November 23, 1963 saw what was to be the beginning of a national treasure for the BBC, Doctor Who. The premiere episode was repeated November 30th due to the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy, yet many viewers saw the first story entitled ‘An Unearthly Child’ regardless. A family program that was intended to educate as well as entertain, Sydney Newman, David Whittaker and Verity Lambert created something very new that cold autumn night.
Cast in the starring role was the somewhat unlikely character actor William Hartnell, up until then known for playing military roles. Hartnell was said to have embodied the role and often treated co-star Carole Anne Ford as if she were the young child she portrayed on television. An irascible type of man, Hartnell was also quite warm and caring toward those close to him. Devoted to the role of the Doctor and the success of Doctor Who, he acted as ambassador for the series during his run on the program and even returned ten years later for the Three Doctors.
The supporting cast consisted of the Doctor’s ‘granddaughter’ Susan played by newcomer Carole Ann Ford and her two nosy teachers who followed her home only to discover that she lived in what appeared to be a box in the middle of a junkyard. Playing the part of my personal favorite companion Ian Chesterton was heroic leading man William Russell. Already a household name from the Adventures of Sir Lancelot, playing the part of a school teacher must have seemed odd until the adventures arrived demanding that the unassuming Ian rise to the challenge and play the role of champion. The third yet certainly not least supporting actress was Jacqueline Hill who lent her talents to the dynamic and determined Barbara Wright. A strikingly attractive woman and actress of some caliber, the addition of Hill to the series was a major boon and created a kind of triumvirate of heavyweight actors presiding over the first two years of the series. Carole Ann Ford certainly made an impact with the strange and alienesque Susan who seemed to have a deeper understanding than she let on. Sadly the part changed mid-series and she was restricted mainly to screaming as the writers possibly realized that her character was perhaps too challenging for the audience.
The opening episode remains one of the most unusual artifacts of television that I have seen. The sequence where the Doctor encounters Ian and Barbara in the junkyard is chilling and unsettling as the teachers begin to worry that perhaps this strange man has trapped Susan somehow. Since the Doctor is obviously hiding something from the two teachers, the mystery combined with Hartnell’s portrayal of the Doctor as tetchy and annoyed lends a positively sinister air to the moment. What follows is the intrusion into the TARDIS as Susan attempts to protect her well-meaning mentors from her grandfather’s anger. Frustrated by the invasion of his privacy, the Doctor reveals nearly all of his secrets to the duo, telling them of his alien origins and how insignificant humans are in his view. Vowing to never release them, the Doctor watches with glee as the teachers attempt to control the TARDIS to no avail. Finally, the ship takes flight and the rest is history.
The initial moment of the TARDIS interior is so stupefying that it needs to be seen to be believed. Viewers are used to it now, but back in the day the idea that the Doctor’s craft is somehow bigger on the inside than out was a shocker.
What followed is of course known to all, 26 years of programming. Not all of the 155 stories transmitted were corkers but the program attempted so much and excelled so well that it holds the rank of the most ambitious science fiction program on television. The sheer variety of stories has always attracted me to Doctor Who. What other program could present a story involving the Daleks playing the part of servants on a moon base in Earth’s future one week and an adventure set in 18th Century Scotland the following week? Given the wide variety of stories and characters, it is also unique for having a fanbase that can be so polarized from each other. With eleven actors now playing the lead role, there as many supporters of one era as there are detractors to another.
A constantly changing program that often reflects the times it is filmed in, Doctor Who will embark on its latest experimental season next Spring when Matt Smith arrives as Doctor #11. The youngest actor to play the part, Smith is a far cry from the crotchety Hartnell who introduced the character of the mysterious time traveler 46 years ago.
And why not?