An Unearthly Child Review

An Unearthly Child

It’s the start of something new. Something Who. Doctor Who had to start somewhere; and here is where we set our scene. Today on GallifreyArchive, we’re going back to the beginning, as we begin our chronological reviews of Doctor Who…

Susan Foreman is a mystery to teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, seemingly knowing more than she should about the past… and the future. Their curiosity leads them to follow her home one night, only to find that her ‘home’ appears to be a deserted junkyard. In the junkyard, they discover a police telephone box and a strange old man, who claims to be Susan’s grandfather, and calls himself the Doctor. The journey of a lifetime is about to begin…

This certainly is exciting isn’t it? I can only imagine what it must have been like watching the first episode of An Unearthly Child, not knowing what was in store at all, let alone knowing that you were witnessing a part of televisual history first hand. People sometimes ask me if I had a TARDIS where would I go? I must say that one of the places I would definitely travel to would be November 23rd 1963.

We start the story at I.M Foreman’s Scrap Merchants on Totters Lane, where a policeman is doing his rounds, only to find amidst this junkyard of, well… junk, a Police Public Call Box. Something that was commonplace on street corners in 1963.

We’re quickly sent then to the corridors of Coal Hill school, where history teacher Barbara Wright is wanting to talk to fellow colleague and science teacher, Ian Chesterton. From the first lines of somewhat clunky dialogue, I must say that you really get the impression that these two characters have known each other for a while, and they feel comfortable around one another. It’s just a shame that the first interaction between Ian and Barbara that audiences saw was so awkward, clunky and not at all naturalistic. If anything, I’d say the opening remarks from Barbara gave me the impression that she was a sharp-tongued character who was somewhat of a pedant.

It’s not long before Ian and Barbara are discussing their fifteen year old pupil, Susan Foreman; a girl who seemingly has knowledge far superior to anyone else. It transpires that Barbara had offered Susan some extra lessons at home, so she can continue her academic success out of normal school time, but apparently Susan’s grandfather, a doctor of some sort, isn’t that fond of strangers…

The first impression I had of Susan when I saw her on screen, listening to a radio which was far too close to her ear for my liking, was that she definitely seemed like the type of person who was constantly spaced out in some way. Not in a bad way though; she always seemed to me as if her mind is constantly thinking about something else that is far more important than what’s happening in the now.

There’s something about the behaviour of Ian and Barbara, driving to Susan’s supposed address to see if something is wrong that very much seems odd in this day and age; nowadays, if a teacher suspects that there’s home trouble, they’d call Social Services to investigate, but that just goes to show how times have changed. Even though Doctor Who is a show that involves a lot of time travel, it’s interesting to me to see just how much of a time capsule it can be.

I must admit that every time I see the scene where Ian and Barbara discover the TARDIS, I can’t help but feel a great sense of nostalgia, even though not even my parents were born when this episode first aired. This was the first time that the world was introduced to the most constant element of Doctor Who; the TARDIS. How exciting.

About fifteen minutes into the first episode, we’re introduced to the Doctor, a grumpy, standoffish man who seems to have no respect for either Ian or Barbara, especially as they’re attempting to meddle in affairs that don’t really concern them. I know some people don’t like this nature of the Doctor, but if you rationalise this behaviour by realising he’s just trying to protect his granddaughter then you can almost empathise with him.

Of course, with this being TV, just as the Doctor has almost shirked off Ian and Barbara from interfering, Susan decides to open the TARDIS door, allowing both of her teachers to enter the ship somewhat freely. In that moment, both Ian and Barbara’s lives changed forever. Now, as a fan of Doctor Who, I absolutely love the moment when a companion first steps aboard the TARDIS and discovers that it’s bigger on the inside. It’s one of the moments that can really establish and define a new companion. I must admit that Ian’s reaction of utter bemusement, confusion and skepticism is very similar to how I’d probably react; the only problem I have with this scene is Barbara. She’s just gone from being in a junkyard, stepping inside a police box and now she’s in this vast space, and what’s her reaction? “This is where you live Susan?” How is she not totally dumbfounded by this discovery? I know that Ian is a science teacher so has more reason to be alarmed, as the TARDIS seems to break a lot of scientific laws, but Barbara’s total lack of disbelief rather annoyed me.

The happenstance that Ian and Barbara become companions to the Doctor and Susan are rather unique; in the fact that the Doctor pretty much keeps them prisoners to ensure that the secrets of both the Doctor and Susan and the TARDIS are safe. It’s rather rare that people become companions of the Doctor through imprisonment, and it really gives a totally different dynamic aboard the TARDIS.

As the first episode of An Unearthly Child draws to a close, we see Ian and Barbara, both collapsed in the TARDIS after its flight, and a single, ominous shadow awaiting them outside. Strange to think that that was the first ever Doctor Who cliffhanger.

The introduction to the second episode starts with the cliffhanger of the previous episode, and some dramatic music as we see the shadows face. It appears as if we’ve gone back in time to the time of the cavemen. It appears that this particular tribe of cavemen are trying their best to make fire. Apparently rubbing a bone between your hands might do the trick; and of course, it doesn’t. There also seems to be rather a lot of politics between these cavemen, as the one that makes fire will be the leader, and the leader get’s their pick of partners. Maybe that’s where the name Tinder for the dating app came from. (I’m sorry, that was awful, don’t kill me!)

If the first episode of An Unearthly Child sets up the fundamental characters of the show, and introduced the TARDIS; then I’d say that the second episode expands on that information a lot and adds to the lore that is still being used today. We learn that the TARDIS is unreliable, that the Doctor likes being proven right and that the Doctor likes delivering awe-inspiring mini-monologues.

