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So, The Quest resumes. The Quest being the continuing attempt to watch every Doctor Who episode, start to finish, in chronological order, ideally no less than one episode a day. But I'm going to stick with it even if there end up being unfeasibly long gaps between episodes.

Spoilers for a 48 year old episode. )
royalmarriage: (Doctor Who - nightmares animated)
Okay, coming back to this project after a time away. I actually watched this and the next two episodes shortly after the last couple, but haven't got round to blogging about them yet.

So, The Forest of Fear. I was going to give this one a bit of a slating at first, but I'm glad I gave it another chance. Even so, its fundamental flaw is that it's basically an episode of running around in which, in plot terms, nothing much happens - the time travellers start the episode imprisoned, and they end the episode re-captured and about to be imprisoned again.

What the episode has in its favour, though, is some really nice character moments, particularly - just as we've decided that the Doctor doesn't want to get on well with Ian and Barbara, there's that wonderful moment when they're imprisoned in the cave of skulls and the Doctor seems almost avuncular to Barbara (the classic line, "fear makes companions of all of us" comes in here). Then, when they're on the run through the forest, the Doctor's antipathy to Ian becomes obvious as they have a fierce argument about where they should go and - even this early in the show - who should lead them.

There are also some nice touches as Kal and Hur catch up with the time travellers and are left in confusion about their behaviour as they do their best to save Kal's life after he'e been attacked by an unseen animal.

Incidentally, that attack is, in its own small way, a masterpiece of direction, for which all kudos to Waris Hussein. Obviously, getting a real creature (I think we're meant to assume it's a sabre-toothed tiger, but it's never explicit) was out of the question, and rather than use some stock footage, the attack is played out in a series of cutaways and reaction shots, and is really well done; presumably it was recorded as live, so there's also a cutaway whilst the make-up artists smear fake blood on Kal (although there could have been a recording break at that stage, admittedly).

On the other hand, the very beginning of the episode (and this is one of the reasons that I was all set to dislike it) is almost horrendously stagey, as Old Mother awakes in the night and reaches out to take Kal's knife...and holds in position just long enough for the episode title and author credits to be superimposed over her hand. It goes with the territory of the way in which these early episodes were made, but it has the unfortunate side-effect of taking one out of the drama.

The only other problem I have with the episode one scene, the time travellers, along with Kal and Hur, who are already some way into the forest, decide to press on to the safety of the TARDIS. We then cut back to the Tribe of Gum, who, at Za's instruction, make to cross the forest to catch up with the time travellers' party. The time travellers, in the next scene, arrive at the TARDIS, but the tribespeople have already overtaken them, despite the massive head start. I'm sorry? Does not compute!

Oh well. That aside, it's an entertaining enough episode, with (as I said) some nice character touches.

Next up - The Firemaker.
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Well, I said all would be revealed...okay, I lied. But even so, the sight of Jeremy Young and Derek Newark in skins is not something for the fainthearted...

There was - and possibly still is, for all I know - sort of a received wisdom in Doctor Who fandom, and it goes something like this: Doctor Who starts off with a really really great episode, followed by three episodes of guff with cavemen before getting to the really exciting stuff with the Daleks.

I'm not necessarily about to say this received wisdom is wrong, exactly. But it is a bit unfair, and it's rooted (I think) in the problem of not seeing it as the original audience did. It's easy now - particularly as, for many people, their first exposure to a version of An Unearthly Child may have come in the form of the novelisation Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks or the film Doctor Who and the Daleks - to assume that the cavemen story was at best a sidestep, at worst a mis-step; but for the first audience, there was no real clue of what was to come - this was what Doctor Who did - it took two teachers off in a ship disguised as a police box and plonked them down in prehistoric earth.

That said, this episode isn't without its flaws - chief among which being the decision to have the caveman actors speak in a sort of slow, zombiefied way to suggest that "primitive" equates to "a bit thick". Horg is the worst offender. But on the other hand, I'm sure I read that the original intention was for the cavemen to only communicate in grunts, so perhaps we should be grateful for what we got.

Also, Ian's refusal to believe that the TARDIS has taken them back in time is a tad overplayed - he comes across in this episode as a bit of a Dana Scully.

But those gripes aside, this is a neat, compact episode, telling an interesting - if narratively rather linear - tale of what happens if a tribe of cavemen seeking the secret of fire suddenly come across a strange old man with a box of matches (which he subsequently loses). The cavemen politics is interesting, setting up the conflicts quite neatly, and the time travellers' section of the narrative helps to further establish the characters of the Doctor and Susan, as well as the nature of their ship.

Oh, one more quibble - The Cave of Skulls seems a rather dopey choice of title for an episode in which the cave in question only appears in the last few minutes.

