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.|
"I'm sorry. It's all my fault. I'm desperately sorry." by Neil Clarke 23/2/09
An Unearthly Child is such a strange story to watch: we know how "important" it is, as the first of a 30-season-long saga - but at the same time, it appears to have very little to do with the series at large. The pattern of pulpy thrills, alien planets and BEMs was established in The Daleks, while many of the key trappings of this story were quickly jettisoned: its brutality, its conviction and depth of characterisation. This is hardly surprising though; Doctor Who could never have survived being continually pitched at this exhausting level.
I don't feel An Unearthly Child itself needs defending; unfortunately, the following three 100,000 BC episodes do. I was aware this time round how unpleasant and, in fact, difficult they are to watch - though not in the way many people seem to think (ie, "It's slow and the cavemen are grating"); rather, because of its punishing tone. It's hard to believe this was the pilot of a kids/family show. Other people have commented on the almost post-apocalyptic sense of desolation, while Barbara's reaction to the incomprehensible turn of her life is the closest we're ever likely to get to a truly realistic reaction to the fantasy of Doctor Who. The unreasoning terror of her freakout in the forest is quite astonishing: the anguish and incomprehension of the line, "What's happening to us?!" is a far cry from Rose or Martha's more recent, pop-culturally aware introductions to the Doctor's world.
I have a particular respect for these pre-historic episodes. Cavemen would not be an obvious choice for any story today, let alone a season opener; just look at the pains the Davies series goes to be crowd-pleasing with flashy, broad strokes. While a series this long-running cannot be expected to remain static in its tone and so forth, I can't help but feel that in putting spectacle and cheap thrills over an approach this compelling, something has gone wrong. Because this story, which should seem so absurd (1960s schoolteachers meet primitive cavemen! That does not sound like a winner, does it?), is an amazing, taut piece of drama.
The Forest of Fear is particularly tense, gruelling, and harrowing; the bickering and the Doctor's cynicism is so much more realistic and - I would argue - compelling than the pulling-together blitz spirit of the new series. By contrast, this is a story of arbitrary violence - even including the cold-blooded murder of an old woman. The world of 100,000 BC is a cold, distrustful place. Even the off-screen animal attack on Za is unpleasant, simply through atmosphere and the actors' reactions.
It isn't easy viewing; whereas Rose, by comparison (the Unearthly Child of the new series), bends over backwards to be "accessible". This story certainly wouldn't go down so well with the primetime proles today, and that is a crying shame: that no one has the conviction to do something as simple but solidly made as this.
This simplicity allows the story to function as what it was: the series' introductory story - and it's more than ably supported by the spare but effective music, and almost stylised and beautifully effective sets (though clearly very much of their time- not a problem, in my eyes - details as simple as the realistically grassy, uneven ground in the forest keep it convincing).
Fandom's seemingly ingrained 60s-bashing - or, rather, apathy - ticks me off because the earliest stories, most completely represented by this story, are arguably so much better than practically everything else that was to follow. For 40 years. That's pretty impressive.
I'm not saying An Unearthly Child is the best-ever example of Doctor Who, but it's certainly one of the best pieces of TV to come out of the run. In fact, I would contend that almost no Doctor Who story works as well as TV (regardless of its merits as Doctor Who). Which is something of a cliche when it comes to this story (though one mainly applied to the first episode alone) - but the whole four episodes are almost incomparably better TV than the vast majority of the subsequent run. (It's easiest to back this up with exceptions to the rule: the best historicals, maybe Talons, are also great TV, Doctor Who or no - in the sense that I think Lawrence Miles has said The Deadly Assassin is great Doctor Who but crap TV, and vice versa for Revelation of the Daleks.)
This very first story managed to succeed in all the ways the majority of later Doctor Who stories - by comparison - fail, because there was no pressure to live up to what had gone before. (Although it helps that it's rather gloriously directed; often in Doctor Who the director appears entirely AWOL. I love the surprisingly frenetic bits like the fight in the cave and the final chase through the forest.) There are no real gimmicks (besides the TARDIS, which is more of a plot device anyway, or the Doctor's Edwardian costume, which is about as nondescript as an Edwardian costume could be), because the series wasn't having to outdo the previous 5, 10, or 20 years. So there's no need for sonic screwdrivers, UNIT, excess continuity (not that I'm saying continuity is always bad; with the wealth of past that Doctor Who has, it'd be stupid to ignore it; it's just that drawing on it does change the shape of the series).
