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3 January 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day Three - The Forest of Fear (Episode Three)

Dear diary,

A lot gets made in this episode about the moment that the Doctor prepares to kill a caveman to make his escape. So much is made of it, in fact, that in my head it's this big moment where he picks up a large rock and holds it above the man's skull.

Of course, in actual fact, it's little more than the Doctor picking up the stone and turning it in his hand. His intention is clear, and when Ian asks the Doctor what he's doing, neither one of them says it aloud, but they're both aware of what could have happened. It's better this way, than the version in my head. Far more subtle. The entire interaction is sold on the skills of Hartnell and Russell, their interaction and the direction of the brief scene.

This is a stronger episode than the last - far more enjoyable. Even the scenes with the cave people were more to my taste, and I wonder if it's simply because I'm getting into the story more? It's certainly not got the problems that many later Doctor Who stories develop in Episode Three, where it becomes little more than a sequence of capture-and-escape.

Here, we're presented with an episode mostly involving our heroes running away from their enemies, and then coming around to help them. It may not sound all that far removed from a traditional Episode Three, but here we're treated to a hefty dose of character development.

It's often held up as something that the modern incarnation of Doctor Who does very well, but here it's in evidence just three weeks in. The Doctor and Ian are still suspicious of each other, but they've softened. The Doctor is being stubborn for the sake of it, and Ian simply refuses to let him get away with it.

But the Doctor is already warming to his new companions. He tells Barbara that 'fear makes companions of us all', and that's certainly in evidence here. He agrees with Ian that they must remain hopeful of an escape, and he tries to comfort his fellow travellers before they're set free from the cave.

He reverts somewhat to being less helpful when faced with the prospect of helping the cavemen. Having watched as his would-be-captor is mauled by a wild animal, he's very willing to use the opportunity to escape for freedom. Ian is of the same opinion - it's Barbara and then Susan who convince them otherwise.

Like the sequence with the stone, much gets written about how the Doctor at this stage in the series is so very far removed from the hero figure we know and love from much of the show's history. This is the first example of why it's Ian and Barbara that turn him around, teach him to be more forgiving of others and more willing to help.

We'll see this theme coming up more and more over the next few weeks, but it's nice to see that it's already begun as early as this.

Next Episode: The Firemaker

2 January 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day Two - The Cave of Skulls (Episode Two)

Dear diary,

The common conception of An Unearthly Child as a story is that it's a brilliant first episode, followed by three instalments of dross. I've always riled against this - I love to be a bit different, after all. That said, the scenes with Kal and Za fighting over leadership of their tribe are bloody dull.

The first few minutes of the episode, following an extended reprise of the fabulous cliffhanger from yesterday are just boring. There's no other word for it. Watching Za (The son of the great Fire-maker, don't-cha-know) rub his hands above a pile of sticks, while promising that today is the day the Great Orb will show him the secret of fire is… well…

I should explain. I've set myself a few rules for this marathon, aside from the whole 'no more than one episode a day' thing. One of these rules is that I'm not allowed to play with my phone at all while I watch. If I'm busy playing Angry Birds, then I'm not realign getting the full benefit of watching through, am I? Anyway, the point is that it's not a good sign if three-and-a-half minutes into an episode, I'm glancing toward my phone and wondering if it's too early to break that rule.

Things do pick up once we join our four time travellers in the TARDIS, though. Yesterday, I commented that there would be plenty of time to praise these four, and this seems like an ideal opportunity. The Doctor and Ian confronting each other around the TARDIS console is a marvellous scene; Ian simply refusing to hear what the Doctor is telling him (he almost goes full-on Victor Meldrew when Barbara tells him she's willing to accept it!), and the Doctor treating him as a child in return.

Hartnell and Russell really have a great time with this material, though you do rather side with Ian on the debate. Yes, fair enough, they've just entered a police box in a junk yard and found it to be bigger on the inside, but that's no reason to simply believe that they've actually moved just because the TV on the ceiling shows an image of a desert. For all Ian and Barbara know, the Doctor could be watching an episode of Zoo Quest.

The enjoyment continues outside the ship, when the travellers set off to explore. I love that the Doctor carries a bag with him, and that Susan insists he'd never go anywhere without his note book. The Doctor really comes across as a scientist, here, taking his geiger counter outside and seeming positively thrilled by the chance to study the rocks and find out where they are.

He spent a while in the last episode telling us how much he disliked being settled in 1963 (though he tolerates it), and so he's clearly enjoying the freedom here and now. His concern that the TARDIS hasn't changed shape to blend in with the surroundings is one of the lines from this story that's often quoted, but I've never noticed how much it's set up as a mystery.

I've always taken it for granted that the TARDIS looks like a London police box because it was stuck that way after a time in the junk-yard, but you forget that it's explained away like that so early. Susan later draws attention to it, commenting on how unusual it is to have not changed. It almost feels like they're setting this up as an on-going mystery, though I'm not sure if that's the case. I've never noticed it before, so I'll be interested to see if it's brought up again, or forgotten after this point. 

