Introducing: An Unearthly Child (Part Three)

As part of our 50th anniversary celebrations, we’ve looked back at some of the important, fan-favourite tales of all of time and space, taking on one Doctor each month, including The Moonbase, Frontier in Space, Remembrance of the Daleks and The Vampires of Venice. And it all concludes with this month’s An Unearthly Child… (Don’t forget to check out Part One and Part Two!)

The basics of Doctor Who were coming together and in August 1963, Waris Hussein, director, contacted the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in regard to what sound would be needed for An Unearthly Child

Vworp! Vworp! Vworp!

Producer, Verity Lambert, was keen to use Ron Grainer to write the theme tune music, and staff at the Radiophonic Workshop realised it: namely, Delia Derbyshire and Dick Mills. Grainer was suitably impressed with Derbyshire’s imagining (which incorporated plucked strings, white noise and test-tone oscillators, which are used to calibrate musical equipment, at different speeds, sliced and edited together on analogue tape), famously asking, “Did I write that?”

To which she replied –

“Most of it.”

The dematerialisation noise of the TARDIS, meanwhile, was created by Brian Hodgson by dragging his mother’s back door keys along the strings of an old piano, before adding electronic effects including echoes.

An Unearthly Child - Radio Times

On 20th August, the first studio session of Doctor Who began at Ealing, a test of the original title sequence. Bernard Lodge, the designer, worked alongside Verity and other technicians to create the effect, and recently told Radio Times:

“It wasn’t initially my job, but a colleague couldn’t do it for some reason and so knowing that I was interested in science fiction, he asked me to take it on. I met with Verity Lambert and she said she wanted me to take a look at this process called “howlaround”, which had been developed by a technician called Ben Palmer. She thought it might be incorporated into the opening titles… These shapes; magic, just magic.”

‘Howlaround’ was a technique in which a video camera is pointed at its own monitor to create an incredible abstract pattern, and was used throughout the First and Second Doctor’s eras. Lodge remembers having to edit the titles down to just 20 seconds:

“I came up with the title and we found that the symmetrical lettering, too, created its own howlaround and we used this along with a pen torch to create more pattern. I thought it would be good to have the Doctor’s face coming out of the pattern, but Verity thought it would be too scary and I think she was right because when my kids saw just the shapes they were scared. Later on though when Patrick Troughton became the Doctor we plucked up courage and used his face in the new title sequence. That was a combination of the howlaround and a crumpled piece of polythene to break up the face as the light passed across it. We were very inventive in those days, always messing around and experimenting.”

19th September saw four very important ‘firsts’: the first filming of Doctor Who commenced; and it was simultaneously the very first cliffhanger! The film sequence stars Leslie Bates as the shadow of a caveman watching the TARDIS first materialise, as the first actor to be recorded for inclusion in the show.

An Unearthly Child cliffhanger

Other ‘firsts’, trivia fans, include:

  • On 20th September, William Hartnell, Jacqueline Hill, Carole Ann Ford and William Russell all met for the first time.
  • The following day, first rehearsals began, though actual recording of the main team started on Friday 27th September.
  • As the policeman wandering through Totter’s Lane, Reg Cranfield is the first actor seen on-screen in Doctor Who, but is uncredited (as are his further roles in stories like The Invasion and The Green Death).
  • Barbara Wright says the first words in Doctor Who: “Wait in here please, Susan. I won’t be long.”
  • It’s the first and only time the Doctor is seen to smoke a pipe.

The Pilot

An Unearthly Child was originally recorded a month before full filming on the series began. However, this initial shoot was bedevilled with technical errors; a particular problem occurred with the doors of the TARDIS control room, which would not close properly, instead randomly opening and closing throughout the early part of the episode. Two versions of the scene set in the TARDIS were recorded, along with an aborted first attempt to start the second version. In fact, five different ‘pilot’ episodes have been released to the public in subsequent years!

After viewing the episode, Sydney Newman met with Verity Lambert and Waris Hussein, detailing the many faults he found with this initial effort and ordered that it be mounted again; a consequence of this was the delay of the show’s planned 16th November premiere. It was never intended as a ‘pilot,’ since the practise of producing pilots did not exist in Britain in the 1960s due to cost and limited filming schedules.

