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Tardis Party: Doctor Who serial close-up ~ An Unearthly Child (Season 1/ 1963)

April 7, 2013

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They are the fire-starters: Ian (William Russell), Susan (Carole Ann Ford), Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) and The Doctor (William Hartnell) arrive back at the TARDIS safe and sound – sort of… 

Whuuu-rooom, whuuu-rooom, whuuu-room… Pray tell, could that be the familiar groaning of the TARDIS re-materalising in this blog? Well, yes, it very much could be because it is. Yup, just as the brand new series is getting its mojo going – or its second half, if you’re keeping count – and following on from last month’s third-anniversary-of-the-blog-acknowledging posts that treated you lucky peeps to rare Doctor Who images from throughout its five decades (check them out here: 1, 2, 3 and 4), this post is the next of this very blog’s to celebrate the Who Doctor’s 50 years this, er, year. Oh yes.

And it’s also the first of several to take a close-up look back at serials and/ or episodes of the sci-fi TV giant’s past that have been either heralded as classics by fans or, in retrospect, have proved critical, pivotal touchstones in its history. Or, in most instances, both.

And where better – or when better – to start than with the show’s very first serial, An Unearthly Child. The one that introduced us to William Hartnell’s First Doctor, his original trio of companions, the show’s original theme music and title sequence and, yes, that original TARDIS sound. Whuuu-rooom, whuuu-rooom, whuuu-rooom

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Doctor: William Hartnell (The First Doctor)

Companions: Carole Ann Ford (Susan Foreman); Jacqueline Hill (Barbara Wright); William Russell (Ian Chesterton)

Villain: To varying degrees, the Tribe of Gum – including Derek Newark (Za), Alethea Charlton (Hur) and Jeremy Young (Kal)

Writer: Anthony Coburn and (Episode 1; uncredited) C E Webber

Producer: Verity Lambert

Director: Waris Hussein

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Season: One (first serial – four 25-minute-long episodes officially titled An Unearthly ChildThe Cave Of Skulls, The Forest Of Fear and The Firemaker)

Original broadcast dates: 23 November-14 December 1963 (weekly)

Total average viewers: 5.9 million

Next serial: The Daleks

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Everything has to have a beginning and Doctor Who‘s (its opening shot, no less) takes place in a Shoreditch scrapyard containing ramshackle, random items, which include an old fashioned police telephone box that’s surprisingly ignored by a ‘bobby’ as he does his rounds. It won’t be ignored for much longer, though, as a history and a science teacher from the nearby Coal Hill School, Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian Chesterton (William Russell), out of curiosity visit the the scrapyard, being its the given address – 76 Totters Lane – of a girl who’s been behaving oddly in both their lessons, Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford). It seems Susan’s a teenager of highly developed historical and scientific knowledge, but underdeveloped knowledge of 1960s Britain.

On reaching the scrapyard, Barbara and Ian spy an elderly gentlemen in Edwardian clothes attempting to enter the police box. Hearing Susan’s voice from inside (addressing the old man as ‘grandfather’), they barge in, only to discover they’re standing in a light, futuristic-looking room with a central console, all of which is far larger than the exterior of the police box would suggest possible. The elderly man (whom declares himself a ‘doctor’) and Susan find themselves explaining the police box is actually a bigger-on-the-inside machine that can travel through time and space. To prove the fact, ‘The Doctor’ sends the machine – and its occupants – back 100,000 years to the Stone Age, whereupon a disbelieving Barbara and Ian join their companions in investigating their surroundings.

Soon, however, the foursome are kidnapped by a tribe of savages concerned with rediscovering the knack of creating fire (which has been lost with a previous generation). An attempted escape foiled, the disparate quartet realise their only means of avoiding death is to create fire and pass on its ‘secret’ to the tribe. This they eventually manage and scarper back to the police box, whose co-ordinates are re-set to another time and place by The Doctor, hurriedly so, though; it’s obvious they won’t be returning to London in 1963…

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An undisputed classic serial, An Unearthly Child (to use that moniker for the entire four episodes as many fans do) gets Who off to a cracking start – and, in doing so, also gets off and going several significant elements of the show’s formula.

