Saturday, November 23, 2013

An Unearthly Child

I thought it would be fun to watch an episode of Doctor Who every Saturday, fifty years after it was first shown, and also share with my blog-readers what I think about it. The days of the week go out of sync next March, because 1964 was a leap year and 2014 isn't, but I'll probably have got bored with the idea by then anyway, so we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

For now, though, it's Saturday November 23, 1963. We're sitting around at home watching Grandstand (interrupted regularly by news updates about President Kennedy's assassination yesterday) and we've never even heard of Daleks. Last week's Radio Times (people who write about TV shows in those days never remember that every single television-owner in Britain bought the Radio Times back then - it was the one and only place to see the BBC TV listings) told us that "Saturday's serial begins when two teachers (Jacqueline Hill and William Russell) probe the mystery surrounding one of their pupils (Carol Ann Ford) - and meet the strange Dr. Who" and shows a picture of the three of them.

This week's RT has a much bigger feature, spelling Carole Ann Ford's name right and telling us a lot more about the intriguing-sounding new series. It looks like fun, doesn't it? There was a trailer for the new series last Saturday evening, and another last night, but since they no longer exist in the BBC archives, I'm going to assume we missed seeing them. It involved William Hartnell talking to the camera and saying basically the same thing that's in this article...

Dr. Who

Okay, it's 5:15, we're settled down in front of the black-and-white TV with a cup of tea and a sandwich, and we're lucky enough to be in one of the houses in Britain not being affected by the widespread power cuts. It's cold outside, there are only two TV channels, so we might as well watch this new thing on the BBC!

It's running late - another news update from America - but then when it starts, we get the opening titles...

Spooky. A line of white light twists and distorts, to the accompaniment of eerie music and hissing noises, then turns into flying white patterns of light rushing at the viewer, and the words DOCTOR OHO appear on the screen - turning into DOCTOR WHO a split second later when it becomes clear that the writing was reversed and overlaid on top of itself in order to look more spooky. That part doesn't really work, but the rest of the opening sequence is completely awesome and like nothing we've seen before on television here in the year 1963!

The music keeps on playing as we see a policeman wandering around a foggy night-time street and shining his torch on an old wooden gate with "I.M.Foreman, Scrap Merchant, 76 Totters Lane" painted on it. Dixon of Dock Green is on the BBC in an hour and a half - are they showing that early by mistake? No, the policeman wanders off after checking that the gate is locked, and then it opens all by itself, leading the camera into a junkyard filled with miscellaneous scrap. Among it is a police box - a normal sight on the streets of London, although it's a bit strange to see one inside a yard like this. The title "An Unearthly Child" appears as the theme music finally stops, followed by the name of the writer, Anthony Coburn. We zoom in on the police box's phone hatch, then we blur-dissolve to the noticeboard of Coal Hill School.

Strange and mysterious beginning, but it's effective! Makes you wonder what's going on...

The school bell's ringing, sixties teenagers are larking about on their way home, and teacher Barbara Wright comes into the chemistry lab to talk to her colleague Ian Chesterton. His first question "Not gone yet?" is a bit strange, since the bell for the end of school rang less than 30 seconds ago, but never mind. They chat about Susan Foreman's strangeness - she's an uncanny genius fifteen-year-old, but secretive about her home life, and Barbara is worried about her, especially since her home address is just a junkyard with no house attached. Ian vaguely remembers that Susan lives with her grandfather, who's a doctor, and they resolve to play detective and check it out.

Back to the English classroom, where Susan is listening to loud music on a transistor radio. Beatlemania hasn't hit the BBC yet, obviously, it's very late-fifties stuff and not what genuine teenagers are listening to these days at all. Susan is rather unearthly-looking, with short hair in an unfashionable style and a rather strange appearance. She's also not played by a very convincing actor, unfortunately. Ian and Barbara are both good, in a BBC-drama kind of way, and likeable too. They go on their way, leaving Susan to read a book about the French Revolution and exclaim that the writer's got it wrong!

The book is a cheap and hasty TV prop, with a paper dustcover containing no words except "THE FRENCH REVOLUTION" on the cover. Did they forget to make one until filming had already started? The rest of the sets are very good - detailed and well-made classrooms! If I was the director (who otherwise does an excellent job here), I wouldn't have chosen a close-up on the book as my transition to the next scene...

