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Doctor Who complete reviews: An Unearthly Child


We kick off a mammoth review series of every Doctor Who story that ever made it to TV-land...

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

[Note about spoilers: As with the recently-embarked-on Complete Buffy Reviews, the individual (and two-parter) episode reviews form part of an overview of the show as a whole, and as such, contain spoilers for events not only in the episodes in question, but also potentially those in future episodes and seasons.]

The trip of a lifetime. That's what happened way back in the cold Autumn months of 1963, when a crotchety old man tried in vain to stop two pesky teachers barging into a ramshackle police box that actually happened to be an impossibly bigger on the inside than on the outside time-space machine.

And look what's happened since then…

"in this story, The Doctor is selfish, arrogant...vicious even"

Actually, looking back on Doctor Who's recent revival, you kind of wonder what sort of reaction An Unearthly Child would have got from modern viewers. The effects aren't quite as hot as nowadays. The pace of storytelling is a lot slower than most modern audiences are used to. The Doctor isn't exactly Mr Smiles either. And yet, An Unearthly Child is utterly compelling TV, right from the outset.

What makes the debut adventure stand out is by how atypical it is. For a show that's traditionally linked with Bug Eyed Monsters and alien planets, both are conspicuously absent. There's no real sense of fun or joie-de-vivre. And rather than the reliable 'hero' tag that's commonly associated with The Doctor, the younger viewers can only identify with the luckless Ian and Barbara as they are catapulted into a terrifying new way of life.

Let's make no bones about this. The Doctor in An Unearthly Child is not the ideal travelling companion. Not even close. Imagine you're stuck next to him on a plane and you're listening to your iPod at reasonable volume, he'd still probably whip out a pair of scissors and cut your earphones in two just to prove a point, all the while, making that sinister little giggle as he does so. And in this story, The Doctor is selfish, arrogant, vicious even.

In the first episode alone, he's rude and offhand while dealing with Ian and Barbara's enquiries about freaky Susan. By the time they've blundered into the TARDIS, he's moved onto haughty, patronising disdain about their inability to grasp the concept of relative dimensions and time travel. Heck, he's even not above booby trapping the TARDIS console, causing Ian to get an electric shock when he tries to get free. As the episodes progress, he's even willing to bash a caveman's head in, just so that he and his unwilling companions can get back to the TARDIS. Oh, and he's seen to be a smoker, something that would be met with jaw-dropping outrage today. Although he's probably put off the habit for life after hearing the sounds of "UHHHNGG! MAKE FIRE!" ringing in his ears for all time. Never mind Nicotine patches, a quick trip to prehistoric Stone Age should stop smoking once and for all.

Isn't William Hartnell brilliant though? An utterly arresting performance, which is totally at odds with his usual lovable grandfather persona of later stories. Hartnell is a commanding presence throughout the story, and makes for a perfect anti-hero, which may be just a bit too disquieting for the younger kids. Last year, I reviewed nearly all the Blake's 7 stories for Den Of Geek, which included sneering computer expert Avon. Although put him next to The Doctor of An Unearthly Child, and suddenly Avon starts to resemble a cheery kids TV presenter by comparison. Hartnell's debut is one of his best performances, and amazingly, there's hardly a fluff to be found throughout the story.

Still, the other three regular actors are no slouches either. William Russell and Jacqueline Hill are fantastic, both providing the identity figures for us humble peasants at home. Ian and Barbara are both likeable and realistic characters. They are both perfectly intelligent and resourceful, but when thrown into The Doctor's world, they're totally out of their depth, both in knowledge and in experience. However, they both prove to use their resources to make their escapes from the Tribe Of Gum, even when the odds are against them. There's that harrowing bit when Barbara falls over the carcass of a dead animal and starts screaming and crying in horror. Like I said, the Trip Of A Lifetime on this occasion is about as enticing as an all-expenses paid trip to the local abbatoir. No sense of fun, just four people trying to escape from a terrifying plight.

Of course, as many fans have pointed out, Ian and Barbara's initial experience strengthened them because they saw how primitive The Doctor regarded them. When it came to communicating with Hur and Za, this proved near impossible, instead resulting in a Stone Age version of Give Us A Clue. They saw how two different worlds collided, much like theirs and The Doctor's, and so from this point on, life on board the TARDIS became smoother (although it would take a couple more stories to achieve some sort of harmony on board).

Carole Ann Ford's Susan starts off really well here, and so it's a shame that she became a generic screaming teen in subsequent tales. Her eccentric hand movements at John Smith and The Common Men are a good example of Susan's alien background (Maybe this is Gallifreyan hand-clapping or something), and Ford captures this to a tee throughout the story with her aloof, alien manner.

"A fine first instalment - although you wouldn't want every episode to be this dark"

Oh, and the faithful companion, the TARDIS can't be overlooked. I guess we take it for granted these days, but Barbara's first dizzying stumble into the TARDIS shows just what a brilliant idea it is. Totally unique, as it sums up why Doctor Who is so great: Pure imagination. What's different though is that the flight of the TARDIS is a bumpy one. All four crewmembers seem to black out or at least suffer adverse reactions to the flight. That first trip of a lifetime is unpredictable, disorientating and even dangerous.

Much like the whole adventure: Totally simple (cavemen want the secret of fire; Doctor and co are made prisoners) but claustrophobic and uncompromising. The eerie howling wind effects, the forbidding jungles and the close-ups of bashed-in skulls all make for a queasy visual experience, but effective, too.
Waris Hussein's direction adds much to this, and right from the start, is an inspired choice. His direction is actually quite ahead of its time, with the flashbacks to Susan's classes and POV shots. The action speeds along in that first episode, while the last three contain moody, violent atmosphere (complete with a brutal fight scene in Part Four). Excellent stuff, the only downer being the extra who clearly wants to be Kenneth Williams in the very first scene.

Totally unlike the stereotype of a 'traditional' Doctor Who adventure, An Unearthly Child makes for a fine first instalment - although you wouldn't want every episode to be this dark. It sets the foundations for the most successful sci-fi TV show very well indeed, while telling a compelling story in its own right.

Next time:
Some pepperpots.

John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.

Read more Doctor Who articles at Shadowlocked



#1 Guest 2010-05-01 19:19
It was a fabulous start to the series,it magically uplifts you into doctor who's alien world.
Wonder what it look like remade in colour with todays cast,that would be interesting.

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