Doctor Who: How It All Began – An Evening With Waris Hussein

Last week, on April 10, I attended the event “Doctor Who: How It All Began – An Evening With Waris Hussein,” held at the Paley Center for Media in Manhattan.  Waris Hussein is the man who directed the very first Doctor Who serial, “An Unearthly Child,” far back in 1963.  In addition, he directed the majority of the seven part lavish historical epic “Marco Polo,” also produced during the show’s first season.  For a long-time fan of Doctor Who, it was a real thrill to be able to attend this event, to hear the reminiscences of one of the production personnel who were there at the very beginning.

The event was moderated by Barnaby Edwards, president of the fan organization Doctor Who New York.  It began with a screening of the very first episode of “An Unearthly Child,” with commentary by Hussein and Edwards.  Afterwards, Hussein discussed a wide variety of topics with Edwards.

The Indian-born, Cambridge-educated Hussein explained how he came to be one of the very first non-white directors at the BBC.  He explained how the BBC initially wanted to offer him a position in their foreign office, but how he insisted that he was keen to become a director in England.  I had to admire Hussein’s determination and confidence, in that he turned down a lucrative offer of a permanent, pensioned job with the BBC abroad to accept a six month trial run at the BBC’s home office.  Obviously that worked out well for Hussein, as he spent a number of years with the BBC before going on to a long, prolific career directing at various other television stations, both in the UK and here in the States.

In regards to his involvement with Doctor Who’s early days, Hussein spoke of his collaborations with series creator Sydney Newman and producer Verity Lambert.  It was interesting to hear about how he and Lambert went about courting William Hartnell for the role of the Doctor, and Hussein’s key role in casting Carol Anne Ford as his granddaughter Susan.  Hussein touched upon how there had actually been an unaired pilot episode, and the almost unheard-of decision to reshoot it, ironing out all the technical wrinkles, as well as tweaking the characterization of the Doctor to make him more sympathetic and mischievous.

During the program, someone observed just how unconventional Doctor Who’s origins truly were, for an era when the vast majority of creative personnel at the BBC were white British males.  Its creator, Newman, was a Canadian, its first producer, Lambert, a woman, and its first director, Hussein, an Indian.  Certainly I cannot help think that this must have played at least a small part in the show becoming such a distinctive, unconventional, groundbreaking series, one that has lasted nearly half a century in one form or another.

Unfortunately I did not have my camera with me, so I wasn’t able to take any photographs.  I did, however, get my DVD of “An Unearthly Child” autographed by Hussein.  The event was very crowded, so I only had an opportunity to talk with him for a few seconds, but he seemed like a pleasant fellow.

I do have to say, Hussein looks very good for his age.  According to Wikipedia (assuming, of course, they’re accurate), Hussein was born in 1938, making him 73 years old.  He looks at least ten years younger, and very spry, at that.  If I do make it to my early 70s I hope I age half as well as he apparently has!

As an aside, it’s worth noting that the entire seven-episode “Marco Polo” serial that Hussein directed is missing from the BBC archives.  This is somewhat odd, in that nearly the rest of the first season of Doctor Who, barring two other episodes, is intact, having been recovered from various areas around the globe where the BBC sold copies of the show before they wiped their master tapes.  As I understand it, “Marco Polo” was one of the most widely sold Doctor Who serials, which makes its total absence very mystifying.

It certainly is a shame that Waris Hussein’s second contribution to Doctor Who is presently lost.  I have read the novelization of “Marco Polo” written by original scripter John Lucarotti.  I’ve also viewed the half hour reconstruction of the serial created from original soundtrack, “tele-snap” images, and production stills that was included on the Doctor Who: The Beginning DVD box set.  Based on these, “Marco Polo” seems to have been an interesting, not to mention incredibly ambitious, production, and I would really like the opportunity to see an actual episode of it.  (Additionally, Lucarotti’s other serial from the first season, “The Aztecs,” is one of my favorite Doctor Who stories from the 1960s, giving me another reason to wish to view “Marco Polo.”)

It isn’t completely beyond the realm of possibility that somewhere, buried in some vault or attic, there might be at least one episode of “Marco Polo” in existence.  As recently as last year two previously lost Doctor Who episodes from the 1960s were rediscovered.  So we can hope that someday some actual footage from the story reappears.

In any case, “An Unearthly Child” is completely intact.  And it was certainly a pleasure attending last week’s look back on the early days of Doctor Who.  I found the Waris Hussein event to be very informative and enjoyable.  We’re very lucky he is still with us to share his memories and insights into the beginnings of the series.

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