Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

More Classic Who watching - The Ark in Space, City of Death, An Unearthly Child

Continuing with my efforts to explore the Doctor Who archives rather more systematically than I have done to date, I've chalked up another three stories over the last week.

Fourth Doctor: The Ark in Space
Following on from Robot last week came the next in UKTV Drama's re-runs, and the next story chronologically, The Ark in Space. This sees Baker's Doctor leave UNIT behind, and taking Sarah Jane and Harry Sullivan (a UNIT medical officer instructed by the Brigadier to keep an eye on the Doctor) with him. They land on a dormant space station full of cryogenically frozen humans, who were supposed to be waiting out a period of solar flare activity that had threatened the Earth, but have had their satellite infested and sabotaged by insectoid Wirrn while they slept.

I was keen to see more of Sarah Jane in action after Robot, but realised while watching this episode that the strength and interest of her character suffers rather if she is taken off the Earth. There, she is very much in control of her own life, with a house, a job and a car, but out in space she is naturally robbed of a lot of this independence. Things did look up a bit in the fourth episode, though, where she volunteered to crawl through a narrow tunnel in order to pull a power cable through from a transport ship to the satellite's cryogenic chambers, where the Doctor needed it to electrocute the Wirrn. I particularly enjoyed a brilliant little scene in which she got stuck in the tunnel and began to lose it, so the Doctor (waiting at the other end) began to shout down the tunnel that she was a waste of space and letting everyone down - a deliberate ploy to make her furious with him and determined to get unstuck again so that she could give him a piece of her mind, which worked perfectly! The moment when she gets out and realises what he was up to, and he tells her he's actually really proud of her, is incredibly cute.

I rather warmed to Harry's character, too. He reminded me very much of the way Captain Hastings is portrayed in the Poirot TV series with David Suchet - a gung-ho, public school chap, who'd probably spent some time out in India. Which is a bit anachronistic for someone of Harry's age in the 1970s, but never mind. Feminist Watch noted early on that the recorded voice of the Earth High Minister which addresses the occupants of the satellite was female, and thought this rather impressive for early 1975. As in the previous story, though, such issues clearly still needed to be addressed explicitly, rather than just woven into the story - Harry's rather old-fashioned character is neatly used to draw direct attention to it when he hears the recording and exclaims "Fancy a member of the fair sex being top of the totem pole!"

For Douglas Adams fans, the very idea of an Ark full of frozen humans, sent off from Earth to preserve the human race is of course very reminiscent of the Golgafrincham Ark B which Ford and Arthur encounter in H2G2. There's also a piece of dialogue between the Doctor and Harry, in which Harry assumes that the suspended human bodies he's seeing are dead, but the Doctor explains that they are sleeping, and which is almost directly imitated by Ford and Arthur. According to a documentary on the City of Death DVD (about which more in a moment), though, the relationship isn't quite as simple as that Adams saw the episode and nicked some of the ideas from it for his own show. In fact, he'd submitted a script for a Doctor Who story about an Ark full of frozen humans at almost exactly the same time that this show was broadcast - so it is more a case of the basic idea occurring to both him and the actual script-writer (Robert Holmes) in parallel, and then Adams refining his own ideas in response to the Who story for use elsewhere.

And there is definitely some New Who fodder in here as well, particularly as regards the Doctor's attitude to the human race. Very much in Ten mode, he makes a big speech in the cryogenic suspension chamber about how amazing the human race is, preserving themselves like this, which ends up with him calling them 'indomitable' twice. He's also quite open about the fact that, for all this, he sees the flaws in humanity as well - which is perhaps more of a Nine thing, but I think still there to some degree in Ten as well. My favourite line to this effect, delivered with a big Tom Baker grin: "It may be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favourite species."

Fourth Doctor: City of Death
My next stop was City of Death, which I bought on DVD as a post-Christmas present to myself, since no-one else had. As for Shada, this was bought for obvious Douglas Adams reasons, and Wikipedia outlines very nicely the relationship between the plot of this story and Adams's later novel, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. Other than that, Adams' hand is noticeable in an unusually light and fluid script, with some particularly great Doctor-babble that Tom Baker delivers brilliantly, and also the scene in the modern art gallery where John Cleese and Eleanor Bron spout arty bullshit about the presence of the TARDIS in the gallery - definitely a cousin of Arthur Dent's similar analysis of Vogon poetry in H2G2.

