There’s a reason why An Unearthly Child may be so well directed; it’s the televisual equivalent of a first album – something you have a lifetime to work on. By the time we get to The Cave of Skulls, we’re no longer dealing with art, and only dealing with product. Interestingly, it also is a completed second draft. An earlier version of this episode, know colloquially as the pilot episode, is broadly similar to the broadcast version, yet feature some differences worth noting.
Within the unbroadcast episode, Susan is presented as a far ‘stranger’ individual. She struggles to communicate with adults and wears a far more oblique outfit. There is a sense that Ian and Barbara are taking a break from their casual corridor flirtation to investigate a genuinely alien girl (and the references to aliens – Ian’s ‘She couldn’t be a foreigner,’ and the Doctor’s ‘Savage minds,’ comment – clearly relate this to the world of 1963 as much as police boxes do), rather than the implicit suspicion that she is covering up abuse in the broadcast episode. At this stage the traditional role of ‘companion’ doesn’t exist – largely because the role of the Doctor is so much further to the fringe of the narrative. But here, the mystery is as much about the peculiar girl making Rorschach blots as it is about the box that is bigger on the inside. It is a mystery that is neglected to be followed in any subsequent episodes.
Because of the pervading sense of strangeness that dominates the show at this point, travelling in the TARDIS is not the trip of a lifetime. It is terrifying and hostile, and you will marry any old dude who looks at you twice to avoid doing it any longer. Sixties episodes of Doctor Who use all kinds of desperate means to conveniently bring new passengers into the ship. In the pilot, the Doctor’s reason for trapping Ian and Barbara is a more cynical, but more fully realised argument; that these teachers, via their knowledge of his advanced 49th Century technology, have the potential to change the course of history. What we ultimately saw on screen, on the 23rd November 1963, was an ambiguously underwhelming discussion that he didn’t want to be bothered. The pilot points towards a history of the show where the key thematic exploration is that you can’t change one line of history. Ian, his vanity already present in his irritation with Susan’s superior knowledge, and the inquisitive nature of Barbara would have perhaps acted in counterpoint to the sagacity, however unsympathetic, of the Doctor.
The whole episode points towards an imagined alternative history of Doctor Who. Where the TARDIS crew encountered robots on Luxor, or invented a primitive blood transfusion device for Alexander the Great, or travelled to first century Nazareth. These alternate histories seem as real to us as a season 6B, Robert Homes’ Five Doctors, the original season 23, a televised run of New Adventures and whatever fantasy season of Who we’ve written in our head (episode one = ‘The Hole in the World’, episode two = ‘The Shame of the Cybermen’ etc.) I particularly enjoy imagining the encounter with Christ as a story written by Donald Cotton, all hilarity with the apostles for three episodes and then a bloody crucifixion in the final part. But the history of Who is so big, the cathedral of stories that it contains within is so broad, that no matter how ridiculous some of these untaken paths are, you can see that they very easily could have been part of the series history.
Whilst there are many changes to what we eventually saw on screen, the main difference comes from William Hartnell. The changes are of performance far more than script. Doctor Bill in the pilot is a grim man, aloof and removed, distant from those around him. When Hartnell replays many of the same lines in the final version, he chooses to imbue them with that sense of mischievousness that will come to be one of the most endearing qualities of his Doctor. You get the sense that he is actively battling against the script, yet unlike Doctors Jon and Tom, he never removes us from the integrity of the narrative. His heightened mannerisms create a vulnerability that helps us love him, and ultimately moves the character from the side-line into the centre stage.
Maybe all Doctor Who would have been this good if they’d had the chance to film it twice…