This is a new feature looking back at the pilot stories of successful series and exploring their evolution. I’m kicking off with the show which is celebrating its 50th birthday today, Doctor Who, and its first ever story, An Unearthly Child.
First aired: 23rd November 1963.
Teachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) are puzzled by one of their students, 15-year-old Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford), who is a genius in some areas and surprisingly ignorant in others. They follow her to her registered address, a junkyard, where they encounter her cantankerous, obstructive grandfather – William Hartnell‘s First Doctor – and stumble into the TARDIS, a ship disguised as a battered 1950s police call box which is capable of travelling in both space and time.
Annoyed by Ian and Barbara’s intrusion and the fear of being exposed to the authorities, the Doctor whisks them from 1960s London to the Stone Age. While collecting samples for analysis, the Doctor is captured by an in-fighting Stone Age society who have lost the ability to make fire.
He is found by the others, but all four are taken prisoner and thrown into a cave filled with skulls. They escape but are soon recaptured. Ian starts a fire to gain the tribe’s respect and a diversion of burning skulls provides enough of a distraction for the crew to get back to the TARDIS and rematerialise in a radiation-filled petrified forest (which leads into the series’ second story, The Daleks).
Other than the TARDIS, viewers who have only seen Doctor Who since its return in 2005 could be forgiven for thinking the current series shares little more than its title with this introductory four-part serial. The first episode sets up the series premise and throws the TARDIS crew together, while the other three constitute a fairly basic chase-capture-chase scenario.
The Doctor here is almost unrecognisable from the swashbuckling, wise-cracking genius hero of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith. Indeed, he is a distinctly unlikeable anti-hero. Irascible, arrogant and intolerant, the Doctor’s original characterisation is that of a frail old man – he is played much older than Hartnell’s then age of 55 – who you wouldn’t trust with a mobility scooter, let alone a malfunctioning Type 40 time travel capsule.
Many of the Doctor’s other character traits also seem at odds with his subsequent incarnations. Although of a scientific bent, there is none of the quick-witted intelligence and knowledge that later versions would develop. And his disdain for humanity is all too apparent, although this attitude would gradually soften during Hartnell’s three-year tenure.
In An Unearthly Child it is Ian who adopts more of the traditional heroic role. He is the scientific sceptic to history teacher Barbara, who is more inclined to believe the Doctor’s explanations at face value, but it also he who ultimately makes fire and serves throughout as the natural leader and protector of the group. Meanwhile the Doctor himself is virtually reduced to the role of spectator throughout the adventure.
Much of the Doctor’s subsequent mythology remains a blank canvas at this point, with his mysterious background unfolding slowly (and in some cases being rewritten) over the next decade. In the pilot, the Doctor and Susan were originally intended to explain their origin as merely the 49th century – this was replaced pre-transmission by dialogue stating that they are from “another time, another world”. It is not for several years that we discover that the Doctor is able to regenerate – a decision forced by Hartnell’s ill-health – has two hearts and hails from Gallifrey. And the sonic screwdriver would not make its first appearance until Patrick Troughton‘s era.
However, some of the series’ fundamentals are set in stone here. It is established that the TARDIS – which Susan helpfully spells out as standing for Time and Relative Dimension in Space – is a time machine which is larger on the inside than it is on the outside. We are told that the Doctor and Susan are essentially fugitives from their own kind. And the TARDIS’ chameleon circuit fails, leaving the ship locked in its iconic ‘blue box’ configuration.
Each subsequent actor to play the Doctor has added a new layer to the character, often reflecting contemporary trends. Troughton’s Second Doctor is most commonly described as a “cosmic hobo” but also brought a more physical dimension (i.e. he ran up and down corridors a lot) and a large dose of humour. Jon Pertwee‘s dandy Third Doctor was an expert in Venusian aikido who was often found driving, riding or flying various futuristic contraptions – reflecting the popularity of James Bond. Colin Baker‘s mid-1980s Sixth Doctor boasted a garish multi-coloured coat not entirely out of keeping with the fashions of the time. And so on.
The Sixth Doctor’s first full year (1985) also saw the series experiment with the now familiar 45-minute episode format (rather than 25) for the first time.
However, it was the series’ 2005 return which saw the most dramatic shifts in terms of both character and format, with the Eccleston/Tennant/Smith stories markedly different in style and action to any of their predecessors. In one respect, though, the modern series is closer to An Unearthly Child in that it generally puts the Doctor’s companions more to the fore of the story. In the show’s middle years, companions often (though not always) played a more functional role, serving as the audience’s entry point into the Doctor’s adventures, frequently getting captured and otherwise being there to facilitate exposition by asking the Doctor the questions necessary to move the plot forward.
Nonetheless, this first Doctor Who story feels very out of kilter when set against, say, Eccleston’s debut appearance in Rose. But if you look hard enough, the modern series we have grown accustomed to is there to see.
Happy birthday, Doctor.