So, this story, above all others, managed - and continues to manage, on rewatching - to remain pure and to the point, and not pulled out of shape by the history preceding it, or a wish to outdo the past. There's nothing campy or postmodern or self-indulgent here, and it's all the better for that.
Everything in this story shines because of that; the Doctor is an enigma. Ian and Barbara are normal, real people, not pyromaniacal teenagers or knife-wielding savages, or even investigative journalists. The TARDIS is justm "a ship"; no artron energy or cloisters, or even a wardrobe room. Going back to the very beginning, it's so refreshing: it's Doctor Who stripped back in a way that would be impossible now, even if you wanted it to be. Even a brand-new franchise which hit the reset button couldn't avoid working in the shadow of 40 years of TV stories, books, continuity and fandom. Doctor Who at its most basic, and effective, is, I think, really something to cherish.
An Unchildrenly Children's Programme by Jordan Burbidge 10/6/10
I don't know where people keep coming up with this "Doctor Who is/was a kid's show" rubbish; it is it is quite obviously false. You only have to look no further than all the myriad reviews that say something like "I was surprised at [whatever adult content] being in a kid's show". I seem to recall many years ago being informed that the show was originally intended for football fans. Now, while sports fans do often behave like children, that doesn't make it a kid's show. People generally don't refer to Star Trek as a children's programme, even though the bodycount/gruesomeness/etc is far lower and unrealistic optimism is generally higher (not to mention that when people do die, they are usually vapourized, so there is no corpse); yet I repeatedly see on these reviews people insisting that Doctor Who is. So to attempt to debunk this ridiculous myth (as if one can ever persuade someone who has their mind made up to believe something patently false), I will examine such data as bodycount, grimness and the like.
The first story has a relatively low bodycount, with only two people getting killed, and neither death is directly shown, but a very high grimness rating. Now, I don't know what kind of kid's show you lot grew up with, but I don't recall any even hinting at death, let alone mentioning or indirectly showing it. See that episode of Sesame Street where Bert and Ernie are trapped in the cave with all the corpses? No? Neither did I. How about that after achool apecial where Billy-Bob brutally offs his neighbour? No?
We start off rather innocently, with two school teachers talking about how one of their students (Susan) is both brilliant and stupid, and then trying to snoop to figure her out a bit. This is handled moderately well, apart from the examples of her "brilliance". If being bored in school were a sign of genius, the world is full of geniuses. Also, I don't see why ANY [unspecified] dimension would be necessary for a particular math calculation: I can't compute 2 + 2 without factoring in time and space! Really? Does the value of 2 change depending on when or where, or the addition operator change how it functions? Minor stuff, to be sure, but really rubbed me the wrong way, possibly because it just seemed a bit lazy not to come up with something better.
The teachers try to valiantly protect Susan from a very suspicious circumstance, and for their efforts are effectively kidnapped. They end up in caveman times (though they don't discover this until after the Doctor gets kidnapped by one of them). The rest of the show is caveman political intrigue and attempts to escape.
It is quite a bit better than it sounds, really.
The first time I tried to watch William Hartnell's Doctor, some twenty years ago (or thereabout), I couldn't stand him (much like my first attempts with Colin Baker). Upon subsequent viewings, however, my opinion of his portrayal and the stories of his era has softened considerably (also likewise with Colin Baker), and in fact there are some that I quite enjoy. I have no particular fondness for An Unearthly Child (et al.) - mostly because I'm not wild about caveman stories - but it gets the job done, and on the whole is very watchable.
We have: 1 kidnapping, 2 killings (offscreen), 1 mauling by some beast (offscreen), various skeletal parts (and corpses) laying around and a constant palpable threat of being brutally slaughtered by what amounts to a bunch of halfwits. Not to mention the prospect that some random dirty old man has trapped a young schoolgirl in a box for who-knows-what diabolical reason. We also have the somewhat lesser grimness of the threat of mauling, starvation, or freezing to the cavemen that they constantly go on about.
Possibility of being a kid's show: 2/10 (mostly because no violence is directly shown, the wounds from the mauling are not too graphic, and the hinted-at creepiness of trapping Susan in a box may very well be completely lost on a child).
A Review by Francis Salvi 17/3/11
When we think about Doctor Who, the things that spring to mind are the TARDIS, the Daleks, the Cybermen and of course the Doctor himself. But at the beginning, there were no Daleks or Cybermen, just the Doctor and the TARDIS.
