1.1 – “An Unearthly Child”

CW Series 1 - An Unearthly Child

Teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright find themselves baffled by one of their students, Susan Foreman, who shows an unusually advanced knowledge of science and history but only a very basic knowledge on other subjects. In an attempt to learn more about her, Barbara and Ian follow her home, but all they find is a Police Box in an old junkyard and a strange old man who claims to be Susan’s Grandfather.

On Saturday 23rd November, 1963, the day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a program was aired on BBC 1 that was to forever change the face of science fiction on television. It was the start of a legend that would last for over six decades and its name was Doctor Who. And yet to watch its first story, “An Unearthly Child”, it is hard to imagine that this show would not only still be continuing to this day, but that it would also spawn two feature films, several stage plays, multiple radio stories & audio books and a successful line of toys and memorabilia.

We start with one of the most iconic pieces of music in television history and a title sequence that is as iconic as its theme song. The whooshing of the sound effects blends with the strange cloud like visuals of the titles and, coupled with the music, leaves the viewer feeling unnerved. We are not meant to know at this point what’s in store for us or quite what to expect. Even the title of the show, Doctor Who, leaves you with more questions than answers; who is this Doctor Who? It’s a question that will often be asked but never answered (not unless you believe the New Adventures Book range, but I won’t get into that here as it nearly always ends up with someone hurt, a torn curtain and a bowl of ice cream on the floor).

So where does our story begin? The first part deals with the mystery of Susan Foreman and who she is. Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright are teachers at Coal Hill School in London and one foggy evening they follow their unusual pupil home to a junk yard belonging to I.M. Foreman. Following her in, they come across an old gentleman who is not too keen on people snooping. This person is The Doctor and, as we find out, Susan’s Grandfather. Ian and Barbara suspect that he has Susan locked away in an old Police Call Box and they force their way inside, only to find a huge room that is bigger on the inside than the box is on the outside. Confused and a little frightened, Ian starts an argument only for The Doctor to activate the controls taking Ian and Barbara on the trip of a like time – to the Stone Age where they spend the next three episodes talking about tribe politics, fire and eventually escaping to the TARDIS where they land on a new and strange planet.

Now don’t get me wrong, those who know me know I am one of the biggest Doctor Who fans going, but the first story of the classic series doesn’t really get off the ground in the way we would come to see it later on in the show’s life. After one of the best opening episodes a show could have it falls flat, turning into the kind of run-around story that would dog later Doctor Who episodes, only really acting as set-up for the following story in which the series’ most iconic villains are introduced (but more on those pepper pots in a later review). Essentially, this is really two stories; the first is our introduction to what would become the TARDIS crew for the first season, the second is something that tries it’s best to force two disparate groups of people together but not quite getting it right.

Hartnell’s first portrayal of The Doctor is very much a crotchety old grandfather figure but one who has a secret kind heart, although there are some elements we will never see again, such as his attempt to smoke (his first and last on screen endeavour at the habit) and a seriously ruthless streak in his attempt to kill a caveman with a rock in order for the group to escape. Susan (played by Carol-Ann Ford) is an odd mix of clever child and adult. She is out of time in the 1960’s and yet also of that time. Sadly it would take a few stories for Ford to get Susan to grow out of the young child and begin to act like the young women that she would be. The real gems here are William Russell and Jacqueline Hill, both playing Ian and Barbara with a degree of confusion to the new and strange reality that is presented to them, with Barbara having more of an open mind to the idea of time travel over Ian’s unbelief in something he knows to be scientifically impossible. The brashness of The Doctor doesn’t immediately warm you to him. Susan is at once identifiable as the teenager of the crew, but still alien and therefore not so easily identifiable. It is therefore Ian and Barbara who most people will identify with, as they are from the 60’s and could well be the teachers at your school. The guest cast for the remaining three episodes are not taxed in their performance, with Derek Newark (who would play Greg Sutton in Jon Pertwee’s season 7 story ‘Inferno’) and Eileen Way (who would go on to be the old woman in the forest in the film Daleks – Invasion Earth 2150) wasted in roles that are very two-dimensional.

Although this is the first story of a show still finding it’s feet, it is not the strongest of openers by any means. It is interesting to think of just how the alternative opening story “The Giants” by C.E. Webber would have faired if it had not been dropped at the early stages (though if the story “Planet Of Giants” is anything to go by, it too may have proved a weak opener). Doctor Who wouldn’t really take off until the following two stories, with “The Daleks” giving the Doctor an iconic enemy to battle and “Edge of Destruction” giving us a real insight into the TARDIS crew and their growing bond.

For a first story, this should really hit the ground running. But due to the two sided nature of “An Unearthly Child”, if we rated just the first episode on its own then it would get a perfect 10. However, the other three episodes tend to drag along and the poor pacing lets down the story as whole, bringing the rating down to a respectable 7/10.

Written and edited by Alexander James Wilkinson


2 Responses to “1.1 – “An Unearthly Child””

  1. I think part 3 is one of the best episodes DW’s ever done.and kicks the fuck out of part 1 which is mostly exposition.

    • I’m hoping to write an article offering a robust defence of the caveman episodes. Whether or not they’re an “all-time classic”, I think it’s outrageous that the conventional approach to reviewing serial A is “the first episode is amazing – let’s just try to forget about the next three, eh”. It’s become such “received wisdom” that even Mark Gatiss was indulging in gratuitous caveman-bashing in “An Adventure In Space And Time”!

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