November 25th, 2011
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.
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?