The feel of the story as a whole is very much of the Doctor in holiday mode - the location shooting (all abroad for the first time in Who) obviously contributes to this, but so does the script and the chemistry between the Doctor and Romana. In many ways, it feels not like a regular Doctor Who story at all, but like a sort of company 'Away Day' - what happens when all the usual Who elements are packed onto a bus and sent off to the seaside with some spending money for the afternoon. Even the camera work underlines the outside-the-norm setting by being noticeably stylish and arty, presumably in response to the opportunities offered by filming in Paris. So, you don't just see the Doctor and Romana walking along the banks of the Seine - you see them doing so framed through the branches of a tree. Or you don't just see someone running along the street - the shot is bisected by a long view down a row of shop windows, and you see their reflection running alongside them as they go. Somebody was definitely having a bit of fun, there.

Lalla Ward's Romana I hadn't encountered before, although I must have seen something of Mary Tamm's at some point, as I remember seeing the scene when the Doctor first meets her, and their little spat over how to pronounce her full name. She was nice, though, and I can very much see why some people are so keen to 'ship her and the Doctor, often with particular reference to this story. I thought the closing shot of the Doctor and Romana as tiny figures, waving happily up from a sea of green lawn to Duggan as he watches them head off for their next adventure, had a particular poignancy in this context. It shows very vividly that there's something they share which the viewer, watching with Duggan from afar, never can - and it clearly is a very sweet something.

The story itself was fun, and I'm always chuffed when I see time travel being actively used as a plot element. There were a few points of oddity or confusion, though, which probably reflect the fact that it was largely written in a weekend. For example, if the various versions of Scaroth could communicate with one another, why was it the 1970s version that was trying to develop a time machine, when it looked very much like at least one version of him was living at some point in the future, and presumably would have access to more suitable technology? Also, why did the '70s Scaroth run the risk of having a wife who might find out his true identity and scupper his plans? And - forgive me if I'm being dense here - why exactly did he turn out not to need those Mona Lisas, or the money they would bring, to power his time machine in the end? Anyway, whatever - the feel of the whole didn't suffer from any of this.

Finally, from a New Who perspective, I liked the way Scaroth had his own sonic knife, even if it didn't lead to the same kind of 'mine's more sonic than yours' riposte that Jack and Nine indulged in. I think the physical resemblance between the Dalek Sec Hybrid and Scaroth's true form is quite deliberate, too. It's not just a matter of a one-eyed monster with wriggly bits around his face - it extends to the cut of the suits each of them are wearing, too (although the colours are different), and the basic aims of the two characters, which is to be the sole saviours of their races. Nice stuff,and exactly the sort of thing I was looking for when I started all this in the first place.

First Doctor: An Unearthly Child
Finally, last night saw me going right back to basics round at big_daz's place, courtesy of his immense collection of Who videos. Naturally, I wanted to go right back to the beginning, and see An Unearthly Child in full. I'd seen the first episode of this at some time previously (or possibly even the so-called pilot episode which was aired by the Beeb in 1991 - I couldn't tell you), but hadn't seen the rest of the story, and was keen to get a proper handle on How It All Began.

I remember being a bit thrown when I saw the first episode previously by how little focus there really is on the character of Susan, given that it is named with reference to her. Ian and Barbara had seemed to me like intrusions, getting in the way of the story of this mysterious girl which I had expected to be following. This time, though, my reaction was very different. Obviously, I knew in advance this time that the story was more about Ian and Barbara's reactions to Susan than it was about her herself, and with that settled I could get on with getting to know and appreciate their characters - which I found I really enjoyed. They, after all, are there to carry us into the TARDIS, and the whole universe which it opens up, for the first time - so of course the focus of the story has to be on them and their responses to all the strangeness. Once I'd grasped that, I thought they carried the job off perfectly.

On hearing that I intended to watch the whole of this four-parter, rather than just the first episode, swisstone suggested that I shouldn't bother, and should just watch episode one and then push straight on to The Daleks. But I have to say that now I've done it, I can't agree with his advice. It might well be the right call for someone who wants to go straight to those Hartnell stories which are the strongest if viewed individually. But for someone who's trying to get a feel for Classic Who as a whole, and the arcs which run beyond individual stories, I would say the full four episodes are very much essential viewing. So much ground-work for the series as it later developed is laid down here, and all four of the characters also go through marked developments over the course of the story which would be missed if episodes 2-4 were skipped.

I hadn't really appreciated previously just what a different place psychologically the Doctor is in at the start of his adventures compared to where he's got to even by later in the Hartnell era. Although it's not made clear in this story how long has passed since he and Susan have been exiled from Gallifrey, it's implied that it hasn't been very long, and indeed it's quite possible that they have only been exiles for the five (Earth) months for which Susan says she's been attending Coal Hill School. Certainly, the Doctor hasn't had time to master the TARDIS properly yet, although he's obviously been working on it. He's fresh to the traveller's life, then - although his instinct to study and observe when they arrive on prehistoric Earth suggests that he's at least been out on research trips before, and my understanding is that he was kicked off Gallifrey partly because he was too keen to get involved with the affairs of other civilisations. But we meet him here when he's suddenly having to rough it on his own, with no home to return to, for the first time - and this is actually subtly, though poignantly, obvious throughout the story.