Now, Susan. I'm going to have to address this topic at some stage, so we might as well do it here, because it's already started. Susan really gets on my nerves. She's fairly hysterical in this one, when she finds the Doctor has gone missing, and there's a lot of shrieking, and jumping on cave people's backs.

Be warned. There's likely to be more than one moan about Susan over the next couple of months…

Next Episode - The Forest of Fear

1 January 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Dear diary,

Hello! Happy New Year. 2013 - surely this is the year to be a Doctor Who fan? Anyway, resolutions made (same as ever, I promise to visit the gym more. I'll go later. Or maybe tomorrow.), and it's time to settle down to watch the first episode of my marathon.

Now, let's be under no illusions, right here from the start. I'm not coming to 'classic Doctor Who cold. Not even slightly. Since I saw my first episode way back in 2003 (weyhey! it's been a whole decade. I've only just noticed that!), I've seen a large chunk of televised Who. There's a few select stories that I know nothing about, but for the most part, I know what's coming.

This is especially true of An Unearthly Child. It's hard to imagine, with this year seeing the final few releases for the DVD range, but there was a time I didn't have (almost) the entire series sat on my shelf in shiny disc form. I didn't get to see this first episode until 2006, when the 'Beginning' box set was released. Since then, I've seen it plenty of times.

I like that I had to wait to watch it way back when! I can still remember picking it up from Woolworth's on my way to college, and some of my friends looking at it in a lecture. We'd had the Ninth Doctor by this point, but Doctor Who still wasn't 'cool' among most of my friends at the time. It took David Tennant to bring many of them into the fold.

But they were genuinely interested! Because here was a Doctor Who DVD of a story made some forty-three years earlier! Yes! It had that much history! Brilliant! Fantastic! And their excitement only made me more excited! It was bad enough that I had lectures and classes all day, I wanted to get home and watch the first episode!

Of course, the mistake I made upon actually getting home was to select 'play all' from the menu, so I watched the pilot episode first, assuming it was the first episode, then got very confused when the second instalment was the same thing with some subtle changes to it.

Since then, though, I've seen it plenty of times. It must be up there with The Five Doctors in terms of how often I've sat down to watch this episode. There's a common conception among Doctor Who fans that these 25 minutes are bloody brilliant, and some of the best the show has ever produced.

And you know what? Much as I'd love to be all contrary, they're right!

It's quite hard to watch this story in isolation. 50 years of history have attached a significance to this opening episode that it just wouldn't have had on its first television outing. I've read plenty of blogs that describe the opening shot, which tracks from a policeman in the fog, through the gates and unto the mysteriously humming Police Box as being 'iconic', but it simply wasn't. Not then, anyway.

We've given in this meaning in the years that have followed, because we know that 25 minutes later it'll be stood on a rocky plain, and then in a few weeks it'll be on Skaro, then captured by Marco Polo, before being sent off to Marinus, etc, etc. It's bloody difficult to take this episode for what it is; just another piece of TV.

This time round, though, I'm in the right frame of mind. Just before Christmas, Network DVD had a massive sale of their archive titles. I've spent the last few weeks sat in front of episodes of Danger Man, The Saint, 1960s episodes of Coronation Street and The Army Game. Just a few weeks ago, I was watching William Russell ride a horse around Camelot as Sir Lancelot!

My screen has been more black and white than it has been colour in the last month or so, and you know what? This episode fits right in. It doesn't feel ground-breaking. It's not iconic. It's just another piece of drama. It's very good drama, don't get me wrong, but in the context of the day, it's just another half-hour programme.

But you know what? It's better for that! I've never enjoyed this episode more than i have tonight. I've never seen it so detached from the weight of what's to come. There's plenty of good dialogue, and the four main cast turn in performances which I'm sure I'll be praising over the next few months, but it's a surprisingly low-key start to this most famous of series.

It's so very tempting to move right on. I know many people who watch this one episode and then skip the next three, but this first cliffhanger is a great one. This first episode might be little more than normal, but the last few seconds promise something bold and different to come…

Next Episode - The Cave of Skulls

15 December 2012

Dear diary…

There are two things in life that I'm very bad at (look at that, I'm just thirteen words in, and I've already lied. Truth be told, there's lots of things in life I'm very bad at. Like trying to make flapjacks, or successfully remove an intruding spider from my flat. There's two things I'm very bad at, though, which are vital to this entry); keeping a diary and completing a Doctor Who marathon.

That's a good start, isn't it? You've just clicked onto the first post in my 50 year diary for Doctor Who Online, and I've told you I'm rubbish. Start as you mean to go on, I suppose.

Thing is, they're tricky, aren't they? Both diaries and marathons. Diaries are tricky because I'm never sure what I want to write in them. I started one once, I must have been about thirteen or fourteen, with the sentence 'Went to Woolworths. Bought some sweets' (Woolworths, hah, that dates it…). Like I was ever going to look back in a decade's time and find that fascinating.

