Doctor Who: The Beginning Review

Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 2 release of Doctor Who: The Beginning, the first three serials (and a reconstruction of the now-lost fourth) in an excellent three-disc box set.

The very first person you see on screen in Doctor Who is a policeman (played by an uncredited Reg Cranfield, trivia fans), walking outside a junkyard in Totters Lane, London. This is the home of Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford), a teenaged pupil at local comprehensive Coal Hill School. Susan’s strangeness attracts the attention of two teachers, science master Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and history teacher Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), who one night pay a visit on Susan and her eccentric grandfather, known only as The Doctor…

That’s the beginning of “An Unearthly Child”, the first episode of Doctor Who. The series was originated by Sydney Newman, a Canadian-born broadcaster who had had considerable success with ABC’s Armchair Theatre. He had been brought over to the BBC to breathe new life into the then rather stuffy drama department, and Doctor Who was an attempt to bridge a gap between the end of Grandstand and the beginning of Juke Box Jury, a half-hour gap on a Saturday teatime where audiences tended to drop. The BBC had been a rather tradition-bound organisation, but by the early 1960s, with competition from ITV since 1955, new winds were blowing. If Doctor Who seemed new, it was the creation of outsiders and young people: Newman was a Canadian, the producer Verity Lambert was then the only female producer at the BBC and twenty years younger than her youngest male counterpart, while Waris Hussein was the only Asian-born director working then.

William Hartnell was only fifty-five, though certainly looked at least a decade older. He had become typecast as sergeant majors, notably in the first Carry On film, Carry On Sergeant, though Lambert had been impressed by his seedy bookie in This Sporting Life. By contrast, Carole Ann Ford, playing a teenager, was actually twenty-three and a mother. William Russell had been the star of the 50s series The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (which survives and is available on DVD), and was well qualified to handle any action sequences going. Meanwhile, Jacqueline Hill had built up a distinguished CV since the 1950s.

Hussein and Lambert had in fact two goes at making that first episode. Unusually, the “pilot” version still exists (and is included on this disc). Small changes were made, such as a generally faster pace, Susan’s costume being more like a 60s teenager (a Mary Quant top, no less), and the Doctor’s characterisation being made less aggressive. Also, the theme tune is somewhat different. In whichever version you watch, the first major coup comes halfway through that first episode, when Ian and Barbara follow The Doctor and Susan into what looks like a contemporary police box…and into the interior of the TARDIS, bigger inside than outside. Given that this and others of the series’ key concepts have taken root in the public consciousness over the last forty-two years, it’s hard to imagine the impact this must have had on its first screening. In fact, audience numbers were a little low, blamed on Kennedy’s assassination that day and also on power failures in certain regions. The first episode was repeated the following week, and an increase in viewers (up to 5.9 million) was noted.

Before I continue, a word on titles. Up until 1966’s The Gunfighters, each episode was individually named, and no overall story title appeared on screen. This has meant that various titles have been used for these early serials. The 1973 Radio Times Tenth Anniversary Special (which gave many young fans, myself included, their first real overview of the show’s history) used the convention of naming each serial after its opening episode title. Some of these have never really taken – nowhere else will you see The Dalek Invasion of Earth referred to as World’s End, for example – but others have, by way of custom, become established names. That’s the case with the first and third serials in this set, An Unearthly Child and The Edge of Destruction, although internal paperwork from the time calls them (Doctor Who and) 100,000 BC and Inside the Spaceship, titles which have been used by certain reference books. The middle serial is more problematic. The Tenth Anniversary Special calls it The Dead Planet, and the internal title of the time was The Mutants (which potentially confuses it with the 1972 Jon Pertwee serial of that name). However, it has widely become known as The Daleks, and so it is here.

The first serial, written by Anthony Coburn, is really a single episode followed by a three-part story set in the Stone Age, involving a tribe who has lost the secret of fire. Although most people would rate the opening episode as a televisual landmark, the remainder of this serial is average Who. It’s certainly well made – especially considering the constraints of the tiny Lime Grove Studio D, where it was shot – but you sense this is a show still finding its feet. Audiences were respectable, but not outstanding, reaching 6.9 million for the third episode.

The series went from the ancient past to the far future, with The Daleks, a seven-parter written by Terry Nation. The first episode features just the four regulars, who have landed on the radiation-blasted planet of Skaro, which features a jungle and a mysterious futuristic city. At the end of the episode, Barbara is menaced by something, of which we see just its sucker arm. And that’s the point when Doctor Who took off. By Episode Two, audiences were dropping again, but then we had the first sight and sound of the Daleks. The 6.4 million viewers told two million of their friends, and by the end of this serial, over 10 million people were watching, and Doctor Who’s future was secure.

If that hadn’t happened, we might be regarding Doctor Who as an interesting, if minor, piece of early 60s television SF. Although Newman envisaged the series as lasting at least a year, the then Controller of BBC1, Donald Baverstock, initially approved a run of only thirteen episodes – and, with a four-parter and a seven-parter already in the can, a two-parter was required to complete the allocated episodes, just in case. (By the time these two episodes went into production, the show was known to be a success.) Script editor David Whitaker was the writer, turning out The Edge of Destruction in a two-day-and-night session. This story is unique in having just the four regulars and no guest cast, and – apart from a final scene which leads into the next story, Marco Polo – in taking place entirely inside the TARDIS. Whitaker took the opportunity to develop the four main characters, while telling a story of the TARDIS’s “fast return” switch sending them back and back in time to possible destruction.

Although their importance to Who history is undoubted, and the opening episode is a masterly set-up of the show’s premise, I’m not of the opinion that any of these three serials is really of the top flight. By all accounts the real triumph of that first year was Marco Polo, but as that serial is completely missing it is also the major loss in a largely surviving season, but more of that below. (The only other missing Season One episodes as I write this are two of the six parts of The Reign of Terror.) The Daleks is over-extended at seven parts, though the latter half is structured as a quest, with the various obstacles on the way being as much the story as the defeat of the Daleks. The real classic Dalek stories were to come later. The Edge of Destruction (which I hadn’t seen before reviewing this DVD) is fascinating as a character-led rather than action-led piece, but as with the rest of this box set, it shows Doctor Who establishing itself. Greater serials were to come, but let’s not forget that if these three early stories hadn’t worked those triumphs would not have been made, and Doctor Who would have been a curiosity of interest mainly to fans of 60s televisual SF, and not the iconic show it is today.

The Beginning comprises three dual-layer DVDs, one serial plus extras on each. The discs are encoded for Regions 2 and 4. The episode listing is as follows:

Disc One: An Unearthly Child
“An Unearthly Child” pilot 25:06
“An Unearthly Child” 23:20
“The Cave of Skulls” 24:35
“The Forest of Fear” 23:35
“The Firemaker” 24:24

Disc Two: The Daleks
“The Dead Planet” 24:20
“The Survivors” 24:26
“The Escape” 25:07
“The Ambush” 24:27
“The Expedition” 24:30
“The Ordeal” 26:10
“The Rescue” 22:25

Disc Three: The Edge of Destruction
“The Edge of Destruction” 25:01
“The Brink of Disaster” 22:27

As you would expect for television material of this vintage, all the episodes are in 4:3 with mono soundtracks. An alternative Arabic soundtrack is available for “The Brink of Disaster”. These episodes were recorded “as live” on 405-line black and white videotape (35mm in the case of “The Ambush”); the DVD transfers came from 16mm telerecordings, and VidFIREd to restore a video “look”. I’ve given the BBC Restoration Team plenty of praise in the past for their work on Who DVDs before, and the same applies again here. Given the sub-Standard Definition originals, these will never be up there with state-of-the-art HD transfers, but you can safely say that these episodes look and sound better than they ever have done. If you’re interested in the technical details of DVD restoration, please visit the Restoration Team’s website.

On to the extras, and the Restoration Team have outdone themselves here. The first disc has the unedited studio recording of the pilot (35:39), complete with a retake of the second half (from the point where Ian and Barbara re-enter the TARDIS). This also has a commentary with Verity Lambert and Waris Hussein, moderated by Gary Russell. Russell moderates all the other commentaries on the disc, which are on Episode One (Hussein with Carole Ann Ford and William Russell) and Episode Four (Lambert, Ford, Russell). It’s as well to listen to the commentaries in that order, as Russell continues to question Lambert on the casting from the pilot to Episode One – presumably he ran out of time. The presence of a Who authority as moderator avoids the problems some earlier commentaries have: he directs the chat rather than letting it ramble, at the mercy of no doubt fallible forty-year-old memories. There’s plenty of rapport between the speakers, who are obviously proud of the work they did.

The Doctor Who theme – composed by Ron Grainer and arranged by Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – is probably one of the most widely known pieces of electronic music. Playing over the title graphics, we have three mixes of it: the original mono, Dolby Digital 2.0 (analogue Dolby Surround) and Dolby Digital 5.1.

Four comedy sketches are next. “The Pitch of Fear” (3:45), “The Web of Caves” (3:51) and “The Kidnappers” (3:39), written by and starring Mark Gatiss and David Walliams for BBC2’s Doctor Who Night in 1999. In addition, there’s “The Corridor Sketch” (5:54), a Reeltime Production from 1991, and there’s a Play All option. The first three are 16:9 anamorphic, the last 4:3. In themselves, mildly amusing sketches that you probably won’t watch repeatedly, these have been somewhat controversial. One line, which could be seen to be disparaging to certain Doctor Who actors, has been removed from “The Pitch of Fear” at Gatiss’s request. Also, a bleeped-out “bastard” which sounds like a bleeped-out stronger swearword, is responsible for this set’s 12 certificate.

Disc Two, which has a seven-part serial to accommodate, inevitably has fewer extras. Commentaries, all again moderated by Gary Russell, are included for Episodes Two (director Christopher Barry, Verity Lambert), Four (Barry, Ford, Russell) and Seven (Richard Martin, Ford, Russell).

“The Creation of the Daleks” (17:11) does what it says: Terry Nation is no longer with us, and it’s a pity that there’s no archive interview footage with him, as there is with Sydney Newman. Considering that Nation has sometimes (erroneously) been credited with creating Doctor Who, there seems to be a little revisionism going on here. Obviously designer Raymond Cusick (interviewed here) deserves a lot of credit for his designs, but Richard Martin and Verity Lambert take pains to highlight David Whitaker’s editing of Nation’s scripts. Michael Summerton, one of the Dalek operators, talks about his experience of being inside the fibreglass and plywood shell, and sound recordist Brian Hodgson and actor David Graham are on hand to talk about how they produced the creatures’ distinctive voices.

Disc Three, with just two episodes, has the most and longest extras. “Doctor Who: Origins” (53:51) is an excellent look at how the series was first put together. There’s plenty of rare material here, including internal BBC memos and clips of previous acting appearances from Jacqueline Hill and Carole Ann Ford. This is a tightly-edited piece that I could easily have wished longer.

There is no commentary on this disc, no doubt because the making of The Edge of Destruction is amply covered by another documentary, “Over the Edge” (29:23). Interviewees here are Richard Martin and Frank Cox (directors of part one and two respectively), Verity Lambert, Waris Hussein, freelance documentary-maker Keith Barnfather, Brian Hodgson, William Russell and Carole Ann Ford. They do a thorough job of covering this lowest-budget of all Who serial, including a discussion of the use of two directors and their different styles. They also discuss a then-controversial scene where Susan goes mad and threatens Ian with a pair of scissors, breaching children’s TV regulations of the use of household objects. Lambert had to apologise at the time, and now agrees it was a mistake.

“Inside the Spaceship” (10:15) is a featurette on the TARDIS, from its original design onwards. Peter Brahacki, the original designer of the set, is not present and the interviewees differ on the weight of his contribution. We hear from Carole Ann Ford (who named the TARDIS originally), William Russell, Verity Lambert, Raymond Cusick, plus directors Richard Martin and Waris Hussein.

“Masters of Sound” (12:24) looks at the creation of the theme tune and also the special sound effects created by the Radiophonic Workshop. Much of it comprises unused interview footage from 1993 for the documentary More Than Thirty Years in the TARDIS. Delia Derbyshire died in 2001, but she features here, both in 1993 and also in extracts from a 1960s TV programme on the Workshop. She also remembers Ron Grainer (who died in 1981), who was a prolific and versatile composer – the themes from The Prisoner and Steptoe and Son are also his work. We also hear from Brian Hodgson and Dick Mills.

Marco Polo, a seven-part story written by John Lucarotti, immediately followed The Edge of Destruction. All archive losses are frustrating, but this particularly so. Of all the lost serials this one was sold to more countries than any other. But not only do no episodes survive, it is one of three stories which have not so much as a film clip. All we have are the scripts and the soundtrack, and – found much more recently – a set of telesnaps (off-screen photographs, taken by John Cura) of the six episodes that Waris Hussein directed. It’s a great shame, as this shows every sign of being one of the First Doctor’s finest serials, and possibly one of the best historicals they ever made. Included on this disc is a condensed version of the story (31:25), made up from the stills and soundtrack, with occasional explanatory captions. In the absence of missing episodes turning up – and as years go by, sadly that becomes less and less likely – it would be nice to see reconstructions like this on future DVDs.

Also on the third disc are DVD-ROM materials: Radio Times billings for each episode (which shows how much more detailed they were, with far fewer channels to cover – a gift to researchers) and the shooting script of “An Unearthly Child”. Each disc has a self-navigating stills gallery: An Unearthly Child (6:03), The Daleks (5:33), and The Edge of Destruction and Marco Polo (5:09).

Subtitles are available for all the episodes and the extras (apart from the commentaries), and in addition each episode apart from the pilot has the Restoration Team’s ever-useful information subtitles, provided here by Martin Wiggins.

It’s become very predictable, in the several years that I’ve been reviewing Doctor Who DVDs for this site, that I find plenty to praise in the Restoration Team’s work. Anyone with any interest in the show, or in vintage television in particular, will find plenty to occupy them with this exemplary box set.


Updated: Jan 31, 2006

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