I'd seen all these stories as they were released over the years on video, out of order, in visually and audially low-grade editions, so it was interesting to sit down and watch them in order, and with restored visuals and much improved sound. It's surprising how much having sharper images and clearer sound improves even the dullest story, and reminds one that 1963 wasn't so very long ago - whereas the original video releases were so low-grade they made one feel that Doctor Who was made around the same time as The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari.
The first story, An Unearthly Child, is pacey, atmospheric and compelling. The following three episode yarn, The Tribe Of Gum, has good moments but crawls along with about fifteen minutes of plot stretched out for an hour and a quarter. The Daleks is pretty much gripping throughout, with only a few flabby or clunky moments, and one can see why it was that story that really put the show on the map: the Daleks themselves really are a Sixties design classic. The Edge Of Destruction is a weird psychological two-parter that again (despite a limp denoument and generally wobbly science) held my attention pretty well for a show over 40 years old.
What most struck me most rewatching these stories, and for the first time in order, was how grim and serious the feel of them is: Ian and Barbara are all but abducted in An Unearthly Child; the cavemen and women in the Tribe Of Gum are starving and murderous; everyone almost dies of radiation poisoning in The Daleks and genocide is planned; stabbings and stranglings are threatened several times in The Edge Of Destruction. The two teachers are often at odds with the selfish, capricious Doctor and his strange grand-daughter, and so, despite the codas that end each story, there is a general lack of reassurance that is unusual in a television programme aimed at children. Moreover, partly because of budgetary and filming constraints there is little heroic derring-do in any of these stories in the escapist Buck Rogers sense; indeed fighting tends to be presented as dirty and dangerous.
In that context it was interesting and informative to watch the accompanying documentaries, perhaps most particularly the (40-odd minute) one about the genesis of the show, which was very consciously constructed to be a ratings hit in the slot between the afternoon's sport and the very popular Juke Box Jury, when the traditional children's classic serial that was currently being run in that slot had viewers turning off or over in droves. The resistance to populism within the BBC hierarchy made it rather hard for programmers to actively court a wide or mass audience - as evidenced by a research document the BBC commissioned about what sorts of science fiction themes might be 'acceptable' to base TV shows around which concluded that only time travel and ESP were classy enough for the BBC.
While Sidney Newman is always trumpeted as a populist imported to bring the BBC a mass audience, it's interesting to note that he favoured educational yarns set in the past and opposed stories featuring bug-eyed monsters as vociferously as the BBC mandarins. In effect he felt that Verity Lambert had conned him into accepting the Daleks, and of course only did accept them because the next story, Marco Polo, wasn't ready in time to be broadcast straight after The Tribe Of Gum.
Verity Lambert and Waris Hussein come across engagingly both in the interviews in the documentaries and on the commentary tracks, and seem to remember their involvement in the show with genuine affection, as do William Russell and Carol Anne Ford. As on The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, having an informed moderator on the commentary tracks keeps them focussed and they're all at least mildly interesting.
It's fun to watch the three versions of An Unearthly Child and notice the quite numerous small changes to the script, performances and direction. Everyone's performances are markedly better the second time around; in the first version I definitely had a sense of the actors just getting through their lines rather than doing much in the way of acting or characterisation. Again it's historically interesting that the episode was remounted for quality reasons (as well as its being eclipsed by Kennedy's assassination), an expensive decision that was made only because Doctor Who was seen as an important show from the get-go.
The restoration looks to be as good as it can ever be, and brings the viewer as close to seeing the programmes as originally broadcast as is ever likely to be possible. I have to say I enjoyed watching all these dvds rather more than I was expecting to. Even the under-powered Tribe Of Gum was worth revisiting.