And an observation - without wishing to be crude, is it just me, or do Za's attempts to make fire by (apparently) rubbing a bone in his hands over a pile of sticks look suspiciously like he's pleasuring himself? Seriously...
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Thing is, cards on the table time - I love this episode. It's full of atmosphere, and evokes such a wonderful feeling, watching the first reveal of the inside of the TARDIS as Ian and Barbara stand in awe at this rules-of-basic-physics-busting multidimensional space they've entered.

I could even narrow it down to one simple line that I love - "let me get this straight - a thing that looks like a police box, standing in a junkyard...and it can go anywhere in time and space?". It's lovely. It's poignant. It sets the scene beautifully for the next 47+ years.

And it's also incredibly deceptive, a deception based on letting those 47+ years colour our expectations of the episode, because actually, what I realised watching it for the umpteenth time is that that's not really what the episode is about.

As I nearly said in the introduction to this series of blogs - I'd love to know what the contemporary viewers were expecting, and how they perceived the events of this episode. I mean, I know the Radio Times tagline for the series was, for many years, "An Adventure in Time and Space", but it would (presumably) have been a bit of a long shot for viewers to expect a humble police box to be the "vehicle" that would take our heroes off on the adventure. That's part of the problem with watching the programme nowadays - we've become so used to police box = TARDIS, that thinking back to the point where police boxes were just telephone boxes is kind to impossible. And particularly when you've seen...well, any episode, but especially this one, the shock of Barbara and Ian walking through the police box doors and finding themselves in the TARDIS is rather dulled. Which is a shame.

What's also rather interesting is that up until that point, it seems to be an entirely different that could go off in a totally different direction to the one we expect - Ian and Barbara are just curious about one of their pupils, decide to follow her home in the hope of finding out what makes her tick. There's then another twist when they enter that junkyard and the subsequent scene seems to be written - and Hartnell seems to be playing it - as if there's a very real possibility that the Doctor might well have abducted Susan and locked her up in the police box.

Even during that final scene, it could go in other directions entirely - if Barbara and Ian leave the TARDIS, if Susan makes good on her promise to leave the TARDIS and the Doctor... It's sometimes been said that the Doctor's an "antihero" in these early episodes. I think that's a trifle wrong. He's obviously deeply protective of his personal space and his granddaughter, and resents the intrusion of two people whose presence means he'll have to go on the run again. Admittedly, setting the TARDIS to take off with the two hapless teachers stuck on board - and electrifying the control panel - are slightly extreme solutions to the problem - but you can't entirely blame him. Wait until later in the series, there are more things to blame him for...

But at the end of the day, this is an absolutely gripping first episode, shifting from moody mystery to possible-abducted-girl thriller to the TARDIS...and then at the end, one more unexpected twist - who is that watching over the TARDIS as it arrives in that deserted landscape? Where have they arrived? All will be revealed...
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Or "Right, this time I'm going to jolly well do it!"

It's not exactly an original thing. I've started it, with varying degrees of success, myself, and Doctor Who Magazine has a regular feature, Time Team, dedicated to it - watch all of Doctor Who, in order, from the very first episode right up until...well, whatever is the latest one to have been broadcast when I finish my quest. Watch an episode a day (or in the case of the missing episodes, listen to the CD). And blog about it afterwards. Not necessarily a review, just thoughts, musings, what went right, what went wrong. There probably won't be much of the latter, as I tend to have a fairly positive outlook on all things Who. There are only two serials I really really don't like, and heck, one of those (Time and the Rani) has some things in its favour.

What I won't be doing is the Time Team conceit of imagining that this is the first time I've seen this episode; although there are going to be a handful of serials, from the Troughton and Pertwee eras, where this will indeed be the first time I've seen/heard the episode, and some from the Tom Baker period that I've not seen since they were first shown. I will, 'cos it's interesting to try to do, be trying to think how some of this must have seemed to the original audience, and certainly I won't be doing too much of the, "oh, it's black and white! And that's a ludicrous special effect that doesn't stand up to CGI," 'cos I think it's important to judge old programmes (in so much as I judge them at all) by the standards of their time, not by the standards of nearly 50 years later.

I won't be solely watching Doctor Who, though, because I've a shedload of DVDs which I've not watched, and so between Doctor Who seasons I'll be breaking out a DVD of something else - for the time being, The X Files. So it'll be series one of Doctor Who, followed by season one of The X Files, then series two of Doctor Who, etc...But anyway, if anyone would like to comment and contribute to my little episode blogs, feel free to do so - and indeed to point anyone else who you think might be interested in this direction. They'll all have the tag: whowatch 2011

Anyway, no time like the present, so let's crack on with it. I'm thinking of this as a New Year's Resolution, and - in common with many of my New Year's Resolutions - I'm late. I was meant to start on New Year's Day with An Unearthly Child... Typical.


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