Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

(aka 100,000 B.C., The Tribe of Gum, The Stone Age, or The Paleolithic Age)

Two teachers follow a mysterious student into a junkyard, spawning multiple generations of sci-fi geeks.

Season 1, Serial A
Starring William Hartnell as the Doctor
With William Russell (Ian), Jacqueline Hill (Barbara) and Carole Ann Ford (Susan)
Written by Anthony Coburn and C.E. Webber
Directed by Waris Hussein
Produced by Verity Lambert

Episodes and Broadcast Dates:
  1. An Unearthly Child – 23 Nov 1963
  2. The Cave Of Skulls – 30 Nov 1963
  3. The Forest Of Fear – 7 Dec 1963
  4. The Firemakers – 14 Dec 1963

At the end of another day at London’s Coal Hill School, history teacher Barbara Wright and science teacher Ian Chesterton compare notes about an enigmatic student, Susan Foreman. Her knowledge of history and science surpasses their own, but is also awkwardly unaware of the ins-and-outs of contemporary life. They trail her to her given address, 76 Totters Lane, only to find a scrapyard wherein sits a rather incongruous Police Box emitting an eerie hum. They encounter Susan’s grandfather, who brusquely shoos them away. But when Susan’s voice is heard from inside, they push past him into the Police Box and find themselves in a vast futuristic chamber, much larger on the inside. The old man is furious at their intrusion. Susan explains that they are exiles from another world and another time, and the Police Box is their ship, the TARDIS. The old man is paranoid and irascible, certain that the teachers will expose their secret, and despite Susan’s panicked pleas he activates the TARDIS, leaving 60’s London behind.

The quartet find themselves in the Stone Age, and are soon abducted by a tribe of primitive humans. There is a power struggle for control of the tribe between Za, son of the late elder, and the outsider Kal, focused on the secret of making fire. When the old man announces he can make fire, they become pawns in the struggle. Along the way, Ian and Barbara introduce the tribe to concepts of mercy and helpfulness, that in ‘their tribe,’ the firemaker is the least powerful person, and that one tyrant is not as strong as a unified collective. This lesson is lost on the old man; when Za pursues them through the forest and is attacked by a wild beast, he is perfectly willing to kill the wounded man to help them escape. Ultimately they make fire for the tribe, Za kills Kal, and the travelers escape to the TARDIS.

It is made clear that Susan’s grandfather, who is known as the Doctor, cannot control the navigational systems of the TARDIS, and may never be able to return Ian and Barbara home. They arrive at their next destination and go out to explore. They do not notice the TARDIS’s radiation meter inching into the danger zone...

  • Episode One’s viewership was quite low – possibly due to news coverage of President Kennedy’s assassination the day before, possibly due to a number of regional power cuts – so the BBC granted a virtually unprecedented re-broadcast immediately prior to Episode Two. More people saw the repeat broadcast than the initial one.
  • Episode One was a re-write and re-shoot of the un-broadcast pilot episode, which was beset by technical difficulties and featured an even harsher characterization of the Doctor.
  • Most of the principle guest cast would appear in future serials: Derek Newark (Za) in Inferno, Althea Charleton (Hur) in The Time Meddler, Jeremy Young (Kal) in Mission to the Unknown, and Eileen Way (Old Woman) in The Creature from the Pit.

Okay, all you Smith-heads, Tennant worshipers and Capaldians (all three of you, myself included), listen up. The sci-fi institution you know and love originated over a half century ago, right here. Before the action figures, the magazines, the thousands of fansites, the DVD’s, the convention circuit, the minisodes, and all the flood of BBC Enterprises swag, there was An Unearthly Child. And in some cases, it looks and feels very much like the show you’re watching now; there’s a big blue (well, dark gray) box called the TARDIS that flies through time and space, and it makes the same wheezy noise as it takes off and lands. There’s a mysterious central character called the Doctor and a handful of travelling companions. But there are also enormous differences.

In the current series, the TARDIS can land anywhere it wants to. But initially the central concept of the Classic Era was the TARDIS’s unreliability. This meant that when the Doctor takes off with Barbara and Ian on board at the end of episode one, there’s virtually no chance of getting them home again. In future serials where the Doctor and crew need to get to a specific place, they have to hitch a ride.

The early days of the show were a sharp contrast from the ethos displayed in the upcoming Series Nine catchphrase, “I’m the Doctor. I save people.” In most cases, they landed in a certain place or time, got separated from the TARDIS, and spent the rest of the series more focused on Not Dying and/or Not Changing History than they were about liberating oppressed humanoids or saving Earth from alien invasion. And especially in this opening serial, the only person the Doctor feels obliged to save is himself.

Having never been companions by choice, Barbara and Ian’s primary goal throughout their time on the TARDIS was to get home again. Even when they weren’t so much traveling companions as kidnapping victims, this meant getting back to the TARDIS whenever they were separated from it, and keeping the Doctor – their kidnapper – safe at all times since he was the only person who could operate it. Ultimately they do get home again, but end up using a slightly more reliable Dalek time capsule to do it, and we never quite learn how they explain their two-year absence to the Coal Hill headmaster.

And we have to assume they left no significant others behind. Because if there’s one consistent theme amongst the TARDIS’s early classic era companions, it’s that they have no backstories or families or home life that’s disrupted when they meet the Doctor. They’re orphans, bachelors, and free agents. No room for outside domestic drama on the TARDIS.

As for the actual story:

I can’t help but fall in step with the Received Wisdom that the first episode is classic and the remaining three are comparatively mediocre. That said, the Stone Age episodes are very noteworthy. The initial concept for the series was that science fiction and historical stories would balance each other – thus the need for a history teacher and a science teacher. The historical stories would follow the format established here; the TARDIS crew gets separated from the ship, and after a few cycles of capture-escape-recapture where they encounter historical figures or crucial historical events, manage to escape to the TARDIS without getting killed or dramatically changing history.

