Tuesday, 13 June 2017

A Brief History of Time Travel: An Unearthly Child

A Brief History of Time Travel

This blog, posted occasionally, will give a brief review of all the Doctor Who stories starting from the beginning and eventually up to the present.

An Unearthly Child

This opening story is a tale of two parts: the first, set in the contemporary London of 1963, is mysterious, magical and amazing. Then the action moves to the stone age, and loses impetus. There is still drama, but it is weak in comparison with what went before. 

A tribe has lost the secret of fire, and capture the time travellers after seeing the Doctor make fire by smoking a pipe! After being captured as a result of smoking, the lesson was not lost, and William Hartnell's Doctor never smokes again!

Anthony Coburn wrote all four episodes, and it is an example of how tone can shift so abruptly depending on content.

One of the exchanges I love in the first episode is this one:

SUSAN: I'm sorry, Miss Wright.
BARBARA: Don't be silly, Susan. The United States has a decimal system. You know perfectly well that we do not.
SUSAN: Of course, the decimal system hasn't started yet.

During the 1960s a number of Commonwealth countries had gone decimal - Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In the UK, the decision was announced to Parliament in 1966 although it would not be until 1971 that the change occurred. However designs for a decimal coinage began with a competition back in 1961. So Coburn, an Australian, was building his future on existing trends.

It is in the first episode that the name of the time machine is first stated:

BARBARA: Tardis? I don't understand you, Susan.
SUSAN: Well, I made up the name Tardis from the initials, Time And Relative Dimension In Space. I thought you'd both understand when you saw the different dimensions inside from those outside.

Of course, later stories contradict this in various ways. In “The Time Meddler”, Vicki tells Steven that TARDIS stands for “Time And Relative Dimensions In Space”, the dimension now being plural.  

Although they say that the monk in that story has “a Tardis”, the monk only ever refers to it as a “time machine”. It is not until the end of “the Dalek’s Master Plan” that the monk refers to his machine as “my Tardis.” And in “The War Games”, the Doctor says he stole “a Tardis”.

That is not perhaps surprising, as writers take on a sketchy view of the show before writing for it, and are not hidebound by continuity, which is a good thing. Hardcore fans spent as many years trying to tie things up as theologians did in the middle ages worrying about numbers of angels on the point of a pin.

And of course this is when it is established that the machine has been stuck in a police box form. Later it was said that the shape changing function was called a "chameleon circuit", buying into the well known myth that a chameleon changes colour to blend in with its surroundings:

DOCTOR: It's still a police box. Why hasn't it changed? Dear, dear, how very disturbing.
IAN: Incredible.A police box in the midst of. Oh, it just doesn't make sense.
SUSAN: It should have changed. Wonder why it hasn't happened this time.
BARBARA: The ship, you mean?
SUSAN: Yes, it's been an Ionic column and a sedan chair.
BARBARA: Disguising itself wherever it goes.
SUSAN: Yes, that's right. But it hasn't happened this time. I wonder why not. I

Chameleons, incidentally, change colour as part of a display of emotions, not to blend into the background, which is a common misconception.

There is some wonderful dialogue in this first episode, although Coburn’s original scripts had the Doctor and Susan explicitly from the future. Coburn had them say they were exiles from the 49th century, but the production team thought this was too specific, and not ambiguous enough, so that Susan’s dialogue was rewritten:

BARBARA: But you are one of us. You look like us, you sound like us.
SUSAN: I was born in another time, another world.

And this is another wonderful piece of dialogue.

DOCTOR: Now, now, don't get exasperated, Susan. Remember the Red Indian. When he saw the first steam train, his savage mind thought it an illusion, too.
IAN: You're treating us like children.
DOCTOR: Am I? The children of my civilisation would be insulted.
IAN: Your civilisation?
DOCTOR: Yes, my civilisation. I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it. Have you ever thought what it's like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? Have you? To be exiles? Susan and I are cut off from our own planet, without friends or protection. But one day we shall get back. Yes, one day. One day.

It should be noted that Coburn also buys into the cultural bigotry of his age. The OED notes that "the term Red Indian, first recorded in the early 19th century, has largely fallen out of use, associated as it is with stereotypes of cowboys and Indians and the Wild West, and today may cause offence. The normal terms in modern use are American Indian and Native American or, if appropriate, the name of the specific people (Cherokee, Iroquois, and so on)."

There is sheer poetry in the script for the first episode, and it is hardly surprising that the other three parts of the story seem very flat by comparison. Here is the last of the magic, before the somewhat fake-cave man speech starts to appear.

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?

For an establishing story, this is a tale of two parts: a single episode which captivates, and three following ones which really don’t. Fortunately a four parter is short enough to keep the viewers attention, because the next story would see Doctor Who’s popularity boosted massively.

No comments: