Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

A claustrophobic economy of design and writing, allied to an unsettling juxtaposition of the mundanely familiar with the subtly strange, are key factors that mark the opening episode of Doctor Who as one of the finest examples of episodic drama ever produced for television. 

76 Totters Lane

From its classic opening continuous tracking shot which takes the viewers on a point-of-view journey from the fog shrouded confines of Totter's Lane in London, and on through the gates and into the interior of I.M. Foreman's shadowy and vaguely ominous scrap yard, to end before the incongruous exterior of an oddly humming official Police Call Box, we the viewers, are presented with a tight, skilful and economically written intellectual puzzle that serves as the fundamental foundation on which future decades of a televisual legend will be built.

Working in a near perfect unison of intent that few productions will ever come close to equalling, writer Anthony Coburn, Story Editor David Whitaker, director Waris Hussein and designers Peter Brachacki and Barry Newberry and the young but talented eye of producer Verity Lambert, have succeeded in fashioning twenty-five minutes of unique television drama that effortlessly succeeded in breaking new ground in the presentation of a science-fiction concept, to a mass early Saturday evening family viewing audience. 

Ian and Barbra in the Tooters Lane yard

Brilliantly employing the characters of inquisitive school teachers, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton, as the eyes and ears of his wider audience, writer Coburn deftly defines the small mystery of a paradoxically brilliant but mysterious young schoolgirl that will ultimately lead the two adults - and by extension, we the viewers - to a revelation of literally staggering proportions. Character, economy and the inexorable build-up of tension as each small question about the true nature of the circumstances of young Susan Foreman's mysterious life lead tantalisingly to ever more larger questions, is the central cement that binds viewer to story forming an unbreakable bond. From the outset, Barbara and Ian are entirely believable as real people. Their initial introduction apart from giving spoken substance to the wordless mystery presented in the dialogue free opening tracking shot, also brilliantly imbues the characters with a genuine sense that these are people with fully functioning unseen lives and personal histories which exist beyond the confines of the story being presented. It's this very real substance to the characters that allow them the authority to act as the bridge between the events unfolding around them and the audience watching at home. And as such is as much a tribute to the acting acumen of Jacqueline Hill and William Russell as it is to Coburn's scripting.

Taken from a different angle, the same holds true for Carol Ann Ford's decidedly otherworldly portrayal of Susan, the eponymous Unearthly Child of the story's title. Armed with a specially created hairstyle from Vidal Sassoon, and a near ethereal mixture of otherworldly aloofness wedded to an entirely earthly sense of teenaged vulnerability, Ford's performance perfectly offsets the everyman normality of her teachers to become an integral factor in the overall believability of the air of subdued mystery that surrounds her. 

The mysterious Doctor

But without doubt, from his first appearance over half way through the events of the story, the rock upon which the entire underlying series structure depends is William Hartnell's masterful performance as Susan's mysterious, quietly devious and imperious and high-handed Grandfather, Known simply as "The Doctor". In what amounts to a virtual master class in seemingly effortless acting technique, the veteran actor offers up a performance of such assured confidence and regal authority, that the character of the aging alien traveller through time and space assumes centre stage from his first bout of verbal sparring with his intrusive human interlopers. With sparse economy and perfectly pitched playing from the small, self-contained ensemble cast, the ultimate revelation of the Foreman's true nature and the enticing hints of their origins as well as that of the advanced technological marvel that serves as their habitat, are persuasively brought home to the appreciative viewing audience. 

Inside the TARDIS

In fact, the sheer impact of the vast, alien machinery of the interior of the Doctor's TARDIS, housed as it is within the impossibly confined dimensions of its outer Police Box shell, are the greatest triumph of the episode from a purely design and technical standpoint. Up until Barbara and Ian's forcible invasion of the Doctor and Susan's sanctuary, director Waris Hussein has cleverly reinforced a near subliminal atmosphere of claustrophobic closeness in his framing and shooting of the earlier scenes, leading up to the revelation of the Police Box interior in such a way as to maximise the colossal surprise experienced by both teachers and viewers, when both are finally confronted by the near incomprehensible vastness of the alien craft's cavernous interior. That such an astonishing sight manages to succeeds in imparting such a genuine sense of credibility, despite the obvious impossibility of its existence, is as much a testament to TARDIS interior designer Peter Brachacki's, imaginative flair as it is to the performances of the actors and the joint imaginations of the writer and production team.

From its fog bound opening moments to its cliff-hanger ending which sees the TARDIS materialising within a bleak, rocky landscape over which an ominous shadow falls, Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child, is a vastly imaginative and atmospheric exercise in mystery and adventure that will surely become a benchmark by which all subsequent new series introductions should be measured. 

The History

Doctor Who was the brainchild of Canadian Sydney Newman who joined the BBC as Head of Drama in 1962. A big science fiction fan himself Newman was looking for a programme that would capture the Saturday teatime audience and bridge the gap between the afternoon sports programme Grandstand and the early evening schedule that kicked off with the popular music show Juke Box Jury. What Newman wanted was a show that was suitable family viewing attracting the younger children and teenagers as well as their parents. To this end it was suggested that the series be tilted towards the 14-year old age group, which at that time was considered 'the most difficult, critical, even sophisticated audience there is for TV.'

Newman knew that it would be difficult to get the correct balance and saw in science fiction a concept that would appeal to all age ranges. He then set about developing the character of The Doctor describing him thus: A man who is 764 years old - who is senile but with extraordinary flashes of intellectual brilliance. A crotchety old bugger - any kids grandfather - who had, in a state of terror, escaped in his machine from an advanced civilisation on a distant planet, which had been taken over by some unknown enemy. He did not know how to operate the time-space machine and he never intended to come to our Earth. In trying to get home he simply pressed the wrong buttons - and kept on pressing the wrong buttons, taking his human passengers backwards and forwards and in and out of time and space.

Having decided on that concept Newman then approached his Head of Script Department Donald Wilson to compile a list of suggestions for a workable format for the series, which would run for 52 weeks of the year and be comprised of a number of shorter serials within its overall conceptual framework. Over a period of many months Doctor Who went through a number of changes before Newman was happy with a workable format. However, when An Unearthly Child did finally make it in front of the cameras (27/09/1963) Newman was far from pleased with the result and in an unprecedented move he ordered the whole episode be re-shot with a number of 'fine-tune' alterations made to the script, as well as the character of The Doctor.

The first episode of Doctor Who aired on BBC television at 5.15pm on Saturday 23rd November 1963. The day before the whole world had been shaken by the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, and as a result of many people's attention being turned to the unfolding true life events in Dallas, Texas (and an untimely power failure that affected large parts of the country) An Unearthly Child was not watched by as many people as the BBC had hoped for (4.4 million tuned in). However, critics in the British press received the show so well that the following week the BBC repeated the first episode immediately before showing part two (pulling in an audience of 5.9 million). 

Published on February 21st, 2019. Written by SRH & Laurence Marcus (2001) for Television Heaven.

Previous post Doctor Who: The Keys of Marinus
Next post Pathfinders To Mars and Beyond