Re-shown on it's fiftieth birthday
It's legendary, of course. The place where it all started. In one episode we're introduced to the Doctor, the Tardis and Ian and Barbara as the first companions. But the strange thing is, when you actually sit down and watch this first episode, the most memorable thing about it is actually none of the above. It's actually something unique, something which didn't stay at all.
There's Something About Susan
For while the series may be about the eponymous Doctor, things start out with ’An Unearthly Child’. That might initially sound like the blimpish BBC discovering the concept of the teenager almost a decade late. And while that's wrong, it's weird how close it came to being true. For Susan was only made the Doctor’s grand-daughter (and thereby an alien) late in the day. She was initially planned as a ‘normal’ girl called Biddy, described in the planning notes as “eager for life, lower-than-middle class.” But things turned out differently. And it's that unearthliness which becomes the theme of this introductory episode.
Susan is so iconic a character here that much of that episode can be summarised in one image. Since seeing the ’Radio Times Anniversary Special’ at the age of seven, I was naturally entranced by all the gaudy colour pictures of monsters and robots. But somehow the picture above always stuck with me – a picture of a girl, even! Ian and Barbara stand behind, looking to her. But she gazes out of the frame as if it’s a world which doesn’t contain her, hand raised childishly to mouth, yet her expression inscrutable.
Mark Fisher has commented how the “Doctor had a naturally alien quality…. more even than any of the monsters, it was the Doctor himself, the familiar stranger, who was uncanny.” Here much of that quality is devolved to Susan, but that’s not the main point.
His ‘natural alienness’ is constituted in almost the opposite way to hers. His already-archaic Edwardian clothing is so significantly English as to be bizarre; like Magritte’s bowler hats, it takes something so familiar that it becomes surreal. But with her faraway look and modernist haircut, Susan points in quite a different direction...
The focus however is less on her than the fascination she exerts over her teachers Ian and Barbara, for as the still puts in microcosm the Unearthly Child is seen through quite earthly eyes. They’re intrigued by both her abundant knowledge and her strange personality. “Nothing about this girl makes any sense”, complains Ian.
We first follow them as they discuss her, then finally see her with a transistor radio stuck to her ear. She’s transfixed, as if in a reverie, her hand almost stroking the set. Rather than some screaming Beatle scruff, an over-excited pop-fodder addict, her movements are sensuous and elegant. Later scenes reinforce this by imposing their disembodied voices over scenes containing her. (By a fortuitous necessity; they were filmed that way simply to allow the teachers’ actors to be in place for the next scene in the “as live” running order, but nonetheless the dramatic effect is the same.) The sequence where she complains to Ian the exercise is using only three dimensions is key – she's not just more knowledgeable, she sees other dimensions which they can only glimpse through her.
True, much of the effect of the character comes from the perfect casting of Carole Anne Ford. Her accent is so clipped she might as well be from a posher planet than ours. (Which, as later episodes revealed, turned out to be the case.) Formerly a glamour model, she’s not just good- but suitably strange -looking.
Only Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock (above) rivals her for 'natural alien-ness' portrayed so effectively simply by the cut of their face. (While Ford doesn’t even have the prop of his pointy ears!) Certainly the picture above relies on her look and expression for much of its effect. However, that effect does not simply come from Ford – it also says something about an era.
Speculation about the future was once the preserve of geeks who yearned to escape the present; normally into a glorious (if imaginary) other-world, one where wars and pollution were banished and girls wore silver bikinis in all weathers. But by the Sixties the future seemed already here, crashing in ahead of schedule. It and youth thereby became equally inexplicable and equally alien to their elders – even to the point of their seeming to know more than their ostensible teachers. This was the era where Dylan sang “your children are beyond your command.” It's become a commonplace to say you can only cope with modern technology by asking a teenager. Then, I'd guess, is when that rule came into force. (Ian comments “she lets her knowledge out a bit at a time so as not to embarrass me.”)
