Remembrance of the Daleks
An Unearthly Child [pilot]
An Unearthly Child
aka. "100,000 BC" and "The Tribe of Gum"
|Dates||Nov. 23, 1963 -
Dec. 14, 1963
With William Hartnell, William Russell,
Jacqueline Hill, Carole Ann Ford.
Written by Anthony Coburn (and C.E. Webber).
Script-edited by David Whitaker. Directed by Waris Hussein.
Associate Producer: Mervyn Pinfield. Produced by Verity Lambert.
|Synopsis: In the broadcast pilot to the most successful science-fiction series of all-time, the curiosity of two schoolteachers draw them into the realm of the mysterious Doctor and his unearthly grandchild, Susan.|
A Review by Leo Vance 12/1/98
An Unearthly Child is a mix of excellent and average. It starts with some highly enjoyable scenes in a car, and flashbacks to school. William Russell and Jacqueline Hill both provide believable performances. When William Hartnell comes upon the scene, he quickly becomes the star of the show, with a magnificent performance. Carole Ann Ford is good, and the direction is superb.
The sets are also particularly good throughout An Unearthly Child. Coburns scripts are well-plotted, but the writing in particular during 'The Forest of Fear' and 'The Firemaker', is less effective than 'The Cave of Skulls'. Waris Hussein continues strong direction, and the performance of Kal is particularly worthy of note.
On the downside are Horg & Za, who provide performances ranging from dull to unwatchable. The Za/Kal fight scene is bad as well. Alethea Charltons portrayal of Hur is average, ocassionally reaching a good level. The characters and motivations are strong.
Overall, An Unearthly Child weakens with each episode, and is in the end a rather average start for Doctor Who. 5/10
A Review by Joseph Nunweek 6/6/98
It is fortunate that this story initially ran in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, because it is likely that anyone who tuned into parts two through four would be disappointed and not return to the show. There probably has never been such a rapid slip in quality during one serial: part one is excellent and stylish, parts of two have some excellent development among the TARDIS crew, part three is easily the worst, and part four is bearable.
The first part provides a strong start because of the concept as a whole. A crotchety old alien gentleman and his teenage grandaughter who live in a huge spaceship which outwardly resembles a police box that can travel anywhere in time and space. It was a fascinating and original concept. This is also one of those rare occasions where all cast are on form.
After this, the story begins slipping. Except for the modern underwear, the caveman setting is probably relatively authentic, but the acting is terrible. Za and the old woman are fine at times, but Horg and Kal seem to thrive on hammy bellowing. The acting isn't always super in Doctor Who, granted, but this is just plain bad.
The journey through the forest of fear is ruined by the writing for Barbara . Jacqueline Hill, like the rest of the original cast, is almost always strongly portrayed but part three makes her out to be a complete coward, when the rest of the story portrays her far differently. And why can the Doctor save a tribe of cavemen from an icy death when he claims "You can't change history, not one line!" just six stories later in The Aztecs.
An Unearthly Child may retain a special place in everyone's heart for being the start of a nice little show that lasted for 26 years, but it does have several disappointing elements.
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 25/9/98
This story holds a special place in many fans' hearts, and it isn`t hard to see why. The opening episode, which could count as a story in it`s own right, is by far the best of the four. The difference is obvious as each scene shifts from the ordinary (e.g. at Coal Hill School) to the seemingly bizarre (inside the TARDIS).
Each of the four regulars give admirable performances from Carole Ann Ford`s distant Susan to William Russell`s disbelieving Ian. Jacqueline Hill as Barbara is a contrast between the two, providing a perfect foil for Ian, particularly in the Coal Hill scenes. It is therefore unfortunate that her character would degenerate, especially in the third episode. The praise here should really go to William Hartnell, who as the Doctor comes across as both enigmatic and sinister.
Set design is something else to be congratulated here: the TARDIS especially is very impressive, being both futuristic and modern (by sixties standards) combined with it`s anachronistic use of props such as a clock and chair in the background. Unfortuately, the remaining episodes are not as satisfying, and this is due largely to the fact that the storyline is dull and doesn`t really sustain the remaining episodes length. Of the other characters, only Eileen Way`s Old Mother leaves any lasting impression.
In summary, the magic was there to begin with, but quickly faded away.
The Beginning of a Legend by Tim Roll-Pickering 7/1/99
100,000 BC is a somewhat strange story to begin the series with, given that it is so far removed from the rest of the early years, or even of the series’ entire run. However, it is a strong story in its own right, getting the series off to a good start.
The opening episode, "An Unearthly Child," is undoubtedly the best. We open with a brief mysterious teaser scene-an everyday police box, but in a junkyard and it hums! We then have another familiar setting-an ordinary London school-that contains another mystery-Susan Foreman, a pupil who is exceptionally bright in some areas, extremely ignorant in others (including Doctor Who’s first great misprediction of the future-under decimalisation there would be ten shillings in the pound!) and whose address is just a junkyard. The juxtapositioning of the everyday and the extraordinary is brilliant throughout the story, with many surprises along the way.
The story does go downhill somewhat after the TARDIS arrives in the Stone Age. Whilst there are many other historical and pseudo-historical stories that feature no famous characters, including The Aztecs, The Smugglers, The Masque of Mandragora and Black Orchid a mongst others, most are set in a recognisable period and feature guest characters that are easy to relate to. However, 100,000 BC is so far back in time that it extremely difficult to sympathise with the cavemen, even though their situation is a good allegory for the Cold War, with Sea and Kal as the United States and the Soviet Union fighting for control, Hog as Europe, the old rulers, Hour and the tribe representing the world that will be the prize for the victor, fire representing nuclear weapons and the Old Mother representing the CND. Together with some very macabre images, such as the bashed in skulls and Za’s strangulation of Kal, the last three episodes provide some strong images and allow for all four of the regulars’ characters to be developed.
For their debut story, all four regulars give strong performances, but the best is undoubtedly William Hartnell. Not until Enemy Within does the lead actor hit the ground running at such an incredible pace. Given Hartnell was so associated with playing army sergeants in comedies (including both The Army Game and the film Carry On Sergeant), it must have been even more surprising to the audience of the time to see him playing the serious, almost sinister Doctor. William Russell, Jacqueline Hill and Carole Ann Ford all give strong performances, and it is clear how much the show’s early success was a result of this. The supporting cast are more limited, primarily due to the lack of any real precedents for cavemen, but Derek Newark (Za) in particular makes a good performance.
Just as strong is the design work. The Stone Age sets are all realistic, with interesting touches such as the dummy with the crushed head in the junkyard, foreshadowing the Cave of Skulls, but the real tour de force has to be the interior of the TARDIS. Even today that moment when Barbara and Ian enter a police box and see inside is impressive, and we can only guess at what the reaction from the original viewers was back in 1963. If a friend of mine, who had never encountered the series before, is anything to go by, they were stunned beyond words.
It would perhaps have been better for the series to start by going back in time to a more recognisable period in history, such as Tudor England or Rome at the time of Caesar, thus allowing for better audience recognition, but 100,000 BC manages to overcome this lacking and provide a superb introduction to the series. The legend begins in style! 9/10
A Review by James Allenby 9/10/00
First of all I have tried not to read too many of the other fan reviews because it would probably cloud how I look at each story. Of course I've read some but this is my honest opinion of each one. So first of all we begin with 100,000 BC.
The first episode of the story is one of the most memorable episodes for me. I remember watching the pilot when it was shown on BBC 2 on a Tuesday after in 1992 and at that time I was only 10 years old. But I'm straying. The first episode of the story is probably my favourite of the entire story simply because it's dark, mysterious and after all it's the beginning of a legend really. The scenes when Ian and Barbara first go into the TARDIS are particularly memorable because they are probably the only companions who seem to think it's outrageous about the size of the TARDIS and dwell on it for a long time. The only other I have seen quite distressed about it was Sgt Benton in The Three Doctors. Another important aspect in the story is the Doctor and his personality. He is an old and arrogant old man who only seems interested in himself, Susan and his TARDIS. Thankfully his personality mellows over the next few stories.
