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The 50 Doctor Who Stories to Watch Before You Die: An Unofficial Companion
By Graeme Burk, Robert Smith
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2013 Graeme Burk and Robert Smith
All rights reserved.
An Unearthly Child (1963)
Written by Anthony Coburn (with C.E. Webber, uncredited, on episode one)
Directed by Waris Hussein
Featuring William Hartnell (Doctor Who), William Russell (Ian Chesterton), Jacqueline Hill (Barbara Wright), Carole Ann Ford (Susan)
Supporting cast Derek Newark (Za), Alethea Charlton (Hur), Eileen Way (Old Mother), Jeremy Young (Kal), Howard Lang (Horg)
Episodes "An Unearthly Child," "The Cave of Skulls," "The Forest of Fear," "The Firemaker"
Original airdates November 23, 30, December 7, 14, 1963
The Big Idea London school teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright decide to follow a strange student, Susan Foreman, home to a junkyard. There, they meet Susan's difficult grandfather, the Doctor, discover his secret, which is kept inside a police box — and wind up in the Stone Age.
Roots and References H.G. Wells's The Time Machine (the TARDIS); Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs's The Land That Time Forgot (modern-day people encountering primitive cavemen); the BBC TV series Dixon of Dock Green (the opening sequence in the fog with the bobby walking the beat); C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet (the kidnapping of Ian and Barbara through time and space) and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (the magic door into another world; curiously, Lewis died the day before this story was first broadcast).
Time And Relative Dimensions In Space By early 1963, the Doctor Who production team had pretty much established the format of their new science-fiction series, with an elder scientist taking a schoolgirl and her two schoolteachers away from the present era in his time machine. However, where they would wind up in this first story was still to be determined. For a long time, the intent was to go with Sydney Newman's idea: the central characters would be shrunk to an inch tall and then face ordinary menaces. However, the script for this scenario by writer C.E. Webber never gelled. (It was later rewritten by someone else and made in 1964 as "Planet of Giants.")
Australian writer Anthony Coburn was brought in to overhaul Webber's first episode; he combined it with a story he'd written set in the Stone Age, and in so doing made several innovations that stayed in the ensuing years. It was Coburn who chose a metropolitan police box as the time machine's camouflage and who gave it the acronym TARDIS. Coburn also felt it was improper that the teenager (now named Susan) would travel alone with the Doctor and so he made her the Doctor's granddaughter.
The first episode was taped in September 1963 and then reshot at Newman's command. (While this unaired original version is generally referred to as a pilot, in fan lore and on the DVD, it really isn't one. Pilots are made to secure funding for a full series and there was already an initial commitment to a run of 13 episodes when this was filmed.)
Adventures in Time and Space While this is the very first Doctor Who story and the starting point for all continuity, there are already hints of backstory: the Doctor's ship (which Susan named TARDIS as an acronym for Time And Relative Dimension In Space) can usually change its shape (it's been an Ionic column and a sedan chair), but it's now stuck in the shape of the police box.
Who is the Doctor? Interestingly, while Ian says of Susan's grandfather, "He's a doctor, isn't he?" the character isn't called "Doctor" until the second episode of this story. (When Ian calls him "Dr. Foreman," the Doctor responds, "Eh? Doctor who? What's he talking about?") The character in his first appearance is selfish and imperious; Barbara says, "You treat everyone and everything as something less important than yourself." He is pragmatic to the point of lacking the compassion of his fellow travellers: he considers killing the wounded Za in order to escape. However, we also see many admirable traits in the Doctor: we see his brilliance in how he gets Kal to prove he killed the old woman; his resourcefulness in capitalizing on this to drive out Kal; and a nascent understanding of justice, when he tries to do it in a way that will ultimately democratize the tribe.
In episode two, the Doctor also smokes for the first and only time in 50 years when he puffs from what must be one of the most ostentatious-looking pipes in the known universe.
Companion Chronicles When we meet him, the Doctor is travelling with his granddaughter Susan, the "unearthly child" of the title; she's exceptionally bright and curious, but in many ways a typical teenager. The Doctor is fiercely protective of Susan, to the point where he kidnaps Susan's schoolteachers Ian and Barbara. Ian, a science teacher, knows his subject well and at first assumes a leadership role when the time travellers are held prisoner by a Stone Age tribe. Gradually, he defers more and more to the Doctor (and the Doctor in turn grows to trust him). Barbara, a history teacher, is profoundly compassionate and more than prepared to tell the Doctor what she thinks of him.
