Episode 001 An Unearthly Child
Season 1, 23 November 1963
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Companions: Susan Foreman, Ian Chesterton, Barbara Wright
Villains: Kal, Za, the Tribe of Gum
Setting: London, 1963; Ancient Earth, 100,000 BC
Common Who Plot Devices: Trapped in the Past, Capture and Coercion, Malfunctioning TARDIS
Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? Have you?… to be exiles? Susan and I are cut off from our own planet, without friends or protection. But one day we shall get back. Yes, one day. One day… —The Doctor
Synopsis: In this first episode of Doctor Who, we meet the Doctor, his granddaughter Susan, and school teachers Ian and Barbara.
When the teachers discover the Doctor’s alien origins, they unwillingly accompany him and Susan on a trip back to the Stone Age. After an unfriendly tribe captures the Doctor, the four must forge an uneasy alliance to escape and return to the safety of the TARDIS.
Review: Any list of “must-see” Doctor Who episodes has to start with “An Unearthly Child.” A sense of mystery grabs you from that first evocative opening shot of a bobby making his rounds in the London fog. Sherlock Holmes immediately springs to mind, and there are some parallels to be found between our Doctor and the great detective. Both are brilliant, moody, eccentric — and both work best with a companion: Watson for Holmes and fifty years of fellow travelers for the Doctor. But we get ahead of the story.
Transitioning to Coal Hill School we are introduced to school teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright who are discussing one of their students, Susan Foreman. Susan is a bright young woman whose knowledge of math, science, and history often surpasses that of her teachers. At the same time she displays an alien maladjustment to everyday life. Credit needs to go to the production staff and the actress who play Susan, Carole Ann Ford. Ford plays Susan with such a unique style that one of this episode’s classic moments is Ford’s rhythmic hand movements and otherworldly enjoyment of music from her transistor radio.
Were the episode set in 2013, Ian and Barbara would probably slap an “autistic” label on Susan, refer the matter to a school administrator, and be done with it. This being 1963, Barbara instead decides to talk to the girl’s guardian grandfather and convinces Ian to go on a reconnaissance mission with her to follow Susan to her address on file: 76 Totter’s Lane. William Russell and Jacqueline Hill (who play Ian and Barbara respectively) exhibit an on-screen chemistry that makes me think Ian was perhaps more than happy for an excuse to spend time with Barbara “after-hours.”
Arriving at Totter’s Lane, the pair investigate the scrapyard at the address and find nothing more than an incongruous blue Police Box. Hearing someone approaching, the teachers hide in the shadows. An elderly man arrives and begins to open the door of the police box. Ian and Barbara hear Susan’s voice coming from inside. Fearing foul play, Barbara and Ian challenge the older gentleman (who is the Doctor), eventually pushing past the protesting Doctor and into the TARDIS. As the TARDIS door closes behind them, the Doctor irately confronts the gobsmacked humans.
William Hartnell is brilliant in this first act. We tend to think of the Doctor as a gentlemanly hero much of the time, but there has always been a level of haughtiness and condescension that occasionally shines through the scarves and bow ties. Pertwee, both Bakers, McCoy, Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith have all harkened back to Hartnell’s righteous indignation from time to time.
Susan intervenes and tries to defuse the situation, explaining to Barbara and Ian that she and her grandfather are indeed aliens and refugees in both time and space. The teachers categorically refuse to believe such a fantastic tale. The Doctor, still clearly furious and agitated, tells Susan that they must not let Ian and Barbara go back to their daily lives as knowledge of the advanced technology of the TARDIS could alter the timeline. When Barbara begins to accept the possibility that Susan’s story is real, the Doctor makes up his mind and dematerializes the TARDIS before Ian and Barbara can reveal his secrets.
And there, my friends ends the first act and twenty-four minutes of drama that was strong enough to inspire fifty years. In less than half an hour, it’s all set up for us. The TARDIS is bigger on the inside and can travel through time and space. The Doctor is either unable or unwilling to return to his home planet. The first companions have (albeit unwillingly) have made their first time jump. It’s a framework within which all that Who would become could operate.
In the subsequent episodes, we are introduced to the tribe of Gum. Za, the would-be leader of the prehistoric tribe is obsessed with unlocking the secret of making fire. Kal is a rival to Za’s leadership and offers a strong, Machiavellian alternative. We can view Za and his desire to harness the power of fire represent invention, progress, and innovation: a promising but untested future. Kal brings a conservative, proven, and predictable way of life, but one which is becoming out of pace with a changing climate and ecosystem.
The situation in the tribe has a clear parallel with the relationship between the Doctor and Ian. The technology of the Doctor is completely unknown to Ian although Ian himself is also a man of science. As the first two seasons of the show unfold, Ian’s eyes are opened up to a world of possibilities far outside of his frame of reference. In turn, Ian has a tempering and humanizing influence on the Doctor.
There is also a reflection of 1963 Britain in the division of the tribe. In 2013 we are farther away from the First Gulf War than Britain was from World War II at the time. Less than twenty years had elapsed since the end of the War. Technology in communication, travel, and commerce had begun to influence the life of many of the viewers in 1963. In 2013 we are also further from the debut of Doctor Who than those viewers were from the First World War! Imagine the upheaval that had occurred in the lifetime of the average Briton alive in 1963! As in the tribe of Gum, some people were more accepting of these changes than others were.
Speaking of changes, at one point in the third episode we the viewers are forced to examine if we need to change how we think of the Doctor. In one of his darkest moments ever on screen, the Doctor picks up a rock and appears to be ready to smash in a wounded cave man’s skull until restrained by Ian. We’ve seen the Doctor kill before – “Runaway Bride,” “Genesis of the Daleks,” “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” all spring to mind. In those cases, however, there was danger on a global scale. This is somehow different — there is no imminent danger; the caveman is not attempting world domination; the lives of millions of people are not hanging in the balance. The Doctor is motivated only by a sense of self-survival – he is worried letting this man live could reduce his chances of escape.
Luckily Ian was there to save the Doctor from himself. The Doctor himself seems to be on a personal journey to grow into the man we see in later seasons. Over the next season of shows we begin to see the interpersonal relationship between Ian and the Doctor have a moderating impact on the Doctor and a horizon-expanding influence on Ian. One of the great unexplored areas of the Who universe is the Doctor’s life before the events at Totter’s Lane. The Doctor in these early episodes is cranky and impulsive — natural inclination or a result of the events leading up to his and Susan’s refugee status?
As for a moral in this story, Ian delivered one of the recurring themes of early Who: “Remember, Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe.” Cooperation trumps solitary impulsive action. The Doctor may be a powerful force, but when he is combined with his companions, he is able to accomplish even greater good. The same is even true in Who today — in “A Town Called Mercy” Amy warns the Doctor about traveling alone. Like Jiminy Cricket was to Pinocchio, Ian served as the conscience of the Doctor during this first season.
Why You Should Watch: It’s the very first episode! Why would you not want to watch?
Why You May Want to Skip: None. If you are a Who fan you need to start at the beginning.
Verdict: Must Watch
How to Watch Doctor Who – Episode 001 An Unearthly Child