Doctor Who #1: An Unearthly Child

"I know that free movement in time and space is a scientific dream I don't expect to find solved in a junkyard."TECHNICAL SPECS: The episode is on disc 1 of The Beginning DVD boxed set. It is usually considered the first part of the 100,000 B.C. story, though some consider it a stand-alone episode. First aired on this date, 48 years ago, then repeated the next week (30/11/63) before the second episode because the first airing coincided with reports of JFK's assassination, not leaving people in the best mood for entertainment.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor, Susan, Ian, Barbara and the TARDIS are all introduced. It's the first episode.

REVIEW: It begins. It is impossible for me to imagine what people at the time thought of the opening theme, not because it was the first time Ron Grainer's now ubiquitous music was heard, but because it was more or less the first time ANY electronic music had been used on tv. It's all the stranger for continuing over the opening sequence with the policeman closing the gate of a junkyard. It's like normal tv with sound problems, and then the camera abandons the bobbie to rest on a humming police box, standing in the middle of a yard full of creepy dummies and statues. Our point of view then focuses on the box's sign, "Pull to open", and we zoom in, as if to enter, and find ourselves in Coal Hill School. Everything seems to remind the viewer that there is no premise yet. The show is a complete mystery, from its strange title on.

Barbara Wright - history teacher - and Ian Chesterton - science teacher - are introduced first. They are the show's protagonists, and will remain so for a good while. With Susan and the Doctor aliens from another time, it is through the teachers' eyes that we will experience these adventures. Their curiosity and some measure of already established friendship is what gets them involved, setting the template for many companions to come. Authority figures by virtue of their positions, they represent a status quo that is contrasted right away by the first shot of the title Child, Susan. Her exotic features and state of reverie as she listens to her music set her apart - a teenger where they are adults, an alien where they are human, a wanderer where they are, for now, sedentary. Susan is just a little bit off, with strange gaps in her otherwise great knowledge, and of course, she appears to live in a junkyard. Their interest is piqued to say the least.

Following Susan to the non-address 76 Totter's Lane, they find the humming TARDIS and finally, the Doctor puts in an appearance at around 12 minutes in. William Hartnell is instantly watchable, evading their questions in true Doctorish manner. He's clever with words, putting the burden of proof on them and daring them to prove their assumptions or get the police. They know they're the trespassers here and can't call his bluff. The Doctor confusing his opponents will become a major tool in his arsenal for the remainder of the show's history, and it starts right here. We're not sure if we should trust this old man, but his smiles and chuckles are endearing, and from his relationship with Susan, we get that he's only trying to protect her.

The real game changer is when Barbara walks into the TARDIS for the first time. We're suddenly in another world, bright where the outside was dark, and with few recognizable touchstones. The roundels on the wall and the center console are now iconic, but seen through Barbara's eyes for the first time, they are completely alien. The direction helps with strange sound cues and sending Barbara much too close to the camera, making it seem like we're reeling as much as she is. The TARDIS benefits from a large set which won't last for production reasons. There's a huge piece on ceiling, and hexagons drawn on the floor, and panels that seem to lead to other parts of the ship. The set will become more contained over time, so as to be easier to put up, and takes less space in the studio. Despite the evidence before her eyes, Barbara plays Scully to Ian's Mulder and refuses to see this as anything more than a conjurer's trick and a "game" Susan plays with her grandfather. Though this scene is constantly in danger of becoming a load of exposition, the tension mounts thanks to the Doctor having two simultaneous conversations, one with the teachers and the other with Susan. When he asks them "What will happen to you?", it's an implicit threat. They've discovered the truth and have placed Susan in danger of becoming a lab rat, and of time travel technology falling into the wrong hands. Is he telling them everything because he knows he can't let them go? It gets sinister when he actually electrocutes Ian with the console. Susan is the controlling influence, and he might have let them go after all if she hadn't turned around and said she wanted to leave with them. Cutting his losses and leaving 1963 London immediately is one thing, leaving his beloved granddaughter behind is something else entirely. And so it's out of love for her and a need not to lose her that he takes off before Ian and Barbara have a chance to disembark.

This first dematerialization is like no other in the canon. Superimposed over the characters' faces, we see the opening title sequence, illustrating ingeniously the time vortex. First is that vertical line - a crack in spacetime? - and then the howlround effect, resolving into a whirlpool which later opening sequences will better tap into. The trip through time is preceded by a zoom-out of London on the scanner, indicating flight is one aspect of the ship's movement. It knocks out Ian and Barbara and has some kind of effect on the Doctor and Susan too, something that won't happen again. The Doctor DID just replace some key component, so perhaps there's an impurity in the spare part that caused this. The first cliffhanger shows the TARDIS is a barren wasteland, the shadow of an unknown individual falling across the landscape menacingly. And yet, can we really claim to grasp a true premise yet? The Doctor may be the title character, but he's been an antagonist up to this point.

