Doctor Who From The Start: An Unearthly Child

One thing I’ve wanted to do with this blog for a while is sit down and watch every Doctor Who serial, in order, until I get bored with them or reach Survival (whichever comes first). I’m going to try to do one serial a week, and stick to a few simple rules:
1) If the story exists on DVD and I don’t own the DVD, I buy it
2) If the story is not on DVD, I torrent it, but buy it as soon as it’s released
3) If the story does not exist any more, I torrent a reconstruction and use that plus the text of the Target novelisation (also torrented because these are long out of print and my parents threw out my copies twenty years or so ago) to try to review it as best I can. I don’t feel under an obligation to buy the official BBC CDs of these stories – though I may, and have bought some in the past – as I think if they want paying for those episodes they shouldn’t have set fire to them. I do own the Lost In Time triple-DVD set though.

I’m also going to stick to a word limit of 1000 words in total for each of these posts.

In the case of An Unearthly Child, the first Doctor Who story, I’ve already written about it here – and if you want to know my thoughts on this story you should read that as well as this, but I’ll try to find more to say about it without duplicating that too much.

Writer: Anthony Coburn
Director: Waris Hussein
DVD Availability: As Disc One of the The Beginnings box set

For something described as ‘quintessentially British’ every five minutes, Doctor Who had a very multicultural background. From an initial idea by Canadian Sydney Newman, the first story was written by an Australian, Anthony Coburn, and directed by a gay Indian, Waris Hussein, who also happened to be the youngest director working for the BBC. Verity Lambert, the producer, was British, but she was also both the youngest producer working for the BBC *and* the only female producer. Forget ‘the gay agenda’ – for 1963 that’s a shockingly mixed team.

And whether consciously or not, the sense of outsiderness that this must have engendered seems to have come out in the first episode of this serial, in which two teachers investigate an odd pupil, who turns out to be far odder than either of them could previously have expected.

The first episode is an absolute masterclass in how to make TV. We start out with THAT music – Delia Derbyshire’s realisation of Ron Grainer’s theme tune still sounds shocking today, it’s almost unimaginable how strange it must have sounded in 1963, when Cliff Richard was still considered something of a rebellious young rocker (Ian Chesterton was originally going to have been named Cliff, to show he was ‘with it’ and let the young relate to him). Then we have a story that starts out looking very, *very* like the opening of then-popular police show Dixon Of Dock Green, before turning into what looks like it could be a fairly harrowing drama about child abuse, before once again taking a complete change in direction and becoming science fiction in the last third.

And it *LOOKS* astonishing – the cameras here swoop and move in a style completely unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere in TV. At times it almost looks like Orson Welles was behind the camera. Hussein takes the disadvantages inherent in the medium at the time – the programme was recorded ‘as live’ with only one break in recording (for the cut when Barbara enters the TARDIS, though it looks to me like there was also an edit done in one of the earlier scenes in the classroom) – and turns them to his advantage. The close-ups on Susan in flashback while Ian and Barbara talk about her in the car are done that way so the actors don’t have to get from one set to another, but they also give the episode a unique look.

Sadly, that isn’t maintained in the three later stories in this serial – which really ought to be regarded as a separate story, albeit one with the same writer and director. Once the travellers reach the time of the cave people, we suddenly divert into something that is much closer to how one would imagine a children’s TV series with an educational remit from 1963 would appear – worthy, stagey, and dull when watched in one dose (it works *much* better when watched episodically, as was of course originally intended). And we already see the Doctor Who Formula starting to take shape – Susan, so mysterious and otherworldly in her first appearance, has her first scream at something unthreatening in episode three.

But even so there are interesting aspects. Firstly, the Doctor is still far from the hero – Ian Chesterton is clearly in the heroic role, while the Doctor is somewhere between mentor and villain. Never again (at least in the ‘classic’ series) would we see the Doctor even consider killing someone just for convenience’s sake.

And the story seems to be about *ideas* – in fact, bravely, the central conflict is between two *wrong* ideas. The old crone argues against fire on conservative grounds, but she’s arguing against someone engaged in a cargo-cult, rather than the more obvious choice of someone who can actually create fire.

There are some very, *very* interesting moments – for example, the shot of Kal looking at the TARDIS is very reminiscent (to my eyes) of Moon Watcher looking at the obelisk in 2001. And of course the inhabitants of the TARDIS bring the knowledge of fire to the tribe, in a similar way to the monolith giving the ape-people the knowledge of weapons. But this was many years earlier than 2001…

And there are some very well-written lines, too – “If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cry of strange birds and watch them wheel in another sky” is a great phrase.

But on the whole, the impression given by An Unearthly Child is of a program that initially had huge amounts of promise, but quickly settled into mediocrity, and was just like every other kids’ programme. That impression would soon prove to be wrong…

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9 Responses to Doctor Who From The Start: An Unearthly Child

  1. Prankster says:

    I’ve actually seen this (just the first episode, though) which is a minor miracle given how deucedly hard it is to track down Doctor Who “classic” here in North America. My experience with it is otherwise limited to hazy memories of public TV broadcasts when I was very little, and recent viewings of some of the most acclaimed Tom Baker outings.

