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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

classic ‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “An Unearthly Child”

(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode… or unless you don’t care if it’s spoiled for you. this is a love fest only — all complaints and bitching must come from a place of love / previous: nothing but a Doctor Who-less void)
Imagine you’re a kid in 1963. TV is so new that all of it is kind of exciting, but there hasn’t been anything like this before. (Had The Twilight Zone debuted on British TV at this point? I can’t find out. Maybe it had. The point still stands.) The eerie theme music starts its electronic warbling, mysteriously, even before the freaky, pre-psychedelic images of the opening credits begin:

And then, a policeman patrolling near I.M. Foreman’s junkyard on Totter’s Lane — at 76 Totter’s Lane, to be exact — on a foggy night:

He finds nothing out of the ordinary. All is well.

But once he has moved on, the gates to the junkyard swing open, and inside:

It’s funny to think that what feels familiar to us today — the uncanny music, the weird opening credits — would have struck viewers then as deeply odd — and that what feels strange to us today — the police box — would have been familiar to that first audience. Perhaps not a police box in a junkyard — it should have been on a street corner, right? — but surely the police box as an object must have been as ordinary as, say, the cupboard the Pevensie children discovered in an empty room… before they opened it and walked into Narnia. To me, at least, a police box is nothing but a dimensionally transcendental alien space-and-time-craft. (In 2005 the Christopher Eccleston Doctor has to explain what police boxes were to Mickey Smith in “Boom Town”, which was presumably for the benefit, too, of all the nonelderly viewers at home.)

So this is still a bit of a head trip for us today, just in a different way than it would have been back in 1963.

This first episode — the first of this four-parter, that is — is a little gem of early television, packing a lot of intrigue and a lot of drama into 23 short minutes. We don’t just dive right into meeting the Doctor: we get a teasing introduction to him via his “granddaughter,” Susan Foreman, and that only via two of her schoolteachers, math-and-science teacher Ian Chesterton and history teacher Barbara Wright. We cut from the junkyard to the school the next day, where Ian and Barbara are discussing their very strange student, who is “absolutely brilliant at some things, excruciatingly bad at others,” as Ian says. (Susan doesn’t know how many shillings there are in a pound — she thought they were on the decimal system, but of course, “the decimal system hasn’t started yet,” she hastily corrects herself when Barbara scolds her for such a stupid mistake: and that — the notion of a decimal monetary system merely not having started yet — must have sounded like science fiction to 1963 viewers. Such a scheme was announced in 1966, and implemented in the early 70s.) So they decide to spy on her, find out where she goes when she goes “home” to the junkyard.

Then comes greater weirdness. After seeing Susan enter the junkyard, they follow to investigate, and find nothing but junk and the police box… which vibrates when they touch it! No sign of Susan, but then along comes Susan’s “grandfather”:

And they all have a bit of an argument because Barbara and Ian — and we — clearly heard Susan’s voice coming from inside the police box. And then Susan opens the door, Ian and Barbara bust in, and we get our first look inside:


Barbara and Ian are so resistant to what they can clearly see with their own eyes — the police box is obviously not a police box, and it is obviously bigger in the inside, and it is obviously filled with alien technology — that it’s almost incomprehensible to us today. Barbara even says to Susan that it must all be an illusion, and that she and her “grandfather” are merely playing “a game,” but that now it’s time to stop. (Maybe that seemed more reasonable in 1963, before pop culture had made us all comfortable with notions about alien technology…)

I put quotation marks around “grandfather” and “grandaughter” above because, in my own personal retconning, I don’t think Susan is actually the Doctor’s granddaughter. (In one fanfic story I wrote, the Doctor explains that she was, as an infant, the sole survivor of a disaster that made it impossible to determine where her people were from, and so with no way to find her home, she stayed on the TARDIS and he raised her, perhaps trying to make up for the loneliness of his exile.) It’s true that here he says that “Susan and I are cut off from our own planet, without friends or protection, but one day, we should get back,” but he says that for the benefit of Barbara and Ian, who are just coming to grips with the idea of aliens in the first place. But Susan will later depart the TARDIS (in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”) when the Doctor locks her out of the ship, because she has fallen in love with a human man and is torn about whether to stay with him. I simply can’t believe that the Doctor would force a life with humans upon Susan if she actually were Gallifreyan and destined to long outlive them. (Though I suppose there is an argument to be made that perhaps the Doctor, still young and in only his own first regeneration at that point, didn’t yet realize what a tragedy this would be. That would require a level of cluelessness that would be preposterous even for the Doctor, who can be a bit thick about emotional stuff sometimes.)

There are a couple of clues here that support the idea that Susan isn’t actually a biological relative of the Doctor, and has never been to Gallifrey. One, she explains to Ian and Barbara that “I made up TARDIS from the initials: Time And Relative Dimension In Space,” which would be like me claiming that I invented that name Ford Motor Company merely because I was driving around in an automobile… but that does sound like a story a child might tell herself and actually believe if there was no evidence from a surrounding culture to contradict it (ie, if life on this one TARDIS, perhaps the only such ship as far as Susan is aware, is all she has ever known). And two… well, that requires some more background.

The Doctor is furious with Susan that has allowed two humans to follow her and gain access to the TARDIS (even though it’s hardly Susan’s fault). He is worried about contaminating Earth’s history with knowledge of Gallifreyan technology — something he’d obviously relax about as he got older — and as something like comprehension begins to dawn in Ian and Barbara, the Doctor says he has no choice but to kidnap them, basically, take them away from 1963 London so their new knowledge can’t do any harm. And Susan tries to convince him that they won’t tell, or if they do, they won’t be believed. “I know these Earth people better than you,” Susan says to the Doctor, and when he refuses to hear her, she continues:

I want to stay. I won’t go, Grandfather. I won’t leave the 20th century. I’d rather leave the TARDIS and you.

For Susan to feel more at home among humans suggests that perhaps she is human herself.

Anyway, the Doctor does indeed kidnap Barbara and Ian — which is more than a bit sinister, frankly, and certainly for what was meant to be a kiddie show — and the TARDIS ends up in Earth’s distant past, in the Paleolithic. Ian can’t quite take it all in:

And the Doctor and Susan are surprised, too… that the TARDIS is still a police box. Apparently, the chameleon circuit had been working just fine until this moment. So perhaps something on Earth broke it…

After that extraordinary first episode, the next three are overall something of a slog for viewers today, as the travelers end up in the middle of a power struggle between two cavemen for the leadership of their tribe, which has to this point generally been conferred upon whatever man can make fire. There’s some hugely contradictory stuff on the Doctor’s part: he was worried about Barbara and Ian learning that time travel is possible, but now he’s using matches among Stone Age people, and even offers to “make all the fire you want” if their cavepeople captors will let them go. (Or maybe that’s not hypocritical: the cavepeople already know about fire, they just have some trouble making it. And the Doctor isn’t proposing to leave them a Bic lighter or anything, which would have altered the Paleolithic balance of power in perhaps dangerous ways.)

There are a few moments worth noting, however. First is how the essential humanism of Doctor Who is present right from the get-go. After the gang escape from the cave where they were being held prisoner and are racing back to the TARDIS, one of the cavepoliticians begins to chase them, and ends up mauled by some terrible forest animal that we never see. It should be the moment in which their escape is assured, but Barbara insists they stop to help the fallen man (even though Barbara had been screaming in terror and/or blubbering in fear almost as nonstop as Susan had). Of course, the moment is somewhat diminished by the Doctor calling the cavepeople “savages” in the unkindest way possible, and by Ian trying to explain that these people don’t “understand kindness or friendship,” which is just plain weird, because the cavepeople are clearly fully human. But still…

And there’s this moment of really quite beautiful early TV, for all that it is shocking. The two cavemen fighting for power finally come to blows, and one gets the upper hand. He picks up a giant boulder and stands over is opponent, ready to drop it:

We don’t see the crushed skull. Instead we see Barbara’s reaction:

and then the Doctor’s:

And then the victor dragging away the corpse of the defeated:

It’s entirely bloodless, but effectively brutal.

