Reviewed by John Hussey
It seems strange going back to the very first episode of Doctor Who after the show has been running for just over fifty three years. And to this day “An Unearthly Child” still delivers in all its glory, standing the test of times as a genuine gem within television history, one that revolutionised the science-fiction genre.
I love how the first part to this serial, “An Unearthly Child”, concentrated on the mystery of Susan Foreman, delivering a nice piece of intrigue that builds-up towards the episode’s climax. It’s very simplistic in its storytelling but by heck it does its job right. Every moment leaves you hanging, making you ask more questions as to the mystery behind Susan and her meaning. You’re very much in the same position as Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, and are completely in the dark as you learn things as they do.
This formula cemented the traditional format of the companion being the audiences eyes and ears, asking the questions that we all wanted answering as you explored the world of The Doctor. Ian and Barbara are unique companions, played brilliantly by William Russell and Jacqueline King, in the sense that they never felt like companions.
Maybe it’s because they are much older than later companions but they always felt equal to The Doctor, sometimes even surpassing him. They also hold a special place within the mythology because of their ability to change The Doctor’s attitude from a grumpy old man to the man that cared.
Curiosity is certainly the real enemy of this first episode. Ian and Barbara simply want to know more about Susan due to her strange behaviour at Coal Hill School, which is shown via clever flashbacks and through Susan’s short onscreen appearances. It’s clear that she is rather intelligent, sometimes even exceeding her years of knowledge, but there are other moments which make her seem rather odd – almost alien you might say.
This all leads to the two teachers following their student to her mysterious address, ultimately leading them to 76 Totters Lane, an abandoned junkyard. Inside they encounter The First Doctor, played by William Hartnell. It’s rather interesting how the protagonist is introduced so late in the episode and is written in a way where you question whether or not to trust him due to his alien behaviour. The First Doctor has no interest in helping Ian and Barbara and constantly holds a tone that makes him feel intellectually superior.
Eventually the teachers stumble upon the TARDIS, the space-time capsule that allows The First Doctor and his granddaughter Susan to travel through space and time. Ian and Barbara are obviously puzzled by this new environment, questioning how the craft can be bigger on the inside than the outside – with the exterior disguised as an old police telephone box. The First Doctor continues to mock Ian and Barbara as he makes his superiority known to them due to feeling that their minds are primitive.
It’s a really clever set-up and stands as the best part of the first serial. The narrative is very simple, and straight to the point, whilst holding an air of mystery throughout like a sophisticated thriller. What I love the most about this first episode is the lack of knowledge concerning our protagonist. The First Doctor is completely alien to us, with only a few hints and clues given to us to indicate who he was and where he came from.
It granted his character more depth because we didn’t know him at all, allowing us to slowly get to know him – granting the show the perfect edge in luring in audiences to stick around for future serials. The added bonus was understanding whether or not he was a good man. His characteristics and rash behaviour certainly didn’t place him in a good light and often made you feel unsafe around him as he controls Susan like she was an infant, whilst he basically kidnaps Ian and Barbara in order to prevent them from damaging the timelines.
“An Unearthly Child” is a great piece of television and set-up Doctor Who perfectly, leaving us pining for more content, especially with the eerie cliff-hanger of seeing the shadowy figure looming over the TARDIS after it materialises in a new location. Things unfortunately go a little downhill come the second episode, “The Cave of Skulls”, as we are introduced to the tribesmen, the adversary for the remainder of the serial.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the rest of the serial but there is a part of me that feels like they could’ve written a better first outing. I feel like they played it a little safe. Plus the tone and clever writing of “An Unearthly Child” feels slightly spoilt by being immediately followed by such an uninspired story. But that’s not to say that the rest of serial is completely bad. There are a lot of memorable moments and some really disturbing imagery, along with some dark ideas revolving around humanity.
The true dread lies in the fact that The First Doctor and his companions have to face the primitive nature of the tribesmen, often leading to misunderstandings and near death experiences. It can become quite frightening to watch because the tribesmen haven’t got an understanding of emotional depth. Their main attributes is to survive through animal instinct. Their other objective is to create fire, which becomes the motivation of the different characters.
We are introduced to some interesting characters within the tribe. Most notably Za and Kal, played by Derek Newman and Jeremy Young respectively. Za is the leader of the tribe and is desperate to follow in his father’s footsteps and create fire, whilst Kal is constantly trying to steal the tribe’s loyalty and become leader himself.
I will give writer Anthony Coburn credit for creating a unique barbaric dialogue for the tribesmen. Instead of grunting constantly they speak in English but they are given clear phrases and word-usage that fits in with their intelligence and understanding.
“The Cave of Skulls” is great at introducing Ian and Barbara (along with the audience) to this new scientific world of discovery. We’re left in mystery throughout “An Unearthly Child” and were made unsure about whether we should trust the words of an alien but here we are given some light on the situation. We are granted the first scene in which we see the newly joined companion step out of the TARDIS and explore a brave-new world. It was beautifully crafted and again went with a simplistic approach.
What I then like is how this moment of awe is quickly replaced with more shocks as the tribesmen kidnap The First Doctor. Za’s leadership is then tested by Kal as he tries to convince the tribe that he would be a better leader, that Za fails at his duties and cannot produce fire. Kal then tries using The First Doctor to create fire, having seen him lighting a pipe, but when the time-traveller has no means to make fire the situation quickly turns, showcasing how animalistic Neanderthals were.
