With the self-aware cruelty that comes from being an adult, I once forced my four god-children to watch this episode. Not the story that we now call An Unearthly Child (and that a few pedants call 100,000BC even though that is about as historically accurate as ‘Silurian’. Or ‘Eocene’). God, no. But the first episode of the ongoing serial Doctor Who. I knew it was good. I knew, that despite every assumption, William Hartnell episodes can convert any child. My parents had forced me to watch an old black-and-white television show one Friday evening in 1992. I can remember protesting against doing so. At the end of a creaky Doctor Bill episode, I turned to my parents and said I loved it.
Five or so years later, my god-children still ask me if they can watch the rest of this story.
No matter how advanced our computers get, nothing has quite beaten the experience of watching what happens when a camera films its own monitor. The swirling, flittering streaks across the screen show how were about to watch something that is both real and unreal. The theme tune, instantly hummable and simultaneously completely impossible to replicate, is a haunting clash of styles. The bass shows tells us of a show that will repeat its best tricks again and again, whilst the ethereal melody suggests that we are going to see something quite strange. It is so strange. Everything about the title sequence seems to tell you that this is an unsafe place to be. That reality will clash with the horrific. The streaks of white light reach out into the living room towards you…
Wonderfully, the theme music continues over the opening scene. Incidental music was rarely used in the early days of Doctor Who, with the soundtrack scored by the special sounds of humming and throbbing. They ensure that the everyday, rooms, junkyards, police boxes are instantly alien. They are our key indicator of the abnormal elements of the show.
Waris Hussein uses a camera with constant movement, choosing when to close in on the actor’s faces for high impact. He presents us, the viewer, as involved in the action, looking over Ian’s shoulder. There are moments of strangeness here for us, such as when the gates to Totter’s Lane open for us of their own accord, or when we are violently struck by point of view recollections of Susan’s strange behaviour. The series never quite managed to incorporate this visual dynamism into its regular schedule, but Hussein is dedicated to ensuring that the atmosphere of abnormality pervades the entire image.
We insist on a doctrine of autership in art. We believe that the epitome of culture comes in the expressions of individuals. But this is a useless definition with which to live life by. Much beauty is found in collaboration. Football teams, pop songs, cathedrals, the film Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott) are all examples of art where no single person can be defined at the author of the piece. Doctor Who has no author. It has no creator. It is a work of collaboration, or on occasions, a work of conflict. The series has always been at its strongest when a multitude of voices are found within the text. Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert, Donald Wilson, Rex Tucker, Mervyn Pinfield, Anthony Coburn, C. E. Webber, David Whittaker were all vital in creating these twenty-five minutes of television. That’s a lot of voices.
But the strongest voice of all is William Hartnell. Much maligned, largely because of the indiscreet judgments of some of his later co-stars, Hartnell is by far the most charming, most complex Doctor the series has ever seen. He allowed his character to grow and change in a way that no other actor sought to bring to the role. Peter Cushing aside, he was the only actor to have a substantive film career, where his range allowed him to play both violent thugs and pitiful old men. Fans tend to forget these performances because they’re not on telly. In An Unearthly Child, Hartnell is actively playing against the script, chuckling and bringing a profound melancholy to lines that would be played far harsher by a lesser actor. He is determined to make this work, to rise above the limits of the worst studio in London to create something worthwhile. People forget how much of his Doctor is a performance, a performance specifically for very poor quality broadcast television – it’s not even his own voice that he uses.
More than this, William Hartnell was the only man who believed that the series would last for fifty years…