Alright, Dave. You know, I don’t miss much about high school, but now you have me missing your greatest hit parody songs featuring and mocking our beloved teachers who labored so hard in developing our young minds. My middle-aged mind misses those songs, the soundtrack to your youth. Of course, of course. We need a video blog accompanying your “Edge of Destruction” song. I’m not sure I see you doing the Barry McGuire thing, but maybe a la Weird Al. Let’s get a petition started on this blog to see if we can make this happen.
Like you, I’ve never really understood the fan consensus (if there is such a thing) on this story. It seems most of the reviews I’ve read have painted this as something of a confused and messy filler story sandwiched between the seminal Dalek story and the lost gem historical Marco Polo. This is actually one of only a few Hartnell stories when I was fourteen and making my way through your VHS’s. For one, it was short, at only two episodes, and very digestible by my short attention span. But beyond that, it was also quite good.
This story, being in black and white, and focusing as it does on the strange behavior and dramatic interactions between just a few characters gives one the sense of an art-school film or amateur theater vibe. Or better yet, a Twilight Zone vibe. I really expect Rod Serling to step out in front of the console, cigarette in hand and arms crossed to frame the story for us:
Four people, adrift, in a box that leads to the very edge of knowledge and despair…strangers brought together by a twist of fate leading into a junkyard and down a rabbit hole of the mind….adrift in time and space without a map or a clue, and only a nameless, old man to guide them back home….then, by misadventure, they are brought the very brink of their own sanity, stretched beyond the limits of everything they know.…for they’ve entered into the wondrous dimension of imagination. . .The Twilight Zone.
I love that there’s a mystery here that we need somehow to piece together with the random bits and clues thrown at us. Memory loss and strange behavior, machines now working correctly, Psycho Scissors Susan (is it wrong that I’m just a little bit turned on by this scene….sorry….), the melted clock, the doors opening and shutting, the previous adventure scenes on the scanner….and as I write this, I’ve just thought about another thing I love about this story. You touched upon it too. The TARDIS. Here, we are more intimately introduced to the fifth character of the ensemble cast – The TARDIS. Mysterious, and unknowable, this technological marvel (or magic cabinet, depending on your religious affiliation) that transported us to the earliest prehistory of time and the furthest reaches of space, shows itself here to be still something more: a thing, an entity, that thinks and has deeper level than we would have expected. But in its attempt to save its crew, it sends messages in a truly cryptic and alien way.
Until now, the TARDIS has seemed like a sanctuary, the one place of refuge and escape from the horrors faced by the crew, first amongst the Tribe of Gum, and then with the Daleks. You said it well, Dave, in your account: “Rarely does Doctor Who delve into psychological horror, but that’s what these episodes are all about – the terror within.” And the fact that there may very well be a terror within the magic cabinet is just as unsettling (yet enticing) as the adventures without. As with the Doctor, we’re not quite sure we can trust this quirky and somewhat unreliable time-ship. But at the end, as you say, we have a fully integrated crew, and we’re ready to step out into our next adventure. But we’re left with a question, that as you also say, gets picked up as recently as 2011’s “The Doctor’s Wife”: Who is actually piloting this box…who is really in control? And where will this “flying caravan” take us next?
Like the “Tribe of Gum” episodes, I think this story is often easily dismissed. And, again, I’d argue wrongfully so. I’ve heard the criticism that these stories are nothing more than cost-saving filler episodes to fulfill the original 13 episode commitment of the series. It’s also been argued that, with no monster to fight and an easy solution to the calamity, these episodes are of little consequence. Such criticisms miss the point (and importance) of these two episodes entirely. “The Edge of Destruction” and “The Brink of Disaster” are two very compelling episodes which are vital to the series as a whole.
Rarely does Doctor Who delve into psychological horror, but that’s what these episodes are all about – the terror within. After the uneasy truce that had settled in among the TARDIS crew in the past few episodes, one might be forgiven for believing that Ian and Barbara had let bygones be bygones about being violently abducted from their home by this strange old man. These episodes return to the tension that existed among the crew in the first four episodes. Ian and Barbara not only have to contend with being trapped in an alien environment, they have to put up with being treated as if they are the aliens intruders. In fact, the relationship between these unwilling travelling companions is so strained that I think it’s actually fitting that something as a minor as a technical glitch causes them all to go off the deep end.
Whereas in the Tribe of Gum episodes it was the Doctor and Ian at loggerheads, this time around it is the Doctor and Barbara who are locked in a battle of wills. This is the story where Barbara really comes into her own and finds her place among the crew. Though she still depends on Ian for support, she no longer relies on him to save her. And she doesn’t take being abused by the Doctor lightly. In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever seen the Doctor told off in such a manner until, perhaps, much later in the series when Peri confronts the 6th Doctor in “The Twin Dilemma” in much the same fashion. Though she does spend a fair share of time in terror, she doesn’t let that fear stop her from using her wits to solve the problem at hand.
This is also an important character arch for the Doctor for, in these two episodes, we see the Doctor at his best and worst. As Ian observes, “one moment you’re abusing us and the next, you’re playing the perfect butler.” Ian later asks to what end the Doctor uses his intelligence and the Doctor cryptically replies “one man’s law is another man’s crime”. This somewhat echoes his response to Ian’s question: “What form does this intelligence take?” in referring to the Daleks, to which the Doctor replies “as if that matters.” Both of these exchanges deliberately bring into question the Doctor’s morality. Like his actions toward the wounded Za, if we are to presume the worst implication of the Doctor picking up that rock, the Doctor is once again prepared to commit murder by throwing Ian and Barbara off the ship.
