On Saturday 25th of November 2023, David Tennant will star as the Doctor once again in the highly-anticipated return of the beloved British sci-fi show. The episode will be the 60th anniversary celebration of one of the most storied institutions in modern British art.
Not long after Doctor Who first aired on BBC TV, the show became a cultural phenomenon across the nation. Children and adults became obsessed with the premise of an ageless alien journeying through time and space to learn about cultures across the galaxy. After cancellation in 1989, the show returned to ever greater strengths when it was revived in 2005. With a returning showrunner alongside adored old and new actors, Doctor Who looks on the verge of another renaissance – fitting for a show about a character who can literally regenerate.
We’ve already given a detailed breakdown of every actor to play the lead role in the multifaceted time-travelling show here, but for today’s Re-View, let’s go back to the build up to the very first episode to air on television.
In 1963, the Canadian Sydney Newman took over at BBC TV as the Head of Drama following his success creating The Avengers (not that one) for ABC in 1960.
Newman set about commissioning a new children’s show to fit a gap in the schedule. Research had already been made into the idea of a time-travelling sci-fi show. The first draft of the show was written by Cecil E. Webber and then altered by Newman and the Head of Script Department Donald Wilson into what was then called “Dr. Who”.
After playing around with versions of the character as menacing through to doddering, they settled on the premise of the Doctor, a 650-year-old man travelling through time in a police telephone box. While canonically the Doctor is now thousands of years older in the current series, pretty much everything else about the original description remains true today.
To actually put the first episodes together, the BBC hired Verity Lambert as producer and Warris Hussein to direct. For fans of the show who love how Doctor Who has championed diversity through its years, it’s a heartening note that two of the most crucial members of the production team for that first episode in 1960s Britain were a woman and a British-Indian man. The role they played was dramatised in the 2013 show An Adventure in Space and Time.
In the lead role, Lambert and Hussein cast William Hartnell. Although unconvinced at first, the 55-year-old character actor accepted and brought his classical acting chops to the role.
The first episode ‘An Unearthly Child’ is impressive in how much of its qualities became iconic for the show. There is the blue police box TARDIS that the Doctor travels in of course. But there was also the haunting opening sequence. A kaleidoscope of light cascades across the screen in an effect that viewers could barely believe. The soundtrack is equally otherworldly. Written by Ron Grainer and created by Delia Derbyshire (the grandmother of electronic music), its echoing warbles still persist in the thrumming contemporary soundtrack.
When it came to the air date, the show couldn’t help but butt heads directly with history. The day before, President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated and the BBC were running back-to-back news coverage.
Lambert was still able to get the show on, if just over a minute delayed, at 5.16pm on Saturday 23rd of November 1963. It wouldn’t take off truly until the next serial featuring the Doctor’s recurring enemy the Daleks aired. But on this day, the historic show was born.