In the untransmitted ‘pilot’ episode (actually more of a dummy run), Susan literally is from the future. (Her line was switched from “I was born in the 49th Century” to “another time, another world” when the episode was re-shot.)
You could draw a line between Susan and other ‘alien youth’ characters in popular SF, such as ’The Tomorrow People’ or ’The X-Men’ (which debuted a mere month earlier.) But I’m more interested in comparing the still above - the cover of David Bowie’s 1972 album ’The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars’ (below). (Bowie even inspired the Seventies SF show ’The Tomorrow People’ with his lyric “gotta make way for the homo superior.”)
Ian and Barbara perform the same function as the streetlamp and phone box on the Ziggy cover – as a kind of framing device to enhance the lead character’s strangeness. As Philip Norman was to argue in his Beatles biography ’Shout!’ the basis of swinging London was non-swinging London - one relied upon the other as a drab backdrop against which to parade its futuristic sheen, a jewel against a cloth.
But most crucially of all, Susan and Ziggy are no malcontents, juvenile delinquents or intentional threats. Their paradox is that, despite their deep strangeness they share our sensitivities and even our need to belong. Perhaps they even exceed them. In this way the alien is not merely projected over the teenager, for a part of them remains genuinely youthful. The characters are quite different to the menacing aliens masquerading as schoolkids in the 1960 film 'Village of the Damned' or the amoral delinquents of the 1962 novel 'A Clockwork Orange.'
However there’s also significant differences between the two. While Ziggy arrives as a kind of youth messiah, for the benefit of “the kids”, Susan is mostly seen through the eyes of adults with whom she only wants to blend in. We learn she’s insisted on attending the school, against her Grandfather’s advice, and that her time there has been “the happiest in my life”. Yet there’s not a single second of her successfully interacting with another pupil - this happiness is presumably all down to a combination of teachers and textbooks. The main time we see her with the other kids they're laughing at her class answers. Unlike her Beatles-esque collarless dress, they're dressed in more conventional clothes of the era. (David Whitaker’s novelisation cuts out the school entirely and makes Barbara her private tutor.) Through our stand-in characters, the teachers, Susan tries to connect to us the same time as we try to unravel her mystery.
De-teening and Bringing Back Biddy
Alas, almost as soon as it was created it was quite casually thrown away. The Unearthly Child got Earthly pretty quickly. After this one introductory episode, in all but name Susan is turned back into regular schoolgirl Biddy. (Possibly excepting the “eager for life” part.) She has her first girly screaming fit part-way into the next episode. There was no shortage of them after that.
(The one partial exception to this rule is over continuity. In this pre-DVD era, characters have a tendency to reminisce over past storylines, as if keeping them alive in the mind of viewers. But at several points Susan recalls pseudo-continuity, adventures undergone by her and the Doctor before the series even began. In this way her special relationship with the Doctor is reasserted and some shred of her alien-ness is kept alive.)
Worse, it’s not just the alien teenager who disappears. The teenager herself soon follows, and scenes of her listening to her transistor radio abate. As she screams and twists her ankle at every turn you realise that after that taste of unearthliness all we are left with is the child. The Doctor even tells her at one point: "What you need is a jolly good smacked bottom!" In ’The Dalek Invasion of Earth.’ She even marries her first boyfriend – and that only at the Doctor’s instigation! (Though admittedly effective in its own right, his “you are a woman now” speech minimises the concept of a teenage interchange between child and adult. The scene is mostly significant for the Doctor’s character.) Notably, literally the very first thing the movie adaptation does is to reduce Susan to the age of about eight.