An Unearthly Child wasn't only the title of the first story it was the title of the first episode. The episode in question stands up incredibly well today, even if it is 46/47 years old. What clicks this episode for me is the performance of the cast. Not having William Hartnell appear until later in the episode is a wise move, sustaining the air of mystery. Who is Susan Foreman? Why does she live in a junkyard? The two teachers, played splendidly by William Russell and Jacqueline Hill, effectively take on the role of the audience, asking the questions we'd ask if we were in their position. Add the TARDIS, whose set is fantastically designed by Peter Brachaki, and you have a true classic episode, not just of Doctor Who but of television in general.
Unfortunately, the heaps of praise above cannot be showered upon the last three episodes. As I have said to many a Who fan before, they should have moved straight onto The Daleks instead of trogging through the pretty shabby caveman story that follows the fantastic first episode. The only decent part is the few quotes early in Episode 2 that tell of the chameleon circuit, starting up the imagination of kids making them think that any police box could be a time machine....
The cavemen themselves are hideously unbelievable. I may not know much about cavemen but I do know that they didn't speak clear English, and they'd probably kill the travellers for food instead of trying to get them to make fire for them. The forest beast - glimpsed thankfully only briefly in Part Three - is just a dire prop. The resolution is bad as well; surely they could have overpowered the guards at the mouth of the cave?
All in all, a disappointing start to a TV series that has become my favourite series. If the final three episodes had been as good as the first, we would have had a smashing story.
A Review by John Laking 5/11/13
And so it began. On the 23rd November 1963, the first episode of a new weekly science-fiction show aired to generally favourable reviews, but was ultimately largely overshadowed by the assassination of President Kennedy the previous day. Nonetheless, that first episode set the show on a path that would see it still captivating audiences fifty years into the future. While the show has developed massively since that first broadcast, it's a testimony to the creativity of those involved in the original run that so much has remained the same.
An Unearthly Child is a tricky serial to review as one whole piece of drama. Instead, it's far easier to break it down into two separate pieces: the first episode, from which the serial takes it's name, and the three remaining episodes after the TARDIS has made it's first journey. The initial episode remains one of the most atmospheric and intense pieces of drama I have ever seen. The opening moments are iconic, beginning with the unique title sequence and theme music, the camera then pans through a junkyard following in the footsteps of a policeman, eventually settling on what would have seemed to viewers at the time to be a perfectly ordinary police box. Waris Hussein's direction succeeds immediately in creating an atmosphere of mystery and it isn't in any way clear exactly what kind of show we are watching. Teachers Ian and Barbara are the first characters to be introduced; thanks to some neat dialogue and the skill of the actors Jacqueline Hill and William Russell, there is an immediate rapport between them as they discuss their problem student, Susan. As we get our first glimpse of the Doctor's granddaughter it isn't hard to see why Carole Ann Ford was cast in the role. She has an other-worldly quality to her that must have made her seem perfect casting and her slight strangeness only adds to the atmosphere of the show.
The thing that is most surprising about An Unearthly Child and much of the stories that follow it in the early Hartnell era is the incredibly adult feel to the whole show. Designed as a programme ostensibly aimed at children, there is a dark undercurrent that pervades the early episodes. This is never more clear than with the initial introduction of the Doctor. From his initial appearance, he is incredibly unlikeable, showing himself to be both untrusting and untrustworthy, as well as patronising and arrogant. It's a theme of early Who that the threat or horror of a particular scene or moment is rarely shown explicitly on screen, but is instead gaugeable by the reactions of the other actors. That is the case here as the level of threat the Doctor seemingly poses is enhanced to a far greater level due to the performance of Ford, making Susan seem genuinely scared of what he many have in store for Ian and Barbara, as she pleads for him to let them go. Certainly, her fears seem justified as the Doctor makes no attempt to warn Ian of the electric shock he receives from the booby-trapped TARDIS console. By the end of the episode, we are left with the man who would become our 'hero' having essentially kidnapped Ian and Barbara, who lay on the TARDIS floor, unconscious and - as far as we the viewers are aware - quite possibly dead. It is an incredibly brave way to start a new series, and it is gripping from start to finish. Before the episode ends, there is just time for two more iconic moments. First, the TARDIS makes its first journey and we get to hear the noise that would be forever described in future Target novelisations as 'a wheezing, groaning sound' emanate from the TARDIS console. Then the episode reaches it's climax and we get the first ever Doctor Who cliffhanger, as the TARDIS lands and an unknown shadowy figure watches over it.