Surprisingly, it is Ian this time who appears reluctant to hold a grudge against the Doctor in the end (of course he was in a stupor most of the time so may not have been fully aware of the Doctor’s threats toward them). Barbara, however, is not so quick to forgive. This leads to one of my favorite scenes of the entire series – where the Doctor and Barbara share a quiet moment of reconciliation. It’s a simple scene, but one which carries a lot of weight. The Doctor’s apology is about as humble and contrite as the Doctor gets. Barbara comes out of it fully integrated into the TARDIS crew and the Doctor is shown to have learned a lesson in humility and humanity, one that appears to stay with him throughout the remainder of the series.
This tale also sets the groundwork for one of the most brilliant concepts of the entire series – equal to the concept of regeneration in my opinion – the idea that the TARDIS can think for itself. The Doctor is dismissive of the idea at first, but in the end cannot deny that this is precisely what happens. The TARDIS can protect itself and can potentially communicate with its’ crew. This idea was used on and off again throughout the series, eventually culminating in the 2011 story, “The Doctor’s Wife.” (Likewise, the concept of a crew inhabiting a living ship could be said to predate Farscape by about 30 years!)
The first 13 episodes of Doctor Who are almost like a mini-season in itself, acting as something of a prologue for the rest of the series. For me, this story has always had the feel of transition, one in which old wounds are deliberately opened in order to properly stitch them back together (which is analogous to what happens to the TARDIS itself in these episodes). It is as if the series was pausing for a breath, to take stock of itself and its characters, before settling in to the series we’ve come to expect and enjoy. By story’s end, the character turmoil of the past 13 episodes is laid to rest and the adventure is on!
The “Whovie” format! Love it!
Yes, like you, that was my first exposure to this serial. It was back in the fall of 1986, when our beloved local PBS station made the bold move to purchase all available Doctor Who serials and show them, in order, from the very beginning. So every Saturday afternoon, I’d fire up the VCR and get ready to record the off-air broadcast so that I might relive the magic of these stories at my convenience. Admittedly, part of that convenience involved the ability to fast forward.
In the “Whovie” format, a four episode story clocks in at about 90 minutes. A six part episode would be about 2½ hours of viewing. Thus at 7 episodes, The Daleks (or “The Dead Planet” as I knew it at the time and which never bothered me as a story title) ran close to being a three hour movie. As you noted, what works in short bursts as a weekly serialized adventure doesn’t always translate when watching it in one go. Let’s just say that around the 2 ½ hour mark I was ready to join Wimpy Thal at the bottom of that cavern.
Yes, that’s his name by the way- “Wimpy Thal”. You know, I’ve seen this story many times and yet still have trouble remembering their names. So I’ve taken to giving them all Smurf-like names instead. “Papa Thal” was killed by the Daleks. “Careless Thal” got eaten by the lake monster. “Boy Toy Thal” enjoys Barbara’s company. “Thalette” is in love with “Ken Doll Thal”. You get the idea.
(By the way, wouldn’t it be doubly hilarious if they all used “Thal” as a word substitute like the Smurfs? – “No, Ian, we will not Thal!” or “Thaltastic! We made it through the mountain!” or “What do those Thaling Daleks want now!?” Okay, maybe not.)
Watching this story in tandem with the first episode got me thinking about how the two stories fit together thematically. As you mentioned in you review of the “The Tribe of Gum”, there is an analogy to be made between “making fire” and the promise of technology. Is the Old Woman right when she says “Fire (i.e. – technology) will kill us all in the end?”
It is interesting that, after having watched early man at the dawn of knowledge, we are then transported millions of years into the future where such knowledge has been taken to its extreme, the end result of which was war, environmental disaster and mutations. In fact, the neutron bomb the Doctor describes as being able to destroy “all human tissues but leaves the buildings and machinery intact” could be seen as the ultimate mastery over “fire”.
I mentioned cheekily before how it was never directly confirmed that the “Tribe of Gum” episodes actually took place on Earth. So let’s have some fun and imagine that that the “Tribe of Gum” was set on Skaro. Maybe the TARDIS moved in time, not space, after their last escape and now we are witness to the ultimate outcome of Ian’s gift of fire?
There are similarities between the Tribe and the Thals. The Thals are certainly more cultured than the Tribe, but their means are the same. They are banded together for strength and protection. They live off the land. They farm rather than hunt, but they are still dependent on natural resources to survive. Even the social structure is similar, with (okay, I had to look up their names) Temmosus in a similar position to that of the Old Man with Alydon and Dyoni being the Za and Hur of the group (more cultured, of course).
But who’s missing from this tribe? Ah, yes – Kal. Short for Kaled, anyone? (Huh? See what happened there?)
Kal’s tribe was believed to have been wiped out, so Kal was taken in by Za’s group. But in our fantasy retcon, let’s imagine that members of Kal’s tribe survived and prospered enough so that their descendents would eventually grow to rival the descendents of Za’s tribe. Like Kal, the overriding character trait of this lost tribe was one of aggression; always ready to take power from others. Over millennia, the “Kaleds” as they became known, would do what their namesake ancestor could not. They would steal the power from the descendents of Za and use their mastery of technology to nearly destroy the Thal civilization.
Yes, I love the smell of retcon in the morning…..
