November 23, 2008

Forty-Five Years of Time Travel

A mysterious stranger in a time-traveling blue box that's bigger on the inside than the outside. A trip from contemporary England to a harsh, threatening landscape. A battle between emerging civility and brute savagery. A choice between giving in to one's worst impulses...and moving forward.

It's hard to believe now, in an age where people assertively speculate about a show that is in the mainstream, that the classic series of Doctor Who warranted great attention. The wobbly sets/cheap special effects argument always reigned, but in this anniversary - watching the premiere story and the last story of the classic series - shows that the more things change, the more things stay the same.

In watching the first episode of An Unearthly Child (which is included in the Doctor Who -The Beginning Collection boxed set of William Hartnell's first three stories - four if you count an audio reproduction of his "lost" fourth story), you would not be off in stating that it's very much like The Twilight Zone - in fact, you could easily remove the three episodes following, and you would swear Rod Serling himself wrote it. However, the first episode was a take "two", as the initial episode didn't quite work (due to technical problems), but the three episodes that follow - involving cave men in prehistoric times - are fair-to-middling for a pilot. In fact, except for a brief moment where the Doctor contemplates killing one of the prehistoric men, it doesn't seem to earth shattering in examining themes about deserving to survive. (It wouldn't be until the second story - involving the Daleks - that would bring these themes to the forefront). But An Unearthly Child is a great premiere - it's no harbinger of things to come, but is gripping enough to keep viewers coming back for more.

Flash forward to 1989: thanks to declining ratings, bureaucratic mishandling, and flat-out declining ratings, Doctor Who had lost some of its luster. Although seemingly on a creative comeback (although, unlike many Who fans, I was never big on the Cartmel Master Plan - it seemed more about the cleverness of the writers than good storytelling), Survival would be the final Doctor Who story until the 1996 telemovie. Although Sylvester McCoy does a pretty good job in trying to connote the Doctor's "mysteriousness"....I have to admit, at times, it seems a little off. Although the story is great (focusing between a dying planet and a similarly dying London suburb), the overdone makeup of the Cheetah people slightly sabotages it. Thankfully, even though it wasn't filmed as the final episode, a quickly overdubbed final speech serves as a gentle coda to the series - even though Who should not have gone out like that, as the supplemental materials seem to indicate, it sorely needed a break. Just not a seven year break. Or even a sixteen year one until Rose.

(Oh, and another major slightly off-topic complaint, speaking of the Cartmel masterplan - why is it Andrew Cartmel feels the need to take some "responsibility" for inspiring the new series? In a way, he seems to follow the Terrence Dicks school of it-wasn't-as-good-as-when-I-did-it...but enough my ranting.)

One of the qualities of Doctor Who that have kept many fans (like myself) returning is the flexibility in storytelling. What watching the first and final classic series episodes show is that, in a way, Who is timeless - even in telling the same story, it shows us new ways of viewing the world. Or as Rose Tyler would put it, a better way to live your life.

Happy 45th, Doctor. May you have hundreds more.

Both stories are highly recommended.

1 comment:

Siskoid said...

I think the New Adventures line of books and 8th Doctor adventures both in book and audio format have far more to do with New Who than does Cartmel.

Not only do they have writers in common (Cornell, Gattis and Russell himself), but also episodes that reuse premises from those sources (Human Nature, Dalek), and more romantic relationships with companions (particularly Charlie).