The rest of the companions are also captured after trying to rescue the First Doctor. “The Forest of Fire” then sees them having to escape the Cave of Skulls, a gruesome graveyard filled with past victims that had their head’s smashed, before the tribesmen execute them. This leads to treachery within the tribe as the Old Woman frees the TARDIS crew in order to prevent fire returning. Za and his partner Hur discover they are missing and attempt to chase them down.
In the process we have some really interesting scenes develop which help to define the different characters and their roles within future serials. Ian quickly becomes the leader through his quick-thinking and strength whilst The First Doctor displays his frustration and clear lack of care. This showcased perfectly how The Doctor in his early days was very alien in his attitude and lacked a true understanding of humanity. This often led to him and Ian arguing over moral choices.
The First Doctor becomes further frustrated by Barbara’s compassion and willingness to aid Za after he is attacked by a wild animal, despite his previous attempts to kill them. It clearly showed the difference in evolution which is almost the core of this segment of the narrative. “The Forest of Fear” goes in great detail in showing how far we’ve come as a race of people in which we grasp emotions, understand that there’s different means of survival, and that compassion is a strong asset.
It also grants a contrast between the companions and The Doctor. The show quickly develops the theme of Ian and Barbara ultimately aiding The First Doctor is his transition into a more heroic person who has a kind-hearted nature. Even Susan disagrees with his decisions and follows her teacher’s instincts, exploring further the idea that she was willing to leave her grandfather in “An Unearthly Child” due to her fondness of 20th Century Earth and the people within it.
There is then the ambiguous moment where it is hinted that The First Doctor may have had the intention of killing Za with a blunt stone whilst the other’s weren’t looking. Ian catches him before he can do anything and although nothing is admitted it is clear that Ian suspected the old man had something dastardly up his sleeve. This again was there to show that The First Doctor was extremely alien and protested against his companion’s way of thinking.
This made him a somewhat hypocrite when it came to using them earlier on in the episode in order to escape the Cave of Skulls. It made him crafty in his decision making, almost a manipulator. It’s fair to say that The First Doctor was used to doing things his way and wasn’t used to being told what to do. This was early learning for him as he began to learn what good humanity could do. But at this moment he was rather selfish and given the chance he would happily leave Ian and Barbara behind in order to save him and Susan.
They are ultimately caught again, after Kal kills the Old Woman upon discovering what has happened in the Cave of Skulls, and taken back to the tribes settlement. “The Firemaker” pushes the narrative to its conclusion and has some serious messages plastered throughout. It gave us insight into The First Doctor’s cleverness and being able to us his wit to take control of situations. He proceeds to use reverse psychology on Kal to make him reveal his crimes in front of the tribe, before having Ian help him drive out the savage.
The remainder of the episode becomes a game of control. The TARDIS crew try their luck at creating fire in order to win the tribe over. In the process Kal tries once again to take control, this time challenging Za directly – now healed from his wounds thanks to the TARDIS crew. The two of them engage in battle. I love how this scene is shot and shows off a true sense of barbaric nature. The incidental music by Norman Kay really compliments the savagery of the two tribesmen trying to kill one another.
Ultimately the fight ends in a very unsettling manner, accompanied by Kal releasing a bloodcurdling scream and Za crushing his skull with a rock. Za is then granted the mastery of fire and decides to make the TARDIS crew part of his tribe in order to make it stronger. It begins to look grim for The First Doctor and his companions as escape doesn’t look like an option anymore. However, after Susan creates a lantern via setting one of the broken skulls on fire, Ian comes up with the idea of faking their own deaths.
By planting four flaming skulls in the centre of the Cave of Skulls the tribe become hysteric, believing the TARDIS crew have been killed by the flames. During this clever distraction The First Doctor and his companions make a run for it and finally manage to return to the TARDIS. We are then left with a chilling cliff-hanger (the beginning of a nice long tradition within the black and white era where each serial would lead into the next via the means of some kind of disaster) where the TARDIS materialises on an unknown alien planet covered with high levels of radiation, unbeknown to our heroes.
“An Unearthly Child” perhaps wasn’t the best way to start the show (minus the first episode) but it certainly holds up as being an atmospheric tale filled to the brim with suspenseful moments where the TARDIS crew are challenged. I really enjoy the grimness throughout the tribesmen segments which felt very realistic and true to the time period. In many ways it gave Ian and Barbara one of the darkest first outings aboard the TARDIS because of the amount of peril and near death experiences throughout.
My only major grudges within the serial is the characterisation of Susan and Barbara. It’s fair to say that “The Pilot Episode” had a better grasp on how Susan’s character should’ve been portrayed, being a strong minded, intelligent, and often alien being. Instead she was made to be quite pathetic, didn’t appear very resilient considering she was an alien, and ended up screaming in hysteria instead of coming up with an intellectual solution.
Even Carol Ann Ford admitted that her character didn’t turn out the way it was pitched which ultimately contributed to her decision to leave the show early on in its second season. Barbara on the other hand was just incredibly annoying at times with her morals and her fearful nature, often leading to moments where she would let out very loud, piecing shrieks (similar to Susan). But to give her character credit she does undergo a lot of development throughout the series and a lot of my nit-picks are rectified.