An Unearthly Child Retrospective

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Adam James Cuthbert takes a trip back to where it all began.

Doctor Who was created in 1963 by then BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman, who had formerly been responsible for the successful Avengers TV series, and Armchair Theatre. Together, with Donald Wilson, head of serials, they outlined Doctor Who as an ongoing series. Initially, the BBC was only prepared to commission a single 4-part serial, written by CE Webber. During production, this was expanded to 13 episodes. The production team, after much consideration, could only offer 11 episodes (up to the end of The Daleks) or 18 (up to the end of Marco Polo). With story editor, David Whitaker’s 2-part The Edge of Destruction, which utilised only the existing TARDIS set and main cast at the last minute on a diminishing budget, the initial 20-epsiode run was complete.

When Webber quit, Australian author Anthony Coburn (The King of the River) was hired to write the opening serial, based on Webber’s original script. Webber’s storyline The Giants would have seen the TARDIS crew materialise in a school laboratory, but reduced to the size of pinheads. It was rejected as being too ambitious (though later reworked for Louis Marks’ Planet of Giants). Coburn’s original story, intended to be recorded second, was set in the Stone Age. He incorporated Webber’s outline into his own story, though BBC staff members, including Donald Baverstock and Rex Tucker, contributed material from character suggestions to actual lines of dialogue.

Originally, ‘Doctor Who’ was a refugee from the 50th century, who would encounter two schoolteachers walking one of their pupils home. The girl, Sue, was renamed Susan, and became Doctor Who’s granddaughter, while her teachers were renamed Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright. Ian and Barbara were designed to be representative of Newman’s intention to create a show that educated children on the merits of science and history. This would be done through the science-fiction context of time-travel to visit the historical past and speculative future, exploring alien worlds.

In September 1963, a pilot episode was filmed. Newman considered the finished programme unsuitable for transmission. This was mainly due to various technical errors, but also because he considered the Doctor too unsympathetic a character, and Susan too enigmatic. The sexual undertones of Susan’s character were toned down to make her more identifiable to a younger audience, and her relationship with the Doctor was warmer.

From the beginning, we know we’ve entered a strange and exciting world. By choosing to continue the title music into the opening shot of a policeman shining his light through the thick November fog, it creates an atmosphere of compelling mystery. Who is Doctor Who? Who is I.M. Foreman? What’s a police box doing in a junkyard? By framing the sequence in a long take, as the junkyard doors open seemingly of their own accord, émigré director Waris Hussein (A Touch of Love) transports us from the ordinary and mundane into the extraordinary and surreal. Although the opening tracking shot has none of the smoothness of today’s camerawork, it does create a pivotal sense of immersion into this world. This is literally achieved by a dissolve from one world to another, through the TARDIS doors into the corridors of Coal Hill School.

It’s interesting to note similarities between An Unearthly Child and H.G. Wells’ 1895 novella The Time Machine, in terms of their narrative structure. Wells’ novella presents the Time Traveller’s incredible tale through the incredulous eyes of an anonymous narrator. Likewise, Hussein presents the discovery of Susan’s extra-terrestrial origins through the eyes of her inquiring schoolteachers. We learn about Susan’s unusual behaviour through their respective flashbacks. Ian and Barbara are represented as disembodied consciousness, emphasising the flashback from their point-of-view, as Wells’ narrator is a spectator to the Time Traveller’s recollection. It is this subjective, and crucially human, perspective that lulls us into this alien world.

The first episode is a masterpiece. The atmosphere is tenebrous and haunting, yet subdued, self-consciously aware children are watching at home – yet want to be scared. The chemistry between William Russell and Jacqueline Hill feels natural, with charming banter between the two that adds to the story’s realism, and hints at a possible relationship between the two teachers. Carol Ann Ford gives a strong, confident performance, portraying Susan here as trying to fit in while visibly defining the character’s alien origins: wiser and mature than her years would suggest, yet quirkily childlike in measure. She’s loyal to the Doctor yet stands up for herself. (“I won’t leave the 20th century.”) Coburn’s writing is tight and memorable, with strong emphasis on characterisation. (“I can see by your face that you’re not certain. You don’t understand. And I knew you wouldn’t!”)

The Doctor, played by the role’s first leading man William Hartnell (Brighton Rock), is explicitly alien from the outset: an observer of humanity, unwilling to get caught up in events; a brooding, irascible, impish old man hiding a dark secret. Hartnell is brilliant from his first moment onscreen: hilarious, yet darkly serious, almost terrifying – our first vague hint at the Doctor’s ‘godlike’ powers and ambivalent attitude towards his past.

Sadly, the following three episodes fail to live up to the first’s enticing cliff-hanger. As soon as the Doctor is separated from the group, Susan is reduced to hysterics: Ford overacts Susan’s concern for the Doctor’s safety. The cavemen are a dull bunch. However, it is striking to observe that this Doctor’s first enemy should be humanity. The scene when Ian, Barbara and Susan tend to the wounds of the injured Za (Derek Newark) while the Doctor picks up a rock, presumably to kill Za with, only for Ian to confront him, is genuinely unnerving now.

The story’s educational value lies in its realistic depiction of a tribal community, the origins of mankind, but also in its clear pacifistic morals. While they do not resonate as profoundly as Terry Nation’s The Daleks, An Unearthly Child does address themes relating to the political climate at the time.

Step back in time...