Monster of the Week There are no monsters ... yet. (Stay tuned for the next story!)
Stand Up and Cheer The final half of the first episode pretty much changes everything. For the first 14 and a half minutes, it's a contemporary drama about a slightly odd teenager. Once we're inside a police box that's really a spaceship that's bigger on the inside, we're playing a different game. Ian and Barbara struggle to understand what's happening, the Doctor and Susan rebuff them — and the result is glorious drama.
Roll Your Eyes The Doctor talks about the "red Indians" and their savage minds. Thank you for the reminder that we're watching a drama from 1963.
You're Not Making Any Sense The first episode ends with Ian and Barbara collapsing as the TARDIS dematerializes, with Ian being disoriented afterwards. Why is this? No explanation is ever given; furthermore, on their next journey (at the end of the story), they travel with no ill effects. (And no other companion will ever experience the same initial discombobulation.)
Interesting Trivia Okay, let's get this out of the way for the New Series fans right away: at the start of Doctor Who, the Doctor travels with his granddaughter, Susan. Yes, his granddaughter. No, we don't know who Susan is, if she's his biological granddaughter or if she just calls him that. We don't know who her parents are (or if they're the children the Doctor referred to in New Series stories like 2006's "Fear Her" or 2008's "The Doctor's Daughter"). We do know she's an alien, born in "another time, another world" (and we later see in "The Name of the Doctor" that she left Gallifrey with the Doctor). But we don't know anything more than that. So now you know everything we know.
The original first episode (the "pilot") only exists as unedited rushes. Its first 12 minutes are continuous footage, and the remaining sequence was shot twice, with the first take aborted a few minutes in due to the TARDIS doors not closing properly. The unedited version is included as a special feature on the DVD and it's worth watching if you want to see how Doctor Who was made during its first years. Many of the differences between the rejected and transmitted first episodes are cosmetic in nature, ranging from thunderclaps in the theme song to fluffed lines, costume changes and unintentional camera bounces.
The more substantial changes are to Susan and the Doctor. Originally, Susan was much more alien. When Ian and Barbara encounter her in the TARDIS, she is haughty, superior and mature — as though she was only acting like a teenager at school. In the broadcast version, Susan is a more ordinary teenager the audience could identify with. The changes to the Doctor are more radical: his severe and anti-heroical qualities in the original version are softened to create a less angry, more absent-minded and impish Doctor. Even so, the Doctor is still somewhat menacing; William Hartnell tones this down over the next few episodes.
There's also one key change to the Doctor and Susan's backstory. In the original, Susan states that she was born in the 49th century; in the broadcast first episode, she says she's "from another time, another world," which changes the motivation for kidnapping Ian and Barbara. In the original, as the Doctor and Susan were explicitly time travellers from the future, the Doctor has to take the schoolteachers with them because he can't let their knowledge of future technology adversely affect the timeline. By changing that detail, the Doctor's motivation for resorting to kidnapping becomes less clear and the characters more mysterious.
When did the time travellers wind up? The story was called "100,000 BC" in publicity documents, which broadly lines up with the fossil record of anatomically modern humans. The nomadic tribe seen here are clearly Homo sapiens, though their knowledge of fire is scant (which would still place the story within the 50,000–100,000 year window for the human discovery of fire) and they haven't invented basic tools beyond axes and knives.
Barbara's frustration that Susan didn't know how many shillings were in a pound is itself now a quaint archaism: in 1963, British currency still utilized a system that dated back to 1066 whereby 20 shillings were in a pound, 12 pennies were in a shilling and two halfpennies were in a penny. (And we haven't even discussed florins, crowns and thruppence.) Susan's "futuristic" assumption that Britain used decimalized currency was a prescient reference: an inquiry into decimalization had occurred in 1963, though the British economy didn't fully switch until 1971.
Real-world events impinged on "An Unearthly Child" in one concrete way: the first episode was broadcast the day after the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy, leaving the show to debut in less than optimal conditions. The BBC elected to repeat the first episode before the broadcast of the second episode on November 30 in the hopes the show would gain greater exposure.
The TARDIS Chronometer Initially the Coal Hill School and at I.M. Foreman's junkyard at 76 Totter's Lane in London, sometime in 1963. Presumably, they travel back to Earth's past, though it's never established where or indeed when (the TARDIS yearometer reads zero).
Hmm? (GB) In the beginning, there was a junkyard somewhere in the dark foggy streets of London. And in the junkyard was a police box. It's hard to believe from that humble opening shot that we would still have a program 50 years later. But here we are.
