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Robot Monster!

Such a cute little robot!

I mentioned in Unearthly Beginnings that when I first came to The Daleks serial a couple of months ago, I already knew that Daleks were bad guys. What I didn’t know was that they were bad guys in a machine.

The image above captures the moment in which the Doctor Who audience gets its first good look at a Dalek. Within the story itself, it captures the first time that the Doctor ever meets (or rather, is ever captured by!) a Dalek. But the Doctor not only becomes aware of the Daleks. The Daleks also become aware of the Doctor.

If there are, as the Tenth Doctor tells us, some moments in time that cannot be re-written, then this is probably one of them. This is not only the moment that “made” Doctor Who. It made a huge chunk of the mythology.

I don’t know what anybody else thought when they first saw it, but I was thinking about all the robots that I had seen in science fiction. I wondered about its programming. I wondered who was controlling it. I wondered how something in such a seemingly docile shell (“Danger, Will Robinson!”) could possibly be convincing as a key villain in the longest-running science fiction series of all time. And I wondered how the show was ever going to get past the cheese factor. I think I may even have groaned a little.

Fast forward to a few weeks later when I first saw a Dalek in a preview to an episode with the Ninth Doctor: I gasped. Not because the Dalek design was so much sleeker and cooler and more formidable. I gasped because by then, I knew the Daleks.

But wait! There's more!!!

In context, the Doctor and his companions are captured by the Daleks as a result of their own choices:

  • The Doctor manufactures a lie about the mercury-level in the TARDIS’ fluid link so that he might coerce his companions into letting him explore the city. (BAD AND SELFISH CHOICE)
  • As always seems to occur during on-screen explorations of strange and potentially dangerous places, the party decides to split up. (STUPID CHOICE)
  • In the split-up, Barbara goes off alone and gets captured, but Ian insists on looking for her over the Doctor’s protestations (NOBLE CHOICE)

And so the Daleks encounter non-Dalek beings for the first time since they exploded a neutron bomb on Skaro. And the Daleks’ choices in how to respond to that encounter ultimately have consequences not only for the Doctor (and the Daleks), but possibly also for the Time Lords and the universe itself. But more on the Daleks’ choices next time.

For now, I’m going to make a quick prediction…



FIRST PREDICTION on the Doctor and the Daleks

Okay, I already know the outcome of the first Daleks serial, and I also know that later incarnations of the Doctor engage in epic multiversal conflicts with the Daleks. So here’s my prediction…

This first encounter – initiated by nothing more profound than the First Doctor’s selfishness – will provide the catalyst that rouses the “sleeping” Daleks from their city on Skaro and gives them ambitions of universal (or multiversal) omnicide.


Daleks in the House!

The Daleks unveil their nefarious plan for conquering the universe... Pacman!!!

Not having seen the setup story when we received our first Doctor Who discs in the mail, I was as lost as the Doctor the first time I saw “The Dead Planet.”

After a hasty liftoff to escape rampaging cavemen, the TARDIS lands on the petrified planet of Skaro – a planet destroyed, we later learn, by a neutron bomb that killed off most organic life but left the buildings standing.

The episode is a rather a dreary affair actually. The travelers take a quick look around (as radiation levels rise inside the TARDIS). The Doctor and his less-than-willing companions argue about whether to leave the planet or explore what they assume will be a dead city. And the Doctor creates a ruse to ensure that he will get to go exploring. Pretending that he lacks sufficient mercury for the TARDIS’ fluid link, he insists that he must go down to the city in order to acquire more mercury… or they will be stranded eternally on the dead planet.

My first impression of the Doctor, based on this episode, was that he was a spoiled brat of a man, demanding that his companions allow him to do what he wanted to do (regardless of the welfare of anybody else) and willing to manufacture circumstances in order to get his way. He reminded me of a two-year-old throwing himself a tantrum.

In addition to the Doctor’s values, the production values were a little… primitive. We were obviously on a sound stage, obviously making do with a tiny budget. And this was nowhere more evident than when Barbara got lost – then captured! – while exploring the city:

When Boom Mics Attack!!! (okay, toilet plungers, then...)

