Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Doctor Who's 47th Anniversary


William Hartnell as Doctor Who in "An Unearthly Child"   

     Today, November 23rd, is the 47th anniversary of the first BBC transmission of ""An Unearthly Child", the first episode of Doctor Who, and I believe it is an anniversary worth marking.

     Given its 26-year original run and subsequent revivals, I assume Doctor Who will always wear the mantle of longest-running television program ever. For any and all of its ups-and-downs, the show is deservedly well loved.

     During the years I worked as a lawyer for CBS/FOX Video, we acted as BBC's home video marketer and distributor in North America.  CBS/FOX released an enormous amount of Doctor Who programming, all of it for the first time on home video, on a regular basis to a fairly sizable, ultra-fanatic audience.

     When you work as in-house counsel for a media company and have acquired a good reputation for problem-solving,  all of the weird and unclassifiable telephone calls and inquiries the company receives are sent your way.  Because of this, I found myself regularly dealing the "Who-vians" (i.e., Doctor Who ultra-fans), who would call enthusiastically and persistently with the most obscure questions imaginable about anything and everything. An earlier stint working in a record company publicity department  prepared me a little bit for the excessive level of personal devotion some people are capable of exercising regarding matters outside of their family, friends and work life, but the Who-vian passion surpassed anything I had previously experienced or could imagine.  Because the calls sometimes produced  unsatisfactory endings for the caller (not every question elicits the "right" answer) or tedious follow-up work for me (while it's good and important to "keep the customer satisfied", there are practical limits), I eventually formed an unfair negative impression of the show.

     However, this ended when one day I decided that I needed to learn more about the Doctor Who series in order to prepare for a substantive work project.  Over a weekend when I was bedridden with flu, I began watching the series.  The first shows I viewed featured Tom Baker in the role of Doctor Who (our head of Marketing, Mindy Pickard, told me that he was the most popular and highly regarded of the various Doctors). I immediately "got it" and understood the show's appeal. 

Tom Baker as Doctor Who

     Fabled shaky scenery and low-tech special effects notwithstanding, Doctor Who is simply character and story-driven television at its best.  Once you've bought into the story and the fantasy (the successive incarnations of Doctor Who, Time Lords, Daleks and, of course, the TARDIS), you found that the show's creative team had worked very hard over the years to keep Doctor Who both fresh and developing, continually interesting and entertaining. And, as is well known, Doctor Who had the best theme music anywhere.

    The original Doctor Who incarnation was played by the veteran character English actor William Hartnell, who will surely be recognizable to fans of British cinema. (Among other well-known roles, Hartnell played  Dallow in John Boulting's 1947 adaptation of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock.)   Hartnell was much scarier and a much tougher nut than the charming Tom Baker.  They are my two favorites Doctors,  but all the original series Doctor Who actors (the others included Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Sylvester McCoy, Colin Baker and Peter Davison) had their moments.

William Hartnell entering TARDIS

     "An Unearthly Child" was originally broadcast on November 23, 1963, the night following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  That's a spooky, resonant thought and it's difficult to imagine what it must have been like to watch a new science-fiction fantasy show during those profoundly difficult days, even outside the U.S.  For what it's worth, the first week's ratings were disappointing, but viewership quickly picked up in succeeding weeks and the rest is literally "history".

     Following, if you care to read on, is an interesting summary of  "An Unearthly Child" and the early days of the series, which I have borrowed from a fan site in celebration of the anniversary.  Although I hesitate to recommend more television viewing to anyone (personally I'm trying to lay off:  things currently seem so grim, the days are getting shorter, and I think it would be good to get out of the house more), but it's easy for me to endorse Doctor Who to non-initiates.  Plus, for any concerned parents, it is definitely and edifyingly "family viewing".  In its odd way, the show is as thought provoking as it is escapist.  The Daleks, while silly, represent a solid and consistent vision of totalitarianism as evil.  And the TARDIS is still a very potent image and concept that has endured and animated a national consciousness for 47 years.

 TARDIS in South Ambersham, Sussex ("Secret Of Loch Ness" episode)

Regarding "An Unearthly Child", Dr. Who Episode, Original BBC Broadcast Date: November 23, 1963:

     "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." 

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