1963 – the year the Beatles released their first two albums, the second of which, With the Beatles, was released the day before broadcast of this episode.
This is… The one that begins it all, the very first Doctor Who episode: An Unearthly Child, broadcast on 23rd November 1963.
“It was a cold wet night in November” as 1985’s pop-song Doctor in Distress said, but we’re getting ahead ourselves. We won’t be talking about 1985 until 22 weeks from now.
Now? It’s that cold wet night in November; it begins not with any of the four main characters of the episode, but a bleak junkyard.
Four characters? Really the fifth character is the TARDIS, (after all, it in its junkyard is how the episode begins; how the episode ends is its extraordinary and characterful takeoff).
It’s a magical beginning for the programme Doctor Who, 25 minutes of mystery that builds a compelling mood and ambience. The plot – two schoolteachers are both concerned and curious about one of their pupils, Susan; concerned because she appears to live in a junkyard; curious as to her super-advanced knowledge of history and science.
Once Ian and Barbara reach the darkness of the junkyard, they become aware of the police box, and Ian remarks on it.
“Do you feel it?”
“It’s a faint vibration.”
The ambient hum of the vibration is something the audience is aware of too, and it’s notable how central sound is to the creation of the atmosphere of this episode. (Innovative sound techniques by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, they also crafted the distinctive theme tune.)
Susan’s grandfather is much more chilled-out and seemingly-distracted than he appears in the unaired-till-1990s pilot, (this 1963 episode being the second attempt at filming, with that earlier version of the Doctor focusing his anger on the junkyard intruders), and Hartnell’s performance especially with its condescending tones is certainly Doctorish – though with none of the friendliness towards his “companions” as yet. So it could be said that much of what we now understand of the character is present in these very first scenes, thanks to how Hartnell plays the role – teasing his adversaries while appearing to be both in-control and absent-minded. Ian begins as his sparring partner here, with the Doctor cast as the antagonist – they would continue as sparring partners for a few episodes yet.
Once Barbara and Ian stumble into the interior of the TARDIS, the hum ramps up, as well as the light as the bright white contrast to the gloom of the previous scene startles the audience. The fifth character, the TARDIS, starting as literally a background presence eventually engulfs the episode with sound and vision – the vibrational hum transforming to the take-off sound-sequence and howlaround visual feedback merging with images of its occupants.
After this televisual tour de force with no dialogue, the episode ends wordlessly as the machine arrives at its new destination, as a shadow of something – a man? – falls over that desolate landscape.
Broadcasts: Saturday 23 Nov 1963 17:15 on the BBC Television Service – repeated the Saturday after, and in November 1981 on BBC Two for The Five Faces of Doctor Who repeat run.
Continuity notes: The main elements of Doctor Who are present and correct from the start: the Doctor, his machine the TARDIS, and his companions, though the word “companions” might be stretching it for the two people he has spirited away in his machine. There is – obviously – nothing before this to have any continuity with, but what was introduced here has remained constant.
Programme ethos: The Doctor isn’t really the example to be followed this episode, rather he’s the peril that the two schoolteachers find themselves encountering.
Precursors: The four multi-generational space-exploration serials Target Luna/Pathfinders… broadcast by ATV (part of the ITV network) in 1960 – produced by Sydney Newman, who would later co-create Doctor Who. Writer Malcolm Hulke (the Silurians) and actor Michael Craze (DW companion Ben) were also involved in those serials.
Although “a version of the dear old Magic Door” was something Doctor Who co-creator CE “Bunny” Webber was keen to avoid (as he writes in the outline for the programme), as he perceived a “danger of either Science Fiction or Fairytale labelling”, the Magic Door of myth and fantasy literature (such as Lewis’s wardrobe to Narnia) is very much what the TARDIS is.
Webber warned against Science Fiction (“If it is a transparent plastic bubble we are with all the lowgrade spacefiction of cartoon strip and soap-opera”) as well as the “common object” which would mean the Magic Door – DR WHO’S “MACHINE” should be invisible he said – but Sydney Newman thought there should be a tangible object: and so the police box in the junkyard.
Doctor Who co-creator Verity Lambert would be the producer for these new serials. (Story Editor was David Whitaker. For this Doctor Who episode the Director was Waris Hussein, and Writers credited were Anthony Coburn and also though not onscreen CE “Bunny” Webber.)
Sound and Vision: TARDIS Takeoff (01’23) is the track by Brian Hodgson of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop that plays over the, err, TARDIS takeoff. It’s so good it remains the sound of the TARDIS to this day.
Ron Grainer composed the theme tune, while Delia Derbyshire realised the tune in its Radiophonic Workshop form, (Grainer was so amazed he tried unsuccessfully for the BBC to give Derbyshire co-composer credit).
World of Fandom: None of the Doctor Who serials (serials consist of a set of episodes) would have an onscreen title until halfway through 1966, however there were episode titles for each of the episodes of these early serials, (“Serial A” to “Serial Z”). “Serial A” to “Serial D”, the first four, don’t even have serial-titles on the camera scripts, so it means there is some debate in Fandom about what these stories are actually called.
This blogpost is about the first episode – the four-episode serial that begins Doctor Who this blog regards as 100,000 BC. (A title gleaned from the BBC archives by Andrew Pixley.)
The 2009 DWM readers’ poll of 200 stories – ranking of 100,000 BC: #61.
Next Wednesday – Doctor Who 1964: The Aztecs