I first recall seeing “An Unearthly Child” back in 1985 on my local PBS station. When I first sat down to write this review in 2007, I still had my off-air VHS recording of that broadcast, which was still watchable after 20+ years, though I’ve since replaced it with the DVD release. In between the obligatory pledge breaks were four really good episodes, proof positive that Doctor Who hit the ground running with a good solid concept, good drama and four very good characters. With the release of “The Beginning” on DVD, the story becomes even more watchable with well-restored picture and sound.
Episode one, actually titled “An Unearthly Child”, is the best of the four, and honestly ranks pretty high in the series as a whole with its level of storytelling. It’s a strong beginning for the series, and sets up the mystery of who Susan is with her strange mix of knowledge and ignorance. William Russell and Jacqueline Hill are never less than warm and believable as the two schoolteachers who are curious and concerned about their student. Carole Ann Ford is always likeable as Susan (at least until she starts getting hysterical later) and her love of the 20th century is rather endearing, especially with the knowledge that she feels like she doesn’t belong anywhere, and is looking for a home. She is of course the hook to draw Ian and Barbara into the scrap yard and into a meeting with the Doctor.
I can’t say enough good things about William Hartnell’s performance. He is instantly intriguing, and when he’s on the screen, I’m always interested in what he’s doing or saying. Like Tom Baker or Patrick Troughton, Hartnell is always worth watching, always entertaining, even if the story itself isn’t as strong as it could be. Here in the junkyard he tries to deal with the sudden intrusion of Ian and Barbara into his life with less than successful results. That and his patronizing explanations to Ian about the nature of the TARDIS are clues that he doesn’t really relate to others well, including his granddaughter Susan. And while he may be arrogant, short-tempered and patronizing, he’s also protective of Susan, which softens his character just enough for me to like him, despite his flaws.
Hartnell really sells the character by taking the part dead seriously, as do the other actors. There’s not a hint of whimsy, and indeed precious little humor in this story. Contrast this with later episodes in the 80s, or indeed Christopher Eccleston’s first episode in the modern revival of Doctor Who, and it becomes very refreshing to see actors taking what is really an absurd set of ideas and circumstances and making them convincing. The idea of time travel, or the ship that’s larger inside than out, or even the cavemen later on could all be cringe-inducing if played over-earnestly, or in self-referentially humorous fashion, but everyone involved in “An Unearthly Child” plays the script and ideas and characters dead straight, with just the right tone of seriousness, and that translates into believability. The acting and characters transcend the budgetary and production limitations, as is often the case with Doctor Who.
Since this story contains the first appearance of the TARDIS, let me take a moment to comment. It’s a fantastic concept in more ways than one. A ship that can travel anywhere in time or anywhere in space, that disguises itself wherever it goes, and transcends dimensionally restraints… that’s a big idea, and pretty original. We can be thankful for budget limitations that forced the writers to come up with the idea of it being stuck in one form, because the Police Box exterior has been the only constant in an ever-changing series, even if it has varied in appearance from time to time. It’s the equivalent of the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ first Narnia story. It’s the seemingly ordinary object that opens up onto a whole new world that we can explore. And has the console room ever been more expansive, until Paul McGann’s version appears on screen? As the vehicle for all the adventures that follow, the TARDIS has to capture the imagination, and it does just that.
I used to be of the opinion that the first episode was the good one, and the other three were rather dull. I’ve since changed my mind about that. While the first episode is undoubtedly the best, the other three really do contain some compelling drama. Being plunged from a safe school-teaching job into a very literal struggle to survive is a sound premise from which to wring some drama, and it instantly demonstrates the dangers of time travel. The unreasoning and fickle cavemen are as dangerous a foe as any alien menace that the Doctor faces on his travels. They help one minute, and turn on him the next. It’s fascinating to watch Ian try to convey new ideas and concepts to the primitive mind of Za, such as working together to achieve a goal, or sharing the firemaking skills among the whole tribe, ideas that Za clearly struggles to grasp. We also get a picture here of the difficulty the Doctor has in relating to Ian, since Ian is as far behind him in knowledge as Za is behind Ian. Kudos to the writer for the ‘show not tell’ approach. It’s something that went over my head when I first saw the story at 14 years old, but appreciate now, and is a fine example of a multi-layered approach to storytelling.
The story, being studio-bound, has the feel of a stage play. It’s a script that contains lots of talk punctuated by the occasional action sequence. It’s slow by modern standards, but if you have the patience to stick with it, you’ll enjoy some good performances and good dialogue. There’s no quick-cut soundbite storytelling here.
To sum it up, there’s very little to find fault with in Doctor Who’s first serial. Only the production values seem lacking in 2008, but that’s a limitation of budget and the technology available in 1963, and as such can’t really be counted as a fault. Other productions have failed miserably to suspend disbelief with far more time and money to work with. “An Unearthly Child” generally transcends its limitations, has a strong concept behind it, contains a good setup episode that gets the basic concepts of the series across very well, and gives us a good survival story with four strong characters. No production is ever perfect, but this comes close.