The main story of 100,000 BC is quite long and, dare I say it, a little bit dull. Don't get me wrong I love it but at times I was finding myself quite bored with it. I suppose the best bits about the 3 episodes is that it's got a lot of tension and dramatic acting in it. There are some real tension mouting bits in it. One that springs to mind is the scene in the forest of fear when Barbara is slowly breaking up and it finally comes to breaking point when she falls right infront of the dead animal and screams. The thing I love about the Hartnell stories, and in particular the historical ones, is that they get separated so far apart that you are left thinking how the hell they are gonna find each other again and although this doesn't happen in this story you DO wonder how the hell they're ever gonna get away.
So finally what do I think of the story? Well it's good but not the best. I has some wonderful moments in it and sets the scene nicely for the continuing legend that is Doctor Who.
A Review by Keith Bennett 3/11/00
The general opinion of this story is that the first episode is undoubtedly the best, and I'm not about to go against that here. It is indeed an outstanding introduction to Doctor Who, benefiting from strong performances from all the leads, and the sudden entry into the TARDIS is still quite a jolt today.
Another general opinion is that the following three episodes suck, but this is where I don't necessarily agree. Granted, they are hardly the greatest Doctor Who has ever produced, and they are a bit of a comedown from the opening 23 minutes, but they do offer reasonable entertainment all the same. The cave settings, and the cavepeople themselves, are quite well portrayed, and I actually like some of their dialogue ("With fire, night is day!"). Not that I'm really into cavemen, but I imagine they could have spoken in that way.
The third episode has been highly criticized for Barbara's character falling apart, and indeed it doesn't go with her usual, strong nature, but could it be that the shock of it all just got to her? It all just became a bit too much and she lost it for a while. I think that's quite acceptable. If anything, a character that does grate on me a bit is Susan. SHE's the whimpering one, while her exclamation of "Oh, I KNEW you'd think of something, Grandfather!", treating the Doctor's idea of using the broken bones to help them break free like a cure for cancer, is not one of the story's better moments.
But it is a pretty good story overall. The battle of wills and personality between the Doctor and Ian is outstanding, and everything generally sets the basis for what was to follow.
A Good Serial, Considering What It Was Meant To Be by Peter Niemeyer 19/12/00
As a first serial, An Unearthly Child does a good job of getting the show started. I agree with some the previous reviews that state this is an "average" episode, but it is average only when compared to future Doctor Who stories. When viewed on its own as the first serial (which was how it was originally meant to be seen), then it doesn't do a bad job of keeping the viewer's interest.
I disagree with the notion that this episode should have gone to a recognizable period in time. I think this episode needed to establish who the characters are and how they will be coping with their new circumstance of being lost in time. Having a relatively undemanding background, such as stoneage cavemen, kept the plot free of clutter that would have drawn our attention away from the characters and their adjustment.
One Thing I'd Do Differently: Too much time was spent on the cavemen. I don't think the viewer really cares about whether Za or Kal leads the tribe, and the tribal politics scenes took camera time away from the people we did care about.
One Thing I Wouldn't Touch: The whole first episode. Absolutely flawless. And it's remarkable how much better it is than the unaired pilot.
"Doctor Who? What's he talking about?" by Alex Keaton 16/3/01
The success of a television series is a hard medium to explain, no one really knows what makes a classic or a hit but Doctor Who's own success seems to glide in the fact that, right from the start, it had something different to offer.
It's very hard to criticise this story bearing in mind its self proclaimed 'classic' status, however the very first episode (An Unearthly Child) entails no criticism with it (ignoring production values as all sixties' stories should be exempt from this) for it does a nicely executed job of introducing all of the four characters. The dialogue between them is superbly well written creating a lively sense of surrealistic wonder in the moments surrounding Ian and Barbara's initial reaction to the TARDIS. The acting is just as good, William Russell and Jacqueline Hill seem to do a great job of firmly establishing their characters while William Hartnell and Carole Ann Ford retain their mysterious persona's with more bravura acting.
The episode also manages to sustain an air of surrounding mystery through the flickering dark scenes and eerie accompanying music, succeeding in establishing Doctor Who as an instant television classic right up until the closing credits. The remaining three episodes, however let the story down, as they offer very little high and interesting points other than some quite dramatic and violent scenes nicely directed by Waris Hussein. The stone age setting (either set on Earth or a stone age of another planet as there is no evidence to prove otherwise) is the core of the problem, as it lacks both visual interest and an exciting enough story line to surround it. The story also concentrates on supporting characters and situations too heavily and such things, like who will be the new leader of the tribe out of Kal and Za, are unnecessary in an opening story. All of such criticisms about episodes 2-4 are contradictions of good points I made about the very first episode. In short: a more recogniseable and interesting setting would have worked better for Doctor Who's first televised adventure.
TARDIS Databank: (Interesting points to look out for). That old "Doctor Who?" gag, used many times to provide comic relief in different situations, begins life here in this story started off by the Doctor himself, of course. (5/10)
A Review by Alan Thomas 14/6/01
As the first DW story, An Unearthly Child succeeds in doing a great many things right. The first episode is wonderfully presented, with crisp dialogue and great acting from all the regulars. The position this episode holds in fan popularity is well-deserved. It's almost faultless, and I praise William Hartnell for his wonderful portrayal of The Doctor.
After the first episode, it would be fair to say that the story falls down a bit. I like the remaining three episodes, though. They are horrific and brutal, and throw the crew together for an adventure they weren't prepared for. The 4 leads must work together despite their differences to try and escape with their lives. Characterisation is the staple part of this story, even though the travellers have no time to reflect on their journeys as their next landing takes them to the petrified jungle of the planet Skaro...
The direction is likewise much more fluent than that seen in The Pilot Episode. William Hartnell plays the Doctor as though he is an uncaring, egotistical idiot. Carole Ann Ford is very good at bringing through Susan's emotions and a suitably alien background. William Russell and (the late, great) Jacqueline Hill are superb as the two schoolteachers, who latch onto the viewing audiences' feelings.
In short: just what Dr Who needed to get off to a great start.
1963 AD by Andrew Wixon 19/8/01
I must be almost unique in that almost the very first story I saw as a card-carrying fan was An Unearthly Child (you can keep your fancy accurate titles, thank you very much). The novelty value of Tom Baker's departure early in 1981 rekindled my interest in a show I'd always watched but drifted away from through the early part of Season 18. Around the time of Logopolis' original broadcast (it'd turn up twice more before the end of the year) I found my first issue of DWM in the local newsagents and my fate was sealed. By the time news of autumn 81's Five Faces of Doctor Who season reached my ecstatic ears I'd bored family and friends to death with trivia factoids (but still pronounced the distinguished actor's name as Patrick Trofton and his main nemeses as the Kybermen).
Now, as then, watching An Unearthly Child is a peculiar experience for any fan. To someone reared on Tom Baker's run, only the TARDIS was there to prove this was indeed the same programme, so different is it in every way. The very first episode is, of course, brilliant. It seems to be written to be quoted from. The structure is flawless. These days, of course, it's impossible to know how it would have felt to have the TARDIS's secret sprung on you unawares - but the sequence still carries remarkable power. But it's a brilliance of a kind that's unrepeated anywhere later in the series' run. At a very basic level DW's format is 'hero meets alien' - and here, for the only time ever, the alien in question is the Doctor himself.
