An Unearthly Child: Unaired Pilot vs. Broadcast Version

If you’re reading this on the day it was posted (and why should you?) it has been exactly 57 years since Doctor Who was first broadcast. 57 years! That’s two generations! So, in celebration of this milestone, I’ll be taking a look at the two versions of the first episode An Unearthly Child – the pilot recording and the broadcast version – and comparing the two. Now, it’s worth bearing in mind that there are several different edits of the pilot; in its raw form it’s pretty rough, with Susan fluffing her line about the hit parade and Barbara tripping over the door-frame, but for this feature I’ll be using the cleaned-up version from the The Beginning DVD boxed set, which eliminated a lot of these problems. It’s probably not very close to the version that the Head of BBC Drama saw in 1963 and demanded a reshoot, but it gives a good idea of the original intended direction for the show.

For anyone who’s never seen the pilot episode, it’s not the radical departure you might expect. It’s no Star Trek’s The Cage, put it that way; there are a few tweaks to the dialogue, the actors play it in a slightly different way and the direction becomes a more in-house BBC style. Are they changes for the better? Well, that’s to be decided. Although both versions have basically the same opening title sequence, the pilot has an unused version of Delia Derbyshire’s theme arrangement featuring a ‘thunderclap’ at the beginning. I’ve never understood what possessed them to ditch that because it sounds fantastic, as if the whole of space and time is tearing open to introduce this amazing new show. Nevertheless, ditch it they did and the ‘thunderclap’ would never return to the beginning of Doctor Who.

An Unearthly Child starts with the iconic scene of a policeman on a foggy night poking his nose in the gates of a junkyard and as he departs, the camera lingers on a Police Box standing in the corner, which seems to be making a strange humming noise. I have to confess, I prefer the pilot’s take on this scene, as the movement of the camera seems a lot more fluid around the junkyard. There’s also something slightly more sinister about the set decoration on the pilot, with a few creepy-looking dolls scattered around the place. They’re probably still there in the televised version, only less prominent; in the pilot, there’s a particularly eerie-looking doll just to the right of frame as the title caption comes up – you’ve probably missed her before, but once you see her, she can’t be unseen! The level of creepiness is definitely played down in the televised version.

The next scenes are in Coal Hill School, where teachers Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian Chesterton (William Russell) discuss their concerns about their mysterious pupil Susan Foreman (Carol Ann Ford). There’s a scene where a couple of schoolgirls in the corridor whisper to each other and I’ve always thought this looks a bit staged in the remount, but that’s a minor quibble because it’s got nothing to do with the plot. As I mentioned earlier, a shot in the pilot where Jacqueline Hill gets her heel stuck on the edge of the scenery is tactfully excised for The Beginning, along with Susan saying that John Smith and the Common Men have gone from ‘2 to 15’ instead of ’15 to 2’ in the hit parade, so we’ll skip past those and onto the bulk of the school scenes. These are largely the same in both versions, though Ian and Barbara’s discussion about Susan is tightened up for the remount and Carole Ann Ford’s portrayal of the character is a bit more unearthly in the pilot, including her strange ink-blotter scene, which is interesting but adds nothing to the plot.

The scenes of Ian and Barbara waiting outside the gates at Totter’s Lane mark the biggest directorial change between the two and I have to say that I much prefer the pilot version of these. The setting is darker and foggier in the pilot and looks less like an outdoor location built in a studio. When Ian and Barbara talk in the car, there’s an interesting lighting effect in the pilot, where the silhouette of Barbara’s face is cast on the side of Ian’s face; it gives an altogether more cinematic feel than the same scenes in the broadcast version. One wonders whether Waris Hussain was indeed pressured to adopt a more in-house directorial style for the remount or whether time was simply against them. There are several bits in the remount that look more rushed than the pilot, including the set design of the Totter’s Lane junk yard which, although basically the same, seems to lack some of the fine detail and once again looks more like a studio set.

The encounter with William Hartnell’s Doctor in the junk yard probably represents the bulk of the change between the two versions. In the pilot, he’s very alien and spiky and legend has it that the main drive of the remount was to make him a more relatable character for the audience. It’s an odd directive in retrospect, because he’s very aggressive later in this same serial and is selfish and dismissive in The Daleks. There’s not really a lot that’s radically different about Hartnell’s Doctor in the pilot episode than in most of the rest of his run; he takes an awfully long time to soften up and it’s arguable that he ever actually achieved agreeable. There are slight changes to the Doctor’s costume between the two versions, as in the pilot he wears a modern collar and tie, only switching to the ribbon tie and wing collars in the broadcast version. In one way, it makes more sense that he would wear modern clothes to fit in with 1960s London, but you can also see why they changed it, because he’d be stuck with that boring black tie throughout the rest of the Stone Age adventure.

Inside the TARDIS, there are changes in design between versions. The apparatus that hangs over the TARDIS console is more prominent in the original version and there’s an interior door with a light in the frame that you never really see after the pilot. Susan is wearing a more ‘futuristic’ outfit when Ian and Barbara burst into the TARDIS in the pilot, which fits in with her edited lines about the Doctor and she originating in the 49th Century. A lot of people see this dialogue as being a massive divergence from Doctor Who continuity, but it’s not really – she doesn’t say that they come from Earth in the 49th Century, so who’s to say that the Gallifrey we are familiar with doesn’t belong in that time period? Besides, it’s all academic because there is no continuity at this stage and even the people who invented the series were never really clear on whether the Doctor was a human being or an alien from another world.

The scene of Ian tussling with the Doctor and the TARDIS taking off are a bit better blocked in the pilot and Ian’s fall to the floor looks a tad less stagey. Very noticeably, the TARDIS dematerialisation sound in the pilot is more like steam escaping with a few bleeps and bloops, with only a hint of the familiar keys-on-a-piano-string noise. Even in the broadcast version, it’s still not quite what we’re used to, but it’s worth remembering that the TARDIS materialisation effect was very fluid for the first few years, with the Police Box often appearing in ghostly silence. At the end of both versions of An Unearthly Child, the TARDIS stands on a prehistoric landscape and a sinister shadow slowly stretches towards it. In the pilot, the shadow is more indistinct, but in the broadcast version, we can clearly see that it is a man. Whether this was a conscious decision or just a fluke of the lighting is something that we will probably never know.

So, which version of An Unearthly Child do I prefer? Well, I’ve never been terribly bothered by continuity, so I’d have to say that I prefer the pilot; it definitely has a more cinematic directorial style and comes across as that little bit more eerie and intriguing. But, to be honest, there’s very little in it; as I said before, there are no epoch-making changes between the two versions and it’s basically about making it a bit more palatable for the Saturday teatime audience. In preparing it for DVD release, the Restoration Team have pimped-up the pilot episode beyond what it originally was. I remember seeing a rough edit of the pilot in the days of pirate VHS, with 2 takes of the TARDIS scenes and a lot of line-fluffing and clattering scenery – that’s probably a lot closer to what the Head of Drama saw in 1963 that what we’ve got on The Beginning DVD. To be honest, it doesn’t matter which version you watch, they’re both fantastic and they’re both the start of something that’s still going strong 57 years later!

Images (c) BBC Television

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