The experiment begins…
An Unearthly Child
This was Sue’s first reaction to the episode. She absorbed it in complete silence, except for an early aside where she vaguely remembered who Dixon of Dock Green was.
Me: Is that all you’ve got?
Sue: I thought it would be a lot longer than that.
Of all the opening gambits I could have expected – which ranged from a gushing “Wow, I understand why you love this show now!” to a rueful “We missed The One Show for that?” – this wasn’t on my list.
Me: And? So what did you make of it?
Sue sighed deeply and then she told me she was shocked by Hartnell’s curt, abrasive manner, and she found it hard to believe that this was the same character currently portrayed on television by Matt Smith. I didn’t tell her that this was actually a much softer version of the character, which evolved from the untransmitted pilot episode, which I’m also sparing her.
Sue: He’s arrogant, snide, spiteful, and a little bit creepy.
What captivates her, though, is the back story (or distinct lack of it) to Susan and the Doctor’s predicament. She is especially intrigued by her namesake’s desire to stay on Earth; she wants to know why Susan wishes to hang around in 1963 when she has all of time and space to explore. And why does she bother going to school in the first place, especially when she appears to be so distressed and harassed during her academic flashbacks? Susan doesn’t appear to have any friends to speak of, and it was this lack of clarity and motivation for her desire to stay on Earth that really bugged my wife. I could give her a Kim Newman novella to read, but it’s probably much too soon.
Interestingly, she didn’t pick up on Susan’s claim that she invented the word TARDIS, but she does ask the other really obvious question:
Sue: Is she really his granddaughter?
Me: Er… Wait and see.
When asked to sum up her feelings for this landmark episode, she concluded that it was sufficiently mysterious and different enough for her to appreciate why audiences in 1963 must have been dazzled and amazed by it. But now? Not so much.
Sue: This is all about Susan, isn’t it? It’s her story. The Doctor doesn’t get a look in. He’s horrible.
One episode down, several hundred to go…top
The Cave of Skulls
It was Sue who brought up the subject of this experiment the next day.
Sue: Is it time for Doctor Who yet?
She pretended to be vaguely annoyed at the prospect, but I could tell that she wanted to find out what happened next.
She was a lot more vocal during the screening of this episode, and her commentary was aimed solely at William Hartnell.
Sue: He’s a smoker! You’d never get away with that today. Imagine Matt Smith pulling out some Lambert and Butler.
As the episode plays out, Sue’s agitation begins to increase exponentially.
Sue: He really is useless, isn’t he? Look at him! He’s just lying there as everyone talks over him. When does he sit up and take control of the situation?
She’s not overly impressed with the supporting artistes either, but she is beginning to warm to the TARDIS crew. She is particularly impressed by William Russell’s ability to deliver the now familiar “Doctor who?” gag with a straight face.
As the credits roll, I ask Sue to sum up.
Sue: It can’t compete with the first episode. There are far too many scenes of cavemen bickering and not enough action. And the special effects were rubbish.
Me: But there aren’t any special effects.
The Forest of Fear
Once again, it is Sue who reminds us that it’s time for our daily dose of Doctor Who. I don’t know whether I should be happy, suspicious or afraid.
It doesn’t take her very long to be outraged by Hartnell’s brusque, selfish behaviour, which shows no signs of abating. At one point, Barbara falls over and the Doctor practically tramples her underfoot.
Sue: What a ****! Are we supposed to like the lead character? Because the show is doing a terrible job if we are supposed to root for this git.
Sue has already taken sides with Ian, and she’s impressed that Barbara appears to be having a nervous breakdown, which is a realistic prospect given what she’s already gone through. In fact, a word that’s never very far from my wife’s lips is ‘bleak’. The levels of violence in this episode leave her incredulous.
Sue: This is never a kid’s show! What time did this go out again?
Me: A quarter past five.
Sue: Bloody hell. That’s ridiculous.
It’s at this point that the Doctor contemplates braining a wounded cavemen to death, just so he can get the hell out of this story.
Sue is appalled. And then an old woman is brutally murdered.
By the time the cliffhanger arrives, my wife is very disturbed. She’s alarmed by just how brutal and grim this thing is. She sums it up with a venomous barb.
Sue: They should have called the lead actor William Heartless.top
Sue made us plough on with the last episode. Either she wanted to get it over and done with or she genuinely wanted to see how events panned out.
The violence continues to amaze her. By the time Za has smashed Kal’s head in with a boulder, she has practically turned into Mary Whitehouse.
Sue: I just don’t see how they got away with this. You assume that things were a lot tamer back in the past but this is brutal stuff, and certainly inappropriate for the time slot it went out in.
Sue is also surprised (but in a good way) that the regulars are very keen on simply legging it back to the TARDIS so they can leave the bickering tribe to their own devices. And she is increasingly annoyed at just how quickly and easily Susan has gone from being an enigmatic protagonist to a whimpering child. She’s not that impressed by the claustrophobic feel to the programme, either, even when I explain to her that they are probably working in the most inappropriate television studio imaginable.
Sue: This looks pretty cheap by today’s standards, but I can see that back then it must have looked acceptable. If you really squint at it.
When our heroes finally make it back to the TARDIS, Sue is relieved that this particular journey has come to an end.
Sue: Look at the state of them! What a mess. I’m amazed that no one seems to be very heroic so far. I can’t tell who we are supposed to root for from one minute to the next. And there was far too much grunting!
When the ship’s radiation meter jumps into the red/darker shade of grey, Sue lets out a tiny “Ooh”; either she’s humouring me or she’s genuinely interested in what happens next.top
The Final Score
When I ask my wife to score the four episodes collectively known as – actually, let’s not get into that now – she doesn’t hesitate:
She can tell by the look on my face that she’s done something terrible.
Sue: Is that too harsh? Is there worse to come?
Me: Oh yes.
Sue: Really? Oh God.
For the very first time, Sue looks worried.
She then goes on to explain that she enjoyed the first episode a great deal, but the remaining three episodes got bogged down in the politics of the cavemen, and she didn’t really care about them all that much. In the end we decide, just this once, to award separate marks for the opening episode and what she refers to as “that stone-age nonsense”. So that’s:
Join us next time when we’ll -
Actually, don’t tell her. I don’t want to spoil the surprise.
The experiment continues…top
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