Hartnell's performance is not that of the Doctor as he is now perceived. This man is arrogant, devious, ruthless, and paranoid, but above all deeply selfish. He's prepared to kidnap and murder to preserve himself and his secrets. There are only the faintest hints of the world-famous hero he would later become - in his comforting of Barbara in Cave of Skulls, and his orchestrating Kal's expulsion in Firemaker. But it's significant that later in the episode Ian names the Doctor as the leader of the travellers - a hint of things to come.
Almost anything would pale next to the opening episode and the adventures with the Tribe of Gum are no exception. The storyline is rather wordy and laboured (there's a scene in Cave of Skulls which seems to go on forever) and not very much actually happens beyond 'get caught, escape, get caught again, escape again' - although this is once again a portent of things to come and indeed the cave of skulls itself is blessed with the neolithic equivalent of a ventilation duct. Of the actors in furs, Derek Newark and Alethea Charlton are oddly affecting as Za and Hur but the rest of the performances are wildly variable. But the direction throughout is solid and resourceful, as it has to be given the obvious financial restraints of the story.
It's interesting to look at this story bearing in mind that this is one of the very few adventures written in accordance with the series' original brief. This is Doctor Who as its creators intended. As we all know, the series slipped into its trademark action/adventure/horror groove in only its second story, but it would have been interesting to see how it might have developed further in this style. Then again, the show might not have taken off at all then and now be just another short-lived footnote in TV history next to Pathfinders in Space and Adam Adamant Lives!. In a very real sense An Unearthly Child is unreviewable. It was made. As a result we are all here. There's not much that can be usefully added to that.
What a fantastic start by Jason Thompson 4/10/01
I can't say anything about the first episode that has not already been said over the last thirty-eight years, so I'll just say that it's fantastic, and leave it at that.
Now, on to the other three episodes. You know, the bit where the tale fell down, and people lost interest, right? WRONG! When I first saw this story in it's entirety I couldn't stop watching (apart from the incredibly lengthy debate between Za and Kal about leadership of the tribe in The Cave of Skulls, which seemed to go on forever). The interaction between the four principal cast members provided the main focus of the story, and unlike later serials, it was enough. The only character who failed to impress me was Susan, who soon demonstrated her propensity for falling over on level ground. Barbara's increasing hysteria, so often looked down on by viewers, is well portrayed and entirely acceptable. I daresay many of us would react the same way if we were suddenly dropped from a steady day-to-day job into a prehistoric setting with murderous cavemen chasing us through a forest! Also, Barbara and (especially) Ian's amazement at the interior dimensions of the TARDIS and the idea of travelling through time is maintained not just through the first episode, but on into the second. Later companions would just say "wow," and carry on regardless (this was taken to ludicrous extremes in some stories from the eighties, when whole crowds of people would file in with scarcely a glance at their surroundings, Earthshock and Planet of Fire springing instantly to mind).
The best aspect of these episodes is of course the Doctor himself, and the other characters' responses to him. His apparently unlikeable attitude is probably exacerbated by the fact that, as he explains his reasoning, it is clear that he is absolutely right to want to take the action he does. Ian's surprise that the Doctor does not immediately suggest freeing the girls first in the cave is immediately countered by the Doctor pointing out that Ian is the strongest, and if they are discovered he may have to defend them. My favourite of his speeches comes in the forest, when Barbara is tending a wounded Za. The Doctor wants to leave him there and get back to the TARDIS:
BARBARA: Why? You treat everyone and everything as something less important than yourself.And we know he's right. The looks from the others show that they know it too, but hadn't thought about it until it was pointed out to them.
DOCTOR: You're trying to say that everything you do is right and good, while everything I do is inhuman? Well I'm afraid it's your judgement that's at fault here, not mine. Hasn't it occurred to you that if these two can follow us then the rest of them can follow us? The whole tribe might descend on us at any moment!
There are many other factors that make this an excellent start, but to go into all of them would take too long. It is a great story, and the first episode in particular remains compelling viewing today.
A Review by Richard Radcliffe 10/4/02
The other night I decided to go right back to the beginning of things. The wife had never seen the first Episode, nor for that matter any real early Doctor Who. The War Machines was the earliest she had thus seen, and I figured it was about time I rectified that anomaly in her life. She was glad I did, because the very first Doctor Who Story is brilliant. I’m not talking here about the Pilot Episode – that wasn’t shown till 1991, and while providing an interesting insight into how things progressed in the making of the first episode, it is not the one transmitted first.
I refer to the opening episode – An Unearthly Child, as it clearly states just after the opening credits. Mission to the Unknown has the distinction of being the only 1-parter in Who History – and I would like to put forward a petition stating that in fact there are 2 such 1-parters. There is An Unearthly Child as well.
It is sheer joy to go back to the earliest transmission of Who. To imagine what it must have been like on the 23rd November 1963 at 5:15 in the evening. I have seen this episode quite a few times now, but this time, for the first time, I watched it imagining just that. That I was not born in 1968, and only discovered Hartnell, Troughton and the bulk of Pertwee through videos – but that I was a transfixed 10 year old, watching BBC One on that late November evening. It was stunning (and also a little weird, us fellows never really grow up!).
Doctor Who had the most wonderful of beginnings. The numbing familiarity of a school, a dark night on some deserted street, a mess of a junkyard. And then, the brightness and complexity of a spaceship! Wondrous!
A mysterious traveller called only The Doctor, clearly not to be trusted – but I felt strangely drawn to him anyway. The young granddaughter, so misunderstood at school, so much wanting to fit in. The 2 schoolteachers, familiar yet unique and interesting – as we all are really.
Let’s just forget about 100,000 BC (or whatever it is called this week) for the moment, it is a separate entity, quite clearly a story on its’ own. Just enjoy the first episode by itself. It captures the imagination unlike much television before or since. It establishes the show we all know and love, to perfection.
Marvel in its supreme characters. Glory in its splendid Set Design. Bask in one of the greatest cliffhangers of them all (before we knew where we were).
It makes me wish I really was born in 1953, and really experienced it as a 10 year old. 10/10
Moving now onto 100,000 BC (the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Episodes of Doctor Who). It’s just not as good as An Unearthly Child is it? It just doesn’t grab the attention like the original episode did. The Stone Age is a time of History that was presented at School in a dull and uninformative manner. It was so long ago, after all. What relevance did that have for me now, in the 20th/21st Century.
The Stone Age is hardly the most imaginative environments in the History of Civilization – good really that Doctor Who got it out of the way early on, so we could get on with some great History instead later on.
As it stands 100,000 BC is mildly entertaining. There are lots of fur coats on show, which looks very warm. Also a surprise amount of speaking going on – but then we’ll trust the TARDIS translated everything for our benefit. There is also a lot of escaping, being caught, and escaping again.
True enough, the leads were still finding their feet. The Doctor seems very disagreeable. Ian is clearly the hero of the show – we hope he gets rid quickly of the crotchety old man, and his screeching grand-daughter. Maybe this was a subtle ploy by the writers though – the baddies are always the best parts, and Hartnell excels throughout. Things hadn’t really settled down, but it is early days.
These Stone Age exploits also allowed the Famous Four to challenge each other a great deal, run with their characters. The Doctor has kidnapped 2 schoolteachers, for goodness sake – and poor Susan gets to join in. Would you like to go away with any of your schoolteachers? Especially the ones who (as Barbara states in the first episode) want to trip you up, and cut you down to size? Poor Susan had it tough, good job that nice Campbell fellow came along. 100,000 BC only gets a 5/10 I’m afraid.
And so the first 4 episodes of Doctor Who have assaulted our senses. I have purposely reviewed 1 separate from 2, 3 and 4. I like it better that way.