One of the reasons for Doctor Who's endurance is that the very first episode of "An Unearthly Child" may be one of the best first episodes of a TV show ever. It is itself a microcosm of everything Doctor Who does best, even after five decades: establish a setting and characters that are totally believable and then pivot that in an unthinkable direction. The first half of the episode establishes the comfortable relationship Ian and Barbara have with each other (William Russell and Jacqueline Hill have wonderful chemistry), introduces the slightly odd teenager Susan and explores why she doesn't quite fit in. And then we arrive at the junkyard and meet a difficult old man who is about to open a police box.
The performances vividly establish the characters. William Hartnell is wonderfully enigmatic. The first encounter between the old man and the schoolteachers has him never raising his voice, but taking authority nonetheless — and all the while he's demonstrably hiding something. It's a masterful job by Hartnell.
And then things go quite mad.
It's incredible to see how television drama has changed since. The first scene in the TARDIS — arguably, the scene that establishes what Doctor Who is and what it will be capable of doing — takes up the entire second half of the episode. Having a scene of that duration is unthinkable in TV nowadays. And yet, that scene is palpably brilliant drama, as two characters try to cope with the impossible, while the other two treat it as commonplace. Then the Doctor refuses to let Ian and Barbara go, which adds a sinister note to everything (including his character, in a moment that is almost never bettered). But this isn't just a nifty mini-play; the episode establishes almost everything you need to know about Doctor Who in its first year: the relationships, the characters, the possibilities.
The adventure is brought down to Earth with episodes two through four, which constitute a separate story of their own. The three episodes set in the Stone Age — where the Doctor and his party's perceived ability to make fire becomes part of a power struggle between two alpha males — do drag a little, particularly for people not used to television from 50 years ago. There's a very stagey, literary quality to writer Anthony Coburn's cavemen as they argue in faux-early language as though they're in a Google-translated version of The Crucible. But when it works — as it does in the scene where the Doctor talks with Kal about Za's "good knife" — it's really breathtaking.
Really, the only episode that truly drags is the second one, which features a lot of the Stone Age equivalent of parliamentary debate. Episode three picks up the pace with the first (but not the last) abortive escape attempt in Doctor Who (with a wild boar goring Za for added drama, which is heightened when the Doctor ponders braining Za with a rock). And episode four neatly resolves the conflict between Za and Kal, makes the invention of fire tense and provides a great escape sequence.
It all hangs together thanks to Waris Hussein, who directs the story with a naturalism not seen in Doctor Who since. The TARDIS crew's situation is played realistically (even their clothes are soiled and tattered by the end), with white-knuckle terror at every turn. (Hussein's use of extreme closeups works really well here, mitigating the limitations of the tiny studio space he's shooting in.) Future stories downplay this aspect, as a spirit of jolly adventure takes the series in a completely different direction, but it's interesting to see the show as it was originally conceived: ordinary people are set down in an historical epoch and we watch them cope with the sheer terror of it.
In the beginning, there was mystery, strangeness, fear, vivid character moments and even a little humour. Fortunately, that turned out to be exactly the template for the next 50 years.
Second opinion (RS?) My girlfriend really doesn't like Doctor Who. It's not for want of trying. Over the years, I've shown her all sorts of stories: populist classics, the New Series in order, you name it. Sometimes she'll say, "That one wasn't too bad," or, more often, "Meh." (And yes, I can confirm it is possible to survive this massive obstacle in one's relationship, though I wouldn't recommend it to the unwary.) When I was starting this book, I asked her to watch the first episode with me, warning her that it was almost 50 years old, in black and white, and so forth.
"An Unearthly Child" blew her away. She not only adored it, she even told other people about it. I really cannot tell you how happy this makes me and how, later that night, we —
But I digress.
As my experiment illustrates, this episode was put on this Earth to attract new viewers. And boy does it go all out! From the ordinariness of the school setting with an intriguing mystery to the sheer wonder that is the TARDIS's interior, this is a master class in how to intrigue new viewers. In just 25 minutes, the four characters are incredibly well developed, so that you feel deeply for Ian and Barbara, while nevertheless understanding just how out of their depth they are.
What's especially brilliant is the direction: Ian and Barbara are shot straight on, the camera looks down on Susan, and up at the Doctor. It's a subtle trick, but it does so much to indicate the roles that each of them play. All four actors are acting their socks off, but particular mention must go to Hartnell, who gives a tour de force performance.
Excerpted from Who's 50 by Graeme Burk, Robert Smith. Copyright © 2013 Graeme Burk and Robert Smith. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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