Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Doctor Who 52: 02 – Ten Reasons to Watch An Unearthly Child (SE)
Introducing Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child…
The first ever Doctor Who story begins with ordinary people who follow someone extraordinary to a blue box that’s bigger on the inside than the outside and travels in time and space.
The best idea in the world hits the ground running: William Hartnell’s fantastic Doctor; a mysterious girl who’s both genius and hopeless, living in a junkyard; mind-expanding maelstroms of light and noise; prehistoric power struggles; throwing people into another time, throwing violence, dirt, role-reversals and every emotional and physical trial at them. Their world, and ours, will never be the same again.
I restarted these posts again last Wednesday with the first Doctor Who I ever saw – celebrating the series’ fifty-third anniversary. Now it’s time to go back to the very beginning. Again. Which I can pretend is completely appropriate, because the very first episode, An Unearthly Child, was repeated a week later, immediately before The Cave of Skulls, the second episode of this story, was first broadcast. It’s almost as if I planned a repost – I mean, a ‘Special Edition’ – on its own fifty-third anniversary. So this is another post that I wrote originally last year with the idea of fifty-two-weeks’-worth of idiosyncratically selected Doctor Who. I hope it’ll still go on to be an exciting variety but, again, with my timing as reliable as the TARDIS, the next one may turn up later or sooner or just vanish completely. I’m having fun so far, though.
This is the point where I’d usually say to press “Play All” on the DVD. Just this once it’s more complicated than that. If you’ve bought An Unearthly Child as a DVD on its own or as a download, that probably works. If you have it – as I do, and probably the best value, as the other discs are excellent too – in the Doctor Who DVD box set The Beginning, then it’ll make things much simpler and much more watchable, although it seems weird, if you press “Play All” but then skip forward seven chapters. I’ll explain later.
Ten Reasons To Watch An Unearthly Child (warning: spoilers lower down the list)
1 – The Beginning.
From the first second, everything says ‘This is a television programme like no other.’ On Saturday 23rd November 1963 Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire’s incredible music and Barnard Lodge’s swirling howlround titles first grabbed people like nothing on Earth. The direction’s terrific, the lines memorable and the actors superb, and by the end of just the first episode you’ve been plunged from an ordinary school into the astonishing futurism of the TARDIS and then an eerie prehistoric wasteland. It’s inspired, but it delivers on all of that inspiration. This may just be the most brilliant piece of television ever… And there are still three episodes to go of this story alone, or, if you take a longer view, at minimum at least another eight hundred and twenty-seven more to follow. And counting.
2 – The Doctor.
“If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds – and watch them wheel, in another sky – would that satisfy you?”I first saw An Unearthly Child when it was repeated in 1981. Tom Baker had just stopped being the Doctor; I knew there were others, I’d even thrilled to many of their adventures on the page, but I’d not seen any of them. This wasn’t just spellbinding, but startling. The Doctor here is so different from the Fourth Doctor even at his most alien – he’s so different, I know now, even from how William Hartnell’s character will become as he shows different facets from the brilliantly sparkling git in his introduction. This story introduces the central mystery and the TARDIS perfectly, but is it the right place to start with the Doctor? Well, of course. What other story can be more exciting to discover for the first time? And where else can you see the Doctor discovering humans are people for the first time and starting to become the character we know? He’s as ruthless and hostile-seeming here as you’ll ever see him, but by the second episode, he’s already saving the companions he’s previously chewed out and kidnapped, then starting to cheer them up, then before the story’s out making his first of many moral judgements. Though his instinct is first to explore then, when that lands him in tricky situations, to escape, he’s already starting to flex his brain to achieve more than that.
For me, William Hartnell’s performance here is one of the greatest of any Doctor in any story. He’s at first calculating and almost sinister – because he’s under threat. He becomes a lot more fun once the worst has happened and humans have forced their way into his TARDIS, seeing them much as he’ll call them “stupid apes” many years later. He might start off making life difficult for two nice teachers, but then he’s unexpectedly kind, then spoils it by hardly being able to keep his face straight (there’s an absolutely gorgeous touch at one point where he keeps having to turn away from Ian, smiling as if looking directly at him would crack him up). His unpredictability feels like a person, and a fascinating, charismatic one, even as you think ‘He can’t say that!’ He’s fiercely intelligent and utterly irreverent. He shows off outrageously. He has enormous authority but is anti-establishment to his core, and childishly sulks or shouts when he doesn’t get his own way. And he gets your heart in your mouth when he suddenly shows the ache of tragedy. Too many ‘wise old men’ characters are dull or paternal, but this one starts as an explorer who asks all the difficult questions, and it seems a natural progression from that to discovering the sheer fun of toppling empires – helped enormously by William Hartnell, who’d done the authoritarian roles and wanted something different. The Doctor is as different as you get.
3 – Susan.
“Of course, the decimal system hasn’t started yet.”The Doctor’s granddaughter is the start of it all: wanting to live like human people, she’s the brightest, strangest teenager at school. She’s an utter genius but makes incredible mistakes – in a brilliant gamble by the writers, she assumes Britain’s using its decimal currency nearly a decade before the actual switch, and there’s a great evocation of an alien way of thinking when she can’t solve a problem without adding other dimensions. Carole Ann Ford is convincingly alien even after being ordered to tone it down, treating teachers absently like just slightly dim people to patronise and then utterly confident when at home in a space-time Ship. In her very first scene, a teacher shows off with his pop knowledge, but only to highlight that Susan’s in a world of her own, grooving along to an aristocrat who’s masquerading as an ordinary person…
I knew Susan, Ian and Barbara first from outstanding novelisations of stories from long before I was born and that I never thought I’d see. For some reason, as a boy the TARDIS teams that felt most right to me from the books were three different groups of several different people around the Doctor. I wrote about Polly, Ben and Jamie a few days ago, and here’s another – the original crew. Each of the companions that really stuck with me are a mix of men and women, but especially each with one woman who shows she’s got a brain and some gumption, who can stand up to the Doctor. That really should have been Susan, but she doesn’t always make it. Fortunately, another woman decides to intervene…
4 – Ian and Barbara.
Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright are the most utterly reassuring people in this: 1960s schoolteachers who clearly know what they’re doing and are just the people to find out what’s strange about their pupil Susan. But, marvellously, though they always remain reassuring and endearing, they’re at the centre of everything about the way this show turns things upside-down.
Ian is a handsome authority figure and so obviously going to be the lead in any programme made in 1963, with actor William Russell a star who’d had his own series as Sir Lancelot, and who’s engaging from the word go. So it’s a treat that it’s Barbara who’s done all the investigating and only wants him to back her up – and that, after Ian’s sure there’s a perfectly normal explanation, he’s the first one to nearly have a nervous breakdown when the explanation’s nothing of the kind. He reaches one of the lowest of all companion low points on disembarking from the TARDIS for the first time, utterly bewildered by the Doctor’s prophetic poetry coming true around him, touching the cold sand, hearing the mocking cries of strange birds, then clapping his hand to his head for all the world as if one of them’s just capped his terrible day by dropping something on it.
Jaqueline Hill is fabulous, and Barbara starts by confronting point-blank the stereotyped ‘hysterical fantasist woman’ dismissal which Ian and the 1963 audience might be tempted to put on what she says, and is proved right. Then they take it in turns throughout to be the sensible one who’s coping or the one who’s losing it, just as they take it in turns to be helpfully the science teacher and the history teacher who can help us make some sense of the science-fictional or historical settings in which they’re going to find themselves. They make a wonderful couple.
5 – The making of Doctor Who.
Doctor Who was created by a remarkable group of people for the BBC in 1963 – the BBC’s iconoclastic Canadian drama supremo Sydney Newman didn’t just want a programme that would be unlike anything else in the establishment Corporation, but people that would shake it up. He made Verity Lambert the BBC’s youngest and only female drama Producer. The first director she chose was a young, gay Anglo-Indian, Waris Hussein. To the rest of the BBC, they were in the wrong place, at the wrong time – naturally, they became television legends. For some reason much of the BBC establishment fought them tooth and nail, but even given the smallest, oldest and grottiest of studios they still made Doctor Who incredible.
6 – Into the TARDIS.
“Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? Have you? To be exiles…?”The first mystery the show ever presents us with is a mysteriously humming police box in a junkyard, and it’s the mystery to which Susan’s mystery leads the two schoolteachers. From the moment Barbara and Ian plunge into the TARDIS, everything is astonishing. The dazzling scene that forms the second half of the first episode is just about the best the series ever has. All the mysteries we’ve encountered so far erupt into this one impossible place, abruptly, the biggest idea ever, in the smallest box, the world changing and the Doctor and Susan suddenly in their natural element. The TARDIS control room still looks extraordinary, but it’s the dialogue that’s really compelling. William Hartnell is absolutely commanding here, taking the script and flying with it from irritated to endearingly distracted, kindly to mischievously entertained, vulnerable to ruthlessly determined. And in a brilliant piece of mutual reinforcement, exactly at the point that the Doctor explains the TARDIS with reference to television, the television camera is telling us that he’s the lead character by pointing directly at him, the others backgrounded. Ian the handsome young lead character the viewers expected is left floundering – it’s not his show after all. And the Doctor’s judgement that humans would only fight over himself and his ideas if given the chance is proved right over the following episodes…
7 – Inspired games with role-reversals.
Doctor Who was designed as a drama aimed at children watching with their families, not just to talk down to them as a ‘kids’ show’. So in the very first episode we get the perfect deployment of the show’s anti-establishment ethos to get the kids on its side: show up the teachers. Susan goes from verbally patting “Mr Chesterton” for knowing something unexpected to exasperation with him being much stupider than she’d expected. It’s far more effective than making the teachers cartoon idiots or having child leads, especially when the Doctor joins in – an authoritative old man who acts like a mischievous child, but also talks down to authority figures who don’t like their own medicine at all, while children across the land must have enjoyed it immensely.
But it’s not just getting the audience on side. The role-reversals are crucial to the story and the developing relationships between our four main characters. The Doctor chooses a simile about television to explain the Ship’s dimensions, kindly thinking of a way within the teacher’s limited grasp to explain something incredibly simple that’s quite beyond his tiny mind, as Ian might to a child – made all the more delicious when Ian still can’t see and the Doctor can’t help but laugh. It’s a satirical pre-echo of the ‘primitives’ part of the story: the Doctor’s among primitives already. On moving from modern London to prehistoric cavepeople, the Doctor first regarding Ian and Barbara as savages prevents the audience from feeling too smug about the Tribe, but it also means he’s rapidly shoved together with the teachers so he can start thinking of them as semi-civilised. If they’d landed among the Daleks and Thals first, he’d probably have dumped the teachers, or at least spo-ken ve-ry slow-ly and clear-ly to them and apologised for bringing a pair of savages to meet futuristic peoples: ‘I’m sorry, you’ll have to excuse them, they’re from the Twentieth Century.’ Just as Ian becomes less narrow-minded and insular with the Doctor’s influence, the teachers’ presence gives the Doctor the opportunity to start learning from them more subtly, starting here. The Doctor’s moral sense, appropriately, is more a flickering ember and a wisp of smoke here than a beacon in the dark yet – but even in Twenty-first Century stories, he still has a ruthless streak without human friends to talk him out of it.
8 – Old Mother.