Once the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara leave the TARDIS to explore their new destination, (mainly so the Doctor can collect some samples so he can estimate roughly where in time they’ve landed) it’s not long before the tribe of cavemen discover the TARDIS crew and kidnaps the Doctor. A trope that is used time and time again after this episode.

The two warring cavemen, Za and Kul are both stereotypical alpha male types, trying to one-up each other in order to be the leader of this tribe. Whilst Za seems to be on the losing side of the debate, Kul is more like the modern politician, using rousing speeches, false promises and downright lies to try and seem more impressive.

After the Doctor wakes up in the cave with the tribe, he quickly offers to make them fire, so that he can escape. Now, I know we’re in the extremely early days of Doctor Who here, in fact, when The Cave of Skulls first aired, it was arguably the second earliest day of Doctor Who ever; but there’s something about the Doctor pretty much admitting defeat and submitting to the cavemen that just seems off to me.

Susan, Barbara and Ian all attempt to come to Doctor’s rescue, after finding him somehow (I guess they followed the Kul’s footprints or something) but it wasn’t to be, as, unsurprisingly, a tribe of caveman can quite easily overpower two schoolteachers and a fifteen year old. As punishment, the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan have all been forced to go to the Cave of Skulls; which transpires to be a cave full of skulls. The cavemen’s marketing team did a great job at naming the cave appropriately.

The only minor quibble I have with The Cave of Skulls is that the cliffhanger just seems to happen and is very lacklustre, we learn that all the skulls in the cave have been split open and then the episode just ends. I know that you’re supposed to be afraid for the TARDIS crew, fearing that they too might meet the same fate, but it really didn’t do anything for me.

The third episode of An Unearthly Child, named The Forest of Fear begins, yet again where The Cave of Skulls left off. We then see a cavewoman take a rock from a corpse and smile directly to camera. Not much explanation there yet, but I’m hoping the rock is used later on in the story.

It’s really nice to see, especially as a viewer of the new series, that the Doctor hasn’t always been able to rely on his Sonic Screwdriver to get out of situations. There’s a whole scene in The Forest of Fear dedicated to the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan all trying to untie their hands so they can escape; nowadays, the Doctor would have undoubtedly untied himself instantly, probably thanks to a thing he learned from Houdini, then used his Sonic to free the others. I’m glad to see a Doctor who’s a bit more hands on.

The TARDIS gang manages to escape from the Cave of Skulls and find themselves lost in a forest; now, I’m no expert in geography but I find it odd that there’d be a forest so close to what appeared to be a desert-like wasteland. I could be wrong though; in fact, I probably am (let me know in the comments bit below).

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about The Forest of Fear, it’s that it’s much more like the horror style of Doctor Who episode than the previous two in An Unearthly Child. I think it’s great that within the first Doctor Who story we get such a breadth in storytelling, really showing the viewer how broad this show has the potential to be.

The Doctor in this episode really is extremely difficult to like; mainly because he’s in a mood because Ian has seemingly taken charge. It’s really interesting to me that the Doctor would seem so threatened by Ian, especially as an episode or two ago, he was criticising both Ian and Barbara for how closed-minded they are and how he’s far superior to Ian in every way.

Yet again, I must say the conclusion to The Forest of Fear was rather lacklustre and didn’t seem to have much gravitas at all; in fact I’d go as far to say that the cliffhanger rather disappointed me.

The final episode, entitled The Firemaker, starts with an accusation and the Doctor, in the most Doctor-like way, using the facts to disprove the accusation and ostracising the real culprit, Kul. With Za the new leader of the Tribe of Gum, we see him send the TARDIS crew back to the Cave of Skulls for some reason that’s never really articulated. Both Ian and the Doctor had said that if they allow them back to the TARDIS that they’ll happily produce fire, which is essentially what Za wants, but still he sends them back to the Cave of Skulls. Silly Za.

Whilst they’re being kept prisoner at the Cave of Skulls, Ian, Barbara and Susan all try their best to start a fire with what they have at hand. Unfortunately, the scene in which they create fire is so obviously fake that it makes it seem more like magic than science that created the flames. The most obvious point of this is when Ian is rubbing two sticks together, which are about three inches apart at all times. I know that in 1963 they never expected any TV to have any replay value and so they probably thought it wouldn’t matter; but it really annoyed me how obvious it was that the fire wasn’t being made from either of the sticks. I know that technology has changed and the budgets have increased, so I won’t criticise things such as costumes, props or sets too much when reviewing earlier stories; but seeing something so fake really annoyed me.

As Za manages to show his tribe fire and establishes himself firmly as leader, he keeps the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan as prisoners in the Cave of Skulls, even though he promised them that he’d escort all of them back to the TARDIS. It transpires that Za has kept them in the Cave of Skulls because he wants to unite his tribe with theirs so they can be one mighty tribe; even though the TARDIS gang all said they’d much rather lead.

The escape plan that the TARDIS crew comes up with is one of the most bizarre and downright odd plans that I’ve ever seen in Doctor Who; using sticks with skulls on that are on fire to make the tribe believe that they’ve all spontaneously combusted or something. The tribe of cavemen are all distraught by the news, apart from Za, who quickly realises it is all a ruse so that they could escape. There then follows one of the weirdest shot chase sequences ever, where it’s very clear that the actors are running on the spot and having branches and leaves flung at them. Studio space was obviously a huge issue.

Once the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan escape back to the TARDIS, they quickly set off through the vortex to their next adventure; the scanner shows a stark white forest and the radiation levels rapidly increase into the danger zone..

All in all, An Unearthly Child is a rather good story that establishes the main points of the show and introduces the main cast to the audience; it isn’t perfect, but a lot of that is down to budget, technological limitations and having such an ambitious script. Even if you don’t necessarily want to watch all of the classic era of Doctor Who, I highly recommend you at least watch the story in which it all began, as it is definitely a part of television history.




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