At one points Susan laments to her new suitor of there being no ”time or place I belonged to. I've never had any real identity”. Carole Ann Ford seems to have felt similarly, being the first regular actor to leave the series. (And subsequently claiming to have only stayed as long as she did for contractual reasons.) She later told the afore-mentioned ’Radio Times Anniversary Special’ “Susan was originally going to be quite a tough little girl – a bit like ’The Avengers’ lady, using judo and karate – but having telepathic communication with the Doctor. They then decided they wanted me to be a normal teenage girl so that other teenage girls could identify with me.” (Surely a straight reversal of the truth!)
This “tough girl” reference is actually a little odd. The point about Susan is that she’s simultaneously alien and a normal teenager, hence the paradox of the Unearthly Child. Nevertheless it makes an interesting comparison. Susan’s degeneration was to set the tone for all subsequent ‘assistants’ aboard the Tardis. Throughout the original show’s run, the writers would forever strive to conjure up a female sidekick with a little more gumption (a girl but a scientist, a girl but wearing trousers, a warrior savage, another Time Lord etc), only for her to collapse into another sad screamer before the season was out. But why should the show stay bound inside such constrains when, as Ford comments, ’The Avengers’ was not? Especially when its considered that not only was ’The Avengers’ already airing before ’Doctor Who’, it was even another Sidney Newman creation!
Perhaps ITV were simply further ahead of a popular curve than the stuffy Beeb. (Though that alone would not explain why the original series never got out of this rut in it’s quarter-century history.) Perhaps, aimed at an adult audience, ’The Avengers’ was freer to audaciously present its leads as equals. Or indeed as adults, for perhaps Cathy Gale should more appropriately be considered against the sturdier Barbara than Susan. As it was, the ’Doctor Who audience always had a Daddy (or even a Grandaddy) and consequently the female lead tended to fall into the role of submissive daughter. (A tendency compounded when Barbara’s ‘mature woman’ role was not replaced.)
No doubt no small amount of this was due to plain lazy writing, which might have been considered more permissible on a family show. Though Ford suggests a conscious policy to change Susan back into Biddy, it may have been mere reverting to type. It’s easier to reassert clichés than upend them. It doesn’t take too long to type “Man in rubber suit lumbers into room. Girl screams. Fade to credits.”
Perhaps the only character who came close didn’t appear until the very end of the original ’Who’, Ace (above). True, her ‘yoof’ speak was a world away from Susan’s RP annunciations, and her personality that of a street fighter not a sensitive loner, making her more a cross between latter-day Avenger and ’Grange Hill’ escapee than Unearthly Child. True, the production team's attempts to appeal to those young people of today was in many ways crass and excruciating. But with her the crucial element reappears - the theme of youth as something half-alien.
Perhaps it could be argued that even ’New Who’ has never really produced another Susan. Though effort is put into giving companions stronger and more rounded characters, they couldn’t have been more Earthly - clearly coded as representing ordinariness (or “the average TV viewer”). This is truest for Donna, who we're almost explicitly informed wouldn't have even watched 'Doctor Who' had it been on in her world. But it applies to all of them. They're sometimes promoted to be as smart as the Doctor or more powerful than him. But just like Biddy becoming Susan, all that lasts precisely one episode. Fisher's quote at the head of this piece is ultimately double-edged. Nobody is allowed to out-alien the Doctor on his own show. Some icons last down the years. Others, no less deserving, are left to fall into ruin…
Don't Trust Him, He's The Doctor
Its ironic that, in the middle of the Sixties, the teenager is made the opposite of a delinquent. While the title character of the show, an elder in years, is presented not as a better but as decidedly anti-heroic.
At this early point it's Ian and Barbara, London schoolteachers, who are the central figures. The Doctor's like the Wizard of Oz and tornado rolled into one, the mysterious stranger who whisks them away from the Kansas of Coal Hill school in his Tardis. He's mischievous and elusive, either deflecting their questions or disregarding them altogether – as if he'd rather just talk to himself. It's almost like an Alice in Wonderland encounter, straight talking winning only riddles in response. He clearly makes no secret of regarding them as inferior beings. Rather than the adventurer and moral crusader we are used to, he's a self-styled “wanderer”, lost or exiled in some unspecified way. Barbara snaps at him “you treat anybody and everything as less important than yourself!” While he is soon complaining to Ian “you seem to have elected yourself leader of this party!'
