In considering the history of the BBC’s venerable series Doctor Who, the most important date that anyone remembers is November 23, 1963. That’s the day that the first episode, “An Unearthly Child,” was originally transmitted. Thus began the uninterrupted 26-year broadcast run that comprises a major part of the series history. That’s the birth date of the series, and the one that will be commemorated with a 50th Anniversary special on November 23, 2013.
As the Radio Times pointed out a few days ago, there are other meaningful early dates to consider. While it is hard to exactly pin down some key dates in the development history of the Doctor Who series, one undisputed date is September 19, 1963. That’s the day that filming for the first version of “An Unearthly Child” commenced. The first recorded scene showed the TARDIS police box landing on the Middle Paleolithic Earth of 100,000 BCE with an ominous human shadow in the foreground, making it at the very end of the script for the initial episode.
The footage recorded that day that was not necessarily in the version shown on November 23rd. There were actually two versions of the episode “An Unearthly Child” made. The first version, which began filming on September 19th, was originally scheduled to be shown on November 16, 1963. The production was fraught was technical difficulties. The TARDIS doors did not open properly in one sequence. Some lines were flubbed. Cameras and actors ran into sets or the setting dressings. The errors were frequent enough and noticeable enough that BBC Head of Drama (and Doctor Who creator) Sydney Newman demanded that the episode be re-shot prior to broadcast. This pushed the premiere of the series back a week, to November 23rd.
Substantial changes were made between the recording of the two versions. William Hartnell’s costume was changed from a more contemporary suit and tie (see below) to the more Edwardian costume that is remembered now. Small changes to dialogue were also made: the Doctor was made less callous and threatening in his initial appearance. The TARDIS de-materialization sound was refined. A thunderclap was deleted from the start of the series theme. References to the origin of the Doctor and Susan were altered; the Doctor and Susan were now from “another time, another world” rather than “the 49th Century.”
The initial version of “An Unearthly Child” filmed in September of 1963 was finally shown on the BBC in 1991 and on various releases to home video since. In some ways like the first pilot of Star Trek TOS (i.e., “The Cage”), it is an important document of the early development a culturally lasting science fiction series. It shows the actors and a production team (sometimes) struggling toward a birth — the day that we now remember 50 years later.