Doctor Who Marathon: The Pilot Episode (Studio Recording)

tardis-dr-who

Sitting down to watch the first episode on my very, very long schedule for this marathon (well, it’s not a proper episode, and it isn’t really the true beginning of the marathon either, but let’s go with it), I am struck by how appropriate the first thing I see is.

It’s the morning of Saturday 9 November 2013, precisely two weeks ahead of Doctor Who’s golden anniversary. My DVD of the show’s first-ever story, An Unearthly Child, is spinning in my PS3, and I have just selected ‘Pilot Episode – Studio Recording’ from the menu. As a sort of ‘preview’ of the epic adventure that will get under way on the 23rd, I have decided to watch the original, 35-minute recording of the first time that Doctor Who ever went into the television studio. So, what’s the first thing that greets me on-screen? A countdown clock! How wonderful! I had expected to see one (but I didn’t know, because I’ve never actually watched this recording before, you see), but it wasn’t until it was actually on my television screen that I realised what a great metaphor it is for the countdown to the mammoth project that I have undertaken. Twenty seconds go by, and then…

The Music

There’s something about the theme music on this pilot episode that feels different to how it sounds subsequently. I’m not just referring to the thunderclap sound effect (why, oh why did they drop that?), but somehow the music sounds very eerie here. Well, it’s always eerie. More eerie than usual, then! In fact, that pretty much sums up the first few minutes of this episode. With the hindsight that we are granted fifty years later, we know exactly what is hidden at 76 Totter’s Lane, but that doesn’t by any means diminish the unnerving effect that the opening scene has. I’m struggling to think of any other occasions where the TARDIS is quite as scary as it somehow is in this scene, as the camera reveals it standing ominously in the middle of the junkyard, accompanied by very effective sound effects from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.But for the moment, I must hold back most of my thoughts on the actual story content of this episode. This version of the episode was never actually transmitted, but in two weeks, I’ll be watching the remounted version (the one which viewers actually saw back in November 1963), so I will primarily use the rest of this blog entry to discuss the significance of the pilot recording. It takes a while for the fact to sink in that this is the very first time that Doctor Who ever went in front of the studio cameras. Five decades in space and time, and it truly started here. What’s especially interesting is that things were very much still in flux – there are a number of differences between this and the broadcast version of the episode. Some of them are technical, but some significant character details were changed too. I can remember some of the details of what’s different, but not all of them! I’ll be interested to see how much surprises me in a fortnight…

The Pilot Recording

It’s fair to say that things didn’t go entirely to plan in the pilot recording. The first half of the episode goes by with relatively few hitches (excusing a few fluffed lines and a camera calamity on the junkyard set), but it’s when the action enters the TARDIS for the first time that things go more drastically wrong. The TARDIS doors are particularly uncooperative! Therefore, after the credits roll, around ten minutes of the episode (from the point where we enter the TARDIS) are recorded again. This makes for a rather surreal viewing experience, but it’s one of the main things which (after a suggestion by Simeon Carter) persuaded me to watch the full studio session rather than the ‘what if they actually transmitted it’ edited version that’s also on the DVD. With the definitive version coming up in fourteen days, why not use this preview as an opportunity to take a look at the recording process back in 1963?That’s why this is so fascinating to watch. The pilot episode (although since it’s a full studio recording, it’s not really an episode at all!) allows us an insight into how Doctor Who was made at this point in its history, and it is an historic cultural record of our television heritage. I am eagerly anticipating the arrival of 23 November, when (among the day’s other festivities) I can begin the marathon proper. This project represents a unique opportunity to watch each and every episode of 20th century Doctor Who precisely fifty years after it was first broadcast in the United Kingdom, and I hope you’ll join me again in two weeks, when I watch the transmitted version of Doctor Who’s first episode. Thankfully, I’ll be able to be less reserved in discussing the actual story, and I also think that a game of ‘Spot the Difference’ might be in order…