And so, after a pretty much perfect opening episode, we move onto the bulk of the opening serial as the TARDIS crew encounter a stone-age tribe. This is where the story runs into a few difficulties. When the main cast are together, the atmosphere is still terrific, but the scenes amongst the tribe are dull in comparison. This is partly due to the fairly pedestrian nature of the plot. It's essentially a local leadership battle being fought out between two mostly identical characters and their race to discover fire. Unfortunately, they also speak in that slow, monosyllabic, television caveman manner, which - though possibly more accurate - doesn't really lend itself to high drama. In fact, as the actors are unable to rely on their words to express themselves, it tends to lead to over-the-top performances that don't sit smoothly against the performances of the four regular cast members.
The threat of violence is there throughout the serial, culminating in a final fight between the two rivals for the leadership of the tribe. Though once again the more significantly violent moments of the fight occur off-screen, we are left in no doubt as to the outcome, thanks to some fantastic reaction shots that express the full horror of what the TARDIS crew are being forced to witness. However, the most shocking moment of the serial is unquestionably when only a last minute intervention from Ian prevents the Doctor from striking a rock over the head of caveman Za, killing him in cold blood. This is resoundingly not the Doctor that we will grow to love. This is a Doctor whose first instinct when captured is to give up and is only persuaded into action by his new human companions and a Doctor who is seemingly quite happy to kill in order to make his own life easier.
At this stage, the show was still clearly finding its feet, trying to decide exactly what it wanted to become. Much of the first series would be devoted to trying to discover just that. An Unearthly Child was a remarkable starting point for the series, bringing us a talented regular cast, a couple of reluctant travelling companions and a dark, irascible and unsympathetic title character. Little did the people involved know just what they had started or just how endless the possibilities were for the show. Fortunately for us, that fun was still to come.
Atmosphere by Charles Crowe 16/2/17
If there's one thing that black & white did for Doctor Who, it was give it proper atmosphere. The show was mysterious, it was different, it was almost entirely unlike anything else on television, and being utterly devoid of colour is one of many things that most definitely helped with that.
One of the best examples of B&W giving the show atmosphere is its very first episode, An Unearthly Child. It's an unsettling twenty-five minute mood piece like no other, and it's rather different to the revived series' Rose (a great episode too, yes, but with a very different audience in mind).
Of course, this review is of the story as a whole, all four episodes. I'm not entirely sure what title is appropriate for this story in fandom right now, but I'll just go with what's on the DVD box.
An Unearthly Child, the story, is very different to An Unearthly Child the episode. Where the episode is dark, tense, mind-bogglingly frightening in a way you can't quite put your finger on, the story is ... well ... still good.
Episodes two, three & four have always been under the shadow of episode one, and for good reason - but they're rather underrated. They keep the tense undertones of episode one and build on them, adding grim violence and peril for our heroes to escape from with a plot that is, strangely, genuinely riveting at times.
While many will turn their nose up at almost an hour and fifteen minutes of cavemen grunting and groaning about fire, not many people mention Eileen Way's character, the Old Mother, as being one of the tentpoles that hold this story up. She's genuinely a good actress, and it helps that her character is one of the only ones that can speak in sentences of more than two words.
The second episode expands upon the relationship between three of the four mains (namely, Barbara, Ian and Susan) as the Doctor is, for now, almost the antagonist. That doesn't stop William Hartnell from being oddly endearing, but the viewer is still cautious to be wary of him for the moment.
Episode three is where everything starts to drag, unfortunately. Not much happens and good old Babs suddenly goes from being the strong female lead to a screaming girl, which isn't great for her characterisation, not least because it's entirely out of line with every other episode that she's in.
A little bit odd.
The final part is where the story finds its mark again, and we get an exciting ending, especially if you're a fan of the word 'fire', as the mains formulate an escape plan and rush away as they're chased by a murderous mob of neanderthals.
What's so different about this story, however, is that the problems of the tribe are not resolved. The Doctor doesn't save the day or hang around to be thanked. The reason for being there is not one of fun or adventure; they don't want to be there, and they can't wait to escape.
It's how most of the first season tends to go, until our crew begin to ease into their new lifestyle. For now, though, the TARDIS crew's only objective is to get home, and nobody really seems to be enjoying their adventures whatsoever.
Except for me, of course.
They are a new tribe by Paul Williams 30/3/18
I previously regarded An Unearthly Child as a brilliant first episode followed by three dull ones. My opinion of the first episode has not changed. It's an excellent introduction to the main characters, with scarcely a word out of place. I now hold the rest of the story in slightly higher regard and attribute this to watching the episodes a week apart as they were intended to be viewed.
