An Unearthly Child
Target novelisation
Doctor Who and an Unearthly Child

Author Terrance Dicks Cover image
Published 1981
ISBN 0 426 20144 2
First Edition Cover Andrew Skilleter

Back cover blurb: A strange girl who knows far more than she should about the past - and the future... Two worried teachers whose curiosity leads them to a deserted junk yard, an extraodinary police box and a mysterious traveller known only as the Doctor... A fantastic journey through Space and Time ending in a terrifying adventure at the dawn of history...


A Review by Andrew Feryok 20/4/07

Ian drew a deep breath. "Just let me get this straight. A thing that looks like a police box standing in a junkyard... and it can travel in time and space?"
- An Unearthly Child, Chapter 3, page 36
Where exactly do you begin when trying to review a story as iconic and important as this one? While it may not be the book that started it all (that honor goes to Doctor Who and the Daleks), it is an adaptation of the very first Doctor Who story. Through whatever luck there is in the universe, the television episode has managed to escape the ravages of the BBC episode purge so that we can enjoy and analyze it to this day. The book follows the story very well, but that may or may not be in its favor.

Having read quite a few Terrance Dicks novels prior to this, I have recently come to the conclusion that Dicks is strongest when he has a story full of action. Dicks does a wonderful job of pacing action sequences and keeping tensions high. The more running up and down corridors and soldiers fighting ray guns, the better! The only problem is that very little of An Unearthly Child is action packed. That's not to say it is devoid of action, but in these early days of the series, the episodes tended be more theatrical in nature and much of the story revolves around the confrontations between the regulars and the political situation of the cavemen tribe. As a result, the story tends to have more the feeling of a script-to-book more than a novel, much in the way his adaptation of The Wheel in Space or State of Decay was. He even resorts to the old trick of using a large print format in order to fill up the page count. This doesn't seem to bode well as story proceeds.

In the book;s favor, Dicks captures all the characters wonderfully. The Doctor is particularly nasty. It is interesting to examine the Doctor in this first story and compare him to the Doctor we have today. It's amazing just how far the character has come and just how different he is. The Doctor in this first story feels like someone who has a lot of knowledge but not a lot of experience with traveling in time and space. The Doctor is selfish, malicious, and does not take criticism very well. He is about as far from the hero we know as he can possibly get. He kidnaps Ian and Barbara on a whim, takes enormous delight in belittling Ian's inability to comprehend the situation he is in, and makes no effort to try and explain anything. He only seems to be looking out for Susan and himself, willing to sell out anyone and anything in order to survive. However, the Doctor is not completely devoid of feelings. You can see that he is learning a lot from being exposed to Ian. The Doctor does comfort Barbara in the cave of skulls, and he is the only one able to grasp the politics of the cave people around them and use them to their advantage. But it will be several stories before he will begin to warm to his companions.

Ian and Barbara are the real star characters of the story and they come across very well. Ian is his usual reliable self and we see a power struggle immediately breaking out between the Doctor and him as the situation gets more and more desperate. It is interesting to compare the cave tribe to the TARDIS "tribe." The Doctor has very little concept of compassion, friendship, or cooperation much in the way the tribe does and it takes Ian's humanity to teach both about such concepts. Barbara is clearly out of her depth in this story. It is her initial curiosity that gets them involved with the Doctor and she is much quicker to accept the TARDIS than Ian, but when it comes to the cavemen and stepping onto an alien world, her strength seems to ebb away until she is near hysterics. We get a rare glimpse at her inner character at the beginning when we realize just how lonely Barbara is and that her hard, schoolmistress exterior hides someone who is actually very lonely and looks to Ian as the balance she has always been lacking... hinting more at the romantic relationship fans have always suspected was between them. Susan does not come across very well in the story. Her mysteriousness is oddly played down in the early part of the story and there are times when she is shown to be just as insensitive and selfish as the Doctor.

As many have stated before, An Unearthly Child is essentially two stories: a one story pilot, and a three part "historical" adventure in 100,000 BC. Most reviews tend to talk about the opening episode more than the last three, so I will only mention it in passing here. It is a magical moment for the series and Dicks recreates it adequetly here with all the memorable lines we love from that first moment Ian and Barbara enter the magical TARDIS. However, it is the second story in 100,000 BC that comprises most of this adventure.

Many have stated that the cavemen sequences of the story are where the story falls down. Although I thought this too when I first saw the story as a kid on PBS, my opinion has changed after rewatching it on DVD and reading this book. Okay, tribal politics may not be the most exciting thing in the world to read, and Dicks' script-format to the dialogue makes it even more dull to read. But as a history buff, watching the basic power struggle between Za and Kal unfold is nevertheless intriguing. It's eerie in a way, since Kal uses many of the same persuasion techniques that modern politicians use in political commercials to try and discredit their rivals. It is also interesting that neither Kal or Za are portrayed as being good or evil. Za is clearly entitled to be leader by being of the right bloodline, and Kal is responsible for murdering the old woman, but really neither is entirely trustworthy or perfect in any way. The time travelers are forced to choose sides between them in order to stay alive, but even after helping Za gain fire and drive Kal out, Za turns on them and decides to exploit them just as Kal would have.

Dicks makes very few additions to the story and those that he does are so minute that they aren't that noticeable. I already mentioned how he brings out some of Barbara's backstory a bit in the beginning. Dicks also brings out some motivations for the Old Woman who seems to think that fire is evil for reasons not explained in the television episode. In the novel, Dicks reveals that the old woman has associated fire with the death of her husband and believes it to be the demon responsible for the bad luck that has struck her tribe ever since her husband's death. When the TARDIS takes flight for the first time, rather than try to incorporate the strange images we see on screen, he merely has everyone knocked unconscious by the rough take off and regain consciousness when they land.

Overall, it's an okay adaptation of a historically important Doctor Who story. If there is one strong point about this book it is that Dicks is able to capture the sense of adventure in this first outing for the TARDIS crew. He paints the characters wonderfully. But the story itself and the prose style brings the quality down slighty to an average rating. In all honesty, while I like the depiction of the regulars better in this story, I like the mysteriousness of the introduction at the beginning of Doctor Who and the Daleks much better. 6/10

PS: Dicks ends his story with a preview of the next by describing a brief history of the Daleks on Skaro. But the history he uses is not the history layed out in the original Dalek story, but the revised history from Genesis of the Daleks with Kaleds and Davros.

Can it meet expectations? by Tim Roll-Pickering 13/9/09

I approached this novelisation with concern, as many of the portents are not good for such a historically significant story. It was written in the tail end of the Target "Bronze Age", when many novelisations did little more than convert the camera script into prose. It was written as a rush release to tie in with the 1981 Five Faces of Doctor Who repeats, and Doctor Who and the Destiny of the Daleks shows how this can result in a dire book. It is retelling the tale of how the Doctor was first discovered, yet the Target range already has this in the form of Doctor Who in an exciting adventure with the Daleks; trying to compete with the events told in that novelisation may be the hardest task in the range. And it is written by Terrance Dicks.

Now, don't get me wrong. Dicks has written many good novelisations that helped successive generations of young Who fans develop the skill of reading. But it's also true that he has at times run on auto-pilot in order to meet the demands of the range and the books published from about 1977 to 1980 are the worst depths of this. In 1981, the range was hit by a Writers' Guild strike, with the result that only three new novelisations came out (the other two were Doctor Who and the Creature from the Pit and Doctor Who and the Enemy of the World), with only this one by Dicks. Partially because of the problems Target had found with relying so heavily on a single author, partially because a new generation of television authors were more willing and able to do the novelisations, the result was that a much greater variety of authors would now be used, with Dicks thus under less pressure and able to branch out a bit more. But also of significance is that by and large his better books up until this point have tended to be the stories he had a direct hand in, whether as script editor, assistant or author, though Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth stands out as one of the major exceptions.

I'm glad to say that I found most of my fears to be utterly misplaced. Dicks is aware both of the historic nature of the story but also of the limited state of knowledge about the Doctor's background in the early years. With one exception at the end, the book is written entirely without the addition of eighteen years' hindsight. Throughout the book the Doctor is kept as a mysterious figure, with Ian noting how ruthless the man can be. Otherwise, there are many little touches that add background, such as the very different approaches to teaching of Barbara and Ian, or more of the background about the tribe. We learn how Za's father disappeared hunting, how Kal came to the tribe and managed to secure acceptance when normally a stranger would have been killed. The detailed back and forth of the tribe's politics is played out so that things are clearer here than on screen, but the real tour de force is the way in which Ian comes to terms with the incredible things he discovers, and slowly has to accept that the Doctor was telling the truth. Similarly, we got a strong insight into the mind of Kal as he seeks to twist situations to his advantage and witness his horror as his plans turn against him.

This is not to say that the book isn't close to the televised version; indeed, in some places it is too close. I personally would have inverted the scene order in the second episode so that Ian's discovery that he really has been taken to another place comes before we first see the Tribe, but that is the curse of script order. One particularly surprising point comes at the end, where the novelisation retains the original cliffhanger, unlike most books which ignore it. Thus, we see the TARDIS land on a new planet and the crew head outside, not realising the radiation meter is faulty, and some additional paragraphs tell us how the two races on Skaro fought, with one evolving into the Daleks who now await the Doctor. Curiously Dicks uses the name "Kaleds" instead of the original "Dals", and this is about the only place in the book where any information from later than 1963 appears.

Had it come out during either the "Golden Age" or the "Modern Age" of the Target novelisations, there is no doubt in my mind that this book would have seen a far more substantial adjustment to the storyline, and probably the addition of hindsight information about the Doctor, Time Lords, Gallifrey and so forth. In one regard, it's probably just as well that it came out when it did, as Terrance Dicks produces one of his stronger efforts that does the story justice. However, it is always going to be hard to compete with the alternative introduction from Doctor Who in an exciting adventure with the Daleks and Dicks's effort just doesn't stand out as the pinnacle of the range that the first story perhaps deserves. Some of this is undoubtedly down to Target's contemporary policies, but the result is a book that in itself is extremely good for its time, but just doesn't do the original story the best service that it could have. 7/10