Let's note Doctors and Scientists were regularly made the villains in what might seem their own genre. The set-up of 'Lost In Space' (1965/8) really isn't too far from the early 'Biddy' premise of 'Who', with the Doctor in Zachary Smith's role of the troublemaking foil outside the family unit. Similarly, in the first episode of 'Flash Gordon,' (1936) Flash and Dale Arden are thrown together with an initially hostile Dr. Zarkov and put on his rocket.
That's the paradox of popular SF. Gandalf is considered inherently more trustworthy with his magic staff than Dr. Zarkov with his lab. And yet even the softening is similar. Smith's originally conceived villainy soon slipped into campy farce while Zarkov and Flash quickly united when faced with people who looked foreign.
The one part of the Doctor that is already on board is his eccentricity. In fact this might be the one thing he never loses, even if at times it became an absurd parody of itself. Making him Susan's grandfather is already half-way to making him a fairy tale character. One important component of which is his inability to comprehend his own ship. (Reiterated several times, culminating in his surprise when the chameleon circuit doesn't kick in.)
According to widespread but baseless tradition, this introductory episode should be coupled with the following 'Tribe Of Gum' (aka '100,000 BC', aka 'At Least That Movie Had Raquel Welch In a Fur Bikini, What The Hell Is This Crap?'.) Seemingly for no better reason than that makes a four-parter and the show often dealt in them.
But to be frank there's little that's worth saying over any of that. As you watch the RADA-educated actors applying Stanislavski's method to their grunting, you can already imagine them on their breaks, pulling out their pipes and announcing “after this, one is going back into rep.”
The re-showing of all four episodes went out straight after Mark Gatiss' drama documentary of the show's early years, 'An Adventure in Space and Time.' Which openly demonstrated producer Verity Lambert and director Waris Hussein's dislike of the script, something they never made much of a secret of themselves. But perhaps more significant is the different way it draws humour. Starting with a close-up of a Cyberman having a fag, most gags are juxtapositional between what happened on set and how it looked through the screen. (Most explicitly through the Daleks, who look laughable arriving on set but become “really creepy” once seen through the monitors.) But the cavemen are portrayed as inherently ridiculous. They don't need anything doing to them, they're just funny! Something like the hermit character in 'Monty Python'.
You could perhaps point out that it says far more about the era that created it than the one it was set in. That the cavemen are more an absent category than a culture in their own right, there to demonstrate their supposed lacking in the civilised virtues we so easily see in ourselves. (They “don't understand kindness, friendship.”) But fortunately Shabogan Graffiti has said all that so we don't have to. As he points out, the cavemen behave “more like people from a devastated capitalist world” than like anything we know of from prehistory or from contemporary tribal societies.
So let's not brother. Let's concern ourselves only with what 'One is Currently Employed as a Neanderthal' tells us of the Doctor, Ian or Barbara. (After all, it tells us bugger all about Susan.) Of course 'Luvvies In Furs' is infamous for the most un-Doctorish moment of the early years, when he considers dashing in the brains of an injured caveman - the better to make good his escape. This does indeed seem more the action of the crueller Doctor of the untransmitted 'pilot' than the one we've just seen in the actual first episode.
Except this is something which was transmitted. This blink-and-you-miss-it moment remains a sticking point for many fans. I've already speculated that it may well have snowballed, fifty years later, into Moffat's un-Doctor (as played by John Hurt). Like a dripping tap which, left to run, finally leads to a deluge.
But any such response is skewed by hindsight. What's more notable is that the show isn't considering this as a viable course of action, and of course conspires to thwart him. It doesn't even give him a moment alone with his victim, the only circumstance which would give his plan a chance. The point of the scene, the reason it's there, isn't to demonstrate what the Doctor would do so much as what Ian and Barbara wouldn't.
