Tread Who Safely: An Unearthly Child & The Edge of Destruction

doctorwho1963blSo, I’ve never done an appreciation post for the First Doctor, as played by William Hartnell. In some ways, he’s one of the harder Doctor’s to access. He’s the most erasable, scheming and nearly villainous incarnation of the character, even considering the Colin Baker persona, the notion of Timelord Triumphant or that time the Fourth Doctor assumed the Presidency on Gallifrey and let the planet be invaded by Vardans.

Oh, but that’s not an episode to really tread safely.

In its initial form, Doctor Who was really the story of Barbara and Ian, the two school teachers whisked away into time and space by the wily white-haired old man who claimed to be the grandfather of one of their pupils. In this dynamic, the Doctor was just as often an antagonist as he was a hero. In fact, I’d be willing to say he doesn’t really become the hero of his own show until Barbara and Ian return to London. This is a stark contrast to the Tom Baker or Jon Pertwee personas or the new show’s stated beliefs about the character, even if they like to toy with shadows in the light he brings. That radical shift in the character could be a barrier to entry in enjoying the earliest episodes of the program.

Another barrier is the production philosophy. Until its twelfth year, Doctor Who mainly consisted of stories told over six 25-minute episodes. Though that number could vary, the overwhelming bulk of extant Hartnell episodes are 6-parters. And. They. Drag. Keep in mind how much I love this show, how much I’m willing to forgive in my passion for it and I freely admit that the Hartnell era is generally paced at a crawl.

But, with all that explained, I believe I can offer you a trio of episodes (note my word choice) that can offer you a good primer or what Doctor Who originally looked, sounded and felt like.

Episode 1: An Unearthly Child

As I mentioned in my original Doctor Who primer, the very first episode of the show is not just historic, but a damned fine piece of televisual entertainment. At 25 minutes, it does feel like a Twilight Zone episode in which two average people, Barbara and Ian, get more than they bargain for when they try to solve the mystery of their brilliant, but culturally ignorant new student called Susan Foreman. Following her into a junkyard, they find a police call box that is bigger on the inside and a nameless doctor whom Susan calls her grandfather and who claims the phone box can go anywhere in time and space.

So much of the show, even as it is today, is laid out here in “An Unearthly Child.” From the word go, the ship is called the TARDIS, the Doctor’s control of it is iffy at best and he is seen with companions who travel with him from the far past and into the distant future. At the same time, it’s also revolutionary television. Director Waris Hussein works the bulky BBC cameras (and cameraman) within an inch of what they can do. The story has a plenty of atmosphere and mystery surrounding it, even if you know the show well. The performances are also great.

Though the First Doctor is very different from his subsequent portrayals, William Hartnell is excellent from his first cough and misspoke line. He is a commanding presence. Barbara and Ian, as played by Jacqueline Hill and William Russell, are the exact solid sort you’d expect to play human characters in a story like this. Then there’s Susan:

susan

Unearthly.

Susan is an odd duck. As the story reveals, she has knowledge in science and history that confound her teachers. In this, she seems quite a bit older than her appearance suggests. At the same time, there are elements of her that are naive, distant and decidedly that of a teenaged girl in the mid-60s. Carole Ann Ford, the actress who played her, has an other-worldly quality to her. While Susan would generally be written more as a scared girl than the quirky alien, Ford plays up the later vision here in this first episode. She’s quite good at it and like the actress, I wish the production team would’ve used that aspect of Susan more often.

Save for a handful of background performers, “An Unearthly Child” only features four characters and manages to be quite compelling, even when compared to modern 21st Century dramas.

And then episode 2 starts and it all falls apart. In order to tread safely, I suggest only watching the first 5 minutes or so of episode 2, “The Cave of Skulls,” and shutting it off after the Doctor gets abducted. The overall storyline of the first four episodes is alternatively known as “100,000 B.C.” and “The Tribe of Gum,” but is generally referred to by the title of the first episode. Besides the introductory episode, it’s not a great story and even the show’s initial producer, Verity Lambert, went on record saying she would not have chosen a caveman story to launch the series, but was bound by the scripts commissioned before she was hired. If you feel adventurous, give it a try, but everything you want to know about the first story is contained in its first half-hour.

Episodes 12 & 13: “The Edge of Destruction”/”The Brink of Disaster”

Instead, move ahead to episodes 12 and 13, “The Edge of Destruction” and “The Brink of Disaster.” As the show was always hampered with a tiny budget, a two-part story became necessary to accommodate the lavish 6-part “Marco Polo” on the heels of the epic first Dalek story. “Destruction”/”Disaster” are what we would now call a bottle show: episodes shot on the available — and paid for — standing sets requiring no more characters than the series regulars. Like “An Unearthly Child,” the small cast is one of the its chief strengths.

After escaping from the Dalek homeworld of Skaro, the TARDIS appears to get stuck in the vortex, making it and our time travelers behave in odd ways. With no other resources to fall back on, Lambert and her team composed a story that advanced the characters a great deal, showcased the actors, and actually gave the program some momentum as the Doctor learns a little humility. It one of the times the shows limitations proved to be great advantages.

The Original Doctor Who Cast

The Original Doctor Who Cast

The two episodes are also directed by different people and its interesting to see how they mounted their parts of the same story. Richard Martin’s part one is avant garde and eerie as the TARDIS itself becomes the trap the Doctor, Susan, Barbara and Ian cannot escape from. We also see other rooms in the TARDIS for the first time. In one of the episode’s more infamous moments, Susan goes a little mad and stabs a recliner with a serious pair of scissors. The Frank Cox-helmed part two is more conventional in its shots and lighting, but fits well as the material now moves from the oddness of the group’s situation to resolving their plight and internal conflicts. It also features an absolutely terrific speech delivered by the gaff-prone Hartnell in one take!

Also, for a quick-and-dirty story to fill a gap, the ultimate solution to the problem in the TARDIS is pretty ingenious and sets the stage for ideas both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat would come back to in the new series.

But, ultimately, these three episodes showcase the early years best for a new viewer. They give you a taste of the program — and mid-60s British television — without the greater commitment of a six-part story. There are a few of those to recommend, though. But, I think we’ll talk about “The Keys of Marinus” or “The Reign of Terror” another time.

No doubt after we talk about treading safely with the Second Doctor.

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About Erik

Erik Amaya is the host of Tread Perilously and the former Head Film/TV writer at Bleeding Cool. He has also contributed to sites like CBR, Comics Alliance and Fanbase Press. He is also the voice of Puppet Tommy on "The Room Responds."
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