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Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Best of Who: An Unearthly Child VS The Name of the Doctor

On the eve of Doctor Who's 50th Anniversary, On-Screen pays tribute to the world's longest running science-fiction drama!
The promotional campaign for Doctor Who's momentous 50th Anniversary celebrations has been so extensive and thoroughly impressive that with just days remaining until The Day of the Doctor's broadcast, it would be churlish of us to attempt to re-express once more why the show deserves to still be here in 2013. If it's those kind of sentiments that readers want, then they can find them in our Best of Who Awards and A Retrospective weekly features published throughout the early months of the year.

Instead, On-Screen is putting a different spin on its final celebrations for the big day. Having rewatched both the 1963 première episode of Doctor Who, An Unearthly Child, and the latest broadcast 2013 instalment- the finale of Season Seven- The Name of the Doctor. This isn't a domain for intense criticism of either the classic series or the 21st Century revival, rather an overall retrospective on the strengths of both eras and thus the enduring strength of the BBC's finest drama as a whole. Join us in our strangely familiar police box, then, as we journey to two groundbreaking moments in the show's history which have defined its vast mythology:

THE NARRATIVES- Placed at the beginning and conclusion of their televised season respectively, Unearthly and Name naturally fulfil notably contrasting functions. In the former, Coal Hill schoolteachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright follow the mysterious Susan Foreman into an abandoned junkyard, where they encounter an enigmatic, anonymous figure and eventually find themselves transported in a logic-defying time machine to the age of Neanderthals, where a shadowy figure approaches the TARDIS. It's a meek initial tale when placed in comparison to the latter's journey to Trenzalore, where the Doctor's tomb is revealed, Clara discovers the source of her interdimensional fragmentation and a mysterious new incarnation of the Time Lord comes to light. Nevertheless, both stories engage the viewer from the outset, Unearthly's first part benefiting from the personal perspective on nameless students in Coal Hill School and the relationship between Ian and Barbara, and Name flourishing with its immediate action blockbuster-esque tone. The Season Seven finale inevitably builds to a cliffhanger in preparation for The Day of the Doctor, yet in both cases there's a substantial degree of ambiguity regarding what the closing moments of the narratives entail for their respective players- what will the figure's reaction be towards the TARDIS, and just what does John Hurt's Doctor noticing his future incarnation in his time stream mean for the TARDIS crew in the 50th Anniversary Special? That's the great strength of Who, though, particularly endorsed by Moffat: its plotlines never give the viewers all of the answers they desire at once, but it teases out enough information in order to guarantee that they never feel short-changed and to simultaneously ensure their booking of a place on the sofa next week.

THE STARS- Doctor Who has frequently relied upon relatively restrained cast ensembles in terms of quantity, a trait which resonates in both its first and latest adventures. An Unearthly Child introduces the world to William Russell and Jacqueline Hill first and foremost, and thank goodness, as both of them are hugely talented thespians who eventually bring out the best in their co-stars William Hartnell and Carole Ann Ford. Ann Ford's portrayal of Susan can hardly be discredited, either, for it conveys an impressively alien humanoid character steeped in mystery and naivety. Come the time of The Name of the Doctor, fans have had more time to accumulate to the sublime talents of Matt Smith, Jenna Coleman, Neve McIntosh, Catrin Stewart and Dan Starkey, all of whom are on their greatest form yet at this stage. Once again, it's clear that Who endures thanks to the unyielding strength of its central and supporting actors and actresses, another aspect of its popularity which has developed immensely over the years.

THE DIRECTION- In hindsight, few fans would have envied An Unearthly Child's director Waris Hussein for the challenge in establishing one of the most iconic entertainment properties of the last century. During the year 1963, of course, no-one had even a faint conception of the success Doctor Who would amass in days to come, and as such the direction of its debut episode falls firmly in line with the BBC's standard drama offerings of the '60s, Hussein's depiction of the three locales of the episode- Coal Hill School, 76 Totter's Lane and the Neanderthal-scoured field- is understated and visibly restricted by his tight budget. Meanwhile, Saul Metzein can afford himself a greater deal of confidence in 2013 with Name thanks to an enhanced budget (though the use of the merely semi-effective Whispermen shows that the BBC's CGI restrictions still reside) and greater tonal assurance on the part of the incumbent showrunner, Steven Moffat. Moffat's vision for his third season finale seems to have been profoundly clear, especially due to its relation to The Day of the Doctor. Thus in spite of its narrative ambivalences, Name thrives on the more assured vision of Doctor Who's current helm in terms of its aesthetic fidelity.

THE VERDICT- Surely this one is fairly simple? To conclude, Doctor Who has never really fallen short of an astounding benchmark of greatness in its past half-century of integration into British culture and wider entertainment history. It's most certainly had its moments where that aforementioned benchmark has been matched and surpassed with more aplomb than in other instances, but the show's dramatic power has survived and continued to manifest itself in its every form, whether on television, in audio, in publication or elsewhere. This weekend's historic 50th Anniversary Special, The Day of the Doctor, will only serve as a continued expression and refinement of that greatness, but as Moffat himself has said, not to mention the First Doctor, "it's far from being all over".

The truth of the situation? This isn't the end, it's the beginning- and the moment has been prepared for. That moment is coming, and it's been fifty years in the making...

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