& C. E. WEBBER
100,000 BC &
THE TRIBE OF GUM
'THE BEGINNING' DVD BOX SET (BBCDVD1882) RELEASED IN JANUARY 2006.
Susan Foreman is a mystery to teachers Ian Chesterton and
Barbara Wright, seemingly knowing more than she should about the past... and the future.
Their curiosity leads them to follow her home one night, only to find that her SHE appears to LIVE IN a deserted junkyard.
THERE they discover a police telephone box and aN old man, who claims to be Susan’s grandfather, and calls himself the Doctor. The journey of a lifetime is about to begin...
An Unearthly Child
23RD NOVEMBER 1963 - 14TH DECEMBER 1963
1. AN UNEARTHLY CHILD 2. THE CAVE OF SKULLS
3. THE FOREST OF FEAR 4. THE FIREMAKER
At long last An Unearthly Child, The Daleks, The Edge of Destruction and even a brilliant reconstruction of the lost Marco Polo arrive on DVD, gloriously re-mastered. And The Beginning DVD box set was certainly well worth the wait.
Rather than trying to compete with the recent eye-catching release of the 2005 series in a TARDIS-shaped box set, the BBC have instead elected to release the first four Doctor Who stories in a stylish and sturdy near-monochrome DVD slipcase which houses the three discs as if they were separate releases, with the individual discs each featuring wonderful covers by Clayton Hickman in the current in-house style.
Superb value for money, The Beginning is an absolute must for any Doctor Who fan. The Restoration Team have done real wonders in bringing these (now over forty years old) episodes to life once again with superb picture and sound quality so that we can rediscover that mysterious old Police box stuck in a junk yard on Totter’s Lane and begin the trip of a lifetime all over again…
Above: Nothing at the end of the lane?
An Unearthly Child heralded a new era for science fiction, and indeed for television. Hell, it heralded a new era for culture. The first episode of Doctor Who is an absolute triumph; a television gem that will live on for as long as people watch the idiot’s lantern.
The first twenty-five magical minutes of Doctor Who still cut the mustard even today. The TARDIS is without question the greatest storytelling device ever devised; undoubtedly one of the main reasons for the show’s unprecedented longevity. There are no limits to the kind of story that can be told – futuristic, historical, ‘sideways’… The scene where Ian and Barbara burst into the ship was as epic for its time as Rose’s beautifully cinematic entrance into the TARDIS more than forty years later would be, if not more so, as the show had the element of surprise on its side the first time around.
“…let me get this straight. A thing that looks like a Police Box,
stuck in a junk yard, can move anywhere in Time and Space?”
And despite the legitimately wobbly sets, the characters instantly shone. We have the stalwart Ian Chesterton - the show’s hero. His female colleague, Barbara Wright - a woman clearly out of her depth with whom the audience can empathise. Susan Foreman - the eponymous unearthly child. And then the Doctor…
William Hartnell’s initial portrayal isn’t far short of villainous, and it works spectacularly well. He is a complete mystery; a selfish, sinister and manipulative old man, and though we will soon learn that his hearts are in the right places, in this story he heartlessly kidnaps Ian and Barbara to protect his secrets. What a start…
Sadly though, the TARDIS’s first televised journey is infinitely less compelling than the first episode. In fact, save for the wonderfully evocative cliffhanger ending to An Unearthly Child, there is very little that we can take from the ensuing 100,000 BC / Tribe of Gum story. The main characters, particularly the Doctor, continue to intrigue the audience, but beyond that the plot is paper thin and - really quite worryingly for an ‘educational’ show - many of the so-called educational elements are wildly off beam.
Further, this part of the story has become infamous within fan circles thanks to the scene where the Doctor picks up a rock and gives the injured caveman that is slowing them down a murderous look - a moment that does not hold true with how the character would develop (and which Terrance Dicks would later seek to rectify, albeit rather crudely, in his novel The Eight Doctors). Still, it is intriguing to see just how ruthless this (relatively) young Time Lord was…
The DVD release of An Unearthly Child does the groundbreaking story justice. Interestingly though, it is the first complete story to be released on DVD that does not come with a full commentary track since the experimental release of The Five Doctors special edition way back in 1999. However, the pilot episode, An Unearthly Child and The Firemaker each have excellent commentaries, all expertly moderated by Gary Russell. These older stories particularly benefit from his probing questions and prompting.
