As we all know Doctor Who started in 1963 with an episode titled An Unearthly Child. This name replaced the original title for the first story (10,000 BC) and it tends to be this opening episode that gets attention rather than the subsequent three-part story.
At some point every Doctor Who blog has to discuss the show’s beginnings. For Red Rocket Rising this is that post.
What I don’ t intend to do is write a review saying ‘it was really great’ or find lots of flaws and say ‘despite this look at what it became’. There is some interest in looking at the direction of travel and comparing it where the show is at the moment. What I am going to do, though, is look at the context in which the show appeared. Once I’ve done that I think I will be better positioned to talk about this single episode.
For the TV viewer in 1963 there were only two channels – BBC and ITV. The story of science fiction is easy to tell – a few literary adaptations in the 1950s, Quatermass from 1953 – 59, Orwell’s 1984 in 1954 and A for Andromeda in 1961 with its sequel The Andromeda Breakthrough in 1962. Some other major shows were emerging such as Z Cars and Steptoe and Son.
Further afield 1960s cinema has a few points of interest: George Pal’s The Time Machine in 1960, The Day the Earth Caught Fire in 1961, Day of the Triffids in 1962 and The Man with the X-Ray Eyes in 1963. In other words enough material to give a common vocabulary to the viewer of the big or small screen but not much more.
I think the radio needs to be considered as well. We should add to the mix Nevil Shute’s On the Beach from 1957 as well as John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids also on the radio in that year. The most identifiable was Charles Chilton’s Journey Into Space which ran over 54 episodes from 1953 – 56. This show reached millions of listeners and was sold to 58 countries.
These then are the cultural currents that Doctor Who was trying to ride as it hit the airwaves in November 1963.
Enter the Unearthly Child
[pullquote]…the show is bigger even than the lead[/pullquote]
So where does that all take us? TV was happy to challenge and to scare; it was also establishing series that would run for what was in effect years and years. Television was still in its infancy and Radio experience showed that shows could run. BBC’s own The Archers ran from 1951 (and is still going) so there was no mind-set that something might only last a year or two. This attitude of why wouldn’t the show go on is what led to the decision to replace Hartnell – the show is bigger even than the lead. The decision decades later to remove the lead character from a show called Blake’s 7 is perhaps less unexpected than it seemed at the time. You just need to take the long view.
We have then a show that needed to set up its basic premise – this we got with a story that has elements of the emerging world of the 1960s, the grandfather and the viewer’s own projection into the story. This is not just a single character but two – one to know history, one science; one a man of action (given Hartnell’s age) and the other a counterpart who was also older than the Child of the title.
Reading the papers on the show’s origins and watching the Mark Gatiss drama An Adventure in Space and Time fills in more of the gaps. As I said when I reviewed that it is actually a surprise that any quality TV ever emerges never mind shows of immense popularity.
The unanswered question is why. Why did the show work? Well did it? In the rear view mirror we see An Unearthly Child in all its quirky scene setting brilliance. I suspect this is the fan joining the dots and we need to recognise that despite the oft overlooked strengths of the next three episodes (which I will review later) the show took off because of the Daleks. They were the catalysts. Yes we needed the cast, the BBC, the production team, producer, director, everything else as Terry Nation didn’t single-handedly make Doctor Who but let’s not kid ourselves the show gained momentum that allowed it to experiment, take some odd turns and eventually end up where it is today.
An Unearthly Child was the first step but there were others.