Yesterday was, as many of you will be aware, the forty-eighth anniversary of the first episode of Doctor Who. This means that next year, 2012, is the fiftieth year of Who’s existence.

Over the next year or so, on a roughly-weekly basis, I’ll look at one story from each of those fifty years, from 1963 to 2012. To start with, let’s travel back to that time just after the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.

Given that the show only started in the last week of November, we don’t have much to choose from as far as stories from 1963 go. Luckily, the two that were broadcast that year, An Unearthly Child and the first few weeks of The Daleks, are both quite wonderful.

We’re going to look at An Unearthly Child mostly because we’ll get to see the Daleks on several other occasions, but there’s no other opportunity to see the program before anyone knew what a Doctor Who story was. If you’ve not seen it, you can watch at Crossing The Whoniverse or buy it along with the two stories that followed on the The Beginning box set for about £9 the lot.

A lot of people, when discussing this story, bring up the date it was broadcast. The original broadcast of episode one was on the 23rd of November 1963, the day after the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis .

In particular, people seem to have an urge to compare Doctor Who to Lewis’ greatest work – which is odd, because there are no explanations of the Nicene Creed at all in Who (well, other than an audio drama from a few years ago…). There is, however, a wooden box that takes the protagonists to other worlds, which is mildly similar to something in some obscure kids’ novel Lewis wrote.

I’m being slightly facetious (and in fact there is a great deal of similarity between Lewis’ preoccupations and some that the series would develop, especially when it comes to Plato) but one can just as easily find parallels in, for example, the Fantastic Four, whose first issue was apparently published two years to the day before An Unearthly Child. An action man, a teenager who’s related to another member of the crew, and the girl one all end up having adventures as a result of being dragged off in a malfunctioning futuristic travel machine by an eccentric scientist who doesn’t understand people very well – that could just as easily sum up An Unearthly Child as the Fantastic Four’s origins.

Or, for that matter, one could point out that Steptoe And Son has a theme by Ron Grainer and opens in a junkyard, as An Unearthly Child does (and is written, like The Daleks, by ex-scriptwriters for Tony Hancock).

All this really means is that Doctor Who, when it started, was firmly of its time, and partook of the general culture that surrounded it. Which is not surprising when you consider the people who were making it.

Nowadays, early Who can look somewhat dated and staid, to those who aren’t accustomed to 60s TV, but in fact it was being made by some of the hottest young talents of the time. Verity Lambert, the producer, was the youngest producer at the BBC, and Waris Hussein, who directed the first story, was the youngest director.

In fact, for something so often called ‘quintessentially British’, the production team was amazingly diverse. Lambert was the only female producer in TV at the time, as well as being the youngest, and she was one of the most competent (she’d once managed to rescue a live drama, and keep it going til the end, when the leading actor died half-way through the broadcast). Waris Hussein was gay and Indian, Sydney Newman (the executive in charge of the show, who helped create it) Canadian, Anthony Coburn (the writer of the first story) Australian and Carole Ann Ford (who played Susan, the Doctor’s grand-daughter) Jewish.

Which makes it all the more odd that the notoriously racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic William Hartnell was chosen for the lead role. But he was an inspired choice. Hartnell had previously mostly played tough-guy roles, and he revelled in the chance to break his typecasting, and was utterly spectacular.

Hartnell’s Doctor is a much more sinister, mysterious figure here than he was even in the next few stories, with a genuine air of menace, but he’s also recognisable as the character who would appear on our screens for the next twenty-six years. In fact, had the Doctor not started out as essentially the villain, as he is to all intents and purposes in this first story, he would undoubtedly have ended up being a much less complex character.

The Doctor and Susan in the TARDIS, in the unaired pilot version of An Unearthly Child

In particular, in an age when most actors on British TV were primarily theatrical, and played as if to the people in the back row, Hartnell’s performance is tight and enclosed. His famous fussing with his lapels is a very deliberate, clever acting choice – on a small screen, particularly the low-resolution screens of the time, actors have to work primarily in close-up, and so the only way to get any expressiveness from his hands was to keep them near his face as much as possible. It’s an inspired way to turn a technical limitation into a character point.

And so much of Doctor Who in the early years was about precisely that, adapting technical limitations to the programme-makers’ advantage. This is particularly evident in An Unearthly Child, because Waris Hussein, who sadly only directed one more story for the programme, is one of the very best directors ever to work on Doctor Who, and he makes some absolutely inspired choices. The fluidity of the camera-work in this story is almost Wellesian at points, but what makes it really astonishing is when one realises these are essentially plays.

