I first watched Doctor Who in or around 1977; it was a Tom Baker episode–the Fourth Doctor, teeth and curls, all that. My first introduction to the First Doctor wasn’t until The Five Doctors–and that wasn’t even the real deal, it was Richard Hurndall. The original actor, William Hartnell, died in 1975, shortly after appearing in the Third Doctor’s episode, The Three Doctors.
But there is a brief opening clip to The Five Doctors, an excerpt from a real Hartnell episode, which I instantly fell in love with back in 1983 when The Five Doctors aired. Partly because it was so, well, inscrutable. I memorized it instantly, typed it out on our trusty IBM Selectric typewriter, and read and re-read it to myself, amazed at having just seen a black and white incarnation of my Doctor saying something so mystifying. I think I’ve got it still pretty much verbatim, stored away upstairs. I trotted it out every once in awhile as a kid, to myself, when I needed inscrutable inspiration. It goes like this: “One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, and no anxieties. Just go forward in your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.”
It was never just the words, but it was the decades-long show, the angst over whether it would be continued, the exceptionalism of the character of the Doctor, and the conviction that Hartnell gave those words. All that carried through the decades and combined to make quite an impact on my young mind, an impact far greater than any of the pithy quotes of Star Wars, Star Trek, Buck Rogers, or any of the other numerous sci-fi or fantasy fare I consumed as an adolescent.
I didn’t see Unearthly Child, or any Hartnell episode, until the advent of Netflix instant streaming introduced me to Hartnell and the 2005 resurrection of the show revived my active interest in the show overall. At first viewing, with my kids, I surfed through it, preoccupied with work, letting my kids enjoy it. But scenes stuck in my mind. This was am amazing debut, aired first the day after President Kennedy’s assassination, on November 23, 1963. I ordered it again, and rewatched it with my friend Fredegar. Here’s what struck me:
First, as all the initiated know, the title song by Ron Grainer, and arranged in “electronica” by the fantastic Delia Derbyshire, is for all intents and purposes identical to the title song today, right down to the drumming and droning base beat, and the heroic soaring section that simply lifts the spirits to hear. My young son loves that part, and started singing to the old original just as he does now to Matt Smith’s title sequence. Derbyshire’s arrangement of the Grainer tune is one of the very first all-electronic television themes, and it is pure genius.
A bobby walks to, and away from, the doors of a junkyard in misty London, a junkyard whose doors read “I.M. Foreman, Scrap Merchant, 76, Totter’s Lane.”. The Grainer theme plays as the junkyard doors squeak open by invisible hands and the camera glides through the doors, swinging right to alight on the windows of a (we know to be blue) Police Public Call Box, which seems to be the source of a strange, mid-pitched hum. Our first glimpse of a prop that kids will gleefully adore for the next 60 years and counting.
And cut to the Coal Hill School, where students leave classes in a rush, and we follow a proper and attractive history teacher, Barbara Wright, leaving class and sitting down to commiserate with a fellow teacher, the dashing Colin Firth-like Ian Chesterton, about her terrible day–caused by an overly precocious student, the 15-year old Susan. And so the stage for mystery and curiosity is set: Ian agrees, Susan knows more of science than he’ll ever know, but Susan only lets her knowledge out gradually, to not embarrass him. Ian thinks Susan is a genius, and worries tongue in cheek about having to hand his class over to his student. Barbara, in contrast, wants to give Susan some guidance, has already obtained Susan’s home address–76 Totter’s Lane, which the viewer already knows to be a junkyard–and Barbara herself has now discovered, having visited the address to confront Susan’s grandfather about Susan’s suffering homework. And so Ian, with Barbara the proxies for the audience and the only characters we’ve had any extended interaction with, is drawn into the mystery. Who is the genius girl that lives in a junkyard?
Cut to the history classroom, where we first see Susan, the genius. Commentators make much of this scene: Susan, a pixie-like short-haired brunette, angular and attractive, if odd looking, dancing to 60s music, holding a radio to her ear. Ian and Barbara enter, we learn that Susan insists on reading and returning the voluminous book on the French Revolution Barbara lends her the next day: she needs no longer. Susan declines a ride home, Ian and Barbara leave, and Susan opens the book, eyes alighting with concern on some statement of fact about the Revolution exclaiming “that’s not right!”. Another mystery.
