An Unearthly Child ★★★★★

How Doctor Who began in 1963 with an exciting adventure starring William Hartnell

15

Season 1 – Story 1

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“Silly, isn’t it? I feel frightened. As if we were about to interfere in something that is best left alone” – Barbara

Storyline
London, 1963: at Coal Hill School, teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright are concerned about 15-year-old pupil Susan Foreman, who is a genius in some subjects, terrible in others, and claims to live at 76 Totter’s Lane – a junkyard. Investigating her background, Ian and Barbara discover that Susan and her grandfather, known only as the Doctor, are visitors from “another time, another world”, and that their home, camouflaged as a police box, is in fact a space/time ship called the Tardis (an acronym for Time and Relative Dimension in Space). The Doctor activates his vessel, unwittingly transporting everyone back to a freezing Palaeolithic landscape. They are seized by a tribe of cave dwellers desperate to rediscover the secret of fire. A power struggle is under way between two men, Kal and Za. Can the time travellers affect the outcome and escape the cave of skulls with their lives…?

First UK transmissions
1. An Unearthly Child – Saturday 23 November 1963
2. The Cave of Skulls – Saturday 30 November 1963
3. The Forest of Fear – Saturday 7 December 1963
4. The Firemaker – Saturday 14 December 1963

Production
Filming: September/October 1963 at Ealing Studios
Studio recording: October/November 1963 at Lime Grove D

Cast
Doctor Who – William Hartnell
Barbara Wright – Jacqueline Hill
Ian Chesterton – William Russell
Susan Foreman – Carole Ann Ford
Za – Derek Newark
Hur – Alethea Charlton
Old mother – Eileen Way
Kal – Jeremy Young
Horg – Howard Lang

Crew
Writer – Anthony Coburn
Incidental music – Norman Kay
Designers – Peter Brachacki (1); Barry Newbery
Story editor – David Whitaker
Producer – Verity Lambert
Director – Waris Hussein

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
A foggy night in London town. A spooky junkyard with a police box humming in the shadows. A schoolgirl with preternatural knowledge. A mysterious old man in Edwardian clothes stepping out of the darkness… The legend starts here.

“Dr. Who? That is just the point. Nobody knows precisely who he is…” began Radio Times’s introductory feature in 1963 (see below). It echoed Ian’s dialogue in the second episode: “Who is he? Doctor who? Perhaps if we knew his name we might have an answer to all this.” Fast-forward to the present and that essential question remains unanswered. Who is the Doctor? Do we really know?

The masterstroke right here at the beginning is the casting of William Hartnell, who delivers an entrancing performance as the first Doctor Who. (Yes, we all now know the character should only be referred to as “the Doctor”, but for decades he was credited on screen and in RT as “Dr. Who”.)

At the outset he is many things: elusive, wistful, condescending, reckless, even murderous… Above all, though, he is magical; the star of the show. One thing he decidedly is not is the hero. The protagonists are a chummy science master and an intuitive history teacher. And how wise of Doctor Who’s devisers to seize our attention by showing two educated grown-ups, the instantly likeable Ian and Barbara, stumbling upon the mind-bending concepts at the core of the programme.

Their discovery that a police box is a portal to a massive alien space/time ship still has impact – and has been repeated many times over the decades. Another arresting feature was the avant-garde title sequence, wedded perfectly to Delia Derbyshire’s radiophonic arrangement of Ron Grainer’s theme music. It exudes a throbbing, hissing menace (diluted in later versions).

The scene-setting episode An Unearthly Child (and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched those first mesmerising 25 minutes) draws us inexorably from Coal Hill School to Totter’s Lane junkyard then into the Tardis; while the next three episodes are set in the Stone Age. But though the serial divides into two discrete segments, it was engineered as a single production, and there are subtle links. Music cues are repeated. The mannequin found in the junkyard with its face smashed in acts as a leitmotif, foreshadowing both the staved-in craniums piled up in the Cave of Skulls and the grisly fate awaiting the series’ first villain, Kal. Ian and Barbara’s failure to relate to the savages at the dawn of time mirrors the Doctor’s alien disdain for 1960s London (“I tolerate this century but I don’t enjoy it”).

The dialogue sparkles, even among the surprisingly articulate cave people. Waris Hussein’s evocative, moody direction expertly overcomes the technical limitations of a small studio in Lime Grove. The final chase back to the Tardis (partly filmed at Ealing) is thrilling. (Note: in some close-ups the actors are obviously running on the spot while stagehands whack foliage past their faces.)

The four travellers go through agonies in their first adventure. By the end, clothes are torn, faces are covered in grime and sweat. Never has time travel looked less appealing. Then, in the sanctuary of his “Ship”, the Doctor reveals he has little control over its functions. “I’m not a miracle worker,” he barks. Wherever would they go next?

RT billed Doctor Who throughout the 1960s as “an adventure in space and time”. This was only the beginning.

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Radio Times archive material

Sadly the launch of Doctor Who didn’t merit an RT cover. The new series was heralded the week before it began with a small preview and then with an introductory feature, using the first of many shots taken by RT photographer Don Smith. This photoshoot was not done on set at Lime Grove but in a small photo studio in the basement of TV Centre, using specially mocked-up sets.

Unearthly-preview
Unearthly-feature
D01.eps

The first Radio Times Doctor Who billings

Unearthly billings

Read our exclusive 2013 article looking at director Waris Hussein’s studio floorplan for the making of An Unearthly Child

Waris’s annotated scripts for The Cave of Skulls


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[Available as part of the BBC DVD boxed set Doctor Who: The Beginning]