LOOKING FOR TELOS – “An Unearthly Child”

τέλος • (télosn (genitiveτέλεοςorτέλους); third declension

completion, accomplishment, fulfillment, perfection, consummation

The Whoniverse is wide, and rich, and crazy.

And sometimes, bits of it go overlooked. There’s no way around it, we, at DoWntime, are children of the New Series. Our cultural sensibilities and our tastes in Who have been shaped by it. And of course, when we’re embarking in the big task of producing Discourse, we naturally tend to tackle recent events, controversies and stories. But that doesn’t mean the twenty-six seasons of Classic Who are undeserving of some in-depth coverage – and what better way to deliver said coverage than to watch it.

ALL of it. In order. Without skipping anything.

We’re looking for our telos, and it starts now.

 

EPISODE ONE: AN UNEARTHLY CHILD

SCRIBBLES: It’s hard to imagine what it was like seeing the Doctor Who titles the first time. The original ones are truly haunting, aren’t they? There’s such a sense of the unknown.

TIBERE: I love those titles. I really do. There’s something … Uniquely powerful, about them.

SCRIBBLES: And right from there to the policeman in the fog, the theme still going. Properly iconic imagery.

TIBERE: Warris Hussein’s direction is really good, too.

SCRIBBLES: It absolutely is. And how fitting that the first character we see is the TARDIS itself, and then Barbara. The show knows exactly what it’s about. I really love these little mundane beginnings with her and Ian.

TIBERE: The “oooooooh yeaaaaaaah” extra. Possibly the first ever DW meme. And Ian and Barbara make a really good pair of characters, too. Feel very natural, realistic.

SCRIBBLES: They feel properly modern Who. Real people with strong wills investigating an impossible man on the margins of their lives. And them teaching Susan really gives an interesting relationship.

TIBERE: I quite like the fact it’s Barbara that drives the conversation here. Searching for the information, trying to get to the bottom of it all, suggesting to follow Susan.

SCRIBBLES: I strongly believe Barbara is the main character of this era. She’s the heart of the action and gets all the best growth, I can’t wait for you to see it all.

TIBERE: Aaaah, the Common Men. Gooood music. Those were the days … Three audios, too. Yay.

SCRIBBLES: Honestly, Susan feels more properly alien than the Doctor at this early stage. Carole Ann Ford is fantastic at feeling out of her time.

TIBERE: Carole Ann Ford is very good here. I … Kinda don’t expect it to last, but she’s perfectly fine as a weird, off-key alien. She feels like she just got out the set of a Wes Anderson/Tim Burton movie.

SCRIBBLES: She seems properly anxious, too. Like the Doctor has been a pretty awful upbringing, and the traveling has hurt her, and she’s scared of standing out while she’s so brilliant she can’t help but doing it.

TIBERE: And the motivation for them going is good ol’ curiosity. Aaah, the spirit of Who is going strong. And oh, flash-backs! Impressively modern storytelling here.

SCRIBBLES: It feels right out of series 8. Clara could easily be Barbara, and the flashbacks are just like “In the Forest of the Night.”

TIBERE: I remember Phil Sandifer’s analysis of “Kill the Moon” as being a re-telling of the original, but re-politicized version of that original TARDIS team. Old grumpy Doctor, two teachers from Coal Hill, and a young student causing problems.

SCRIBBLES: I think the most remarkable part of this is how little the Doctor hangs over it. The mystery is Susan. The Doctor is on the margins, and somehow more powerful that way.

TIBERE: “So wonderfully normal”. Good dialogue. Yeah, there’s really a feeling of tension, an energy to the writing, there. It’s very good. Nice to start with something that’s good! Don’t worry, people, I’ll get to bitching soon enough.