This is a grim tale, with its sweaty, dirty, horror brought home to us perhaps more than any other Doctor Who story by the raw emotion of our heroes. There’s not much humour after the hilarious put-downs of the teachers. But if you’re in the right mood for it, there’s an undercurrent in the horrible life of the Tribe that makes me laugh. On the surface, the story is a battle for supremacy between two alpha males, Za versus interloper Kal. But it isn’t just Kal who jeers at Za for not being the man his father was. The Tribe’s older generation are still around to threaten him with several varieties of conservative prejudice, and the worst of the lot is the Tribe’s Queen Mum, known as Old Mother or just “the old woman” (played superbly by Eileen Way). She hates fire and thinks it a waste of time, but still laughs at his impotent attempts to light up. It’s very hard not to see some sort of metaphor in Za rubbing his bone while his Old Mother gives a spiteful commentary on how unimpressive his manhood is. Za’s “woman” Hur – no, it’s not an especially feminist Tribe in naming its women – has problems with her father too, at one point shouting “You should lie on the old stone ’til your blood runs into the earth!” when he grumbles too much. It’s all deadly serious, but also very funny intergenerational conflict.
9 – The Doctor invents courtroom drama and Columbo.
“This knife has no blood on it.”By the start of part four, Za’s cleverer but nastier rival Kal has murdered Old Mother and pinned the blame on Za and our heroes. Things look bleak. Kal’s great strength has been as a demagogue, yet as he waves Za’s stone knife before the Tribe, weaving his story before them, the apparently frail old Doctor shows he can not only defeat a physically much stronger opponent with superior brainpower, but beat him at his own simple declamatory style and even muster the physical force to drive him out. It starts with the Doctor’s simple observation that Za’s knife has no blood on it, and from that point Kal unravels: he calls it a bad knife for not showing what it has done; the Doctor needles his vanity, saying it’s much better than his; Kal falls for it, proudly pulling out his bloody weapon; and the Doctor parades it around the Tribe like a prize lawyer. Rousing the whole Tribe against the strong fighter, he throws a stone at him and gets everyone else to do the same, forcing the murderer to retreat under a barrage of rocks.
It’s a terrific scene. William Hartnell is outstanding, slipping effortlessly between quiet, naturalistic instructions and a theatrical display of Stone Age rubble-rousing, but it’s a brilliant idea, too: years before Columbo ever aired, Doctor Who invents the format. The TV audience has already seen the murderer, and the Doctor exposes him through a combination of psychology, demagoguery and forensic evidence. And while he’s settling the rivalry between Kal and Za, at the same time he’s settling with argumentative teacher Ian just exactly who is the leader of the TARDIS crew, and the star of the show (fifty-three years later, he still is). Just as with the Twentieth-Century humans, the Doctor can speak their language and then get into their mindset and manipulate it, which makes you wonder just how much he’s talking down to our level, too.
10 – An optimistic and wonderful show that’s “steeped in death” (as Russell T Davies put it many years later).
“Well, fear makes companions of all of us, Miss Wright.”Mass death prompts the Doctor to make his first moral judgment; being forced together in the same setting starts our heroes bonding. The Tribe’s struggle for power is fed by the fear they all have of death, from the cold, from the tiger, from each other. And Waris Hussein’s brilliant direction uses images of death as a motif throughout. Skulls keep recurring in close-up, from the smashed dummy in the junkyard, to an attack on the Doctor cross-cut with an animal skull and smashed equipment to suggest the violence it doesn’t quite show, through the Cave of Skulls and several dead beasts, to the climax when it all comes to a head. Are we meant to associate them with palaeontological discoveries of early human skulls and therefore the deep past, or the Tribe’s animalistic nature, or simply the visceral closeness to death in a constantly dangerous environment?
Though Doctor Who doesn’t have its first really full-fledged ‘undead’ story until William Hartnell’s final adventure, most of his first season has some hint of it, and how is the very first story resolved? By using a combination of the idea of the undead and special effects to frighten the people watching, which is what the series will be doing for ever after (and, with the Tribe obsessed throughout with fire and using skulls to terrify our heroes, it’s the perfect con to employ at the climax).
And then our heroes start running.
What Else Should I Tell You About An Unearthly Child?
Seriously, on just this one DVD – at least the one in The Beginning – press “Play All” and then immediately skip the first seven chapters.
“It’s true! Every word of it’s true!”Here’s why. The BBC had more than one go at making the very first Doctor Who episode. Sydney Newman, the BBC Head of Drama who more than anyone else had driven through the initial idea of the show, didn’t like the first version they shot – mainly because of technical problems and the Doctor being too harsh. For the second go a few weeks later, there were minor changes to the script, significant changes to the way the Doctor’s played and Susan became much less ‘unearthly’. That was the version that was transmitted, led into the following three episodes and the following fifty-three-and-more years, and it’s the version I’ve given reasons to watch above. The first attempt was retrospectively called the “Pilot” episode, and miraculously still exists, in multiple pieces (they had another go on the spot to fix some of the technical faults, which means there are actually three versions of some of the first ever episode). It’s fascinating, and I love it. But I love the final version more, despite preferring Susan weirder, some brilliant alternative lines and getting to see what the Doctor’s like when he’s really alienating and without a sense of humour. It’s great, but the ‘proper’ version is better – not least because it doesn’t seem like our four leads are going to kill each other within a fortnight.
The trouble is, if you just press “Play All” you get a version of the Pilot episode, An Unearthly Child. Then the first episode, An Unearthly Child, which is a different version of the same thing. Then the next three episodes, which finally get on with more of the story. So while I often go back and watch the Pilot version as interesting in its own right, it’s a confusing place to start. If you skip the first seven chapters on the DVD you’ll start where the producers intended you to, it’ll make a lot more sense, and you’ll get the best version first. As you play on through the rest of the story, I suppose I should point out that some people think the second, third and fourth episodes are a different story, or not as good, or even disposable. They’re wrong. See above.
