Spoiler Alert: This series of posts will contain spoilers about classic and possibly current episodes of Doctor Who.
An Unearthly Child is the first Doctor Who storyline to ever broadcast. It consisted of four episodes, airing weekly, starting on November 23rd 1963.
What Happens in Junk Yards Doesn’t Stay in Junk Yards
The first episode is nothing short of phenomenal. A near perfect introduction to the major characters and the fundamental mythology of the show.
Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, played by William Russell and Jacqueline Hill, are school teachers with a mysterious student named Susan Foreman, played by Carole Ann Ford. Susan display uncanny knowledge on some subjects and utter ignorance on others. Curious about the strange girl they follow her to a junk yard where she vanishes. Sitting in the junk yard is a locked police box.
William Hartnell appears, though he is not yet identified as the Doctor. Ian and Barbara question the strange old man about the missing Susan, whom they heard call out from inside the police box. He lies and avoids their questions. Susan opens the door of the box, allowing Ian and Barbara to force their way inside. They discover the interior is far larger than the outside. Stunned, the couple stand there as the old man orders Susan to close the doors.
What follows is a fair amount of exposition which establishes that Hartnell is the Doctor, Susan is his granddaughter, that they are aliens, and that the police box is in fact a ship, called the TARDIS, capable of traveling anywhere in space and time.
At first Ian and Barbara, still in shock, refuse to accept what they are told, but then begin to believe it might be true. The Doctor decides it is too dangerous to let them leave with such knowledge and activates the TARDIS. It vanishes from the junk yard. The scene shifts to a a stone age wilderness (or rather a rather poor studio mock-up of one) and the TARDIS appears, along with the shadow of an approaching cave man.
And the rest of the serial goes WAY downhill
The remaining three episodes are dismal drivel not worth describing. As far as the overall mythology of the show is concerned, only two facts of note are introduced.
One is that the Doctor mumbles a confused comment which establishes the TARDIS should have changed appearance when they landed, but didn’t. No further explanation for it constantly appearing as a police box is given.
The other important fact is that Susan’s last name, Foreman, is an alias. Ian refers to the Doctor as ‘Doctor Foreman’, who is confused why Ian would call him that. Ian notes this fact to Barbara, confirming that they have no idea what the old man’s true name might be. This establishes the show’s central mystery, i.e. who is the Doctor, which the writers then ignore for several years. From this point forward the name Foreman is not mentioned again.
The Doctor’s introduction is handled in a beautifully mysterious manner. Hartnell’s subtle performance hints at the quick intelligence, cunning, and devious nature which would become mainstays of the Doctor’s character. Few details are given; no mention of the Time Lords or Gallifrey or how the Doctor and Susan are physically different from humans. I count these omissions as strengths, as such details (assuming they were already specified in the show’s bible) would have dragged down an episode already sporting a great deal of dialogue.
The bulk of the four episodes firmly establish Ian and Barbara as the central characters. Both exhibit the strong moral centers, forthright honesty, likeable personalities, and indomitable natures typical of central characters in television shows from the early 1960’s. All characteristics are notably missing from the irascible, duplicitous Doctor whose first actions include lying to and then kidnapping the pair, forcing them to journey with him into ever more dangerous locations.
Ian, in particular, has all the qualities of a classical hero. Physically strong, highly intelligent, an excellent fighter, extraordinarily competent at everything he tries, compassionate, and protective of those with him, including the Doctor. For the first season of the show it is Ian, not the Doctor, who is the show’s true protagonist.
Barbara is smart and strong willed, more than able to stand up for herself. As the show develops, she is shown to be levelheaded, logical, and usually practical in even the most dangerous situations. She becomes the person most likely to challenge the Doctor and force him to change his mind.
Together, these two characters form the heart and soul of the early Doctor Who episodes. Without solid, even deft, performances from both Russell and Hill the show would never have survived. It wasn’t until the second season that the Doctor changed from being a side character in the series named for him, to the central character around whom the plots revolve.
Susan, you are the weakest link
Early 1960’s television tended to regulate women to roles where they were threatened, often helpless, and in need of protection. This dynamic applies strongly to the character of Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter. I suspect her character sketch consisted only of “pretty teenage girl, kinda odd, screams a lot.” While it is tempting to blame this annoying, practically useless character on Carol Ann Ford’s performance, the proper blame belongs with the writers’ who never gave her any depth. It’s entirely understandable why the actress left the series early in its second season.
On the DVD I watched were a few special features worth noting. None are great, but might be of interest to diehard fans of the series and those interested in the difficulties of filming television shows in the 1960’s.
There is the original pilot, which had numerous small, but significant, differences from the version which aired. Most notable is a nastier, more haughty performance by Hartnell. Here you can see how the show might well have gotten off to a false start and alienated viewers.
Then there is the mostly unedited studio recording of the pilot. There you see the multiple problems which the crew faced (and ultimately hid) while trying to film the first episode, along with alternate performances and additional dialogue which would be discarded from the aired pilot.
There are some comedy sketches mocking the creation of the show, its longevity, and eventual reason for it’s cancellation after 26 years. These are mildly amusing and not terribly long.
There is also a photogallery which captures many moments both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. Again, nothing major, but the kind of thing serious fans would find interesting.
The next storyline is the classic seven part serial which made Doctor Who a smash hit and which continues to influence the show to the present day: The Daleks.