Yes, on first viewing, I honestly thought – based on past experience with 60’s television serials – that a boom mic had gotten in the way of the camera. I realize now that it’s actually a toilet plunger reaching out intentionally and menacingly (and how much better is that?). But when I first saw the shot, it instinctively took me back to the early days of Dark Shadows, when mics sometimes invaded shots and characters occasionally forgot lines.

The toilet plunger only increased for me the sense that we were in a tiny-budget production. But by the time I realized that it was a fully intended prop… and a plunger at that… it was already nearly too late to let the ├╝ber-cheap prop convince me that Doctor Who was merely rubbish. The writing of the Daleks had started to draw me in, superseding whatever the show’s production limitations.

I wasn’t quite hooked… yet. But I was at least starting to pay attention.

Daleks… Coming Soon!

Absolutely everything you need to know about the caveman story arc...

Sandwiched in between the brilliant first episode (a re-shoot of the pilot) and the first Daleks serial, the Doctor, Susan, and their kidnapped human companions hastily take off and land 200,000 years in the past.

Why? Because in the 60s, cavemen were cool… you know, just like the Eleventh Doctor’s bow tie is “cool.”

Between Eegah!, One Million Years BC, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, and the American TV show It’s About Time, you could barely move without running into a caveman on the screen. The Flintstones, in other words, was no cultural outlier. It was exploiting (and suburbanizing) a cultural trend.

Now aside from The Flintstones, even “good” cavemen stories just put me to sleep. So I’m not a good judge of the soporific qualities that I personally found in the Cave of Skulls/Learning How to Make a Fire story arc of Doctor Who. BUT I have it on the authority of someone who authentically enjoys caveman television and cinema that it’s not just me! The caveman arc is objectively a snoozer. So… the less said about it the better.

Would anybody mind if we just moved on to the Daleks?

Unearthly Beginnings

It's a bit like the Hotel California... once you enter the TARDIS, you can never leave

The other day in my first post, I linked to the (embedding-disabled) YouTube video of the TARDIS taking off on screen for the first time. But I never answered the question of why the TARDIS takes off in such haste.

As it happens, the Doctor – the freaking Doctor!!! – is kidnapping his first human companions.

I’ve already seen the first couple of story arcs with the First Doctor. But I saw them out of sequence. For the U.S. market at least, BBC Video places the first Daleks serial first and the pilot/first serial last. (And Netflix, naturally, ships them in the order in which the video distributor packages them).

This sequence does make some sense given the enduring popularity of the Daleks. But it makes no sense for newcomers. And I was a newcomer when I first encountered these episodes. In fact, I was what you might call an “innocent viewer” – i.e., someone who knew almost nothing about Doctor Who.

In fact, here is a comprehensive list of everything I knew about Doctor Who before I started watching (just a couple of months ago):

The Daleks are bad guys
The Doctor travels through time and space
His ship is called TARDIS
The series has been going on forever

Okay? I knew the guy had a space/time ship. But because of the BBC Video episode sequence, I got through the entire first Daleks serial without ever knowing that the Doctor was an alien – or that he kidnapped Ian and Barbara! Consequently, seeing the pilot/first Unearthly Child episode was quite a revelation.

In that earliest beginning, we find that the Doctor and his granddaughter (“Susan Foreman”) have been living in 1960s England for about 5 months because Susan loves it there (presumably for the music playing on the transistor radio). The girl has made an impression on two of her teachers (Ian and Barbara), who see her as simultaneously brilliant but ignorant of certain basic facts. For some inexplicable reason, they regard her unusual behavior as cause for snooping into her private life, so they trace her, via a junkyard address, to her home – the TARDIS.

After Ian and Barbara force their way in to the TARDIS, the Doctor reveals that he cannot let them go because why? Because they know too much! The human race is not ready to know about the possibility of (Time Lord) technology.

It's bigger on the inside!!!