On that note, let me offer some further random thoughts on these episodes:
What’s up with the radiation meter? At the beginning of the story Susan checks it and it reads normal. As she walks away, it clicks on and starts flashing brightly. Very foreboding, indeed. But the crew spends a significant time in the TARDIS since and I find it hard to believe that not one of them happens to take a second look at the brightly flashing light on the console. There’s even a time when their all gathered around it! Maybe it was battery operated, like a smoke alarm, and ran out of juice before anyone noticed?
Barbara can really belt one out, can’t she? (Perhaps she’s having a flashback to a really bad toilet clog?)
You know, I didn’t mind sending Susan and Barbara to the corridor while the Doctor and Ian scooped out the mutant. I mean, let’s face it, Susan would have freaked. But what did raise my eyebrows was the Thals’ teasing Alydon that Susan was safe to talk to because she was “no longer a girl, not yet a woman.” “Doesn’t she know we’re working toward the same end?” exclaims Alydon as “Thalette” shows her jealousy, to which a rueful Thal replies “There’s a double meaning for you.” Yeesh!
In episode 4, Barbara wonders why the Daleks haven’t cleaned out the swamp and killed everything in it. The Thal replies something like “Why would they, it makes a great natural barrier”. It’s a strange conversation since it’s been drilled home that the Daleks can’t leave the city. Sounds like someone needed a little exposition to enhance a future plot point.
The Doctor says at one point “With me to lead them, the Thals are bound to succeed”. Yet he’s the only one to actually get captured by the Daleks! Way to go, Doc!
By the way, isn’t part of the reason Ian and Barbara were kidnapped was to prevent them from exposing the Doctor’s secrets? Now, granted he’s desperate to stop the Daleks from using their neutron bomb, he starts telling them all about his space-time machine and tells them to examine a key component if they don’t believe him. Have you ever wondered where the Daleks got the idea for a transcendental space-time craft? Forget “Genesis of the Daleks”, I think the Time War may have started here!
At the end of the serial, Alydon is inspecting a rather large machine when the Doctor casually says “It’s useless…throw it away!” Couldn’t the Doctor have told him this earlier, like say, back in the city before the poor guy dragged the whole thing all the way out to the campsite? (Speaking of which, why did he drag that thing all the way back to the camp?)
Ah. The Daleks. Where Doctor Who (and the “Nation Estate”) really begins. My memories of this one are very foggy. I would have seen this for the first (and last time) when I was a teenager, probably off of one of your old VHS copies, Dave. I’ll admit now that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the Hartnell era when I first saw these existing stories , but I’m willing to bet that my lack of enjoyment was due to a few key factors:
- Poor VHS Recordings from Off-Television Broadcast:
I’ll forever appreciate the access to your collection back in the eighties, Dave. But let’s face it. Some of the VHS tapes we had as teenagers were either very cheap or recycled from our parents’ hand-me-downs, or sometimes both. I can remember some very scratchy visuals with sometimes barely audible sound.
- The “Whovie” Format:The series was, after all, meant to be viewed as serialized, weekly episodes, and not edited into the movie format as was delivered on PBS in the mid to late eighties. As much as I loved Doctor Who, anything beyond four episodes edited into this format was very challenging to watch in a single sitting. And no cliff-hangers!
- Lack of Access to Missing Stories:
As I recall, Target was just filling in some of the gaps with the books at the time. Certainly there were no officially released orphaned episodes, off-air audio recordings, or even fan reconstructions available to us at the time. So, I think I missed a lot of essential development of characters and dramatic continuity by viewing these stories in a haphazard and random order.
Given these factors, I’m interested to see how this experiment unfolds as I discover anew this whole era of the program through the cleaned-up DVD’s, audios, and reconstructions. My approach, as we continue, will be to attempt to view these episodes fresh with as little bias from my knowledge of later eras as possible. Of course, this is impossible. But I’ll try.
And I’ll fail right from the beginning when I see that radiation dial go from safe to lethal as the companions exit the TARDIS. Originally intended, I’m sure, as another of the ship’s malfunctions, this could also be a deliberate manipulation of events by the TARDIS herself who stole a Time Lord (ala the new series’ The Doctor’s Wife) forcing the Doctor and companions into their next adventure. A fun bit of “retcon” interpretation, but I’ll ignore this for now and move on…
Really, despite the weaknesses, there’s so much to like in this story, and one can see why the Daleks were such an instant hit. I love how the very first episode goes all out to depict a world that is truly alien: it gives us a petrified forest, an exoskeleton creature, a wonderfully exotic and alien looking city. And once we get inside the city we see metal corridors and short, oddly slanted doorways that are clearly not designed with humans in mind. We will not always see this kind of effort in Doctor Who, and it’s great to see it on display here in these early episodes.
The incidental music here supports the visuals by providing what a kind of otherworldly, post-apocalyptic soundscape. One of the things I love about the classic series is its highly creative use of sound-effects and music, and here Tristram Carey really helps establish and promote a sense of the alien and foreboding.
Sound, visuals, direction….these things all come together in a fever-pitch with the mechanical arm outstretched towards the screaming Barbara. I must have seen this cliff-hanger a hundred times in various documentaries and montages, but it never loses its power. Similarly, when the Daleks first surround the remaining companions, we have a great use of sounds and visuals that signify the importance of the encounter, even if those involved in the making didn’t realize how significant and important it would prove to be.