Much of its appeal undeniably lies in the setting up of those show-defining elements (an other-worldly, old, genius time-and-space-traveller; his quirky transport in the shape of a bigger-on-the-inside blue police telephone box; leaping into an adventure with one human companion or more; and that gang, both together and individually, getting into scrapes, escaping from them, getting into more scrapes and then escaping from them etc.).

Yet, arguably its greatest strength as very watchable TV drama, is its characterisation and the chemistry of its players – Hartnell’s very irascible old feller spending much of his time being frustrated and irritated by his ‘simple’ human teacher companions (and, in turn, frustrating and irritating them) sets him up in this opening serial as far more an anti- (almost accidental) hero rather than the out-and-out hero future Doctors would be.

Overall, An Unearthly Child may be stripped back, very expository fare – with simple storytelling – compared to much that was to come (even in the Hartnell era), but it’s clearly conceived with care and intelligence and executed with aplomb.

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Envisaged as an early-evening-Saturday sci-fi adventure drama for all the family with historical reasonance (hence its inclusion of a history and science teacher each as two main characters), Doctor Who was originally dreamt up up the Beeb’s Head of Drama, the Canadian Sydney Norman, whom put up-and-coming producer Verity Lambert in charge of the project. The show had come into being following brainstorming sessions involving writer C E Webber, whom had been charged with scripting the first serial, which would have been called The Giants. When she came on to the show, though, Lambert was far from crazy about Webber’s effort and opted for a script from Australian Anthony Coburn as the season opener – this would eventually become An Unearthly Child (originally intended for later in the season), when combined with some suitable exposition storytelling scoured from Webber’s The Giants.

An Unearthly Child (the first of the serial’s four episodes, that is; not the entire serial) originally went before the cameras on September 27 1963 at London’s Lime Grove Studios, helmed by young director Waris Hussein. Yet this ‘pilot’ episode was beset by technical problems and actors fluffing their lines, thus Newman ordered it to be filmed again (October 18). And, happily, this decision allowed for Hussein and co. to make further tweaks, namely the clothing of both Susan (whom changed from alien-seeming futuristic garb to more ’60s Mod-ish fashions) and The Doctor himself (from a modern suit and tie to the Edwardian-like togs we’re familiar with as the Hartnell Doc’s appearance – indeed, no question, his costume set the crucial trend of the ‘old fashioned’, certainly non-present-day clothing of every subsequent Doctor). Another critical change was made to the script – a line suggesting The Doctor and Susan were from (presumably Earth’s) 49th Century was altered to say they were from ‘another time, another world’ (i.e. they’re aliens).

Infamously, owing to a week’s broadcast delay due to the pilot’s re-filming, An Unearthly Child hit screens the day after US President John F Kennedy was tragically shot dead. This ensured that, because of the Beeb’s constant news bulletins on the unprecedented event, the show’s very first episode actually started late; beginning more than a minute later than its scheduled 5.15pm start-time – ironic for a drama focused around a time machine!

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Next time: The War Games (Season 6/ 1969)

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26 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2013 4:58 pm

    I fondly remember as an 8 year old, when “An Unearthly Child” was first shown.
    A year (or so…) ago, I found it again on “YouTube”.
    It is still an excellent programme.
    I judged the wonderful William Hartnell like he were my grandfather. (At my birth, my Dad’s Mother was the only grandparent alive and/or sociable. My Mum’s Dad was a renegade!)
    Anyway, I still watch Dr Who with amazment!

    • April 7, 2013 5:15 pm

      Yep, given its age and all the greatness to come, An Unearthly Child still certainly stands up well, doesn’t it?

      Thanks – as ever – for sharing your thoughts, Peter… 🙂

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