“Footsteps in a time in which they should not have walked.”Sometimes this whole story is given a different title – usually “100,000BC” or “The Tribe of Gum”. Back in 1963, just as with Doctor Who today, multi-part television stories weren’t given overall titles, just titles for each of their individual episodes. This year’s been an exception to a post-2005 run of mostly one-episode stories, but when the series started almost every story had several episodes. It’s one thing to list a story as, say, “The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar”, but calling the very first one “An Unearthly Child / The Cave of Skulls / The Forest of Fear / The Firemaker” is cumbersome and, by the time you reach 1965 and start on a story that’s twelve episodes long, all gets a bit silly. After 1966 until 1989 they just gave every story one title, no matter how many parts it was in, but for those early stories people like to disagree. Some adventures had what might have been an internal BBC title or maybe just a description to file all the episodes together, but though those are occasionally used by pedants, the only titles the public saw on TV or in the Radio Times were for the episodes. So call this one “100,000BC” if you like, although there’s no evidence that’s when it’s set, or “The Tribe of Gum”, although none of the Tribe call themselves that. This first story is titled An Unearthly Child on the DVD. The novelisation’s called An Unearthly Child too. And it starts by getting us curious about an unearthly child. It’s “An Unearthly Child” for me.
Eternal thanks to many people at the very beginning, particularly BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman, Script Department head Donald Wilson, script editor David Whitaker, scriptwriters Anthony Coburn and before him C. E. Webber, director Waris Hussein, soundscapers Delia Derbyshire, Dick Mills and Brian Hodgson, legendary producer Verity Lambert, and, of course, William Hartnell. The Doctor.
And, if you need one, my score:
I’d give 10/10 to the proper transmitted version of An Unearthly Child, the first and possibly even best episode of Doctor Who – or of television itself. And I’d give 9/10 to the next three episodes. So I considered giving the whole story 9 ½. But I’ve decided half-marks are weaselly, so I won’t be awarding any. That means this and a handful of other stories coming up in the 52 that might be 9 ½ in my head will be rounded up to:
If You Like An Unearthly Child, Why Not Try…
The Pilot version of An Unearthly Child, obviously, which is weird and jarring but also brilliant. Every other Doctor Who story featuring William Hartnell makes him kindlier and funnier – which was what the actor wanted anyway. So you might instead pick a story from Doctor Who’s second season, where the Doctor’s personality is more fully formed.
Deep Breath is for now the most recent of all the many new beginnings for Doctor Who, 2014’s introduction to the current Doctor. It’s a very different adventure, but like William Hartnell, Peter Capaldi plays a Doctor in a much older body, one who’s abrasive and alienating at times, or funny, or brilliant, and I love them both. Surrounding a new Doctor with familiar friends from the previous Doctor to help him and us adjust to his new self has a touch of Robot, too. I could also point out that it’s in London but has characters from prehistoric times, and that the Doctor’s companion is a teacher at the same Coal Hill School where Ian and Barbara taught and Susan mystified, but – despite that – Deep Breath really isn’t very like An Unearthly Child at all. Still marvellous, though.
The beginning… What, another one? Fantastic!
Sunday, November 27, 2016
Five Reasons to Read Doctor Who and the Cybermen – Doctor Who 52 Extra: A (SE)
Introducing Doctor Who and the Cybermen…
After some of my reasons to love the first Doctor Who I ever saw, what could follow but the first book I ever read? Gerry Davis novelises Patrick Troughton’s fight with Cybermen on the Moon – or, as the back cover puts it with charmingly oblivious self-deprecation,
“Can the Doctor defeat an enemy whose threat is almost as great as that of the mighty Daleks?”Can I find five reasons you should read ‘Invasion of the Also-Rans’? It’s time to sit down, mix yourself a celebratory Cocktail Polly, and curl up with a book.
This is another Special Edition post, complete with a new photo from this very June (or from 1975, depending on where you stand). About this time last year I had the brilliant idea of choosing an exciting variety of Doctor Who stories in an idiosyncratic order to run through the year, one every week, inspired by the fifty-second anniversary – and, just to make it still more unlikely, I planned an erratic series of sidesteps away from television Doctor Who. This was originally one of the pieces I managed to write before hitting the horror that is 2016. I’m not promising to get through the whole list this time, but at least I’ve made it to the second one…
Five Reasons To Read – or Listen To – Doctor Who and the Cybermen (warning: spoilers lower down the list)
1 – Prologue: The Creation of the Cybermen
“Centuries ago by our Earth time, a race of men on the far-distant planet of Telos sought immortality. They perfected the art of cybernetics—the reproduction of machine functions in human beings. As bodies became old and diseased, they were replaced limb by limb, with plastic and steel.When this story was shown on TV in 1967, it was called The Moonbase. When Target Books published it in 1975 as one of their first Doctor Who novelisations, they gave it a more sales-friendly title but picked a 1967 hand to write the rest of it in his functional but endearing prose. Author Gerry Davis had been Doctor Who script editor for the TV version of this story, and though it’s credited to Kit Pedler, Gerry Davis worked with him as co-author and as co-creator of the Cybermen. So before the Cybermen enter the text as stealthy presences, then unleashing terrible Cyber-chops or gruesomely electrocuting Cyber-weapons, Mr Davis makes an appropriate start here with a two-page Cyber-mission statement (just as his TV script gave the Second Doctor his own manifesto about terrible things which must be fought). It’s later borrowed to introduce two more Cybermen novelisations, adding to its legendary quality. For all its hyperbole and even inaccuracy, there’s still something terribly thrilling about it, and you imagine Mr Davis was only disappointed that it wasn’t read in portentous tones as it scrolled down a screen full of flaming space battles and legions of Cybermen marching across the stars with the strength of ten men! The Twelfth Doctor sniffing last year that nobody adds the prefix “Space”? If you want someone who does, Gerry Davis is your man. He gives you Earth-things. He gives you Space-things. And most of all, he gives you TERRIBLE CYBER-THINGS.
“Finally, even the human circulation and nervous system were recreated, and brains replaced by computers. The first Cybermen were born.”