The teachers drive through the night fog and park across from the junkyard, waiting for Susan to arrive home. Ian insists the mysteries will have a simple explanation; Barbara disagrees, noting that Susan doesn’t even know how many shillings are in a pound. A third mystery. A flashback to students laughing at Susan, who shrugs off her mistake at thinking Britain had moved to a decimal system: “of course it doesn’t… It hasn’t started yet.”. Susan arrives and walks through the junkyard doors. The teachers follow her into the junkyard.
At first we see everything but the Police Box. Two mannequins. Mysterious music. Then the Police Box in the background as the two search the junkyard for Susan. And they see the Box, touch it–notice it is humming. Why is it here, instead of on the street where the public can use it to summon the police? The sound–the vibration–Ian exclaims, “it’s alive!”. And then coughing, someone is coming. They hide.
An old man, with a black Karzai hat and flowing white hair, a pale scarf and a dark coat, arch looking, enters the yard and starts to open the Police Box. Susan’s voice comes from nowhere: “There you are, grandfather!”. Ian makes his move and approaches the old man, says he’s looking for a girl, Susan Foreman. (The old man is holding a silver device–some think this is the first appearance of the famed Sonic Screwdriver.). The old man denies any knowledge defensively, distracting himself with an old painting that he’d never noticed before. Ian insists on looking inside the Police Box: the girl’s voice had to come from somewhere, and she’d totally disappeared.
But before the Doctor can turn their attention, Susan again calls from the Police Box. Ian and Barbara push themselves in, and are confronted by the blinding white and constant hum of, well, the bigger-on-the-inside TARDIS. Susan quite calm and comfortable. Hexagonal console and–as seen again now finally in the Eleventh Doctor’s TARDIS–the hanging concentric metallic circles on the ceiling. The roundels on the white walls. And the coatrack, and a few other sparse furnishings, including a fascinating metal clock. At the Doctor’s command, Susan operates a control on the console and closes the doors. Susan tells the teachers she indeed lives in this strange Police Box, which is bigger on the inside.
Three times in this sequence the Doctor looks straight at the camera and talks to us, the viewer, while ostensibly talking to Ian or Barbara: first, telling us that he’s not hindering us finding Susan–”if you … want to make fools of yourselves I suggest you do what you said you’d do–go and find a policeman”–muttering “insulting” after that line: second, once inside the TARDIS and in response to Ian and Barbara’s confusion, telling us “you don’t understand, so you find excuses”; third, “the point is not whether you understand, what is going to happen to you, hmmm?”
And then we learn: Susan and this Doctor are cut off from their own planet, exiles, but “one day, we shall get back.”. But the Doctor determines that Ian and Barbara now too must be exiles from their planet. They barged into the TARDIS, but now cannot leave–they will tell others about the Doctor and his ship. Even Susan refuses to help Ian and Barbara now. And so the Doctor operates some controls, the center column rises and falls, and we see London shrinking as this TARDIS falls through the wavy white feedback loop we saw first in the show’s title sequence.
In sum, the first episode of Unearthly Child is a triumph of acting, pacing, cunning camera angles, and story. And it gains richness with repeated watchings. I would be surprised if any of you could watch and not be amazed at what the BBC accomplished back in 1963 in the very first episode of Who.
And what’s more, the three quotes from Hartnell said directly to us have some bearing as we delve ever deeper into the mind of Steven Moffatt, director of the Eleventh Doctor (and writer of several RTD-era stories), and Moffat’s Grand Plan for Who. I’m mystified by that plan. Some dislike it. Many are thrilled. But what keeps all of us coming back for more in some sense relates to those three questions. If we don’t like it, we can stop watching, change the channel–abandon the mystery. If we don’t understand, well, we can explain it to ourselves however we want to–and we do. Witness the explosion of interest and talk in all things Who over the last half-decade. Finally, we come back because we want to find out what happens to our Doctor, and the characters we care about. And as Hartnell says the second half of the third one, he turns right back to Ian. Because after all, that’s what this is all about: the characters.
Thanks, William Hartnell. For all the line flubs to come, you were a fine, fine actor. Small wonder the show has lasted this long, after having you as its first leading man.