Genesis... by Joe Ford 14/9/03
Ever been stuck off work with a broken body and bored to tears? Then you can picture my predicament this past week then! What better time to go hunting for all those cranky old Hartnells, dust them down and give them another go. I dunno, when my life slows down like this I feel in the mood for a slower pace of telly and the Hartnell stuff never lets me down.
There is a strange rumour that this story, the very first time we meet Doctor Who no less, starts off very well (I have heard the opening instalment called "the finest half hour of telefantasy ever" more than once) but loses the plot as soon as they materialise in the Stone Age. Well I can hardly deny the first episode is a classic, in both storytelling terms and concepts it is a flawless gem that kick starts the show on exactly the right foot. The intriguing mystery of Susan Foreman is dealt with quickly and shockingly, the best thing about this initial 'plot' is it's played so seriously. Just watch Ian and Barbara's reaction when they think the Doctor has Susan locked up inside the police box, sheer horror and totally compelling to watch. It's so odd to see a school and a junkyard, such normal things compared to the wonders the upcoming adventures will have to offer. I can totally understand how viewers were drawn in.
The TARDIS, an idea so mind blowingly original for the time I am astonished they managed to get it past the conception stage. The opening shot of the camera sliding through the misty junkyard and stopping at the TARDIS with the admittedly quite eerie theme tune playing starts the story off superbly. I just love Ian and Barbara's reactions to the TARDIS, never again will we see such total amazement from a companion first stepping over the threshold. I love their different approaches... Ian, the man gets aggressive and starts making threats and Barbara tries to convince Susan it's all an illusion, it is actually quite indicative of their roles later on. The set of the console room is vast and full of character, a far cry from the wheezing toy it would degenerate into in the later Tom Baker stories. Lots of antiques and furniture lying around suggests the wondrous travels the Doctor and Susan have already had.
Ha yes... the Doctor, such a brilliantly ambiguous beginning. William Hartnell convinces totally as the exiled time traveller and this crabby, ill tempered and thoroughly nasty old gent is just impossible to look away from. His cunning (and insulting) asides to the camera are great touches, flashes of his history are mentioned here and there but nothing concrete, this character is a total enigma and would stay so for quite some time. Thus is the true appeal of the guy, he did indeed lose something when the answers were spilled out in later years.
Watching this story as a whole I feel justified in telling you that it does not go off the rails after the first episode, in some ways its even more compelling. With Ian and Barbara kidnapped from their own time they are forced to make sense of the fact that they are no longer in London 1963. Early scenes of the Doctor trying to convince Ian of the truth are just as good as anything in episode one, Barbara's sudden acceptance plays off the two characters well.
The tribe of gum are presented in an honest a thoughtful fashion. Considering Anthony Coburn wrote this as his second story he did a bloody good job of reworking it to lure viewers into the first story. He develops a race of cavemen that come across as totally believable, viscous and savage and looking out for their own. The performances are wild, the actors really throw themselves into the parts and the community comes across as one of the most alien the show ever presented. The fact that they are human makes it all the more chilling.
But the story really isn't about the tribe, it is the introduction to the central characters that count and on that account it fires on all cylinders. I must mention my unwavering affection for Jacqueline Hill, her performances as Barbara were never less than perfect and her reactions in this story never seem false. You genuinely believe that this woman has been uprotted from her own time, forced to run for her life in a savage wilderness... it's all there in Jackie's performance. Scenes such as her screaming fit in episode three as she falls on a dead animal and her refusal to leave the caveman to die ring totally true. It is her terror that gives much of the story its tension.
William Russell is just as good as Ian but has a less interesting character to play. Ian plays on the muscle far too much for my liking but still had the potential to be as good as Barbara when Russell played his aggressive tendencies up. When you are looking for friction in the initial TARDIS crew look no further than Ian and the Doctor, especially in this story, Ian's desire to save the girls plays brilliantly against the Doctor's selfish attempts to save himself. These two have such good chemistry it was a shame when their banter was softened.
Carole Ann Ford and I have not had good history. I don't know her or anything but I have never found her to much in the way of a competent actress. She was significantly older than the character she was playing here and could have restrained Susan's more melodramatic characteristics but instead she plays them up to such extremes it is embarrassing to watch at times. Not until Tegan and Mel would we again se a companion who moaned and wailed so much. I much prefer little Roberta Tovey's Susan from the movies, maybe we wouldn't care as much about this smug little madam but it would be a damn sight more watchable. Alas, Ms Ford does an amiable enough job in this story, only occasionally screaming her head off for no reason. She does complete the almost perfect first regular line up though so I shan't complain too much. This would definitely evolve into a family unit and you can see the first steps towards that here.
What impresses me most about the last few episodes is the direction and the shocking array of memorable images. Things really do appear desperate in this story, you never doubt for a second that the four travellers are in mortal danger. The chase through the forest in episodes three and four are well paced and exciting and the sight of the Doctor picking up a rock to see to the troublesome caveman who is halting their escape to the TARDIS is shocking. The fight between Kal and Za is gripping, firelight ripples over the four travellers as we see their horrified reactions to the fight to the death. The sight of skulls being smashed and having flame fed through their mouths and eyes is enough to put the willies up anybody!
And it even ends on a cliff-hanger, a gripping lead in to the next story. The premise of the show is already set up and demonstrated, the four unwilling companions are travelling blind through time and space. They could end up anywhere...
An Unearthly Child is an accomplished introduction for Doctor Who, it thrills and excites, it makes you care about its characters and paints a terrifying picture of stoneage man. I can't think of another show that got off to such a good start.
A Review by Nicholas Fuller 22/9/03
From the opening shot of the policeman in the junkyard, the first episode is something special. There is an air of mystery about it, a quasi-Chestertonian suggestion that the supernatural has intruded into the commonplace world of 1963 London, personified by Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, two teachers (science and history respectively) at Coal Hill School, who find their curiosity increasingly aroused by a series of conundrums:
How can Susan Foreman, a seemingly normal teenage girl, have an astounding knowledge of chemistry yet be unable to tackle a physics problem in three dimensions, and read a history of the French Revolution (and know it to be wrong) yet believe that Britain has a decimal system? Who is the mysterious old man who inhabits the cluttered junkyard where Susan lives, and what is the secret of the "vibrating" police box?
That man is the first (and perhaps the best) Doctor, William Hartnell, who plays the alien traveller (not yet a Time Lord) as a notably ambiguous character. Is he a villain or sympathetic? In this first episode, his character is notably sinister. While the lies he tells to the inquisitive teachers are understandable, he resorts to kidnapping not only to safeguard his secret, but to keep Susan: she is his, his possession... and he will not lose her, will not allow her to determine the course of her own life. Indeed, he is as selfish and possessive as those villains he will later confront.
To contrast with the two time-travelling aliens, the programme provides the audience with two viewpoint characters: Ian and Barbara, arguably two of the most important and successfully handled companions. Unlike later companions (Leela, K9, Romana, Adric, even Ace [after all, how many rebellious teenagers burn down houses and blow up kindergartens for fun?]), they are characters with whom the audience can identify, since they come from the same present-day middle class British milieu as those who watch, who would almost certainly react in the same way. In short, they are us. How would we react in such a situation? How would we react to stumbling into a small police box, which we know to be a cupboard containing only a telephone, to find a great glowing white room, with a futuristic console in the centre of the floor?
The first dematerialisation of the TARDIS is the final icing on the cake, notably due to some special effects never used again: that superb sequence of the ship fading away from London, which gives a sense of place far more than the standard pictures of the police box fading away from some "alien" quarry; and the time vortex/opening sequence passing over the characters' faces, making some real use of the sequence. Although the scenes of Ian and Barbara staggering around the console works (although they do look rather amateur by modern standards!), later stories thankfully didn't send characters into a (shock-induced?) coma whenever the TARDIS dematerialised: Peter Davison's Doctor would have been very unpopular!