Director Waris Hussein keeps the camera remarkably mobile throughout, giving this first episode a modern feel even to these eyes. Yes, there's the occasional bump or shake, but it helps make the story edgier. We don't know where it's going, and neither does the camera. Hussein also includes flourishes like subjective flashbacks from the teachers' points of view and dramatic zooms into and out of situations. In no way is he treating this as an ordinary television program. You may be surprised at how well it's aged.

THEORIES: A few things to look for... The Doctor has long been held to be an anti-establishment character, but was he so from the very beginning? Well, the seeds are there. We have an old man with no fixed abode who uproots two teachers (members of the establishment) to prevent his granddaughter from conforming to 20th century English norms. It'll take a while longer for the Doctor to get actively (as opposed to accidentally) involved in overthrowing repressive regimes, but it's bound to happen. Should expect anything else from a show created by a Canadian, produced by a woman, and directed by an Asian? That off-beat pedigree might be normal today, but in 1963? It was bound to be unlike anything else on the BBC (speaking of the establishment).

Other that that, well, Ian calls the TARDIS "alive", but means "live with electricity", though the word would be prophetic. Susan claims having named the TARDIS from the initials for Time And Relative Dimension(s) In Space, which has caused headaches for continuity cops seeing as the Time Lord culture will eventually be shown to use the term exclusively. I don't see the problem, nor any cause to make Susan one of the inventors. The way she says it, she may simply have taken the Gallifreyan word that means "Time And Relative Dimension(s) In Space", translated it into English and then into an acronym. From here on out, the TARDIS will always translate the Gallifreyan term as "TARDIS". Simple.

Finally, Remembrance of the Daleks will reveal that the Doctor was in 1963 London to hide the fabled Hand of Omega, a star-making Time Lord artifact. If he is, it might retroactively explain why he's so paranoid here. He can't let word get out to the authorities that might leak out to Dalek agents already in the time period. Of course, he doesn't know about the Daleks yet, so let's call them indeterminate, time-active enemy agents for now. The Doctor doesn't seem to mind the TARDIS being spotted in other places and eras, and even lets assorted natives see it dematerialize. Why the change in attitude? Because in this first televised adventure, he's not just stranded while repairs are being made, he's hiding as he completes his secret mission.

VERSIONS: An Unearthly Child was actually preceded by an unaired pilot, using the same script (almost). It's thankfully on the DVD, and it's pretty awesome to compare the two versions. Fixed are a number of bumps and soft focus issues, but it also makes some story telling changes, in particular to Susan and the Doctor's characters. Susan is much more alien and ethereal in the pilot, disconnected from any kind of humanity. There's a really interesting bit where she plays with ink stains and draws a top view of the TARDIS console, replaced by a more simple remark about a history book being wrong (a history book that looks real in the pilot, but has a silly fake dust jacket in the broadcast episode). Her attitude fuels her teachers' curiosity all the more, more alien savant than teenage girl. It's easy to see that the BBC wanted her to be an audience identification figure for younger viewers, but she loses a lot in the process, and embarks on a path that will rob her of her brilliant mind as well. The Doctor has also been softened. In the pilot, he's openly angry at the teachers and even at Susan, making his electrocution of Ian seem much more lethal. In this version, Susan doesn't try to leave or even defend her teachers much. He actively whisks the teachers away, perhaps hoping to strand them where they cant' jeopardize Susan's welfare or history. Again, it's a sensible change, and though this sinister Doctor is mesmeric, he's too much of a villain (he even laughs diabolically). The broadcast episode makes him more confident, even cocky, smiling through the situation as he does, something that's been part of every incarnation of the Doctor since.

The script is pretty much the same until we get into the TARDIS (which suffers technically from very drapey walls). The Doctor and Susan are more specific about their origins, not only coming from another world and time, but the 49th century and from a world that thought of space travel as child's play while humanity was turning the first wheel. Susan's silver vest more overtly says "space people", and there is no mention of their being exiles, cut off from home, nor any of the wistfulness the Doctor exhibits here about one day returning. Also absent is the somewhat silly comparison between the TARDIS and television (both hold bigger worlds inside), though both versions have Susan absurdly talking about space as the fifth dimension (a bizarre claim in a show that's meant to be educational). Speaking of strange dialog, let it be said that Hartnell does not fluff in any version. The first fluff actually goes to Susan in the broadcast version, or to Barbara in the pilot.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Almost 50 years after it aired, An Unearthly Child still works, and New Who fans should really check it out. I bet it'll get you over your concerns about the black and white era being out-dated.

