Doctor Who From The Start: An Unearthly Child
One thing I’ve wanted to do with this blog for a while is sit down and watch every Doctor Who serial, in order, until I get bored with them or reach Survival (whichever comes first). I’m going to try to do one serial a week, and stick to a few simple rules:
1) If the story exists on DVD and I don’t own the DVD, I buy it
2) If the story is not on DVD, I torrent it, but buy it as soon as it’s released
3) If the story does not exist any more, I torrent a reconstruction and use that plus the text of the Target novelisation (also torrented because these are long out of print and my parents threw out my copies twenty years or so ago) to try to review it as best I can. I don’t feel under an obligation to buy the official BBC CDs of these stories – though I may, and have bought some in the past – as I think if they want paying for those episodes they shouldn’t have set fire to them. I do own the Lost In Time triple-DVD set though.
I’m also going to stick to a word limit of 1000 words in total for each of these posts.
In the case of An Unearthly Child, the first Doctor Who story, I’ve already written about it here – and if you want to know my thoughts on this story you should read that as well as this, but I’ll try to find more to say about it without duplicating that too much.
AN UNEARTHLY CHILD
Writer: Anthony Coburn
Director: Waris Hussein
DVD Availability: As Disc One of the The Beginnings box set
For something described as ‘quintessentially British’ every five minutes, Doctor Who had a very multicultural background. From an initial idea by Canadian Sydney Newman, the first story was written by an Australian, Anthony Coburn, and directed by a gay Indian, Waris Hussein, who also happened to be the youngest director working for the BBC. Verity Lambert, the producer, was British, but she was also both the youngest producer working for the BBC *and* the only female producer. Forget ‘the gay agenda’ – for 1963 that’s a shockingly mixed team.
And whether consciously or not, the sense of outsiderness that this must have engendered seems to have come out in the first episode of this serial, in which two teachers investigate an odd pupil, who turns out to be far odder than either of them could previously have expected.
The first episode is an absolute masterclass in how to make TV. We start out with THAT music – Delia Derbyshire’s realisation of Ron Grainer’s theme tune still sounds shocking today, it’s almost unimaginable how strange it must have sounded in 1963, when Cliff Richard was still considered something of a rebellious young rocker (Ian Chesterton was originally going to have been named Cliff, to show he was ‘with it’ and let the young relate to him). Then we have a story that starts out looking very, *very* like the opening of then-popular police show Dixon Of Dock Green, before turning into what looks like it could be a fairly harrowing drama about child abuse, before once again taking a complete change in direction and becoming science fiction in the last third.
And it *LOOKS* astonishing – the cameras here swoop and move in a style completely unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere in TV. At times it almost looks like Orson Welles was behind the camera. Hussein takes the disadvantages inherent in the medium at the time – the programme was recorded ‘as live’ with only one break in recording (for the cut when Barbara enters the TARDIS, though it looks to me like there was also an edit done in one of the earlier scenes in the classroom) – and turns them to his advantage. The close-ups on Susan in flashback while Ian and Barbara talk about her in the car are done that way so the actors don’t have to get from one set to another, but they also give the episode a unique look.
Sadly, that isn’t maintained in the three later stories in this serial – which really ought to be regarded as a separate story, albeit one with the same writer and director. Once the travellers reach the time of the cave people, we suddenly divert into something that is much closer to how one would imagine a children’s TV series with an educational remit from 1963 would appear – worthy, stagey, and dull when watched in one dose (it works *much* better when watched episodically, as was of course originally intended). And we already see the Doctor Who Formula starting to take shape – Susan, so mysterious and otherworldly in her first appearance, has her first scream at something unthreatening in episode three.
But even so there are interesting aspects. Firstly, the Doctor is still far from the hero – Ian Chesterton is clearly in the heroic role, while the Doctor is somewhere between mentor and villain. Never again (at least in the ‘classic’ series) would we see the Doctor even consider killing someone just for convenience’s sake.
And the story seems to be about *ideas* – in fact, bravely, the central conflict is between two *wrong* ideas. The old crone argues against fire on conservative grounds, but she’s arguing against someone engaged in a cargo-cult, rather than the more obvious choice of someone who can actually create fire.
There are some very, *very* interesting moments – for example, the shot of Kal looking at the TARDIS is very reminiscent (to my eyes) of Moon Watcher looking at the obelisk in 2001. And of course the inhabitants of the TARDIS bring the knowledge of fire to the tribe, in a similar way to the monolith giving the ape-people the knowledge of weapons. But this was many years earlier than 2001…
And there are some very well-written lines, too – “If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cry of strange birds and watch them wheel in another sky” is a great phrase.
But on the whole, the impression given by An Unearthly Child is of a program that initially had huge amounts of promise, but quickly settled into mediocrity, and was just like every other kids’ programme. That impression would soon prove to be wrong…