I also love the dialogue of the Daleks and the way in which they’re treated as individual personalities. One of my favorite lines comes from their discussion regarding the origins of the TARDIS crew: “A few questions will remove the mystery.” They haven’t yet become the galactic conquerors exterminating all in their path. But we can see the seeds of what they will evolve into later in the series. They are cold and cunning, indifferent to the fates of our heroes and committed to the annihilation of their enemies, the Thals. They are also, right from their beginnings, a bit prone to hysteria: the scene, for example, where the test subject Daleks consume the anti-radiation drugs, and the one Dalek spins out of control perfectly encapsulates this: “Help. Cannot control. Cannot Control. Help me. Help me. Help. Help. Ahhhh….” Has the paranoid, claustrophobic condition of the Dalek ever been better portrayed onscreen?
Also excellent is the escape by the TARDIS crew from the Dalek city. The pacing of the sequence of events from the capture of a Dalek’s shell to the flight up the lift is superb, and the suspense and tension builds very nicely. As a side note, who knew that the Daleks had an appreciation for modern art? Or was that statue that the crew throws down the shaft a relic from the days of the Dals (er, Kaleds)?
Another wonderful surprise is the scene where the Daleks position themselves for their ambush of the Thals. Their cold-blooded, merciless temperaments play out through the visuals of the Daleks positioning themselves within alcoves and behind walls while the Thals peacefully and unexpectedly walk into a planned massacre. One has the feeling of watching an old Western where a gang of cowboys position themselves to attack the rival newcomers to their town.
So, what didn’t work for me? Well, for starters, there’s that scene where upon capturing the Dalek, Ian and the Doctor have the “ladies” leave the room so that they can get on with the gruesome “man’s work”. I know it’s 1963 here but….well, I guess some things just don’t age well. Although it’s nicely counterpointed when in a later episode Barbara is asked if she always does what Ian says, and she gives an emphatic “no.” Also what doesn’t work for me is the penultimate episode where we get to see the Thals cross a chasm. One….by….one. Again, I know it’s 1963, and these episodes are meant to be viewed once a week….but even so. And then there’s the somewhat anticlimactic ending with the two Thal groups reuniting in the city and quickly overpowering the Daleks by disabling the electricity. It also kind of begs the question: If it was so easy to walk through the front-doors of the city, why all of the fussing about and losing lives in the swamp.
And then there’s the problem of the Thals. What a limp, boring bunch, no? I think you mentioned, Dave, that even after all your viewings of this story, you struggle to remember their individual names. When Susan describes them as “perfect” early on in the story before they’ve appeared, you know immediately that they’re going to turn out to be insufferably dull and unlikable. These blonde-haired (and I assume blue-eyed) pacifists are all so one-dimensionally drawn, and you find yourself almost rooting the Daleks on (realizing this is just a TV show….not to condone genocide, of course). Something is also just very uncomfortable today about the message that “ugly, mutated = evil” and “good-looking = good.” Here it seems that one’s physical characteristics are manifestations of one’s internal character. Terrific lesson for the kids. Ugh.
Looking back, it’s funny, but I think I kind of liked that caveman script a bit more. But I’m being a bit overly harsh with the critique here. Overall, I enjoyed this story for all of the reasons mentioned above, and it’s definitely a case of the sum being greater than its parts. It works as an evocative piece of early sci-fi television and it introduces the legendary and iconic Dalek to the British public. Ignore its age lines and couple of warts and just relish this piece of entertaining awesomeness.
Well, Dave, I hate to burst that bubblegum bubble of yours but….oh, wait….I think I actually agree with you on the quality of this one. This is a great little piece of drama. Was it a sensible choice for launching the series? Well, here we are fifty years later, so it’s sort of a moot point. I’m curious to know how this fared with British kids in the 60’s, though. The eight-year old me who loved An Unearthly Child quickly changed the channel as soon as the faces of the tribe appear one by one on the screen. Pity. If only I could go back in time and explain this story to the younger me.
What I couldn’t appreciate then, though, I find quite compelling now. As you say, there are so many themes at play here, and they’re supported by a very good script. The foreshadowing in the original episode is indeed quite good, with the Doctor’s line to Ian about the Native American encounter with technology immediately springing to mind: “When he saw the first steam train, his savage mind thought it an illusion too.” So, here we are in the second episode where Ian and Barbara will actually have the chance to experience the Doctor and Susan’s perspective as they visit humanity’s pre-historic origins. Brilliant.
And it may be a bit of a stretch, but I’m actually reminded of the 2001: A Space Odyssey’s “Dawn of Man” scenes (I can’t recall, but I think I’ve read this idea somewhere before). The caveman (whom we later meet as new tribe-member Kal) staring in awe at the TARDIS in the midst of the barren landscape is reminiscent of the apes encountering the monolith (or prescient as 2001 won’t be made for another five years?). The police box shape is like nothing else that Kal or the tribe would ever have encountered, and it brings with it the promise of technology (i.e. the making of fire). As with the apes in that film too, these early humans struggle to survive in a harsh world before they have mastered the art of toolmaking (again, here depicted as the ability to make fire).
