Next Time, I Shall Not Be So Lenient!

Alex Wilcock writes a lot of words about Doctor Who. He’s followed DWM’s Time Team since 1999, and is now revealing everything he’s ever sent to them. Very gradually.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

It’s True, Every Word of It’s True

…Was very nearly the title of this blog, which would have been wilfully deceitful and was therefore very tempting. It’s a line uttered by Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter, in the very first episode of Doctor Who ever made. Confusingly, of the original 1963-1989 series, it was also the last to be transmitted, as it was first shown on the BBC to very little fanfare on August 26th, 1991. This was the Pilot episode of the series, an early version of An Unearthly Child, the first episode eventually shown, and it’s a great – if sometimes very shaky – piece of television. And, after all, where better to start a Time Team blog than with the one piece of broadcast Doctor Who not included in Time Team?

I have to admit, I missed it when it was finally broadcast – the first Doctor Who episode I’d missed on original transmission for about ten years. I hadn’t even noticed it was on, showing as part of The Lime Grove Story, a selection of programmes made at the just-closed Lime Grove studios and at a time when Doctor Who appeared to have just closed, too, with even less attention from the BBC. Back then, as far as I was concerned, the current Doctor Who story was a book by Mark Gatiss called Nightshade, one of Virgin’s superb New Adventures series (and the first Doctor Who to scare me since 1977, but that’s another story), and besides, I’d already seen the Pilot. Somewhat ingloriously, it had been released on video a couple of months before it was finally transmitted – though, as the last third of it was recorded twice, the broadcast and video versions each chose a different take – and I’d actually seen the whole thing in October 1989, when a friend bought a nearly unwatchable 23rd-generation copy from a seedy backstreet Doctor Who peddler in Manchester. Yes, before the internet, there really were shops like that. These days it’s been spruced up and made available in several different versions on the Doctor Who – The Beginning DVD Set, which I’d thoroughly recommend, but for a long time it was relatively unknown and very much unloved (even today About Time, usually the most comprehensive guide to Doctor Who in book form and the self-styled definitive work on everything, doesn’t even mention it was ever transmitted).

For most stories I’ll just be diving straight in to what I think of them, but this is such an unusual case that it seemed to demand some background, whether to explain the extraordinary gap between the BBC making it on 27 September 1963 and finally showing it fifteen years ago today, to explain that it’s an alternate version of a ‘proper’ story and so written off by many as ‘not counting’ by definition, or to explain just how many versions of even this attempt at the episode exist. Back then, programmes tended to be made as if ‘live’, even though all of Doctor Who was actually pre-recorded; it was difficult to edit the videotape used and only a couple of breaks in recording a 25-minute episode were planned. One of these breaks comes two-thirds of the way into the Pilot version of An Unearthly Child, just before they go inside the spaceship. The first take of that TARDIS sequence has a great nervous energy to the performances but rather a lot of fluffed lines and some quite astounding technical problems, so, unusually, they recorded that whole chunk a second time (some people describe this as the ‘third take’; as the ‘second take’ lasted about three seconds, I’m just going to talk about the two that went all the way). The DVD includes both versions, plus an edited version mostly using the second take that tries to present it as a ‘finished’ episode (though putting that first if you press ‘Play All’ is peculiar, as it’s immediately followed by the later version of An Unearthly Child which tells almost exactly the same story). Even with the retake, though, Head of Drama Sydney Newman – the main driver behind the creation of Doctor Who – didn’t think it was good enough, ordering changes before they had another go. So, was he right?

The Doctor Who Pilot: An Unearthly Child

It opens with that fantastic music and eerie swirling that are still like nothing else on TV, even when their instantly recognisable descendants are shown for the series in 2006. There’s one significant difference at only about five seconds in, though, as a ‘thunderclap’ sound comes in over the music; because this is the only time it’s ever heard, I always think it’s great, but it might have been a bit de trop every week – as opposed to the high-pitched buzz about to be heard from the mysterious police box sitting in the junkyard, which would definitely have been much too irritating, in contrast to the reassuring hum they came up with for the final version. It’s a shame there’s no fog for the police officer to wander through here, too.