In Ian's car in the dark, the two teachers wait outside the junkyard gate and reminisce about Susan's strangenesses as they try to pretend to themselves that they're motivated by anything other than curiosity. Susan doesn't know how many shillings there are in a pound, and when the other pupils laugh at her, she recalls that the decimal system hasn't started yet. [Doctor Who's first and possibly best ever prediction of the future - the change to decimal currency was planned in 1963, but wasn't definitely going to happen and a timescale for it hadn't been set yet. Retrospectively, it's understandable that Susan got mixed up, she's less than a decade too early for it, although since we later learn that she's been on Earth, in Britain, for five months, it's surprising that she hasn't seen money yet.]

The cutaways to Susan show her in the classroom sets, with Barbara's and Ian's voices off-screen - it's a strange way to do it by 2013 standards, and looks weird, but if we click back into the 1963 mindset when most television was broadcast live or (like Doctor Who) recorded 'as live' with multiple cameras and two or three sets squeezed next to each other in the same studio, it doesn't look weird at all. Susan's also bored with Ian's chemistry experiments, finding them too obvious or incomprehensible because they only calculate in three dimensions rather than five...

Susan goes in through the junkyard gate, and the teachers follow her. Ian drops and loses his torch in the dark, and isn't carrying any matches (most 1963 people did!), but they still manage to find the police box. It's vibrating strangely, although Ian walks all around it and can't see any power cable. But then they go and hide as a mysterious old man comes along. He starts to open the police box, and Susan's voice greets him (There you are, Grandfather!) from inside, surprising Ian and Barbara enough that they make a noise attracting the old man's attention.

We finally get to see the title character of this new series! His name goes unmentioned in this episode, although the Radio Times article variously called him 'Dr. Who' (the character's name on the credits) or 'the Doctor'. His first line of dialogue is rather stagey, but then he becomes really quite captivating as he infuriates Ian and Barbara by denying everything and refusing to let them see inside the police box. He chuckles to himself, peppers his speech with "Hmm?" and completely takes charge of the situation even though Ian is bigger, younger and very assertive. His long white hair is very strange-looking for 1963, he's got a woolly hat on, plus a black coat and colourful scarf. The conversation goes round in circles, until the teachers are on the point of being forced to just go away and fetch a policeman, but then the police box door opens, Susan calls out to her grandfather from the inside, and Barbara and Ian force their way in.

And now we get the real science-fiction part at last! The brightly-lit room they stumble into is much, much bigger than the police box! Strange walls with big recessed circles in them, a variety of large and peculiar ornaments, and a hexagonal control panel in the middle of the room. Very strikingly designed and fascinating to see! The ever-practical Barbara is concerned with asking Susan whether she's okay, while Ian is bewildered - he walked all around the police box, after all! The Doctor strips off his coat and scarf, ignoring the teachers' questions and generally scoffing at their ignorance. He's wearing an old-fashioned shirt and tie under a black jacket. He and Susan explain that they're all standing in a 'ship', the TARDIS, that can go anywhere in space or time. And they wonder what they're going to do with these interlopers from 1963...

He explains that he's from a different planet and time, and that he and Susan are exiles, all alone, but that they'll get back home one day. And while Susan begs him to let her teachers just go, he insists that they'll tell everyone what they've seen, and the time travellers will have to be on their way. The Doctor laughs to himself merrily as he locks Ian and Barbara in the TARDIS, sneakily electrifies the controls so Ian gets a shock when he touches them, and finally when they're distracted by Susan works the controls.

The room starts to shake, there's an eerie wheezing noise, we see London receding into the distance, and then an extended version of the spooky light patterns from the opening titles. Ian and Barbara fall down unconscious and we get close-ups of Susan and the Doctor, intercut with swirly light effects and creepy noises. This kind of thing is terrifying to a 1963 audience!

The television screen in the TARDIS now shows a barren, rocky landscape. The police box is now standing incongrously among the rocks and bare trees, and a human shadow is seen approaching it...

Next episode, says the caption, "The Cave Of Skulls"! The title music plays, the credits scroll, and the scene gradually fades to black. 1963 audiences probably noticed the unusual fact that the producer is a woman, Verity Lambert, and the director is an Indian immigrant, Waris Hussein.

It really is a great start to a series! It's a fascinating story, and it leaves us wanting to know what's going to happen next. I would certainly be tuning in next week if I was watching in 1963, intrigued by the setup in this first episode and the promises in the Radio Times that this strange quartet will be travelling all around the universe in the weeks to come...



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