You’ve already touched on so many of the finer points within this story. I would only add a couple more. First, it’s fascinating to watch these early episodes before character of the Doctor has fully developed (here, he’s “still cooking”). He does have some great moments (e.g., his shrewd insight into the political divisions within the tribe and his masterful exploitation of them to his advantage), but he hasn’t yet emerged as the clear hero or moral center for the series. The Doctor’s character that we all know and love is here divided between this early proto-Doctor and Ian. This proto-Doctor retains the intelligence and eccentricity, but he lacks the heroic qualities of persistent hope and moral fiber that we see embodied here in Ian . And again, as you mention Dave, it is Ian and Barbara who “humanize” the Doctor’s actions. You could actually argue that Ian shares credit with this early, proto-Doctor as the true “First Doctor.”
Another item of interest to me is the role of women in this story; in particular, the role of women within the tribe. Of course, classic Doctor Who comes in for a fair amount of criticism for its perceived sexism, and I’m sure we’ll find a number of examples as we watch the series unfold. But here in the first story we see women playing very powerful and influential roles. Take Hur, for example. She maneuvers between the two patriarchs in her life (her father, representing her past and Za, representing her future) with the skill of a consummate politician. She uses her favored position with Za to influence her father and seek his support by promising his protection and security in old age. And it’s hard not to see a little bit of “Lady Macbeth” in her as she stokes the metaphorical fire of ambition with Za to create the real fire that will secure his (and by extension her) position as leader within the tribe. And then there is the brilliant characterization of Old Mother. Doomsayer of the tribe, she is outspoken and fearless, risking and losing her own life to set the TARDIS crew free and protect the tribe from the dangers of fire.
One final thing. When have cavemen ever sounded so eloquent? The Tribe of Gum, aided by the brilliant retcon of TARDIS translation circuits, create some truly poetic lines:
Inside, he is full of fire! Smoke comes from his mouth!
Without meat, we go hungry. Without fire…we die
Old men see no further than tomorrow’s meat
We have no meat, and no fruit from the trees, and no roots
I remember how the meat and fire join together
Surely, Old Mother foreshadows Robert Frost when she says “Fire will kill us all in the end.” 100,000 years later, Frost would agree:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
Once again I’m going to go out on a limb. I am going to declare that the first story, in its entirety, is one of the best Doctor Who’s ever. Now, I know what you’re saying. “Dude, the caveman episodes – really? Hear me out.
Admittedly, this is an odd choice for the first story of a new children’s/family television program. I’ve already talked about how the first episode perfectly sets up the series, but then we have the other three episodes to deal with, collectively known as “The Tribe of Gum.” As it turns out, this tribe is anything but Bubblicious. Here’s a synopsis:
The Tribe of Gum waits for the “Big Red” Orb to give them the secret of fire before the “Winterfresh” season comes. Za wants to “Excel” at being leader while Kal hopes to make it into the “Big League” and take his place. The Doctor, not having an “Extra” pack of matches on him, gets his colleagues trapped in the Cave of Skulls. Inside the cave, the four travelers try to “Wrigley” out of their bonds. Set free by the “Spry” Old Woman, they make “Strident” efforts to escape. Recaptured, Ian tries making fire as an “Ice Breaker”. Sparing their lives, the tribe brings them water in a stone and meat (what, no “Juicy Fruit”?). The time travelers eventually trick the tribe and make a mad dash for “Freedent.” Dodging the tribes’ “spearmints”, the travelers make it back to the safety of the TARDIS, where they are finally able to “Freshen Up”.
One of the things that amazes me to this day is to think that these first episodes were made to be seen only once. They didn’t have “re-runs” a lot back then and I’m sure they had no idea we’d still be watching these episodes into the digital age. The reason this amazes me is because this particular serial, in my opinion, rewards repeat viewing. Indeed, each time I watch this story, I come away with something new. There are so many themes that these episodes touch on, many of which are not overt but inherent in the text itself. These include themes of knowledge vs. ignorance, good and evil, survival against man and nature, politics, morality, responsibility, fear of technology, ambition, jealousy, perseverance, ageism, gender roles, etc. and so on.
Going back to the very first episode, I love the foreshadowing that takes place, specifically, where Ian and Barbara come across the bust with the cracked head. I also like how Ian trips in the darkened junkyard and loses his torch (flashlight) and irritably responds when Barbara suggests he “light a match” that he hasn’t got any. Not only does this serve as a minor plot point for the remaining episodes but it subtly foreshadows the great discovery by Za in episode 4 that in the dark of night “with fire, it is day!”
Others have noted, I’m sure, how the relationship of the Doctor and Susan to Ian and Barbara is analogous to that of the relationship of Ian and Barbara to the tribe. But I see even deeper analogies to be made. For instance, you can contrast the TARDIS as a “cave of technology” to the “Cave of Skulls”, which is about as primal a place as you can get. In the context of the story, both are used, basically, as prisons. Ian and Barbara become sealed in the TARDIS by the Doctor in part to prevent them from sharing the knowledge they have discovered with others. By contrast, all four travelers are later sealed in the Cave of Skulls to prevent them from leaving before they can share their knowledge with the tribe.
I also really enjoy the political intrigue that goes on in the tribe. One of my favorite scenes occurs in episode 2 where Za and Kal make their case to the tribe as to who is the better candidate for leader. Kal claims that Za has too many good skins and has forgotten what the cold is like. Za then makes the campaign promise to kill many bears so all will have warm skins. Then the Old Man counters with: “I say tomorrow you will rub your hands together and ask orb to send you fire and the bears will stay warm in their own skins.” – Snap!
Kind of reminds me of the current state of U.S. politics:
Nameless politician: “The President is out of touch! He has too many good skins. Despite being from the Windy City, he has forgotten what it is like to be cold!”
