It is the 23rd of November. This date may not strike you as significant but for me it is kind of a thing.
52 years ago, the day after President Kennedy was assassinated, what was to become one of the most iconic British TV shows appeared on British screens. The show I am talking about is of course Doctor Who.
Going back to the very beginning is always interesting, particularly for newbies. What strikes me about the first episode, An Unearthly Child, is how mature the writing is. Despite being aimed at children, the writing is not dumbed down and despite partially being set in a school, after the opening few minutes there are no school pupils aside from the enigmatic Susan. We are introduced to the world of the Doctor through the eyes of two very ordinary school teachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright and there concerns about the titular Susan Foreman. Nowaday, we would no doubt have a bunch of “with it” kids snooping after the weirdo pupil, but here we have a mature approach. Both teachers are concerned and intrigued about Susan as she just doesn’t fit in. We see her excellence as a student, trying not to admit all the lessons are beneath her and then her silly mistakes, such as thinking 1960s British Currency was decimalised to which after a scolding replies “Of course the decimal system hasn’t been introduced yet.”
Wisely we are made to feel sympathy and kinship with Ian and Barbara as they really are the audience link, because as we soon find out, at this stage the Doctor is in fact a bit of a dick. 15 minutes in is when the series title character makes his entrance and he is rather hostile, he is trying to hide his secret but rather then play along and be a concerned man he is hostile to Ian and Barbara, a downfall as his tactics end up revealing his world. Once revealed he doesn’t take Susan’s notion that Ian and Barbara will simply forget the TARDIS or put it down to imagination, no literally kidnaps them by setting the TARDIS going. The following three episodes are pretty thin on plot, it revolves around Cavemen discovering fire is fairly meh. The really focus is on the TARDIS crew, with Ian and Barbara adjusting to their new life. The Doctor is arrogant and selfish at this stage, but shows signs of the warmth to come. When the cavemen attempt to kill Ian how loudly declares “If he dies, there will be no fire” and later admits to Barbara he is sorry he got her involved and “Fear makes companions of all of us”. But he still is hostile, when Za is attacked in the forest and Barbara wants to help he is not happy. He wants to get back to the TARDIS and leave and upon discovering everyone has better ideas what is his plan? To use his knowledge of future medicine to help? No, it is pick up a large rock and smash the the caveman’s head in. Luckily he is stopped by Ian and he comes up with a Cock and Bull story about getting a rock so Za could draw a map. Ian knows he’s lying and the Doctor knows Ian knows and it creates great tension between the two. The Doctor has a hero moment later when he uses Kal’s arrogance to trick him into revealing he killed the Tribe’s matriarch by getting him to expose his blood stained knife.
So at this early stage it could be said Ian is the hero and that the Doctor is very much the anti-hero. This would continue for a few stories, it is only towards the end of season 1 the Doctor becomes the hero. The success I think lies in William Hartnell, while he is rude and arrogant there is still a twinkle in his eye which helps you warm to the Doctor. An element Peter Capaldi has picked up on….
52 years later, the story is still a compelling piece of television.