Oh, and one last thing? Flaming skull:

I bet that gave lots of little kids nightmares…

Random thoughts on “An Unearthly Child”:

• When Doctor Who began, each episode sported its own individual title. Now, we collectively call these four episodes “An Unearthly Child,” but back in 1963, these first four installments of the show were called “An Unearthly Child,” “The Cave of Skulls,” “The Forest of Fear,” and “The Firemaker.” And of course that’s still represented in the DVD presentation.

• There is a bit of confusion in how these four episodes are presented on the DVD, however. Included here is an unaired pilot that is significantly different in some respects from what actually aired (which was slightly rewritten and entirely reshot). But if you hit the “play all episodes” option, what you get is that pilot, then the first episode as it actually aired, then episodes 2, 3, and 4. It makes it look as if the “second” episode is a near rerun of the “first.” It’s an issue with the DVD authoring, not a criticism of the inclusion of the unaired pilot, and if you’re not aware of it, it can be quite bewildering.

• As for that unaired pilot? Whew. Some of the differences are relatively minor — there’s a longer pan outside the junkyard in the very beginning, and again inside, which creates a a slower and creepier buildup to TARDIS reveal. Some are really major: the Doctor is astonishingly belligerent and outright hostile to Barbara and Ian where in the aired pilot he is more amused by them, and more distracted overall. And the TARDIS set is practically unfinished — we can clearly see that some of it consists merely of fabric backdrops:

And while the Doctor’s clothes in the unaired pilot are more London-1963 looking (as above) than they are in the aired pilot, where they’re more old-fashioned:

Susan has gone from, in the unaired pilot, a shiny sort of sci-fi getup:

to jeans and a sweater that any teenage girl in 1963 might have worn.

Another major change for Susan: in the unaired pilot, there’s a bizarre moment in which she creates a strange inkblob sketch for some reason that we never learn:

But in the version that actually aired, she’s reading a book Barbara has lent her about the French Revolution:

and saying things like, “That’s not right…”

• The music Susan is listening to on her transistor radio in “An Unearthly Child”? It’s by, ahem, “John Smith and the Common Men,” which was not a real group.

• In one of the flashback bits where Ian is explaining to Barbara how odd Susan is, Susan tells him she wants to do math with four and five dimensions… “time” and “space” being the fourth and fifth dimensions. Except “space” as a dimension doesn’t make sense, “space” being covered by the first three dimensions. Or perhaps the TARDIS simply isn’t translating well…

• It’s funny how much older everyone looks to our eyes today! William Hartnell was only 55, but he’s downright elderly. Jacqueline Hill as Barbara was only 34, yet she seems so much older:

It’s not so much that she looks old… but the hairdo and the clothing is so dowdy to our eyes. Maybe it’s because men’s fashions haven’t changed anywhere near as much that William Russell as Ian, who was 39:

doesn’t look too far off that mark to us today.

(Oh, and Carole Anne Ford, who played Susan, was 23, not 15.)

• It’s sensible shoes for Susan and Barbara:

Most of the other female companions would never hit upon this clever idea. Susan’s wearing jeans, too: another sensible wardrobe option that not too many of the women who’ve traveled in the TARDIS would choose. Idiots.

• The Doctor smokes!


• Check out that big enormous 12-inch screen:

It probably did look enormous in 1963.

• Great quotes:

“Let me get this right. A thing that looks like a police box stuck in a junkyard can move anywhere in time and space?” –Ian

“You don’t understand, so you find excuses.” –the Doctor, about Barbara and Ian’s refusal to accept the TARDIS for what it is

“I tolerate this century but I don’t enjoy it.” –the Doctor, about the 20th century (obviously, that would change)

“Your arrogance is nearly as great as your ignorance.” –the Doctor to Ian

“It’s still a police box. Why hasn’t it changed?” –the Doctor

“He’s always like this if he doesn’t get his own way.” –Susan, about the Doctor’s sulking

“Old men never like new things to happen.” –caveman

“I’m sorry. It’s all my fault. I’m desperately sorry.” –the Doctor (so, he’s been apologizing for being a finder of trouble since the very beginning)

(next: “The Daleks”)

MPAA: not rated

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