R01b Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child (Pilot Episode Commentary)

As a surprise treat (?) we’ve done a commentary on the pilot episode. However, before we get started, some explanation may be required…

The first episode, “An Unearthly Child”, was originally recorded a month before full recording on the series began. However, the initial recording was plagued with technical problems and errors made during the performance. A particular problem occurred with the doors leading into the TARDIS control room, which would not close properly, instead randomly opening and closing through the early part of the scene. Two versions of the scene set in the TARDIS were recorded, along with an aborted first attempt to start the second version.

Sydney Newman, after viewing the episode, met producer Verity Lambert and director Waris Hussein. He indicated the many faults he found with the episode and ordered that it be mounted again; a consequence of this was the delay of the show’s planned 16 November 1963 premiere date. This initial episode is now known as the unaired “pilot episode”, although it was never intended as such, since the practice of producing pilot episodes did not exist in Britain in the 1960s.

During the weeks between the two tapings, changes were made to costuming, effects, performances, and the script (which had originally featured a more callous and threatening Doctor). Changes made before the final version were filmed include a thunderclap sound effect being deleted from the opening theme music; Susan’s dress being changed to make her look more like a schoolgirl than the original costume, which made her appear more alien and sensual; the Doctor’s costume being changed from a contemporary jacket and tie to his familiar Edwardian clothing; a reference to the Doctor and Susan being from the 49th century was replaced with the line “[from] another time, another world”; the TARDIS door being repaired so that it closed properly; and a refinement of the TARDIS sound effect.

The original episode was not broadcast until 26 August 1991, when the BBC aired a version that edited together the first half of the taping with one of the two completed second halves. As it happened, the version chosen was the one in which the TARDIS doors would not close; Carole Ann Ford fluffing a line of dialogue, Jacqueline Hill getting caught in a doorway, a camera banging into a piece of scenery during one of the scrapyard sequences, and William Russell accidentally knocking over a mannequin in the scrapyard. Earlier, in June 1991, a version with the first half edited together with the other take of the second half of the pilot was released on the VHS compilation The Hartnell Years; later, in 2000, the complete version (including both takes) was released in a remastered form on VHS, along with The Edge of Destruction.

In 2006, the Doctor Who: The Beginning DVD set contained two versions of the episode: an unedited studio recording including all takes of the second part of the show, and a newly created version of the pilot that uses the best footage from the original recording, with additional editing and digital adjustments to remove blown lines, technical problems, and reduce studio noise. Like the other episodes from this serial, both versions of the “pilot” were remastered for DVD release, using VidFIRE technology that simulated the original video look of the 1963 production. This is the version we have used, as if they’d had the opportunity, we’re sure the original production team would have compiled the best bits themselves and it’s as close to what they originally wanted as we’re ever going to see.

Clear as mud..? Excellent!

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