"The Pilot Episode"

From Tardis Wiki, the free Doctor Who reference
This topic might have a better name.

The Pilot Episode (TV story) as it was aired in 1991

Talk about it here.

This subject is not a valid source for writing our in-universe articles, and may only be referenced in behind the scenes sections or other invalid-tagged articles.

You may be looking for The Pilot (TV story).

"The Pilot Episode" is a name used to market the first recording of the individual episode, "An Unearthly Child". The term is not strictly accurate, as pilots did not exist in the British television industry in 1963. It is sometimes imprecisely called "the first episode of Doctor Who", but this suggests a difference from "An Unearthly Child" which can't fairly be said to exist. It is merely a different version of the first episode of Doctor Who, which was not broadcast because Sydney Newman thought it had too many technical flaws and misjudged characterisations.

Five different editions of this initial take on "Unearthly" have been made available to the public over the years, creating some ambiguity over what is meant by "the pilot".

The actual plots of the two recordings of "Unearthly" are insignificantly different. Nevertheless, all of "the pilot"'s subsequent editions had obvious differences with "An Unearthly Child" as broadcast, especially in performances and technical recording flaws. Only a handful of lines of dialogue differ in the pilot and "Unearthly", but they suggest things about the character and backstory of the Doctor which would be hard to reconcile with the general characterisation they later gained.

No edition of "the pilot" was broadcast until 1991 and fans could not easily compare the various editions of "the pilot" until multiple versions were released on a single DVD in 2006.


School teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright are curious about their student Susan Foreman. She is brilliant in many areas of science and history but is ignorant of mundane matters, such as how many shillings make a pound sterling. They follow her home one evening to discover that she seems to live in a police box in a junkyard. Soon after meeting the girl's irascible grandfather, they find the police box is in fact a fantastic vessel, the TARDIS, capable of travelling through space and time. Fearful that the schoolteachers will tell others what they have seen, the mysterious old man, the Doctor, activates the machine's controls and whisks them away from the world they know...


The Pilot is made up of two sections.

  • Section 1 is nearly identical to scenes of "An Unearthly Child" set in the School, Ian's car and the Junkyard. Rather than reading the book Barbara has lent her, Susan plays with a fountain pen, dropping ink on a sheet of paper, creating a Rorschach pattern, then doodling with the resulting inkblot, creating a hexagonal image. (the same shape as the TARDIS control console) The resulting image alarms Susan. Some dialogue differences and technical problems occur during this section, including: Ian knocking over a dummy on the junkyard set; Barbara getting her foot caught in a doorway,; Susan flubbing a line of dialogue involving the chart placement of John Smith and the Common Men's hit single, and hastily correcting herself; and the camera running into a piece of scenery during the junkyard segment. This section ends with the teachers attempting to enter the TARDIS. Ian holds onto the Doctor as Barbara enters the ship, the actors freeze as someone says "Hold it there" and the screen goes blank.

Section 2 is made up of 3 parts:

  • Part 1 - Begins with Barbara, then Ian and the Doctor entering the TARDIS. A noticeable difference between this and the final version is that the interior of the TARDIS is visible as Barbara forces her way through the doors. This effect was not used in the final transmitted version or any stories of the original series, though it has become standard in the new series. This take continues to the end, complete with end credits. There is a noticeable issue with the TARDIS interior doors in this take.
  • Part 2 - A short aborted second attempt to record the second half of the episode. Barbara crashes through the TARDIS doors, looking around the ship, the radiophonic sound of the TARDIS interior cuts off and the take is abandoned.
  • Part 3 - The successful third attempt to record the second half of the episode. It runs from the teachers and the Doctor first entering the TARDIS to the end of the episode. One difference between this and the successful first take is that the Doctor calls Ian "school teacher" instead of "school master". This take is also complete with end credits.

Neither of the two complete takes that make up section 2 has a "Next Episode" caption.

Alternate versions[[edit]]

Several versions of the pilot have been circulated.

The version first broadcast in August 1991 incorporates several of the dialogue and technical errors that occurred during filming: Carole Ann Ford muffing her line about John Smith and the Common Men; Jacqueline Hill getting caught in the door; William Russell knocking over a prop; the TARDIS doors banging etc.

Two alternate editions were released to home video on The Hartnell Years in June 1991 and as a bonus with the UK VHS release of The Edge of Destruction in May 2000.

When the episode was included in the DVD release The Beginning, two versions were prepared: a raw, unedited version containing all takes, errors and footage shot during production, and a newly edited version that minimises and in some cases eliminates some of the dialogue and technical errors that occurred during production. This resulted in a more polished-looking production than the edition broadcast in 1991. Both DVD versions were put through the VidFIRE process. This restored the film recordings to their original, videotape appearance.

The 36-minute version on the DVD included not just all available recorded material, but also a commentary by Verity Lambert and other key personnel, which detailed the reasons why certain elements of "the pilot" were changed for "An Unearthly Child".




  • A copy of this episode exists on 16mm telerecordings. It was discovered in 1978 in a mislabelled film can and is currently held in the BBC's Film and Videotape Library.
  • Version 2 of the Pilot was broadcast on BBC Two on 26 August 1991 as part of The Lime Grove Story, a series of programs marking the closure of Lime Grove Studios where the episode had first been recorded. It consisted of Section 1 and Section 2 part 1. The documentary also featured a parody sketch with the Doctor Who policeman.
  • After viewing the original pilot, Sydney Newman decided that the episode needed to be remade. He even described this version as "...the worst piece of work I've seen in a long time." (In Their Own Words Volume One) As well as numerous technical and dialogue problems, changes were also made to the story. These mostly consisted of changing the characters of the First Doctor and Susan. The Doctor was made more likeable and less confrontational, and Susan less alien, notably her costume, originally very futuristic, was made to look more childlike in the second version. Newman acknowledged Captain Nemo as a major influence in his original concept for the Doctor's character and personality.
  • Fred Rawlings was the actor who played the policeman in the pilot. He was replaced by Reg Cranfield when the episode was remounted. Otherwise all other noticeable cast members, including the two girls seen gossiping immediately before Barbara's introduction, were retained for the remount.