When you view the story in one sitting, the change of emphasis from the TARDIS crew to the tribe is too much. You want to see Ian and Barbara exploring the prehistoric world but instead get a group of cavemen moaning about fire. As a single episode, The Cave of Skulls is almost as good as its predecessor. The dialogue again is superb, naturally introducing the characters and showing their motivations. This serves to make the danger facing the regulars more convincing. The only downside of the episode is Susan's hysteria when they cannot find the Doctor.
The Forest of Fear contains more action but fails to convince. Even allowing for budget limitations, the threat of the tiger is poorly realised, and there is a moment of madness from the Doctor when he picks up a stone to attack the wounded Za. Hartnell's delivery of the excuse line leaves no doubt after his intentions, even though they lack reason and fear is no excuse. What could he gain by committing murder in front of his impressionable granddaughter? He'd still have to deal with Ian, Barbara and Hur. Until that point, he has been in control of his emotions, justifying his alien status. His reasons for refusing to help Za are logical and later proved correct, but suddenly he surrenders his moral superiority and becomes like Kal, willing to kill the vulnerable? This not only damages his credibility but threatens the future of the show. Who wants a title character who attacks the wounded? A bad leader indeed.
The Doctor redeems himself in The Firemaker, encouraging the tribe to turn on Kal but not interfering when the two rivals fight to the death. Ian acknowledges him to Za as the leader, forgiving him for the stone incident or, less likely, being fooled. It is in this second period of imprisonment that the four regulars learn to work together, devising a novel way to finally escape.
Overall rating: C.
A Review by Murdo Macleod 2/10/18
There is some debate as to whether the first story in the Doctor Who series should be called An Unearthly Child or 100,000BC. This probably reflects the fact that there are two stories in one.
The first involves history teacher Barbara Wright and science teacher Ian Chesterton following their mysterious pupil Susan home to a junkyard and to a strange police box in which she lives with her grandfather, the Doctor. Finding them snooping around, the Doctor immediately abducts them, plunging them into an adventure in time and space.
The second story brings us to caveman times where a bunch of dull savages sit around in a cave arguing about who should be leader.
The Majesty: I loved the first story: the Doctor as antihero is lots of fun; the whole set up with Ian and Barbara ensures that the series is grounded in normal human reality, and their journey from that normality into the alien landscape of the cavemen is brilliantly done.
The Misery: Sadly things really fall apart as soon as we met the cavemen. They are all equally underdeveloped, uninteresting and unpleasant. They all speak in stilted English ("Me Leader. Make Fire.") that no doubt left the scriptwriter feeling very pleased with himself but is actually sheer twaddle.
Za is No Leader by Noe Geric 22/6/19
When someone talks about An Unearthly Child, they mention how nostalgic and how mysterious it is. How the story introduced Doctor Who to our world; this story is for many a classic... THE classic episode by definition. How the Doctor arrived with all these mysteries around him, how more than 50 years of television began and then there eyes are filled with tears of nostalgia. Obviously, these people don't remember the three episodes set in a prehistoric cave, and I can't blame them.
An Unearthly Child is very good, well, only if you watch the first episode. There's an intriguing story that began, and, even if it is sometime slow paced, it is good enough. The characters are introduced, the TARDIS function is explained without revealing too much about it, and the Doctor is a complete mystery. And I wonder if in 1963, people loved the Doctor? He acts as a complete fool and hates strangers. He's far from the 2005 version of David Tennant and Christpher Eccleston. He's not the Doctor that understands humans and has good relationships with them. The Doctor can barely pilot the TARDIS and is grumpy for most of the time. I've begun with the 2005 show and if I had seen the Hartnell Doctor first, I don't know if I would have loved him immediately. Hartnell is a great actor even if, sometimes, his acting isn't really working (many of his lines in The Cave of Skulls feel as if they shouldn't have been rushed so much). But his performance in The Firemaker is incredibly good, when he tries to explain who killed the Old Woman.
Ian and Barbara have enough characterization to make then interesting at the first sight. They're normal teachers who find a very strange girl and decide to follow her. I don't think that would be the sort of story that could be made in 2019 as a teacher following his student can be quite creepy. Susan, on the other hand, is atrocious. Her first scene is good enough, but, after that, she never stops screaming and shouting and twisting her ankle for no reason. I don't get why so many people wants her to come back (on TV, because she has already new story at Big Finish). Perhaps because she is his granddaughter? I don't know, but I'm not one of these guys. She's really annoying, and I rather prefer the idea that the Doctor adopted her (but I don't see who would choose such a useless child to travel with him). It had more mystery and backstory to this odd character, which is good as it can be unbearable!
