An Unearthly Child
I bet you never thought you’d see the day… I’m not sure I did, either. Earlier today, though, I finished my forty-fifth anniversary series of reasons – one principal choice per year – as to ‘Why Is Doctor Who Brilliant?’ on my main blog, and having hand-picked so many nuggets of Who, it seemed an opportune moment to go right back to the start, in detail. It’s also, as luck would have it, the thirty-fourth anniversary of the start of the first Doctor Who story I watched all the way from the beginning (The Ark In Space Part One), as well as Hartnellishly the anniversary of one of the episodes of The Daleks (part 6, The Ordeal, which you may or may not read anything into).
Eternal thanks go to many people at the very beginning, particularly then BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman – the main driver behind the creation of Doctor Who – Script Department head Donald Wilson, script editor David Whitaker, scriptwriters Anthony Coburn and before him C. E. Webber, soundscapers Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, legendary producer Verity Lambert, and, of course, William Hartnell. The Doctor.
I’ve previously – long, long ago – written a proper review of Doctor Who’s Pilot, which was remade as the first episode of this four-part story. That version was good, but this one’s better. I’m not, however, writing a review of it in the same way. Instead, this blog follows Doctor Who Magazine’s Time Team, which almost ten years ago started reviewing every single televised Doctor Who story, in order, from the very beginning. Before long, they invited comments from readers, which have for most issues since been printed as one-liners at the side of the page. I started this blog (before grinding to an immediate halt) to record the blizzard of thoughts I’ve sent in over the years, and a few others besides. I didn’t start sending in comments to DWM until the end of William Hartnell’s time as the Doctor, so the ones for An Unearthly Child have been done from scratch – probably in even greater numbers, and with even longer ‘one-liners’, given that many of the ideas have been knocking about in my head for a couple of years when I’ve not been writing them.
Anyway, the idea is that this’ll be less a set of reviews than a bunch of eccentric fragments brainstorming each story. I hope they’ll at least be diverting, and a different way approach to what you’ve read on every other site and in every handbook. I still love Time Team and read it assiduously, though I rarely get published in the readers’ comments these days – I hope because many more people are writing in, rather than because I’ve got more rubbish as time goes on. But you’ll get to judge that for yourself, eventually.
I’ve learnt my lesson from rash commitments when I first attempted to start this up, so I’m not promising to post these regularly, or instantly. The next one will definitely not be tomorrow; it’ll probably not be next week; it’ll hopefully be less than a year and a half away. For the moment, then, here are my thoughts on An Unearthly Child – scattered and idiosyncratic, but I hope occasionally original and at least interesting.
My ‘The Review all Doctor Who Challenge’ posting in an online discussion, January 2004:
I’d not seen this for years, and couldn’t believe how good it was. The first episode is an unbeatable introduction to the series, full of mystery, character and amazingly quotable lines, and the rest is damn good, too. I don’t know why people do it down. The actors are all great, Old Mother is fabulous and the Doctor is a git. What more could you want? It’s a bit startling that it displays more emotional depth than we get for the rest of the series, though…
Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1963 Brilliant?
And I Said…Wow. Those amazing howlround titles, that incredible music – how many other series tell you how brilliant they are from the first second?
Richard says: “The music in the series today isn’t alien and bizarre any more – back then, the title music alone would disturb the bejeezus out of anyone – but it is still different by being more Technicolor, and dialled up to 11.”
From the 1950s-seeming policeman and the old-fashioned fog, both clashing with the TARDIS’ mysteriously futuristic hum, we hit school and it’s 1963 with a wallop: a haughty, heavily made-up Mod girl bitching about a young Kenneth Williams-a-like.
When Barbara’s a much more capable, together, authoritative young woman than was usually depicted at the time, with a swept-up mass of dark hair, and the Doctor’s an older, eccentric man from another world who’s a law unto himself, you do wonder if Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman’s casting decisions had any personal inspirations, don’t you?
“I know you’re going to tell me I’m imagining things” – Barbara confronts point-blank the stereotyped ‘hysterical fantasist female’ coding which Ian and, more importantly, the 1963 audience might be tempted to put on what she says.
“You can’t only use three of the dimensions” is much better than the Pilot’s “three of the elements” – partly because “dimensions” prefigures the TARDIS, and partly because it sounds more scientific than alchemical…
Barbara and Susan’s outfits both look relatively smart and quite severe, but natural – then Ian comes in, dressed for home, in an enormous coat with the collar up. On its own, it looks a fairly heavy greatcoat, but next to the two young women you wonder if he’s driving home to Siberia.
Everyone always assumes the scene with “John Smith and the Common Men” is mainly to establish Ian’s character as a teacher who pays attention to the pupils’ interests. That’s just the script’s bluff, isn’t it? The scene’s central purpose is to introduce Susan, who – the first time we see her – is in a world of her own, grooving along to an aristocrat who’s masquerading as an ordinary person.
Trendy teacher Ian comes up with pop facts to impress Susan, but what’s her response? Not a 15-year-old’s surprise at his knowledge or embarrassment at his attempt to be hip, but a vocal pat on the head – “You are surprising, Mr Chesterton” – as if she’s the teacher.
What is it about the French Revolution that makes Susan so interested? We find out in a few stories’ time that this is the Doctor’s favourite period of Earth’s history; it seems both are fascinated by the idea of an ancient aristocracy being suddenly toppled…
Predicting the decimal system over seven years in advance is a very bold move – of course people had been talking about it for ages but, like predicting British Euro membership now, it’ll have put some viewers against the series, established it as very modern and, in hindsight, looks brilliant.
When Susan gets confused about whether Britain’s on pounds, shillings, groats or marks, Barbara’s very severe: her reaction is effectively to say, ‘Don’t give me all this alien nonsense, you silly girl, you know it’s not true,’ then think about it later – just as she then does inside the TARDIS.
Although Ian thinks of himself as the laid-back, practical one – as in his attitude to pop music, and his comparative lack of worry about Susan – given a real problem he has even more difficulty ‘taking things as they come’ than the nominally more severe Barbara. It’s she who accepts the TARDIS first, and he who finds excuses and ‘rationalisations’ to cling on to his preconceptions.
Throughout this story, the emotional reactions of each of the characters are entirely true to life, in a way the series will rarely ever show again – not just the sweaty panic against the Tribe, but little things like both Barbara and Ian liking to be in control and getting sharply defensive when they’re not: her when Ian implies she’s a busybody; him when he breaks his torch and feels embarrassed.
Richard observes: “I know it’s a pen torch, but it does look like the very first time we meet the Doctor, he’s using the Sonic…”
The Doctor starts off as a mysterious old git making life difficult for the clean-cut ‘leads’, but even here he gets the close-ups, making them the supporting characters; though Ian seems briefly to be on top as they race about the forest in episode three, by the end of even this first story the Doctor’s (intellectually) wrestled his way to being the undoubted star and hero.
Like the start of the 2005 series, though even more quotably, this begins from the perspective of ordinary people who encounter someone different, then follow them to a strange blue box that’s larger on the inside than the outside and travels in time and space. Except that here the two ‘contemporary’ characters take it in turns to be reassuring or go hysterical at the bizarre turn their lives are taking.
Barbara is mostly a rather strong character but loses it a bit too much here – though at least Ian panics first. It’s a shame Susan loses her enigmatic quality so early, but that’s made up for by how disturbing the Doctor is in his first story, played by William Hartnell as, well, a git with brilliant facets.
Barbara can be friendly and earnest, but is very businesslike – and it’s great to see her controlling her obvious irritation when Ian and the Doctor in turn fiddle with things (a tap and a picture frame) while she’s talking. She must want to give them both lines.
Just as he later does with Kal, and presumably regarding them in much the same way, the Doctor uses his intelligence and understanding of the teachers’ social mores to get the result he wants: suggesting they find a policeman, he’s not unlikeable and very persuasive as he recounts what they’re doing in a way to make them doubt themselves.
“There’s only one way in and out of this yard. I shall be here when you get back.” Both of these statements are lies, of course, but the Doctor brilliantly invites them to form a syllogism based on their preconceptions about the ‘facts’. Although Susan blows the gaffe, he’s on the right track – making the wrong conclusions because they can’t reach outside their preconceptions is exactly what the teachers do throughout the first episode.
First the humming police box is enigmatic, then it’s a danger – Susan’s prison? – then it’s, abruptly, the biggest idea ever, in the smallest box. The world is turned upside-down – for the schoolteachers and for us.
Ian and Barbara lunge into the TARDIS – still one of the greatest moments in television history. Though we’ve both seen it many times, we’re caught up in it: “And the world changes,” murmurs Richard. I breathe “Fantastic” at the same moment.
The first time we ever see Susan, she’s in a world of her own, grooving along to an aristocrat who’s masquerading as an ordinary person.The TARDIS control room still looks extraordinary; the actors and the direction are terrific as they all suddenly plunge inside. But it’s the dialogue that’s really compelling. This might still be just the most memorable, quotable scene in Doctor Who (or television) history.
From being guarded and attempting to distract the teachers outside the spaceship, once inside the Doctor strides forward, revealed and taking command. He tells Susan to close the doors and puts it down to “that ridiculous school”; but, unlike in the Pilot, here he’s quietly chiding her, like a little bit of family exasperation leaking out in front of strangers.
Ian, so laid back and intelligent in his own world, is nothing but aggressive when faced with the TARDIS. “And what’s wrong with it?” asks the Doctor, and you can’t blame him. The teachers are rude and intrusive, and stupid.
The Doctor getting distracted by a stopped clock and ignoring Ian is very endearing; just as with the dirty picture, he has so many things he can’t keep track of them all but wants to keep them all going, with the added impression that he probably thinks the clock’s as likely to offer intelligent conversation as the schoolteacher.
The Doctor not listening to Ian but instead musing over his clock is both endearing and (to Ian) very irritating. It continues him being a bit of a git as he was outside, but a more human and loveable one.
The Doctor’s simile about inventing television to explain the Ship’s dimensions is brilliant in so many ways, but most of all in how, as Ian might to a child, he kindly thinks of a way within the teacher’s limited grasp to explain something incredibly simple that’s quite beyond his tiny mind.
Ian’s not the lead at all, is he? He may look the part, but he’s introduced as the supporting character to Barbara’s investigation and, though inside the TARDIS he takes over asking the questions, both script and camera clearly make the person answering the questions more important.
Exactly at the point that the Doctor explains the TARDIS with reference to television, the television camera is telling us that he’s the lead character by pointing directly at him, the others backgrounded. It’s a brilliant piece of mutual reinforcement. Billy’s enormously charismatic and frames himself perfectly, but the self-aware declaration that ‘this is all about television, and television says it’s all about me’ is even more important than the actor.
“But you’ve discovered television, haven’t you?” is from the same mindset as the decimalisation scene: ‘Oh, it’s so easy to lose track of just how unbelievably primitive you are… Have you moved up from weight-based barter yet? Have you discovered writing, or television, or fire?’ And, of course, it gives a satirical pre-echo of the ‘primitives’ part of the story. The Doctor’s among primitives already.
Moving from modern London to prehistoric cavepeople is absolutely key to the story. The Doctor regards Ian and Barbara as savages, preventing the audience from feeling too smug about the Tribe; but it also means the Doctor is rapidly shoved together with the teachers against someone much less advanced, with them being useful and, most importantly, on the Doctor’s side of the ‘learning gap’.
Encountering the Tribe immediately after kidnapping Ian and Barbara means the Doctor can start thinking of them as semi-advanced, rather than primitives below his civilisation. If they’d landed among the Daleks and Thals first, he’d probably have dumped the teachers, or at least spo-ken ve-ry slow-ly and clear-ly to them and apologised for bringing a pair of savages to meet futuristic peoples: ‘I’m sorry, you’ll have to excuse them, they’re from the Twentieth Century.’
Meeting the Tribe is vital not just to the first story but to the ongoing story of the series – not only does it establish the travels in time, but if the TARDIS had jumped straight from 1963 to ‘The Daleks’, Ian and Barbara would have remained ‘primitives’ and the Doctor would have had no reason to listen to them, much less bond with them.
While the Doctor views his new travelling companions across an intellectual divide, there’s also a moral divide: to begin with, the Doctor’ll do anything to protect himself and Susan but Ian and Barbara are more outward-looking. The Doctor learns from them more subtly, but that starts in the very first story – and even in Twenty-first Century stories, he still has a ruthless streak without human friends to talk him out of it.
The Doctor’s tried his best to explain to little Ian, but he still doesn’t understand, and the Doctor laughs. “I knew you wouldn’t! Never mind.” He turns away, as if from a child tugging at his leg while the grown-ups are busy. It’s a great role-reversal to have teachers being talked down to – every child must have loved it!
This is perfect ‘family’ drama; the role-reversal of authority figures being stupid, but only in relative terms rather than slapstick idiocy, is far more effective than having child leads – though it’s also brilliant that the other grown-up the Doctor keeps discussing their shortcomings with in front of them appears to be a teenage girl.
Barbara tries to patronise Susan about the Ship, but gets back simple incomprehension that she doesn’t get it: when Susan tells her teacher that “I thought you’d both understand” about the TARDIS, it’s a priceless I-can’t-believe-you’re-so-dim moment. The Doctor’s the only person here who can understand the others’ mindset, whether primitive tribespeople or savage teachers, and evidently thinks of them in just the same way he does four decades later, as “stupid apes”.
The Doctor’s question “Have you ever thought about what it’s like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? Have you? To be exiles…?” is mesmerising, but Susan’s startled reaction tells us even more about him – it’s as if he’s usually much more guarded with her and doesn’t reveal his secret hope for fear of letting her down but humans, as ever after, prise emotions out of him.
Susan pleads with the Doctor to free the two primitives, but he’s made his mind up. Here, he doesn’t try to persuade her with a flight of poetry; there’s just an icy “No” as he walks away, which is more frightening, more distant, than any of the Pilot’s abrasiveness.
Lights blaze, the room shakes, the grinding sound is heard, and we see ordinary television (Television Centre) being left far behind in a maelstrom of effects. It’s a very postmodern first episode! Just look at it, listen to it… That must have freaked out viewers completely.
The whole story’s terrific, and you need the Tribe to narrow the gulf between the time travellers – but, on its own, the first episode is easily up with the very best of ’60s drama. The acting, the design, the emotion, the inspiration… All of it’s a bald statement, ‘This is a television programme like no other.’
It’s only Ian and Barbara that get knocked out when the TARDIS takes off – we’ve seen flights that rough in the Twenty-first Century series, too, where if you don’t hang onto something, you fall over. It’s partly saying that Ian and Barbara are unprepared for the dangers of time travel, part simply that here they are literally off-balance.
The chaotic take-off knocks Ian and Barbara unconscious, while the Doctor stays standing. If that’s an unusually rough journey, do Ian and Barbara have something to do with it (and does it damage the Ship’s ability to change shape)? Perhaps the Ship’s in tune with the Doctor and is put out by his shock and fear at having to leave so abruptly, and nearly losing Susan? Or is it having to adjust to carrying beings from an alien world for the first time?
As the second episode starts, we see Kal, full-face: the villain’s introduced, and then we get the scary title “The Cave of Skulls” superimposed across him to associate him with evil.
The Tribe set-up, with Za rubbing his bone while people say how unimpressive it is, is very off-putting. It’s very much standing around waiting for the king to, er, produce an heir! ‘Where is his manhood?’ they’re asking. And like all mothers, his is never happy with him.
Za would be a goner at the start without practical Hur as his Lady Macbeth, but he’s the character that changes most over the story. He opens by making demands and repeating pointless cargo-cult rituals, like so many Doctor Who leaders afterwards, but Hartnell’s Doctor inspires him to think, like Eccleston’s will to so many of the people he encounters later.
As Ian and Barbara come to, they’re in medium shot to make them look very small – there’s a big haughty carved bird looming in the foreground to intimidate them, like Professor Yaffle or the Doctor.
The running theme that Ian and Barbara are stupid primitives continues from the previous episode, sketched in without being forced: the Doctor’s “What are you doing down there?” implies he didn’t notice they were knocked out and just can’t understand their being such rubbish passengers, then once again he gives a waspish aside to Susan as if they’re too stupid to listen – “They don’t understand, and I suspect they don’t want to.”
Clearly much more in control now, having left the Twentieth Century’s immediate threat and with Susan very definitely on his side, the Doctor’s no longer rowing with Ian the way he was; Ian’s still trying to pick a fight, but the Doctor keeps having to turn away and smile, evidently unable to keep his face straight as he anticipates the shock Ian has coming to him.
If they’d landed not among the cavemen but the Daleks and Thals first, the Doctor would probably have dumped the teachers, or at least spo-ken ve-ry slow-ly and clear-ly to them and apologised for bringing a pair of savages to meet futuristic peoples: ‘I’m sorry, you’ll have to excuse them, they’re from the Twentieth Century.’Before the TARDIS doors open and Ian is forced to see the facts, he keeps repeating “Yes, I know,” by which he actually means, ‘I know that’s the evidence, but I don’t want to consider it, because it’s too disturbing’.
The Doctor tells Ian not to be so narrow-minded and insular – he has exactly the same effect on Ian, Za and the viewers.