Before we meet Susan, the story spends a good five minutes building up the ‘unearthly child’ in a way the series’ll usually just do for monsters from now on – after the title, Barbara tells her (unseen) to “Wait here,” before talking her over with fellow schoolteacher Ian (whose enthusiastic “Yes – I’ll say,” today can’t help but make me think of Torchwood’s Yvonne Hartman). Though the structure and most of the lines are the same as the final version, particularly during the first half of the episode, here Susan’s far more unearthly from her very first scene, introduced in extreme close-up. The effect’s slightly spoilt when she very obviously fluffs a line, though in the DVD’s ‘full’ edit of the Pilot there’s an extraordinarily clever edit that removes the mistake. She draws a strange inkblot picture of what we can later recognise as the TARDIS console, then, with a hunted expression, destroys it. It’s a cool wilfully enigmatic moment, but her instantly spotting a mistake in a huge book on The French Revolution in the later version is a more subtle way to mark her as out of place. Though I mentioned an actor’s mistake, the direction’s very noticeable; a young Indian, Waris Hussein, was very ambitious to create something impressive and much of it’s far more stylised than the final version, but that stylishness is undermined by so much that’s, well, amateurish. I don’t know if he was too ambitious for the cameras’ capabilities, if the camera operators hadn’t had enough practice avoiding things in the crowded studio sets, or if they were simply incompetent, but you can’t help wincing when the camerawork shifts from stylish ultra-close-ups to make us concentrate on Susan to great big lurches when Ian moves to the door, which only make us concentrate on how badly made some of it is.

There are more problems as Ian and Barbara sit in a car waiting for Susan to approach the junkyard in which she apparently lives, discussing how strange she is in class by means of very badly cued-in flashbacks. Barbara fluffs the word “fifteen,” then Ian slightly overacts “decimal system,” but not nearly as badly as the boy who declaims “Ha ha ha ha ha ha…” rather than actually laughing. The classroom scenes are well-written bits of mystery, with Susan unaware that 1963 Britain didn’t use a decimal monetary system, then knowing far too much about chemistry and finally revealing a completely alien way of thinking about dimensions, but it’s only the last scene that achieves its potential because you’re distracted from the others by the camera bouncing up and down or a cut to the chemical class that loses half of Ian’s introductory sentence.

Again, Susan’s in extreme close-up – with collar pulled high – as she gets to the gate and looks around. She looks great, and it’s very noticeable that none of the other characters have grabbed the camera’s attention like this; when the teachers follow her inside the junkyard, again it’s a mixture of spooky things and eerie camera movement that works brilliantly, counterpointed by other shots the jolting camera operators clearly aren’t up to.

Half-way in, the Doctor appears. Slightly too early, in fact, as we can see him at the edge of the screen and he can’t possibly have missed the two teachers ducking out of the way. Though he’s introduced from way in the background, very soon the Doctor’s getting heavy close-ups, which suggests an affinity with Susan… The script seems to suggest those nice teachers are the leads, but the camera tells a different story. The sound of the TARDIS door opening is even more high-pitched and buzzing than the general ‘interior’, too, making those aspects of the sound design among the most vital changes before the story was redone.

With Ian and Barbara revealed as loiterers, the real differences between this and the final version start to come through. The Doctor’s far more sinister and unsympathetic, and Ian seems far closer to starting a fight. Barbara tries to be the smiling, conciliatory one as she talks about seeing Susan from across the street, but reacts very sharply when scorned –
“I certainly did not imagine it!”
and the Doctor writes her off as a lost cause. He tries literally to separate Ian off from her, taking him by the arm and leading him away in order to appeal to him to be ‘reasonable’. He quickly goes into harsh denials of their rights to be there, but when he’s not speaking, is quietly watchful. It’s a fascinating performance, mixing worry and bluster, and there are some great shots of him in half-shadow, eyes flickering, pictured in the foreground as they talk at the door. Again, the direction is conceptually brilliant, but the camera operators were either under-rehearsed or just couldn’t be bothered.