Many of the more marvellous Target Books add much more to the stories that were seen on TV. Gerry Davis doesn’t add much, but he adds this. It’s enough.
2 – Anneke Wills reading the Audiobook.
Anneke Wills was marvellous as the Doctor’s companion Polly in 1967, and she’s just as marvellous reading the 2009 audiobook. She has a great storyteller’s voice: slightly deep, intimate and reassuring, with a compelling array of characters (though her accents are variable). Her Polly is of course perfect, and her rather breathy Doctor is especially compelling in his determination towards the climax. Interestingly, she uses higher registers for the Doctor’s other companions, the cute young men Jamie and Ben (hearing the line “they were able to follow Ben’s keen gaze” read aloud, I thought, ‘Yes, I know quite a few of those’). She breathes new life into the book with one of the best of the readings. There’s just one slightly flubbed line which tickles me, when she invents a rather unusual colour as a side-effect of a word being split across two lines in the original printing as Moonbase ‘night’ falls and we hear about “red-
Half-way through the audiobook Ms Wills is joined by Nick Briggs as the voices of the Cybermen. He’s known for a great many Doctor Who monster voices and recreates those of the TV version. The two big Cyber-reveals are also my favourite pieces of the score, where the music climbs into an electronic rasp not unlike the Space Adventure theme that accompanied the Cybermen in 1967’s TV stories (and gets a bit of bagpipes mixed in when Jamie defies them!). They also get a tensely scored ‘stalking’ sequence towards the end of the first CD, and in a later chase sequence there’s a very effective echoing boom, which stands for both the terrible Cyber-tread and their desperately running victim’s heart.
3 – The Doctor.
Patrick Troughton was a very visual actor, constantly fascinating to watch, which makes it even more frustrating that the BBC junked so many of his performances. This book was my first experience of his Doctor, and it does a remarkable job of evoking him. The text introduces his famous “terrible things” speech with Polly seeing a “far-horizons” look in his blue-green eyes, making us pay extra attention, but it’s the first half of this Doctor’s famous mixture of ‘Free-thinking fun’ and ‘Destroy all monsters’ that’s surprisingly more vivid here. Losing control of the TARDIS like a ship in a stormy sea; miscalculating the date, provoking applause and laughter from a tense Moonbase crew, and still being pleased with himself for being just twenty years out, then being suddenly brought down when asked to do some work; his “relieved, almost silly grin”; all these stuck in my head as characteristics of the Second Doctor. But what most appealed to me were the passages in which the Doctor is trying to trace a mysterious Space Plague that’s struck the Moonbase personnel.
“It was into this scene of concentrated activity that the Doctor, armed with a bottle of swabs, specimen tubes and a large pair of scissors entered and immediately began to disrupt. He was doing what he enjoyed best; research for a scientific, or in this case, a medical truth. With a mad gleam in his eye, he moved quickly round the room snipping off pieces of the men’s overalls and putting them into bottles. Scraping their shoes and boots and taking swabs from their hands. He seemed not at all put out by the irritated gestures of his victims.”I think the author tells us an explicit moral for the Doctor’s favourite thing so parents wouldn’t cop that investigation isn’t what the Doctor loves most at all. It’s being disruptive. It’s the “mad gleam”, the winding people up, and the nodding happily a few pages later when accused of turning the base upside-down. That’s what appealed to kids reading this, and the way we remember him. It’s anyone’s guess why Gerry Davis talks about his “long legs”, though…
4 – The Space-Food.
Even when I was thin and tiny I loved references to food almost as much as I liked food. So what could be better than food as a major plot point? Gerry Davis’ vision of the future was full of Space-age ‘food concentrate’ that were always off-putting to the Doctor’s companions from the Twentieth, Nineteenth and Eighteenth Centuries and a sign of dehumanising Cybermen on your plate. It didn’t work. They fascinated me decades before I ever touched a microwave. So I’m still fascinated by the story’s use of – sugar. Not sugar spray, or reconstituted sugar pellets, but actual bags of it. It sounds reassuring and familiar amid all the suspicious Space Food. But how are the Cybermen spreading their not-really-a-space-plague to weaken the base whose controller, to fans’ delight, actually says “from our point of view, we’re under siege”? Spoilers and spillages: it turns out to be the good, old-fashioned, comforting sugar that’s betraying them. Though personally I’m always more suspicious of the cream, given they have to wait a month for a rocket even for medical samples.
5 – Polly.
“‘Here’s our holy water,’ said Polly, holding up the small bottle of nail varnish remover. ‘I’m going to do an experiment… Voilà cocktail Polly!’”Context makes such a difference. When I read this book as a boy, I noticed and was influenced by the multi-national Moonbase crew and lack of jingoism. Four decades later, the progressive message is obscured by interloper Polly being the only woman (other than a bureaucrat on the radio) and the black guy dying first. People always cite Polly being told to make the coffee here, too. But then there’s the context. Feminism, like science, is not a language Gerry Davis writes fluently, but there’s no doubt who’s the lead companion here. Fellow sexy, modern (both he and Polly updated from 1960s to 1970s in the book) youth Ben is sent off to help with the ‘shopping’, wash the cups and fetch drinks first (he calls himself “the official Moonbase coffee-boy”); Jacobite Highlander Jamie’s injured and in bed; the main action each of them take is following Polly’s plan, which is the only successful attack on the Cybermen until the climax. This isn’t to put down Ben or Jamie. For me Polly, Ben and Jamie were the business, but Polly is obviously first among equals.