President: “As I’ve said before, I will never give up until all our citizens have meat and warm skins. And, if we can all reach agreement, my plan will do this!”
Political commentator: “I’m sure the President will spend his day tomorrow praying for Congress to pass his bill. However, since it is likely to fail, it’s predicted the bears will continue to stay warm in their own skins.”
This power struggle between Za and Kal is both echoed and contrasted by the power struggle between the Doctor and Ian. Za and Kal have no concept of trust, kindness, friendship or morality. This is made evident when Za is wounded and Ian and Barbara come to his aid. Za and his significant other Hur, cannot comprehend why the travelers are helping them. Without understanding these concepts, it becomes clear that the tribe is really a tribe of convenience. If it wasn’t for safety in numbers, it would be every man for himself.
This kind of thinking is echoed by the Doctor and Ian during the travelers’ first escape attempt through the jungle. Ian tries to give advice to the Doctor, who is having none of it. Ian forcefully tells the Doctor that if it was just the two of them he’d leave the Doctor to fend for himself. But it’s not just about them, and Ian and the Doctor both understand that. They eventually work together to drive Kal from the tribe for killing the Old Woman. And though it is he who creates fire for Za, Ian yields the role of leadership to the Doctor.
Which brings up another point- it is not just the secret of fire that tribe lacks, but the secret of community. Za remembers Ian’s words that “Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe” to mean that a tribe working together toward a common goal can achieve things that one man alone cannot. Not only does Za remember this, he is eager for more things to remember. So perhaps Ian and Barbara’s biggest contribution to early man was not to bestow on them the secret of fire, but to instead ignite the flame of intelligence over ignorance. And another thought – wouldn’t this make it all the more perfect that the two people to end up in this situation are teachers? (See, this story keeps on giving!)
I want to mention one other thing before I wrap up. For me, another aspect of appreciation toward this serial is how successive eras of the show have successfully built upon the series such that the subsequent mythology of the program is able to enrich older stories such as this one. Like, for instance, we can now ignore the supposed silliness of English-talking cavemen (it’s the TARDIS translation circuits obviously – which could explain the odd accents in “The Gunfighters” too, but I’m getting ahead of myself).
But in terms of character, The Doctor’s behavior in this and subsequent episodes is very intriguing based on what we later learn about Time Lords later in the series. Here we have a character that starts out with a very typical Time Lord attitude – he’s arrogant, thinks himself superior to others, and maintains a policy of non-involvement (the mere thought that someone would find out about the ship fills him with dread).
The importance of Ian and Barbara, then, is that they serve to humanize the Doctor. In terms of the larger “myth-arch” that is Doctor Who, their presence in these early stories cannot be underestimated. They are the ones from which the Doctor learns the “indomitable” strength of humanity – the courage, kindness and resilience. Their influence is what drives the Doctor to change for the better. I think a very important scene in this regard is the one where the Doctor picks up a rock and begins to move toward an injured Za before Ian catches him. The Doctor then fumbles his way to the excuse that he was going to try to have Za draw the way back to the ship, but the implication is clear. This may well be the earliest example of what future companion Donna Noble comes to realize– that the Doctor needs companions because sometimes he needs someone to stop him.
In the end, it is my opinion that the “Uneathly Child/Tribe of Gum” combo is not only great storytelling but great science fiction overall. I have read interviews where producer Verity Lambert and writer Anthony Coburn came away thinking that this story was, perhaps, not the best story to open the Doctor Who series with. I respectfully disagree.
Viewer’s really needed to catch episode 2. Episode 2 not only cements the mystery of “Who is he? Doctor who?”, but it also explains why the TARDIS is stuck as a Police Box. I don’t recall this being explained again in any of the follow-up serials to this one.
What’s up with Susan? She completely freaks out when the Doctor goes missing. Surely they’ve had adventures before Ian and Barbara arrived where they’ve gotten separated before. Did she freak out like that all the time?
Did Susan lose the Doctor’s notebook? When she finds it, she claims that it has the key codes of all the machines in the ship and notes to everywhere they’ve been to. Then it’s not seen again.
Come to think of it though, why would the Doctor ever dare to take something that contained the key codes to all the machines in the ship outside of the ship where it could easily get lost or stolen?
I like how quick the Doctor is to change his tune. He abducts Ian and Barbara partly on the pretense that e doesn’t want them to share the knowledge of what they have seen, but then he’s more than willing to give the cavemen all the fire they want in return for his freedom. (Ha! Shoe’s on the other foot now, smart guy!)
Was the “Old Woman” her real name or did the cavemen have the concept of nicknames under their (bearskin) belts? What would have happened if there was another woman in the tribe about the same age? Would they be “Old Woman #1” and “Old Woman #2”?
It occurs to me that nobody ever said explicitly they landed on Earth, all they said was that they went back in time. Could they have given fire to cavemen from another planet? I know what you’re going to say- isn’t one of the working titles for this story “100,000 BC”? True, but that could still be “100,000 BC” on another planet. Maybe B.C. on that planet would mean “Before Chesterton”?
Thanks, Dave. I like the idea for the Big Finish “Students of Coal Hill.” Let’s get that petition started! Anyway, the “actual” first episode….