Realising all this allowed me to feel a lot more sympathetic towards Hartnell's Doctor that I've ever managed to before. He's famously seen as brusque and irritable to the point of rudeness, and he is. But understood in the context of someone who's just been exiled from their home civilisation, this becomes a lot more understandable. Later on, he will learn to love the Earth and the human race, but at this stage he is only there at all because he doesn't know how to work his TARDIS properly - so of course he is hostile to Ian and Barbara when they try to interfere with his life. And understanding that has also finally helped me to see why 'Team TARDIS' needed to consist of four people at this stage, when I'm used to a regulation quota of two. With the Doctor so hostile, the character of Susan is crucial to act as a bridge between the human characters and the Doctor's world. Without her, the Doctor would have remained completely cut off from humanity, and Ian and Barbara could never have entered into his story. Meanwhile, having two human characters allows the script-writers to convey a range of reactions to the Doctor and the TARDIS, and also allows the two characters to express their astonishment directly to one another, and debate between the two of them about what is really going on. Far from seeing a crowded TARDIS and an unpleasant Doctor, which have both always put me off the Hartnell era before, I'm now seeing a beautifully-crafted and finely-structured piece of television, and thinking "Crumbs, no wonder it's had such staying power!"

Feminist Watch was interested to note that Barbara was far more ready to accept what the TARDIS was, and what it could do, than Ian, and I wondered whether this had originally been intended to play positively ('women are more open to new ideas than men') or negatively ('women are credulous, and men require more rigorous intellectual standards of proof before they will accept something'). But when I voiced this thought to Daz, he reminded me that Who's original producer had been Verity Lambert, so I'm ready enough to believe that it was meant positively after all - which is nice to see.

New Who Watch expected to be on leave for most of this story, as I'd rather assumed that the inspiration for it was being drawn largely from the 'middle years' - especially Baker and Davison. But actually I was quite wrong about that. There are definite parallels to be drawn between the First Doctor's isolation from his people as a result of his own exile, and Nine's isolation in the wake of the Time War - and although Nine takes a much kinder view of humanity, there is a definite brusqueness there which could be compared to One's. What I certainly wasn't expecting, though, was a line which suddenly popped up some time in the second (or possibly early third) episode. The Doctor develops from open hostility to Ian and Barbara early on, to protecting them from the cavemen they encounter by part-way through the second episode. Fair enough - character development. Yes. But I could hardly believe my ears when they were all sitting tied up in a cave, and he proclaimed, "I'm sorry, it's all my fault. I'm desperately sorry." It's hardly the total admission of culpability for everything that's ever gone wrong in the entire universe, evah, that we keep getting from Ten. But still, there it was - the Doctor's first apology.

As for the story itself, it hardly matters where the TARDIS crew go on their first trip, as what we're really being shown is their reactions to each other, and those would be brought out just as well by almost any extreme situation. But a story set on prehistoric Earth, rather than an completely alien planet, does seem a nice place to start. Just as for New Who, it eases the audience into the idea of what the TARDIS can do gently, in this case even allowing for the possibility (although it is never addressed directly) that the TARDIS may have travelled in time, but not in space. The human society which they encounter is hardly one I suspect most prehistorians would recognise, but it is well thought-out all the same. The dark suspicions which some of the tribe members have about the use of fire could well be seen as mirroring contemporary fears about new technologies, while the link between the ability to make fire and the leadership of the tribe could also be viewed in the light of the nuclear arms race - especially so soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Other stuff - it's interesting to notice at this stage that they actually re-acted the recap scenes at the beginning of each new episode, rather than re-running the same footage, as was done later on. I was quite surprised, given how legendarily expensive video-tape obviously was at the time, but I suppose having to interrupt and re-take scenes must have been pretty expensive, too. I also noticed that there are no hints at this stage that the TARDIS is anything other than a purely mechanical vessel. I wonder when it acquires sentience?

I still don't intend to try to watch all the surviving Hartnell episodes, but I feel a lot warmer towards his Doctor now I've watched this story properly, and am much more receptive to seeing more of him than I think I've ever been in my life before. And luckily, Daz has lent me both the next story, The Daleks, and the other Hartnell story I most want to see - The Romans - to watch at my leisure. Since his video of The Romans also has The Rescue on it, which was broadcast immediately before The Romans, it would seem sensible to watch that too, as a run-up to The Romans. But after that, I can probably pretty much consider the Hartnell era covered. It's good stuff - but not as good as it got later on.

Tags: cult tv, doctor who, douglas adams, feminism, four, nine, one, sarah jane, ten

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