The Cybermen are both deeply weird and nearly robots in this book, as befits dead bodies walking around enclosed in metal and plastic and embalmed in circuitry. I once sketched an appropriately B-Movie Cyberman poster with the tagline “Mummy-wrapped zombies from the vampire planet”, perhaps inspired by the Doctor’s famous musings on their eldritch elements in Lawrence Miles’ Christmas On A Rational Planet. Using techno-holy water to dissolve their plastic unlife-support units is the most explicit of all of these. But on a base full of male scientists, none of them come up with the solution. It’s a very female-gendered idea from the only woman. Polly is the companion that the Doctor keeps by his side here to have the intelligent conversations with. In one of my favourite scenes, she basically asks him whether he’s up to it, hilariously spotting potential gaps in his qualifications. And in the book, marvellously, she does it as an aside while examining her nails. Then the Cybermen have a container like a giant powder compact. It’s the only Doctor Who book with Chekhov’s make-up kit.
When the Doctor patronises Polly, the text tells us he’s being patronising; when she’s finally asked to make the coffee, it’s when the Doctor’s run out of any other strategy to get the base commander off his back and several chapters after he sent Ben to do it; and when Ben and Jamie are sexist to her, she just ignores them and does what she was going to do anyway. Which is to use a mixture of solvents, inspired by nail varnish remover, to melt the Cybermen’s plastic vital systems into gruesome goo. A story with only one woman does at least have her save everyone’s life by weaponising Clarins and, to cap the Deb striking back, Anneke Wills puts a lot of joy into her exclamation, “A cocktail!”
What Else Should I Tell You About Doctor Who and the Cybermen?
If you’ve read my first TV entry in this fitful series, you’ll probably guess why I picked this book as my first sidestep. My primary school had a little bookshop in a corridor. You saved up 5p Wise Owl Stamps to buy them. This was eight stamps, and the first book I ever bought. It was Doctor Who! There was a Cyberman on the cover! And I couldn’t read. But buying my first book wasn’t the only thing that happened when I was five. I also fell seriously ill and was hospitalised… Which (unlike most of my long-term health problems) turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. The various primary school books I’d been meant to be learning to read on had been having precisely zero impact on me through their banal ‘narratives’ of going to school, sometimes by bus, sometimes in the rain; I did that. Why would I want to read about it? But when my Mum, who’s never loved Doctor Who, eventually gave in and brought along my copy of Doctor Who and the Cybermen. The ‘If you go to the sickbay you’ll be carried off and possessed’ plot didn’t put me off at all, but it didn’t appeal as much to her. Half-way through reading this book to her little invalid, she could stand no more and did something that changed my life (and, within a couple of months, changed my measurable reading age from ‘off the bottom of the scale’ to well over double my actual age). Thanks, Mum; thanks, Gerry Davis. She told me to read it myself.
The TV Doctor Who story The Moonbase is one of many that suffered through BBC short-sightedness, so the DVD has two fully existing episodes and two recreated using animation and the soundtrack. The book was published in February 1975, two months before a new Cyberman story on TV which Gerry Davis had been working on at around the same time as this novelisation. Readers of Doctor Who and the Cybermen will spot several similarities with Revenge of the Cybermen as seen on TV, though the novel is more unadulterated Gerry Davis – despite his getting sole writer credit, parts of his later script were heavily rewritten. I wonder if that’s why the book keeps in the lines where Cybermen sneer about how silly “revenge” is. He does give us a preview here of Cyberleaders with black helmets, though, so that’s one ultra-modern 1975 touch.
Chris Achilleos’ cover boasts a threatening closer-to-1975-than-1967-look Cyberman, as well as a thrilling fizz around the Moon and a great Patrick Troughton. In Spring of this year, the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury held an exhibition of Target Books Doctor Who Artwork, and – fabulously – this was one of the paintings on display. Thirty-nine years after I read my first book, I was enthralled to be able to see the original art up close. You had to be there to admire the sheer detail in the Doctor’s face and the Moon’s surface, or the vibrancy of the colours, but it was a real treat for me (and I’m sure for a great many other visitors besides). Alan Willow’s internal illustrations can be found right through to the 2011 BBC Books edition, though sadly for the audiobook they’re printed the size of postage stamps in its apologetic little insert. Gerry Davis always struggled slightly with the science – trying valiantly, but despite, say, using vacuum as a major threat, occasionally forgetting that the Moon doesn’t have air, or that a laser beam isn’t the same as a flaming torch. Then the editors of the 2011 BBC Books edition pay tribute to Gerry Davis’ trying really hard but sometimes making a howler by seriously informing us that the Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis-inspired Doctor Who story The War Machines was scripted not by Ian Stuart Black but by slightly more famous television writer Ian Kennedy Martin…
This is not the best Doctor Who book ever, but it’s still a load of fun, and I love it. My Mum hates it. Take your pick.
And, if you need one, my score:
7/10, or 9/10 when Anneke Wills is reading it.
If You Like Doctor Who and the Cybermen, Why Not Try…
Two other novelisations of stories pitting Patrick Troughton’s Doctor against more of his iconic monsters: Terrance Dicks’ Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen and Brian Hayles’ Doctor Who and the Ice Warriors. Each of them is also available in modern BBC Books editions, and as audiobooks – both David Troughton and Frazer Hines give quite uncanny readings of their Doctor. But there’s a suddenly topical and high-profile tie-in with a more iconic monster still…
Doctor Who – The Power of the Daleks is currently high in the new DVD charts (amongst a wide array of formats, led by BBC Store). One frustration to my love of Ben and Polly is that so little of their time with the Doctor still fully exists; well, it’s some consolation as well as excitement that to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, the BBC have just released one of their most thrilling adventures. Ben and Polly are crucial in coping, alongside the audience, with the Doctor’s very first regeneration. This is Patrick Troughton’s first story as the Doctor – but in new and rather stylish animated form. Though the BBC destroyed many of Doctor Who’s early episodes a few years after broadcast, Doctor Who inspired such fascination from the very first that some viewers made home sound recordings of all the TV stories later short-sightedly exterminated. So although no episodes of The Power of the Daleks survive to be seen as they were in 1966, you can now watch the whole thing remade to the original soundtrack in the most ambitious Doctor Who animation project yet. If that puts you in the mood for more Ben and Polly, I’d also recommend the DVDs of The Moonbase itself and original Cyberman story The Tenth Planet, each of which can now be seen in full but in a mixture of existing episodes and similarly recreated ones of animation and audio to fill in the ones the BBC destroyed.
