Overview

Ending with The Beginning

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On November 23, 1963 something new hit television airwaves in Great Britain. While there had been science fiction programs before this was something different – a series with a mandate to educate and entertain children that quickly went beyond what it was designed to do. It not only brought in young viewers, it lured in the whole family. The series was Doctor Who and it would go on to cross boundaries physical, geographical, social, and technological at the very least.

In 2006 the first three serials ever broadcast in the series finally made it onto DVD as a box set titled The Beginning. It is just what the Doctor ordered for fans looking to explore the roots of this venerable program or novices looking for a place to start. These first three stories have been painstakingly cleaned up and remastered so that, in some ways, they look even better than the day they first aired. The set is also packaged with a whole host of extras.

Some basic terminology for those who may not have any experience with the older series: the stories were originally broken up into individual episodes – each episode about a half hour in length – similar to the way comic book story arcs are broken up. The overall story is called a "serial" while the individual installments are referred to as "episodes". Still with me? Good.

With the serials "An Unearthly Child/100,000 B.C.", "The Daleks", and "The Edge of Destruction" we are introduced to Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford) – an oddly brilliant teenager who doesn’t fit in because she is more than what she seems, her curious History teacher Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and Barbara’s colleague Science teacher Ian Chesterton (William Russell), as well as Susan’s mysterious guardian – her grandfather, known only as "the Doctor" (William Hartnell). Curiosity may have killed the cat but where it lands the two teachers is far beyond their wildest dreams. Ian and Barbara are taken away against their wills by the Doctor and find themselves caught in a series of adventures that take them from the distant past to alien worlds to a place beyond the sun! Along the way they meet primitive humans, terrible and amazing alien races and are forced to fight for their lives. Included in this is the first appearance of fan favorite villains the Daleks.

Of course time is often unkind to cultural artifacts like TV series’ and certainly there are aspects of the three serials which now seem quaint, chauvinistic and cliché. Despite strong performances by Carole Ann Ford and Jacqueline Hill their characters of Susan and Barbara sometimes degenerate into old, stereotypical female hysteria and melodrama. There are also clichés – like how it takes the time traveling outsiders to teach others how to lead. Most of all, at a time when special effects were crude and Doctor Who’s limited budget meant theirs were even cruder, some of the sets, props and effects look like… well… sets, props and cheap effects. The "advanced technology" seen in the stories also looks woefully clunky in this day and age of the iphone and ipod nano.

Despite all of this, the professionalism and talent of the four main actors as well as the overall quality of the scripts allow the stories to rise above their problems. All of the cast members took their parts seriously and sell the action to the audience. Jacqueline Hill and William Russell share a gentle charm and provide a real sense of dawning wonder for their characters. Carol Ann Ford injects a child-like, insatiable curiosity as well as a fierce loyalty to her friends and family. While to William Hartnell fell the difficult part of handling all the techno babble lines while at the same time exuding a sense of great intelligence and pioneering spirit wrapped in a package of cantankerous curmudgeon. Hartnell also believably created an emotional arc for his character as he goes from hostility toward his human companions to a respect that hints at an affection to come.

The scripts also have a lot of intelligence and never talk down to their audience. The characters ponder difficult questions and are often tempted to put their own needs first. There are sly morals, lines of dialogue that can run from Shakespearian to sharp witted. There are worlds that are alien – even in the setting of Earth’s past – and alien beings that are all-too human in ways both good and bad. All of this occurs in the space of three sweeping tales.

As if the three serials were not enough, the set is packed to bursting with extras. Included is the rare series pilot, originally screened for BBC executives. There are commentary tracks for several of the episodes featuring the producer, directors and actors involved. There is also on-screen trivia options for all of the episodes, photo galleries featuring stills taken during rehearsals, and four comedy sketches – three done in 1999 for the BBC’s celebration Doctor Who Night and one produced in 1991. In addition to all of this are a number of documentaries – some short and some long – covering such topics as the unique Doctor Who theme song and sound effects, the evolution and creation of the Daleks, the design for the interior and exterior of the TARDIS, an in depth look at "The Edge of Destruction", and finally a detailed examination of the creation and early evolution of the series featuring interviews with those involved, archival documents, and even old footage. As an added bonus there is also a reconstruction of a lost serial. Due to BBC tape wiping in the 1960s and 1970s many stories were lost either whole or in part. Using off-air sound recordings and photographs a 30 minute, "condensed" recreation of the serial "Marco Polo" is included here.

For those who have always been curious about the show and for those whose exposure to Doctor Who has only been the new series there are many surprises awaiting in the past. The series still builds upon the foundation laid in 1963 and draws inspiration from the stories of over 40 years ago. Although created as "Children’s Television" there is a lot of smarts and sophistication in these early serials; along with a sense of wonder and an embracing of an adventurous, pioneering spirit. If you’re going to go exploring with Doctor Who then a good place to start is always with The Beginning.

Doctor Who: The Beginning is available as a DVD box set from the BBC priced $44.98.

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