But that is some twenty years in the future: a future filled with genuinely eerie stories, rubber-suited (yet oddly terrifying) monsters, excellent dialogue, sound characterisation and genuinely intriguing ideas. Unfortunately, as the rest of the serial shows, there are also some notably bad tales...
The second episode, The Cave of Skulls, is disappointing. There are some excellent scenes following the materialisation on the Earth of 100,000 B.C., with Ian trying to rationalise the extraordinary occurrence contrasted with Barbara's more practical response, and the Doctor's explanation including that fabulous speech about seeing alien birds wheeling overhead and feeling the alien sand under your feet. The only bad performance is that of Susan, who goes into hysterical screaming fits. If Ian and Barbara, both of whom are out of their depth, having been kidnapped from 1963 to 100,000 B.C., can keep their heads and behave rationally and sensibly, why can't this irritating girl, whose experience of time travel is far superior to those of the teachers? Or does she merely adopt the Violet Elizabeth Bott philosophy in face of everything the cosmos can throw at her?
Then we switch to the cavemen. If the makers of the programme were trying to capture the public's interest, could they have hit upon anything less interesting than a group of bad actors jammed into pelts, shouting: "Fire bad. Me leader. Me make fire. Kal is a liar. Kal cannot make fire. The leader can make fire. Orb! Orb! Orb!" The characters are all stereotypes, notably that ghastly old crone who sits in the corner mumbling jeremiads: "Fire will be the death of us all!" The only decent scene featuring the cavemen is Hartnell realising that he doesn't have the matches he needs to make fire. And we still have two more episodes to go... O Orb!
While The Cave of Skulls did have some entertaining features, The Forest of Fear has almost nothing of interest in its twenty-five minutes. The travellers escape from the cave of skulls and run into the forest, where they are pursued by Za and Horg. Za is injured, and the travellers help him back to the TARDIS to the accompaniment of patronising remarks, but their path is blocked by the tribe, now under the leadership of Kal, who has murdered Old Mother and accused Za. Cue cliff-hanger. Ho hum. The only interesting performance is Hartnell's, who is good as a particularly selfish old man: unconcerned about human life, and willing to commit murder in order to get away. Susan is as irritating as ever, and even the normally strong-willed Barbara descends into hysterical fits. Perhaps the best thing about the episode is the realisation that Serial A is nearly over.
The last episode is actually more interesting than the first two. After all, it shows the TARDIS landing on Skaro... Seriously, though, there are some good things. The scene where the Doctor tricks Kal into proving his guilt is quite effective, although the cavemen aren't very bright. Susan shows she isn't just a screaming wimp, as she thinks up a scheme to escape from the Cave of Skulls in which they have been imprisoned for the second time. (Is she ever as effective as this again?) On the down side, there's an excruciatingly long, dull and surprisingly violent fight scene between Kal and Za; and that chase through the forest, in which the travellers run on the spot (a similar technique was used in The Daleks).
All in all, though, the story isn't very interesting. The plot is very simple, consisting of little more than a few capture-and-escape episodes, some rather uninteresting rivalry between Kal and Za, and a murder. Characterisation is abysmal: little is revealed of the travellers' personalities in Episodes Three and Four; there is little to choose between Kal and Za, who are equally unpleasant: perhaps the only difference is that Kal murders Old Mother, while Za only assaults her; and the rest of the cavemen are as flat as pancakes, with the horrible exception of Old Mother. Humour is non-existent, and there is very little to capture the imagination. All in all, after the superb first episode, a rather uninteresting debut.
Brand New Who by David Massingham 26/9/03
Every fan has his or her favourite era. Me, it's good ol' Sly McCoy. I'm a younger fan, and I grew up on Doctor Who with only the videos, and the occasional 4:30am repeat, as my guides. And as we all know, many a child would sneer at black and white when in a video store, so I automatically picked up Tom Baker or eighties vids. Occasionally I would be adventurous and go for Pertwee, but I never really found his portrayal all that exciting, and to this day find many of his stories interchangable. So, I haven't seen many black and white adventures at all.
In fact, I've only seen three. Tomb of the Cybermen, cause I really liked those metal meanies, and had heard that this story was meant to be particularly ace (it was). Then there was The Chase, which is utter bollocks, but I really wanted to own Rememberance of the Daleks, and they were only sold together. And then there was An Unearthly Child -- the Australian Broadcasting Corporation screened this in 1993 as its celebration. It was a nice thought, but I had wanted more.
Now, ten years on, the ABC has stepped up its game a bit. They've committed themselves to re-screening the entire series of Doctor Who, starting with this, all the way up to Survival. As to whether they'll stick to that, who knows, but at the time of writing they're halfway through The Daleks, so they've already done better than they did ten years ago.
So, back to the beginning. Is it any any good? Was my younger self justified in ignoring The Aztecs, and grabbing Terror of the Zygons for the second time instead? No, of course not. An Unearthly Child is the product of another time, but it deserves to be watched, just like Terror of the Zygons (though the Tom Baker episode is much better). My first reaction, sitting down at tea time last Monday to watch this piece of history, was "by God this is old". Mates of mine I chatted to later, non-fans might I add, had also flicked on to view the return of the Time Lord, with similar reactions. One friend particularly enjoyed the bit where two school girls whispered to each other in a corridor, where my friend swears they said "Cor blimey gov'nor!!!". I don't remember that exactly, but you get my drift. The first thing I had to do to get into this story was adjust to the passing of time, because all of this seems so foriegn to me. But I bloody well enjoyed it.
The first episode, I mean. The tension is built so well over those twenty five minutes. Who is this Doctor? Why is he so damned cranky, and villainous? This was another adjustment I had to make -- this Doc was downright sinister! Not a McCoy type of sinister, a kidnapper type of sinister. It is a bit odd thinking of someone other than the Doctor as a main character, but as this story goes on, Ian, and to a lesser extent, Barbara, become the leads. Seeing the TARDIS and the place they land in through the school teachers' eyes makes the story more mysterious, more magical. The best parts of this story focus on the character dynamics between the four travellers, and that's what makes part one the cream of the crop -- it's almost completely character development.
Then the cavemen rock up.
In fairness, the actors are actually a lot better than I expected. No Oscars are warrented here, that's true, but I just about believe that these people are a completely different culture, a culture of cave people. The major flaws with the cavemen sections are in the writing. The sheer repetativeness of the dialogue is very wearing and quite boring, and this makes the story drag on forever. An Unearthly Child's strengths lie in the development of the leads, not the rather dull story. Put it this way -- the actual story, or scenario in which the TARDIS crew find themselves, is tedious; whereas the Doc et alia, are what really sucks the viewer in. In particular, the relationship between Ian and the Doctor is extremely engaging.
All up, An Unearthly Child is a story that has a reputation is deserves -- that is, great first episode, average second, third and fourth episodes. And I must admit, this is exciting. I'm seeing Doctor Who stories that are brand new to me, despite their age. I should have given these the chance years ago, but now I don't think I'm going to be missing a beat for the entire run... so let's hope the ABC leave it running until at least the Third Doctor.
6 out of 10.
A Review by Terrence Keenan 29/10/03
Before we had Time Lords, Gallifrey, UNIT, Time's Champion, Faction Paradox, The Dark Time, the Key to Time, Rassilon, and everything else, all we had was a junkyard at 76 Totter's Lane, a police box, two curious teachers, and a strange young girl.
From there, nearly 40 years of mythology have spun from it.
Before I go forward, I'll admit that Bill Hartnell's reign as the Doctor is my least familiar one. I've seen only a few of the stories and own only one on video -- An Unearthly Child. And I'll be the first to admit the only reason I bought it was because I found it in a video store cutout bin for $5.00.
