For a great televisual institution, Doctor Who did not have the most auspicious of starts. The show was not created by a single auteur, wrung from the sweat of the brow of a tormented genius, but was instead created by a huge committee of people, who were looking for a children’s show to go on between Grandstand and Juke Box Jury. Rather than coming to someone in a flash of inspiration, the first episode was the product of months of discussion and meetings, and endless documents passed back and forth between executives.
In the end, the script for the first episode, credited to Anthony Coburn, was in reality in more-or-less equal parts the work of Coburn, BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman and staff writer CE “Bunny” Webber, with significant input from producer Verity Lambert and some ideas from director Waris Hussein.
This matter of credit is actually quite important – scripts for Doctor Who remained copyright to their writers, so while the character of the Doctor himself belongs to the BBC, the name TARDIS, created by Coburn, belongs to Coburn’s estate. Similiarly, writers Terry Nation and Kit Pedler retained ownership of the Daleks and the Cybermen. When one sees how the BBC has managed for decades to create the show despite this multiple copyright ownership, the arguments made by DC and Marvel comics about creator ownership become far weaker.
While Newman is often credited as the major creative force behind Doctor Who, Lambert and Hussein were both pivotal in creating the series’ early feel. As the youngest producer and director working for the BBC at the time, and the only female producer and only Asian director, it is perhaps unsurprising that what they produced would be somewhat different from the rather staid typical BBC children’s programme. What *is* surprising , though, is that at least the first episode is quite an astonishing piece of drama.
The first episode is an absolute masterclass in TV, managing to be quite unlike anything else broadcast before or since. Every element of it is near perfection (and in fact the pilot version, before Sydney Newman toned some elements down, is even better), but it manages to be genuinely unsettling and straddle several different genres without the viewer even really being aware that this is what is going on.
The plotline actually has some incredibly sinister overtones for the first three-quarters of the episode – two teachers become concerned about one of their pupils, who is incredibly bright, and who seems to know more in some areas of science and history than her teachers, but who behaves very oddly, almost autistically at times, and who seems frightened of saying anything at all about her home life. The teachers follow her ‘home’, which turns out to be a telephone box in a junkyard, barely big enough for one person to stand up in. The box is locked, and the key is in the possession of a sinister, possibly dangerous old man.
The viewer’s expectations have already been subverted a couple of times within the first fifteen minutes – first from being mildly scared *by* Susan, the girl, (the title of the first episode is An Unearthly Child, and she has more than a little of the Midwich Cuckoos about her) to being scared *for* her – she’s being locked up by this terrifying old man, and there is more than a hint of abuse. This is very strong stuff for a programme aimed at 8 – 12 year olds, and it also means that we’ve gone from one kind of story to a very different kind.
Then the rug is pulled out from under us again, when the teachers burst into the phone box to discover… it’s a gigantic spaceship. Even watching this now, forty-five years on, when Doctor Who is a National Treasure, it’s still a shocking moment. But at the time, when no-one knew what to expect, it must have been absolutely astonishing.
It’s impossible to overstress how well-constructed this first script is, because it’s actually playing two separate games of misdirection with us. The first, and most obvious, is the repeated misdirection about what kind of story we’re watching; but while it’s doing that, it’s also setting up the protagonists for an entirely different kind of story again – the ongoing serial that Doctor Who would become. Ian and Barbara are a science teacher and a history teacher, respectively, not just because they’re random subjects Susan can be seen to know about, but because science and history are the two subjects most likely to be necessary to explain things to viewers in a time-travel show.
On top of that, the first episode is a masterclass in a forgotten art – the art of television. Television, at least in Britain, used to be a very different artform than it is today. The way the filming was done (multiple cameras, all done in the studio rather than on location, filmed in close to real-time) encouraged an aesthetic that was closer to theatre than to film, and this persisted long after the technical limitations had been lifted, at least until the mid-1980s. A lot of the criticisms raised against the ‘classic’ series come from people who are seeing the show with eyes that are adjusted to modern TV, which sees the Hollywood blockbuster rather than the RSC as the model to follow, but the ‘wobbly sets’ (which never actually did wobble, but do look cheap to modern eyes) are no more a hindrance to suspension of disbelief than having a cardboard tree in the middle of the stage in a production of Waiting For Godot – it’s an artistic suggestion of reality, rather than an attempt at accurate reproduction of the real world, and should be seen in that light.
(Actually, I can think of one feature film that works in this way – Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky. It’s probably no coincidence that Gilliam and most of his cast had come from TV rather than the cinema).
So we have smooth, rolling, swooping camera movements, rather than cuts between stationary shots, as the norm – some of Hussein’s choices for camera placement and movement almost remind one of Orson Welles (although he was possibly *too* imaginative at times – I suspect one reason the pilot was reshot is that the camera movement meant it was often slightly out of focus) – and we have William Hartnell’s extraordinary performance.
Hartnell often gets overlooked by Doctor Who fans, dismissed because he occasionally flubbed his lines (no more so that any other actor would, working on the schedules he was working on, with little rehearsal and no opportunity for retakes – these shows had half an hour or an hour recording time for twenty-five minutes of screen time), but he understood acting for TV in a way that very few people before or since had. Just as an example, watch his use of his hands – they’re constantly fluttering about near his face, or playing with his lapels. Hartnell understood that on TV – especially on the small screens of the time – body language in long shots just gets lost. On the other hand, a lot of TV is shot in close-up, so if you want to use body language in your performance at all, it’s best to have all the expression be as close to your face as possible. It’s an unusual technique, but it’s one that works incredibly well.
Hartnell’s Doctor is a much more sinister, mysterious figure here than he was even in the next few stories, with a genuine air of menace, but he’s also recognisable as the character who would appear on our screens for the next twenty-six years.
The other three episodes in the storyline – involving the TARDIS crew getting involved with a tribe of cave people trying to figure out the secret of fire – are much less interesting (though visually stunning – they’re just let down by the leaden plotting and dialogue. Watching them with the sound turned off is far more interesting), but even they have some genuinely creepy moments, like the Doctor considering cold-blooded murder at one point. The Doctor would be humanised by his time with Ian and Barbara, but he remained an alien, with alien morals and values.
And of course, it’s impossible to discuss the impact of this first Doctor Who story without mentioning the theme music, credited to Ron Grainer but in all important respects the work of Delia Derbyshire.Again, this music still sounds experimental and different *now* – the impact back then, before the invention of the synthesiser, of this electronic noise with its echos of Stockhausen and Varese, must have been phenomenal.
Even had Doctor Who not gone on to become the TV staple it did, this first storyline, and in particular the first episode, would still be an all-time classic of TV. In fact, in many ways, it was all downhill from here – I can’t think, off the top of my head, of another single episode of the show that stands up in the way this one does.
1963 was a revolutionary year in the world, but especially in Britain – the true start of ‘the sixties’, and famously the year sexual intercourse began, to quote a grumpy Yorkshireman – and An Unearthly Child is easily both as much a part of its era and as timeless as the Beatles’ first LP.