RELEASED: November 23rd – December 14th 1963
DISTRIBUTED BY: BBC
SHOWRUNNER: Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert & Mervyn Pinfield
WRITTEN BY: Anthony Coburn & C.E. Webber
DIRECTED BY: Waris Hussein
MUSIC BY: Ron Grainer & Norman Kay
STARRING: William Hartnell, Carole Ann Ford, Jacqueline Hill, William Russell, Derek Newark, Alethea Charlton, Eileen Way, Jeremy Young & Howard Lang
An Unearthly Child is the first-ever Doctor Who serial. Consisting of the first four episodes of season one, the story sees two teachers, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterson, investigating the home life of one of their students, Susan. Susan has repeatedly shown brilliance beyond compare in the fields of science and maths and yet fails to understand basic day to day things. Worried that something might be wrong, the pair venture to Susan’s home to meet her grandfather, who they discover to be an enigmatic alien called the Doctor, who whisks the trio away in his TARDIS as he fears they may alert people to his presence. However, unable to pilot the TARDIS correctly, the four land in 10,000BC, where they have to contend with the local cavemen and their deification of fire.
While there are some familiar hallmarks of current Doctor Who present, for the most part, An Unearthly Child is almost a completely different show. But then again, who’s the same person they were fifty years ago?
The TARDIS and time-travel are still there of course, but the stakes are far lower, for one – rather than battling aliens and saving the universe, the plot more revolves around the drama that comes with two unsuspecting teachers discovering beings capable of time-travel and the subsequent threat of encountering cavemen and not being murdered by people who don’t quite understand them. The four episodes give a continual back and forth as the Doctor and his companions try to escape the cavemen again and again, in a way that feels like the creators are drawing the story out to fill the required schedule.
In truth, the adventure is not that interesting. The most fascinating part is the first episode and Barbara and Ian’s investigation into Susan’s home life. More fascinating is the character of the Doctor himself; a far cry from the one we know and love today. Rather than a kooky, affable woman or a gallant, adventurous young man, this Doctor is just some elderly dude who is just a bit condescending. There’s no hint that one day he will save the universe on a daily basis; as his story is just him butting heads with Ian. That in itself is quite entertaining given the context, but with the context of the revival, it does seem somewhat strange.
What’s more strange is that the Doctor isn’t really even the hero here. Not yet.
He’s the first to get captured, and while his intelligence does further their goal of escaping and returning to the TARDIS, for the most part, it’s up to the others to do the heavy lifting (both literally and metaphorically).
If it weren’t for the very first episode, it would be rather easy to dismiss this serial as a whole. The cavemen plot, as mentioned, feels drawn out and filled with supporting actors over-acting,
Furthermore, understandably, the visuals don’t really hold up. The lack of colour means a lot of the episodes are rather murky and sometimes unintelligible and the effects are very sixties, and thus often laughable to a modern eye.
Perhaps the biggest saving grace in this respect is the TARDIS itself. Gleaming white and excellently designed, it allows for a clear view of the drama on hand, and truly feels otherworldly, despite its humble sixties origin. The only flaw with it is the fact that you can see, when inside the TARDIS, that when the doors open, the outside looks like the interior rather than the exterior, which doesn’t quite make sense.
Still, it’s important to see where this all began, and there’s still fifty plus years of growth still to come.
All-in-all, I give An Unearthly Child: