An Unearthly Child

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child (1963)

  • An Unearthly Child
  • The Cave of Skulls
  • The Forest of Fear
  • The Firemaker

This is where it all began. This is the episode that first introduced us to that interplanetary traveller known only as The Doctor. At this point, such details as "time lord"—and certainly the all-important concept of regeneration—were still years away.

The Doctor is introduced as an irascible old man who values his privacy. Against his better judgement, his grand-daughter Susan has enrolled in a local school, where her unusual mix of superior intelligence and complete ignorance of common every-day details arouses the curiosity of a pair of her teachers. Driven partly out of concern for her well-being—but mostly by said curiosity—Ian and Barbara follow her back to the junkyard where she is apparently living. Before long they decide that the old man they meet there must be holding Susan prisoner inside, of all things, a battered old police public call box, and they force their way inside.

These days, I'm sure we are all familiar with the TARDIS, and we watch with some small sense of amusement as each new companion goes through the whole "bigger on the inside" moment of surprise—but back then, in 1963, what a brilliant concept it was: a vessel that seems so small, with so much space inside; a vessel that could travel to any point in time and space, and disguise itself as anything, thereby blending in to its surroundings. Of course, for BBC budgetary reasons as much as anything else, that camouflage ability—that would, one day in the distant future, be referred to as the "chameleon circuit"—was broken, and the TARDIS was stuck in its current shape.

The name "TARDIS", we are told, was given to it by Susan herself (which, bearing in mind future episodes, is perhaps not entirely true) and stands, as any geek well knows, for "Time And Relative Dimensions In Space".

Unable to bear the thought of being poked and prodded and pursued by inquisitive humans—he and his grand-daughter are not human; they are instead "exiles", "cut off from our own planet", "wanderers in the fourth dimension"—the Doctor decides that he cannot allow his visitors to leave. The two teachers attempt to convince Susan that she is trapped in some sort of delusion, but she insists "I was born in another time, another world." So they try to leave, but cannot open the door. Susan demands he let them go—she even threatens that if he chooses to leave, she will leave him and stay behind in the 20th century. So the Doctor does the only thing he can do: he launches the TARDIS—dematerialising it with the familiar groaning, wheezing sound that has remained essentially unchanged for 50 years—and effectively kidnaps the lot of them.

The TARDIS rematerialises—somewhere else; a rugged, sandy landscape, very far removed from that London junkyard. An ominous shadow approaches, and the credits roll.

The format of the "Classical Doctor" stories, of course, was for each story to span several half-hour episodes. That format underwent a few revisions over the years—I believe for a while they were 45 minute episodes—but it was what we grew up with. Therefore it seemed a little odd to me—my Doctor was the fourth, Tom Baker—that in the early days, each episode had its own individual title (listed above.) Given that, now that I've watched this first story, I find myself wondering why, exactly, the first episode is not split off from the three that followed it. I guess they were always intended to be a complete story, showing not only the, uh, abduction of the first of the Doctor's companions, but also their first adventure together.

The Cave of Skulls and the two episodes which follow it are, in fact, a little more like so many of the episodes that followed: plenty of running away! They present a story of a tribe of cave-dwelling humans—although whether this is actually Earth's pre-history or another planet entirely was never really mentioned.

The most important point—at least for the continuance of the series—is that the Doctor doesn't quite know what he's doing, or perhaps the TARDIS is a little temperamental. Either way, getting back to the point from which he left is not within his power.  (Hmm, that makes it sound a little like Sliders, our valiant team forever trying to find their way home.  Truth be told, the Doctor is home, the TARDIS is his home, and he has little interest in trying to return the pesky humans to theirs.)

Meanwhile, back at the cave. The leader of this tribe has died, taking the secret of Fire to his grave. His son has clearly watched him make fire move "from his hand to the wood" but has never been taught the details. This is wonderfully demonstrated by his rolling a bone back and forth between his hands above the kindling—the technique is there, but some of the details are missing. The old woman of the tribe (possibly the new leader's mother) scorns such new-fangled inventions anyway, and is happy to go back to the good old days before fire, but for the rest of the tribe, the ability to make fire is a very important attribute in a leader.

Unrest stirs. A stranger to the tribe, Kal, is much-favoured as a possible new leader for the tribe. He cannot produce fire either, but while the old leader's son sits all day "rubbing his hands together" this newcomer is out hunting, bringing meat for the tribe.

The ability to provide is also an important attribute in a leader.

Caught in the middle is a woman, whose father will give her to whichever man ends up as leader.

Into this power struggle blunders the Doctor and his companions who—it has been observed, do have the ability to make fire. They become pawns in the quest for leadership, and the race to be the first to bring fire back to the tribe.

There are some great moments. The Doctor's irritation at discovering that the TARDIS has not disguised itself upon leaving the junkyard—followed, shortly thereafter, by Susan's own puzzlement at noticing the same detail. And when Barbara refers to him as "Doctor Foreman"—Susan's name is given (presumably for enrolment purposes) as Susan Foreman, and the junkyard in which they were living is owned by one "I. M. Foreman"—Ian retorts "That's not his name. Who is he? Doctor who?" Even the bone-rolling effort to produce fire is subtly brilliant.

And then, of course, there's the running…

The DVD also contains the "pilot", a different cut of the first episode which portrays the Doctor as an altogether more sinister character. It was certainly an intriguing glimpse at how things might have gone—but on the whole, I think the non-pilot version of "An Unearthly Child" is quite an improvement.

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