The three episodes in the caves are boring and just a succession of crying, shouting, moaning ''You will make fire'' and the heroes being captured again and again. It's rather silly, and I laughed most of the time. It didn't age well, so it looks now like a comedy. There's nothing interesting except the fight in The Firemaker which is well made, even if it feels ridiculous. The characters are good enough for cavemen, but the whole thingis boring. None of the cliffhangers are surprising. I also have some reservations about the flashback scenes in the first episode. Susan is talking to the camera and Ian/Barbara is off-screen. The idea isn't bad, but, when the teachers talk, it feels like they weren't there (and of course the actor has probably recorded his/her lines off-screen). It's odd, like if Susan was talking to the voice of the gods.
An Unearthly Child is a good story... Well, only one quarter of it. The other episodes are dull and forgettable. I'll give it a 6/10 for the whole, even if the first episode deserves an 8/10 if there wasn't the dreadful mess of Za and his fire.
More Than "The One With The Cavemen" by Matthew Kresal 11/8/19
Most beginnings are humble, a little rough around the edges. Doctor Who, that great long-running series from the BBC, is no exception to that rule. Broadcast from the 23rd of November to the 14th of December 1963, An Unearthly Child is where the series began via a four-episode story that introduced its lead characters and the time machine at the heart of the series plus, latterly, a group of cavemen.
The opening episode, set in the then-present day, handles much of that heavy lifting. The first half of it introduces us to teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright and their mysterious pupil Susan Foreman, a girl who seems at once wise beyond her years and remarkably uninformed on everyday matters. A foggy night leads to an encounter in a junkyard with a man and a blue box and, well, the rest is history as they say. The second half is set inside and is all about the TARDIS. It may seem odd to spend so much time introducing it, like imagining spending half of Star Trek's Where No Man Has Gone Before being spent introducing the Enterprise. That's the great thing about early Doctor Who: it's fresh, exciting and trying to figure out its identity. That first episode is just such a case in point.
What about the three episodes that follow? The perceived wisdom is that the opening chapter, brilliant as it is, gets followed up by three slightly boring ones involving inner-tribal politics and the quest for fire. Now, there is some truth to that between the semi-theatrical and the actor's performances, leaving one with the slight feeling of watching Shakespeare as performed by cavemen (or potentially vice versa given the backgrounds of many British actors at the time). It's a cliche, to be sure, but one with a basis in reality, though not as much of one as you might think.
Look beyond actors grunting and groaning and, surprise, there's more to those three episodes. There's a timeless tale of the nature of power to corrupt, the struggle between old and new, perception versus reality in politics, and questions about whether technology (in this case fire, the foundation of all advancement) will ultimately help or destroy us. There are interesting reflections of the TARDIS travelers in the tribe they encounter: the conflict between Za and Kal mirrored in that between the Doctor and Ian, as well as the moments of female intuition in the Old Mother and Barbara, each of them having a sense of the uncanny in front of them. It might be hard to see behind the furs and sometimes dodgy camera work (director Waris Hussein trying so hard to keep things mobile instead gives a rough, unpolished look to the production), but there is a more intriguing tale beneath it all than many fans (myself included) have given it credit for having.
In the final analysis, An Unearthly Child isn't going to rank among the great Doctor Who stories. It's too rough, too unpolished for that as a production, despite that opening episode and the items of interest in the later ones. On the other hand, it's an appetizer of sorts, one that gets things rolling at least. It's a stage-setter, though, at the time, no one could have imagined just far that would extend. That's the other great thing about beginnings: You can never entirely be sure just where the road (or space/time machine for that matter) is going to take you.
A Thing That Looks Like a Police Box Can Move Anywhere in Time and Space by Jacob Licklider 25/11/20
It was that cold November's evening that begun the trip of a lifetime, as what would become the BBC's flagship show began airing to millions. It was the first non-news-related program to be airing since the previous day when American President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. It served to get the public's mind off the show, even if the viewing figures were less than the production team would have liked to see, and it wouldn't be until the second serial, The Daleks, that Doctor Who would cement itself with staying power by winning over the audiences. That doesn't mean that the first serial, An Unearthly Child, is without merit, as it has quite a few things that there are to admire about the story. It starts from the opening title sequence, which was done reflecting a light down a camera lens to produce a chilling effect. It is enhanced by the weird-sounding theme music written originally by Ron Grainer but truly brought to the screen by Delia Derbyshire. After the theme the first shot is a beautifully filmed tracking shot into the I.M. Foreman junkyard, where the camera stops on a perfectly ordinary police box where we get the episode title.