24 comments:

Sir Timothy Of Kent said...

Still one of my all-time favourite single episodes of Doctor Who and probably of any sci-fi show.

Great write-up and look forward to following this series with interest!

snell said...

"Of course, he doesn't know about the Daleks yet..."

It always seemed odd to me that a Time Lord wouldn't know about the Daleks. Of course, rule #1 is "The Doctor Lies," and just as River Song pretended not to recognize her parents, not to know that the Doctor wasn't really dead, etc, perhaps the Doctor was feigning ignorance for some reason...

Steve said...

Wowsers! If you'te going to write about every episode in this much detail, you're going to be at this forever!

Siskoid said...

Tim: Thanks!

Snell: Let's not get ahead of ourselves. I address this in the Dalek episodes.

Steve: Well, one a day is one a day, so I'm at it for the same length of time. Of course, a pilot needs a lengthier review because we're introduced to all new concepts.

Matthew Turnage said...

The idea of the First Doctor hiding the Hand of Omega prior to the first episode doesn't make sense to me given he doesn't know about the Daleks, and how did he get the thing in the first place? Would the Time Lords have entrusted it to a rogue? If he stole it, wouldn't they have pressed him about it and tried to get it back when they put him on trial in the War Games?

My crazy fan theory - the First Doctor didn't hide the Hand of Omega, the Third Doctor did. In Remembrance of the Daleks, the Doctor who hid the Hand is simply described as "white-haired", which could have been Three as easily as One. The Third Doctor did undertake missions for the Time Lords, so I'm saying he did it even though that's clearly not was intended.

Siskoid said...

I really like that, Matt! I'll try to keep in mind for Remembrance's post.

LiamKav said...

The Rememberence novelisation specifically states that it is the First Doctor that hid the Hand. Your canon mileage may vary, obviously.

One of these days I'll pick up the "The Beginning" box-set and actually watch these. I've always been a bit wary, as I sometimes find old Who a bit of a chore to watch (although the only B&W episode I own is "The Invasion", and I really liked that). These reviews have given me the impetus to actually order them now, even though I'm aware that the next three episodes tend to review much harsher than this one.

LiamKav said...

"If he stole it, wouldn't they have pressed him about it and tried to get it back when they put him on trial in the War Games?"

One possible argument is that him stealing it is the very reason he fled Gallifrey. The Doctor is feeling restless, he's worried about what his race is turning in to, he maybe finds out that they're planning on doing something bad with the Hand... he steals it, a TARDIS, and runs away. His constant worry about being caught is because he's worried about being punished.

As to why they don't mention it in "The War Games"?

1. They do, just off camera.
2. Because someone (let's say the CSI) were planning on using the Hand for... dubious purposes, they can't actually mention that he stole it even though they think he probably did. When they exiled him to Earth, maybe they were hopen he'd go back to it? It would explain the frankly baffling "you are being punished for interfering too much, especially on Earth. As punishment, we are sending you to Earth to interfere."

(Retcons always bring out the worst in nerds).

Anonymous said...

And of course, the Time Lords screw with the Doctor's memory on occasion; for example Pertwee wasn't just stranded with a broken TARDIS, the Time Lords also took away his knowledge of dematerialization codes.

It's possible they felt the Doctor's 1963 mission would be safer the less the Doctor knew -- he WAS a renegade with a borrowed TARDIS, after all.

Siskoid said...

Liam: There are a lot of excellent B&W stories and they've aged a lot better than you might expect. Not all, of course.

As for your stolen Hand theory, I share it. This is what I believe (retroactively) happened.

Randal said...

The Telos novella (I truly loved that Telos series) Time and Relative takes place just before this episode and briefly discusses Susan and the Doctor having serious memory lapses, including neither of them recalling the name of the TARDIS (they call it "The Box"). Knowing that, the fact that Susan "named" the TARDIS based on subconscious memories makes sense, as well as all that other stuff they must have forgotten (like, you know...those easily forgettable Daleks). Means absolutely nothing in the great scheme of everything, but there you go.

Siskoid said...

Never been able to find the much heralded Time and Relative, but I'm maybe planning articles on each Doctor's extracanonical adventures at the close of their tenure, and I'll try and discuss such things.

It's a good justification, at any rate, for many of these early inconsistencies with later canon.

John Nor said...

"The Doctor confusing his opponents will become a major tool in his arsenal for the remainder of the show's history, and it starts right here" - hey never thought of this epsiode like that, fascinating. I guess at this point his future companions are his opponents.