SCRIBBLES: It’s odd to think this is the only time we’ll see contemporary Earth until Planet of Giants, and then not really a full story till The War Machines, given how spectacularly grounded in the present world this beginning is. But that’s also the power of this early era for me, and I hope you’ll come to agree. It’s about a strong contemporary perspective stranded far from home, wandering through time and space with strangers. It’s powerful.

TIBERE: And here comes Bill Hartnell, in all his majesty! “Oooooooh, am I? I don’t think so.” His mysterious alchemist spiel is pretty wonderful, isn’t it?

SCRIBBLES: The way Ian and Barbara fear the Doctor has Susan locked up in the TARDIS is chilling. There’s a real fear they seem to have of him abusing her that makes for some striking drama.

TIBERE: They all play out of each other really well. Lots of acting talent there. Annnnd they just entered the TARDIS.

SCRIBBLES: It’s an awesome moment. The contemporary world falls away to infinite possibility. And Susan standing there, still, looks just as alien, if not moreso, as that massive gleaming ship.

TIBERE: “You don’t deserve any explanations. You pushed your way in here uninvited and unwelcome.” I really like the writing. Ooooh, “you’ve discovered television, haven’t you?”. Nice bit of meta. Through the invention of modern media, we can go into impossible, wonderful places.

SCRIBBLES: “You don’t understand, so you find excuses.” Many of the lines in this are so, so relevant today. And Hartnell is wonderful though this all, twinkling mischief and devious scheming.

TIBERE: Susan saying she invented the TARDIS acronym. Of course, the first great canon clusterfuck. Aaaand it’s immediately followed by a super racist line about “the Red Indian”. Yeesh. Well … It is the sixties, after all. Still. Not the best look. Oh well, it’s still good. And eh, Susan and One’s banter is pretty stellar anyway.

SCRIBBLES: It’s an interesting idea, that to the Doctor, we are the “savages.” But it just manages to be uncomfortable at best. Still, it doesn’t kill the magic of this all.

TIBERE: I mean, it is a theme of the whole serial. Savagery. Civilization. The clash between those, and their definitions.

SCRIBBLES: And they’re all united by, like the Doctor says, being wanderers in the fourth dimension. It gives this first season an intimate scale, four people of very different backgrounds forced to survive together.

TIBERE: One manipulating Susan. Not really nice, is he? Anyway – we get our first GRANDFATHAAA, which I expect will be followed by many more.

SCRIBBLES: One is such a great Doctor because of how complicated he is. And I love how the first TARDIS trip is just a trippy montage with the original titles over the Doctor and Susan. It’s haunting and magical. And that landscape outside for the first cliffhanger only adds to the bleak power.

TIBERE: The visual audacity of this is amazing. Honestly, you’d have to do like, only a minimal amount of effort to translate that into the New Series. It’s incredibly bold and modern. And damn, can I re-state that Warris Hussein’s directing kills? Because it really does. That cliffhanger shot is perfect – just a shadow on the sand. Yaaas.

SCRIBBLES: I can never get over how fast that first episode flies by. Perfect direction, design, writing, acting, score, all of it. Utter magic.

 

EPISODE TWO: THE CAVE OF SKULLS

TIBERE: And now for something completely different. I.e. – cavemen.

SCRIBBLES: I suppose, given that red Indian line, it makes sense. The Doctor sees contemporary Earth as savage, and now Ian and Barbara get to see that kind of perspective themselves. And side-eye scruffy people yelling at sticks.

TIBERE: The acting is … not quite as good. That dude loves a good moan, uh? Nice little parallels, though – a father figure holding some kind of magical power that other people try to understand, to make sense of.

SCRIBBLES: And of course making fire is generally understood as the birth of human technology and civilization.

TIBERE: Prometheus. A fascinating Greek myth. And an utterly terrible Ridley Scott movie.

SCRIBBLES: Got to mention that the whole caveman arguing over fire opening sequence is done as a flashback while the caveman looks at the TARDIS. Which is inspired and very modern.

