So let’s just take stock for a moment. We have the broadcast version of An Unearthly Child. And we have the pilot episode which consists of one take of the first half, and two different takes of the second half. That’s two-and-a-half versions of An Unearthly Child, which makes it a unique experience among Doctor Who episodes. It’s the only one we have the dress rehearsals for.
The usual story is that the pilot episode is an edgier, slightly darker experience than An Unearthly Child, with the Doctor being more antagonistic and Susan being even more unearthly. Truth is, the two are very similar; there’s no evidence of a significant rethink between takes. Even the little mini-drama of the two whispering school girls and the boorish teen who interrupts their gossiping is kept lovingly intact.
What is true is that it’s much less technically polished than An Unearthly Child. As perfectly skewered in An Adventure in Space and Time, it’s a schmozzle; doors stubbornly refuse to close, cameras struggle to focus on their subjects and so on. It’s hard not to notice these faults and to recall that head honcho Sydney Newman refused to put the episode to air in the state it was in. Like all dress rehearsals, it was never meant to be seen by layfolk like you and me.
But Newman couldn’t have anticipated that one day, it would be unearthed and made available for all to see. Retaining and viewing the pilot says something about our fannish desire to understand how the show was made. It also expresses something about completism; that we want to see every frame of Doctor Who – even the stuff we were never meant to see. And because we have big gaps of 60s Doctor Who, even the dress rehearsals are worth cherishing.
It’s funny how we like being told the same story over and over again and Doctor Who’s beginning keeps getting retold. We have 2.5 Unearthly Children and we have an alternative version in David Whitaker’s book, Doctor Who in an exciting adventure with the Daleks (a version which dispenses with all the caveman malarkey). Then there’s another version in the film he co-wrote, Dr Who and the Daleks . It’s pretty clear that Whitaker (though probably no one else around him) held much affection for the series’ original opening and looked for any opportunity to rewrite it.
Even today, the gaps in the story are intriguing enough to inspire ongoing filling. The Name of the Doctor shows us the moment the Doctor and Susan actually absconded from their homeworld. Big Finish have audio dramas which fill in the space in between that moment and when they landed in London. And wasn’t there talk a few years ago of a brand new audio novelisation of this first story? It seems we just can’t stop wanting to add to and adjust these very first episodes.
So why does so little change between the pilot and the transmitted episode? I think it’s got something to do with styles of performance.
With modern filmmaking, rehearsing and recording scenes in short order, you can experiment with every line. Matt Smith, famously, tried new interpretation of lines frequently and Peter Capaldi, from all accounts, takes an inventive approach to each scene. It’s a technique which allows the actors to explore the various nuance in each line and give the director an array of choices. A director can end up with a choice of takes all with different emphases, and he/she can play around with them in the edit, shaping each scene differently.
This was simply not an option when they were making Doctor Who in 1963. That recording regime required the cast to come to the studio recording pre-rehearsed. It called for consistency, not invention. Partly because the cameras didn’t move that fast. You can see it demonstrated in the two takes of the second half of the pilot. The cast members hit their marks accurately and say their lines almost identically. With the sort of time pressure they had to deal with, they wouldn’t have risked a spontaneous new take on a line, in case it threw one of their fellow actors and the whole scene fell apart.
So you can imagine that when they came to remake An Unearthly Child, they were keen to leave it mostly the same. Camera positions are similar. The actors’ blocking is more or less the same. And the actors produce more or less the same characterisation they did in the pilot. There are a few line changes, but presumably, they didn’t want to mess too much with what the main cast were doing. Not just because it was good work already, but also because you wouldn’t want to inspire a lack of confidence in their performance – which may well happen if you were to say to one of them, “we want you to play this completely differently to last week”.
The joy of a truly great performance is that you forget that the exercise is a construct: draw too much attention to it, the spell breaks and it suddenly feels like actors speaking lines. We forget how good the actors on Doctor Who generally are, particularly the regulars, because that spell rarely breaks. And with this TARDIS crew, it’s almost unheard of. But having 2.5 versions of the same episode means you’re effectively seeing how they cast that spell. You can see Hartnell et al deliver a line three times. And you can see how they deliver the goods brilliantly, time after time.
This is why we should treasure that pilot episode. Not because it’s a tantalising false start, or because it’s more precious minutes of an era perforated with missing episodes (although it’s both those things). Its real value is in seeing actors at work, and the opportunity to appreciate the professionalism and poise they show under extreme pressure. We can look up any number of episodes of Confidential or Doctor Who Extra from recent years and see Smith, Capaldi etc rehearsing a scene and crafting their performances. But to see it from over 50 years ago? That’s truly remarkable.
NEXT TIME… Tooth and Claw