Saturday, May 23, 2020

An Unearthly Child takes place on a Tuesday

I've just rewatched An Unearthly Child, the very first episode of Doctor Who, and noticed something I don't think I've noticed before. On the blackboard in Ian Chesterton's room, it says "HOMEWORK TUESDAY".

Below this, in the bottom-right corner of the blackboard, it says "FOR THURSDAY":

So the homework has just been set, and the episode takes place on a Tuesday.

We can narrow things down a bit further. In the second episode of Doctor Who, Ian says that he and the others were just, "in a junkyard in London in England in the year 1963."

When in the year might this be? The episode was broadcast on Saturday 23 November 1963, and recorded in studio on Friday 18 October, but that doesn't necessarily tell us when the events depicted are set. But the daylight depicted - or not - in the episode can give us a clue.

In the first episode, it's dark by the time Susan reaches the junkyard after the end of her school day. It is dark enough inside the yard - which is open to the sky - that both Ian and the Doctor use torches. What time did it get dark?

Before leaving school, Susan tells her teachers, "I like walking through the dark," which implies it is already dark. The episode also begins with a policeman walking through the already dark lane outside the junkyard, picking out details with a torch; we then dissolve to the school just as the final bell rings. The implication is that the dissolve transports us in space but not in time - that it is already dark enough to need torchlight before the end of the school day.

But schools usually finish mid-afternoon and, as I know from collecting my own children, it's not dark at the end of the school day, even in the midst of winter. I checked at, and the earliest sunset in London predicted for December 2020 is 15:51 - the sunset between 8 and 16 December.

The ringing of the school bell suggests that Susan hasn't stayed later than the end of the school day, for example at an after-school club. So if An Unearthly Child is set on a Tuesday in London 1963 where it's (almost) dark by 3.30, it must be 10 or 17 December.

In other words, the first episode of Doctor Who is set a little in the future.

PS: the broadcast version of An Unearthly Child was not the first version made. The earlier, "pilot" episode, included on the DVD, was recorded on 27 September - and there the blackboard is blank:

PPS: 1988's Remembrance of the Daleks returns to the school and junkyard in 1963, and a calendar on the wall in the school says November - but its broad daylight at tea-time, which doesn't seem quite right. 2013's The Day of the Doctor suggests that Totters Lane and the junkyard are in the immediate vicinity of the school.

ETA: Wise Jonathan Morris points out that the story could just as easily be set in January or February 1963. Wise Paul MC Smith, author of the exhaustive new book The TARDIS Chronicles 
suggests March, and points out this detail of the day of the week had already been discussed in Cornell, Day & Topping's The Discontinuity Guide (1995). Bother.

No comments: