Saturday, November 23, 2013

An Unearthly Child

I thought it would be fun to watch an episode of Doctor Who every Saturday, fifty years after it was first shown, and also share with my blog-readers what I think about it. The days of the week go out of sync next March, because 1964 was a leap year and 2014 isn't, but I'll probably have got bored with the idea by then anyway, so we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

For now, though, it's Saturday November 23, 1963. We're sitting around at home watching Grandstand (interrupted regularly by news updates about President Kennedy's assassination yesterday) and we've never even heard of Daleks. Last week's Radio Times (people who write about TV shows in those days never remember that every single television-owner in Britain bought the Radio Times back then - it was the one and only place to see the BBC TV listings) told us that "Saturday's serial begins when two teachers (Jacqueline Hill and William Russell) probe the mystery surrounding one of their pupils (Carol Ann Ford) - and meet the strange Dr. Who" and shows a picture of the three of them.

This week's RT has a much bigger feature, spelling Carole Ann Ford's name right and telling us a lot more about the intriguing-sounding new series. It looks like fun, doesn't it? There was a trailer for the new series last Saturday evening, and another last night, but since they no longer exist in the BBC archives, I'm going to assume we missed seeing them. It involved William Hartnell talking to the camera and saying basically the same thing that's in this article...

Dr. Who

Okay, it's 5:15, we're settled down in front of the black-and-white TV with a cup of tea and a sandwich, and we're lucky enough to be in one of the houses in Britain not being affected by the widespread power cuts. It's cold outside, there are only two TV channels, so we might as well watch this new thing on the BBC!

It's running late - another news update from America - but then when it starts, we get the opening titles...

Spooky. A line of white light twists and distorts, to the accompaniment of eerie music and hissing noises, then turns into flying white patterns of light rushing at the viewer, and the words DOCTOR OHO appear on the screen - turning into DOCTOR WHO a split second later when it becomes clear that the writing was reversed and overlaid on top of itself in order to look more spooky. That part doesn't really work, but the rest of the opening sequence is completely awesome and like nothing we've seen before on television here in the year 1963!

The music keeps on playing as we see a policeman wandering around a foggy night-time street and shining his torch on an old wooden gate with "I.M.Foreman, Scrap Merchant, 76 Totters Lane" painted on it. Dixon of Dock Green is on the BBC in an hour and a half - are they showing that early by mistake? No, the policeman wanders off after checking that the gate is locked, and then it opens all by itself, leading the camera into a junkyard filled with miscellaneous scrap. Among it is a police box - a normal sight on the streets of London, although it's a bit strange to see one inside a yard like this. The title "An Unearthly Child" appears as the theme music finally stops, followed by the name of the writer, Anthony Coburn. We zoom in on the police box's phone hatch, then we blur-dissolve to the noticeboard of Coal Hill School.

Strange and mysterious beginning, but it's effective! Makes you wonder what's going on...

The school bell's ringing, sixties teenagers are larking about on their way home, and teacher Barbara Wright comes into the chemistry lab to talk to her colleague Ian Chesterton. His first question "Not gone yet?" is a bit strange, since the bell for the end of school rang less than 30 seconds ago, but never mind. They chat about Susan Foreman's strangeness - she's an uncanny genius fifteen-year-old, but secretive about her home life, and Barbara is worried about her, especially since her home address is just a junkyard with no house attached. Ian vaguely remembers that Susan lives with her grandfather, who's a doctor, and they resolve to play detective and check it out.

Back to the English classroom, where Susan is listening to loud music on a transistor radio. Beatlemania hasn't hit the BBC yet, obviously, it's very late-fifties stuff and not what genuine teenagers are listening to these days at all. Susan is rather unearthly-looking, with short hair in an unfashionable style and a rather strange appearance. She's also not played by a very convincing actor, unfortunately. Ian and Barbara are both good, in a BBC-drama kind of way, and likeable too. They go on their way, leaving Susan to read a book about the French Revolution and exclaim that the writer's got it wrong!