An Unearthly Child 6

Sydney particularly didn’t like how harsh and ‘alien’ the Doctor was, seeing him instead as a father-figure who hadn’t realised his heroic side yet. William Hartnell agreed:

“I didn’t like the initial script and I told them so. It made the old man too bad-tempered. So they gave me carte blanche to introduce more humour and pathos into the part.”

During the weeks between the two tapings, changes were made to costuming, effects, performances, and the script. Differences a modern-day audience would find most notable in the pilot episode include:

  • The opening theme features a loud thunderclap;
  • As the policeman does his rounds in the opening scene, the air is clear, whereas it’s a foggy night in the transmitted episode;
  • The policeman is first played by Fred Rawlings (The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve), but in the transmitted show, by Reg Cranfield (The Underwater Menace; The Deadly Assassin), due to Rawlings being unavailable for the re-mounting dates;
  • The Doctor and Susan are said to be from the 49th Century (replaced in the transmitted episode by them being from “another time, another world”);
  • Instead of reading (and finding a mistake in) a book about the French Revolution, Susan splashes ink on a piece of paper, makes a Rorschach blot test from it then draws a hexagonal design – before screwing the paper up;
  • After putting his key in the TARDIS lock, the Doctor begins to withdraw the entire mechanism from the door (an idea later picked up in The Sensorites);
  • The Doctor simply wears an ordinary suit, whilst Susan wears a formal long-sleeve dress;
  • The TARDIS dematerialisation sound is a random mix of bleeps and tones intermixed with brief snatches of the now-iconic ‘Vworp!’ effect;
  • As the Doctor goes to dematerialise, Susan, Ian and Barbara all try to pull him from the controls. In the final version, only Susan realises what he is doing and tries to stop him.

Further errors include Jacqueline Hill getting caught in a doorway, a camera banging into scenery at Totter’s Lane Junkyard, William Russell knocking over a mannequin that sits next to the TARDIS, and a few dialogue mistakes.

The Forest of Fear

A version edited together the first half of the taping with one of the two completed second halves was first broadcast on 26th August 1991 (to mark the closure of Lime Grove Studios), later released on the VHS compilation, The Hartnell Years. The 2005 DVD, The Beginning, contained two versions of the pilot: an unedited studio recording including all takes of the second part and a newly-created realisation using the best footage from the original recordings with additional editing and digital adjustments to remove blown lines, technical problems and to reduce studio noise. Both were remastered using VidFIRE technology that simulated the original video look of the 1963 production.

Great Men Are Forged In Fire

Of course, it’s entirely appropriate that the very first storyline – arguably called either An Unearthly Child or 100,000 BC – goes back to the Stone Age and when humanity made a big leap for survival. The control of fire was one of mankind’s earliest discoveries, and its application was manifold: most importantly, it gave us heat and light, and vitally, allowed us to cook.  It also gave us the means to heat-treat weapons and tools, as well as make ceramics. Furthermore, it could be used to repel predators.

An Unearthly Child 5

It perhaps even gave us an advantage over the Neanderthals when the tribes of homo sapiens migrated from Africa some 50,000- 60,000 years ago to a colder Europe.

Mastering the use of fire certainly was an important part of our evolution. That doesn’t mean that everyone happily embraced fire; it was unknown and capable of great destruction.

That conflict of idea, and that fear of the future, is what An Unearthly Child is all about; being out of your depth – but still trooping on and doing your best… which just about sums up the early days of our favourite show.

The Day of the Doctors

The loss of cast members; ever-changing production teams; controversies; cancellation; renewed hopes; missing serials; new directions: Eleven incredible Doctors; One Time Lord.

Doctor Who’s genesis is a long and winding journey, but it was certainly worth every second.


When he’s not watching television, reading books ‘n’ Marvel comics, listening to The Killers, and obsessing over script ideas, Philip Bates (Kasterborous' former Editor) pretends to be a freelance writer. He enjoys collecting everything. He is the co-founder of The Doctor Who Companion:

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