The Doctor asks Ian if he could touch the alien sand, would that satisfy him? Yes, replies the teacher, but it doesn’t. He’s instantly back to denial, with his former pupil triumphant. Outside, the sound of the wind and the view of the TARDIS, bare desert and bits of tree in the background (albeit with the ‘mountains’ the one unconvincing touch) emphasise the stark reality. He can see for miles.
There’s some superb direction, not just in the stylishness of each shot but in the way the camera’s used to tell us who’s telling the truth, or the recurring motifs; skulls, in particular, keep featuring in close-up, from the smashed dummy, through the Cave and several dead animals, to the climax when it all comes to a head. Are we meant to associate them with palaeontological discoveries of early human skulls and therefore past times, or the Tribe’s animalistic nature, or simply the macabre closeness to death in such a dangerous environment?
The travellers finding the animal skull and Susan feeling she’s being watched is paralleled in the next story by the Magnodon and Alydon; was the comparison put in by David Whitaker to make both environments seem as ‘real’?
The whole prehistoric ‘adventure’ is dirty, sweaty, smelly, horrible and terrifying. It opens up the TARDIS crew’s emotions like no other story.
The series’ first really outrageous plot contrivance: the Doctor only smokes so that he can be seen making fire. But it’s such a fabulous, curvy and enormous Sherlock Holmes pipe that you don’t notice.
Though people complain it’s the companions’ role, the Doctor’s our first scream and the first to be slugged out and dragged off, so he doesn’t put others in a position that he hasn’t tried himself. Watch him carefully, though; unlike most of the following victims, on coming round he looks about, sizes up the situation and rapidly starts talking his way out of it. Admittedly, in the previous episode he was the first person to (in effect) lock the TARDIS crew up, too!
Just as he was able to come up with a simile that Ian might understand, the Doctor puts himself into the Tribe’s way of thinking. On waking after Kal’s attack, he immediately adapts to the way of declaiming that all the rest have, with simple appeals. He’s a bright old thing.
The scream that takes us from the travellers to the Tribe is momentarily disturbing, the tension relieved by a camera pull-out to a children’s game. It’s a great touch. How often do we get that sort of thing in the series?
Kal’s been telling the Tribe that he’s often seen men make fire, but also that Orb will soon show him how it is done – the first statement’s obviously intended to add verisimilitude to the second, and none of the Tribe are bright enough to spot that it’s actually contradictory, in that if it’s true he doesn’t need a revelation.
Za’s belated “As lies come out of yours!” comeback to Kal’s sarcasm and then claims about smoke coming from the Doctor’s mouth is pretty good, but most of the time Kal’s tongue is faster. He doesn’t sit on his own and mutter, either, but prowls round the tribe winning over each of them personally.
With Kal humiliated and angry, he turns on the weakest person to blame, and the Doctor really looks worried, his eyes darting around as he wonders what to do. His companions suddenly appearing gives him a distracting moment in which to save himself, just as he then saves Ian – again, as in the first episode (and their final escape), using a masterful bluff.
It’s easy to compare the alpha male struggles between the Doctor and Ian / Za and Kal, but there’s also the different sort of rivalry between Za and Horg, with the old man not liking new things and protesting that he was once a great leader. In the Doctor’s more intellect-led civilisation as opposed to Horg’s muscle-led one, though, he wins his struggle.
Look at the bargaining between Za, Hur and Horg: ‘Marriage. A business transaction since 100,000 BC’. And somehow calling a woman ‘Hur’ seems so much less flattering than ‘She’; ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ beats ‘Hur Who Must Be Traded’.
It’s easy to compare this story to The Daleks, but think ahead to Destiny of the Daleks – that’s got the same plot not just as The Daleks but as this story, too. The Doctor has a technological advantage, and two factions fight over him to possess it. That’s in Marco Polo as well, come to think of it… And surely that’s exactly what the Doctor was afraid of in not letting Ian and Barbara go.
Oh dear. The Forest of Fear opens with a clearly fake skeleton, blatantly strung together, a more plasticky skull, a less punchy line from Ian and a fairly swift fade to the next scene rather than lingering on the dead – it’s the first big post-cliffhanger let-down.
The Tribe are all so piled across each other for warmth that it’s amazing Old Mother doesn’t wake everybody when she gets up to nick Za’s knife and creep out. Then “The Forest of Fear” appears over her hand, which she holds in mid-air for so long she must be preternaturally sensing the caption.
The time travellers reinforce each other in the Cave of Skulls with some superbly structured interdependence; the Doctor loses hope, then gets snapped out of it by Ian’s criticism (shame? Inspiration? Rivalry?) and comes up with an idea once Barbara encourages Ian, after which the old man in turn encourages her.
Hur works out that the Old Woman wants to kill the travellers, then wakes Za, telling him her watchfulness is a mark of his leadership; she’s much clever and more rational than the rest. What can she see in him other than being the power behind the throne, though? Za is very much a brutal and sulky little boy; Hur is more his better mother than his Lady Macbeth.
When the Doctor refers to Ian as “your [Barbara’s] companion,” it’s almost certainly not meant in the way the series uses the term afterwards – but it works if you think of Ian as her sidekick. Here, the Doctor treats Barbara as the important one because she’s the more intelligent and open-minded.
Oh, look, it’s the first hidden escape route from a cell – though it’s plainly not a ventilation duct, as everyone complains about how whiffy the place is.
Za goes down under an unseen animal, and later Who directors saddled with less-than-perfect monsters could learn from what we see next: Hur’s wide-eyed horror and Ian and Barbara staring – it gives you a real sense that Za’s being mauled by something terrible, not through ever seeing the creature but through their reactions.
The Doctor’s framed as callous and inhuman in his attitude to the wounded Za, but that obscures Ian’s attitude when he patronises Barbara with “Your flat must be littered with stray cats and dogs” – the Doctor regards less advanced humans like the Tribe (and Ian) as savages, but to ‘more caring’ Ian, they’re animals.
Some things really do never change: “He’s always like this if he doesn’t get his own way,” says Susan of the sulky Doctor, and over the next four decades, it turns out he always is!
The first hidden escape route from a cell’s plainly not a ventilation duct, as everyone complains about how whiffy the place is.Ian’s accidentally more like the Doctor than the Doctor himself as he acts to protect history – wanting to take Za to the Ship for antibiotics is less interfering than cancelling the results of their interference, as Za was only wounded because he was chasing them.
It’s a sign of how influential the Target books are that, no matter how many times I watch the scene as recorded, I remember seeing Old Mother not slumped from behind, but propped against pile of skulls, Eileen Way staring into space, even though that was only in my imagination (it must be catching: Kal convinces the Tribe in a similar way, while About Time 1 remembers that scene entirely wrongly, too).
‘Doctor Whodunnits’ rarely work as murder mysteries (too few suspects, too little mystery), and this seems to start as it means to go on – we see the Old Woman’s murderer, rather than working it out from clues. Despite that, there is an element of a famous detective series when the Doctor exposes Kal. He uses his wits to get the villain to give himself away through a combination of psychology and forensic evidence: he’s just invented Columbo!
Rather than having to worry about piloting the case through a court 102,000 years (approx) before the development of DNA tests and blood-typing, Kal’s instantly convicted by the court of public opinion, who go on to bung rocks at him. Hurrah! And then he gets his head bashed in by an even bigger rock. Hurrah! …Well, OK, the legal system has had a few polishes since then.
The Doctor uses intelligence, forensics and a naked appeal to Kal’s vanity and alpha male posturing to snare him, then whispers to Ian to follow his lead as he turns to rabble-rousing. It’s winning his own battle with Ian, too; after Ian was definitely in the lead in the previous episode, now he’s the Doctor’s prop.
Just as with Twentieth-Century humans, the Doctor can get into their mindset and manipulate it, but it’s ironic that he uses a shameless manipulation of Kal’s ego as the way to boost his own over Ian.
“This place is evil.” For the first time, the Doctor makes a moral judgement: that mass killing is evil. So, after the scene where he’ll use his brains to interfere, he’s now got so involved that he starts becoming morally involved, too.
The flickering flames and shocked reactions to the big fight give it a very memorable look, but while in later Doctor Who this would be the end – the villain overcome – the others aren’t civilised enough to realise they’re meant to be nice yet, so there’s still another ten minutes of conflict to go.
The Doctor realises they must find a way to scare the Tribe; Susan devises it; Ian realises how to put it into operation; all showing how the time travellers can now work together. But the Doctor’s inspired Za, too, as it’s he who works out what the ruse is, and how to overcome it – “With fire, it is day.” Mixing with the Doctor does everyone’s minds the power of good.
Though we don’t get the first really full-fledged ‘undead’ story in the series until Billy’s final adventure, most of his first season has some hint of it, and how is the very first story resolved? By using a combination of the idea of the undead and special effects to frighten the people watching, which is what the series will be doing for ever after.
