Wednesday, 3 August 2011

An Unearthly Child

An Unearthly Child was where it all began, nearly 48 years ago, on November 23rd, 1963.  The idea of the show that would go on to capture the attention of millions of fans was brain-stormed by C.E Webber, Sydney Newman and Donald Wilson during a format meeting, and the structure was set down loosely.  What these 3 would think of the way the show has gone today is unsure, as tastes and styles have greatly altered since 1963.

With this in mind, then, how will the original serial fare with my modern-day predilections and criticisms in tow?

From the second that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop theme tune kicks in, I get goose-bumps.  Every time.  As the camera pans past the Policeman, played by Reg Cranfield, and closes in on the TARDIS exterior, I can barely contain my glee.  What I’ve always found fascinating is that that Cranfield is the first person to ever appear on what is my absolute favourite TV show – and yet he isn’t actually in the credits at the episode close.  In fact, Cranfield took over from another actor, in the original pilot – a man called Fred Rawlings.  What Verity Lambert deemed ‘wrong’ about Rawlings’ portrayal we’ll never know, but it must gripe the man that his big claim to fame is to have almost been the first man to ever appear in Doctor Who.

The shots of the ‘children’ in the school are indeed dated, as a direct result of the fashion, and their individual performances are relatively poor – the scene in which they all laugh at Susan is fairly cringe-worthy, with them rhubarbing in the background as they force guffaws.  But it also adds a deeper level to the portrayal of Susan – if she genuinely believes that “the last five months have been the happiest of my life”, we must question how miserable her life has been up until now.  She is happiest whilst getting into arguments with teachers about time and space, questioning the validity of text books and being openly mocked for her lack of knowledge of the period that she has come to rest in with her grandfather. 

The 23-year-old Carole Ann Ford imbues a childlike, alienness to her performance as Susan, a 15-year-old living in a junkyard with her grandfather.  It seems a shame that the character spends so much time crying, or whining, or throwing a hysterical, melodramatic seizure.  Susan has never been my favourite companion – it struck me as a great shame that a character from some alien planet should be so terrified of absolutely everything, all of the time.  Still, there are episodes where she truly does shine – in The Sensorites, for one, her performance is sterling.  But back where it all began, she seems rather contrived and stereotyped. 

Jacqueline Hill’s portrayal of Barbara is outstanding – it is restrained, yet conveys far more about her character’s feelings than simply blubbing and screaming could ever have done.  She has some particularly good scenes with Ian, in which she is the voice of reason against his science knowledge.  William Russell’s Ian Chesterton is similarly a delight to watch – his brash and masculine exterior hides his panic and fear perfectly.  These two have always been amongst my favourite companions – they bounce off each other perfectly, and allow us, as an audience, to identify with their fears; we too have been stranded in an alien wasteland, with little or no understanding of what is going on.  When Ian reassures Barbara in episode three, the closeness is touching and heartfelt, which then play wonderfully off the confrontation between Chesterton and Hartnell’s Doctor.

And then, of course, there is William Hartnell.  Hartnell is a true delight to watch – he leaps from bellowing to cold, sincere and loving to miserable and intense.  All the while, his love for his granddaughter is evident, even in the chilling moment that he refuses to allow the teachers out of the ship.  Many fans dislike Hartnell’s portrayal over the other actors that have played the character, as he is not what we expect from the eponymous hero – a grumpy old man, who frequently stumbles over lines.  However, this is precisely what the role needed in these early stages – the wonderful thing about Hartnell is that, as the series progresses, we will see how he is visibly changed by his travels with Susan, Ian and Barbara.  And this is the pivotal point of the show – it is not simply an excursion for the companions, but one for the Doctor as well, and as such it is integral that we see the shift in his characterisation as much as the others. 

As Ian and Barbara earn their place on the ship, in his eyes, the character softens perfectly, and indeed makes the departures of these companions in particular so moving – but more on that when I review The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Chase.  Nothing is as touching in this first story as when the Doctor asks the question "Have you ever thought what it's like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? Have you? To be exiles?"  Through this question, Hartnell is asking us, the audience, to empathise with his situation, and to essentially join him on his hopeless journeys through all of time and space, without the ability to ever necessarily return.  Hartnell’s turn, from his crabbiness and unwelcoming stance at the story’s opening, to the end of episode two, where he profusely apologises, is tender and bitter sweet in perfect amounts.   Indeed, when he is trying to help Barbara, and retorts “fear makes companions of all of us”, he is reminding us that we are there to be entertained and scared in equal measure, as there is no better way to take us on these adventures as companions of sorts than directly addressing us and engaging us in the action.

