Tuesday, 24 January 2017
Inspirations - An Unearthly Child
Before we look at the story itself, a quick recap on where Doctor Who came from. In 1960, the BBC's Donald Wilson formed a working party to look into ideas for new drama series. Come 1962, they're looking at the opportunities afforded by Science Fiction. Two of BBC TV's biggest hits have come via Nigel Kneale - the Quatermass trilogy, and his adaptation of Orwell's 1984. ITV have started screening Sci-Fi, either as part of the Armchair Theatre run, or with series such as the Pathfinders in Space trilogy and Out of this World, which was introduced each week by Boris Karloff.
One of the people responsible for this output was Sydney Newman, who will shortly bring his love of Sci-Fi from ATV over to the BBC.
Wilson's researchers had watched some of their rival's programmes, and decided that aliens and robots didn't work. They thought that two areas worth exploring further were Time Travel and Telepaths.
Once we get to 1963, Newman has been headhunted by Wilson to the BBC, and the Corporation is looking for a half hour family drama that will plug a gap in the Saturday evening schedules, and help stop the adults switching over to the opposition after Grandstand.
Time Travel will be intrinsic to this new show, and it will feature telepathy in its first season - albeit fleetingly.
Doctor Who is born - the story of a mysterious time-traveller and his grand-daughter, and the two hapless school teachers who get caught up in their adventures. The series will feature a strong educational remit. There will be stories set in historical periods, and ones in the future, which will discuss scientific ideas. Good job Ian is a science teacher, and Barbara teaches History, rather than Home Economics. (Saying that, some future stories might have benefited from a thrilling Bake-Off challenge at its conclusion).
There will be a third type of story - described as "sideways", as opposed to past or future. These will look at the everyday from a new, distorting angle.
The first adventure was supposed to be one of these sideways stories, as the travellers get shrunk to an inch tall and have to negotiate Ian Chesterton's science lab at the school. When it was realised that this would be too technically demanding at this early stage, the idea was put on the back burner, and another story by Anthony Coburn was brought forward to launch the series - the one we generally call An Unearthly Child.
Stories did not have overall titles at this stage, as I'm sure you know full well.
So where does this first story come from?
Pretend for a moment that you are a viewer back in 1963, sitting in front of the TV on Saturday 23rd November. You're probably a bit shell-shocked by the news of President John F Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, so are looking for something to take your mind off this terrible event. You've failed to win the Pools as well. Round about 5.15pm a new series begins on the BBC.
After the very weird music you see a policeman in a foggy lane. Is this going to be some sort of Z Cars style crime show? What's a Police Box doing behind that gate, and what's with the funny noise it seems to be making?
Suddenly we're in a school. A strange looking school, where the pupils don't appear to be wearing a uniform. Is this a Teen school-based drama?
You glance at this week's Radio Times, and there's Kenneth Horne on the cover - plugging his latest series on the Light Programme. On screen, one of the boy pupils is doing a Kenneth Williams impression.
We then get 10 minutes of Ian and Barbara, two teachers who are worried about one of their pupils - Susan Foreman. This first episode is called An Unearthly Child, so we can safely assume that refers to Susan. So far, this could be leading to some social commentary drama - where the two teachers find out about some abuse or neglect in Susan's home life, and it will all be sorted out by social services. (Imagine 48 weeks of Ian and Barbara sorting out the trials and tribulations of a teenager-of-the-week...).
Susan lives in a junk yard, with her grandfather. That's a seemingly miserable, grumpy old person, and a young trendy person keen to dive in and see what this society has to offer, and they're living together in a junkyard, with theme music by Ron Grainer. A Steptoe and Son spin-off perhaps?
Susan's home turns out to be a huge, brightly-lit, futuristic spaceship, somehow fitting inside that Police Box we saw at the start - and it can travel anywhere in Space and Time.
All those drama or comedy styles this was hinting at - all wrong. This is a Science Fiction show.
There are four great fantasy writers influencing this programme. Three English, and one French. The box that can transport you to magical worlds would appear to be not unlike the Wardrobe in the Narnia tales of C S Lewis. He happened to pass away the day before you tuned into this new show, though the news would obviously have been swamped by that coming out of Washington and Texas. The TARDIS is a time machine - so H G Wells is obviously somewhere in the mix. The Doctor dresses in clothes that his time traveller might have worn. The Doctor and Susan are separated from their own home, as though marooned on a desert island. He is like some sort of magician. Prospero to Susan's Miranda?
The French writer is obviously Jules Verne. The Doctor is certainly reminiscent of Captain Nemo. He was a scientific genius who also abducted some people so that they couldn't tell the world all about his amazing craft. He wanted to explore, without anyone knowing about him. Nemo wants to stop warfare and build some kind of utopia - ideas not unlike earlier visions for the character of the Doctor.
Doctor Who? Captain Nobody. (Nemo is Latin for Nobody, in case you didn't know).
Talking of Doctors, let's go back to that initial mystery about Susan and her strange grandfather. Susan acts as though she were a very badly briefed foreigner. She talks about the English fog like she doesn't come from England. She doesn't even know the currency. He, meanwhile, is obviously hiding something. It's the height of the Cold War, and spies are being discovered in the most humdrum of suburban settings.
Doctor Who. Captain Nobody. Dr No...
That's a heck of a lot, all going on in just the first 25 minutes. Intrigued, you tune in the following week, and the next two after that, and you get an adventure with some cavemen trying to obtain the secret of fire-making. And there aren't any dinosaurs!!!
Everyone in 1963 knew that where there were cavemen there were dinosaurs.
Raquel Welch and her rabbit skin bikini is still 3 years away, but you may have gone to the flicks and seen the 1940 version of One Million Years BC. The main star is Victor Mature, but it also features Lon Chaney Jnr in one of the few roles when he wasn't playing one of the monsters. The dinosaurs in this movie are the ordinary-lizards-with-fins-glued-on variety, rather than stop-motion animation of real looking ones. The George Pal version of The Lost World also used this lizard trick. The Doctor has a touch of the Professor Challenger about him too - another grumpy old scientist who recklessly endangers his companions in the pursuit of knowledge and discovery.
One Million Years BC tells of the ructions that occur when a stranger joins another tribe - just like Kal in An Unearthly Child. And this story is often called "100,000 BC".
Another influence - literary this time - would be The Quest For Fire. You might have seen the 1981 movie, but it comes from a 1911 book by Belgian writer J-H Rosny (really the nom de plume for a pair of brothers). This is about the conflict between nice homo sapiens and nasty neanderthals - and not a Daemon in sight.
We mentioned the Cold War earlier. It's now two years on from the Cuban Missile Crisis and people are worried about the Bomb. Everyone assumes these three episodes are set on prehistoric Earth, but it could equally be some alien planet where human-like beings are evolving. Maybe Kal's a Thal, and the Doctor's just helped the future Kaleds on the road to the technology that will one day produce the Daleks...
Equally, this might be a future Earth - one destroyed in a nuclear war. Lots of Sci-Fi stories have the "surprise" reveal that a desolate wasteland is really our world, post apocalypse. Charlton Heston finding the ruins of the Statue of Liberty on the Planet of the Apes, for instance. That movie is also still in the future, but you'll find similar reveals in any number of short story anthologies of the post war period.
Who can say how much of this was going through the minds of Anthony Coburn, Verity Lambert et al. As stated in my introductory post on "Inspirations", this is what I can see, and you might well have your own ideas. By all means, do use the Comments to let me know.
Tune in next time, when the Doctor will be in full Prof. Challenger mode, and Terry Nation really goes to town on the The Time Machine...