The first story begins with a box that’s bigger on the inside and can take you anywhere, like the television, and which flies through TV feedback – then it ends with a statement that while you might be frightened by what you see, you can’t trust it all. Who said Doctor Who only discovered postmodernism in the mid-’80s?
The Doctor’s exposing of Kal is brilliantly conceived and written, but the director and lead actor run with it still more brilliantly: the way the Doctor goes from flourishing the bloodied knife before the Tribe then gives a quiet aside to Ian shows Billy’s mastery of both theatre and TV, as the style of the scene moves effortlessly from the Doctor putting himself ‘on stage’ to a very televisually conspiratorial moment.
Kal is cast out, but Za orders our heroes back to the Cave of Skulls instead of rewarding them. Is he establishing his authority when he can? Doing what the people want? Silencing the subversive idea of the people being stronger than the leader? Or simply putting them to one side so he can think out the situation with Hur, as the Doctor’s ironically taught him to do – an even more dangerously Promethean revelation than fire.
When Za calls the time travellers “a new tribe,” he means less that they’re a new people than that they have new ideas.
Though people write about the educational intent of the early series, making fire is the nearest there is to a didactic bit here – the schoolteachers are out of their depths. When Ian says everyone should know how to do it, that’s more about democracy than science.
Thank goodness Za and Hur weren’t cast as love-starred teens who the older generation don’t understand, man; these kids have real issues with their parents, Za’s mother always saying he’s not good enough and Hur telling her father “you should lie on the old stone ’til your blood runs into the earth!” It could have been appallingly Cliff Richard.
I love the travellers stonily refusing to respond to Za’s conversational gambits over the food. But, noticeably, he now has conversational gambits in addition to his club.
The tribe’s been obsessed with fire and have used skulls to terrify our heroes – so it’s the perfect con to employ at the climax.
The story’s an extraordinary example of how to set up a series, with the first astounding episode introducing a mystery and then the concepts, while the others throw violence and dirt at our heroes to make them bond. Almost uniquely for Doctor Who, the characters develop and show real, raw emotion that makes what would later just be capture-escape-capture scenes unbearably tense – because they really mean it, and they’re terrified.
It’s not just incredible to look at – it’s not just still more incredible when compared to any other television of the time – but it’s absolutely incredible when you consider the people behind it and what they achieved with so little resources and so little backing from most of the BBC. Nothing else had electronically generated titles like Bernard Lodge’s; nothing else had electronically realised music like Delia Derbyshire’s, which composer Ron Grainer didn’t even recognise as his; no other BBC drama in 1963 had a young, female producer and a young (and gay) Asian director. If it was today, some ‘fans’ would complain about “political correctness” and “agendas”. Back then, several people in the BBC probably did.
I first saw this in as part of repeat season The Five Faces of Doctor Who in November 1981, aged ten, and it was almost unbearably exciting. I’d long-since fallen in love with the first TARDIS scene from an audio recording of the documentary Whose Doctor Who, but to see the whole thing was spellbinding. Now, if I were to choose a story to introduce someone to William Hartnell as the Doctor, I’d hesitate; this is a brilliant story, but shouldn’t I pick one where everyone’s more in their ‘settled’ characters, and the Doctor’s less scary? Yet, really, what other story can be more exciting to discover for the first time?
The Doctor’s StoryOh, come on. This one’s so significant to the chap it’d take as long again to list everything that’s important about him. But “He’s a doctor, isn’t he? That’s a bit of a lame excuse,” is the first mention he gets, three and a half minutes in, and he actually appears eleven and a half minutes into the first episode. He’s as ruthless and hostile-seeming here as you’ll ever see him, but that’s not the whole story; by the second episode, he’s already saving the companions he’s previously chewed out and kidnapped, then starting to cheer them up, then before the story’s out making his first of many moral judgements. Though his instinct is first to explore then, when that lands him in tricky situations, to escape, he’s already starting to flex his brain to achieve more than that. And you could say that this is where he sets out from contemporary Britain, the time and place by which he’ll forever be judged, and people from that time and place are already influencing him to be more like them.
It is, in any case, an utterly stunning performance by William Hartnell, one of the best from any Doctor. So buy a copy and watch the thing.
What They Said…Time Team, Doctor Who Magazine 279, June 1999:
“‘Hartnell’s really very good in this and steals every scene,’ adds Clayton. ‘Jovial, condescending and cunning. I’m with him all the way!’”The “Cliché Counter” starts counting the numbers of deaths on screen, and of times regulars are knocked unconscious or incarcerated. I’m not sure I’ll follow it with any great interest, though, as it’s clearly showing too few on at least the latter two as early as the first issue.
“Jac: ‘Urgh, urgh, urgh!’”
“You are treating us like children!”Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles’ About Time 1:
“Am I? The children of my civilisation would be insulted.”
“Yes, my civilisation. I tolerate this century, but I don’t enjoy it. Have you ever thought about what it’s like to be wanderers in the Fourth Dimension? Have you? To be exiles…? Susan and I are cut off from our own planet, without friends or protection. But one day, we shall get back. Yes, one day… One day…”
“Sydney Newman, ‘a Canadian who looked like a Mexican’, whose deal with ABC is £8,500, a free mortgage and a Jaguar; presumably the car, not the cat, but in his case we can’t assume too much.”1963 AD by Andrew Wixon
“Now, as then, watching An Unearthly Child is a peculiar experience for any fan. To someone reared on Tom Baker's run, only the TARDIS was there to prove this was indeed the same programme, so different is it in every way. The very first episode is, of course, brilliant. It seems to be written to be quoted from. The structure is flawless. These days, of course, it's impossible to know how it would have felt to have the TARDIS's secret sprung on you unawares - but the sequence still carries remarkable power. But it's a brilliance of a kind that's unrepeated anywhere later in the series' run. At a very basic level DW's format is 'hero meets alien' - and here, for the only time ever, the alien in question is the Doctor himself.”
Radio Times teasers for An Unearthly ChildAn Unearthly Child
“A new series of adventures in space and time.”
The Cave of Skulls
“The mysterious doctor and his companions visit ‘The Cave of Skulls’.”
The Forest of Fear
“This week he and his companions enter ‘The Forest of Fear’.
“‘The Firemaker’ is the title of this week’s episode.”
Pushing the boat out, there.
The Radio Times knew who the lead character was from the start, then…
As did the BBC’s radio trailer:
“My name is William Hartnell and, as Doctor Who, I make my debut on Saturday 23 November at 5.15.
“The Doctor is an extraordinary old man from another world who owns a time and space machine.
“He and his granddaughter, Susan (played by Carole Ann Ford), have landed in England and are enjoying their stay, until Susan arouses the curiosity of two of her schoolteachers (played by William Russell and Jacqueline Hill). They follow Susan and get inside the Ship, and Doctor Who decides to leave Earth, starting a series of adventures which I know will thrill and excite you every week.”
Available In All Good Shops?An Unearthly Child has been published as a Script Book (“The Tribe of Gum”); as a rather good novelisation, by Terrance Dicks; and released on VHS, twice. The second edition of the novel and the first edition of the video both sport the same rather stylish cover painting by Alister Pearson, of the Doctor and Susan’s faces merging into each other.
If you’re into reading your Doctor Who, incidentally, see if you can track down Kim Newman’s novella Time and Relative, which is a pretty good little story in its own right and set just before the events of this one. You might also try finding a second-hand copy of Anthony Coburn’s The Masters of Luxor, also published as a Script Book; it’s not a patch on this story, or indeed the one that effectively replaced it and sent the series off in a different direction, broadcast adventure The Daleks, but it’s a fascinating historical curiosity.
What I’d recommend, though, is the DVD release, which is cleaned up to look the best it ever will, includes the Pilot episode, a partial commentary and a great many extras, as part of the splendid box set Doctor Who – The Beginning. If I were you, though, I’d hit ‘Play All’ and then skip forward seven chapters, given that the DVD rather unwisely includes the Pilot first on the Play All option, and you’re probably better off watching the whole story through as broadcast first.
If that doesn’t sell you, try the fun little trailer that someone put together for YouTube – I love the opening caption – or another one for the first season of Doctor Who, in Twenty-first Century style.
Why Is This Brilliant?So many reasons…
- It starts the whole thing – the best concept in the world, brilliantly delivered.
- Each of the lead actors is brilliant, and the emotional and physical pressure they’re put under beats almost everything afterwards.
- It looks terrific – dark and atmospheric, busy and terrifying, gleaming white and mind-expanding.
- It’s meeting the prehistoric savages that makes the Doctor appreciate the 1963 savages, and they him.
Labels: William Hartnell