TIBERE: “Time doesn’t go round and round”. Wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey stuff: the origins. “The cries of strange birds …” – still, the writing is good. Character stuff! I like that! Makes a nice change from the Classics I did watch before that one.

SCRIBBLES This whole era at its best is like that. I hope you love it like I do. It’s for my money one of the great treasures of the show, Ian and Barbara’s tenure.

TIBERE: Oh, and they are welcome by some bird sounds! Nice call-back to the conversation we just had. And oh, Warris Hussein still does some nice framing to establish the threat.

SCRIBBLES: I also love the Doctor responding to it still being a police box. Sweet little scene establishing the core constant of the series. With the first companions comes the magical center image of the show.

TIBERE: “Perhaps if we knew his name we might have a clue to all this.” Cue series 7 … It’s amazing how much that serial establishes in terms of themes. Oh, yeah, and One gets kidnapped. Carol Ann Ford really is better as low-key alien rather than as nervous breakdown machine. Oh, and the idea of a diary the Doctor has, too. Got re-used by Moffat for River Song. And the diary still pops up. Did in “The Girl Who Died”, for instance.

SCRIBBLES: I always find it amazing how much meaning the show establishes from the off.

TIBERE: A man covered with animal hide getting poked with sticks. Well, that’s someone’s fetish.

SCRIBBLES: Gotta love that the first character to be the captured damsel in distress is the Doctor.

TIBERE: It’s interesting to see the Doctor being seen as a “strange creature” by another group of people. With the power dynamics being reversed, too. Oh, and the fact that he is “full of fire”. “He’s like fire and ice and rage”, indeed.

SCRIBBLES: As well as making him a symbol of human advancement. He’s basically Prometheus like you were mentioning.

TIBERE: Not a very kind sort of advancement. He’s sort of embodying both the wonders and the dangers of progress.

SCRIBBLES: Absolutely. And I recall it plays out in a pretty interesting way. Less pleasant, however, is some of the dialogue here, which gets pretty unfortunate. “Will my father listen to a woman?” Captures the way the Doctor silences Susan in a nice parallel, but that’s also pretty sexist.

TIBERE: And he has lost his matches. Slight plot contrivance here. But eh.

SCRIBBLES: Loses his matches, loses control of the TARDIS, loses its ability to change shape. He’s part prometheus-y magician, part fraud.

TIBERE: Not different from Twelve’s tricks with the Yo-Yo in “Girl Who Died”. Now that I think about it, “Girl Who Died” is very Classics, isn’t it? That’s part of Mathieson’s charm, though.

SCRIBBLES: I love how the Doctor intervenes to save Ian, it’s a nice beat that helps him start to discover who he will be.

TIBERE: As much as I like the themes, the cavemen arguments are kind of tedious. Shame.

SCRIBBLES: Can it ever be comfortable to see cavemen arguing over possession of women? It’s skeevy. And yet still there’s good stuff. Like, “old men never like new things to happen.”

TIBERE: “He will remember and always give you meat.” Must … resist … pun … Oh, but interesting line “fire will kill us all in the end”. Dangers of progress – plus, of course, the very next serial is playing with the idea of nuclear power, and dangerous experimentations, and all that good stuff.

SCRIBBLES: “Fire will kill us all in the end” is an outright perfect line for the danger the Doctor poses, particularly in this early era. I could see something like that cropping up in the RTD era.

TIBERE: “He has one constant companion – Death”. Definitely, yeah.

SCRIBBLES: And so we reach the halfway mark. Blimey, this serial goes by fast.

TIBERE: Honestly, I have seen worst cases of bad pacing. Like, yeah, that second episode drag, but blimey, it’s much faster than a whole bunch of the Hinchcliffe stuff (spoiler alert: both Scribbles and I are a bit cold on his era, so expect a lot of more-or-less bitter criticism).

 

EPISODE THREE: THE FOREST OF FEAR

SCRIBBLES: All the cavemen sleep huddled together. Hot.

