Tuesday, March 31, 2009

B5 - The Expedition

And so the second half of the story kicks off with another memorable scene (this story really has been full of the, I'm finding) where Ian has to try and persuade the Thals that they have something to fight for, but the rest of our heroes really only wants them to run off and die so they can retrieve the fluid link that the Daleks still have in the city. It's quite a selfish attitude for The Doctor to have (as I pointed out from the last episode), and makes you realize, 45 years later, at how right Davros was in Journey's End. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Having just met, Barbara and Ganatus seem to be getting along quite well in this episode. This isn't the first romantic subplot that the fledging program tries to develop in the first couple of years (Verity Lambert was a real romantic, it seems). Such frivolity would be all but verboten in the years to come as the show decided to replace realistic character interaction with a succession of rubber monsters.

Anyway, you can see by how many tangents I'm wanting to go off on here (not unlike a certain podcast) that this episode really registered with me. It has a cool ending, though, where Ian is menaced by a giant donut with eyes, and a red shirted Thal meets his apparent death via a pretty neat whirlpool effect. But it's becoming quite apparent that 7 episodes is just not a viable length for a fast paced Doctor Who story.

Monday, March 30, 2009

B4 - The Ambush

...in which there's this ambush...(Sorry, last one. For today.) The titular ambush is actually the weakest part of this episode. Temmosus (whose fantastic hat would serve him no favors against a Dalek exterminator ray) tries to talk peace with the Daleks, who have called the leader of the Thals to the Dalek city in order to give them some food. The Daleks, unsurprsingly, exterminate him. What happens to the food is made less clear.

I'm not sure what's supposed to be going on during this scene. The Daleks make a bit of a show of moving into their hiding spaces in the city plaza before Temmosus makes his appearance, but then edge out of the shadows more and more that by the time Temmosus is halfway done his speech, he's surrounded by Daleks. Does he even notice them? Furthermore, Ian and the gang (for this is really an Ian episode) race down to the plaza to try and warn the Thals of the impending ambush. Instead, Ian stands and watches the whole scene (including the Daleks clearly edging out to surround Temmosus), and only warns Temmosus seconds before the Daleks shoot the Thal leader. Weird...

Anyway, this sequence is offset by a rather intense sequence of the TARDIS crew (with Ian disguised as a Dalek) continuing their escape that had started in the previous episode. There's some pretty impressive film inlay effects shots on display, used to portray lifts going up and down and walls being scorched. I'm not easily impressed by the special effects of today because it's common knowledge that they were most likely done by computer. Effects in the pre-blue screen days seem much more mysterious.

Another interesting aspect of this episode is the Doctor's attitude towards the Thals' plight. He's most excited to learn about the history of Skaro, but help the Thals? Nah. He's dead set against interfering, instead wishing to flee the scene at a moment's notice. It will be intriguing to see how that changes in the weeks ahead...

B3 - The Escape

...in which (with apologies to Toby Hadoke) there's an escape. Specifically, at the very end of the episode. The eponymous escape (and the scenes leading up to it) is actually quite good, and it shows the TARDIS crew really working together for the first time. Everyone chimes in with a good idea on how to defeat the Dalek guard and escape from their holding cell.

As the episodes of the first season move along, I'm quickly realizing that the first TARDIS crew is really one of the best in the show's history. Everyone has a role to play, and each actor fills the bill admirably. We'll come to see it even more in the episodes to come, but Ian almost has a bigger share of the action than The Doctor himself. I can see why William Russell's agent was lobbying, at the time, for his client to be paid on par to what William Hartnell was getting.

Also, we meet the Thals properly for the first time in this episode. They're all blonde and they all wear silly tunics and pants with holes down the legs. There also seems to be only a smattering of female Thals (what is this? The Smurfs?), and the only that speaks, Dyoni, proves that she should probably stay silent instead. The exposition scenes where the Thals discuss their own history at great length with each other are a tad boring, but a necessary evil that every TV script has to endure in order to get such vital information across. Pity we couldn't have got the slide show version from the Daleks, or something.

The very last shot of the episode is of a spooky Dalek claw (actually a greased up rubber monkey arm) crawling out from under a Thal cloak. Neat shot, but what really sells the fact that the Daleks are a strange, mutated alien race is the reaction of Ian when he first opens the Dalek casing. The look on his face instantly shows more than any effects laden shot of a mutated Kaled (sorry - mutated Dal) could ever do. Why does William Russell's Ian not get more plaudits in "Best Companion" polls? I think he's brilliant.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

B2 - The Survivors

The series concept of Doctor Who was intriguing enough to warrant a healthy viewership, something which it wasn't necessarily getting after the first five broadcast episodes in 1963. What it needed was a hook. At approximately 5:21 PM on Saturday, December 28, 1963, it got that hook when the camera pulled back to reveal the Daleks.