The book is a cheap and hasty TV prop, with a paper dustcover containing no words except "THE FRENCH REVOLUTION" on the cover. Did they forget to make one until filming had already started? The rest of the sets are very good - detailed and well-made classrooms! If I was the director (who otherwise does an excellent job here), I wouldn't have chosen a close-up on the book as my transition to the next scene...

In Ian's car in the dark, the two teachers wait outside the junkyard gate and reminisce about Susan's strangenesses as they try to pretend to themselves that they're motivated by anything other than curiosity. Susan doesn't know how many shillings there are in a pound, and when the other pupils laugh at her, she recalls that the decimal system hasn't started yet. [Doctor Who's first and possibly best ever prediction of the future - the change to decimal currency was planned in 1963, but wasn't definitely going to happen and a timescale for it hadn't been set yet. Retrospectively, it's understandable that Susan got mixed up, she's less than a decade too early for it, although since we later learn that she's been on Earth, in Britain, for five months, it's surprising that she hasn't seen money yet.]

The cutaways to Susan show her in the classroom sets, with Barbara's and Ian's voices off-screen - it's a strange way to do it by 2013 standards, and looks weird, but if we click back into the 1963 mindset when most television was broadcast live or (like Doctor Who) recorded 'as live' with multiple cameras and two or three sets squeezed next to each other in the same studio, it doesn't look weird at all. Susan's also bored with Ian's chemistry experiments, finding them too obvious or incomprehensible because they only calculate in three dimensions rather than five...

Susan goes in through the junkyard gate, and the teachers follow her. Ian drops and loses his torch in the dark, and isn't carrying any matches (most 1963 people did!), but they still manage to find the police box. It's vibrating strangely, although Ian walks all around it and can't see any power cable. But then they go and hide as a mysterious old man comes along. He starts to open the police box, and Susan's voice greets him (There you are, Grandfather!) from inside, surprising Ian and Barbara enough that they make a noise attracting the old man's attention.

We finally get to see the title character of this new series! His name goes unmentioned in this episode, although the Radio Times article variously called him 'Dr. Who' (the character's name on the credits) or 'the Doctor'. His first line of dialogue is rather stagey, but then he becomes really quite captivating as he infuriates Ian and Barbara by denying everything and refusing to let them see inside the police box. He chuckles to himself, peppers his speech with "Hmm?" and completely takes charge of the situation even though Ian is bigger, younger and very assertive. His long white hair is very strange-looking for 1963, he's got a woolly hat on, plus a black coat and colourful scarf. The conversation goes round in circles, until the teachers are on the point of being forced to just go away and fetch a policeman, but then the police box door opens, Susan calls out to her grandfather from the inside, and Barbara and Ian force their way in.

And now we get the real science-fiction part at last! The brightly-lit room they stumble into is much, much bigger than the police box! Strange walls with big recessed circles in them, a variety of large and peculiar ornaments, and a hexagonal control panel in the middle of the room. Very strikingly designed and fascinating to see! The ever-practical Barbara is concerned with asking Susan whether she's okay, while Ian is bewildered - he walked all around the police box, after all! The Doctor strips off his coat and scarf, ignoring the teachers' questions and generally scoffing at their ignorance. He's wearing an old-fashioned shirt and tie under a black jacket. He and Susan explain that they're all standing in a 'ship', the TARDIS, that can go anywhere in space or time. And they wonder what they're going to do with these interlopers from 1963...

He explains that he's from a different planet and time, and that he and Susan are exiles, all alone, but that they'll get back home one day. And while Susan begs him to let her teachers just go, he insists that they'll tell everyone what they've seen, and the time travellers will have to be on their way. The Doctor laughs to himself merrily as he locks Ian and Barbara in the TARDIS, sneakily electrifies the controls so Ian gets a shock when he touches them, and finally when they're distracted by Susan works the controls.

The room starts to shake, there's an eerie wheezing noise, we see London receding into the distance, and then an extended version of the spooky light patterns from the opening titles. Ian and Barbara fall down unconscious and we get close-ups of Susan and the Doctor, intercut with swirly light effects and creepy noises. This kind of thing is terrifying to a 1963 audience!

