Memory Cheats: An Unearthly Child

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Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 16/02/2013 - 7:27pm in

I admit it: I'm not really a 60's Doctor Who afficianado. Although the ABC repeated the series pretty relentlessly throughout my childhood, they were loathe to repeat any black and white shows, and by the time they did show some monochrome Who in the mid-eighties, there were very few complete stories from the 60's surviving. So my Doctor Who really started in 1970 with Jon Pertwee - on telly at least. The novelisations of the 60's stories are for the most part my only experience of them, and it's actually a very suitable medium. Most of these were produced either early in the Target Books run, when the writer of the screenplay was often the only person willing to novelise it (it wasn't a lucrative gig, by all accounts), or late in the series, when Target had a conscious policy of chasing down the original writers, so the novelisations generally turned out truer to the creators' vision than the TV show could manage.

You don't have to watch the whole of An Unearthly Child, as it's really two stories in one, and the second of these is frankly pretty tedious. Until 1966 (and from 2005) each Doctor Who episode had it's own title, and "An Unearthly Child" is the title of episode one of this set. All four episodes often used to be referred to collectively as "An Unearthly Child / The Tribe of Gum". The last three episodes, barring the interactions between the nascent TARDIS crew, are decidedly thin.

I suppose that, as with Rose in 2005, when you're introducing a new audience to a show, you don't want to doubly burden them with a particularly dense story. But as a consequence, I've had no particular desire to rewatch Rose, or the last three episodes on An Unearthly Child, since my first viewing. In fairness, two decades before home video, and when the idea of a broadcaster repeating a program for any reason other than desperation probably seemed ludicrous, lack of re-watchability probably wasn't something that the Doctor Who production team were worried about.

The first episode is not just good Doctor Who, it's good television, and still pretty compelling fifty years on. It's hard to believe it was a totally studio-bound production with a punishing schedule and a shoestring budget, at least until you hit the occasional pregnant pause while an actor finds the next line. No time for re-takes. From the start Doctor Who was recorded on video tape prior to broadcast, but in the early days pretty much as-live, with minimal editing.

William Hartnell is the Doctor, but not as we come to know him in later years. He is superbly sinister and brazenly ruthless in his determination to protect himself and his granddaughter in a hostile universe that he regards far from benignly in these early days of his flight from his as-yet unnamed home. It's hardly fair to judge the performance of Carole Ann Ford as Susan, who is given the most she'll ever get to work with in this story, and it's still not much. Nobody could blame her for handing in her notice within a year.

The real surprise to anybody who's only read the novelisations is William Russell and Jaqueline Hill as schoolteachers Ian and Barbara, who in this and in subsequent stories excel as quintessentially rational 20th-century humans (a science and a history teacher, no less) coming to terms with a universe suddenly much richer - if not larger - than they previously thought.  It's odd that in later years male companions were very much the exception to the rule; here the interplay between Thoroughly Decent Chap Ian and a selfish, scheming Doctor are a delight. The contrast between Russell's thoroughly modern, naturalistic performance and Harnell's shall we say more theatrical and mannered acting technique fortunately works to the story's advantage here.

The first episode is unmissable; the subsequent three episodes of running around with/from cavemen eminently missable.