CLASSIC WHO IN REVIEW: “An Unearthly Child” (1963)

With the Doctor returning to our screens September 19th, we plunder the archives for some classic Who reviews. First, Lee Savery goes all the way back to 1963 for the first adventure. 

On a cold night on 23rd November, 1963 (the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated), the eerie hum of a familiar blue box was heard for the first time. Although most of the UK didn’t see the episode until a week later due to a massive power outage that affected much of the country. Whether they watched the black-and-white broadcast on the 23rd or the 30th, those who did witnessed the beginning of a television phenomenon. I don’t think those lucky enough to see the TARDIS on its maiden voyage thought it would still be around fifty-two years later.

Doctor Who was the brainchild of Sydney Newman, a Canadian who became Head of Drama at the BBC in December 1962. The Beeb were interested in making a science fiction show and Newman, a big SF fan, decided that such a series should be made to fill a gap in the Saturday evening schedule between Grandstand and Jukebox Jury. The idea was to make it appeal to children with an educational premise. Before he had arrived, the BBC’s survey department rationalised that a show with a time-travel element would be the most appealing. It was Newman and script writer C.E. Webber that then came up with the main concepts of the show – the ship that’s bigger on the inside, The Doctor, and the title of Doctor Who itself (all Newman’s ideas).

Production went ahead with Verity Lambert as producer (the youngest and only female producer at the BBC in 1963), story editor David Whitaker, and Anthony Coburn (who came up with the police box idea) was tasked with writing the debut story. The iconic theme song was composed by Ron Grainer before being created by Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Grainer was astonished at what Derbyshire had achieved from his work and wanted her to have a credit on the composition. The BBC put a stop to this as they wanted to keep the workers of the Workshop anonymous! An injustice to be sure, as whenever most people think of Doctor Who, they think of that theme music (below).

“An Unearthly Child” was the first story in the long history of Who. For those unfamiliar with the format of the “classic series” (1963-1989), episodes went out in American-style seasons lasting as little as fourteen episodes to as many as forty-five. Stories were transmitted in multi-episode arcs that each lasted for twenty-five minutes (except series 22 which switched to the 45-minute format that has become the norm since 2005). These stories could last from as little as two episodes or even up to twelve in the case of “The Dalek’s Masterplan” (1965-66).

After the iconic introduction of the now-infamous police box, the episode shifts its main focus to teachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill). They are stunned over the knowledge possessed by a pupil called Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford), who displays an understanding of science and history far beyond any of her peers. Yet her knowledge of present-day culture is oddly lacking. Barbara has offered to teach her at the latter’s home with Susan specialising in history. However, their pupil’s grandfather, a Doctor (William Hartnell), does not like strangers. More enquiries find out that the girl lives in a scrapyard.

After finding the blue box that is apparently alive, Ian and Barbara meet a grumpy old man who does not want them entering his machine, questioning how anybody could be inside. After Susan opens the door, a piece of music she played at school can be heard coming from the interior. After a small scuffle, Ian and Barbara finally enter to discover that its bigger on the inside. The first view of the ship’s interior is a famous one, followed by stunned expressions from Ian and Barbara no doubt matched by the audience at home. Susan tells her teachers that she came up with the acronym TARDIS from its initials (Time and Relative Dimension in Space). They believe it all to be a trick and ask to leave, but The Doctor won’t let them go…

Here we see the cruel side of The First Doctor with Hartnell playing the alien Time Lord from Gallifrey as an old man who is sarcastic and cruel. Susan tries to reason with her Grandfather but, when he doesn’t relent, a skirmish ensues which leads to the TARDIS’ controls being knocked into time-travel. It leaves London via the not-so-special effects (good for 1963 television, though) as the “companions” faint. Moments later, the TARDIS lands in a wasteland as a shadow of someone is seen watching the ship from afar.

The TARDIS has landed in 100,000 BC at a time when cavemen exist (it is not actually said on-screen where, but The Doctor tells Ian that, for them, it’s a “new world”). Even before they leave, Ian still doubts this fact whilst the Doctor grabs his lapels to convince him with a smile – there’s even room for the first ever “Doctor who?” joke. However, The Doc is concerned over the fact that the TARDIS hasn’t changed its form to blend in. This was simply down to BBC budgets which would not allow a new design for the craft every week as initially planned. Therefore, the “chameleon circuit” doesn’t work. Problem solved!

The tribe of cavemen are looking to create fire as their great “firemaker” has died. Despite this world looking like a desert, the sand is in fact stone cold. One of the tribe, Kal (Jeremy Young), kidnaps The Doctor having seen him spark a flame (you won’t see Capaldi light up a pipe in Who nowadays). Za (Derek Newark) suggests that he be sacrificed so that Orb will return and bring fire to them once again.

The rest of the story is more of a basic adventure with no science fiction at all; the reality of making fire being the main focal point of the plot. It is more of a cat and mouse tale as the heroes try to get away from their confused and backward captors. The narrative therefore serves its purpose to be educational as Newman intended. As the years went on, however, the sci-fi elements took centre stage due to their popularity.

It’s also interesting when watching this in 2015 to realise how different our main hero really is. Throughout the story, The Doctor acts as a stubborn old codger not wanting to really help or interfere, and is merely a companion to his companions with Ian taking the lead to help one of the injured cavemen mauled by a creature in the bushes. He also acts as the voice of their “tribe.” At one point, The Doctor even tries to hide a weapon until Ian spots him. A violent side that, happily, is only seen in a brutal fight between Kal and Za. One member of the tribe questions why these strangers won’t engage in battle, quickly establishing that no direct violence will ever come from those travelling in the TARDIS.

If the first part is classic sci-fi then the rest of the story is basically the template for all of Doctor Who to come (heroes and villains, humans and aliens, companions getting into trouble etc.). A formula that fifty-two years on still thrills fans and leaves a certain few hiding behind the sofa. The cliffhangers that end each episode are creepy and only leave you wanting more, especially the final one which leads into the next story where a certain brand of antagonistic pepper pots would prove a ratings hit and become the most memorable alien race in the show’s history (more on them later).

The script for “An Unearthly Child” is good if a little stretched, and the direction is superb considering the restrictions of a studio-bound production (thanks to Miss Lambert who was known for achieving the best possible results during her tenure). Without her and Newman, we would not have this show. As for Hartnell, the first actor to play one of Britain’s most iconic characters, he was certainly the right choice for this particular Doctor. He may not begin as the most likeable “hero,” but viewers would slowly warm to him and the role.

A show that has lasted this long must possess something special to make it so loveable. For Doctor Who and “An Unearthly Child,” they definitely hit upon something special. It’s a premise with infinite potential and a universe just waiting to be explored through time and space. It might have been overshadowed at the time by the next seven episodes featuring those infamous Daleks, but this story, particularly the first episode, defined why we are still watching The Doctor’s exploits today.

Thank you Sydney and Verity!




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