And then I wonder what to write about the bad times. Do I write it down verbatim, or will it just bum me out when I read it back? Do you see? Tricky. The solution - which I've found over many years of painstaking research - is to simply give up on January 4th and only open the diary again when you need to check what day your birthday falls in, or you need some paper to draw a funny picture of a Taran Wood Beast. Oh, don't judge me, we've all done it.

Marathons, then. Why are those tricky, you all ask? Well, one of you probably. Well, actually, marathons aren't all that tricky. Not really. I've watched through Friends in order several times, for instance. It's only Doctor Who marathons that I struggle with.

It's not that I don't like it. Quite the opposite - especially at the start! I love the 1960s! I'd go so far as to say (this is putting my cards on the table pretty early) that the 1960s is possibly my favourite era of the show. A time of limitless imagination against the odds. Yes, the other half sniggers when she catches me watching The Web Planet, but you know what? It's got charm. They didn't care if the budget didn't quite stretch that far - they were making television, and they were going to do their best.

No, the problem is that there's just so much of it. Doctor Who is big, and sprawling. At the time of writing, there's somewhere in the region of 789 individual episodes, with another due in just over a week. Then there's 2013! The big 5-0! It's daunting, when you see it all there waiting, and that's a bit off-putting.

But the biggest problem I have when it comes to trying a Who marathon? Gluttony. I love it too much! I'll watch An Unearthly Child, The Daleks and The Edge of Destruction all across one lazy weekend, then hurry through the rest of that first season before the week is out.

Frankly, I burn out.

So that's where this new project comes in. I'm going to be starting a brand new diary from January 1st 2013, as I make my way through Doctor Who, an episode a day. At that rate, by the end of 2013, I'll have only made it to Season Eleven.

And I'm being strict about this, too. No 'Oh, go on, then! Just one more episode!', it's one a day! Once I've watched, I'll be posting my thoughts here in my diary on Doctor Who Online. I can't promise it's going to be particularly intellectual reading, but it'll be my honest thoughts as I make my way through time and space, in a little blue box.

Hopefully, some of you will follow my journey! That'd be nice! If I've someone reading my diary, then there's a reason to keep writing, and more importantly, a reason to keep to my mission.

ONE per day! No more! No less!

I've set myself a few more rules for the task, which I'll go into more detail about once we've rung in the New Year, but for now, I thought I'd say 'hello!', and invite you aboard.

I'll see you back here January 1st…


Will Brooks is a freelance writer and kitchen designer based in Cardiff, just a stone's throw away from the Torchwood Hub. He's written for the official Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space Role Playing Game, and made his way through a marathon of the Eighth Doctor's audio plays with Nick Mellish for the 2011 book Memoirs of an Edwardian Adventurer.

He's very pleased to be posting his blog on Doctor Who Online.

If you fancy keeping up with Will's non-marathon adventures, you'll find him on Twitter.

18 January 2012

Being Human is back, having controversially parted ways with two of the three regulars and parachuted in a new vampire and werewolf. 

Why this is relevant, aside from SciFiNow going behind the scenes on the new series – as recounted in the latest issue by the stunning scribblings of our senior staff writer Jodie Tyley – and Toby Whithouse dropping a few Doctor Who Series Seven nuggets in there, is that the backlash to the casting change instantly draws comparisons to another slab of BBC telefantasy with a devoted following. 

One of the voices proclaiming that the series should just end rather than replace its original cast had for his Twitter icon an image of Matt Smith. The irony alarm had to be unplugged it was making so much noise. 

I know, I know, that’s a bit unkind. The ability to change the core cast of Doctor Who is central to the concept, and that’s not the case for Being Human, but you have to remember that it wasn’t always so, and change was just as alarming 40-odd years ago as it is now. 

William Hartnell left, perhaps because of his glove habit (+10 Who Points if you laughed at that), and the production team were left with a number of options: they could find another crotchety old character actor, kill the show dead, or cast a radically different new face into the same rough chassis of the old one, while inventing some guff about the Doctor’s alien race needing periodic renewal to smooth over the cracks.

How would you have reacted in 1966 when you heard the cult show of the day was just sweeping the previous three years under the carpet? “Pffft, a new Doctor!?” you might have screeched on whatever passed for Twitter in the Sixties. “You might as well change the police box into a rocket-powered Cadillac, because it’s clearly not going to be the same show.”

It wasn’t the same show. Well, it kinda was, but it also wasn’t. The concept expanded and matured, and the dynamic shifted radically, and then in 1969… they did it all over again!

There’s a lot we can still learn from Doctor Who. A show with this sort of lengthy and cluttered history, with incredible highs and lamentable lows, is a good vantage point from which we  can look down at the rest of science fiction and fantasy.

Like the Doctor himself with his centuries of perspective, our love for a show that is nearly half a century old is a wondrous aid for putting things into perspective. There’s a new vampire in Being Human? Pffft, whatever, my favourite show replaced its lead actor ten times!

SciFiNow Issue #64 is out now, with a massive behind the scenes feature on the controversial new series of Being Human, and an eight-page Complete Guide to the Second Doctor. You can buy it digitally from the Apple Newsstand, or online from the ImagineShop. Check it out at www.scifinow.co.uk.

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