TIBERE: A tragic lack of orgies, though.

SCRIBBLES: At least the men show a lot of leg. In all seriousness, this still looks great. I love how each title for this serial is over an important image. Here, we get the rock, the first weapon. That’s imagery you’d expect from Kubrick, not a BBC family sci fi show.

TIBERE: I recall Wood & Miles analyzing the influence of both “2001” and the French flick “La Guerre du Feu” on this serial.

SCRIBBLES: “Fear makes companions of all of us.” God what a good scene, the Doctor giving her hope. Barbara is always a great real perspective for this show and scenes with her and Hartnell always shine. I adore how surprised she sounds, too, when she says “You’re trying to help me.” Making the Doctor an infuriating character who always surprises when it matters most by being good is a really wonderful approach.

TIBERE: You know what’s not good? Carole Ann Ford’s shrieks. Uuuurgh.

SCRIBBLES: Susan if frustrating. Carole Ann Ford is really good, but given weak material and constantly made to overact.

TIBERE: And when she gets brought back in Big Finish, it’s in freaking “To the Death” …

SCRIBBLES: It’s lovely how advancement is the main debate of this story. The old woman fearing them bringing fire is really something good.

TIBERE: You do have a relative symmetry of characters, too. The old woman/the Doctor, and a pair of people struggling to make sense of the situation, one male and one female. Did I mention the music is really good in this, too? Because it is.

SCRIBBLES: You didn’t, but I did. And it definitely is. Tremendous atmosphere all around, which sets the survival horror angle of this era.

TIBERE: I love the way they handle Barbara’s slight breakdown. It’s played for relatability and emotion, and avoids the “screaming female” archetype. To be honest, I would quite distressed in her place. It’s nice, too – it’s something you couldn’t do anymore in Who. We know the rules of the show too well, the companions and the Doctor are at a greater level of power. Here, there’s some sense of unknown, of real danger. Reminds me of what Cornell & co do with Bernice Summerfield.

SCRIBBLES: Barbara always does. She’s always the relatable, powerful, human core. You’re gonna love the times she saves the day. I could do less with the men fighting and insisting they stand on either side of the girls to protect them, though.

TIBERE: It’s a bit of a cock contest. Admittedly, though, it’s still a parallel with the two cavemen leader bickering. Power dynamics and all.

SCRIBBLES: Oh, absolutely it is. And it’s a good idea, too, Ian is that kind of reckless and it’s only natural people would fight with the person who brought them there. You’ve gotta bear in mind the limitations of the period, but there’s a central genius to this and meticulous structure that really shines through.

TIBERE: It’s tight. You can only do so much with the means of the time, but it is a strong script. Could have benefitted from some more interesting cave people characters. Oh, and someone just got eaten – nice amount of tension, danger and chaos here. Oh, and damn, that got graphic!

SCRIBBLES: Speaking of dealing with limitations, not showing the creature attack but holding on Barbara’s face is inspired.

TIBERE: Oh, I do really like the beat of them choosing to help the poor guy. Nice defying expectations, and it’s very well-acted.

SCRIBBLES: I think the Doctor learns a lot from them doing this, particularly with Barbara calling him the hell out. Him becoming a person who tries to help where he can is a lesson that Ian and Barbara teach him from the beginning. He wouldn’t have become the hero we love without them. He’s xenophobic and selfish and scared, but they show him heroism and kindness. And, beautifully, they do it by being doctors and treating a hurt man, challenging the Doctor for not doing so himself.

TIBERE: “You want the women to do the job for you?” – yeesh, not the best line. Still, I do love the morals on display here.

SCRIBBLES: They totally could. Barbara can do anything.

TIBERE: Oh, no doubt that they could.

SCRIBBLES: All the talk of visions is fascinating. It’s a mysticism the show comes to be afraid of for a time, but it’s rather pleasantly enigmatic.

