Waris Hussein comes to Liverpool this weekend – This is a look at An Unearthly Beginning to a 50-year-old legacy

Posted on 25 June 2019
By Rob Lea
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Ahead of Waris Hussein’s visit to Liverpool on 30th June, I decided to revisit the director’s most famous work — one of the most important pieces of television ever made — the first episode of Doctor Who — ‘An Unearthly Child’. 

Hindsight is a funny thing. Looking back at the first episode of Doctor Who, directed by Waris and first aired the day after the assassination of JFK shook the world — 23rd November 1963 — it’s hard not to view it through the lens of a fan of the show that has now existed for almost 56 years.

What must an audience of the time have made of that humming, ominous police box, squirrelled away in a junkyard on Totters Lane? To us, it is a sign of forthcoming adventure and heroism — the Tardis —the home/ship of the Doctor. But in the first episode of Doctor Who, the ‘companions’ aren’t welcomed in with a quip and a jelly baby, they force their way in, and they don’t leave on a journey in the Tardis by choice.

They are the victims of a kidnapping.

Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, teachers of science and history respectively at Coal Hill School, arrive at the junkyard and the Tardis whilst investigating a mysterious student — Susan Foreman, the titular unearthly child. 

They effectively force their way into the Tardis believing that the cagey old man they encounter — Susan’s grandfather — is holding her captive in there. The moment they walk into the ship is brilliantly captured by Hussain.

The ‘Bigger on the inside’ moment that a new companion enters the Tardis has become something of a cliché through the show’s history, gently mocked in more recent times. But, here, even with the value of hindsight, this a wondrous moment. 

That’s not just down to excellent performances by the cast, but that original Tardis set is truly spacious and blinding white. The console, with its rising glass central column, looks unlike
the controls of any spaceship we’ve seen before.

Extraordinary to think that this was all achieved on a budget of a measly £500 allotted to the building of what would become one of the most iconic sets of all time. 

It could have all been very different though. 

Second time’s the charm

The pilot of Doctor Who was actually recorded twice. The first version is plagued with a raft of problems. Lines are fluffed, Carole Ann-Ford’s Susan getting the movement through the charts of her favourite band wrong — saying “2 to 19”, rather than “19 to 2” — is a particularly noticeable goof. 

Hartnell is also off-pace in the original version, his performance is far tighter in the second attempt. This is likely due to Hartnell’s ill-health, a factor that led to his replacement by Patrick Troughton in 1966. 

In addition to this, the Tardis door becomes noticeably stuck whilst closing as Hartnell enters the craft. It swings back on its axis and bangs the set wall loudly. 

Being back in the days before multiple reshoots of the same scenes, there was only one option left — decreed Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert, the show’s creator and first producer respectively — the whole programme would have to be reshot.

In the time between recordings, several changes are made to the script, performances and costumes. The finished product is a far more polished affair.

Of course, more changes would occur over time. Hartnell’s performance will soften considerably over the coming three and a half years, becoming a kindly grandfather figure.

Watching the first episode again, there’s the feeling that many viewers of the show who’ve become accustomed to the warmth of actors like Whittaker, Smith and Davison, the charm of Tennent or Pertwee, or the playfulness of Tom Baker — will find the Doctor in this first episode completely… well, alien. 

Not yet a hero

William Hartnell was cast as the Doctor after a career built on gruff army Sargent roles. And it’s a quality that he brings in spades to the early Doctor. 

There’s little doubt that in the initial episode of Doctor Who, the Doctor is an antagonist. When Chesterton and Wright barge their way into his home, it’s pretty clear that the Doctor plans a nasty fate for them. When he utters the line “The point is, not whether you understand, but what is going to happen to you?” There is a darkness in the character that will rarely be revisited over the coming half-century. 

Even more dissonant is the way the Doctor intentionally electrocutes Ian Chesterton as he tries to find the door control for the ship — albeit downplayed from the original version where a massive arcing sound accompanies Ian sprawling on the floor. 

In the reshot version, the flicking of the switch to electrify the console is dwelled upon less, and the shock seems milder only sending the science teacher to his knees clutching his hand. 

The Doctor will follow this a short few episodes later by attempting to smash a caveman’s skull in with a rock, only to be stopped by Chesterton — played by William Russell. 

Chesterton is clearly the hero of early Who. His clean-cut heroics and selflessness acting as a counterpoint to Hartnell’s scheming and selfish Doctor. He is a highlight of early episodes and its a great shame when he leaves, alongside Barbara — played by Jacqueline Hill. His replacements will be somewhat bland in retrospect. 

One element of the episode that Russell T Davies would revive when he resurrects Doctor Who in 2004, is the sadness of the Doctor’s existence. In this first story, the Doctor and his granddaughter, Susan, are exiles. There is a distinct impression that the Doctor and Susan would not have chosen to leave their planet — not named here.

They long to return home, and Susan has found a makeshift home at Coal Hill school. It’s cruel when that is all ripped away from her as the Doctor makes that first inaugural Tardis flight. 

Waris Hussain — the man behind the camera

As mentioned, I rewatched the episode ‘An Unearthly Child’ and its prototype pilot in preparation for a visit to Liverpool’s VideOdyssey by its director Waris Hussain. 

I wanted to get a feel of what it must be like to view Doctor Who not perched upon the highest branch of the behemoth oak it has become but from the root. 

Hussain, may not have planted the seed, but he was the first to water it. What must it have been like to watch that oak grow, and to view it now, and know that deep beneath the soil, buried is the split shell of that seed? 

Only one man knows. Someone should ask him. 

Waris Hussain, a guest of Room 5064 Productions, will be speaking at VideOdessey in Toxteth, Liverpool, on Sunday, June 30th. Tickets are available here