam engine and Ian gets annoyed at the Doctor's patronising attitude, but when he meets the cavemen he and Barbara realise (we assume) that the gap between them and him is similar to that between them and the Doctor and Susan.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on June 23rd, 2015 10:21 am (UTC)
I think the links between episode 1 and eps 2-4 are quite weak, to be honest. In modern terms each would be a separate episode with the character development mapped on a series level. I certainly don't think you lose a lot watching the one without the other.