Enough prattling, I'll get on with it.
An Unearthly Child is really f'n good. In fact the only niggle I have is the stilted cavemen dialogue that gets old after a while.
Big Bill Hartnell is astonishing. He's cranky, mysterious, smart and sympathetic all at once. The real treat is watching his first real "Doctorish" moment, where he tricks Kal into showing the knife he used to kill the Old Woman and then has the tribe drive Kal out using stones. My other fave moment is in the Forest of Fear where he's about to go upside Za's head with a rock and Ian catches him. Hartnell plays it just right, and makes you believe he'll kill Za just to escape the situation. Overall, it's a wonderful performance.
The other three regulars all have their moments to shine. The first two parts are all about Susan as much as the Doctor, and Ian becomes the focus in the last two episodes, as he takes charge of events, makes fire and figures out how to escape the cave.
However, my other favorite character is Hur, Za's woman. She's Lady MacBeth, whispering plans and conspiracies in Za's ear in order to have him lead the tribe. Za may lead the tribe, but Hur leads Za. The Old Woman is the original Luddite, afraid of fire because she knows it'll change everything about the tribe. She pays the price for progress with her life, a theme that Who would return to over the years.
What else? There's one of the best Who fights in The Firemaker, when Kal and Za get it on in the cave of skulls. The action is fast, furious, and ends with a nasty neck-breaking and skull-crushing.
An Unearthly Child has aged quite well and stands up as one of the better Who stories. Not as dull, or slow paced as other black and white serials, it shows what makes Who great: well told stories with interesting characters.
A Review by John Greenhead 6/3/05
Before I start this review, I should just explain that I have only recently got back into Doctor Who after nearly 20 years of disinterest (I used to watch the show as a small child in the Davison era, but disliked Colin Baker so much I switched off during season 22 and never came back). The approach of the new series, however, together with the influence of a friend of mine who is a fan, has prompted me to start rediscovering the programme, and it seemed sensible to begin at the beginning with An Unearthly Child, or whatever you like to call it. I was also keen to find out what William Hartnell's Doctor was like, as my Dad (who grew up in the 60s), maintains to this day that he was the best.
I therefore sat down to watch An Unearthly Child with keen anticipation, and I must say I was not disappointed. As most people say, the first episode is the strongest, expertly building up an air of mystery before that first magical moment when Ian and Barbara force their way into the TARDIS. It is easy to overlook now what an effect this futuristic set must have had on viewers in 1963, but it still looks impressive today, and emphasises the fact that this is going to be a show in which anything is possible. Also notable, of course, is William Hartnell's commanding performance. He comes across as definitely alien, with plenty of arrogance, selfishness and a brief moment of murderous intent, but even in this first story we can see hints of the kindlier hero who will eventually emerge, particularly in The Cave of Skulls when he shows genuine remorse for leading his companions into this dangerous situation. He may not yet be particularly likeable, but he is most definitely the Doctor, and I can easily see why my Dad liked Hartnell so much. At this stage, though, it is Ian and Barbara who are easiest to empathise with, and both William Russell and Jacqueline Hill do a very good job of making their characters believable and sympathetic in what for them is a bewildering and terrifying situation. The tension between Ian and the Doctor is also very well handled, and indeed all four leads work well together throughout the story. I have to say Susan is probably my least favourite character out of the four, as after the first episode she becomes too much of a whiner for my liking. However, Carole Ann Ford plays an underwritten part as well as she can, and on the evidence of this story at least I don't think Susan is as bad as fans often claim.
What of the Stone Age episodes? It is true to say they lack the magic of part one, but again I think they are better than many suggest. The actors playing the cavemen are surprisingly convincing in what are largely thankless roles, and given that this is supposed to be a children's show the themes and the dialogue are surprisingly adult; from the beginning, Doctor Who was definitely not just for kids. The sets are pretty good too, and the character development of the regulars is maintained right through the story. On the downside the action does drag at times, particularly in the overlong debates between Za and Kal, but there was enough plot development to maintain my interest to the end, and I was left feeling that this was a perfectly respectable, if unspectacular, start to the series.
All in all then, I was impressed. I realise that this first adventure is rather untypical of most later Who stories, but I still enjoyed it and my appetite has been whetted for further travels through space and time.
That First Story by Graham Pilato 6/5/05
It had me at the title theme.
But then, it already had me.
I'm often shocked to talk to anyone who doesn't seem to think of Tom Baker first when they think of the Doctor. I started at Terror of the Zygons, found luckily on a Saturday afternoon on Maryland Public Television when I was 8 in 1986. There was this strange washed-out looking TV chase, a bunch of soldiers in camo hunting after a stern looking old nurse lady in some kind of mad dash through the woods, and she happened to be bleeding (!) all down her arm.
And that Doctor guy was incredible. What a weirdo!
And this was nice because it ran the whole story in movie format, episodes all edited nicely together, no narration, with a double feature later that afternoon: Planet of Evil. And boy was that one exciting. I remember liking the first one a lot and being totally terrified by the second. Which was even more enthralling. And I loved believing in an intellectual, mysterious, somehow... dynamically relaxed... hero. How the hell do you describe Tom Baker without ellipses?
And along the way, I heard that theme tune three times. And, oooo, that tunnel of swirling gray and purply colors...
And this one, this classic first one, the one propriety makes me show everyone I share this Who thing with first, this one's a great one. It actually took me years to get to it on the PBS run, doing a story a week cycling eventually through the whole flipping series, and only sometime in 1987 or 89 or so finally getting to the beginning of the Hartnell years in the D.C. metro area. I remember well being so confused by it.
But I'll say this and mean it: it's earned by what comes later. And by that I mean what I'd say about Remembrance of the Daleks, Doctor Who: Enemy Within, Star Wars: A New Hope, all the Star Wars prequels, the recent first Spiderman film, and oh so much B-ness that happened in Science Fiction and Horror in the 1950s. In the event of starting a monumental shift in popular quality, this first thing was made better and glorified by its followers. One could say that old things get better with time, but it just ain't true when there's nothing to compare it to down the line.
This first story has some questionable stuff. But it's drama that's justified by its descendant drama. It's so perfectly mysterious and blessed with the persistence of that unknown that hovers all around the whole thing. I mean, it's such drama as one gets glued to in a theatre, nailed down by wonder at what the hell is happening and will our hero -- no, they're not heroes, they're just like us... except the old man knows more about it -- he knows what happened, how they got there -- did he take them there for a reason? -- he doesn't seem to know what... -- it's just committed actors, grubby and using stillness and slowness, awkward and daring beyond anything else I know of in pop drama at all. Ever heard about how the Star Trek pilot "The Cage" was dismissed by NBC for being too cerebral -- and with a difficult-to-accept female second officer? Well, this thing was not dismissed. And it's so, so much more strange. Radio plays and other genre drama of the era didn't dwell like this -- did they? Dwell on a scene of strangeness, spending so, so much time staring at alien humans from the past in their prehistoric snatches of early civilization. It's even a little like the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, if you like -- verbal, but practically incoherent, this. And so strange, so engrossing.
I love, sometimes, how fans will say "it's not Doctor Who" when specifically referring to something that's got a Doctor Who logo on and lots of mentions of a blue box and a mysterious hero alien-ly intellectual within. Usually this arises upon the beginning of a new actor in the part, a particularly radical new novel, or -- well... a really crap new novel that doesn't resemble the things it strives for -- and that's subjective... or maybe fan fiction... But look at this first story and tell me how much it resembles Doctor Who. Does it? It's got all the same main characters we get to know in that next story with the Daleks. It's got the theme tune. But Time and the Rani had something like the theme tune too, and that didn't seem to help. It's not really all that full of heroism or lessons -- historical, moralist, or otherwise. Except to say that there are savages.