Like An Unearthly Child, it's difficult to look at the Daleks in their first appearance without the foreknowledge of what was to come. Daleks have become second nature to the series itself, but back then, what a stunning sight it must have been for viewers young and old. Instantly immitatble, the playgrounds of Britain must have been abuzz the following Monday with kids imitating that wonderful mechanical voice (which, at this early stage, hadn't become annoying yet. Nor did it sound like Zippy from Rainbow). The show became a word-of-mouth sensation in the days and weeks afterward, and the ratings started to soar.

I often wonder what, if any, sketches and ideas the original designer Ridley Scott (yes, Sir Ridley Scott) came up with for the Daleks before he was reassigned to another program. That BBC internal decision to replace Scott with Raymond Cusick was a history altering decision, as we might not have had a memorable Dalek design, probably not had Doctor Who for much longer past 1964, possibly not have had some brilliant movies like Alien and Blade Runner, and so on. As it stands, Ridley Scott went on to direct Oscar-winning films. Raymond Cusick went on to live a modest life after designing one of the most iconic alien races in science fiction history.

The success of the Daleks is not only in their design, but also because they were a perfect adversary for the tiny sets that Doctor Who had to contend with in those early days. Any monster on legs and no extermination ray would have to slowly lumber after its prey, causing it, the fleeing heroes, and the show itself, to look silly. You might be quicker than a Dalek, but you can't run away from a Dalek. It will always exterminate you with its gun. Your only hope is to hide. What's more terrifying to a child watching the show than seeing The Doctor and his companions trying to hide from a Dalek that's slowly and silently gliding down a corridor, ready to exterminate them at a moment's notice? Also, what's more easy to imitate than this scene for a child watching the show in his parents' living room? The success of the Daleks was in eliminating the need for chase sequences, which allowed a cheap little show like Doctor Who to thrive on the basis of its minimalism.

Further nuggets in this episode include the first ever meeting between the Daleks and the Doctor (which is even more potent now thanks to the whole Time War arc of the new series), and some good radiation sickness acting from the regulars. The episode ends less convincingly, though, as, for the second time in three weeks, poor Carole Ann Ford is forced to run on the spot while stage hands whip her with tree branches in order to try and portray her fleeing from a mysterious pursuer through the jungle. If only she had been chased by a Dalek.

Friday, March 27, 2009

B1 - The Dead Planet

And so, leading directly on from the last episode of the previous serial (a neat little touch that was common throughout most of the Hartnell era), we find ourselves on the first alien planet in the show's history in only it's second story (it would take the revived series a good deal longer to venture outside of Earth's gravitational pull).

It's a creepy little episode that features only the four regular cast members. It's also Terry Nation's first script for the series, and several of his hallmarks are on full display here. Like several scripts to come, we see features of the TARDIS that we would seldom or never see again (the fault locator, the food machine) that are there to a) show off the features of the Ship; and/or b) fill time. We also have that old Nation standby where the crew gets split up, and a shock revelation of a monster at the end of Episode 1.

The main plot of The Dead Planet seems to be to introduce the MacGuffin fluid link, a vital component of the TARDIS that The Doctor apparently sabotages to trick the others to go and explore the Dalek city with him. The whole episode sort of plods along until the TARDIS crew finally make it to the city. The design of the city is quite marvelous (both the model and the endless corridors), and director Christopher Barry's claustrophic camera angles heighten the tension as a lost Barbara frantically wanders about, looking for a way back to her friends.

The last shot of the episode is far and away the best cliffhanger in the show's history. Here's an interesting fact - a technical problem forced the production team to re-record this episode at a later date (not a cheap endeavour, especially considering the miniscule budget the show had to work with at the time). I'm so glad they had to. I'm sure that everything of the original recording was fantastic, but I can't imagine that last shot in any other way than it was presented. Tristram Cary's eccentric score jumps in at that moment with intensity, but what sells it is Jacqueline Hill's bloodcurdling scream as the screen fades to black. Never again would a POV shot of a plunger appear so terrifying!

Respect, Dame Jackie Hill.

A4 - The Firemaker

And so we enter the final episode of the initial story, in which our heroes are captured (again), Ian manages to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together (even though it looks like he's holding them about a foot apart from one another), a (smashed) skull joins the ranks in the Cave of Skulls, caveman are fooled by some skulls on sticks, and the TARDIS makes an ill advised journey to another planet.

After the thrills of the previous episode, this one has sort of an anticlimactic feel about it. The highlight is a thoroughly graphic and gruesome fight scene (that is exactly quite well shot and acted) that the whole story has been leading towards, which ends with some fairly bold shots of Kal screaming and Za bringing down a boulder on his head. Again, not for the kiddies. I think these scenes would have all ended up on an Australian censor's cutting room floor back in the day.

Overall, I think the story is a lot better than its reputation lends it. The very last shot of the episode (of the TARDIS's radiation meter going haywire) still gives me chills - does the TARDIS crew know what they're getting themselves into? Do they realize that their lives (and, indeed, the life of the show) are about to change forever?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A3 - The Forest of Fear

Now things are getting going. The nameless Old Woman frees the TARDIS crew so they can flee, and thus not bring fire to the village. Here's my hypothesis - she's a minion of the Master (most probably The Rani herself), sent there to try and stop man's development in a tie-in ploy with the Master's equally low key plot from the The King's Demons. Yup. That's it.