The actual story introduces the viewer to the principal characters of the show and the basic concept of being lost in time and exploring different historical and scientific topics, which is all done in the first episode. It pulls it off really well as we are introduced to Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, played by William Russell and Jacqueline Hill respectively, who are two schoolteachers (Ian teaches science and Barbara teaches history). They are curious about one of their students, Susan Foreman, played by Carole Ann Ford, who has been performing badly in school. They are fed up with her not knowing everything and decide the smart thing to do is follow her home to speak with her grandfather and tell him to take an interest. They discover her home is a junkyard where they find that Susan lives in a police box that is bigger on the inside and can travel in space and time. She and her grandfather, the Doctor, played by William Hartnell, are aliens and so they don't become the laughing stock or exhibits in a freak show, the Doctor takes off with the schoolteachers inside, and they have to escape a tribe of cavemen for three episodes. The first episode of the story is really where it shines the brightest, as it does a great job with the atmosphere that something is about to happen, which only makes it just as crazy when the TARDIS is revealed.
Anthony Coburn's script makes the cavemen storyline suffer, as it is just an hour and a half of politics, with characters who really aren't that interesting. This part of the story is almost unbearable to sit through, as it continues at a really slow pace and a boring story that needs a bit more action to make it better. The regulars, on the other hand, are characterized brilliantly by Coburn, as we are introduced to the main players in this show. Ian and Barbara are introduced in a scene that shows just how much chemistry they have as actors and characters. They feel very much like coworkers, and both have a reason to be fed up with their student. This carries across the story, with Ian being the skeptic while Barbara is the optimist. Ian doesn't want to believe that a police box could possibly be a time machine. Barbara believes it just because of the impossible things she had seen with something being bigger on the inside, which is of course impossible. While Barbara eventually goes into hysterics at one point, it makes sense as she would be terrified of going to a different time without any sort of warning. Susan, on the other hand, isn't handled nearly as well as in the first episode; she is just as mysterious and is able to create the escape for the travelers in a great yet morbid way, but in the middle of the story she has more hysteria than Barbara, even though she has already traveled in time before.
William Hartnell as the Doctor in this story deserves a review of his own. He is not the Doctor that we all know and love, but a young impulsive man who will do anything to protect his granddaughter from harm, even if it means hurting people. When he is introduced, he tries his hardest to get Ian and Barbara to leave him and Susan, and when they break into his ship, he gives Ian an electric shock and proceeds to kidnap them all to protect his granddaughter. He even tries killing an injured caveman just so they can try and get back to his ship. He isn't completely unlikable here, however, as there are moments where it shows that he may be able to change. His words about fear to Barbara are extremely comforting, and you see the glimpse that he might just change for the better.
To summarize, An Unearthly Child without its brilliant first episode could have killed the show immediately, as the plot is extremely slow and the cavemen politics really aren't trying to comment on anything. The main characters, however, save this story from this awful fate, as they are done extremely well. That paints a real picture of where the show is going to go in the future and the eventual development that is going to happen. This balances the score of the episode out to the slightly above average 52/100.
A Defense of the Caveman Story by Jason A. Miller 15/11/21
Conventional wisdom is that while the first single episode of Doctor Who, An Unearthly Child, is note-perfect genius (and it is exactly that; not even up for debate), the back three episodes of same the story are dreadful rubbish. I'm here to disagree. There's a lot that's really effective and noteworthy about the Tribe of Gum (*) material, so let's talk about what works, and why it works. Not all of it works, but most of it does.
(*) I use the term Tribe of Gum as shorthand; trust me, I don't sit around the house referring to this one as Tribe of Gum (or 100,000 BC) while thoughtfully stroking my beard. But again, I do this just to distinguish the caveman story from the first episode set at Coal Hill School.
The caveman story in Tribe of Gum is something I've always enjoyed, although it retrospect it was a bit of an odd choice (and I'm being charitable here) for a science-fiction series, aimed in the general direction of children, and with an educational remit, to make its first voyage in time and space to visit a bunch of grunting, grimy, cave-dwellers. That's not a scenario calling out for much spectacle or grandeur -- not for a series that would soon visit the Pyramids of Egypt. The cavemen spent much of their time grunting or stroking their bones (oo-er) over the ashes of dead fires.
