Thursday, January 14, 2010

Doctor Who Story 001: An Unearthly Child


Thus begins the longest-running science-fiction program in history. It may actually be fitting that in the very first Doctor Who story, the characters go back to the pre-historic age, though story wise it does them little good. However, An Unearthly Child, broadcast on November 23, 1963, began a saga still playing today.
We should get a few items out of the way. Technically, only the first episode is titled An Unearthly Child. In the first few years of the series, each episode had its own individual title even though it was part of a larger story. This was maintained until 1966, though curiously, the habit of giving two or more titles to episodes within a long story has been revived with the current series. As a result, the issue of the titles to stories has become an extremely sticky point, especially with the more devout Whovians. For purposes of clarity I will refer to the stories themselves with the titles offered by the BBC, except when noted. For example, the four-part story containing the episodes titled An Unearthly Child, The Cave of Skulls, The Forest of Fear, and The Firemaker will be collectively called An Unearthly Child.

Sometimes, however, I will veer from that practice. The two-part story The Edge of Destruction/The Brink of Disaster will be referred by me as Inside the Spaceship as opposed to the BBC's title of The Edge of Destruction. Also, when it comes to the revived series' two-parter double-titles (Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks), I will give them ONE title (Evolution of the Daleks), usually the first title of the two unless I believe the second is more descriptive or just sounds better. The exception to this is the three part Utopia/The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords, which I will collectively call Vengeance of The Master. I do this because all three relate to The Master, and because I've noticed that while the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Rani are almost always featured in the title of their stories, the Master has NEVER appeared in the title of ANY of his stories. Not once. I figure I should give him his due.

Now, let's move on to the story itself. An Unearthly Child is basically TWO stories: the first part involves the mystery behind a young schoolgirl, Susan Foreman (Carol Ann Ford). The second is about a power struggle within a tribe of cavemen involving the creation of fire. The first part (the first episode itself) is brilliant, while the rest of the story is weak and brings the thing down. Yet I'm getting ahead of myself.

We begin with perhaps one of the greatest title themes in television history (apologies to Trekkers). It quickly sets the mood for the series, letting you know there is something mysterious and otherworldly about what you are going to see. Whether it is Ron Grainer's original electronic version or Murray Gold's lush orchestral for the new series, the title theme is one that evokes adventures into the unknown.

After that, we meet not the title character or the "unearthly child", but her teachers, Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) in history and Ian Chesterton (William Russell) in science. Both recognize Susan Foreman (Ford) is highly intelligent, but also oddly unaware of basic information. She also apparently lives in a junkyard with someone she calls her "grandfather". They follow her to the junkyard, where to their surprise they find a police box (a telephone booth which was used to call the police in case of emergencies).

Soon, the grandfather (William Hartnell) arrives, an elegant older man in Edwardian clothing. He is slightly bemused and irritated to see them there and denies anyone else is there, until they hear Susan's voice coming from INSIDE the box. Wright and Chesterton rush in, only to discover a room too large to fit within the walls of the police box. The inside is larger than the outside. The teachers are then told a fantastic story about how Susan and her grandfather, who is a Doctor, are not human. They are exiles from another world, another time. Wright and Chesterton want to leave, but the Doctor refuses to let them, fearing they will reveal their secret. Susan wants to stay in "20th Century Earth" and attempts to stop her grandfather from holding them. She inadvertedly starts the TARDIS (a name she gave the ship from the initials Time And Relative Dimension in Space), and they are transported to...

That is the first episode, which is brilliant in almost every way. The acting is first-rate: Hill and Russell are wonderful as people who come in contact with the simply unbelieavable. Ford is pretty, but she has an otherworldly quality in her looks and demeanor: she is both mysterious and innocent. As for the Doctor himself, William Hartnell is brilliant as a being who is highly intelligent and pretty much used to getting his way, but who is also underneath his bluster a kind and clever personality.

The remaining three episodes, however, don't live up to the quality of the premiere. We get a story where prehistoric cavemen attempt to build fire, and whoever does so will become the new leader. What makes it a bad story is that they are stereotypical cavemen: lots of grunting, with monosyllabic names like Kal, his rival Za and Hur, the woman they fight for. At times, the acting of the tribe is downright laughable, as when they grunt in unison or chase Kal out from their tribe. However, there are some great moments, as in a fight scene between Kal and Za, which is beautifully filmed.

In retrospect, the caveman elements were not the best ones to use to launch the series. Producer Verity Lambert admitted as much, but as always two great factors: money and time, forced them to take what was available and reasonable financially. If there had been more time, I would have suggested changing a few elements. For example, we see right away in Episode Two that the shadow seen at the cliffhanger of Episode One is a caveman. I would have held off making that discovery until later, to add mystery and suspense to where and when the travellers were. Also, I would have changed the setting to perhaps pre-Roman England, giving them a chance to have those historic elements without the cumbersome grunts.

I also thought it was a wise decision to have a variety of age groups as being the first Doctor and companions. The elderly-looking Doctor (though Hartnell was only 55 at the time) made him a figure of stature, respect, and wisdom. The younger Chesterton and Wright gave adults and parents someone to identify with, while Susan was clearly a person that embodied youth and naivete. Perhaps this was not planned, but it worked excellently. The fact that the teachers were in the subjects of history and science, which were the two topics Doctor Who would deal with, was probably more planned.

As it stands, the first episode is one of the best to launch a science-fiction series, while the rest of the story leaves more to be desired. Still, the fact that they exist at all is a miracle onto itself, but more on that later. It gets points knocked down for a second-tier story, but it still manages to be a respectable way to start an epic television series.


Next story: The Daleks


  1. 如果你批評他人。你就沒有時間付出愛.........................

  2. I can see how that happens in a series where the first episode is great but then another just bombs. I think you are right about the second episode happening in the caveman era of time. Talking about the grunts and all, I would say the director wanted to make it authentic cuz I mean it'd be weird if a caveman were to talk perfect English, a question I have for that would be...Did they have subtitles for the caveman language? I haven't seen this show but it sounds interesting Rick. Oh by the way, I do like the news link you added to your news links. It's good to know whats happening on the ESPN.

  3. The translation is: If you sparinghand. You don't have time to givin'love. How this relates to Doctor Who, Who Knows.

  4. These are close to my exact thoughts about this episode and you have made many of the same points that I did in my, yet to be posted, review of these episodes. The first two episodes of this arc were great, but the other two were severely lacking for sure.
    I agree that the opening title sequence is one of the best ever created, I love that theme.



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Thank you.