Last April, Waris Hussein came to Manhattan to discuss Doctor Who‘s very first episode, which this year hits its 50th anniversary. At the time, Hussein was only 72. Think about that. He was barely 24 when he directed the pilot episode and then the first regular episode of the series, An Unearthly Child. Younger than Spielberg when Spielberg directed Jaws, younger than Welles when Welles directed Citizen Kane. And An Unearthly Child, even today, is ridiculously polished and poised, with visual flourishes and rat-a-tat dialogue. Thanks to Hussein, and episode writer Anthony Coburn, it holds up.
Of course, you’ve heard that before. “It holds up.” Such a worn-out cliche. You hear it on the commentary track of every mid- to low-level Doctor Who episode on the classic series DVD releases. The Claws of Axos “holds up”. Invasion of the Dinosaurs “stands up today”. The Tomb of the Cybermen “really stands the test of time” (and, oh, my goodness, Fraser, isn’t he tall?). Nope. Sorry. They don’t. But An Unearthly Child actually still does.
Here’s the thing about Waris Hussein’s presentation. I’m not old, not in Who terms. Younger than David Tennant. Only as old as Invasion of the Dinosaurs, in fact, episode 1 of which was videotaped the day I was born. And I stand up well today. But at this screening, which sold out so quickly that I had to sit in an overflow room watching on closed circuit TV, I was one of the older ones. I sat in front of a couple of pink-haired teenage girls talking about how Ian (William Russell) was cute, Waris Hussein was cute, the gawky male student extra in Coal Hill School was cute. A lot of my seatmates had only a passing familiarity with the classic series, and for them this screening was something (I hope) of an Event.
I’ve seen the first episode probably around 40 times (only 40? so few, you say?). For me the episode is well-worn, and I could have recited every line dialogue sitting there in the dark. But the newbie audience I was with, most of them watching for the first time, seemed to share my enchantment right away. There was applause for the first appearance of the TARDIS, looming out of the junkyard dark; there was applause for William Hartnell’s entrance. Laughs in all the right places, and more applause for all of Hartnell’s wicked-sharp put-down lines in the second half, after the action moved into the TARDIS.
Hussein’s live commentary was billed as the evening’s main draw, and although he didn’t actually talk much over the episode, his points were all interesting. It never occurred to me, for example, although it should have been obvious, that Susan’s in-classroom flashbacks were all shot live, across the studio from where Ian and Barbara were sitting in the parked car. Even more fascinating was the lengthy Q&A session with Hussein after the screening, as he walked the audience through his experiences trying to break into the BBC as a young minority — with Bill Hartnell seemingly baffled by the unlikely team of Hussein and Verity Lambert responsible for hiring him — and his subsequent successes after leaving the world of Doctor Who. The only secret he didn’t reveal is… just whose POV is that in the opening shot? Who avoids the policeman? Who creaks quietly through the junkyard door? Who stands admiringly before the TARDIS so that the episode titles can roll?
So, produced on a budget that was less than shoestring, taped inside a studio that was most decided not bigger inside than out, and put together by a creative team whose diversity seems impossibly unlikely by early 1960s standards, An Unearthly Child continues to resonate. The dialogue is always three paces ahead of the audience, by turns witty and philosophical. Hartnell, whose failing memory and difficulty with Who’s strenuous production pace would become millstones for the production team just two short years later, is on fire with this script; confident and, challenging, he dominates the screen for his half of the episode. Companions Russell, Hill and Ford all hit their marks; even by today’s standards there’s really not a bad performance in the bunch.
Perhaps even best of all is the cliffhanger. It’s just an extra’s shadow over the TARDIS, and we all know by now that it’s just a caveman, who in the following three episodes will turn out to be an easily-outwitted Neanderthal. On paper this looming shadow wouldn’t look very dramatic or scary, and the moment is pretty much omitted from Terrance Dicks’ novelization. However, during this screening, the greatness of the cliffhanger struck me. The episode has been loud up to this point – rapid-fire dialogue, quick camera cuts. Then, after the shocking brutality of the first TARDIS dematerialization, which amazingly renders Ian and Barbara unconscious (and would never do so again)… we get silence. Just a keening wind, a bunch of rocks in the foreground, and a long still shot of the TARDIS (against a charmingly old-school cyclorama, which in reality was probably just 6 feet wide). And that slowly advancing shadow. From chatty modern-day 1963 London, to a noisy, vibrant, argumentative TARDIS scene… to an artfully silent nowhere. It’s the first quiet moment in the episode since the opening tracking of the TARDIS. Literally anything and everything could happen from this point onward. And, as the next 50 years have shown, they certainly have…