I know I keep mentioning the TARDIS sound, but once they’re inside the deceptively police box-shaped exterior, to deafening electronic noises… It’s plain terrible. And, irritatingly, this crucial scene change isn’t a chapter point on the DVD (though it is one in the unedited studio footage, which has fewer chapters). It’s still a great introduction to the Doctor’s ship, though the look’s different to the final version as well, with a gleaming metallic platform on the floor under the console and a gleaming metallic tabard on Susan in place of her usual ‘kooky’ 1963 outfits. It’s the script that most changes, however, as while the scenes up to this point will remain mostly the same, inside the TARDIS in this version is a much more hostile place. There’s no commanding “Close the doors, Susan,” from the Doctor here, perhaps fortunately, as the first take is blighted by the TARDIS doors not closing properly and a repeated banging sound as studio technicians vainly try to pull them to. No, really, it’s quite startling. In this version, the Doctor marches straight over to confront and blame Susan for “inviting” this “unwarrantable intrusion”. She asks Ian and Barbara, aghast,
“What are you doing here?”
before explaining
“They’re two of my schoolteachers.”
Here, she’s much more obviously caught between two worlds, as she’s pulled between replying to two opposing parties, each of them is not really speaking to the other. If the Doctor was a bit aggressive with Ian and Barbara a couple of minutes ago, now he’s stepped straight to a slug-out with Susan rather than the protectiveness we might expect. It’s only Barbara’s concern that this bizarre place is where her pupil lives that pulls him up and makes him turn on them for a moment instead.

Barbara wants to leave, but Ian is dazedly trying to work it out.
“Don’t expect any answers from me. You wouldn’t understand anyway,”
snaps the Doctor, and while Susan tries responding to the teachers, he keeps turning from them to shoot out variants on “You see? I warned you,” calling Susan a “stupid child,” which he never would in the series as it finally went out. Ian’s “It’s an illusion, it must be,” a key line in the script for the final version, is just tossed away here while the Doctor’s busy haranguing his granddaughter. He doesn’t want to explain anything, but Ian keeps snatching at odd words to make sense of it all – “Ship?” Though the rewritten script does a better job of establishing Ian’s scepticism, the Doctor here gives his most effective answer, rather than just a put-down:
“This is no trick, young man; you forced your way in here, I didn’t invite you.”
It’s pretty unanswerable logic.

It’s a good thing the Doctor’s toned down for the next go at it, great as his performance is, but at least he’ll get a lead role of equal strength if less abrasiveness. Susan’s the biggest loser from the remount, as she becomes much more of a timid schoolgirl, where here she’s quite eerie at times and almost revels in her casual power; she’s unmistakably alien. When the camera sweeps to her as she stands at the console in her shiny tabard and announces that
“The TARDIS can go anywhere,”
she’s almost exultant. She’ll never seem as powerful again.
“Well, I thought you’d both realise when you came inside and saw the different dimensions,”
she says, unable to grasp how dim her teachers are (a great moment sadly denied to children all round the country). Barbara demands “the truth,” but the Doctor is adamant they’ve heard it. The camera moves from Barbara to the Doctor, who’s taking off his scarf as he gets ready to sit down. It’s at this point that I notice that, under the more endearing scarf and hat, he appears to be wearing an ordinary, businesslike shirt and tie, which is both less interesting and more severe than the slightly antiquated outfit he wears later. I’m glad they changed that, too. As he sits, Susan stands beside him, staring confidently like a disciple. He gives his first great speech, and it’s a cracker:
“We are not of this race. We are not of this Earth. We are wanderers in the fourth dimensions of space and time, cut off from our own planet and our own people by aeons and universes that are far beyond the reach of your most advanced sciences.”
“It’s true, every word of it’s true,” confirms Susan. “You don’t know what you’ve done, coming in here.”
In the first take, William Hartnell messes up the delivery of his last line, the first ostentatious example of what becomes known as a ‘Billyfluff’, and one of the reasons I remember Susan’s line so vividly is that, following a line descending into gibberish, Carole Ann Ford stands tautly and declaims “It’s true, every word of it’s true” with rather more than necessary force, which always cracks me up. She gets a slyly good line straight afterwards, as she tells him
“I know these Earth people better than you. Their minds reject things they don’t understand,”
a rather more subtle insult to the teachers than the shouting match going on between the ‘grown-ups’.

“You can’t keep us here,” says Ian, starting to believe there’s something in it; Barbara is fixated on getting Susan to admit she’s lying, as if that’ll undo the evidence of her own eyes.
“I’m not lying!” she shouts. “I loved your school. I loved England in the Twentieth Century. The last five months have been the happiest of my life.”
And we’re back to “You don’t know what you’ve done” – suddenly, Susan is talking about her life here in the past tense. What they’ve done is forced her to leave, which she recognises here but doesn’t accept in the final version.
“But you are one of us. You look like us, you sound like us…”
Susan is turning away even as Barbara says it, a half-smile on her face. The camera isn’t even on the teacher, but on Susan coming into close-up again, Ian watching her incredulously and the Doctor behind him, stony-faced.
“I was born in the 49th Century,”
she says, calmly. “What?” bursts Ian. “Oh, now look, Susan…” he trails off, looking at her, as she stares him out. While in the early part of the scene it was Ian questioning the Doctor about the technology, now it’s been Barbara questioning Susan about their life, and Ian can’t bring himself to argue on a personal level. Or is it that he can’t disbelieve her, so he has to turn away or he’d have to believe her? “I’ve had enough of this,” he says. “Come on, let’s get out of here.” Or, ‘I’ve lost the argument. I’d better take my ball away before we have to concede, because I’d worry I’m going mad.’ The few specifics about where the Doctor and Susan come from are intriguing, and a bit of a smack in the chops, but still reduce the power of the original ‘Doctor Who?’ question. Again, probably best to have lost them.

The teachers batter at the closed doors, while the Doctor just laughs, suddenly openly malevolent.
“You still think this is a trick?”
“I know that free movement in the fourth dimension of space and time is a scientific dream I didn’t expect to find solved in a junkyard.”
The Doctor’s just smiling and nodding in the most insufferably patronising way, but then, Ian is a primitive being saying ‘Please patronise me’.
“For your science, schoolmaster, not for ours. I tell you that before your ancestors turned the first wheel, the people of my world had reduced movement through the farthest reaches of space to a game for children.”
Ian announces he wants to take “Miss Wright and Susan,” and it’s at that point that the Doctor tells him, calmly but dangerously, “Don’t threaten me, young man” (his tone is more aggressive in the first take). That the stakes have suddenly been raised is shown by Barbara – who’s been silent since her attempt to make out Susan was lying – darting to Ian’s side to say,
“What if it is true?”
“Well, it can’t be, I tell you!”
Ian’s getting more belligerent, and gets electrocuted for his pains. Again, when Barbara flares up out of her calmness it’s not Ian’s threatened-and-threatening bluster, reflecting the Doctor’s, but a moral assertion:
“What do you think you’re doing? How dare you behave like this?”
Susan is now almost in tears, pleading with her grandfather to release them and – in direct contrast to the later version – offering to be taken to another time. “I won’t object, I promise I won’t object.” Again, the Doctor splits someone off to convince them, but this time as he leads Susan off towards the camera (great use of it by Billy) he’s quiet and persuasive, rather than calculating.
“My dear child, you know very well we cannot let them possess even one idea that such a ship as the TARDIS might be possible.”
Susan starts to speak again, but…
“Look. See how they watch and listen as we talk,” he mutters. “If they leave the ship now, they might come to believe at last that all this is possible. Think what would have happened to the ancient Romans if they’d possessed the power of gunpowder; if Napoleon had been given the secret of the aeroplane. No, my child, we both know that we cannot let our secret loose into the world of the 20th Century!”
“But you can’t keep them prisoners here!” she implores.
“You can’t keep us prisoners anywhere,” rumbles Ian mutinously.
“I cannot let you go, schoolteacher. Whether you believe what you have been told is of no importance. You and your companion would be footprints in a time where you were not supposed to walk.”
It’s a great scene, but again it’s a good job they toned down the inability to meddle even by planting an idea in someone’s head; it’s very severe, and a far cry from the guided tours of the TARDIS for any passing villager in, say, Black Orchid (where Time Team is nearly up to now). It’s difficult to decide between the two takes here, as well. The one used to make up the ‘full’ episode on DVD loses the banging doors and is kinder to the actors, with fewer fluffs, but misses some of the liveliness of the earlier take. This speech of the Doctor’s, for example, has a lot more mistakes but is invested with a breathless urgency and ends with “to walk,” which I much prefer to the ‘better’ take’s “to have walked.”

The next four lines, one for each actor, really ratchet up the tension but also sum up their responses when pushed. They’re particularly unflattering to Ian, shoving himself between the Doctor and Susan:
“If I have to use force to get out of here, I will, you know.”
“Maybe we’ve stumbled on something beyond our understanding,” suggests Barbara.
“You see the first faint glimmerings…” whispers the Doctor.
And Susan, near hysterical, pleads “Oh, why did you come here? Why?”
…At which the Doctor walks to the console with implacable assurance and takes off, despite Ian trying to wrestle him away. They’ve hit on that brilliant main dematerialisation noise, immortalised as a “wheezing, groaning sound,” but in this first version it’s smothered with additional effects – the bleeping noise is quite annoying, and there are bursts of something like a gravelly motorbike trying to cough into life, or loud static (appropriately for all the TV feedback on the screen). There’s no question that in this version, the Doctor takes off because there’s a threat to history, but in the later version it’s a threat to family (Lawrence Miles would say that for the Great Houses it’s the same thing, of course).

