Tuesday, 23 November 2010

001 An Unearthly Child Part 1: An Unearthly Child

EPISODE: An Unearthly Child Part 1: An Unearthly Child
TRANSMITTED: 23 November 1963
WRITER: Anthony Coburn
DIRECTOR: Waris Hussein
SCRIPT EDITOR: David Whitaker
PRODUCER: Verity Lambert
FORMAT: DVD - The Beginning Boxset

I love the start of Doctor Who. We have the familiar: A policeman walking down a street on patrol walking past a junkyard whose door opens to reveal a Police Box inside.... a Police Box that hums. Now today a Police Box is Doctor Who, in 1963 they were a common sight on UK streets. Then a school, this is after all a children's series and nothing would be more familiar to children than a school. Two teachers, Barbara Wright (History) and Ian Chesterton (Science) have concerns about a pupil, Susan Foreman, and decide to investigate. Talking together in the car they share their experiences teaching Susan with each other which highlights what an odd pupil she is. Following her home she goes into the Junkyard we saw earlier and decide to follow....

A line of dialogue spring out at me. Barbara: "I feel frightened, as if we're about to interfere in something best left alone" Wonderful foreshadowing of what's going to happen. Of course we know what they'll find in there and what that will lead to but viewers in 1963 wouldn't.

The Police Box inside hums as if alive..... and in through the door behind them walks an old man. Ian & Barbara, hiding from him, hear Susan call out to him from within the telephone box and address him as Grandfather.... After an exchange with "Grandfather" they hear her call out again, forcing their way in through the doors....

Within the find a huge control room, far bigger than the Police Box that contains it. Susan and her Grandfather are from another planet in the future, travelling through space & time in the Tardis, exiles from their own time & people. Grandfather wants to imprison Ian & Barbara in the Tardis to stop them revealing it's existence, Susan wants to let them go. In trying to escape Ian electrocutes himself on the Tardis console. Susan and Grandfather argue about what to do in the course of which Grandfather activates the Tardis which takes off, rendering the teachers unconscious.

The Tardis/Police Box now stands on some sand with a shadow being cast towards it....

It's a brilliant 25 minutes of television slowly dragging you in from the familiar into this odd other world. Even if you understood what's going on as you watch it you've no idea where the Tardis is at the end, just the ominous NEXT EPISODE: THE CAVE OF SKULLS caption before you as a hint.

My first encounter with An Unearthly Child was on Monday 2 November 1981 when it was repeated at the opening of BBC2's Five Faces of Doctor Who season. That's not it's first repeat though: it was shown again on Saturday 30/11/1963 just before the broadcast of the second episode of the first Doctor Who serial.

There's a couple of odd little details in this episode that would have been missed by original viewers and both are found in Miss Wright's class room. The band Susan is listening to are John Smith & The Commonmen: Years later the Doctor would start using John Smith as a regular alias. Susan is left reading a book on the French revolution. Less than nine months later the Tardis would be materialising in France at that same point in history for the crew to witness the events at first hand.

And having now watched the Pilot & An Unearthly Child in close proximity to each other I can see lots of differences.

I got the video of An Unearthly Child while at University. We watched it for the RHBNC Sci Fi Society (IFIS) Doctor Who Thirtieth Anniversary Video Night in November 1993 (along with Destiny of the Daleks & Earthshock) and I think I've watched it every year on November 23rd since then. So it's quite possible that I've seen an Unearthly Child more than any other episode of Doctor Who. In this case familiarity has not bred contempt: I still love it to bits.

If you've not seen An Unearthly Child then buy Doctor Who - The Beginning Boxset. It's in the Amazon DVD sale mentioned bellow for £8.99 and for that you get the Pilot Episode, the 4 part Unearthly Child, 7 part the Daleks and 2 part Edge of Destruction. That's 75p an episode. In fact I'd be interested to hear if anyone reading hasn't seen it.

Anyway, 47 years ago today Doctor Who started. Happy Anniversary everyone!


  1. I love the mystery of it and it certainly left me wanting to see what happened next when I first saw it. It's also a very good looking episode with some moody shots throughout.

  2. One of my favourite comments about Doctor Who is the observation in the About Time books that the TARDIS is as much a device for traveling between genres as it is through time and space. In many ways this first episode starts out doing just that. Two well-meaning teachers concerned about one of their students encounter here eccentric and slightly threatening Grandfather who apparently is keeping her locked up in a police box. It is the beginning of an earnest and well-meaning play about dysfunction in modern life... until Ian and Barbara stumble through the doors of TARDIS into a completely different genre entirely.

    Hartnell is wonderful in this, alternating between hostility and being maliciously superior and it is of course very much a story about my favourite two companions, Ian and Barbara.

    A great first episode of a great opening story.

  3. Er, me! (sorry) I am going to order that though so that will change soon.

  4. It's a well paced opening episode and of course it has Ian Chesterton - hands down the best male companion the show has had (sorry Jamie). Hartnell is wonderfully prickly in this and shows how good he can be.

  5. I've also never seen it. In fact, although I have been slowly picking up the DVDs, I only own one of the black & whites: The Invasion. I know it shouldn't make a difference, but I do find it harder to watch black & white telly. And sometimes, just sometimes, watching old Who can be a bit of a chore. I tell myself that if I watch it properly, I can then watch it again with the commentary and info subtitles, which are always brilliant.

    So I will pick it up. Promise! I'll join in more when we get to late Pertwee.

  6. Mrs A feels the same, she doesn't like watching Black & White. But she loves Unearthly Child when it comes out for it's annual viewing.

    It can be hard to get into the B&W stuff, and the Invasion is a good one to try. Dalek Invasion of Earth, Time Meddler, War Machines, Tomb of the Cybermen and The War Games might be worth you taking a look too out of the ones on DVD.

  7. I did like the Invasion, actually. In some ways it felt a bit more modern than some of the early 80s stuff. Parts like the jeep driving into a large cargo plane were the sort of things that didn't happen later on.

    Of course, it also helps that The Invasion had the Mighty Trout. I haven't watched enough Hartnell to really warm to him, especially as he is, in many ways, the least Doctor-like out of all the Doctors.