The only story where Michael Craze and Anneke Wills’ original performances as Ben and Polly survive in full on screen as well as in their voices, however enticing their cartoon versions, is their first – The War Machines, where they join the TARDIS with William Hartnell’s Doctor. Fortunately, it’s a good one, but it’s still dispiriting that this wonderful team has just a single ‘complete’ outing. But my favourite story for Ben, Polly and Jamie is one you can only get as a soundtrack, as there’s almost nothing left of the TV bar a few dozen still images (though it’s worth searching online for Reconstructions combining those photos and even a little CGI with the soundtrack to aid the storytelling). It’s The Macra Terror, and it’s eerily glorious and super-liberal fun. That’s the story that originally followed The Moonbase on TV, and if there’s one thing this book’s missing, it’s ending with a giant claw…
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Doctor Who 52: 01 – Ten Reasons to Watch Robot (SE)
It’s Doctor Who’s fifty-third anniversary today. To celebrate, here are ten reasons to watch an important first for the series – not the very first story, but the first starring Tom Baker! …And the first I ever saw.
Introducing Doctor Who – Robot…
A trail of mysterious break-ins and deaths. Only the footprints of a giant robot left behind. What could it be‽ Well, obviously, yes, but that’s not the only secret weapon, and there are fascists to fight too. Can the Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith, Harry and the Brigadier stop them? And how much fun will we have watching?
If all this seems eerily familiar, about this time last year I had the brilliant idea of choosing an exciting variety of Doctor Who stories in an idiosyncratic order to run through the year, one every week, inspired by the fifty-second anniversary. For all sorts of reasons, this year has been a terrible one, both for me and for my worldview, and that all fell down. This, then, is a repeat – I’m sorry, I’ll read that again – the Special Edition.
I’m not promising to get through the whole list this time, or even get to the second one, but for today at least I want to celebrate by sharing my love for the single most important piece of television in my life. Robot launched the 1975* season of Doctor Who, the series’ Twelfth, and is available on DVD and through BBC Store. Read on, or just press Play…
Ten Reasons To Watch Robot (warning: spoilers lower down the list)
1 – Tom Baker is the Doctor.
“You may be a doctor, but I am the Doctor. The definite article, you might say.”Tom grabs the role with astonishing energy, bewildering his friends and simply sweeping his foes before him, not just physically but with a firecracker intelligence, both mind and body in constant motion. No-one has any idea how to deal with him – except Sarah Jane – but he gets away with it all with simply blazing charisma. And he’s already wearing that scarf and that grin. Nothing will ever be the same again.
2 – The Time Tunnel.
The most iconic of all Doctors gets the most iconic of all title sequences, perfected by Bernard Lodge into the TARDIS rushing through a fabulous swirl that’s been the inspiration for most of the post-2005 titles. It’s paired with, for me, still the best version of the Doctor Who Theme, a ’70s remix of Delia Derbyshire’s original, now with looping echoes into the episode and cliffhanger scream out of it.
3 – The final scene brings our heroes together and invites us all on more adventures.
“There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.”The coda is gorgeous, the Doctor and Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) making up with each other after the climax, Harry (Ian Marter) endearingly trying to make sense of it all, and finally Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) accepting the inevitable. It’s hard to think of two of the Doctor’s friends more iconic than journalist Sarah Jane Smith, who came back so many years later and starred in her own show, or the Brigadier, who the Doctor had worked with advising UNIT throughout his time exiled to Earth (and whose daughter Kate is a mainstay of the series today) but who the now liberated Doctor will leave behind. And it’s hard to think of a team that makes me smile so delightedly as the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry. Here those three come together as a proper TARDIS crew, with new recruit (though not militarily; a Surgeon-Lieutenant from UNIT and the Navy) Harry Sullivan taken for a ride, the fourth Doctor offering his first jelly baby, and Sarah Jane standing up to the Doctor when he’s gone too far but then, the grown-up of the three, making a deliberate choice to be child-like and fly off into time and space to have what you know are going to be the scariest, and most fun, and most marvellous adventures anyone could ever imagine. I’ve previously written about it as one of my favourite ever scenes in more detail. It’s adorable.
4 – The trouble with computers…
“The trouble with computers, of course, is that they’re very sophisticated idiots. They do exactly what you tell them at amazing speed, even if you order them to kill you. So if you do happen to change your mind, it’s very difficult to stop them obeying the original order! But… not impossible.”Before my failing health stopped me working, I spent some years as an IT tutor. Hardly a day went by without my at some stage reassuring a student with a version of that line. Usually alluding more to saving before you close than impending Armageddon, though.
5 – Fantastic thematic consistency.
No, no, wake up at the back! Season Twelve of Doctor Who introduced not just Tom Baker, the time tunnel and Harry Sullivan, but awesome new Script Editor (a similar role to today’s “showrunner”) Robert Holmes and Producer Philip Hinchcliffe. So some people write this story off as the last produced by Barry Letts, and authored by just-going Script Editor Terrance Dicks. But Holmes clearly had a hand in it too, as Robot introduces the fascinating themes that will dominate the season: scientific survival and rebirth by fascistic elites; shattered worlds (before, during and after); alien / machine logic and intelligence against human instinct, free will and compassion… Which isn’t necessarily found among the humans-by-birth. And spot-your-own 1930s horror film motifs.
6 – The Robot.