TIBERE: Za-t is a pretty good cliffhanger. Eh eh. But still. Good one. Nice building up the tension. As I said – not like, incredible, but it’s solid and well-written.

SCRIBBLES: I love how the conflict comes down to helping or leaving to save themselves. It’s very low key but very meaningful. And they try both options, rather than committing to one and succeeding.

 

EPISODE FOUR: THE FIRE MAKER

SCRIBBLES: I really love the episodic titles. The Fire Maker.” It’s so perfect for this story.

TIBERE: That shot on the frightened face of Ian is absolutely awesome. Black and white suits this story really well, doesn’t it?

SCRIBBLES: It really does. It creates that foggy, bleak atmosphere of mystery and survival and infinite horizons.

TIBERE: “It is a bad knife. It doesn’t show what it should.” That’s a great line. Still the themes of visions and mysticisms and progress. It’s noiiice.

SCRIBBLES: And his assuming control of this political argument over murder feels so, so Doctor-y. It reminds me a bit of Twelve in The Eaters of Light, it’s just so quintessential Doctor.

TIBERE: “His name is friend”. I quite like the idea this is an Eaters-of-Light-esque origin story for the origin of the word “friend”. And the idea of the TARDIS crew being a “new tribe” is quite interesting – a form of progress, of new civilization. And they seem to kickstart the evolution of man from individual hunter/gatherer to a creature that lives in community – through one small act of kindness, changing the whole of human history. It’s so delightfully Who.

SCRIBBLES: And, of course, they are a new tribe. They’re stuck together as a group now and have to rely on each other. This first adventure is as much about starting to come together as that as anything. In this case, by being the fire maker together.

TIBERE: Oooh, nice beat with Ian surrendering his position as leader.

SCRIBBLES: It really is. They’re one of my absolute favorite TARDIS teams, and beats like that exploring them are why. At this time, at least, Doctor Who is a character-driven show.

TIBERE: Ooh, and there is a nice beat with introducing democracy to the cavemen. Giving the power to everyone. Nice.

SCRIBBLES: Democracy equated with the advancement of fire, no less, and the power of all to control it. It’s sweetly utopian. And now Ian and the Doctor have resolved, the parallel caveman dick fight plays out in all it’s vaguely homoerotic glory.

TIBERE: It’d be quite a lot more interesting if it were an actual dick fight. Still. Two men wrestling almost naked in front of a fireplace. If that’s not your aesthetics, I dunno what is.

SCRIBBLES: I love how the scene cuts constantly to the reactions of the team to the violence in closeup, while the cavemen grunt like animals. If this story is about juxtaposing enlightenment and advancement with savagery, it’s only fitting to have them all witness primitive savagery at its worst, just as it showed the enlightened Doctor at his worst.

TIBERE: Shit, that is brutal! But then, if you gotta make a point about savagery and civilization … You can’t half-arse savagery. And now they are remembering how to cook meat. Coherency of the script! Wahee! Themes of progress!

SCRIBBLES: I like how Susan confronts her parallel, Hur, as well. The script really is exquisite with holding characters in parallel and contrast. Just as Susan’s obeying her grandfather dooms her to a directionless life, Hur slavishly being devoted to the leader is the source of her corruption and cruelty.

TIBERE: And they get locked up in a cave and forbidden to leave. Plato as fuck.

SCRIBBLES: I love how Susan helps create the plan through her own creativity and scientific intelligence.

TIBERE: And they escape by pretending that the fire has consumed them. Using storytelling and special effects to escape their predicament. I don’t want to parrot the same points, but 1) it’s quintessential Who, 2) “Girl Who Died” steals that trick.

SCRIBBLES: What’s more, projection and storytelling through fire. Television as an enlightened tool.

TIBERE: Echoes that line in the first episode. Lovely!

SCRIBBLES: I always liked the story, even the cavemen stuff, but I think this is the most I’ve ever loved it. There’s just so much tightness and meaning to this script. And these bleak night-time shots as they run away are exquisite.