Anyway, the flight through the forest gives us two truly unforgettable scenes. The first is Barbara completely flipping out when she realizes that they're lost in the forest. It's an intense performance from Jacqueline Hill, and Ian's reaction towards Barbara is equally dramatic, forging an instant closer bond between the two characters. That scene also happens away from The Doctor and Susan, further hammering the point home that this is still a crew divided.

The second memorable scene is the now famous knife scene where Ian stops The Doctor from killing an injured Za. Why does The Doctor want Za dead? Because Za's injuries are preventing the TARDIS crew (or, more specifically, Susan) from leaving the scene and escaping via the TARDIS. It's staggering, and it's a testament to how far this new series would go to portray its titular character as an anti-hero. Never again in the history of the show would The Doctor be portrayed so coldly. Even during the eras of the Seventh Doctor, or in the Ninth and Tenth Doctor's eras, when those in charge of the program were trying to show that the Doctor had a darker past did they ever show The Doctor trying to murder someone in cold blood (although I suppose Eccleston came close in Dalek).

This episode shows that Doctor Who was, even as early as its' third episode, a children's program in name and time slot only.

A2 - The Cave of Skulls

After that iconic first episode (I'd use the term "pilot episode", but given that the first try of recording "An Unearthly Child" has been retconned as a "pilot episode", I won't), the first ever Doctor Who story settles down into a tale of prehistoric cavemen with monosyllabic names huddling around caves wondering if either of their presidential candidates, Za or Kal, can promise them fire and, thus, survival through the impending winter.

I fully expected to feel bored by this episode, in keeping with the general public perception of the last three episodes of Serial A (I refuse to call it 100,000 BC). The first thing I noticed is the pace. Those who have only seen the new series will probably find that things move along at a pace that can kindly be described as a pedestrian. There's fewer than 10 scenes in the entire 24 minute episode. Most of these are used to set up the situation that our travelers now find themselves in, as well as setting up the dynamic that exists between the cavemen.

To be fair...yeah, not a lot happens in the episode, but the cavemen actors do their best to make it look like Act I of a Shakespeare play. The writers manage to cram in not one but two cracks at the "Doctor Who?" gag, both within minutes of each other. The Doctor smokes (!) for a brief second, if only to provide the episode (and, indeed, the story) with it's thrust. Kal witnesses the Doctor striking a match to light his pipe, realizes that the Doctor's apparent powers to create fire from his fingers can light Kal's path to the leadership of the tribe, and kidnaps him. From here on, the Doctor and his companions are pawns in Kal's struggle with Za for leadership, and in the Old Woman's (why didn't she get a name?) desire to keep fire out of the tribe.

Of course, none of the events mentioned above really take off in this episode, but it's building to something.

A1 - An Unearthly Child

And so it begins...

So much has been written about the first episode, but it still impresses to this day. As there are so very few Doctor Who fans around who remember watching the episode as it went out on that dark November evening in 1963, it's tough to watch "An Unearthly Child" without any retrospective.

However, I recently showed the episode to my girlfriend, who had only ever seen NuWho up to that point. She expected to hate it and to find it far too cheesy for her tastes, but, to my irrepressible joy, she was riveted, and was intrigued enough to want to watch more episodes. I never showed her more, though. I thought I best quit whilst I was ahead...

The main reason why the first episode succeeds (and, indeed, the show as a whole) is because of the decision to tell the story of The Doctor through the eyes of outsiders. Instantly, the show lives up to its name. The character of The Doctor is instantly mysterious, odd, alien, inaccessible. It's a bold move to have a title character as the anti-hero in what was supposed to be a children's show, but William Hartnell makes the move an unqualified success. Hartnell never dips into a stereotypical "dotty professor" or a "comically grumpy uncle with a heart of gold" mode during his portrayal. It is as strong a performance as the show has ever seen, and it's a shame that the public persona of Hartnell in the years that followed were of an incorrigible actor who couldn't remember his lines; he's at the top of his game here.

The first scene inside the TARDIS is, of course, spellbinding (as well as being one of the longest continuously recorded sequences in the show's history). The exposition moves along at a reasonable pace, and never seems too stilted as to sound unnatural. Of course, some aspects of the information revealed during this scene has been "retconned" as the years have gone on. I suspect that a two-year-old Susan read what TARDIS really stands for off the manual, then claimed that she made it up, but The Doctor let her have her moment because it meant she would stop asking for ice cream.

The episode ends with a truly surreal sequence of video feedback and swirling sound effects, including the first (and, to date) only instance of the entire minute-and-a-half TARDIS dematerialization sound effect being heard. I've seen this episode at least 30 times, and it still leaves me with chills...