Gabriel Morton vs Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

Gabriel Morton vs Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

It’s the 22nd of November, 1963 and President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, removing the final obstruction to the BBC launching a subversive fictionalised science programme designed to bring about the pansexual, socialist utopia. Doctor Who, started when my dad was 7 and cancelled when I was 6, has delighted audiences, listeners and readers for 54 of your Earth years. Given how it is going now, this could very well continue for another 50. Doctor Who has a combined run time of February, and a big chunk of that is material a large portion of the modern viewership has not seen given that they were either not alive for the original run or old enough to watch it on VHS during its 16 year hiatus. This has created a gap in the fan community, between those who have seen all the old lore and the modern, or Nu-Who, fans. There’s a cohort of Nu-Who fans who operate under the impression that a decade long glimpse into the 54 year canonical clusterfuck that is Doctor Who gives them some level of authority upon which to speak. A full Cyber-Conversion wouldn’t give these shrieking cretins the logical capacity to fix that error. The rest are simply a bit daunted by the idea of catching up.

GOOD NEWS! I’m here to do it for you.

The last time I watched it all was out of order and before a few recent discoveries filled holes in the missing episodes list. So now that Enemy of the World and Web of Fear are largely back, and with some animated fill-ins for a few missing episodes and the entire Power of the Daleks, I’ve decided to saddle up and go at it once more. Join me on a journey into publicly funded production values, missing episodes, and an original run that didn’t know canon mattered.

An Unearthly Child

AH! The theme! Ron Grainer wrote it and mad prophetess of electronic music Delia Derbyshire made it happen. There’s a documentary on her, Sculptress of Sound, which I recommend because she was a fascinating lady and a pioneer of electronic music. The theme itself is one of the most recognizable in all of television. I was listening to it in the womb and it is more familiar to me than my mother’s voice. The classic one is the simple perfection of one string being plucked, some oscillator tones, and white noise being manually hacked about on reel to reel tape. The result is hypnotic, alien, and so perfect for the show that it’s never changed too much. She also did the fantastic Ziwzih, a robot prayer to a giant energy converter for an episode of  Out of the Unknown which itself was a rework of a theme to a children’s health program the BBC rejected for being , “too lascivious”. This is like turning your calculator into a modern art masterpiece after your maths teacher bans it from the classroom because it looked too much like a vulva. You may know it from Die Antwoord’s one good song, Hey Sexy, which caps off the thing’s marvelous story.

“I can hear the universe”

My pick for best alt-version of the Doctor Who theme would be a fanmade one, the Goldshire Remix, which pairs the original baseline with the 2013 version of the theme, though I’ve a soft spot for the Peter Davison era one. I’ve been listening to the original on a loop for 36 minutes now. I’m not going mad. I was mad before but now I’m better. Tachyons have great recipes if you’d only take the time to listen.

Though part of the 10,000 BC serial, I tend to take An Unearthly Child as a single piece. There’s actually 2 versions of this, the official episode 1 and a kind of pilot episode 0. I’m watching 1 as comparisons between the pilot and the broadcast episode are really just interesting trivia I’ll leave for some other loser nerd. The episode opens with a 1:25 second single shot that takes us past a policeman checking a foggy lane, through the gates of a junk yard, and finally to a police box. It’s a remarkable take that speaks to the experimental and mature nature the show was born with or the fact that it was easier than risking a limb using the BBC’s diesel powered editing press. Either way, the result is magnificent and it sets the tone for a wonderfully mysterious first story.

The episode centers around a pair of teachers, Ian and Barbara, discussing a student, Susan Foreman. As an education major with some field work, this happens a lot, though normally we talk shit about you and what you wore to the formal. This is a lot more fun now that you kids put the stupid things you do on Facebook. Really lets every teacher you have rip on you equally instead of having to rely on the recollections of an eyewitness who could occasionally be something with the colourful descriptive talents of a math teacher. This episode is from the 60s though so they’re mostly talking about how Susan is either weird or an irritating know-it-all. Ian describes the situation as being, “…a 15 year old girl who is brilliant at some things and excruciatingly bad at others” which is kind of hilarious because this is pretty much every student.

“She looked like tits wrapped in gold vomit” – Actual teacher quote.

I suppose it’s because this is the 60s but these days they’d just say you’re on some kind of spectrum and dose you up until you were able to nap through the classes you are terrible at. Not the good old days! Fuck drugs, Ian and Barbara decide to stalk the child like a child-services themed House knockoff. They stake-out the junk yard Susan gave as her address, which must have been one of her excruciatingly bad moments because that she lived among actual garbage was one of the final straws for Ian and Stalker, and follow her inside when she finally arrives.

