Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Doctor Who Debuts: An Unearthly Child By @theplanetharris

Doctor Who Debuts
An Unearthly Child
By Steven Harris
            Those who were perhaps a little too young to remember where they were the day that President John F. Kennedy was shot might well recall exactly where they were the following evening. British folks, anyway. For it was the very next day after Kennedy’s assassination that Doctor Who was first screened by the BBC. In its 50th anniversary year I thought the opening episode of this most beloved of television stalwarts warranted another viewing.

            Perhaps fittingly for a programme which has become internationally acclaimed, An Unearthly Child had a multinational feel right from the off, having been written by Anthony Coburn, an Australian screenwriter who would later produce Poldark, and directed by Waris Hussein, an Indian film and television director whose later work included Edward & Mrs Simpson for Thames Television and the movie Henry VIII and his Six Wives.

            That Doctor Who  was commissioned at all boggles the mind from the perspective of fifty years on. The swirling visual effects and strange, ethereal theme music alone must have stood out garishly from whatever bookended the show in the schedule.

As if knowing the alien title sequence might have audiences at home beginning to wonder what was on ITV (the only other available channel back in those days) the first scene offers the comfortingly familiar sight of a British police constable doing his rounds in a typical London fog. Very Dixon of Dock Green. The policeman’s torch faintly illuminates the lettering across double gates which allow the viewer to discover that we are outside of I.M. Foreman’s yard, 76 Totter’s Lane. (Anorak fact: when the 7th Doctor returns to this yard for a dust-up with his greatest nemesis in Remembrance of the Daleks the gates misspell the yard’s owner as I.M. Forman despite this return being at the same time as the 1st Doctor’s presence in the area).

Further grounding the show in familiar settings before throwing wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff at the viewer, the next scene is a school interior. Here we meet teachers Barbara and Ian for the first time as they discuss the unearthly child of the title – Susan. They are mystified by her apparent genius-like tendencies in some aspects yet her utter ignorance in other respects. As if to emphasise her weirdness, the first shot of Susan herself is of her alone in a classroom, listening to a transistor radio and swaying about in a most unusual manner, her face impassive.

In a move that would be considered stalking and possibly a sackable offence these days but which was merely a display of patrician concern in the early 60s, the two teachers decide to follow Susan to the strange location she has given as her address – the aforementioned Totter’s Lane. They arrive ahead of her having driven while she, odd little thing, has opted to walk through the dark evening because it’s “mysterious”. The pair discuss their problem pupil a little more before concluding that there are “Too many questions and not enough answers.” This statement might very well underpin the programme’s working philosophy in 2013 with current show-runner Steven Moffat throwing up all manner of questions and riddles, not all of which he deigns to provide answers to over the course of a season.

Ian and Barbara watch Susan enter the yard but cannot see her when they follow. They do, however, discover a police box standing incongruously amidst piles of junk and bric-a-brac, the likes of which would have Old Man Steptoe rubbing his hands with glee and calculating profits. Ian touches the box and finds that the thing is vibrating. “It’s alive!” he exclaims, as if suddenly transported into a Frankenstein movie from the early days of talking pictures.

How many people have subsequently done what Ian Chesterton does next? He walks all the way round the police box, ostensibly checking to see if the vibration is caused by it being connected to a power source somewhere but in reality it is a now-familiar ploy to build up the confusion of later entering the police box and discovering that dimensional sense has gone out to lunch.

Enter a crazy-looking old man in a hat that appears to have been stolen from Nikita Krushchev, the Soviet leader in 1963. He is also wearing a scarf, thus poking Tom Baker fans in the eye for believing that the 4th Doctor brought such dangly accessories into Time Lord folklore. This white-haired and clearly irascible man evades the questions he is asked by Susan’s teachers until Barbara dejectedly wonders “Why won’t you helps us?” This is not the Doctor as we know him now. Hartnell’s incarnation, although softening with time, was always prone to selfishness, irritability, obfuscation, and an apparent prime directive to serve himself rather than to help others. The arrogance of the Doctor was laid down as a marker right from the off, then. Given that for a while there are few redeeming features in his character I am once again surprised that the show ever got beyond the pilot episode.

So far, so Play for Today, in many respects. The old man may be grumpy, the young girl might seem kooky but the dialogue and the setting are thus far rooted in fairly gritty, early sixties domestic dramas. And then the two teachers enter the police box and discover just how alien the old man and his granddaughter actually are.

“But it was just a telephone box! I walked all round it! ” squeals Ian while Barbara refuses to accept the evidence of her eyes and decides it is all an illusion. Susan’s explanation that the ‘Tardis’[1]does not help to clarify anything. Ian speaks for the sceptical viewer when he declares that it is ridiculous to imagine that this box can move anywhere in time and space.

Cue a maniacal glint in the eye from the Doctor, accompanied by some sinister
giggling on his part as he fiddles with the controls and sets the Tardis off into the time vortex (not that it was referred to as such in those days). Those inside the box stagger obediently backwards and forwards in a lurching manner while the cameramen jiggle their apparatuses and, best of all, we hear the noise of the Tardis for the first time. No matter that I know that it is the sound of piano wires being scraped, slowed down and phased, I still love this noise. No matter that River Song now claims that the Tardis only makes that noise because the Doctor forgets to take the brakes off, I still LOVE this noise.

While everything is going all spacy the special effects department tie in the spiral imagery from the opening credits to show that the Tardis is moving through time and space. The effect plays across the features of the quartet within the box. We are then given a brief exterior shot of a desert scene before an interior shot shows the teachers unconscious, the Doctor looking slightly shaken and Susan all floppy on the floor. Another exterior shot in quick succession now reveals the police box within the desert scene and the looming shadow of someone, or something, approaching.

At which point the credits roll. What must it have felt like to audiences almost fifty years ago as the cast list scrolled up across the screen? What would they have made of the preceding twenty-odd minutes of unique and possibly perplexing drama? The audience share on that November evening in 1963  was 4.4 million viewers, almost half what the programme averages today despite the proliferation of channels in the intervening years. Fewer people owned television sets, of course, and the viewing figures rose as the serial continued over the next three weeks. Could those viewers or even the cast and crew have suspected that Doctor Who would be a global phenomenon in 2013, though? Maybe they could once the second cycle of stories, featuring the debut of the Daleks, began to cement the programme into the consciousness of kids and their parents. Certainly the clamour for toys and merchandise relating to the show was akin to another enduring 60s phenomenon: Beatlemania.

In hindsight Doctor Who’s opening episode was a somewhat humble beginning for such a ground-breaking and iconic show. The kernel of why it has lasted and lasted was already there, however. The ability to travel anywhere in time and space allowed each set of stories to be independent of one another whilst continuing along a broader story arc. In the early days there were historical adventures, alien adventures, Western adventures as well as familiar sights such as that junk yard or the school classrooms of An Unearthly Child. Over the past year Steven Moffat has brought us an historical adventure (the 2012 Christmas special), alien adventures (Asylum of the Daleks, The Power of Three) a Western adventure (A Town Called Mercy) and plenty of domestic, Pond-life familiarity along the way. Families can still watch together, just as they did fifty years ago. The Doctor, while much more altruistic in pretty much every incarnation since Hartnell, continues to show flashes of arrogance and grumpiness amidst his heroism and charm. Plus a change?
Going back to the notion of too many questions and not enough answers, is Moffat really going to give the game away and finally reveal the answer to that most fundamental question: Doctor who?

[1] altogether now, Time and Relative Dimension in Space – she says she made the name up but later continuity alters this detail and all Gallifreyan travel machines are known as Tardises.

No comments:

Post a Comment