Turning to the separate special features, the four comedy sketches are undoubtedly the disc’s finest offering. It’s good to see Mark Gatiss and David Walliams’ sketches from BBC 2’s 1999 Doctor Who night finally get released on DVD; the Kidnapped sketch with Peter Davison is hilarious. The pilot episode itself is interesting to watch and play ‘Spot the Difference’ with the episode that aired, but the real gem is the studio recording footage of that inaugural episode, complete with retakes and all. The theme music video is also a nice little throwaway feature, and as standard the disc is also equipped with insightful production subtitles and a thorough photo gallery.
And so An Unearthly Child heralded the arrival of a television series that would still be a remarkable success more than forty years on, and hopefully will be for much longer still. Whilst the three Tribe of Gum episodes drag down the serial as a whole, the unrivalled brilliance of Doctor Who’s first historic episode cannot be overstated.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2006
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
The first episode of Doctor Who is still one of the most innovative and stunning examples of science fiction that I have enjoyed. It is a magical step into another world for Ian and Barbara (and the audience) but it also kick-started British phenomena; a juggernaut of storytelling that is still evolving and growing to this day. Now that’s staying power. It is a well constructed piece that draws the viewer in within minutes. Everybody loves a mystery and the question mark that hangs over this strange school girl remains compulsive viewing even in these deliriously-edited days of television.
What is great about An Unearthly Child is a weakness in the overall first series as Susan unfortunately would never be this interesting again. Considering where their characters go over the next two years William Russell and Jacqueline Hill are both very grounded and convince as concerned schoolteachers and their reaction to Hartnell’s gruff and humourless Doctor Foreman kicks-starts some wond-erful chemistry between the actors and the characters. This is a kid’s show but the whole conceit of Susan being held captive against her will by this terrifying old man is quite adult and is certainly played that way. We take for granted the relative dimensions of the TARDIS but there is still something that gives me goosebumps when Barbara forces her way in and the camera pans around the sterile and yet utterly gorgeous first console room. The actors, writer and director probably did not realise what they were getting into taking such a huge leap from domestic drama to science fiction but the crossing of genres as they step from the junkyard to the TARDIS is like a slap in the face; a total culture shock. I defy anybody to watch this episode and not be impressed by its risky storytelling.
So the trip of a lifetime begins with that first step into a gently-humming police box on a foggy winter’s evening. That initial step back in time turns into one of the most disturbing we would see in the series’ first few years. We might shrug our shoulders these days with the thought of walking through one door in London and stepping back out to prehistoric Britain, but back in 1963 this was such a radical concept. Ian and Barbara are used as our eyes and ears in this alien environment and it is their horrified reactions that make this story such a disturbing experience.
The Tribe of Gum is portrayed with absolute conviction with power struggles, starvation and a morbid fear of the terrifying beasts that stalk the forest, details that really help to convince the viewer that this is for real. Jacqueline Hill’s performance is especially good, she plays the eager schoolteacher with wide eyed wonder as she steps from the ship onto the sandy plain but soon devolves into a screaming fish out of water once she has been locked up in a cave of skulls, hunted through woods and lands face down on a bloody tiger. Her near breakdown really sells the dangers the travellers are facing.
The first story has a treasure trove of little details that are worth hanging on through the three episodes of prehistoric politics to enjoy - the ambiguity of the Doctor’s near murder as he picks up the rock to help Za ‘draw a map’; his cunning in tricking Kal into admitting he killed the old woman; the shocking image of the skulls bathed in fire and the dash for the TARDIS at the end (never since has simply reaching the ship felt like such an achievement).
The crew may well have landed on an alien planet for all the otherworldliness that this serial exudes. It would be a long time before we visit another world as alien as this one. Some say that kicking off the show with a story featuring cavemen power struggles was a real mistake but watched in the dark alone Doctor Who was rarely as terrifying as it is here and the sheer nausea of the culture shock is phenomenal. The highlight of the story for me is the brutal fire lit struggle between Kal and Za in the final episode. As an example of how far this show can go this vicious and raw violence, intercut with startled and repulsed reactions from the four regulars, is proof that we are in for an uncomfortable ride.
It would be forty years before Christopher Eccleston’s ninth Doctor would talk about a trip of a lifetime, but this is where it all began and it is well worth visiting to remind yourself just how strong this introduction to the thrilling world of Doctor Who was.
Copyright © Joe Ford 2010
Joe Ford has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
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