An Unearthly Child

The first episode is as good as everybody always says it is. There was nothing like on TV back in 1963 when it first aired. And really, there's been nothing like it on TV since. The alien-sounding music and the strangely mesmerising visual effects, like a series of Rorschach blots moving and flowing, give way to policeman on a foggy night. The show starts off looking like a crime drama - except that this strange music is still carrying on underneath the scene, and the police box in the junkyard is revealed as though it were a mysterious and incomprehensibly powerful object. Then at the school, the story seems to become a social realist tale of a troubled teen with a hidden and worrying domestic life,  being investigated by two teachers who are clearly very close friends, at the very least. Is this grandfather of hers abusing her? He certainly does nothing to dispel suspicion when he finally turns up at the junkyard, and Mr Chesterton?s suspicion that Susan is locked up inside the police box seems all too credible. Then Chesterton forces his way into the box, with Miss Wright on his heels... ...and we get one of the most astonishing scene transitions in televisual history. The dark grey world becomes dazzling bright, and the two teachers are suddenly, terrifyingly out of place. Chesterton blusters, but it's the image of Wright, in her long coat, sensible shoes and sizeable handbag standing incongruous in a world of gleaming white futurism that epitomises the baffling juxtapositions that are at the heart of this episode. The grandfather is no less sinister now that the teachers are undeniably in his power. His every word is tinged with menace, and Susan's pleading with him only serves to make the teachers even more afraid. He abducts the intruders, moving his "Ship" off twentieth-century Earth in a sonic and visual assault that seem to burst in on the television drama, tearing the scenes apart and letting an alien universe flood in. The final shot is the most incongruous of all: a police box, an ordinary London police telephone box, perched awkwardly on a rock in the midst of a bleak howling wilderness. The image is astonishing, and genuinely surreal. Then a sinister shadow appears... In the next episode the apparent genre changes again. We'll spend much of the next three episodes in a cave full of primitive tribespeople. The iconography - skins, flint knives, stone axes - and the obsession with making fire linked to a deadly threat of cold, all suggest that these are prehistoric humans in the last ice age, but our four travellers never speculate about exactly who these people are. To be fair, they have more urgent preoccupations. The focus is on the tribe's politics. The tribe is humanity in microcosm, reduced to its most basic form, and the drama presents questions of political power and authority stripped right down to their essentials. It's remarkably effective. The dialogue has a small vocabulary, but it is dense and tightly written, and the cast go at it as if they were performing Julius Caesar. What really makes it all work, though, is the direction. The camera is fluid, moving in and out of the crowd during the rival leaders' debates, often jostling to get a good view past the extras that are in the way. It's as if we are a part of this tribe, just as urgently concerned as the rest of them with questions of survival and leadership. Our first encounter with Za not only sets up the plot, it gives us a key insight into why the tribe is in such a sorry state. Za is trying very hard to create fire, but he lacks the mental models that would allow him to understand why his current approach isn't working. He puts ashes, "dead fire", onto the kindling not because he is stupid, but because he is trying to model the concept of "fire" in his mind starting from a basis of no knowledge and understandably getting it quite wrong. Similarly, when Kal carries in the unconscious Dr. Who (and the moment when his checked trousers appear in shot in this primitive cave environment is yet another of the jarring juxtapositions that run through this story), he thinks the old man must have fire inside of him. It's not such a stupid idea - he's seen him apparently shoot fire from his fingers, and breathe smoke. The Doctor is lucky they don't just chop him in half there and then. Meanwhile the other travellers are faring little better. One of the impressive things about this story is they way it takes time to explore the psychological impact of events on the main characters. Faced with the suggestion of unlimited travel in time and space, Ian is sceptical. When shown the reality, he moves from scepticism to denial, only slowly accepting the truth of it. Barbara is more open-minded and intellectually flexible, helping Ian with his own psychological struggle. It's only later that she begins to crack, when faced with physical danger and the prospect of a brutal death in a primitive age. Then it's Ian who copes better, and who helps Barbara to overcome her trauma. Ian's a smart enough chap, but he's clearly happier doing than contemplating. Susan is unfazed by time travel, as we might expect, but completely goes to pieces when her grandfather goes missing. This is more than just fear for her relative's safety: without her grandfather, she would be effectively alone in the Universe. There's a political struggle going on among the travellers, mirroring the tussle between Za and Kal. Ian Chesterton and Dr. Who both clearly feel they should be in charge. This is a debate about the future of the show itself. Is it about present-day people getting into adventures thanks to the mysterious Dr. Who? Or is it about the Doctor, travelling through time and space with his human companions? William Russell may be every inch the conventional leading man, but it's Hartnell's show from the minute he walks on screen. Chesterton's rueful acknowledgement of the Doctor's leadership while making fire for Za is the first indicator of how the show will develop from here on. Ground-breaking it may be, but it's still a Sixties adventure serial, and it can't help but show it from time to time. The limitations of time, money and studio space are evident on occasion - though much less often than they might be, thanks to some excellent set design by Barry Newbery. More jarring to modern viewers is the transition from video tape to film in the big fight scene between Za and Kal. In itself, it looks splendid - so much so that one wishes the entire serial had been done on film. And to be fair, director Waris Hussein handles the shift back to video very nicely. But there's still a sense that the fight takes place in a different world to the rest of the drama, and for a story which has so effectively built up a tight, claustrophobic world that's a real pity. Where the show really shows its age is in the roles of the female characters. It's not as bad as it might be. The women are real characters, well performed, with important contributions to the plot. The suggestion that Za might fancy Barbara is a brief character point, not the driver of the story. Hur in particular is the most complex character in the story, and Alethea Charlton's performance does a lot to hold the show together. So perhaps it's a little harsh to complain that the women are nonetheless relegated to secondary roles, or to wince at Ian's "Surely you're not going to let the women do it" when he bullies Dr. Who into helping to carry the stretcher. These are just reminders that we are time travellers too, in a way: when we watch these old shows, we are tourists in a time with different values, sensibilities and norms. The story ends when the travellers, having given the tribespeople the gift of fire and a few new political ideas, escape from imprisonment and are pursued by the ungrateful cave dwellers back to the Ship. They dash inside with the tribe hot on their heels, Dr. Who activates the controls... ...and with the same harsh, tearing sound as we heard in the first episode, the Ship fades away and vanishes! A stone spear flies futilely through the space that the Ship used to occupy, and the tribe stare, wide-eyed and gaping. They've never seen anything like this before - and neither have we. It seems Dr. Who can't control his Ship, whether through breakdown, insufficient data, or sheer inability. Whatever the reason, and despite Barbara's desperate pleading to be taken home, the Ship lands in a strange, unnatural forest. And, unnoticed by the travellers, the radiation counter is reaching maximum. We end with the ominous caption "Next Episode: THE DEAD PLANET". Our travellers may have escaped the tribe - but have they landed in even greater danger?

2 Responses to “An Unearthly Child”

  1. [...] My reaction to the very first serial, “An Unearthly Child”, is here. [...]

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About the author

Iain Coleman

Science writer by day, screenwriter by night. Past exploits include gaining a PhD in astrophysics, researching the solar wind and the aurora, training and performing in experimental theatre, standing for Parliament, and helping to run a city council.