Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/11/21/doctor_who_according_to_grandad/

Doctor Who Episode One: Through a glass. Darkly

A franchise saved by a lack of anything else on TV

By John Lettice

Posted in Vintage, 21st November 2013 15:00 GMT

Doctor Who @ 50 Today, the world of 1963 seems extraordinarily remote - and narrow. The “Beatles” name was still a jarring pun, and Telstar live transatlantic TV was just a little over a year old. I remember seeing JFK via Telstar when it kicked off, and then again that November in Dallas in 1963. There were no supermarkets, no plastic bags, and nobody calling social services when this eight-year-old was sent to pick up 20 Kensitas for his mother from the grocer across the street.

The first Doctor Who story - now generally known as An Unearthly Child, though that was only the title of the first episode - holds up pretty well today, but it seems to me that the viewer now is likely to miss a lot of context. Much of the detail is all too divorced from the world we live in, whereas in 1963, this was the world we lived in.

Doctor Who: An Unearthly ChildSource: BBC

So, football results finished that Saturday evening - Hamilton Academicals one, Foarfoar, fouar - cue mist and beat policeman checking the gate to a junk yard. And creepy music that really was creepy and entirely unfamiliar in 1963. The audience of the time, having seen The Blue Lamp and its long-running spin-off Dixon of Dock Green was familiar with this kind of opening.

Typically, something bad is about to happen to our brave copper, out there at the criminal fringes of society. And back then pretty much all of us really did think our policemen were wonderful. PC George Dixon gets it in The Blue Lamp, and we all already know that there’s something more sinister than Steptoe and Son in that yard in Totter’s Lane. So look out, copper. But then...

The camera moves slowly in on a police box, creepy music stops, cut to next scene, a school. That’s actually quite clever, and risky, because a police box in a junk yard is out of context both to the 1960s audience and the beat copper - albeit in a different way than it is to today’s audience. Many people still didn’t have landline phones, beat policemen didn’t have radios and police boxes were a familiar sight on city streets, operating as a kind of mini police station, complete with phone line.

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

Cue... Mary Quant-style dolly-bird: Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford)
Source: BBC

So if you think about it for even a couple of seconds, you - and the copper - are going to wonder what the blazes a police box is doing in a junk yard. As do teachers Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton later in the episode. And if you think about it for a couple more seconds, you’re going to realise that the Tardis’ police box disguise is a singularly counter-productive piece of camouflage. What, a beat copper isn’t going to wonder what’s going on when a new police box appears on his streets? Even before he considers they were often made out of concrete and bolted to the street?

You’re not going to get one of those onto the back of Steptoe’s cart in a hurry. But the incongruity is left hanging, we never see the copper again or find out what, if anything, he did about it, and we’re left with an uneasiness about something in the yard. Risky, but scriptwriter Anthony Coburn got away with it - or at least he did as far as I was concerned.

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

Bash Street’s finest: teachers Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian Chesterton (William Russell)
Source: BBC

Next, it’s over to the school, to two teachers concerned about a strange pupil, Susan Foreman, and to Susan herself. The teachers seem strangely posh by today’s standards, but in the 1960s teachers were a bit posh, respected members of the community would you believe, and practically everybody on the BBC was a bit posh too. Yes, Z Cars had started broadcasting the previous year, but it was going to be a long march still to gritty realism.

Susan herself is alien in more than one way. Yes, she’s from another planet in the 49th Century and knows far more about science and history than her teachers ever will, but she’s also that closer-to-home alien, the Mary Quant dolly-bird (which you could say in those days) teenager listening to parent-baffling music on her tranny - a word you could also say in those days, because it meant something different.

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

It’s bigger on the inside
Source: BBC

Fortunately - or possibly wisely - this first glimpse of Susan is all the writer and director are going to let us see of this potentially rebellious teen. You can possibly glimpse the ghost of a toe-curlingly bad portrayal of youth culture in those few seconds, but Susan will turn out to be a sensible young lady, protective of her grandfather, her teachers and - in later episodes - the human race.

England swings like the pendulum do

As it happens, Susan won’t be getting the chance to immerse herself in full-on Swinging London rebellion anyway, because it’s her last day on Earth - at least for 1963, at least for the moment. She’ll miss the first singles from the Kinks and the other Who (1964, both), but in a future episode she’ll return to a Dalek-devastated Britain that looks rather in keeping with the sleeve art of Who’s Next and/or an alternative version of the dying years of the Callaghan government. So the poor girl’s going to pretty much miss the 1960s.

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

“It doesn’t roll around on wheels, you know”
Source: BBC

But I get ahead of myself, because before that can happen Barbara and Chesterton (Ian is seldom used) stalk Susan to the junk yard, possibly with a view to reporting her and her mysterious “grandfather” to social services. Except that I see that social services departments as we know them today didn’t really start to take shape until the tail end of the 1960s. But they were definitely going to interfere, anyway. The two teachers push their way into the Tardis and we finally meet the Doctor, who at this stage in his career is in no sense the implacable opponent of emotionless galactic fascists that he’d become.

Would it be a step too far to suggest that William Hartnell’s Doctor of stories one and two would have gone with Chamberlain and the appeasers in the 1930s? Yes, it probably would, but he’s certainly a grumpy, selfish and devious old man devoid of concern for the human race, or (story two) the post-conflict-turned-peacenik Thals, who the Doctor tricks into entering the Dalek’s city. Early Hartnell Who has the seeds of a more complex and interesting character than the Doctor would become, which is possibly a pity.

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

Yes, the Doctor (William Hartnell) did start out as a miserable old git
Source: BBC

But, faced with the possibility of his own life and the space-time continuum being disrupted by these two teachers who know too much, he throws the switches, and off we go to the first of what will be a long series of disused quarries. So begins the franchise.

Unsteadily, though. Until I watched the DVD a month or so back, I’d entirely blanked the next three episodes of story one from my memory, and somehow managed to stick the first episode of story two onto it instead. I suppose I must have watched the whole of story one - nothing else on on a Saturday evening, and everything’s closed - but if I can remember anything at all it’s that it really wasn’t very good.

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

Cavefolk, 1963-style
Source: BBC

And the reviews (here, here and here) seem to bear this out - of a strong first episode and weak following three that comprised the first story.

An Unearthly Child was, after all, a story of one and three quarters: the first episode introducing the Doctor and the following three spinning off on that adventure. Only we went from 1963 AD to 100,000 BC, with cave men and primitive society. This was pre Gary Larson and pre Monty Python, of course, but nevertheless comedy cavemen were still widely viewed as rubbish.

So joining together a relatively decent first episode from an An Unearthly Child and a cliffhanger in the following story (The Daleks) where Barbara is apprehended by her first Dalek (in the episode Dead Planet) makes sense and is what I think history has done. First time around the Daleks are a bit rubbish too, a surprising pushover for an outfit that’ll shortly be hell-bent on galactic domination, but at least they’re not wearing stupid furs. And at least they’re not as bad as those pathetic Thal weeds.

Doctor Who: The Daleks

Plungers into kids’ imaginations: the Daleks
Source: BBC

Viewing tips

The DVD seemed to me to be a whole lot less atmospheric than I remembered episode one as being. But of course - in 1963 we were watching a dodgy signal on very dodgy equipment, and a kind of moody foggy drizzle came as standard. So if you want the full-on experience, I suggest you watch one of the grottier versions of episode one that you can find on YouTube. Episodes two to four I suggest you don’t watch at all, and while story two is fairly lame even though it introduces the Daleks in two episodes, you might want to watch that because it’s where it all started, and what actually saved the franchise - which is a word we didn’t use in 1963.

If you really want to see the Daleks at the height of their powers, however, you should get hold of a copy of The Power of the Daleks, Patrick Troughton’s first outing and probably my absolute favourite. But wait, you can’t, because the BBC wiped it and it no longer exists. Ha. ®