It was 51 years ago Sunday that a time-travelling humanoid alien called The Doctor began exploring the universe in his TARDIS with a pretty simple mission to save civilisations, help ordinary people, and right wrongs. Doctor Who first appeared on BBC1 television at 17:16:20 GMT, eighty seconds after the scheduled program time of 5:15p due to extended news coverage of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy the previous day. The first episode of “An Unearthly Child” deals with two schoolteachers’ discovery of the Doctor and his time-space ship TARDIS in a junkyard in contemporary London. Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright seem quite concerned about one of their pupils at Coal Hill School named Susan Foreman, who seems to have a very alien outlook on England. As luck would have it, Susan is The Doctor’s granddaughter.
What may or may not be known is that the original pilot episode was actually recorded in September 1963 but never aired. The initial recording was fraught with technical problems and errors made during the performance with boom microphones finding their way into shots and one sequence whereby the doors leading into the TARDIS control room, which would not close properly, would instead randomly open and close through the early part of the scene. This caused a delay in what was to be the original transmission date of 16 November 1963 pushing the premiere back a week to 23 November. While the practice of producing a pilot was pretty much unheard of at this time in British telly, it did allow BBC Head of Drama and series creator Sydney Newman and producer Verity Lambert to make changes to costuming, effects, performances and the script and re-film a month later. Originally titled “100,000 B.C.”, the unaired ‘pilot’ finally aired on the BBC in August 1991.
While not much changed script-wise from the pilot to the first episode, producers made the right decision to re-shoot although, having seen both, the pilot isn’t as bad as urban myth would lead you to believe. So, happy 51st, Doctor Who. Here’s to 51 more years!