Well. There were savages. What does that say about us? Does it say? Yes, we... of course, it's obvious. We're from them. Those... sloow... peo- ple... Yes. And these teachers and this old man with his granddaughter and their time machine... they're so trapped in that curious momentum... It all started in a junkyard, right? A junkyard? Trust Doctor Who to prophesy that fantastically decadent aspect of itself, that beginning in endings, repairing old parts with a lick of paint, a few new screws, and a bunch more old parts... this endless story of so much manic unfolding interest and so much fevered pulp. Does that bulbous, bloated, ridiculous space station in Deceit represent Who? Old ideas become new... Old savages... Connect that to Leela. To Andred. To a series' infinite contrivances to continue. Back to The Savages in season 3, and the knowing Edwardian gentleman of the First Doctor who might not save the massacred Parisians or stop the world of the prisoner Le Six, in The Man in the Velvet Mask, from ravishing little Dodo. It's a strange world running on, darkening and inspiring me, us... I've let Doctor Who tell me I come from a savage place. I'll buy it. I have.
It doesn't earn its following, but its following earns it. Fans and episodes alike. This completely dated, ashy, dusty, grimy old piece of utter mystery and staged fantasy, filmed for television, grizzles my toes. It's great to watch in the right frame of mind, especially on a dark early evening after a lot of rain and a coming fog. And then it's really so divisible. It's two stories: An Unearthly Child the episode and the three part adventure with cave people that follows on. Call that second part 100,000 BC if you like. It's a brilliantly involving thing. You can't really wonder at the genius of it or the sci-fi alienness. Not exactly anyway. That's to come. That stuff blossoms soon.
I loved those Zygons, but this show brought me back to the beginning. Not terribly defensibly, as it's so damn weird, this is still my favorite first story of a Doctor. Course, I love others. The next one's just wonderful. Thems is scary Daleks and some dead colony sure gonna happen... woah. And that Escher stuff... "You made us, man of evil. But we are free"... in Castrovalva, aw, that's grrreat. I even love the mad colorful whirl of Time and the Rani -- I never try to defend that, other than to say that I've watched it a whooole lot... Or, well, I did... But I really love... I love Doctor Who. And I love it beginning. Again and again and again and again.
I love the new worlds every week.
And this is better than just strange men in hats with a scarf or sometimes celery... It's mysterious, smart adventure. When you don't know much, but you know you can go there with your wide-eyed friends and a hero so good and wise and weary at once he's perfect, you will always go. The Doctor's a lead like none other, a character that stares down the monsters. Sometimes with all the fear and vulnerability of a dying old king, as some kind of King Arthur facing the end... But you do always know, too, that this really is Merlin. And he's so much cooler than Arthur.
This is my favorite first story of a Doctor now. It gets better the more that comes out of it, the more episodes come popping out of this early darkness like stars. And I don't really know when that sentiment will change. I know I used to hold Castrovalva in much higher esteem, but that was when I thought I was Adric and it was the best of times... And I'll argue for that some day...
And now... do I become like Ian or Barbara? I'm much closer to their age than I was. I teach, kinda... I do love to think that one must start off as a child thinking of Susan as the one that's like oneself, only maturing to... appreciate more. Ian is the skeptical side of me, Barbara the adventurous intuitive, the Doctor the wily unknown, and little Susan is the old one, me as well, the child that is the parent to the grown up... the grown up adventurer stares back at when he or she set off. It was mad. It was a desperate rush, really, to just keep going. I won't be tied down. The savage soul must run for more. More knowledge, more light. An educational entertainment that's worthy of our ex-sparkling days... in this... all flowered culture still thriving on the infinite regress... I rush on to see the whole universe. Yeah.
I might rather go with Tom Baker's Doctor. But I know I'd be more likely to experience wonder with that grey haired old man with the glinting eyes. And I feel I've earned this too. You have to see it all, read it all, hear it all, all of it, to really know this mystery as it opens so wide right at the beginning.
A Review by Brian May 10/8/05
"A thing that looks like a police box, standing in a junkyard; it can move anywhere in time and space?"And so it begins. I wasn't around to see An Unearthly Child on its first airing; I had to wait for the video release, like others my age. But it would have been interesting to have been there. Of course, all Who fans probably say that. But just think about it; those who were present wouldn't have been Doctor Who fans - how could they have been? Science fiction on television in 1963 was not new, but it wasn't abundant. Fans of the genre might have been interested in this new weekly serial, but they may have been wary of the Saturday afternoon timeslot - that's a kids' teatime show. But viewers, even if they became hooked on day one, would have had none of the baggage or retroactive observations us latecomers would have had. And that would have been a unique experience.
But on with my baggage-laden, retrospective review. Doctor Who commences without fanfare, without a bang. The first image after the opening credits is a policeman walking in the fog - he's a character who says nothing and isn't seen again; the only thing he does is draw attention to a police box in a junkyard - a commonplace object in London in 1963. The camera focuses on it, warning the viewer it's going to play a significant role, while a mild hum gives it a mysterious edge. It's a quiet but intriguing start. Then it's over to Coal Hill School and the introduction of the main characters; we meet our fellow travellers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, who discuss their strange student, Susan Foreman. The rest, as viewers on November 23 1963 may not have said, is history. I, the retrospective viewer and reviewer, consider this to be a magnificent episode. I view it with the post-modern knowledge that it's the proverbial beginning of a legend but, all this aside, it's still extremely well done.
William Russell and Jacqueline Hill make a great first impression as Ian and Barbara. They're wonderful characters, depicted as people you can actually be interested in. Carole Ann Ford is good in her opening moments as Susan - the direction highlights her other-worldliness more than it would ever do again. But she's also allowed to be a normal 1960s teenager, listening to the pop charts on a tinny radio, and her reaction to Ian and Barbara inside the TARDIS is a natural teen response - I mean, who wants your teachers coming to your home? William Hartnell makes an impressive entrance as Susan's mysterious grandfather, portraying an arrogant, unhelpful, icy man, with a touch of the sinister, especially as he says to Ian and Barbara "What is going to happen to you?" The jump cut between Barbara entering the police box and the first shot of the TARDIS interior, although technically simple, is still a remarkable scene. The ship's take-off, its unforgettable journey and landing round up an astounding twenty-five minutes. The first televised episode of Doctor Who is not only historic, it's highly memorable, being amazingly photographed and directed. Overall, it's quite brilliant, whenever you first saw it.
Okay, this is the bit where I move onto episodes two to four and go on about how boring, dull and crap they are. No way! The rest of the story (100,000 BC, The Tribe of Gum, or whatever), while not as spectacular as the first instalment, is still an enthralling adventure. It's simple, but we don't want a complicated plot to begin with, especially as we're all getting used to the characters. What happens is a set-up of the standard Doctor Who template - exploration, separation of companions, separation from the TARDIS, capture and escape. These three episodes provide some intensely nail-biting and gritty sequences, with often unbearable tension. The scenes in the cave of skulls are grim and desolate; the flight through the forest is heart pumping, and the end of episode three is a despairing so near/so far moment. The cave dwellers can't be reasoned with; the time travellers save Za's life and make fire for him, but he intends to keep them as prisoners. This is escapist adventure at its finest. Viewers watching from hindsight would mull over how much the show has changed - in later years the Doctor would have the sonic screwdriver, practice martial arts and use humour to get out of tight squeezes; people watching this in late 1963 would have had no such perspective.