TIBERE: Oh god that shot of the spears being thrown at the TARDIS is literal, 100% perfection.

SCRIBBLES: And the story about enlightenment ends with the Doctor revealing he isn’t fully, and probably even tried to take Ian and Barbara home but can’t pilot the TARDIS. That’s just exquisite payoff, better than I remembered.

TIBERE: And oooh, the radiation counter cliffhanger. It’s weird – all those cliffhangers are like, really good and flow organically within the show? What is that sorcery?

SCRIBBLES: So, you liked the pacing?

TIBERE: I mean, it could definitely use a trim, but frankly, I’ve seen much, much, muuuuch worse. I feel like each part brings “something” to the table, at least, and the story isn’t resorting to blatant “capture, escape, recapture”. I mean, it does a bit, but there is a thematic point to it.

SCRIBBLES: Great. The next story is a seven parter.

TIBERE: I might booze up for that one. Fair warning.

 

CLOSING THOUGHTS

TIBERE: It’s very good. There, I said it. I wasn’t expecting to say it, but it is. It’s … moderately entertaining, really, but there’s a real sense of purposefulness and thematic tightness to it. It’s a very good script – the time that has passed might limit the amount of enjoyment one might get out of it, but the writing is really strong.

SCRIBBLES: I’ll take that as a victory. There’s a specific character drive and aesthetic sense that pushes this early time of Who, and it’s far more experimental than it becomes once it starts to settle down more in future eras.

TIBERE: And as far as character introductions go, it’s a great one. I’m loving One, Ian and Barbara, and Susan, well, she’s decent so far, even if she loses quite a lot of her appeal after the first episode.

SCRIBBLES: I’ll be blunt, Barbara is one of the best damn companions in Doctor Who history and you will love her if it kills me. Susan, well, I think we’ll have some interesting conversations about her. Phil Sandifer does some very good work on “the problem of Susan” which I’d say is an essential read, but overall, she’s a promising character not often given her best material and allowed to shine, limited often in distinctly sexist ways. There’s a reason a lot of writers are still engaged with puzzling her out, in particular she’s Marc Platt’s pet project. Because she is a real ambiguous point in the series that does need puzzling out. That’s not to say she never works, though. I think you’re going to love The Sensorites.” And Marco Polo,please, for the love of God, like Marco Polo.” There’s thematic and character threads we’ve already seen set up that do get payoff in stories like that. McCoy’s era was not the first to really engage with that, though I don’t think people really appreciate what early Hartnell offers enough.

TIBERE: I really feel like there’s a unique, compelling appeal to this story. A willingness to engage with some pretty deep questions, with morality, and science, and progress. Like, if it were just a moody introduction to Who, it’d be nice, but there’s a lot of really powerful imagery and themes and context here. Like, I did spend half of the live-post commenting on ties to New Who episodes – and we didn’t even mention the most obvious one, the fact that “Listen” – aka the best Who story of all time, fight me – is based around a quote from it. And not from the first episode, no – from the cavemen part, which I feel like completes the first episode really well (it’s a bit like, a theorem and its demonstration – the first episode shows you the basic building blocks of this world and what follows is a detailed example). If something is really influential, it’s bound to do something right.

SCRIBBLES: I knew you were going to get to that eventually, given your love of Listen.” You’re absolutely right, though, the cavemen episodes respond to the first episode in a really crucial way, and set up an iconic and powerful place that the show has never really stopped mining. It’ll be interesting also to look at Into the Dalekin light of the one we’ll be watching next, another rich character beat connection, given your love of series 8 and the way it echoes classic Who. That’s the thing about watching the classic series. It enriches the show as a whole. And the richest way of all is to see it all building off itself, in order. We’re in the early steps of Doctor Who finding itself, and that’s the richest arc of all. I can’t wait to follow it.

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