The Doctor’s reasoning (if not his method) is essentially an early iteration of what will later become known in Star Trek as the “Prime Directive” – i.e., advanced civilizations cannot reveal their advances to less advanced civilizations because it would disrupt their natural growth. The question I have is whether he is hiding his technology for purposes of non-interference or if he is hiding it so his TARDIS cannot be so easily tracked down by his own people. (NO SPOILERS, PLEASE!)

Of course, later incarnations of the Doctor will not be so scrupulous. But this initial incarnation – the old man who exiled himself from his people and took his 49th century granddaughter with him – is the First Doctor, not the Ninth, Tenth, or Eleventh.

FIRST PREDICTIONS for the First Doctor and his First Companions!
One of the things I love about first-read or first-watch blogs is seeing the blogger’s predictions.

Obviously, I’m not quite as “innocent” a viewer as I was in November. I’ve already seen a small number of the First Doctor’s episodes, and I’ve seen all series episodes involving the Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctors. So I know he’s a Time Lord from Gallifrey. I know he can regenerate. I know he stole the TARDIS and is not on great terms with official Time Lord society. And I’ve even read a little bit about the origins of some of the major characters and adversarial races who pop up in New Who. But generally speaking, I know very little about Classic Who, so there’s still plenty of room for predicting plot developments that I know nothing about.

So here are my first predictions:

  • As with so many human companions after them, Ian and Barbara will get addicted to life on the TARDIS, grow to love constant danger, and remain the Doctor’s companions long after Susan is gone.
  • As Ian and Barbara grow to love life on the TARDIS, the Doctor’s attitude towards them will soften, leading to the Doctor’s ultimate fondness for humans.
  • Susan will leave the TARDIS for life on earth and in the process will decide to overwrite her Time Lord DNA/Physiology with human DNA – hence the origins in Doctor Who of the fob watch in which a Time Lord can place his essence. Okay, I think I’ve read that Susan leaves the Doctor to live on earth but I have not read that she leaves behind her Gallifreyan self in order to do so. And I haven’t read anything about the origins of Time Lord fob watches, so that’s an authentic “shot in the dark” prediction. But given the Tenth(?) Doctor’s statement that he was once a father and grandfather (not to mention his now-familiar lament of being the “Last of the Time Lords”), I suspect that Susan is either dead or has ceased to be a Time Lord (Lady?). And I don’t think she’s dead.

So, those are my first predictions. I share them for the amusement of those who know better. Just be kind… and please don’t spoil me!

Gallifreyan youth succumbs to the dangers of Rock-n-Roll

The TARDIS Takes Off

A few months ago, I watched Doctor Who for the first time – the First Doctor, in his first battle against the Daleks on Skaro.

I loved the psychedelic light show opening credits, loved the proto-prog theme music, and found myself stunned by the Daleks’ malevolent desire to exterminate all non-Dalek life. But I was not terribly impressed by the First Doctor. He was whiny and grouchy in those early episodes, and I just had no idea what he was on about.

I realized that if I wanted to get up to speed, I would have to do the unthinkable… watch a show out of sequence. I would have to dip in and out of time, learn as much as I could about the Doctor, and then take what I learned back to those earliest episodes. In other words, if I wanted to get a context for the Doctor, I would have to watch the show in something akin to the way a Time Lord dips in and out of history.

So I started Doctor Who with Doctor Nine. Going through Nine, Ten, and Eleven was like getting a Cliff’s Notes version of Doctor Who history. I met the Cybermen, the Sontarans, the Silurians, Sarah Jane, K9, the Master, Rassilon, and a variety of old and new foes. I even wound up – however briefly – on a decimated, dome-cracked Gallifrey. And of course, I fell in love with the Doctor. Not with Chris, or David, or Matt but with the character – so full of life and compassion and fury and madness and eccentricity and goofiness and majesty. There’s just no other character like him.

New Who left me with a burning desire to catch up on Classic Who. And there was no way I would be able to stop myself from writing about it on some forum somewhere, so I thought… “Why not do a first-watch blog?” So here I am. So, to launch this blog, how about we watch the First Doctor’s TARDIS take off for the first time?

(sorry, no embedding from BBC Worldwide)