Doctor Who began a year-long celebration of its 50th anniversary at the BFI on Saturday 12th of January with a very special presentation of An Unearthly Child. The screening was sold out as fans of all ages descended on London’s Southbank to watch the first four episodes ever created.
First broadcast in 1963, the episodes (An Unearthly Child, The Cave of Skulls, The Forest of Fear and The Firemaker) introduced audiences to The Doctor in the curmudgeonly but mischievous form of William Hartnell.
When Ian (William Rusell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), a pair of concerned teachers, decide to follow mysterious student Susan (Carole Ann Ford) to her grandfather’s house, they find a strange old man and a police box. The disbelieving pair are quickly swept along on an adventure to the Stone Age where they find themselves caught up in a tribe’s struggle for power. The first episode is marvelously atmospheric and surprisingly creepy, given that all it’s really doing is introducing The Doctor and the TARDIS. While the subsequent three episodes have dated somewhat (but certainly not irredeemably), it’s fascinating to be reminded of The Doctor’s first incarnation. He’s rude, impatient, and difficult to get on with. But there’s a twinkle in his eye, a sly sense of humour, and a tendency to talk as if no one else is in the room that clearly marks him out as our Time Lord.
Current Doctor Who producer Caroline Skinner introduced the event and apologised for Steven Moffat’s absence on his behalf (apparently he’s shackled to his desk) and remained tight-lipped on the subject of the BBC’s plans for a 50th special. Mark Gatiss was also on hand and was similarly reticent to divulge any details about An Adventure in Space And Time, his drama about the creation of Doctor Who, although he did reveal that it was a drama about the creation of Doctor Who.
But most exciting were the appearances from the team who worked on these first four episodes. Carole Ann Ford was frank about how her character’s lack of development was the reason behind her departure from the series, but remembered how she and the late Jacqueline Hill had decided to make the set as welcoming as possible for guest actors. William Russell remembered how well the central cast gelled as a unit, while director Waris Hussein talked about the challenges of filming a forest chase on a stage roughly the size of a large cupboard.
Actor Jeremy Young (who played evil Kal the caveman) recalled an unfortunate outbreak of sand-fleas on the cave set and script editor Donald Tosh was wonderfully frank about what goes into the decisions behind companions leaving, from scheduling issues to appearing unhappy. Vision mixer Clive Doig and the Radiophonic Workshop’s Brian Hodgson spoke about the creation of the title sequence and the composition of the signature theme music, and William Hartnell’s granddaughter and biographer Jessica Carney remembered how her grandfather become a children’s television icon.
It was fantastic seeing these classic episodes on the BFI’s biggest screen and to listen to personal memories from those involved to give us some insight into those early days. The next installment in the BFI’s Doctor Who celebration is the Patrick Troughton adventure ‘Tomb Of The Cybermen’ with guests yet to be announced. Unfortunately it has already sold out so keep your eyes peeled for when March’s tickets go on sale!
You can buy Doctor Who: The Beginning (including An Unearthly Child, The Daleks and The Edge of Destruction) on DVD for £10 from Amazon.co.uk. See the BFI website for more Doctor Who events.