But, when they aren't grunting, the cavemen are engaging in political machinations -- Doctor Who's very first time getting political. The right-wing blogosphere believes that Jodie Whittaker's first season was an unacceptable political statement for a series that always stayed out of it. But, no, that began here, in story number two. The cavemen tribe contains confused, reactionary old folks, played by the likes of Eileen Way, muttering dire warnings about how the younger generation is ruining things. Interestingly, Howard Lang, who plays an always-hungry, oft-confused, senior adviser to the tribe's leader, later played Winston Churchill, in one of those 20-hour US network TV miniseries based on Herman Wouk's World War II novels. You can imagine hundreds of British children in December 1963 running around impersonating Howard Lang in the schoolyard, playing the role of snivelling politicians who don't like change and who don't trust the people.
The Tribe of Gum, like An Unearthly Child, was written by Anthony Coburn. The scenes featuring solely the TARDIS crew benefit from Coburn's rapid-fire, near Mamet-esque dialogue (minus the profanities), alternating between profound statements of philosophy and quick-witted zingers. But the mark of a good author is that his characters have different voices. So here, when the cavemen take center stage, the conversation become slower and more exposition-heavy, but no less thoughtful. Tribe leader Za (Derek Newark) engages in aggressive verbal fencing matches with the other Tribe members. Kal (Jeremy Young), the main villain, has a wonderfully craggy face, highlighted by some very underrated makeup work and a terrific voice to enunciate his verbally-manipulative villainy. Kal's visage, which in extreme close-up comprises the Part Three cliffhanger, is, in retrospect, more menacing than the sink-plunger-waving-at-Barbara cliffhanger that would put Doctor Who on the map forever just two weeks later.
The caveman plot can seem a bit heavy-handed. On the surface, you've got five classically trained actors disguised in thick, matted hair wigs and faux-bearskins showing an awful lot of leg (even on Lang and Eileen Way). But although they're speaking in affected grunt-heavy tones, they speak poetically of the quest for fire, the angry demands of the sun god and weighty, almost metaphorical sentiments about fighting the tiger and the bear. And, while some of the action sequences haven't aged that well, with the TARDIS crew jogging in place while off-screen hands smacked them with twigs (hey, the studio space wasn't long enough to run in; also, it's been 56 years, find something more recent to criticize), I like what director Waris Hussein did with the tiger attack on Za in Episode 3. Without the budget for a live animal, or even a convincing dummy, Hussein has the camera play the role of tiger POV; the vision mixer up in the studio gallery did some very effective quick cuts, to suggest screaming and chaos. Steven Spielberg later did something similar in the early filming of JAWS, before they got that mechanical shark to work properly.
The TARDIS crew scenes are sublime. Carole Ann Ford, as would be the case for nearly the whole 1963-64 production block, gets a bit short-changed; her screams punctuate the soundtrack (and puncture the eardrum). But Jacqueline Hill, apart from two screams and one contractually obligated fall, is forceful and dignified for most of the show, especially when she interrupts an escape attempt to go back and tend to Za's camera-attack wounds. The bickering between William Russell and William Hartnell is, to go back to what I said before, Mamet-esque. The Doctor, it is implied, wants to bonk Za over the head with a rock in order to restart the getaway (kicking off a long string of sequences in which Hartnell resorts to violence to get his way), but his speech about the Tribe's intentions being fickle and capricious is, as we learn later on, completely accurate. We also get the first use of the word "companion", in an exchange between Hill and Hartnell, in Episode 3, and it's hard not to stand up and cheer when that happens. This material more than makes up for any deficiencies in the staging of the caveman business.
The moral centerpiece is in Episode 4. The Doctor helps the tribe understand that Kal is a murderer, that the first character killed on Doctor Who was somebody's grandmother. He traps Kal in his own lies, and he and Ian help the tribe learn that they have the political will to drive Kal out. This sequence remains fresh, even today, with Boris Johnson as British prime minister. Kal is evil. Drive him out.
Strong dialogue, good characterizations, a TARDIS crew that already has incredible chemistry, a timely political message, and inventive visuals on a shoestring budget. Doctor Who didn't need to wait for The Daleks to perfect its formula. The caveman story shows that the production team and cast members already knew exactly what they were doing.