Monday 22 November 2010

000: "The Pilot Episode"

EPISODE: Pilot Episode
TRANSMITTED: 26 August 1991
WRITER: Anthony Coburn (and CE Webber)
DIRECTOR: Waris Hussein
SCRIPT EDITOR: David Whitaker
PRODUCER: Verity Lambert
FORMAT: DVD - The Beginning Boxset

With all the Doctor Who material missing from the archives, it's a miracle that this survives. Recorded Friday 27th September, the tape contains one version of the episode up until the point they enter the Tardis, a complete version of the Tardis scenes, an aborted start to the second attempt to record these scenes and a complete second take of the Tardis scenes. Sydney Newman, the BBC's head of Drama, wasn't happy with what he saw and ordered the pilot to be reshot and that recording, made on the 18th October, became An Unearthly Child as we know it today.

A film recording of the pilot languished in the BBC archives for many years until 1977 when Ian Levene was purchasing stories from the BBC. During the course of his visits to the film library in Windmill Road he discovered that one of their copies of An Unearthly Child had a different length and on viewing it found it was the pilot version.

The pilot has an interesting release history. It first appears on the Hartnell Years VHS where the first half is edited together with the second full take of the second half. On the 26th August 1991 it was shown on the BBC for the first time (if memory serves this was part of Lime Grove Day, celebrating the famous BBC studios where the pilot was filmed). This version uses the first half with the first take of the Tardis scenes. The complete version including both takes was first released as part of the Edge of Destruction VHS in 2000. In 2006 it features twice in the Doctor Who: The Beginning DVD set. There's a complete version of all recorded footage and optional commentary, plus a newly edited version from all of the takes. Unfortunately the newly edited version is accidentally included at the start of the Play All option on the Unearthly Child DVD when it should have just been part of the special features.

As for what I think..... well it's so similar to an Unearthly Child it's hard to pick them apart. Yes there's a few technical problems here and there: the thump & wobble as the camera hits something zooming in on Ian & Barbara touching the Tardis, the Tardis doors struggling to close and banging against the walls. Plus there's a higher than average crop of artists fluffing their lines here: Susan mucks up the change in John Smith & The Commonmen's chart position, Barbara stumbles over her lines in the car. There's usually some problems like these in most 60s Doctor Who which was filmed as live. The surprise here is that Fluffing Billy doesn't join in and delivers all his lines perfectly! But watch take 1 of the pilot carefully and you'll see him groping Carol Anne Ford a few minutes from the end!

The actual differences are small: the Rorschach style inkblot isn't in the final version, the pop music coming out of the Tardis, Susan wears a futuristic outfit in the Tardis scenes, the odd sound effects at the start of the Tardis dematerialising......

If an Unearthly Child, the real version, didn't exist and this did (or vice versa) we'd be wondering what the difference is, while accepting what we had. But I'd happily trade this in for one of the missing episodes (Tenth Planet 4 for example) because of how close it is to the finished product. I suspect this view won't be held by everyone though!

Join us tomorrow as we look at what was actually seen on 23 November 1963.

I'd be remiss if I didn't say that Forty Seven years ago today president Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas at around 6:30pm UK time. At the point the news spread, the cast of Doctor Who were in the studio about to record the second episode of the second story, The Survivors, which introduces The Daleks to the world. The BBC suspended it's planned television schedules to cover the event, resuming the next day with the first episode of a new science fiction series....


  1. Wow, history! My son Mark asks "before the dinosaurs?" :-D

  2. If he wants Dinosaurs, then make sure he reads about episodes 360-365 :-)

  3. Been after that boxset for a while. So much stuff to buy, but so little money.

    How many Dr Who DVDs do you have now, bud?


  4. Get it at that price, it's a steal.

    Seeds of Doom, which came out last month, was the 100th release. Plus 5 years of RTD in boxsets + Three sets of Torchwood + the two movies.

  5. Good luck on your Who-watching quest Phil.

    Like you say, it's not too different from the eventual first episode, but it's still interesting to watch.

  6. I do find it interesting to watch this for comparison both to the reshot version and to the rest of the series as it develops.

    Some of the different TARDIS scene dialogue is interesting - it feels like there is a bit more of an emphasis on Hartnell trying to keep the secrets of The Ship from the humans for fear they would do damage with them in this version. The original TARDIS scene, and the ink-blot seem to be trying that bit harder to push the idea of Susan being different then was done in the transmitted version. That is one change that I think is probably for the better. I think that less is more there.

    As you say, not much to say about this in terms of how different it is, but it does retain the line that for my money is why Doctor Who is great - "You mean to tell me that something looking like a Police Box in a junkyard can go anywhere in time and space?". Yes Ian, it is a ridiculous notion, and that is the real brilliance of it.