The TARDIS - "a large set which won't last for production reasons. There's a huge piece on ceiling": there's a tribute to the ceiling with the current TARDIS.

Susan: "she wanted to leave with them" - "And so it's out of love for her and a need not to lose her that he takes off before Ian and Barbara have a chance to disembark." Interesting, the motivation to leave the junkyard, never read it phrased like before.

"This first dematerialization is like no other in the canon" - it's also a chance to hear the whole of the sound FX "TARDIS Takeoff" which is usually truncated to a few VWORPs.

Good luck and if you can get through and have something to say on "The Sensorites" episode by episode then the rest of the Doctor Who Sixties will be plain sailing!

Siskoid said...

Glad I found something new to say for you, John!

I shouldn't worry about the Sensorites. I've seen it relatively recently and don't think I'll have much trouble.

Gordon Dymowski said...

I've always though that, had this episode "failed", it would easily fit into a Twilight Zone-esque anthology, and is just creepy enough to have that 60s sci-fi tv vibe.

(I'll spare the theorizing and fannish speculation for later. Although I've never been much of a Hartnell fan, I am amazed at the fact that, this early in the show, there is a lot of stylistic experimentation...and his era is growing on me a little bit.

Siskoid said...

I don't know when exactly, but I hit a point where Hartnell turned up in my top 3 Doctors list.

LiamKav said...

Isn't early Hartnell an almost completely different character from Late Hartnell?

"This first dematerialization is like no other in the canon" - it's also a chance to hear the whole of the sound FX "TARDIS Takeoff" which is usually truncated to a few VWORPs.

I can't recall where, but there was an excellent article on-line discussing the TARDIS take-off and landing SFX, which points out that the producers don't actually arrive at consistent sounds for those action until "The Three Doctors", ten years into the show's run!

Siskoid said...

The Doctor softens over time, but it's his role from antagonist to protagonist, or from non-interference to selfless heroism that you should really track. Not surprisingly, the changes (I detected two important paradigm shifts when I first ran through them) occur with the production teams.

Dannycheese said...

You may or may not be aware of this, but hands down the best Dr Who guide books are called About Time, and go into a similar depth as yourself in their look at Who episodes. Worth a look. :)

Siskoid said...

If you look through these pages, you'll see I've read through them all except the 3rd Doctor reissue (a monster). I'm trying not to look at them while doing this to keep my opinions fresh.

LiamKav said...

Having finally, finally watched this episode, I was impresssed. Honestly impressed. I wasn't expecting the POV cuts to Barbara and Ian teaching Susan, the size of the TARDIS set (especially since I've watched some Thrid Doctor stuff recently and the Console Room looks pretty bad in them), and most of all Hartnell. I've never seen a full episode with him and was wondering how he'd work. He is, after all, the most physically different from later Doctors. (As an aside, it's interesting that there was worry about Davison and Smith as being "too young", but can you imagine them getting someone who looks 60-ish to play the Doctor nowadays?) But there are several moments, such as when he wonders what is the correct switch on the console, where you could transplant Smith, Baker, or any of the others and they'd play it exactly the same. And, most surprisingly (to me), he is charming. I do think it was a good idea to play him like that, rather than the more threatening version of the unaired pilot.

One thing that baffles me... on the unaired pilot they do a great job of showing the inside of the TARDIS through the police box doors. The change for the aired episode was much more abrupt, and it looked like Barbara had just appeared in the middle of the room. I wonder why they abandoned showing the interior from the outside until we get to "Rose"? Surely a picture placed inside the prop wasn't too difficult?

So, now to watch the rest so I can catch up and be with you. Well, at least up until The Edge of Destruction.

(Haven't watched it myself, but did you watched the filming shots extra on the DVD? Is it just the unaired pilot with the pauses as they set up the sets, or are any of the takes different?)

Siskoid said...

Great to have you as a companion on this journey, for however long, Liam. Now to your questions and comments...

Other Doctors: There is a LOT of Hartnell is Davison and Smith, ironically.

Inside-to-outside the TARDIS: They didn't abandon it this early, as you'll see. I love the crazy jump-cut transition of the aired episode. It's much more shocking and jarring, so we feel exactly like Barbara.

Extras: I'm not rewatching the extras on any of these for efficiency's sake. I don't exactly remember what was on each of them.

Paul C said...

You forgot to mention the real star of this episode. The weird kid in the first shot of Coal Hill School who comes up behind two girls and does a Kenneth Williams impression. He steals the show, where's that guy's spin-off?

Siskoid said...

What about that policeman? When does HE get his shot?

You watching An Unearthly Child as a one-off, or are you starting on the Great Pilgrimage?

 

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