I first saw this story during a PBS pledge-drive sometime in the early eighties when I was somewhere between the ages of eight and ten. Up until this point, I had only ever seen Tom Baker in the starring role, and it was inconceivable to my childhood mind that anyone else could be Dr. Who (as I thought of him back then). It was even more mind-bending to me that the series had existed for many years previously with different actors having played the part before Tom. To me, so inextricable from the role was this madman with “teeth and curls” and his ridiculously long, multicolored scarf trailing behind as he ran from one adventure to the next. So, it says something, I think, that I can actually remember this piece of “event” PBS television. And it says something more, that I actually liked this vintage, black and white episode even back then. For several years later, this remained the only “non-Tom Baker” story I would see (or care to see), but I did file it away in the back of my mind as a fun and entertaining start for the series.
I’ve since seen this episode many times over the years, and I’ve discovered that it never gets old or any less enjoyable. Actually, it gets better. And it gets better, it seems, with each viewing. Why should this be?
Let’s begin at the beginning. At the very beginning. The beautifully strange and strangely beautiful opening titles. And that haunting, yet seductive opening theme tune. Both are timeless. Sure, the titles are in black and white, but that just elevates their aesthetic value, no? Seeing this for the first time, I was reassured to find that the essence of strangeness that I loved so much in the Tom Baker sequence was preserved here in the very original. And I can only imagine how different and out-of-this-world the music must have seemed to its very first audience. An audience that wasn’t as familiar with electronic music as we are today. So, the series opens with what is, in its original Delia Derbyshire realization, the greatest theme music of any TV show ever. A moment of silence in awe and remembrance of the late, great Delia Derbyshire….
The story opens with theme music still playing in the background. Swirls of London fog. An English policeman poking around. Opening the doors to a junkyard. Totter’s Lane. We share his point of view. Searching around through the discarded junk, our eyes settle upon a solitary blue box. A police telephone box. It seems to be humming…it seems to be vibrating. As one of the characters will say later in this same episode, “it’s alive.” Then it fades-away….
The brilliance of this scene, for me, is its pithiness. Without any words being spoken, so much emerges here from the fog that neatly encapsulates what the show is about….or will be about, over the course of the next fifty years and beyond. Firstly, this is a show that is quintessentially British, and it wears that heritage proudly. The London fog…the Bobby…Totter’s Lane…a British telephone box. We’re beginning our story….our epic….in the everyday world of twentieth century England. And while many people over the years will mistake this show for science-fiction, they’ll somehow willfully overlook the fact that it clearly isn’t. It’s a show (or I should say it will become a show) that defies genre classification. Borderline anthology, it will dabble in many genres over many years and decades. In so doing, it will create its own genre, and develop its own mythology. For it will unfold as a story that has its roots in myth. And yet to the foreign audiences it will acquire, it will always persist in exuding a certain sense of being “British.” Even when it comes to America for one night only in 1996, the Doctor will remain (and even admit onscreen) to being British. Here we have then, the launch of a modern British mythology that will find an audience well beyond its own borders to all corners of the globe. The sun never sets on Doctor Who.
How great is it, also, that that the junkyard doors open into what is very obviously a stage? Viewed at from this perspective, the random items that clutter the scene appear as discarded props from other, long concluded plays. But the one prop that takes center stage (or camera) and announces its own vitality with a steady hum is the blue box. It is this blue box that will act as a portal into an infinite variety of worlds and stories. “All the world’s a stage,” and all of time and space is within a blue box.
…..Our next scene is in a London school. Two school-teachers, one of history and one of science, serve as two great pillars for the series. Sure, the show can be educational if it wants to be, and at this point it actually does want to be. But whether or not it remains true to this original remit, it will always be about exploring the unknown…. through all of time and through all of space. So, here in the very beginning, we have time and space embodied in the first companions, Barbara and Ian. And they are terrific.
Barbara and Ian do so much to sell us this story, and they sell it to us as a mystery. The mystery of a girl. A girl of only fifteen who seems to know so much, and yet so little. Susan Foreman. She is a girl out of her time, and the shared experiences of Barbara and Ian show this to us through a series of dramatic flashbacks. Norman Kay’s music helps build this suspense and earnestness. We are there, at the beginning, with Barbara and Ian. Ordinary, middle of the road folk who are already hooked by this story. We want to go with them, and we are complicit in following Susan back to that mysterious junkyard. We know we shouldn’t go….we sympathize with Barbara…it feels a bit like stalking. But we push our way through the doors with them both.
And very soon we meet him. An old man with long white hair. And he even has a scarf (he is the Doctor after all). He’s abrupt and defensive…secretive….eccentric maybe….definitely strange. But compelling too. We like something about him, but we’re also not sure if he’s quite safe. And then there’s the voice of Susan, from inside the blue box. She calls out from inside….And then, again, with Barbara and Ian, we push through the doors.
And now it really does begin. We’re not in the show we thought we were. This isn’t a simple mystery drama that will resolve anytime soon. The mystery will only deepen…and widen. If at first we pushed onto a stage, now we’ve pushed through a portal….a gateway to endless adventures.
All of the players here are on top form. This Doctor might be the title character and the heart of this mystery, but here at the beginning we are in the company of an ensemble cast, each character balancing the others. The incredulousness of Barbara and Ian matches our own. How can something so small on the outside be so vast within? It was just a police box. This isn’t possible. We must grapple with this strangeness along with Ian. “A thing that looks like a police box, standing in a junkyard, can move anywhere in time and space?” And then this Doctor invokes the analogy of television itself to explain. Television itself is like a magic box (at least before flat screens). Bigger on the inside than out. Possessing the power to transport us to any time and any place. So, Doctor Who is aware of itself right at its birth. It’s aware of its medium, as well as in its roots in theater.