A lot of the criticisms raised against the ‘classic’ series come from people who are seeing the show with eyes that are adjusted to modern TV, which sees the Hollywood blockbuster rather than the RSC as the model to follow, but the ‘wobbly sets’ (which never actually did wobble, but do look cheap to modern eyes) are no more a hindrance to suspension of disbelief than having a cardboard tree in the middle of the stage in a production of Waiting For Godot – it’s an artistic suggestion of reality, rather than an attempt at accurate reproduction of the real world, and should be seen in that light. TV when Doctor Who was broadcast originally was, in the UK at least, a branch of the theatre, not of the cinema.

In the early days, Doctor Who, like most TV, was done ‘as live’. There were multiple cameras in the studio, all filming constantly (a style of programme-making that is now confined to sitcom and soap opera, but was then the only way of making TV), and the actors performed the parts as if in a play, but with the cameras moving around them. Editing decisions were also made as live – the vision mixing would be done while the actors were performing.

In fact, in the whole first episode of An Unearthly Child there is only one moment we’d regard as an edit – when Ian and Barbara enter the TARDIS for the first time. That’s the only moment the cameras were stopped. Even then, it’s not an edit per se; the cameras are turned off and the tape stopped, then it’s started again once they’re inside the TARDIS. Actually editing the tape was far too expensive at that time (and in fact tape editing had only just been invented, by the Hancock’s Half Hour team).

But that means that every choice made by the director has to be made with an eye both to practicalities and to aesthetics, in a way it simply isn’t now. For example, Ian and Barbara have to be in a car at the beginning of one shot, but both have to talk to Susan in a classroom in the previous shots. There’s no way to do that with them on-screen – they can’t get from the classroom set into the car without stopping the cameras – so they’re voice-overs, performed from within the car, and only Susan is shown.

But by doing this, by isolating Susan in the frame with no-one else around her, Hussein plays up Susan’s strangeness and difference, the very reason her teachers are investigating her.

The plotline actually has some incredibly sinister overtones for the first three-quarters of the episode – two teachers become concerned about one of their pupils, who is incredibly bright, and who seems to know more in some areas of science and history than her teachers, but who behaves very oddly, almost autistically at times, and who seems frightened of saying anything at all about her home life. The teachers follow her ‘home’, which turns out to be a telephone box in a junkyard, barely big enough for one person to stand up in. The box is locked, and the key is in the possession of a possibly dangerous old man.

The other three episodes in the storyline – involving the TARDIS crew getting involved with a tribe of cave people trying to figure out the secret of fire – are much less interesting (though visually stunning – they’re just let down by the leaden plotting and dialogue. Watching them with the sound turned off is far more interesting), but even they have some genuinely creepy moments, like the Doctor considering cold-blooded murder at one point. The Doctor would be humanised by his time with Ian and Barbara, but he remained an alien, with alien morals and values.

And of course, it’s impossible to discuss the impact of this first Doctor Who story without mentioning the theme music, credited to Ron Grainer but in all important respects the work of Delia Derbyshire. Again, this music still sounds experimental and different now – the impact back then, before the invention of the synthesiser, of this electronic noise with its echos of Stockhausen and Varese, must have been phenomenal.

Even had Doctor Who not gone on to become the TV staple it did, this first storyline, and in particular the first episode, would still be an all-time classic of TV. In fact, in many ways, it was all downhill from here – I can’t think, off the top of my head, of another single episode of the show that stands up in the way this one does.

Next week – can you change history, even one line?

24 Responses to “Doctor Who: Fifty Stories For Fifty Years – 1963”

  1. Doctor Who Post At Mindless Ones « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] I’ve written about An Unearthly Child over at the Mindless site, as part of a new series I’m doing for them covering one Who story per year for 1963 through 2012. I’ve written about this story before, of course, and I even re-used a couple of paragraphs from one of those posts here, but this is a much longer discussion than I’ve had before. [...]

  2. Evil Scientist Says:

    It’s a good article, makes me want to watch AUC again. I really like the idea of watching the caveman stuff with the sound off.

  3. Zom Says:

    Such a good point about television of the period being beholden to theatre. For some reason I’ve never thought of props and sets as stage props and sets – it’s such a helpful and important distinction!

