The collaborative brainchild of BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman, producer Verity Lambert, Head of the Script Department/Head of Serials Donald Wilson, staff writer C.E. Webber, and writer Anthony Coburn, the long running (fifty years and still going) British television series Doctor Who made its broadcast debut on the evening of Saturday, November 23, 1963. The day after the assassination of U.S. president JFK.
Viewers’ first introduction into the world of Doctor Who is presented through the eyes of Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, the science teacher and history teacher, respectively, at the Coal Hill School in then present day London, England.
Both teachers have noticed something odd about one of their shared students, a 15-year-old girl named Susan Foreman. The oddness being that Susan is exceptionally brilliant in those subjects and interactions with her in the classroom can become quite intense. At times she seems to know even more than Ian about science, and she often finds faults in Barbara’s history books. Despite her knowledge in these areas, she sometimes seems to falter when it comes to knowing how things work in her own time and country, like not being aware of how the money system works, mistakenly believing that England is on the decimal system, and then realizing that they’re not on it “yet”. In fact, the United Kingdom wouldn’t decimalise their currency until several years after 1963.
Susan is so proficient in history that Barbara has suggested that she specialize in it, an idea that intrigues the student. Until she learns that Barbara would want to work with her at her own home. Susan lives with her grandfather, and he doesn’t like strangers, despite being a doctor.
Determined to talk to Susan’s grandfather about her education, Barbara looks up their address and goes to visit her student’s home… but at the address listed as Susan’s place of residence, 76 Totter’s Lane, Barbara finds not a home, but the I.M. Foreman scrap yard.
By telling Ian of this, Barbara manages to rope him into staking out the scrap yard with her one night after school, planning on following Susan from there to her real home. But when Susan arrives, she doesn’t go anywhere else, she pushes through the scrap yard gates and walks in among the junk. Their curiosity continuing to get the better of them, Ian and Barbara enter the scrap yard as well. They find no sign of the teenager, but they do spot a slightly out-of-place police call box, something that was common around England at the time but has since become obsolete, a sort of telephone booth but with a phone that connects only to the nearest police station. And this police box seems to be vibrating…
Soon, Susan’s quirky, grumpy doctor grandfather arrives on the scene, and while the teachers initially fear that this odd old man has locked Susan inside the call box for some reason, they soon find out that the true explanation is much stranger.
Susan is the titular unearthly child, she is not of our planet at all. Push through the doors of the vibrating call box and you’ll find its exterior is merely a form that a hi-tech ship called the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space) has taken in order to blend into its surroundings. As the saying goes, it’s (much) bigger on the inside. The Doctor and Susan have used the TARDIS to come to London in 1963 from an unspecified time on an unspecified planet. They’re wanderers, exiled from their home without friends or protection, and the Doctor hopes to get back home one day.
They’ve been in London ’63 for five months, and Susan loved it so that she wanted to experience it completely, which is why she enrolled in Coal Hill despite the Doctor’s belief that it was a silly thing to do. Now her decision has gotten them found out.
Ian and Barbara take the opportunity to barge into the TARDIS… and once they’re on board and have discovered the Doctor and Susan’s secrets, the Doctor is so determined that they not be allowed to leave that, ignoring Susan’s protests, he activates the ship. With the uniquely indescribable sounds that the TARDIS makes, the call box blinks out of existence in 1963 London, leaving it and moving on to another time and another world. And so it begins.
An Unearthly Child is a very interesting way to begin the series. When Sydney Newman and his cohorts starting fitting the puzzle pieces together for the basis of the series – a group that includes an attractive pair of male and female adults (Ian and Barbara), a young kid that often gets into trouble (Susan), and a quirky, grumpy old authority figure (The Doctor) travel through time and space getting in scrapes – the story could have gone in any number of ways. This group could have started out on a specific objective together, all on equal standing, all knowing the ins and outs of their ship and mission. The kid could have been the one to stumble into a situation with an adult group of travellers, a sci-fi Treasure Island sort of thing. But the minds behind Doctor Who found a winning formula by plunging the audience into a world of mystery and mind-blowing wonders along with a pair of overeager teachers who aren’t from a different time or world, they’re average people from the same place and year as those who were watching the show as it first aired. Viewers could relate to Ian and Barbara as they experience their unintentional adventures.
The writers and producers also made the wise decision of keeping the history of Susan and the Doctor vague. By not giving all the answers, they kept the audience intrigued.
An Unearthly Child was filmed twice, having to be reshot due to technical problems, performance issues, and to make tweaks to the characters of Susan and the Doctor.
Susan has apparently gone on to have shaky standing in the continuity, but she’s at the heart of this first story and I quite like the character. The reshoot was used as an opportunity to keep her wardrobe ’63 modern, rather than having her change into a more unusual outfit once she was on the TARDIS, and to eliminate a line of dialogue in which she said she was born in the 49th century. That was too much detail, Newman didn’t want it in there, and it was rightly dropped.
The biggest difference between the two versions of An Unearthly Child comes in the performance of William Hartnell as the Doctor. In the first version, the character goes beyond the description of grumpy and comes off as downright mean, at times even almost chillingly threatening. In the reshot version, the official version, the character is still a grump but comes off as much more playfully unhelpful, he’s got a twinkle in his eye. As upset as he is about the situation his granddaughter has brought about, as condescending as he is toward these primitive Earthlings, he’s still a fun guy to watch. If he wasn’t, the show could not have gone on to be what it is.
It took a couple tries, but in the end An Unearthly Child turned out perfectly, providing a great set-up and gathering together a group of characters worth following on the journey that lies ahead.