Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: The Beginning DVD

By Jim Smith on 27 February 2006

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

‘The Beginning’ is a handy dandy box set which contains the first thirteen episodes of ‘Doctor Who’ plus two separate versions of the series unbroadcast pilot episode and assorted extras.

The first episode of ‘Doctor Who’ is entitled ‘An Unearthly Child’ and is still one of the series most celebrated (it can count Stephen Poliakoff amongst its fans). In it two schoolteachers follow a ‘problem pupil’ home to a junkyard, where they are (essentially) kidnapped by her semi-senile Grandfather, a brilliant, giggling, wide-eyed, angry old man with a time machine and a silly hat. It’s brilliant. Immaculately played and impressively shot, it presents a strange kind of ‘otherness’ even now.

The following three episodes (‘The Cave of Skulls’, ‘The Forest of Fear’, ‘The Firemaker’) have often been under-praised compared to the first but this is desperately unfair. They’re intelligently written, well-acted and forcefully directed. The story they tell, of a struggle between two cavemen as to who is the Alpha Male in charge of a small number of Neolithic tribespeople, is far more compelling than it sounds and it, regardless, runs alongside the equally compelling tale of the series’ four regulars bonding together as a unit. These three episodes, taken together with the first, form the series first serial, grouped together here under the title most of the audience would most easily recognise – ‘An Unearthly Child’.

The second serial is ‘The Daleks’ and it is, perhaps, the biggie of this set in terms of public recognition. It’s a seven episode juggernaut (one of only eight ‘Who’ stories to run longer than 150 minutes) which, naturally, introduces the series first, best monsters. ‘The Daleks’ has an over familiar storyline. It was adapted into a book, a film, a talking book, a comic book and even remade ten years later as another ‘Doctor Who’ serial. Looked at coldly it’s not one of the most inspiring of the series’ early epics – and that which is enduring or endearing about it comes mostly in the area of design. The plot is cobbled together from H G Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ and an ITV show called ‘Pathfinders’, most of the dialogue is ghastly and it’s at least an episode too long. (Part Six ‘The Ordeal’ is particularly well named). But, and it’s a big but, it has those Dalek things in – and they’re utterly mesmerising, as is Hartnell’s incomparable Doctor. As a duel between these twin titans of the series ‘The Daleks’ is less satisfying than its sequels (say ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’), but it deserves our indulgence, despite its longeurs, because of its pre-eminent status within the series. Without this story ‘Doctor Who’ would most likely have ended fifteen years before I was born rather than the most popular thing on TV as I slouch towards thirty.

The third serial herein is the two part ‘The Edge of Destruction’/’The Brink of Disaster’. Now, I love ‘The Edge of Destruction’, it’s fifty minutes of stagey madness and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but the performers are all superb and there’s some lovely dialogue, creepy moments and shocking situations. Set entirely within the confines of the TARDIS it is, perversely, this two part, character-led ‘filler’ that benefits the most from the lavish cleaning up these episodes have received. With its sharp pictures and clean, oppressively quiet backgrounds restored the story’s sinister atmosphere comes to the fore. It’s a massive technical improvement on the 1998 VHS release of the serial, and that was a leap onward from the copies used to repeat the thing on BSB, UK GOLD and so forth in the last decade of the last century.

The aforementioned pilot episode of ‘Doctor Who’ is actually an earlier version of ‘An Unearthly Child’ (the episode, not the serial) with slightly different dialogue and the odd technical disaster (cast knocking props over and fluffing their words). It’s included here in two forms. One is of the full studio recording for the day the episode was made (including re-takes, fluffs, bits of business on the studio floor, etcetera) and a ‘2005 edit’ that combines all of the best bits of the above. Both are valuable in totally different ways. The pilot recording is the only ‘Doctor Who’ episode from the 60s represented by such a comprehensive record of the night it was made and so it is good to see it presented in its entirety here – it’s of historic interest if nothing else. The ‘2005 edit’ is a nice tidying up exercise which one hopes was done with an eye to some BBC 4 repeat. It certainly deserves such exposure.