And the Doctor couldn’t be further removed from how we come to know him now. Selfish, paranoid, and bad-tempered, over-protective of Susan, a kidnapper, a would-be murderer, a refugee rather than a traveler, he’s a quintessential anti-hero, and if it weren’t for the fact that he was the only one who could pilot the TARDIS, odds are they’d boot him out. It’s his dealing with Barbara and Ian that over time gives him a moral compass, either making him a heroic figure, or re-making him one after whatever as-yet-undetermined incident caused him to flee.

We talk pretty one day.
The Stone Age tribe is surprisingly multi-dimensional. They’re not ignorant, just uneducated. The oldest among them are fearful of new technology (i.e. fire). The savage conditions in which they live, where death lurks around every corner, render concepts like tenderness, kindness, and democracy as luxuries. You may just have to grit your teeth as the social liberalism is delivered with a side of colonialism; the well-dressed white bourgeois travelers drop into the jungle like the Galactic Peace Corps to teach the dirty savages how to live better. Also a dash of sexism as the girl – named, appropriately enough, Hur – exists as the prize to be awarded to either Kal or Za.

It’s evident that the BBC wanted this program to succeed. Even though they put the show in the young and relatively inexperienced hands of producer Verity Lambert and director Waris Hussein, possibly so they could be scapegoats for the program’s potential failure, they allowed the pilot episode to be re-tooled and re-filmed, and they re-broadcast Episode One immediately prior to Episode Two.

As this is the very first serial, it’s worthy to note which concepts have stayed etched in granite over a half-century and which have been more malleable (if not rejected entirely):

The Doctor’s Name – Susan only refers to him as “Grandfather.” Ian recalls, before they meet, that Susan’s grandfather is “a Doctor or something.” Since the junkyard’s front door reads I.M. FOREMAN, SCRAP MERCHANT, and Susan’s given surname is Foreman, he calls him “Dr. Foreman” in episode two, to which the old man replies, “Huh? Doctor Who? What is he talking about?” strongly suggesting that “Foreman” was never their name. Does one require a PhD to run a junkyard? Or are they squatters, with Susan adopting the name on the door? If so, whatever happened to I.M. Foreman? He never explicitly instructs Ian or Barbara as to how he wishes to be addressed, and basically adopts the title “The Doctor” by default.

The TARDIS – Susan claims to have made up the name of the TARDIS as an acronym for Time And Relative Dimension(s) In Space, as if this TARDIS was the only one in existence. For most of the first season, they refer to the TARDIS simply as “The Ship.” In episode two, the Doctor notes that the external appearance of the ship is supposed to blend in with its surroundings (though the term “Chameleon Circuit” would not be coined for over a decade), suggesting this is the first time it has failed; with rare exceptions, it would never function again. And the most pivotal concept about the TARDIS is that the Doctor cannot navigate it properly. Either he never learned, or he forgot, or the mechanism is faulty; it’s never explicitly stated, but once they leave London 1963, there’s no guarantee they’ll ever get back.

Their Origins – No Time Lords, no Gallifrey, these terms don’t appear for years to come. The details they give in the first episode are sketchy. They’re exiles, wanderers in time, cut off from their own planet. No mention is ever given of Susan’s parents (i.e. the Doctor’s offspring, presumably). They’re hiding on Earth, and have lived incognito for several months; from what and why are never stated.

Been Here Before – Barbara lends Susan a very thick book about the French Revolution, which Susan reads in a split second and remarks, “That’s not how it happened!” Though no mention of a prior visit was ever made later in Season One when they land in Robespierre’s post-revolutionary Paris. The gift of superhuman speed-reading appears again in the New Series’ reboot, Rose.


You could be forgiven if you only watch the first episode, but what an episode it is! It’s as noteworthy and epoch-shifting a debut as the Beatles’ Please Please Me eight months earlier (or their follow-up, With The Beatles, issued the day before). Yet despite creator Sydney Newman’s directive of “No Bug Eyed Monsters!”, the program’s watershed moment was yet to come, and British popular culture would never be the same.


3 out of 4 epoch-shifting moments in British pop culture
John Geoffrion balances a career in hospital fundraising with semi-pro theatre gigs, and watches way too much Doctor Who and Britcoms in between. He'll create an author page after he puts up a few more reviews.


Billie Doux said...

Welcome to Doux Reviews, John, and what a terrific way to start. I actually saw this pilot for the first time a couple of years ago, which means I can actually follow this excellent review.

Billie Doux said...

And I think I had one too many "actuallys" in there.

FlopHairedWuss said...

An Unearthly Child is quite simply one of the best episodes of Who ever. Everything from the writing to the performances, characters, atmosphere and pacing are pitched perfectly in my opinion. The scene where Ian and Barbara enter the TARDIS is breath-taking even now. William Hartnell is amazing here, and embodies the character with a wonderful sense of mystery, menace and glee. It's a shame they toned that all down so quickly because he's simply fascinating here. Susan is actually interesting here before being relegated to being the screamy, annoying, asking questions one. Ian and Barbara (well, mainly Barbara) are given actual depth, and the scene where the Doctor kidnaps them is genuinely terrifying.

It's dissapointing then that the next three episodes leave all that behind and the story becomes unbelievably slow and dull, with a plot about fire and...zzz... Sorry where was I? Oh yeah, Perfect start, dissapointing finish (and middle).

Great review. I haven't seen many Hartnell stories but looking forward to the rest. The Aztecs in particular, which is quite underrated.

Juliette said...

I love the first episode of this serial, and Ian and Barbara are two of my favourite companions, even if they did slightly creepily follow a student home