Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

Half a century of adventure begins with mild curiosity in a junkyard.

Two London schoolteachers, Ian Chesterton (science) and Barbara Wright (history), are intrigued by their pupil, Susan Foreman.

How can a 15-year-old girl know at once so much and so little? How can she have an astounding knowledge of chemistry, but be unable to tackle a physics problem in three dimensions? How can she mistakenly believe that Britain has a decimal system, yet know that a history of the French Revolution is wrong?

The teachers follow her home one foggy evening – to a police box, and her enigmatic grandfather, a genially malign old man known as “the Doctor”.

The first episode is something special. There is an air of mystery about it, a suggestion that the magical has intruded into the mundane world of 1963.

An ordinary blue police box – a common enough sight at the time – hums with power; it’s alive. It’s an impossible space: famously bigger on the inside than the outside.

For viewers at the time, stumbling from the dark, crowded junkyard into the vast, white, gleaming, brightly-lit space of the TARDIS must have been a shock.

And it’s a gateway into another world; it “can go anywhere in time and space”.

If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds, and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?

Where they land isn’t somewhere marvellous; it’s grim and hostile. A jungle where sabre-toothed tigers lurk in bushes; a cave full of smashed-in skulls; and a tribe that has lost the secret of fire, and huddle together in caves, freezing and terrified of the dark.

Za, son of the old leader, squats on his haunches, rubbing sticks together in a vain effort to make fire. Only the leader can make fire. Kal, the opposition candidate, thinks he should lead; he brings meat while Za does nothing. Old Mother, a crone with a face like Gagool, sits in the corner, mumbling jeremiads: “Fire will be the death of us all!” And Za’s lover Hur, like a Palaeolithic Lady Macbeth, schemes, and spurs on his ambition.

The story is grim and desperate in a way later Doctor Who will seldom be, with a headlong flight through the jungle, and a visceral fight to the death. The travellers are close to hysteria, and the Doctor tries to brain a wounded caveman.

It’s a far cry from exciting adventures with Daleks, let alone wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey shenanigans.

But nobody wants to have adventures yet. All they want to do is survive.

The Doctor is a scientist, and wants to explore – but when danger threatens, his first reaction is to escape. It will be a while before he fights the good fight for its own sake.

He is untrusting and untrustworthy; he doesn’t much like the people who burst into his home, and, desperate to protect his secret, he kidnaps the teachers. He uproots them from their settled, well-ordered lives, and throws them into the Stone Age, 100,000 BC.

Later companions will leap at the chance to travel the cosmos; here, Ian and Barbara are unwilling travellers. They long to go home, back to safe, predictable old London, vintage 1963. But the Doctor can’t control the ship, and there’s no way of returning. The teachers are cosmic flotsam and jetsam, adrift in the universe.

The travellers may slowly start to rely on each other – “Fear makes companions of all of us” – but, as they stagger back to the ship, grimy and exhausted, half-hysterical, all they want to do is get away.

But where they land next will be even more dangerous: a radioactive planet – home to the Daleks…

Serial A: “An Unearthly Child”.

4 episodes, broadcast: 23 November – 14 December 1963. “An Unearthly Child”; “The Cave of Skulls”; “The Forest of Fear”; “The Firemaker”

Written by Anthony Coburn & C.E. Webber (episode 1)

Directed by Waris Hussein

Produced by Verity Lambert & Mervyn Pinfield

Script editor: David Whitaker

Regular cast: Doctor Who (William Hartnell); Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford); Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill); Ian Chesterton (William Russell)

With: Za (Derek Newark); Hur (Alethea Charlton); Old Mother (Eileen Way); Kal (Jeremy Young); Horg (Howard Lang)

One thought on “Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

  1. An Unearthly Child gets everything off on the right track because of that wonderful, grim tone you point to. I appreciate that you see the value in episodes two to four – so many reviews can overlook the work those episodes do in giving us a clear glimpse at each of the characters.

    I think that the way we tend to look at Who as serials ignores the bigger arc that goes on in the first year of the show because these stories bleed into one another thematically. There is just a great sense of wonder, strangeness and being out of control.

    That moment where the Doctor is considering murdering a companion to save himself is so strikingly gutsy and at odds with everything that comes after it that it really establishes a starting point for what will be a journey of humanization for this First Doctor.

    Liked by 2 people

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