Travels Through the Time Vortex: An Unearthly Child

One of my pet peeves, something that frustrates me to no end, is when people don’t give “classic” Doctor Who (1963-1989, 1996) the proper chance. While not everyone does this, I’ve heard of cases where people will only watch one story or, even worse, one episode of one story and then deem the classic era isn’t for them. In my opinion, you can’t do that. Classic Who is filled with so many radically different interpretations of the Doctor – each with his own quite distinct era, feel, and pace – that you can’t judge 26 years of television by just a single serial. This point of view was formed when I began collecting Classic Doctor Who DVDs in an effort to further familiarize myself with the show’s pre-2005 era. After getting recommendations from fans and thinking about what stories I would want to see the most, I made up a list of three or so stories for each Doctor and have been sporadically watching them over the last couple years. Every now and then I will give you my thoughts on the stories I chose. Anyway, best to start at the beginning. An Unearthly Child

Season one

Story one Episodes: Four

Original air date: November 23 – December 14, 1963

Story: British school teachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) are concerned about one of their students, the eccentric Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford). They follow her to a junkyard and soon run into the her grandfather, known only as the Doctor (William Hartnell), who takes the two teachers away from 1963 London in order to keep them from revealing Susan and his secret. Since the Doctor at this time has no control over where the TARDIS will go, they are thrown into the year 10,000 B.C., where they must fight for their lives and escape from warring factions of tribal cavemen who both want the four to show them the secret of fire. Thoughts: Much has been said about the famous first episode and how it is infinitely better than the disappointingly boring three episodes that followed. I say while episodes two through four aren’t the best of Who and were quite dull on my first viewing, on subsequent re-watching for this marathon, they aren’t as bad as their reputation might lead you to believe. Episode one is the best of the bunch to be sure. It features great acting from Hartnell and a wonderfully mysterious atmosphere created both by the story and the episode’s effective use of a heavy fog, light, and shadow. This feeling of mystery is apt since we will only be getting droplets about the Doctor’s past over the next many years. I would be lying if I said the other three episodes weren’t a bit of a bore and a tad corny in certain spots. The cavemen are silly, clichéd, and not the most interesting of side characters, but what surprised me during the second viewing was how relatable they can be. While they speak in broken, “caveman” English, wear animal skins, and live in caves, they are shown to have some of the same aspirations and fears about their lives, their place in the world, and the future as we do. It’s a nice subtle touch that helps elevate the story for me.

Kal (Jeremy Young), one of the cliched but yet still somewhat relatable leader cavemen.

Kal (Jeremy Young), one of the cliched but yet still somewhat relatable leader cavemen.

The rest of the cast fare better and are thankfully more interesting than the supporting characters. The First Doctor is portrayed so well by Hartnell, who in his first few stories played a quite different Doctor than the one we know today. He’s cold and suspicious towards Ian and Barbara, who he finds barbaric and simple by his standards, and he’s not keen on getting into trouble or putting his neck out for others. He’s shown to be intelligent, resourceful, and has a touch of eccentricity, but he isn’t quite the lovable, strange genius he would later become.

The enigmatic First Doctor (William Hartnell) in the junkyard in "An Unearthly Child."

The enigmatic First Doctor (William Hartnell) in the junkyard in “An Unearthly Child.”

Ian and Baraba are understandingly disbelieving of the whole situation at first but are still capable, smart people who are helpful in the escape from their cavemen captives. They also don’t like the Doctor any more than he likes them, which is understandable since he, you know, kidnapped them. Despite the horrible conditions, they remain caring and protective of Susan, like the Doctor also is, and are the ones who show compassion for the lives of the prehistoric locals, who the Doctor couldn’t care less about. It’s a nice change from what we see today, and it, along with the stories to follow, shows how much of an effect these two humble teachers had in making the Doctor the odd, kind, and curious alien we know today. The Master says to the Doctor in the penultimate episode of season three, “The Doctor, the man who makes people better.” Well, I am of the belief that Ian and Barbara are the people who made the Doctor better. The only real complaint I have with them is they are a bit slow in understanding that the bigger on the inside TARDIS is actually real and not an illusion of some sort, but most of us would probably be in a state of disbelief at such a sight. Susan remains the most underdeveloped out of the whole bunch. She’s weird to be sure, but doesn’t really have much of a character beyond that. Nor does she, to the best of my recollection, do all that much to help solve problems in this story. This, unfortunately, doesn’t get a whole lot better in the year she was on the show and is the reason why Ford left the part after so short a time. It’s too bad. This is – to date – the only confirmed member of the Doctor’s family we’ve ever met, and he hardly ever talks about his family otherwise. So, it would’ve been nice to have learned more about her.

The three first companions. From the left to right: Barbara, Susan, and Ian.

The three first companions. From the left to right: Barbara, Susan, and Ian.

The production values of the show are pretty low, but considering they had a budget of like a dollar (or should I say pound) in those days, they managed to do quite well with their 1963 London set and the prehistoric locations. The sometimes cheap looking production also doesn’t detract much from the story. There’s always a sense of danger, and I always felt the actions of our leads had consequences, occasionally harsh ones. This can be seen a lot in Classic Who. Designs and effects may not always look the best but the good story and characters overshadow those detractors. Another interesting aspect to the story is something I never noticed in either of my two viewings but I’ve seen pointed out by other fans. The barbaric, dangerous prehistoric era is to Ian and Barbara what 1963 London was for the First Doctor, foreign, simple and not a place they wanted to be. I have no idea if this was intentional on the part of the writers, but it’s a nice parallel even if it’s not. I guess what I would say about this story is this: if you watch it and don’t like it, don’t give up on Classic Who. Three-quarters of its run time is a bit underrated, but its quality is not representative of the next 26 years of the show. There are MUCH better stories ahead filled with wonderful writing, terrific acting, some impressive sets and effects for their time, and many memorable baddies. Speaking of enemies that stick in people’s minds, next up we have the story that really made people in the U.K. take notice of this little show. It features the first but certainly not the last appearance of the Doctor’s greatest adversary. Pop by here in a few days for my review of The Daleks.

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2 thoughts on “Travels Through the Time Vortex: An Unearthly Child

  1. I have to admit to finding New Series fans who don’t “get” Classic Series Who quite annoying. My eldest son, who’s 12, loves old Who and happily sits down to watch Fourth and Fifth Doctor DVDs (his favourites) for hours on end.

    I’m currently undertaking a marathon in which I watch every episode broadcast in chronological order, and then blog about it – 50 Years in 50 Weeks. You can check out my blog at http://doctorwhomindrobber.wordpress.com/

    • I get that some New Who fans may not like it, because it is different in certain ways. To not give it the proper chance is what bothers me. When fans sometimes just seem too look at it and go, “No, I don’t watch the classic series. It has bad special effects and is cheesy.” Or something like that. It isn’t everybody or anything and I don’t want to come off like I’m on a high horse, because I’m not perfect either. It just annoys me.

      All of it in 50 weeks? That’s pretty daring. Will check your blog out. Always enjoy meeting fellow Whovians. Thanks for reading mine. Oh, and if you like enough to subscribe, then please do. Let’s me know if I need to improve the blog writing or not.

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