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Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

An Unearthly Child originally aired in 1963.

“Just open the doors, Doctor Foreman.”

“Eh? Doctor who? What’s he talking about?”

– Ian and the Doctor drop the title

And so, it begins…

There from the beginning…

It’s interesting to look back at the opening four-part adventure, the serial that kick-started a fifty-year science-fiction juggernaut, and see how much and yet how little has changed. Even looking back half a century, it’s remarkable how so many elements seem to be in place from the start: the curious companions, the seemingly all-knowing Doctor, the blue police box, the strange and wonderful refusal of it all to conform to common sense… oh, and running. Lots and lots of running.

It’s the same, and yet it’s different. For one thing, An Unearthly Child is a historical, a defunct type of adventure that died early in Patrick Troughton’s tenure with The Highlanders and was only revisited once more on-screen for the two-part Black Orchid. So it feels strange to see the Doctor and his companions traveling to the past without uncovering some secret alien conspiracy to distort history to some perverse end.

Doctor Who?

In a way, An Unearthly Child stands as a testament to what the show was intended to be – something quite different from what it actually became, to be honest. The show was intended to alternate between historical and science-based stories, reflecting the two teachers on board, and providing all sorts of education to kids. Verity Lambert famously insisted that the show would be educational and avoiding all the stereotypical bug-eyed monsters that one might associate with pulp fiction. Of course, the second story (The Daleks or The Mutants, depending on who you ask) would change all that and have at least as much impact on the direction of the show as this four-part trip back to pre-historic earth.

In hindsight, I’m never convinced that an educational Doctor Who could ever really have worked. Don’t get me wrong, I adore the use of high concept science-fiction, and I love the idea that anybody might be interested in the techno-babble and meta-physics on the show to pick up a Stephen Hawking book, but I really don’t think that An Unearthly Child stands as a promising start for a series designed to teach kids about history. I’m not even going to make cheap shots about the fact that you can very clearly see the underwear that the cavemen are wearing.

Caving to pressure…

I’m talking about things like the fact the cavemen can speak. I’m not objecting to the fact that they speak English – after all, the show has some techno-babble to handwave translation to speed up the plot. I’m more curious about the capacity of these dirty humans to articulate concepts and ideas as advanced as these characters seem to do. I find it quite difficult that they’d be able to converse amongst themselves this fluently, let alone have a language capable of translation. Of course, such communication is necessary for drama, but it seems a bit much to try to argue it’s excessively educational.

Anyway, that minor quibble aside, it’s actually a fairly decent little story. The first of the four parts is a fairly conventional pilot, introducing the cast and the basic concepts before the adventure really begins. It is frequently suggested that the adventure is made up of a one-part story and a three-part story, an assertion supported by the fact that the intended opening script, The Giants, was replaced at close to the last minute. However, I think that it’s apt to consider all four parts to be the story, and not just because the four episodes share the same writer (they did not, at this early stage, share the same title). They are connected thematically, with Ian and Barbara’s confusion when confronted by the Doctor’s advanced science effectively mirrored in the confusion that the cave men feel when confronted with something as basic as fire – the pilot is linked to the remaining three episodes by that central theme, as well as an attempt to define the four characters that will be headlining this tea-time drama. More than that, the story features the TARDIS crew learning to work together in same way that the cave men are implied to need to learn to work together.

Do the Wright thing…

It’s actually quite clear from the outset that Ian and Barbara are supposed to be our protagonists, with Susan and her grandfather merely serving as a plot device. After all, Ian is very much the hero of the piece. When the Doctor slows the group down, it’s Ian who volunteers to assist, when the Doctor would likely have abandoned him had their roles been reversed. He offers, “I’ll have to carry you!” In fact, Ian fits so naturally into the role of the hero of the piece that the Doctor observes, “You seem to have elected yourself leader of this little party.”

I like the theory, which is complete fan fiction, that Ian and Barbara got married after they left the TARDIS. In fact, I tend to believe they were a couple during the trip, at least somewhat loosely (it is the sixties, after all, and Ian is cool enough to know his rock ‘n’ roll). Consider they way they interact with one another, playful – but not too flirtatious. It’s like they know each other well, but don’t feel the need to be careful or cautious. “I’m giving Miss Wright a lift home,” Ian suggests at one point, the line that cemented my own theory. I had an English teacher who used to give a colleague “a lift home” – they ended up married. It was really sweet. I choose to believe, with little evidence, that this is what’s happening here.

Cave men rock!

In contrast to Ian’s leadership, we have the Doctor. He’s not outright evil – he does bargain for Ian’s life, insisting, “if he dies, there will be no fire!” – but he isn’t exactly heroic. Susan does warn Barbara that “her grandfather doesn’t like strangers.” That seems like an understatement. Indeed, the character is very quick to blame Susan for everything that happened, even though she’s only fifteen, “I blame you for this, Susan. You would insist on going to that ridiculous school. I warned you.”

While I’m retroactively reading things into the pilot episode, I do like the idea that the Doctor stole the TARDIS and took Susan away from Gallifrey in order to stop the Time Lords from forcing her to look into “the untempered schism”, like the Doctor explained in The Sound of Drums. It does raise the question of what happened to his children, but it’s a solid little theory and I like it – I think the character clearly wanted to raise Susan away from the Time Lords at any rate, and I do like that they are basically settling down in a particular timeframe so she can go to school.

“It’s bigger on the inside…”

Anyway, back to the Doctor. He’s petulant throughout. One gets the sense that he hasn’t yet acquired his fondness of humans, seemingly glad to have their cover blown so he can use the TARDIS. Of course, the Doctor is a wanderer, so I suppose that makes sense – it’s surprising how much of his character we can glimpse here if we look hard enough. Still, Hartnell brilliantly plays a bitter old man, mumbling to himself as he goes outside to get some fresh air and do his research in private, as if he’s had enough of twentieth century Earth and needs a break.

There are some great moments, like when the Doctor objects to Ian’s directions. “You don’t expect me to carry him, do you?” the Doctor asks. In a reply he could only have gotten away with in the sixties, Ian answers, “Do you want the women to do the job for you?” At which point the Doctor concedes and goes along with it. At other points, the character seems perfectly willing to abandon his guests, and is only concerned about Susan’s safety. When Ian and Barbara return to help a wounded man, the Doctor insists, “Susan! You stay here with me.” Susan protests, “No, Grandfather. We can’t leave them.” The Doctor doesn’t explicitly state that he plans to, but his intent is clear, “Silence! We’re going back to the ship.”

Put that in your pipe and smoke it…

I like this sort of morally ambiguous portrayal and (warning! more personal theories ahead!) I like the idea that his time with humans sort of mellowed him out a bit, and that’s why the character is so fond of us – because we made him a better person. In fairness, there are hints already that Hartnell’s Doctor is not made of pure malice, as he offers what seems to be a genuine apology to his guests, “I’m sorry. This is all my fault. I’m desperately sorry.” Of course, the character wouldn’t quite learn his lesson, as the next adventure would attest. There’s also a sense that this Doctor physically needs his companions. “Don’t keep on looking upon me as the weakest link of the party,” he demands, which suggests that knows (deep down) that he is. Maybe he’s so sensitive to the plight of the weak because he was weak himself?

There are moments, however, when one can see the familiar character shining through. There’s a lovely moment where Hartnell’s Doctor tricks a murderer into producing a blood-stained weapon, using the quick wit that the character would become known for. Indeed, his “follow my lead!”command to Ian, delivered with pure relish, sets the stage for decades of improvised gambits to come. Hartnell is a joy to watch and, though he tends to get overshadowed by his successors, there’s no denying that without Hartnell and his wonderful portrayal, there’d be no show.

Back at the start…

The actual plot of the episode is grand. Lots of running. Lots of plotting. I do wonder, though, about the team’s impact on time. The Doctor is initially concerned about letting Barbara and Ian go with knowledge of the future, but the crew give fire to the tribe fairly quickly. I know fire isn’t a new invention at this stage in history, just rare, but it could mean the difference between the tribe dying and surviving, and that could have a ripple effect through time and space. Maybe that single tiny event explains all the minute differences between our universe and the one the show inhabits. Or maybe not.

More than that, though, I can’t help but feel that Ian’s moralising probably wasn’t helping maintain the status quo either. I know the was delivering the episode’s moral (“Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe”, espousing some sense of community and equality), but it feels like it could have seriously altered the social fabric of their group. When Ian suggests that “everyone should know how to make fire”, he is suggesting a fundamentally good idea, but that doesn’t change the fact that it alters the way the tribe interacts, which disrupts the flow of history – introducing the wrong (or in this case, “right”) idea at the wrong time can change the way events play out, and everybody seems sort of reckless about it. But maybe I’m thinking too much about it.

No bones about it…

An Unearthly Child represents a solid start to the series, but things really begin to kick off with the next adventure, which would arguably have an even bigger impact on the series as a whole.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of the classic Doctor Who:

3 Responses

  1. The time warrior is a historical story

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