Last week, my favorite television series of all time celebrated its 49th birthday. To celebrate, I popped in the DVD release of the first episode of Doctor Who that ever aired back on November 23, 1963. But instead of stopping with the original episode, I found myself in the mood to sit down and watch not only the entire four-part serial that kicked off 49 years of travels through time and space, but also in the mood to re-visit the classic series and the era of the first Doctor again. So, from time to time as we count down to the 50th anniversary of the greatest show ever made, I’m going to look back on Doctor Who and post some thoughts on the stories I take in. They may all be from one era or I may skip around. All I know is I’m looking forward to re-discovering this classic television series as the celebration of 50 years kicks into high gear.
Whenever I watch or re-watch the first episode of Doctor Who, I try to cast my mind back and wonder what it must have been like to tune in to that very first episode on the twenty-third of November back in 1963. I often wonder if I would have been hooked right away or if I might have dropped in and out on the first few installments before embracing the show as much of the British public did a few weeks later when a certain pepper-pot shaped monster arrived on the scene.
Watching “An Unearthly Child,” I think I would have been hooked right away — though the three episodes that follow the first episode might have tried my patience.
When I first started watching Doctor Who many, many years ago, I had little or no idea that that I was getting to view the most complete, syndicated run of the show in 20 plus years. I recall that I’d picked up Terrance Dicks’ Target adaptation of the story and struggled to get through it past the fourth chapter, so while part of me was excited to see the first episodes of Doctor Who, part of me was also hesitant because a)they weren’t in color and b)I was really into the Tom Baker stories at the time and would gladly more of his era of the show. So, at the time I didn’t necessarily appreciate the William Hartnell era as much as I would later in my fandom. I’ll be honest and say that I found some of the stories a bit on the dull side (I was 13, maybe 14 so cut me some slack here!).
It’s this reason that I’m always hesitant to recommend new fans jump right into the Hartnell stories. Yes, we have a solid run of the first 13 episodes of the show (the first three serials), but they’re a bit of an acquired taste. It’s not that they’re terrible, bad — they’re just different.
And no where is this more true that “Child.” The first episode we see is actually the second filmed pilot for the show. Overall, the story is pretty much the same — two school teachers follow a mysterious student home, stumble across a time/space machine in a junk yard and are whisked off through time. But there are some beats that are played out a bit differently. Having seen both versions of the story multiple times, I think that the second version with its tweak works better. Most of the beats that are changed are to make Susan a bit less alien and identifiable with audiences. The second version is also a bit more mysterious about the Doctor and Susan’s origins.
It’s also interesting that while the show is called Doctor Who, the Doctor himself is very much the anti-hero and as much an antagonists to the two kidnapped school teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright as the cave men they encounter in the final three episodes of the serial. The Doctor is gruff, rough around the edges and clearly used to getting his own way.
As solid as the first episode (both versions) at setting up the premise and our four leads, its once the TARDIS goes back in time for the first time that things go a bit awry. The first episode shows exactly how good Hartnell era Who can be. The next three establish a lot of the era and the classic series era cliches. Namely, the crew is separated from the ship and there is a whole lot of running around — in this case it’s through a primitive jungle, but later it will become corridors. Lots and lots of corridors.
Heading back in time, the TARDIS crew is caught up the politics of an ancient tribe and the debate over fire. Two alpha males — Za and Kal — are locked in a battle for leadership based on who can produce fire first. Kal is an outsider who has joined the tribe and threatens Za’s position of leadership. When Kal sees the Doctor light his pipe with a match, he takes the Doctor prisoner, hoping the Doctor will reveal the secret of fire to him. This leads to much of the second, third and fourth installment revolving around the TARDIS crew being locked up in a cave full of skulls and then escaping and then getting locked up again and escaping.
Of course, in all of that, there’s some character building for the TARDIS crew. It’s clear early on that Ian Chesterton is the hero of the show. It’s Ian and Barbara who throw away their chance to escape the cavemen when Za is mauled by a tiger in the forest to help heal him. There’s a scene that creates a lot of debate among fans here when the Doctor picks up a rock and it’s implied he will kill Za so they can escape back to the TARDIS with only Ian standing in his way. The dynamic of the TARDIS crew is an interesting one here — and will be for the first 13 or so episodes as the series figures out the group dynamic. It’s these scenes and the acting done by all the regulars that keep the interest over these three installments — because honestly the cavemen scenes start to grow old quickly.
Recalling the Terrance Dicks adaptation of the story, I remember that Dicks gave a bit more background to Kal’s journey to the tribe and that his tease out of the story and into the next one was well done. Dicks pointed out that waiting outside the TARDIS is a mysterious alien world inhabited by the Daleks and that after that, the Doctor’s adventures would never be the same. I’m not doing justice to how well Dicks worded this — or maybe my memory is cheating a bit on it. But he was right — the series and television would never quite be the same again.
But more on that when we get to the next serial….