Saturday, 14 May 2011

1x01 An Unearthly Child

“Have you ever thought what it’s like, to be wonderers in the fourth dimension? Hmm, have you?”

Broadcast Date: 23rd November 1963

I’ve seen this story countless times, the first when I’d completed my GCSE’s seven or so years ago. I instantly knew it was television at its finest but it took me a while to realise why it’s television’s finest. Doctor Who’s first episode works so well because it’s not about the Doctor. Not for one second. Surprising logic I know. It’s very hard to find anything of fault within the broadcast version of this episode. Sure, in today’s world Ian and Barbara’s curiosity could be considered a little…strange, but in the world of 1963 it’s entirely plausible.

The scene opens on a foggy night, a lone policeman on his beat. Marvellously shot, we next see a junkyard. We cut now to Coal Hill School where Ian and Barbara share their concern for student Susan Foreman. There’s some really nice paced dialogue between our trio of co-stars, giving them all a unique voice, unusual for this type of show in the 1960s. A shame we never got much more of Chesterton’s musical knowledge bar a number from the Beatles in ‘The Chase’. A lot of Susan’s mystery seems to vanish soon after these twenty minutes too.

However it’s not too long before Susan’s picking apart a book on the French Revolution and Ian and Babs are performing a stakeout at the Foreman scrap yard. A clever BBC guess about the decimal system, a hint at time and space, and a Hampstead Heath spotting of Susan and we get our second glimpse of a police box. This time with the Frankenstein “It’s alive!” from Ian. Some fantastic mystery writing has been set up but here comes the first appearance of William Hartnell’s Doctor Who and it’s pay-off time for the audience.

Hartnell as Doctor Who

Hartnell clearly loves this role, knowing more than the audience from the get-go. Some things never change. The best shot of the episode comes when Barbara steps inside the TARDIS for the first time. No music overplayed, just the ominous humming sound emerging. This is such a huge reveal but in a way it feels like director Waris Hussein has underplayed it in many ways to create a much bigger impact.

The Doctor is dark and a little evil here, very unconventional for a title character in a children’s TV series. This leading into the first ever TARDIS take-off, which does feel a bit long-winded, but due to the legacy started here this is easily forgivable.

If you grab a copy of this story on DVD (as part of 2006’s “The Beginning” box set) there’s an interesting untransmitted Pilot, which is very easy to criticise. Hartnell is too evil, irritating science-fiction noises distort the imagery, especially on the first shot of the TARDIS interior. And what the hell is Susan drawing before she gets her hands on that French Revolution book? Just some of the poor points I’ve spotted before the pilot can come close to the level of greatness achieved by the final version.

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