The television screen in the TARDIS now shows a barren, rocky landscape. The police box is now standing incongrously among the rocks and bare trees, and a human shadow is seen approaching it...

Next episode, says the caption, "The Cave Of Skulls"! The title music plays, the credits scroll, and the scene gradually fades to black. 1963 audiences probably noticed the unusual fact that the producer is a woman, Verity Lambert, and the director is an Indian immigrant, Waris Hussein.

It really is a great start to a series! It's a fascinating story, and it leaves us wanting to know what's going to happen next. I would certainly be tuning in next week if I was watching in 1963, intrigued by the setup in this first episode and the promises in the Radio Times that this strange quartet will be travelling all around the universe in the weeks to come...



Mit Schirm, Charme und Melone

Okay, it was three weeks ago, but here's my account of my German TV adventure!

Although in some ways planned in advance, the trip to Germany was a last-minute kind of thing - the qualifying contest between Simon and Johannes was filmed on Tuesday night, and it was the vote of the studio audience at that show that decided which three disciplines would go through to the grand final. Since I'd booked Wednesday, Thursday and Friday off work anyway, I would've felt silly going back and explaining that I wasn't on German TV after all. Luckily, though, the memory challenge was spectacular enough to qualify, and I was off to Cologne.

Arriving at Düsseldorf on Thursday morning, I shared a car with the UK's Strongest Man, Eddie Hall, plus his wife and baby son Maximus the Muscle Baby. Well, I just made up the subtitle, but isn't Maximus the best possible name for a strongman to call his son? We were conveyed to Cologne and set up in the Hopper Hotel on the very memorably-named Dagobertstrasse (Donald Duck's Uncle Scrooge is called Uncle Dagobert in German; I have no idea why. But that's the only thing anyone in Germany would ever associate the name with, although the street was presumably named after some mediaeval saint.) And then it was off to the TV studios for our first rehearsal.

The challenge had been trimmed down a little from the original plans - the qualifying contest between Simon and Johannes gave them a maximum three minutes to memorise 50 digits, 100 heads-or-tails coins (that is, binary digits in a clever disguise) and 40 words. The grand final added 32 cards (7 to ace, like in the popular German game Skat) for a great all-round test of memorising. But then they realised that it took way too long to recite all those heads and tails, so the coins were removed from the final. Which is a shame, I was looking forward to that part, and binary is perhaps the only remaining discipline where I've still got the edge over Simon.

Generally speaking, the European masters were separated from the German winners in rehearsals - it was supposed to be a big surprise for them when they saw their opponent on the live show. Since Simon and I know each other quite well, the TV people didn't bother to keep us apart, and let us do the rehearsals together - unlike in the first show, when they sat down and looked at computer screens, this time it would be more visual, with the cards, numbers and words appearing on separate screens that the competitors walked between, with a big red buzzer to press at the end (the first one to finish presses the buzzer to make the screens go blank for both competitors). The studio looked very cool - quite a bit bigger than the ones I've been in at BBC Television Centre in the past.

After a practice run with the speed memory challenge, which was held up by a technical problem or two, we had dinner in the studio canteen and then faced the important decision of what to wear on the show. The Germans got to wear their normal clothes, but the European challengers were dressed up in something a bit more spectacular. The costume woman had already hit on a way to make me look extremely British and colourful - a kilt. I thought she was joking, but she really didn't seem to see anything wrong with that idea - and to be fair, everyone in England has been making comments about lederhosen, which sounds just as absurd to Germans in the Rhineland as a kilt does to English people. Anyway, it was good to have something to say 'no' to - the TV people, spearheaded by the wonderful Uschi, were constantly asking me if their various ideas were okay and whether I was unhappy with anything. For future reference, I'm basically fine with everything in the world, always. Except wearing a kilt on TV.

