Friday, November 25, 2011

Doctor Who #3: The Forest of Fear

"Fear, it makes companions of us all."
TECHNICAL SPECS: The episode is on disc 1 of The Beginning DVD boxed set. It is either Part 2 or Part 3 of 100,000 B.C., depending on your point of view. First aired Dec.7 1963.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor, Susan, Ian and Baraba escape, are chased by Za and Hur, but are saved by an animal attack. But will saving Za's life prevent them from reaching the TARDIS before the other cavemen head them off?

REVIEW: It's Doctor Who's first escape only to be re-captured, something of a stape of third episodes for the length of its classic run. The trick will become obvious padding, but it's too early to call it that here - there's a purpose to the futile run to the TARDIS. For one thing, it makes each cast member finds his or her niche within the group. Ian and the Doctor are at odds over who will be the leader (mirrored in the struggle between Za and Kal), so it's not the quickly set "premise accepted" we're used to seeing on tv. Ian is the group's defender, brave and physical, but the Doctor is the pragmatic decision maker. We see it during the escape when he tells the group to concentrate on freeing Ian first and gallantry be damned. It's better to get our fighter free first than the suffering ladies. And later, there's a harrowing moment when it looks like the Doctor will brain the wounded Za so his TARDIS companions will stop wasting time trying to save him. The Doctor, murderer? And that's where Barbara comes in. She's the conscience of the group. Though at first she has a major meltdown in the eponymous forest, the effects of this strange and dangerous experience finally catching up with her (and the existential shock of throwing a historian in a prehistoric world), the animal attack on Za engages her ethically and brings her out of the hysterics. She won't let him die and keeps her team focused on doing the right thing (where even Ian might have run). What the Doctor will learn from his human companions is the value of kindness and friendship, and that may be why he becomes so attached to Earth over time.

There's a tangible theme of old vs. young in this episode, as the dysfunctional family of the TARDIS is mirrored in the attitudes of the cave people. Though the Doctor doesn't manage to kill Za, Kal successfully kills the Old Mother in the same exact way. The Doctor rebels against Ian's leadership, just as the Old Mother does against Za's. And where he doesn't like this new idea of helping people, she is dead set against inventing fire. There are even reversals that remind us of the theme, like Susan telling the teachers that the Doctor always pouts when he doesn't get his way. The child telling the (grand)parent he's childish. Doctor Who was set up as cross-generational by virtue of how television was watched back then (few channels, whole families watching a scheduled line-up together). So while the content is meant to appeal to different members of the family and there are actually three generations represented in the cast, 100,000 B.C. actually makes it a theme. Is grandpa the missing link? Does dad need to make all of mum's decisions? And can the kids offer something valuable? The show asks those questions by not always giving us the expected answer.

It's a rather adult show too. The moral dilemma is actually discussed, and there's no perfect answer, in part because none of the cave people are especially heroes or villains. The Doctor rightly calls them on the changeability of their primitive minds (using the previous episode's swaying opinions as a plot point). What is the right thing to do? While they follow Barbara's lead, it's again not the accepted way of doing things. These characters aren't heroic by default. They act based on passion and reason, and tell us why they do so. Forget about the educational element of the trip's destination (which amounts to little more than, you know, not putting the cavemen in with dinosaurs), Doctor Who offers an ethical education, and not a simplistic one. The show is also adult in its depiction of violence. The title character almost kills a man, an old woman is killed and posed, and there's a lingering shot on a dead animal. This isn't completely child-proof.

This review wouldn't be complete without some admiration for director Waris Hussein's work. An Unearthly Child had some innovative shots and ideas, but no one talks about the three episodes that followed. And yet there are some remarkable directorial ideas in them. For example, Hussein cuts between the group of cavemen sleeping huddled together and the mass grave of the Cave of Skulls. There's also a POV shot from one of the recesses in the Cave, as if we're seeing through the eye sockets of one of the skulls. The story doesn't have the lavish production values of historicals or the intriguing designs of science fiction stories, but I think it still has something to offer visually.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - A much more complex episode than it's usually given credit for, The Forest of Fear is so much more than an escape-and-capture-padding episode.

1 comment:

LiamKav said...

Bullet points, because I am lazy:

1/ I had the exact same thought about the POV shot from the skull. There really is some excellent direction in these episodes.

2/ Barbara's histerics: It's funny. Modern TV tells us that she should be disbelieving for a few minutes, and then just get on with it. The extended crying seems like an outdated and slightly sexist approach. However, in the past 24 hours she has met an old man in a junkyard, walked into a police box that's much bigger on the inside than out, found out that one of her students is an alien, been knocked out, travelled back in time, been kidnapped, and is now running through a forest teeming with things that want to kill her. The shock isn't why she's panicking, it's why Ian is so calm.

3/ Ian is about 2 centimetres away from kissing Barbara when he's trying to calm her down. Or slapping her (hey, it's the 60s). He then casually asks what her flat is like. Dirty Ian. Now is not the time.

4/ The argument between Ian and the Doctor is great, especially as it's pretty much shot "live". Both sides have goot points, the Williams act well... it's great.

5/ It's retrospectively funny how much the Doctor keeps referring to himself as being old, whereas later show lore would imply that he's a relative youngster at this point. Maybe he's like the 18 year old lad who goes to university with a beard and wearing old man clothes, desperately trying to look mature.

6/ The TARDIS is almost always called "the ship". I wonder how long that will last?

7/ 3 episodes until we get our first death. And it's an old woman. I'd be tempted to keep a tally, but any numbers will be destroyed once we get to "Logopolis".

8/ The number of male panty shots in this serial is horrifying. Now I know how girls in Japanese anime feel. (Still, good to know that even in the 60s, cavewomen made sure that they shaved their legs.)