When the travellers first touchdown in the Neanderthal period, we are struck by how alien everything looks.  As most fans know, the serial was originally intended to go second, following ‘The Giants’, which was abandoned for a number of production-related reasons.  Instead, Coburn’s 100,000BC script was bumped up the schedule.  Regardless of the origins of the story, however, what this first serial does is to ensure that there is no predicting what could happen – I personally think that there is little better place to start with any show than ‘the beginning’.  It could easily have taken us to an alien planet, with men in silly costumes.   

Instead, we are taken back to our own origins as human beings, and yet it never feels any less alien, or any less different, than it will in 3 weeks when the audience first meet the Daleks.  Rather, this sand landscape that stretches forever, and the grunting, monosyllabic and ever-so-literal cavemen are just as dizzyingly different from 1960’s swinging London that we can get.

Waris Hussein’s direction is beautiful, and epic on a scale that little of 1960s television was.  Considering the budgetary constrictions, the illness of a designer, and the rushed nature of the reshoot of the first episode, all things go surprisingly well.  Sure, cameras bump into things, Hartnell drops his scarf and doesn’t realise it, several of the extras look decidedly uncomfortable in the furs in the background, and the like – but we must consider that this was recorded ‘as live’, and that retakes were financially out of the question.  Many of the flaws from the pilot were avoidable in the new recording, such as the TARDIS doors scratching as they opened, as they were rehearsed better.  What Hussein does so well is to grasp the mundane, as well as the exciting, perfectly under his lens, and make us scrutinise each second with a realism that many lesser directors would have failed on.  The politics of the cave men, for instance, is dull.  Of course it is.  It’s a bunch of cavemen screaming and twigs, and discussing ‘the orb’.  But we are still intrigued by it – Hussein frames each shot with wonder, and whilst the exposition may be a trifle dull, the images never are.

With regards to the additional players in this piece, Alethea Charlton’s portrayal of Hur is extremely engaging – when she berates her love, Za, for being impotent with his use of fire, and informs him that she will be handed to whoever becomes the leader – probably his enemy Kal – she does so with the slightest inflection of remorse, yet pulls it off despite the grunting dialogue which she has to work with.  Similarly, Derek Newark’s Za and Jeremy Young’s Kal are excellent – Young in particular must be noted as the first actor to ever have the onerous task of ‘freezing’ while the titles rolled at the beginning of the episode.  The look of terror and fascination on his face makes it difficult to focus on anything appearing in front of it – his eyes draw you in, and remind you that what you are seeing is equally magical.

The political conflict which arises between Kal and Za’s argument in the cave is reminiscent of the argument between Ian and the Doctor in the first episode.  The eloquence of the dialogue, in stark contrast with the grunts and the wizened stature of the actors, bent and angled, adds to the feeling of ‘otherness’ inherent throughout. 

Norman Kay’s incidental music continues to increase this tension.  The use of drums and other hollow percussion build tension, adding to the drama, particularly in The Cave of Skulls.  It is rare that percussion works to such great extent – much of the incidental music of Doctor Who grates or offends as the series progresses beyond the mid-seventies, but during Hartnell’s tenure, through to Troughton and Pertwee’s in particular, incidental music is integral to the plot – without guiding the viewer too much, and pointing them in the correct direction for action, it allows us to stay focussed and yet remain aware that things are happening.  The use of xylophones for the chase sequences through the forest is captivating, and really lends itself perfectly to the forest of fear of the title.

All in all, this is a fitting origin for the show that captures our hearts and minds – while some scenes may seem a touch dated for newer fans, if you can look past the minor errors typical of all early 60s television, it truly is a gem.  The performances range from subtle and low-key to slightly melodramatic, but never detract from the magic of the story.  This is the perfect, fitting introduction to a phenomenally popular show – one which spans the decades, and brings enjoyment to all.  Whilst it may not be the sci-fi extravaganza we have come to love and admire, what makes this episode so perfect is that the Neanderthal backdrop is as alien as anything we come to see – from the lilted speech patterns to the stylised performances, this truly is a step into the unknown.  And of course, the final scenes, in which the TARDIS dematerialises, and the shots of The Dead Planet all help to add to the mystery, and take us in for the next adventure...


  1. Are you gonna do every story in order?
    Fantastic so far.

  2. Mark - Not in order, no - The Deadly Assassin has been requested as the next story I do, and then a Pertwee, probably Spearhead From Space. I'm also going to be doing non-Who reviews too. The next one will be for Torchwood, which should be up by mid-afternoon tomorrow!

  3. I'm embaressed to say that the first Doctor is the only one I've never seen a single episode from. Sadly when I was still in the UK they didn't air very often and the DVDs are so expensive, and out here, well Nepali internet is too slow and classic British TV and films aren't exactly easy to find here. What to do? Cheers for the review though, has left me really wanting to watch it.