So they eventually were persuaded to go with the second choice - a suit and tie, bowler hat and umbrella. I looked surprisingly awesome in this get-up! My beard's quite long at the moment, and I looked like some kind of absent-minded professor. I need to dress up like that more often. I would have much preferred the outfit they put Eddie Hall in, though - a studded leather gladiator-style skirt (what is it with the Germans trying to make the English wear skirts?), leather thongs around his wrists, bright red cape and nothing else.

We all dressed up in full costume for the big dress rehearsal on Friday evening, including my big entrance - the giant screen splits in half to reveal me standing on a pedestal and looking awesome, to the accompaniment of dramatic music. In the rehearsal, actually, it looked much better - I looked serious and sinister until the last moment, then smiled just as it cut to the pre-filmed sequence of me going about my everyday life (standing next to the Robin Hood statue in Nottingham, that kind of thing). On the show itself, they stopped the music a beat earlier, so I missed the smile.

I attempted to talk in German with the host, which was made a bit more difficult by having a translator in my ear, five seconds delayed, telling me what he was saying and generally meaning that I couldn't follow either of them. I tend to find it difficult to understand what Germans are saying to me; replying in German is a lot easier for some reason. Hopefully I made some kind of sense. So we did another practice run of the challenge, which worked better this time, although I still wasn't much good at the memorising, and then went out into the pouring rain (it was nice and warm compared to the weather here in England, but rained most of the time I was there) for a meal with Simon and Johannes (who was there as Simon's guest - mine, arriving on Saturday, was Boris, who'd been Simon's guest at the first show but now had to pretend to support the evil foreigner). They attempted to talk in German, but I didn't understand a word, so we switched back to English

Saturday gave me a chance to look around the shops of Cologne (the Friday was a bank holiday in Germany, and they closed down everything, just like they do on Sundays - Germany is a different world) before the big show in the evening. I had to be at the studio two hours before the show started, which was a bit excessive considering the memory part was the second from last and didn't happen until two and a half hours into the show and I'm ready to go with a light coating of makeup - since I was wearing a hat, I didn't even have to have powder plastered on my bald head to stop it reflecting the studio lights and blinding everyone! But the TV people, wonderfully, had set me up with an empty, silent conference room to compose my thoughts in - I even had the choice between that and hanging out in the green room with various other international competitors, so I only went up to the quiet room once the show had started and Boris had joined the audience.

I'd had a talk with the commentator, explaining how my memory techniques work (basically, exactly the same as Simon had already told him), and told him the journey I'd be using today was around Toton, Nottinghamshire. He wrote it down as "Toten", and I'm fairly sure he told the watching German audience that I was picturing myself in the village of the dead.

Despite all the 'mental preparation time', I was strangely nervous about the show - much more than I ever am about a memory championship. You'd think that by now I'd be used to never doing any good on TV shows, but obviously not. Since I'd gone too quickly with the numbers in rehearsals, in an attempt to catch up with the speed Simon was going at, I made a point of going more slowly and carefully this time. But then we had to re-start, because Simon had the same numbers as he'd had in the first programme, which was a little bit disorienting. German mind-games. So I quickly racked my brain for a journey that I hadn't used in practice too recently, settled on the Queensgate Centre in Peterborough, and started again.

Simon hit the buzzer while I was still half-way through my second reading of the words (we'd both decided to go through each list twice, rather than risking a single sighting), so I wasn't clear on a lot of them. But more importantly, I couldn't for the life of me remember what the first pair of cards was. So, having won the coin toss, I made Simon go first, in an attempt to give myself some more thinking time and remember it. Didn't work. And in any case, Simon was so perfect in his recall of everything that he would have won whatever I did.

So while the winners sat with their trophies in big gold armchairs, awaiting the viewer phone vote as to which performance was the most spectacular (it was the running-up-a-wall-and-backflipping-over-a-high-jump-bar, which admittedly looked a bit cooler than the memory show), I got to watch the last of the show in a room with the other losers. And a very fun experience it was for everyone, too! It's just a shame they didn't let me keep the bowler hat...