The boxset also includes several documentaries. ‘Doctor Who: Origins’ (54 minutes) is absolutely outstanding. An intelligent, clear-eyed presentation of the process whereby the series came to exist in the first place, it’s packed with interviews, photographs and clips. It’s interesting, informative, never patronising or dull and is also easily deserving of television broadcast. In fact, it’s probably the best documentary ever made about ‘Doctor Who’ for any purpose. ‘Creation of the Daleks’ (17 minutes) is a little lighter and does what it says on the tin – so no complaints there. ‘Inside the Spaceship’ concentrates on the designing of the TARDIS (as one might expect) while ‘Over the Edge’ is a visually distinctive and rather sizeable piece about ‘The Edge of Destruction’ and its influence on ‘Doctor Who’ which, it’s pointed out, extends right up to the most recent episodes broadcast. Some might see this indulgent, but as it’s me that’s being indulged, I’ll let it go, frankly. Also terrific is ‘Masters of Sound’ which concentrates on the Radiophonic Workshop’s contribution to early ‘Doctor Who’. Featuring material shot in 1993 when the workshop was still there and sound guru Delia Derbyshire was still alive. It’s a worthwhile tribute to a group of people whose awesome creativity is so taken for granted that it’s not celebrated often or openly enough. Full marks for this one, BBC.

Also present in the box are four ‘Doctor Who’ related sketches. Three of these were transmitted on BBC 2 as part of ‘Doctor Who Night’ a few years back and are written by and feature Mark ‘League of Gentlemen’ Gatiss and David ‘Little Britain’ Walliams. The fourth has an odder pedigree and we’ll come to that in a moment. The first of the Gatiss/Walliams sketches is the one that has the most obvious reason to be a part of this box set. Entitled ‘The Pitch of Fear’ it’s a comic fictionalising of the process whereby ‘Doctor Who’ got commissioned in the first place, one which plays on the programme’s place in British pop culture and suggests that the series run was a twenty six year progress plotted out before Kennedy was assassinated. It’s funny and while it contains jokes only hardcore ‘Who’ fans would get, its general thrust is far broader than that. This version is slightly edited – at its writers’ request – to remove a derogatory comment about some of TV’s later Doctors, which is understandable but not necessarily right. (And I speak as someone who disagrees entirely with the thrust of the excised line.)

‘The Web of Caves’ is a generic ‘Doctor Who’ pastiche, shot in black and white and starting Mark Gatiss as the Doctor and Walliams as an alien determined to pit himself against him. It too works as humour based in ‘Who’ rather than as a series of in-jokes (although there are many herein) and the performers are both superb.

The third ‘Doctor Who Night’ sketch ‘The Kidnappers’ is also included here at the request of its author Mark Gatiss, who didn’t want the three sketches split up. While respecting the writer’s opinion is naturally important ‘The Kidnappers’ has somewhere between little and nothing to do with the contents of this set and would more logically sit on the DVD of a weaker Davison serial (say, er, ‘Arc of Infinity’). That nigglest of niggles aside, it’s the best of the sketches, thanks to a perfect, wordless comic turn from Davison.

‘The Corridor Sketch’ is another, er, sketch – this one of dubious vintage, producing semi-professionally by some ‘Doctor Who’ fans as part of a VHS release of an interview more than ten years ago. The jokes in this, in stark contrast to those in the Gatiss/Walliams sketches, are more ‘in-jokes’ than actual jokes. A fairly detailed knowledge of ‘Doctor Who’ is required to really ‘get’ it; and even when one has such a thing, the piece isn’t actually funny, just a bit histrionic and smug. It’s also appallingly played and insanely overlong. I’d call it pitiably unfunny, but that would imply I’d extend my pity to those involved.

Selected episodes in the set have commentaries on them. These are, as is now seemingly destined to be forever the case on DVDs of very early ‘Doctor Who’, more or less comprehensively ruined by the grinding ineptitude of a moderator who gives “John Cork of The Ian Fleming Foundation” (moderator on MGM’s Bond DVDs) a run for his money in terms of combining both voice and attitude chronically unsuited to this kind of work. It’s a shame as all the other participants have interesting things to say only you either can’t hear them or are too busy wincing. Bloody ghastly, frankly.

Rounding out the box set is a 30 minute ‘condensation’ of ‘Marco Polo’, the fourth serial of the first season of ‘Doctor Who’. ‘Marco Polo’ is the earliest ‘Who’ serial not to exist in the archives, disposed of by some bureaucrat in circumstances that are still disputed today. This ‘Abridged Polo’ is created using photographs and off-air recordings of the episodes’ sound – and it’s as good as we’re going to get basically. Many of my favourite moments from the serial are omitted, but that’s inevitable when crushing 175 minutes of TV into 30, but the combination of sound and static pictures gives one an idea of what the original production must have looked and felt like – and for that I’m very grateful. The inclusion of any version of ‘Marco Polo’ is a very good idea indeed, as the advert for the unabridged CD of it at the end. If you don’t have it, buy it NOW.

‘The Beginning’ is a terrific release. It’s reasonably priced, nicely packaged and long overdue.  I’m all for this product and the occasional complaints above should be seen in the important context of this being a desirable and necessary, nay essential, addition to the BBC’s usually excellent range of ‘Doctor Who’ DVDs. You can get yours here.

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