23 November 2016

NEW SERIES The Original # 1 An Unearthly Child

53 years ago today the first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast and I’m re-watching the first story once a week to see if I can recapture the magic. 
It is impossible to imagine just what an impact this episode had on anyone watching it in 1963 but equally impossible to imagine that anybody would not want to watch the next episode. This really is a textbook example of how to set up a new series in any genre. Keep it simple, tease mysteries, focus on a handful of characters and make it visually stunning. `An Unearthly Child` does all this and never puts a foot wrong. Years back I remember older fans who’d seen the original broadcast talking in hushed tones about its magnificence and even though I’ve seen it lots of times I’m now not sure I have ever actually watched it. That is to say allowed its contents to reveal themselves without the accumulated narrative weight of 53 more years of Doctor Who swimming about my head. When you do that there is something compelling about every minute of this.

Take the way it starts. We’ve grown so accustomed to the original title sequence that the shock of how it must have seemed to the 1963 viewer is lost. It looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before and in monochrome it flows bizarrely while the haunting theme music carries on for 1 minute and 38 seconds panning around the junkyard until the camera comes to rest on a police box. Only then do the title and writer credits appear. Of course we’ve all seen the pilot which is messier than this but now I realise that’s probably only because of the ambition of Waris Hussein’s directorial ideas. 

Even though it’s totally studio bound he directs with filmic intent, making the most of the shadowy junkyard set- focussing on a cracked mask for no reason than to spook us out!- while he pulls his camera in close to faces. There is nothing dull about this, he draws every line to your attention so as you feel you are right there. Most interesting are the flashbacks as Ian and Barbara discuss their problematic pupil and we see her talking to teachers but actually she’s sometimes looking directly at us.  Throughout Hussein keeps us moving in what could easily have been a much more static production. When Barbara and Ian and then the audience stumble into the TARDIS the contrast of the brightly lit interior compared to the dark scene outside is powerful. As for the first TARDIS flight, the thunderous sound and strange patterns threaten to leap out of the screen as they must have done to even greater impact back then. It is stunning. 
Anthony Coburn’s script is so economical, there is not a word wasted yet by the end we know the four characters quite well. Ian and Barbara’s differing reactions to the turn of events is particularly rewarding as they push each other into following Susan. When they enter the TARDIS, Ian is desperate to know what they are seeing; “I want to understand” he pleads. Barbara on the other hand maintains it’s still an illusion. As for Susan, was she ever as odd as she is here? Her alien hand dance and distant stare convey an alien quality yet her time on Earth seems to have softened her responses to the intrusion. The Doctor on the other hand is having none of it. In the pilot he is snappier, less warm and a little off putting but the subtle way William Hartnell adjusts his performance second time round is quite astounding. He retains a menace- just look at his face when we see his reaction to the teacher’s conversation going on behind him- yet it’s softened with a  playful, child- like ambivalence to their questions. Coburn balances this four way dialogue so strongly to the point where we’re never quite sure who to side with. Sure, it’s wrong to keep the teachers locked inside this odd place but don’t we just want to know what it can do?

Though much has been written – and excused- by way of this being archive television, `An Unearthly Child` is not without elements that seem to foresee the series’ future. The incidental music as the teachers investigate the junkyard sounds sonically similar to Geoffrey Burgon’s Seventies work on the series. Warris Hussein’s direction seems to come from a much later time while the show would rarely acknowledge pop culture for a long time yet manages to give Ian a knowledge of the latest chart sensations.

So this is where Doctor Who starts with a triumphant opening, the first ever dialogue (“Wait in there Susan, I won’t be long”) and a marvellously theatrical handkerchief waving entrance from William Hartnell. Like the viewers of 1963 I know very little about what is to come having only ever watched the subsequent three episodes at a convention not paying as much attention as I should have. Only a week to go….

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