The Robot itself looks fantastic (at least until Part Four). Probably still my favourite robot design in all of Doctor Who, a towering, powerful but still stylish creation accompanied by a low, grating ‘machine’ sound that makes you think the robot’s like a fork-lift truck. But its character is compelling, too – not just Michael Kilgarriff’s acting, but a creature that is often more human than its masters (the novelisation emphasises its tenderness in unexpected moments). I took that to heart at a very young age; it may even have started me off on empathising with the ‘other’, and is probably at the root of my always flinching at the Doctor being beastly in other stories to patently sentient AIs, especially when they’re having existential crises.
7 – Sarah Jane Smith is magnificent.
With a new Doctor, a new companion and so much else to compete with, this is still one of her strongest stories. She’s the intrepid reporter who tracks down the mystery; she’s brave and saves the world facing down the villain when even the Brigadier can’t; then her empathy and compassion even for the unforgivable shines through. And Elisabeth Sladen’s wonderful performance ties all of her character together. She’s a big influence on companions after 2005 in being the Doctor’s heart – but also in doing what has to be done, not ruthlessly, but showing determination when no-one else will.
8 – It warns about utopianism.
There’s a brilliant way round the Three Laws of Robotics. Brilliant, but fatal. Reminiscent of all so-called utopian societies, in which the individual is disposable for the greater good (even if that comes to mean most individuals in the world). Terrance Dicks wrote this ten years before Isaac Asimov introduced his ‘Zeroth Law’, and that’s not the end of the cleverness in his writing: watch carefully, and you’ll find that the Robot, Russian doll-like, is only the first of three nested ‘ultimate weapons’… Yes, this is ‘Doctor Who – Age of Ultron’.
9 – Like Doctor Who from the very first, it is utterly against fascism.
“The thought of Miss Winters in handcuffs gave Sarah considerable pleasure.”Fascist leader Hilda Winters (Patricia Maynard) is a great villain, calculating in private, demagogue in public, but this infamous sentence from Terrance Dicks’ novelisation underlines how easy it is to be authoritarian just so long as it’s what you’re sure is for everyone’s good… The Brigadier’s retort there to Sarah Jane’s wish to bang up all the baddies because we know they’re baddies is that Britain’s not a military dictatorship. Which on balance, the story suggests, is a good thing. Five weeks into Doctor Who’s first run in 1963, fascism became the series’ biggest evil. Starting with Robot, the 1975 stories make the same point again and again.
10 – It inspires Liberalism.
“I would wear what you thought was good for me. I see. And think what you thought was good for me, too?”It’s difficult to work out how much I was instinctively a Liberal and liked Doctor Who because it was the ‘odd one out’ show, and how much I liked Doctor Who and so took its lessons to heart. But though I think of certain other stories as more obvious influences on my politics, there are definite seeds here. Free will versus dictatorship; empathy with the different; Sarah’s first reaction to power being that it might be misused, her second to ask questions, her third compassion; green energy being a really good thing but enforcing it by authoritarianism and viewing people as disposable is a really bad thing. A green Liberal in the making, aged three, thanks to that most Doctor Who of simple homilies, that “the end never justifies the means.” Aged three? Well, yes. The moral here wasn’t the only influence this story had on me…
“It’d be for your own good.”
What Else Should I Tell You About Robot?
“Alexander the Great?”This isn’t just where Tom started. It’s where I started.
It changed my life and I love it with all my heart. Because it led to me loving Richard with all my heart.
Of course I can have two hearts.
Many more stories than you’d expect are someone’s favourite, but every story is someone’s first. This was designed to be a new start (and so was the next one), and when three-year-old me starting watching half-way through Robot, I was hooked.
Thinking critically – though it’s always enormous fun – this is a good story, but it’s not the very best. Its liberal heart is in the right place (opposing the far-right place) but its grasp of international politics is a bit shaky. And though as Robot comes into the final episode it builds several climaxes on top of each other, it’s also where a few things fall down a bit, not least the special effects. Gigantically. Even Sarah Jane has her ups and downs there.
So where many fans, if you asked them where to start on Doctor Who, would pick an action-packed, fun, familiar-but-different story set in more or less our modern world, one that gives a central role to the woman companion while introducing a new Doctor and a hugely successful era, and has the single-word title “Ro—”… It’s probably true that it wouldn’t be this one unless the fan is me (I love that other one too, by the way, but more on that story later).
But none of that matters to me. Because it was my first. And nearly forty-two years later, I’m still watching Doctor Who because of it. What better recommendation could there be?
*Technically this started in the last week of 1974. And actually 1975 was so wonderfully packed with Doctor Who that another season came along in the Autumn. But as Robot was launching a new season for the New Year and the first Saturday after Christmas was when they did that – and as I didn’t start watching until the second week of January – I always say it started Doctor Who for 1975. Because it belongs there. And, anyway, it’s from 1980.
And, if you need one, my score:
Usually this would be a simple mark out of ten, the crudest possible metric of how good I think a story is. Some weeks there will be exceptions.
8/10 says my head…
But 10/10 is not enough for Robot in my heart.
If You Like Robot, Why Not Try…
Everything! I did. But perhaps saying ‘now watch all two-hundred-and-sixty-odd stories before next week’ would be overdoing things.
Then try the whole of Tom Baker as the Doctor? I did. But it did take me the next six years, on many Saturdays, as they went out on BBC1.
So if you liked Robot, why not try The Ark In Space? Because it was Tom’s second story as the Doctor, and because The Ark In Space takes the new but already perfect team of the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry away from the comfort of Earth and throws them into stark outer space horror. It’s a brilliant story, it has another of Tom’s best performances and one of his most iconic speeches, it’s a bold statement of where new producer Philip Hinchcliffe and lead writer Robert Holmes were to take the series, and it became a huge influence – probably on the film Alien, certainly on Doctor Who’s return to TV forty years later, with both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat claiming it as favourites.
But most of all, try The Ark In Space because one of the things I most love about Doctor Who is that, whatever you think of the story you’ve just watched, the next one will probably be completely different.
If I get to the next time: Always start at the beginning. I have. But Doctor Who has more beginnings than the Doctor has lives…