And perhaps the more significant scene is also the storyline's best – a scene so much more accomplished it seems to burst in from somewhere else. Of course it's the Doctor's “there is blood on this knife” moment. The Hartnell Doctor tends to flip between mercurial alchemist and kindly but absent-minded grandparent. But here he's someone quite different, combining Holmesian logic with arch cunning – canny as well as uncanny. You can imagine this guy actually surviving as an astral traveller, talking his way out of a thousand scrapes despite having been disarmed even of his box of matches.
We modern viewers see the early unheroic, wanderer Doctor and we wait for him to go away. Our minds construct story arcs to explain his turn to good, despite knowing full well we're just joining up the dots of happenstance. But when blood's found on the knife, that's like the brief period before Susan got de-teened, that's the time he had some life of his own. It points at some different direction that seems viable, that the show could conceivably have gone down.
Decent Sorts in Space
It's a rare paradox. Susan, who'd soon turn into the least important character, dominates the first episode. While Ian and Barbara, who would become the central characters of the first two seasons, do little but react to things. The afore-mentioned scene, when we only hear their voices over Susan's face, sums it up. They're uncomprehending of her. Then they're uncomprehending of the Doctor, of the Tardis, of the Stone Age.
Of course, as an everyman and everywoman respectively, they don't need an introduction in the same way. We see things through their eyes, we don't need to see them. They're us. Or at least the sort of solidly middle class people we'd expect to see representing us on a BBC drama of this time. But at this stage they haven't even found their plot function. They're simply passengers in the Doctor's universe. A situation best exemplified by the finale of 'Tribe of Gum.' They resolve the situation by not bothering to. To put it in layman's terms – they leg it. Okay, given the circumstances I'd have legged it too. It's just not very dignified when you see someone doing it on the telly.
But as they come to assert themselves more, as they become the centre of gravity, this will soon change. They won't run from situations, they'll fix them. They'll become not travellers but adventurers. (Despite his name, the Doctor gets his interventionist bug from them and not the other way round.) In a storyline only shortly to come, Barbara will fail to sort out the scene and that will seem a significant break. (A silver sixpence to any boy or girl who can tell me to what I refer.)
Being so central, Ian and Barbara couldn't help but have a huge influence on the early show. To the point where they came to signify a type of story, and it's easy to talk of them as though they were synonyms for one another. Yet while they're both uncomprehending of events, Barbara takes to things far sooner than Ian. It's her idea to track down Susan at home, and she's the first to enter the Tardis. She asks the Doctor “won't you help us?” while the more suspicious Ian talks of policemen. Ian even challenges her on her acceptance, to which she simply replies “the point is, it's happened.”
Every 'Who' fan knows of the Doctor brandishing the rock at the injured caveman. It's Ian who stops him. But when the caveman is first injured (by an inexpensively off-screen beast), Ian is at first all for using the moment to their advantage and making their get-away. It's Barbara who insists he must be tended to. A fundamental rule of the show, perhaps the most fundamental rule, is established there and then. At one point even she has an attack of the Biddies. But at this early stage it's Barbara who's at heart of the narrative
It's still something of a stereotypical woman's role, of course. In accepting the situation she's not being smarter, she's being more intuitive than the rationalism of science teacher Ian. And in behaving like a nurse... well, that one's obvious enough. But the point is - that is a role. It gives her things to do, things more significant than asking “what's that, Doctor?” or screaming to signify the presence of monsters. While Susan is de-teened and degenerates into Biddy, Barbara becomes the one to watch…
Coming not-so soon! I now rather regret openly making my rash promise to cover the early 'Doctor Who' storylines, when there's so much else going on in the world to distract me. I did 'The Daleks' some time ago. As for the rest of it, watch this space. Just not too eagerly...