"Five, six, seven eight. It's a doctor at the gate."
IN THIS ONE... Back to the beginning, but the Daleks are waiting for the Doctor in the old junkyard and Coal Hill School.
REVIEW: Doctor Who starts its 25th Anniversary year with one of the greats. First, a pre-credits teaser where we hear 1963 radio broadcasts over a lonely Earth in space before an alien ship appears, looming over it. Then, the TARDIS appears near Coal Hill School, and we're suddenly revisiting An Unearthly Child. A strange female student, the old junkyard address, what is undoubtedly Ian's science classroom, Ace - like Susan - having trouble with non-decimal currency... References that won't lose a newcomer (and when I first saw this, it was my first McCoy AND I'd never seen An Unearthly Child), but are quite clever and appreciated by fans well-versed in the program's history. But it's not all Episode 1, there's also a proto-UNIT team designed to remind you of the UNIT family that relaunched the show in 1970. Rachel Jensen (played by the always wonderful Pamela Salem) is Liz, blond Allison is Jo (Rachel threatens to sic her on the Doctor), Group Captain Gilmore is an obtuse Brig-type (the Doctor even calls him Brigadier and their exchange about how the Doctor might know he's in the military while he's standing there in full uniform is pretty amusing), and Sgt. Mike Smith is a combination of Benton and Yates (mostly the latter, especially when it's clear he's a traitor). Three decades of Doctor Who are represented, and tying them all together are the Doctor's greatest enemies (and biggest cash cows) the Daleks.
Obviously, what makes this episode famous is that we finally see a Dalek go up some stairs, playing into the joke about how easy it is to escape from them, or used to be. Revelation of the Daleks almost had a scene like this, but Remembrance has the first true flying Dalek. Now they're all like that. This is also the first appearance of the "skeleton" effect at the bad end of an extermination beam. Shocking and cool, this would also become a mainstay, and while the effects are fancier today, this is damn cool for 1988. What are the Daleks doing "where it all began"? Apparently, they're looking for the Hand of Omega, something the Doctor hid in this era, which puts into question everything that has gone before without undoing any of it. Script editor Andrew Cartmell, a self-confessed comic book fan, brings retcons into Doctor Who to great effect (or allows writer Ben Aaronovitch to, same difference). They're too late to prevent the Doctor from taking off with Ian and Barbara anyway, which would have been a great premise, since his companions are basically what turn him into the hero that's interfered with their plans so often.
Pretty much gone is the silly spoon-playing Doctor, though he's still pretty disarming (when he just walks into the van and charms Rachel, for example). What replaces him is the dark mastermind of the later seasons, contemptuous of the military, and thinking 100 moves ahead. We can't yet realize just how far he's come yet, but we've been put on notice. When he's not taking control of the situation, he's working on Ace's education, itself a "long game", and in 1963, she's about as "unearthly" as Susan was. And despite the darker tone, creepy child and exterminations, the show still finds time for a piece of whimsy, which remains one of the era's trademarks - while driving the van, the Doctor and Ace switch places magically while going through a dark underpass. Amusing and underplayed, especially coming off their Abbott and Costello banter.
REWATCHABILITY: High - This episode has everything I want from a Doctor Who episode. Nerdy references that don't get in the way of the story, timey-wimeyness, comedy, new twists on old villains, an engaging companion (and engaging would-be companion) and high stakes.