And then it happens. A brief struggle, and we’re off in the box. With Barbara and Ian. With this otherworldly child, Susan. And with this strange, unpredictable Doctor. This magician with a magic cabinet, masquerading as a scientist from another world. A swirl of anachronistic psychedelia derbyshire, a radiophonic feast of sounds, and we’re out of our world and out of our time. Somewhere on a barren landscape, an ominous shadow lumbers forward.
Dave, you said this is arguably the greatest science fiction pilot ever? I would only amend by removing “science fiction” from that statement. Stuff of legend.
Hi, I’m Dave. And I’m a Doctor Who-a-holic.
[Altogether now – Hi, Dave!]
So, Doctor Who blog.
Where to begin?
Well, I’d like to start at the beginning. Or better yet, being as how we’re all time travelers here, the pre-beginning. I’m talking about the pilot episode. The one that was never aired. The one that might have been.
It’s my opinion that the pilot episode is important mainly for its flaws. And it is flawed – in terms of the staging, character, and production. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable to watch. It stands as a marvelous curiosity to things that might have been. But I think a lot of the high regard given to the pilot episode nowadays stems from the re-edits that have taken place on the VHS and DVD releases that attempt to remove as many of the flaws as possible in order to present as “clean” a version as can be.
In actuality, the pilot episode, as originally produced, was plagued with production problems. Actors fluffed lines and knocked things over, stage hands could be seen and heard, and, most famously, the TARDIS doors that refused to close prompting a remount of the entire sequence where Ian and Barbara first enter the TARDIS. Now I’ve read conflicting takes on whether the pilot was planned as just that – a “pilot” to see how things would work or if it really was planned as the first episode but was deemed unsuitable to air. But whatever the case may be, these faults are what instigated series creator and Head of Drama, Sydney Newman, to order a do-over. Or should I say a Doctor Who-over? (and I’m apologizing already). Thus, if the pilot episode wasn’t as flawed as it was, we may never have gotten the gem of a first episode that resulted.
Disclaimer: I’ve watched a lot of TV in my day, especially genre programs. (I’m also a sucker for first episodes and final episodes). So, despite accusations of bias, I will come out and say that I think the first episode-proper of Doctor Who is not only one of the finest first episodes of any series, but one of the finest episodes of any science fiction series. Without the dry-run that was the “pilot”, it would not be nearly so polished a production.
It is amazing to watch both the pilot episode and the premiere episode side by side. The basic framework is all there – the school, the unearthly child, the junkyard, the abduction by the Doctor – but the final production is far superior to the one that came before.
For example, compare the staging of the scenes of the policeman doing his rounds, or that of Ian and Barbara talking discussing Susan in the classroom. Even little things like Susan’s eyeline when she talks to the camera (as the teachers’ point of view) are better realized in the finished version.
And I’m so glad they got rid of Susan’s ink-blot scene. That never made any sense to me.
[Susan’s thought bubble]: “The teachers are gone. Good. Think I’ll just saunter over here and sprinkle some ink of this paper. Fold it. Add a few lines and… Ooh, I think I foreshadowed!”
The characterizations are a lot better as well. The interplay between Ian and Barbara in the first episode is far more natural and easy going than in the pilot. And the Doctor, though still quite intimidating, is not quite as ruthless as he appears in the pilot (“I blame you, you stupid child!”).
This slight softening of the part introduces a vulnerability to the character that feeds well into his gradual transition into the hero he is to become. My only regret character-wise was in the watering-down of Susan’s character, turning her from the “unearthly” child to the “Odd and somewhat spazzy” child, a portrayal that was never fully righted enough for my liking.
Finally, the dialogue! This is especially evident in the TARDIS sequences where we go from:
“We are wanders in the 4th dimensions of space and time cut off from our own planet and our own people by eons and universes that are far beyond the reach of your most advance sciences” to “Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanders in the fourth dimension? Have you? To be exiles?”
We go from “I was born in the 49th century” to “I was born in another time, another world.”
We go from “don’t expect any answers from me. You wouldn’t understand anyway” to “You’ve discovered television, haven’t you?…Then by showing an enormous building on your television screen, you can do what seemed impossible, couldn’t you?” Love that explanation of the TARDIS – pure genius in its logical absurdity.
I feel I could ramble on for hours on this (Must seem that way to you already). So I think I’ll save some thoughts for later, when I talk more about the premiere episode in relation to the premiere story. In the meantime, I’ll pass this off the Shawn, my “partner in crime”, if you will, and get his take on the beginning of Doctor Who. Take it away.
Bonus Discussion points:
What does that girl whisper to her friend in the school hallway? I think there’s a whole untapped area of fan fiction in the waiting. Or perhaps a new product line for Big Finish – “Students of Coal Hill”.
The theme music “thunder clap” from the pilot episode – Love it or hate it?
In the premiere episode, when Susan is trying to stop the Doctor from leaving and the ship starts shaking, the Doctor pushes her away saying what sounds like to me “Get back to the ship, child!” What does that mean? Aren’t they in “the ship”? I’m either hearing it wrong or it’s got to be the first in a long line of senior moments from the 1st Doctor.
Why did Ian & Barbara get knocked out as the TARDIS took off? Surely we’ve seen worse buffeting about in the TARDIS without people passing out? (Well, okay, the 6th Doctor did hit his head on the console forcing a regeneration, but still…)