The direction and photography for these episodes, although not as memorable as that of An Unearthly Child, is still highly professional. For the first story of a kids' afternoon programme, none of the cast or crew were slacking. The guest cast are all good, Derek Newark as Za and Eileen Way as the old woman especially so. The sabre-toothed tiger's attack on Za is achieved through clever direction, camerawork and actors performing with conviction, which all mask the technical shortcomings of the scene. The design work on the forest and the cave are worthy of note, and the cave dwellers' costumes and make-up are excellent, putting across the grim circumstances in which they live quite realistically. The regular cast, and their interactions with each other, are given great scope throughout this, building on the introductions in episode one. The obvious contrasting of the humanity of Ian and Barbara and the alien otherness of the Doctor is nicely handled, not simply drawn in terms of black and white. The Doctor is definitely the antagonist - the scene when Ian catches him with a rock in his hand, apparently to finish off the wounded Za, is quite startling. But he apologises to Barbara for getting them all into the situation, and is pragmatic when necessary. His "only savages" dismissal of Za and Hur may seem callous and alien, but it's the expedient, if not necessarily the moral thing to do. And, further to this, it's the delay brought about by Ian and Barbara helping the injured man that leads to their capture at the end of episode three.
So for the first Doctor Who story ever made, we get an exquisitely fine opening episode. The rest of the story doesn't reach these giddy heights, but nevertheless it's an exciting escapade, with plenty of suspense and a touch of the horrific (the shots of the glowing skulls at the climax). A more than impressive beginning. 9/10
A Review by Finn Clark 9/9/06
"Everyone knows" that the four-part story known as An Unearthly Child is really two stories: a one-parter and a three-parter. Probably unsurprisingly, I disagree. There's a certain obvious truth to the statement, but I think they're less mismatched than people say. There's a change of setting from 1963 AD to 100,000 BC, but the Tribe of Gum extends and counterpoints the first episode's themes. In 1963, two humans stumble across the products of a civilisation so far in advance of their own that they can barely even comprehend it. They fight and go into denial, while the Doctor and Susan ignore them or treat them like children. The Doctor even explicitly likens them to primitives seeing their first steam engine.
Then back in the Stone Age, they find a world as far behind Ian and Barbara's developmental level as they were behind the Doctor and Susan. For these cavemen, fire is a technological miracle and social sciences aren't even in their infancy. "How can we explain this? She doesn't understand kindness, friendship." And then the Doctor: "These people have logic and reason, have they? Can't you see their minds change as rapidly as night and day?" They're staggeringly primitive, but they're still dangerous. You underestimate them at your peril.
The Cave of Skulls is arguably the first episode of a three-part historical (which might explain its slowness) but it's also very much part two of An Unearthly Child. It continues the story of the Doctor, Susan, Barbara and Ian, picking up where the first episode left off and extending its themes, arguments and character development.
The first episode is obviously fantastic, though a mere shadow of what it should have been. Having at last seen the pilot episode, I suspect I'll never watch the broadcast version again. From now on it's Scary Hartnell for me. Compared with that, the remaining three-parter has a reputation for being a bit boring, which I can understand despite not finding entirely fair. There's a lot of good here. I like the aesthetic, for instance. These aren't glamorous "Raquel Welch in 1,000,000 Years BC" cavemen, but thoroughgoing savages that haven't been prettified for television in the slightest. It's uncompromising. There's a delicious brutality to part four's big fight, for instance. Any other story would have had the Doctor or one of his companions jumping in to save Kal's life when Za raises that rock. We've been programmed to expect it. We're waiting for it, but we wait in vain. Squish.
Unfortunately the problem is the performances. In comparison, think back to Carl Forgione as Nimrod in Ghost Light, who mostly lets the make-up sell him as a caveman and just gets on with playing the character and the situation. Admittedly the Tribe of Gum couldn't have gone that far, but visually they're so convincing that I think they could have afforded to pull back a little. Kal in particular needed to act more. He's the drag factor in episode two's lengthy confrontational scene, which is the only genuinely boring bit in the whole serial. It should have been compelling, but it drags. Derek Newark is putting in the effort as Za, but Jeremy Young's Kal is just grunting out his lines. Visually he's great, with that menacing face, but he's clearly the worst thing in the story and things improve considerably once he's dead. Until then it's basically Doctor Who's first example of Two Alien Factions and we know how badly they tend to turn out.
There are some startling accents ("Oi was a great leaderrrr of many men"), although this makes sense since this patchwork community is sheltering the last survivors of other now-dead tribes. However it's still disconcerting to get this huge range of speech, from the aforementioned Farmer Palmer or Kal's barely human grunting to Za's near-eloquence. It's appropriate for Za to be the articulate one, though. He thinks. He has ideas about what a leader should be and even if everything isn't clear in his head, at least you know he's making an effort to work it out. Interestingly though, in their own ways both Kal and Za are correct. Za's attempts at firemaking are indeed risible, about which he's a bit too fatalistic. If at first you don't succeed, plod on moronically with what you've already proved is ineffective. However on the other hand Kal would indeed be a terrible leader. At least Za has thought processes.
Mind you, I admire Kal's way of getting out of a pinch in part four. "Yes, I killed the old woman." You can't beat honesty.
The TARDIS crew are all fantastic, obviously. Note that Ian takes the bull-headed sceptic role that could have made him look like an idiot, but William Russell avoids that trap. He seems practical, not stupid. Once he's seen prehistoric Earth with his own eyes, he accepts the evidence and quietly adjusts to his changed situation. Barbara is the group's heart. "Your flat must be littered with stray cats and dogs." "These are human beings, Ian." Hartnell of course is a god, especially if you watched the pilot episode, although I was surprised by how understated is the famous moment where he's about to murder Za. I particularly love his big scene in part four, manipulating the tribe and basically condemning Kal to death. "I have never seen a better knife." "This knife shows what it has done." You get him, you old bastard! It makes the character far more interesting that in his early days the Doctor wasn't a straightforward hero but a selfish old goat willing to do just about anything to ensure his own safety.
He's obviously still unfamiliar with the TARDIS. He's unusually cautious, taking his Geiger counter outside even after Susan's checked the radiation levels. It's also startling to see how disturbed he is by the failure of the chameleon circuit. Oh, and that's a fantastic final cliffhanger. The TARDIS lands on some strange world, with a scanner image that's freakier than anything in both Cushing movies put together. Our heroes talk about going out to investigate this place from which any sane person would run in horror, then the radiation meter creeps up into the danger zone and we see the next episode caption: "The Dead Planet". I shivered.
As an aside, this story makes a perfect companion piece with Survival, together bookending the classic series. Both stories put the Doctor with another Time Lord with whom he has a long-standing relationship and some ordinary humans in two settings: (a) contemporary London, portrayed with a realistic mundanity that's almost without parallel throughout the rest of the series, and (b) a Stone Age world with nothing to offer but fighting for survival. If you really wanted to stretch the comparison, you could glue the TVM to the end of Survival and turn it into a Stone Age three-parter and a mostly (but not entirely) unrelated one-off pilot set on modern Earth in which the Doctor picks up a couple of humans but has as his only travelling companion that aforementioned Time Lord.
This is a fascinating story. Its reputation for boredom is actually the fault of episode two and specifically one long-winded scene. Once you're past that, you're flying. There are some dodgy 1960s production values if you're feeling uncharitable, but personally I thought the visuals were surprisingly effective. The cavemen are almost too convincing, the TARDIS hardly ever looked better and we even get to see out through the doors! That's something we rarely got. Between Hartnell and Eccleston I can only think offhand of Pyramids of Mars. Returning to An Unearthly Child, the only silly looking bit is the regulars running on the spot in part four. Otherwise I like the way this looks. In particular there's something primal about skulls and fire. The script has interesting themes, its TARDIS crew are vividly realised and the whole thing has a certain electricity. It's lightning in a bottle, captured at a time when Doctor Who's formulae hadn't even been invented. One of the best pilots I've ever seen, for anything.