  4. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Thanks. It’s a big, big difference between TV prior to about 1985 and TV now – and, indeed, between UK and US TV. US TV was made by film studios, on film lots, using film actors and crew. UK TV wasn’t, which is why you get things like Jonathan Miller’s utterly stagey version of Alice In Wonderland, with no real attempt to make it look ‘real’. It’s also why in the UK we had ‘Play For Today’ whereas in the US they had ‘TV movies’.

    When you start to think this way, a lot more makes sense about pre-mid-80s British TV, and it becomes a lot easier to appreciate on its own merits. Doctor Who had a lot more in common with I, Claudius, for example, than with Star Trek – Star Trek is a totally different medium.

  5. Prankster Says:

    See, I’d argue that the “stage” aspect is definitely there for Star Trek as well–it’s more subtle, and sublimated, but there are planet sets that are very obviously sets, even in the late 60s (as evidenced by the contrast between those and the actual external shots in Bronson’s Canyon) and of course there’s the episode where the crew is transported to a dream version of an old west town that’s literally constructed out of facades, with no attempt at “reality” at all (which is actually the point of the episode). There are probably other examples–I’m not a hardcore Trekkie so they’re not springing to mind.

    Even as late as Star Trek: The Next Generation, though, the basic “Planet Hell” that’s an obvious stage set survives–paper mache caves with stairs carved into them for no appreciable reason, etc. In addition, you have matte paintings, which I always thought demanded a certain investiture of imagination from the viewer. And in the early going, the bridge set was shot from the same perspective 95% of the time, as if on a stage set. You can definitely see the break between the old-school “theater” style attitude and the attempt to do a mini-movie every week as the show progresses, but the fundamental assumptions in how the show was constructed, visually, are pure theater. It wasn’t until “Deep Space Nine” that Trek moved firmly towards the idea of a movie as the basis for comparison instead of a stage play.

    And I’ve been watching Babylon 5 for the first time recently, this being a show from the mid-90s, and again, the basic stage origins are there, with clunky CGI used in place of models and mattes, and the same “obvious stage set” layout. It isn’t until the last decade that you see the effect fully superceded by the cinematic paradigm–Battlestar Galactica (modern edition) and Firefly are clearly constructed as movies, visually speaking. (All my reference points are American, sorry.)

    Obviously I’m sort of conflating staginess and bad effects with the theatrical effect you describe, but I think even in some of these late 80s/90s shows, which clearly *wished* they had huge effects budgets and sometimes (in B5′s case especially) were attempting to reach for something they couldn’t grasp, they were making the assumption that the viewer’s imagination would do a fair amount of the work.

    I also think this principle applies to some of the monster effects of older genre TV and movies–Ray Harryhausen’s work surely looked more “real” to 60s audiences. Sometimes even when you’re presented with a visual that falls short of reality, there can be an expectation that the audience will do some of the heavy lifting, and I think that was an assumption everyone made right up until…I’m going to say Jurassic Park, at least in the case of creature effects. This ability to create a convincing reality almost instantly dated earlier attempts to do so, but didn’t necessarily have the same effect on the “theatrical” effect, which I’ve always found interesting.

    Basically, if you work hard at creating a reality that tries to be purely “real” you’re prone to simply falling short and convincing no one–a corollary of the “uncanny valley” effect. But if you create a clear “alternate” reality without pretensions to pure realism, the quality or realism of the effects matters less. At least, to me. There have been some interesting uses of this effect in recent movies like Speed Racer, Scott Pilgrim and Sin City, but I’d like to see some subtler use of it. There’s definitely a place for an interesting, very low-budget SF show that apes an old-fashioned stagebound style…you’d probably have to sell it as “camp” but it couldstill be a staging ground for smuggling in some thoughtful writing, the way Who and Star Trek did…

  6. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Yes, you do have the assumption that the viewer will do a lot of the work, but there’s a lot more to the theatrical aspect than that. Star Trek was filmed single-camera, and on film, while Doctor Who was multi-camera video. Most of the actors on Trek were TV actors primarily, while in the 60s there was no such thing in the UK (we only had two TV channels when Who started, and they only broadcast a few hours a day) and so most of the actors came from repertory theatre.