Spectrum-y

Inside they find nothing but an incredibly cunty old man played by William Hartnell who is listed as “Doctor Who” in the credits which is only slightly more appropriate than “Cunty Old Man”. The Doctor’s actual name has been a fiddly discussion point precisely because the old series actually referred to him as Doctor (fucking) Who instead of The Doctor for bloody ages. Early first Doctor is a cosmic jerk and holy shit does this come across here. This can be a bit jarring for modern fans as the difference between lines like this episode’s “I tolerate the twentieth century but I don’t enjoy it”  and something like Tennant’s, “I wuv hoomans, ooooooh, hoomans are per-fect nummy nummy tumblr” (Fear Her, 2006) are fairly stark.

Starring William Hartnell as, “Cunty Old Man”

First also compares Ian’s inability to grasp dimensional transcendence with the Red Indian’s savage inability to understand a train. Most people will think this is racist but his terminology fits the comparison when he extends it to cis-white Ian’s thinking the TARDIS is a trick. That said, he also went into a 2 minute rant on the yellow peril in the now thankfully lost Marco Polo serial so maybe I’m just making excuses.

The Doctor gaslights our two poor humans for a while before Susan opens the TARDIS door and lets Ian manspread his way inside. Old timey special effects couldn’t show the inside from the outside or vice versa so it’s always a kind of mysterious black void nobody ever acknowledges. I always kind of liked this though I’ll admit the modern one makes more sense. The Doctor responds to this intrusion with his now trademark patience and love for humans. HAH! Fooled you! He’s a giant cunt, and Susan seems afraid of him and what he might do to the glorified sea monkeys she’s taken a shine to. This cuntiness extends to letting Ian electrocute himself trying to escape the TARDIS. Oh, and also he traps them in the TARDIS.

“Ha, look at them, we should run them through a maze”

 

At the 3 minute mark, “Ian” mistakes electricity for a treat.

He refuses to let Ian and Barbara leave because he is worried about them revealing who they are to the world. This worry seems to only extend to being harassed by media, though. I’d have thought the military or something would have been a bigger concern but given what British media get up to today I suppose they must’ve had a fairly brutal rep even back when this was made. He then starts the TARDIS up, having been poking about on Earth to ostensibly fix a bit of it, because fuck Ian for doubting him. That’s really why he does it. The TARDIS jolts like a Datsun clutch starting on a steep hill which results in an excellent example of my favourite sci-fi trope, people pretending to fall down because of inertia.

Ian fall down

Later episodes gift the TARDIS with the State of Grace, weapons won’t work in it, but in this first episode it just has some Cosby-esque ability to encourage naps. Ian and Barbara pass out as Susan and Doctor Who use my now second favorite sci-fi trope, weird orgasm-faced time travel montage, to resist the sleep-inducing power of the Quantum Cold Medina. Precisely what is happening here is never given a canonical explanation, but no time to ponder that because fuck you Ian, I mean, because we are now back in time. Tune in next week for Cave of Skulls which sounds super metal but isn’t.

Timegasm

Conclusion

The differences between old and new are dramatically highlighted in this first episode. The series was conceived as being educational, with Ian and Barbara being science and history teachers respectively to compliment the past and future settings. A far cry from the modern series where the only thing you’ll learn is that crying solves everything with magic. Some of the problems of old Who are on display too, particularly with the canonical elements and mild racism (which kicks in to severe by about nineteen-seventy-Talons of Weng-Chiang). Seeing Susan at all bothers the shit out of me because the Timelords of this period don’t reproduce and Susan leaves, never to be adequately discussed again outside of grey-canon expanded media. But I’m getting ahead of myself a little there. Helping tremendously was the relative simplicity of what is on display. Three sets, a car, and five people were within the BBC’s capacity so the result looks as though someone running the thing can have an idea and get it on screen without too much hassle. This goes to absolute fuck next episode but as a standalone, An Unearthly Child is a remarkable first go in a series that will outlive us all.

I’ve been listening to the theme for 56 minutes now and taking off the headphones makes me forget what I took them off for.

Yours, in having watched every extant episode of Doctor Who ever, Gabriel.

Next Monday…

A first educational experience is off by an extra zero and caveman speak always sucks, it’s 10,000 BC!

 

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