Deviations from An Unearthly Child[[edit]]

The Pilot differs in a few key points from the broadcast episode, "An Unearthly Child". As it contains numerous discrepancies from the broadcast version, it is generally not considered valid.

  • A slight difference exists in the Doctor Who theme in the pilot. A thunderclap sound effect was removed for the televised version.
  • Rather than becoming engrossed in, and then correcting, the book on the French Revolution, Susan instead draws a mysterious, hexagonal ink blot pattern, then quickly crumples the paper once she realises what she has done. The significance of this is left unexplained, although the pattern does resemble the TARDIS console.
  • The Doctor wears an ordinary suit and tie, rather than his Edwardian costume.
  • In this version, the TARDIS interior is briefly visible as Barbara forces her way through the doors. Curiously, this effect was not used in the final transmitted version. It would not become a standard effect until the series revival in 2005.
  • The back wall of the TARDIS interior has a different design, featuring giant roundels and some sort of mechanical equipment. This was replaced by the fault locator in the broadcast version.
  • The TARDIS prop is clean rather than battered, and more design differences are present. The rim around the sign on the telephone door is white rather than blue, the left "POLICE BOX" plaque lacks text, and the St John Ambulance logo is clearly visible rather than covered in paint.
  • The Doctor shows genuine anger towards Susan rather than the affection he showed in the broadcast version. At one point he refers to her as a "stupid child".
  • Susan says she was born in the 49th century, but, unlike the Doctor, doesn't directly state that they were from another planet. This was removed from the broadcast version and replaced with "I was born in another time, another world", avoiding giving a specific century and making origins more ambiguous.
  • Susan is depicted as being more sensual and adult in appearance and her behaviour. The original script emphasised her sexuality even more, before things were scaled back to make Susan more identifiable to children in the audience. (INFO: An Unearthly Child)

Filming locations[[edit]]

Production errors[[edit]]

If you'd like to talk about narrative problems with this story — like plot holes and things that seem to contradict other stories — please go to this episode's discontinuity discussion.

Though Sydney Newman's displeasure with the characterisations of Susan and the Doctor are well known, the plethora of technical errors was the primary justification for re-recording the episode. Among the many things that went wrong behind-the-scenes were:

  • For reasons not clear on screen, Jacqueline Hill and William Russell are seen having difficulty getting through the doorway leading into the classroom where Susan is listening to the radio, forcing Carole Ann Ford to extend her "dance" for a few moments. This is the earliest known recorded "blooper" of the Doctor Who franchise. This error is edited out of some versions of the pilot, including the DVD version of "The Beginning".
  • Depending on the edition viewed, Susan says John Smith and the Common Men went from "2 to 19" in the hit parade before correcting herself and saying "19 to 2". The version in "The Beginning" DVD set digitally removes the error.
  • There is a lighting problem while Ian and Barbara discuss Susan in the car. William Russell's face is obscured completely by shadow for much of the scene, which is retained in all versions of the pilot.
  • During the exploration of the scrapyard, Ian trips and falls down, dropping his flashlight. Although this was scripted, the subsequent loud crash as a junk prop also falls over was not. This error is retained in all versions of the complete pilot.
  • During the scrapyard sequence, a camera runs into a piece of scenery (this error was common in early live-to-tape productions of the era, including Newman's other series, The Avengers).
  • During one of the takes of the initial TARDIS control room scene, the doors leading into the room fall open and bang against the scenery several times. Unlike the errors above, this disrupted the scene sufficiently that the take had to be abandoned and started over, a rare occurrence in those days.
  • During the console room scene the studio ceiling can be seen once or twice.
  • While Ian and Barbara are sitting in Ian's car outside I.M.Foreman's junkyard, a stagehand can be seen moving behind them.
  • After Ian and Barbara enter the TARDIS, you can see a shadow moving along the TARDIS doors.
  • During a tracking shot of the TARDIS, the cameraman stumbles and a clatter is heard.
  • You can hear the PA calling the shots on some sections if you listen carefully (one example is when the Doctor is operating the TARDIS console, shortly before Ian is electrocuted).

DVD, video, and audio releases[[edit]]

Remastering for both the VHS (2000) and DVD (2006) releases was completed by Doctor Who Restoration Team.

DVD releases[[edit]]

  • The DVD Box Set "The Beginning" (released January 2006) included both the complete 36 minute film of all recorded footage for the pilot (in other words the above listed various "takes"), as well as a new 25 minute edit using the best takes, with most technical and dialogue errors corrected digitally.
  • Version 2 of the Pilot, broadcast on BBC2 26 August 1991, has never been released to home video. It consisted of Section 1 and Section 2 part 1.

BritBox availability[[edit]]

The Pilot is available for streaming through BritBox (Canada, US) as An Unearthly Child Pilot within Doctor Who Extras.

VHS releases[[edit]]

  • Version 1 of the Pilot, released June 1991, was included on The Hartnell Years video. It consists of Section 1 and Section 2 part 3. It has never been broadcast on television.
  • Version 3 of the Pilot, released May 2000, was included on The Edge of Destruction video. It consists of Section 1 and Section 2 parts 1, 2 and 3.

External links[[edit]]