An Unearthly Child

Doctor WhoIn London, 1963, teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright discuss their most problematic student at Coal Hill School, one Susan Foreman. Susan’s knowledge vastly exceeds that of her instructors in science, but she has also been known to challenge long-standing historical facts…yet she also has some things completely wrong, including one occasion where she notes that British currency isn’t on the decimal system “yet.” Ian and Barbara follow Susan discreetly when she walks home one night, and the teachers are puzzled when home seems to be a junkyard. When they follow her into the junkyard, Susan has disappeared, and the only place she could have gone is a police call box which is emitting a strange hum. Moments later, an elderly man appears, apparently determined to enter the police box himself. Ian and Barbara force their way in, along with the old man, and find that the police box is actually a time-space vehicle, bigger on the inside than out. They also discover that neither Susan nor her grandfather, a mysterious and irritable man known only as the Doctor, are human beings. The Doctor, worried that Ian and Barbara will draw unwelcome mass attention to the presence of his ship (called the TARDIS), hastily sets it into motion over everyone’s protests, and when Ian and Barbara next step out of the doors of the TARDIS, they are no longer on Earth as they know it.

Season 1 Regular Cast: William Hartnell (The Doctor), William Russell (Ian Chesterton), Jacqueline Hill (Barbara Wright), Carole Ann Ford (Susan Foreman)

written by Anthony Coburn
directed by Waris Hussein
music by Norman Kay

Guest Cast: Derek Newark (Za), Althea Charlton (Hur), Jeremy Young (Kal), Howard Lang (Horg), Eileen Way (Old Mother)

Broadcast from November 23 through December 14, 1963

LogBook entry & review by Earl Green

Review: And that’s just part one. Trying to sum this story up is difficult, because the first episode is virtually a stand-alone, and the remainder of the story is almost a three part episode unto itself.

An Unearthly Child‘s first twenty-five minutes are beautifully self-contained, and still stand as one of the best and most important episodes in Doctor Who’s history. Some might even say the most important, and I find it difficult to argue with that. The entire internal mythology of the series is built upon a few scant, vague bits of dialogue in part one: the Doctor and Susan are from “another world, another time.” They’re on the run from unspecified people or circumstances. And one day, they intend to return.

William Hartnell is magnificent as the Doctor in this first installment, and Carole Ann Ford was never better as Susan. Ian and Barbara are two of the best companions ever seen in the show, and much of this is owed to their maturity; never again in the TV series, unless one counts Romana, did the Doctor travel with anyone who was clearly into his or her thirties. It wasn’t until the New Adventures, with the introduction of Bernice and then Roz, that more mature companions were given a chance again.

The latter 3/4 of the story are really a bit anticlimactic, and there are numerous oddities in the show as well. Most of the time I can accept that most every alien creature in Doctor Who speaks with a British accent, but in this case, the “cavemen” in question shouldn’t even have been speaking in anything remotely resembling English. There’s also the unusual scene which gets the Doctor’s party involved with the cavemen in the first place – they see him lighting up a pipe, and therefore believe he can make fire. This is thankfully the only instance we ever see of the Doctor smoking…keep in mind, Doctor Who was originally conceived as a children’s series.

This story is vitally important to any fan of Doctor Who – even if you’re not keen on cavemen, the first twenty-five minutes are essential viewing material. And even with all of the various styles of storytelling that followed it, there was never anything remotely like the first episode of An Unearthly Child in the history of the series.