    I actually found “Unearthly Child” weirdly compelling in a way that the Baker episodes weren’t. I mean, I can see that it’s all well done (and The Ark in Space was intriguing as a dry-run for ALIEN), but I suspect it’s the kind of thing you have to forge a connection to while young; for me, at the moment, classic Who is more of an intellectual curio than something I can really get into. It’s actually the same way I feel about old superhero comics–they’re more interesting to me as objects for analysis and deconstruction than they are to read for entertainment. Which is to say, I’ll probably enjoy this series of posts by you more than I would watching the actual episodes. :)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      (Sorry I didn’t reply to this one at the time)
      I can see what you mean about it being a curio, but much like those old superhero comics, there’s stuff that *is* worth looking at – Jack Kirby’s Fourth World stuff is clearly superior to early-60s Superman is clearly better than mid-50s backup strips.

  2. I’ve been doing the same – started in September, just reached Spearhead from Space, writing them up six stories at a time. The only problem with your proposed series of steps comes with The Ice Warriors, where I wasn’t able to get a decent recon of the two missing episodes and went back to the BBC release of the audio sound track with Fraser Hines narrating. Good luck; I shall be reading along!

  3. Gavin Burrows says:

    Sadly, that isn’t maintained in the three later stories in this serial – which really ought to be regarded as a separate story, albeit one with the same writer and director

    Absoultely agree. Being shackled to that lesser three-parter really drags ‘Unearthly Child’ down. And (apart from the rather sketchy reasoning to which you allude) there’s really no reason to! Yes, the next episode is (somewhat literally) foreshadowed at the end. But that was common practise then!

    bravely, the central conflict is between two *wrong* ideas. The old crone argues against fire on conservative grounds, but she’s arguing against someone engaged in a cargo-cult, rather than the more obvious choice of someone who can actually create fire.

    That’s the one thing you say I’m not sure of. The way only the travellers can bring the tribe fire smacks to me of the ‘white man’s burden.’ There’s one good thing about this storyline, though. It suggests at a couple of points that they will teach ‘civilised values’ to the ignorant savages, but thankfully doesn’t go down that path. Admittedly, it doesn’t go anywhere else either! But at least it doesn’t go down that path!

    I’ll read all these posts avidly but may not comment much, as I was part-way through a similar endeavour myself and don’t want to blow what I may soon be posting myself! (I have a head-start on you but suspect I’ll be slower though!)

    Incidentally you can download the scripts of the missing episodes (and perfectly legitimately) from

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Hmm… I see what you mean about the ‘white man’s burden’ but I’m not sure to what extent I agree – after all, the tribe already know about fire, they’ve just lost the knowledge. And I think it parallels rather neatly the way the TARDIS has been shown as so superior to 1960s technology – the Doctor is to Ian and Barbara as they are to the tribe of Gum…

      • Gavin Burrows says:

        I always thought the “lost the knowledge” thing was a bit of a plot contrivance. Somebody died without passing the knowledge on? It’s not like they’re living in detached suburban houses! Theoretically knowing what fire is allows them to covet it.

        But it would have been better if the first time they see fire is when the Doctor lights his pipe. (Don’t worry, he quit the habit very soon after!)

  4. Bill Reed says:

    I’ve seen the first episode several times, and yeah, it is a fun piece of television, and a fascinating curio. I’m surprised that kids would have enjoyed it, however, as it doesn’t exactly have the thrill of adventure or the alien menaces or pretty much anything that makes Doctor Who what it is, aside from a weird old guy traveling around in a phonebox. But I guess the real popularity came with the next story.

    The rest of the serial isn’t bad. I quite like most of the Hartnells (what I’ve seen, anyway– all the completed stuff up until somewhere in the second season, and a recon or two). Er, except the Web Planet. God help us, the Web Planet. There’s ambition there, but it doesn’t work at all.

  5. Don Alsafi says:

    I love the first episode; it really is an amazing piece of television. Sadly, the series never fully lives up to the potential set up there, but it’s still one of my favorite first episodes of any series, and does such a fantastic (and somewhat stealthy) job of setting up the premise.

    Some of my favorite moments:

    * The opening shot you mention, with the camera tracking in to the junkyard and settling on the police box. Especially on a first viewing, even if you know all about the show and the TARDIS and everything that came after, that’s a damn unsettling shot.

    * The moment when the ship takes off – and oddly, disturbingly, it cuts to the howlaround from the opening credits – and stays there significantly longer than the one or two seconds you might expect. Which always seemed to me another precursor to Kubrick’s 2001.

    * This may be such a small thing, but I really love the ending of the story, when the TARDIS and its crew have suddenly landed – somewhere new! And they look at the scanner to see where they are…….. I really like this linking device: It’s not a cliffhanger, as the story is allowed to wrap completely, but by allowing us a glimpse of the first few seconds of the next adventure, it gracefully beckons us to join them next week. Unfortunately, this would be abandoned fairly soon (and the glimpse didn’t always come to much, such as the giant footprint which leads into “Marco Polo”); perhaps they felt that the necessary script coordination was more trouble than the device was worth.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      If I remember rightly, the continuing-into-the-next-episode thing continued until the end of the first year.
      I strongly suspect that stopping that had more to do with the fact that the show was starting to be sold outside the UK – and stories might get cut out (e.g. The Crusades never got shown in Arab countries).

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