"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.