An Unearthly Child Review

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…

It’s strange to think that on November 23rd 1963 that the people watching this new show, called Doctor Who, would be witnessing part of televisual history. That policeman in the fog would be the beginning of something new and amazing. If only I was alive to witness it first hand.

Once we’re introduced to Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, their point of conversation is immediately that of an exceptional student of theirs, Susan Foreman, a fifteen year old with incredible knowledge. Personally, I think that the conversation between Ian and Barbara is rather stilted compared to the more naturalistic conversations we see on television today, however I think it’s interesting to realise that, whilst the idea of television was still rather new, that the form was being written and directed somewhat like a stage play, both in dialogue and direction.

If there’s one character that is well written from the off, I’d say it has to be Susan; as soon as we are introduced to her, you get a real sense that something is different about her, from the way she talks to the way she acts and composes herself; as a viewer you can tell that something is ever so slightly off.

The flashbacks of Susan in class whilst Ian and Barbara are waiting for her to return home (that wouldn’t be allowed nowadays) are shot in a rather odd way, with the viewer seeing Susan literally through either Ian or Barbara’s eyes. Another thing that really jarred me was just how young all the other students looked compared to Susan; I know that they’re only in the background, but if you want us to believe that Susan is actually fifteen, it may have been worthwhile having her classmates be the same age as Carole Ann Ford.

When we’re introduced to the Doctor for the first time, fourteen minutes into the story; we’re greeted with an extremely cautious and standoffish older gentleman. The Doctor shows Ian and Barbara no courtesy at all, and it’s strange to think that this is the viewers first ever impression of the Doctor; as a rather unlikeable character.

As Barbara is the first person we ever see enter the TARDIS, I have to admit that her initial reaction is so lacklustre, it’s not until Ian enters a few moments later that we get the whole “It’s bigger on the inside” speech that has become so synonymous with the show.

There’s a really bizarre moment when Ian and Barbara go to leave, something that the Doctor has said he wishes to happen ever since they intruded, and then the Doctor decides to lock them in. When the Doctor laughs at Ian and Barbara’s concern, it genuinely feels like something out of a horror movie, it’s so odd and unDoctorlike to me.

The episode ends with the Doctor piloting the TARDIS to a new destination, even with Ian, Barbara and Susan protesting. The way that the flight is shown on screen is really impressive when you consider the limitations of technology at the time, and then for some reason, Ian and Barbara are either knocked out or asleep. It’s something that’s not really done again with any other companions, so I don’t know if originally the human body wasn’t meant to be able to handle travelling through time and space as well as Time Lords.

The cliffhanger to this episode, with the shadow appearing outside the TARDIS is the wasteland is really well done, and really makes you want to know what happens next; considering this is the first ever Doctor Who cliffhanger, it works exceptionally well.

Overall, the first episode of An Unearthly Child lacks somewhat in the story department, but makes up for it in introducing the core characters and themes of the show; most of which are still unchanged from this day.

Considering that the first episode’s cliffhanger was a bit of a belter, with the ominous shadow looming near the TARDIS, I think that the payoff in the second episode is nowhere near as strong. Don’t get me wrong, the revelation that the shadow is that of a caveman is perfect for showcasing the TARDIS’ time travel capabilities, but if I’m being honest, he just looks gormless. If I was a caveman and a blue box showed up, I’d be absolutely crapping myself.

It’s not long before we’re introduced to the B-plot of the story, the fact that there’s a triple of cave people who are in dire need of fire, and there’s two cavemen, Kal and Za, who are trying to get a particular cavewoman by his side. Even when flung back to near the dawn of humanity, it seems that men are always trying to impress women. Hormones, eh?

On the theme of men competing, there’s a lot of that going on between the Doctor and Ian, both of whom are seemingly trying to outdo one another. The only problem for Ian though, is that the Doctor is a Time Lord with a TARDIS that can travel through time and space. Ian might be younger and more spritely, but that’s about it for him.

Ian’s disbelief is honestly the most true part of the performance from any of the character’s so far. Even when he’s left the TARDIS and is exploring the rather desolate planet, he’s trying to think of rational explanations; it seems that Ian is a scientist through and through.

There’s another first in the second episode, at around ten minutes in, Ian asks the age old question of “Doctor who?”, and I have to admit I love how downplayed and understated it is compared to modern episodes when the question is asked.

Back with the cave people, and they’re still going on about how to make fire. It seems that they’re desperate with making it, which is fair enough, because fire is really rather important; especially when you’re cold like the tribe are.

Kal is the perfect example of a politician, he uses Za’s lack of knowledge of how to make fire against him, turning the entire tribe against him; I wonder if he’s a distant relative of Donald Trump…

Just as the Doctor is about to be brutally murdered; Ian, Barbara and Susan save the day by jumping on cavemen and hitting them a bit. It’s not the most scientific or intelligent way to do things, but sometimes brawn has to beat brains. It doesn’t really pay off though, because the Doctor and his gang are sent to the Cave of Skulls (imagine a cliche evil laugh).

Compared to the last episode’s cliffhanger of an ominous shadow, this one is frankly rather awful. I don’t think it’s the revelation that’s necessarily bad, but rather the delivery of the line. If I’d’ve been chucked in a cave filled with skulls that had been split open, I don’t think I’d point out that fact as nonchalantly as Ian does. But then again, maybe that’s just me.

Overall, the second episode of An Unearthly Child introduces the B-plot really well, as well as adding some more layers to the main cast, especially Ian. There’s nothing really to write home about this episode, but it’s an enjoyable watch nevertheless.

We start the episode with the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan still trapped in the Cave of Skulls and looking for a way to escape. We get a great scene with Barbara and the Doctor, which is way too short for my liking, where they almost seem to warm to each other in the circumstances. The reason I wish it was longer is because I desperately want to like this incarnation of the Doctor, but so far, he’s making it difficult for me to warm to him as a character.

It doesn’t take too long for the gang to escape the Cave of Skulls, and they find themselves in a rather sparse forest. Barbara is certain she saw something in the bushes and pretty much has a breakdown. Then she sees a dead boar and she takes that just as badly.  Considering she’s been through a great deal in the past two episodes, it seems that a rustling bush is really her downfall. It’s hard to imagine the female characters being written like this nowadays (or any character for that matter).

There’s a scene where Ian decides to help an injured caveman and ruins the TARDIS teams chances of escaping them; and the Doctor seems to act rather reasonably, by complaining that they’d wasted an opportunity for an easy escape. By realising that An Unearthly Child is four episodes rather than three, I think it’s safe to assume that this act of compassion was rather foolish in the circumstances.

I know I said this earlier in the review, but it’s really difficult for the viewer to like the Doctor; even when Ian, Barbara and Susan have tended to the injured caveman, he’s still reluctant to even consider helping. If this is how he acts when it’s just him and Susan, I’m surprised that she’s stayed with her grandfather this long to be honest.

The conclusion of the third episode yet again misses the mark somewhat; with the gang being confronted yet again by the tribe. There’s not much else to say about it really, which is a shame.

Overall, the third episode develops the story slightly by showing how alien the Doctor is compared to Ian, Barbara, and even Susan. The TARDIS team almost have a means of escape and everything is riding on them being able to make fire…

Considering the past two episodes seem to have been rather slow in terms of story development, I find it somewhat odd that more seems to happen in the first four minutes of this episode than the past forty minutes. The tribe cast Kal out after a short rule of tyranny, and the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan are once again back in the Cave of Skulls.

There’s a whole theme of unity in this episode, both in terms of the unity of the tribe of cavemen, and the unity of the new TARDIS team. Za however, is still desperate to know how to make fire; so the logical leap for him is to ask his prisoners how to do so. Luckily for him, Ian is in the process of making fire, by rubbing two sticks near one another, although they never touch. (I know that’s not how you really make fire, but that’s what Ian does in this episode, and it confuses me why he couldn’t have just rubbed the sticks together in the studio, oh well.)

For some reason, there’s then a bit of an altercation between Za and another caveman, probably used to inject some action into proceedings; it’s fairly well choreographed and well filmed, using a lot of quick cuts to add to the unease of the situation. My biggest problem with the fight though is that it feels as if it was added to round up the run time. It goes on for around ninety seconds, which in a twenty-five minute slot, is a rather considerable amount of time. It’s a shame that such a fight sequence feels more like a filler than a set piece.

Once the tribe has fire once more, you’d expect the tribe to allow the Doctor and his companions go free, but that’s not the case. Instead, Za goes out to get some meat, and the TARDIS gang are still stuck in the Cave of Skulls, presumedly so they can keep making fire for Za.

Susan and Ian then come up with a rather bizarre plan to escape; using four flaming sticks with skulls on them to try and trick the tribe into believing that they are dead so that they can escape. Strangely enough it works, and the tribe seem to be actively grieving the loss of their prisoners. It seems that cavemen really are as stupid as comedies would make you believe.

The gang escape, with Barbara only tripping over once, which in classic Doctor Who, is an impressive feat for a female companion. I’m surprised she didn’t twist her ankle. The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan make it back to the TARDIS in one piece, and the Doctor is quick to escape the fate of the cavemen. The cavemen are awestruck by the majesty of the TARDIS dematerialising (which looks impressive, even to this day) and the TARDIS hurls her crew into a new adventure. But not back to 1963, much to the dismay of Ian and Barbara.

The conclusion of this episode really leads into the next story, which gives the sense of a constant continuity. You know exactly that the events of one story are going to lead into the next; and I really enjoy it.

Overall, I think that this episode is the best in An Unearthly Child, and it really flies when watching it. Sure, there are a few questionable lines and directions, but it’s a good episode nonetheless.




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