    There’s also a different style of acting involved – to quote the sometimes-infuriating, sometimes-brilliant Tardis Eruditorum:

    “It would be too much of a generalization to say that British and American actors have completely different approaches. But there is a real difference in what you might call the default technique of each. American acting, since the mid-20th century, has been dominated by various forms of the Method. Although it’s much more common in 2011 to see people reject that label, Method acting is usually defined by a heavy focus on the actor’s psychological state and on getting it to match the state of the character. (Though this is often accomplished by finding experiences in the actor’s own past or aspects of the actor’s own personality to draw on.)

    The British tradition, on the other hand, tends to be based more on making conscious decisions about the character and following through on them. In this approach, the actor focuses less on the authenticity of the character and more on acting as a communicative practice – on how the acting conveys information about the character. This school tends to be based heavily on gesture and facial expression.

    These days the dividing line is pretty lax. Matt Smith, for instance, is British, but uses lots of Method techniques in his acting. But he modeled his portrayal of the Doctor on Troughton, who is just about the least Method actor ever. But it still captures a basic division in aesthetics that is close to that of the cinematic/theatrical distinction between Space: 1999 and I, Claudius.”

    (Just in case anyone thinks I was ripping this observation off from TE, the relevant paragraphs in this post were actually C&Pd from something I wrote three years ago. It’s an observation that comes quite easily when you look at a lot of old British TV in one go).

    Star Trek is absolutely a Method show, right down to SHATner’s… idiosyncratic… phrasingofhisspeeches .

  7. Prankster Says:

    Interesting. And possibly the first time in history that Shatner has been placed in the same category as Robert DeNiro.

    I guess I was reading into it based on…all that stuff I just spouted about the visuals and production, which is something I’ve been a little obsessed with lately, because I find it really interesting. But surely we can agree that there are still a lot of elements imported from the stage tradition in American TV up until pretty recently, as I mentioned?

  8. Andrew Hickey Says:

    There might be some, but far, *far* fewer than in the UK. American TV looked so different from British TV at the time that it used to be listed in TV listings magazines as “film series” rather than “TV series”, because it was to all intents and purposes a different medium. Whatever the end results were, US TV was always aspiring to the condition of film, whereas British TV aspired to the condition of theatre.

    Sets that look like sets are one thing, but British TV at this time was constructed to have far fewer individual shots, to be driven almost entirely by dialogue, and to be performed as live, to the extent that something like Nigel Kneale’s wonderful adaptation of 1984, in the late 50s, was broadcast twice in a single week – and performed live both times rather than recorded and repeated.

    At the time, you essentially couldn’t edit videotape at all – video editing had been invented, but it meant the tape couldn’t be reused, which was prohibitively expensive – while film was very editable from very early on.

    There *was* British TV that was done in the American style – primarily stuff designed for the American market like the old ITC adventure serials – but the distinction didn’t really disappear until both cheap video editing and ‘film look’ video had been around a while.

  9. plok Says:

    I, Claudius is an amazing thing, isn’t it? My joke is that today it looks like it was made in Ancient Rome…

    I’m very fond of considering the “teleplay” to be a distinct dramatic writing form, something that had to grow into its own very quickly because of the the technical limitations it faced, but that disappeared just as quickly when those limitations were overcome…still, though, it’s the “initial condition” of televisual drama, and its echoes will probably never fully die down. Which is why I’m glad you brought up that editing-on-the-fly stuff, Andrew, particularly in regard to the massively effective scene of Susan in the classroom…we forget that constraint was the mother of our favourite storytelling techniques, because we hardly ever see the excitement those techniques created and lived inside when they were necessary, and it’s always great to bump up against that directness again. In these days of influence and reference and supercapability we hardly become conscious of it, everything’s so spectacularly widescreen we forget the heat that used to be associated with the televisual moment, sometime just after the big idea was sticking a stationary camera on a stage when a play was going on, sometime just before the Howdy Doody generation graduated film school. And I think Star Trek, and Firefly too for that matter, are right in that middle space where “teleplay” lives…they’re plays, they’re just American plays. They’re not coming from a place of Shakespeare. They are probably coming from a place of “aspiring to film”, yeah…as the way of writing for American TV was also deeply informed by the way of writing for radio, and a lot of that talent came out of radio, and so I guess after a while of that you really think about what it would be like to be seen?

  10. Andrew Hickey Says:

    I’ll be talking quite a bit about Clavdivs in my *other* Doctor Who series of posts, on my own blog, because the gravitational pull that series (and the books it was based on) exerts over the more interesting wave of Doctor Who fans-turned-professionals is *huge* – but Clavdivs itself is so huge it’s hard to get a handle on it, which is why it’s taking me a while to start that series of posts.

    And personally, I think TV died as a medium with Star Wars. Since then, spectacle has increasingly been what both film and TV are about, and the differences between the two have been eroded to the point of no return. There does appear to be a different use of the medium in TV now – telling very long-form stories, like in The Wire (or giving the pretence of telling long-form stories, like in current Doctor Who), but once we lost those limits, TV became as dead as rock and roll is.

  11. Zom Says:

    Except the telling long-form stories thing. There’s really very little like it, even in the land of novels.

  12. plok Says:

    I think movies had that capacity once, when a series like the Thin Man could replicate the experience of a long-running detective series…but it wasn’t really used for it, and there’s not exactly a lot of threads running from one Nero Wolfe book to the next. But in novels, I think you can find a bunch of series that have a dozen books or more in them, where there’s actually meaningful character and even plot arcs over different volumes. Actually, about the only thing I’ve been able to get out of anybody who tells me I “should read” The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is that it has a multi-volume plot structure, bit of the old A-B-C?

    I find people to be mystifyingly close-mouthed about what that book’s about. I ask and I ask, and they seem unable to articulate it. They say “it’s weird”, or “it’s a very unusual book”, and if I press them really hard on it they sometimes say “there are two main characters, and they’re connected”, which doesn’t seem very unusual at all to me…

    I thought maybe the answer might be that the book is structured in a “comics” kind of way, and everyone I was talking to just didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate it? Maybe even if they’d seen Doctor Who they would’ve got it, you know…if they knew about the glorious Geeky Genres, the tricks of this trade. But many of the people I know who know Doctor Who know this oddly slick commercial product that it is today, good or bad it is still considerably “updated” in the sense of being more accessible, in terms of vocabulary, to people who wouldn’t have liked, at least not been really enthused by, the stuff that descends from An Unearthly Child. To me, Tom Baker holding two wires and asking “have I the right” is on the Hartnell continuum anyway, I still find it gripping…most of my friends would find it boring. “Just blow it up already!” I am not sure, for all I liked Doctor #9, that he was on that continuum, or at least that his stories were. It’s all a bit more Jerry Bruckheimer today, it knows the Big Blockbuster secret handshakes.

  13. plok Says:

    I think I hit “Submit” on that before I made much of a point, didn’t I?

    Oh well.

  14. Ticonderoga Says:

    “the notoriously racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic William Hartnell..”

    Would you like to quote some direct sources for the slurs you so casually heap upon a man long dead? These accusations are lazy, cowardly, vicious, third-hand and libellous. If it all boils down to “I’ve heard that…” or, “I read that….”, shame on you. Have a look at his Desert Island Discs choices (easily accessible on-line), and see if they chime with your petty mud-slinging.

  15. Adam Says:

    Er… I don’t know if the guy was or wasn’t a racist anti-semitic homophobe. What I do know, for certain, is that plenty of bigots like music made by black people.

    Also, I don’t know much about libel, but I’m pretty sure that you can’t libel the dead, for what I deem to be quite sensible reasons.

  16. Ryan Says:

    Hartnell was a product of his times, and so quite possibly had a certain bigotry to him. That said, he most certainly wasn’t “notoriously racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic”. Hartnell had a very good relationship with director Waris Hussein who was young, Indian and gay, and had a very close relationship to Carole Ann Ford who is Jewish. The rumours about him refusing to work with Max Adrian because he was Jewish are completely false – the script shows their characters were never in a scene together before Adrian was even cast (and indeed, Hartnell appeared with Adrian in an earlier work).

    The description of him is grossly inaccurate, and Carole Ann Ford has defended the man repeatedly in DVD commentaries.

    You can’t libel the dead, it’s true, but it would be nice if inflammatory remarks like this were actually supported with evidence.

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  20. John Says:

    Hello. I liked this article, I just wanted to point out that Peter Purves, who played companion Steven alongside William Hartnell’s Doctor has been very honest about Bill’s attitude to race and sexuality; if you get the chance to meet him at conventions, ask him yourself although you may not like what you hear. Although, he does believe a lot of this wasn’t helped by Bill’s mental health which was deteriorating during his time in the role and is very noticeable, with him constantly forgetting his lines and ad-libbing.

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