And, as the TARDIS comes to rest on a prehistoric plain, a sinister shadow looming across it, the rest is history…

I remember when I first saw this through a murky haze of having been copied far too many times, and still thought it was fantastic. I loved the raw edge and Billy’s harshness, and several of the lines stuck with me: Susan rigidly declaiming “It’s true, every word of it’s true” – still there in the ‘main’ version, but delivered in a much less emphatic way and coming just after a truly great Billy line instead of a fluff, so you don’t notice it – and, particularly, the Doctor’s magisterial “footsteps in a time where you were not supposed to walk.” I still love it today, though I’ve got used to its failings.

The scenes in the school and the junkyard are terribly good, but it’s inside the TARDIS that the changes, and the flashes of brilliance, really emerge. The actors are gripping, and with less movement there’s much less opportunity for the camera operators to muck it up, and Peter Brachacki’s TARDIS design is superb. It’s fascinating to compare two (well, two and a half) versions of the same story; if the movie of the second story was far more polished, far more dumb and far less harsh than the television version, one look at the Pilot episode makes the show’s broadcast premiere seem positively cuddly, and underlines just how superbly directed and atmospheric it was. This early attempt is often more stylised than the final version, but while in that you can see what a good director Waris Hussein is, you can’t help noticing what a mess the cameras were making of his intentions. Incidentally, he gives some great interviews on the DVD, and I saw him at Tenth Planet’s ‘Invasion’ convention earlier this year; a thoroughly nice man, and from pictures of when he was directing Doctor Who, blimey, he was handsome too.

However, it’s not just technical competence that makes the final version the better one. Much of the rewritten script is sheer poetry, and though I prefer Susan more ‘unearthly’ (it’s alarming to see just how downgraded her role was before it was even televised), here the Doctor is abrasive rather than enigmatic, and the only thing that makes him seem less than completely unreasonable is an aggressive Ian, who appears to be squaring up for a fight. With the high-pitched, irritating background buzz of this TARDIS driving them up the wall too, it’s difficult to see how this could have lasted; they’d all have murdered each other by half-way through the second episode. A fascinating start, but I’m glad they had another go.

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And You Said… (5)

Blogger Alex Wilcock said…

As I finally get back to this blog with the full version of An Unearthly Child, I notice with embarrassment that I managed to be a year out above; when the Pilot was finally broadcast in 1991, the current Doctor Who story was a book by Terrance Dicks called Timewyrm: Exodus, and Nightshade was a full twelve months away. Oops!

1:00 am, January 26, 2009  
Blogger MsWholigan said…

I'm new to Who, and looking to familiarize myself with all the episodes. With all the vastness of the Internet before me, still I come across your blog most often, and find your remarks most intelligent and amusing of them all.

11:34 pm, February 28, 2010  
Blogger Alex Wilcock said…

Oh, gosh! Thank you so much, Ms Wholigan - that's very cheering. Do please post comments on what you make of stories that I've written about, and I'll try to get on with writing about rather more of them...

10:52 am, March 08, 2010  
Blogger MsWholigan said…

Just now I am watching The Keys of Marinus for the first time. I'm amused at how like Scooby Doo it is at the beginning, what with the revolving trap doors and such. I love this show. I love the occasional hints that The Good Doctor actually knows Ian's correct name, the idea that he just might actually know what he's doing here... and Barbara never ceases to amaze me with her resourcefulness, nor Ian with his ever-present sense of irony and plain sensibleness. Though it seems I never quite know with these early episodes!

5:36 pm, March 08, 2010  
Blogger Alex Wilcock said…

Scooby Doo! You’re spot-on – I wish I’d thought of the simile when writing my review of The Keys of Marinus last year. I agree with you absolutely about the Doctor, Ian and Barbara… And though I can’t say it’s one of the best, it’s always entertaining.

5:25 pm, April 01, 2010  

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