With actress Jodie Whittaker now established as the “Thirteenth Doctor”, and the character’s first ‘regeneration’ in female form, today we look back to the very beginnings of the iconic role.
Fifty-five years ago tonight, on November 23rd, 1963, viewers settled down in front of their grainy black and white television sets to watch “An Unearthly Child”, the first episode of a new BBC drama. Without the benefit of a time machine they could not have known they were witnessing the birth of the world’s longest running sci-fi drama, “Doctor Who”.
Many of those viewers were still stunned by the previous day’s assassination of American President John F. Kennedy. The chance to escape briefly into a fantasy world must have seemed an appealing prospect! The episode they tuned into was the first of a four-part weekly serial which introduced the mysterious time-travelling character of “The Doctor”. He was very different from later incarnations, portrayed by accomplished actor William Hartnell as a cranky, hostile and suspicious old man, who appears to be on the run.
Hartnell would play The Doctor until 1966 as the series grew in popularity, especially with younger viewers. He eventually left due to failing health and fallouts with a new production team, prompting the expedient notion that The Doctor, as an alien, would be able to regenerate in a new body. That premise has served the series well over the five decades since, with a succession of actors giving The Doctor not only a new appearance, but also different character traits and eccentricities.
So what did viewers get in that first ever episode of Doctor Who? One answer would be wobbly sets, malfunctioning props and quite a few fluffed lines! The original version of the opening episode was recorded at Lime Grove Studios on the evening of September 27th, 1963, following a week of rehearsals. It was recorded on videotape almost as a continuous performance, like a live play, but was so full of gaffs and unreliable props that it had to be scrapped.
It was re-shot on October 18th, following more rehearsals and changes to the set, but the format of recording ‘live’ onto video meant there was little scope for re-takes, so several mistakes are still evident in the episode screened on Doctor Who’s opening night.
Scripted by Australian writer Anthony Coburn, the plot focuses on, Susan Foreman, a precocious young pupil at Coal Hill School, who displays great knowledge of history and science, but has strange gaps in her understanding of the world. This worries two of her teachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, who go to her home at 76 Totters Lane, London, to see if they can find out more.
They discover it to be a scrapyard, with the name of proprietor ‘I.M. Foreman’ painted on the gate. It later transpires Susan has taken this name as an alias. Once inside, they find a police box, a common sight on London’s streets at that time, and hear Susan’s voice inside. But when a strange old man appears he denies there is anyone inside, telling the teachers they are mistaken and should leave.
Undeterred, they challenge him to open the police box, believing he has locked Susan inside. Suddenly the door opens on its own and the teachers rush in, where they are amazed to find it much bigger on the inside than the outside, and full of strange futuristic machinery.
Confronted by her teachers, Susan explains that she is from another planet and travels through time and space with the old man, who is her grandfather and known as The Doctor. The police box is actually a ‘TARDIS’, an acronym for ‘Time and Relative Dimension in Space’.
When one of the teachers makes a natural assumption and addresses the old man as “Doctor Foreman”, he replies: “Doctor who? What’s he talking about?”
Fearing the teachers will give away their secret, The Doctor sets the TARDIS in flight, though he has no idea where, or when in time, it will end up. It becomes apparent that he had stolen it when he and Susan fled from their home planet, although it isn’t explained why they fled. When the TARDIS comes to rest and its door is opened, the four find themselves in the Stone Age, confronted by a savage tribe, setting the scene for the remaining three episodes in the series.
Despite its wobbly sets and production flaws, the first episode of this imaginative new drama was well-received by its audience. Around 4.4 million viewers tuned in and that figure rose to six million when it was repeated a week later, preceding the second episode.
Several critics, however, were less impressed, suggesting the dialogue was laboured, the plot predictable and the sets and costumes – especially those of club-wielding cavemen – were ludicrous. This apparently led the BBC to consider cancelling Doctor Who early on, until the Daleks appeared in the second serial (screened from December 1963) and instantly made the show a huge hit.
The rest, as they say, is history… or is it the future? It all depends which way you point the TARDIS.