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An Unearthly Child

Review by David French

I have always tried to imagine what the very first Doctor Who story was like. The only hints that I have ever received have been those in The Second Doctor Who Quiz Book. I had always had this belief that not one member of the tribe could speak English and that they were hospitable to the TARDIS crew. When I finally saw the story for the first time back in May this year I was certainly surprised to see a tribe that could speak fairly good English and were very inhospitable to the TARDIS crew — so much for my interpretation.

Of the four episodes, the first is definitely the most enjoyable. This is mainly due to Hartnell's performance in the junkyard where the Doctor tries to distract Ian and Barbara's curiosity about hearing Susan's voice inside the TARDIS. The Doctor's cheery and shrewd comments are completely at odds with commentators who claim that the Doctor comes across as an anti-hero. In my mind, he's not. He's simply an alien trying to avoid humans interfering with things that they are blissfully ignorant about. His stubbornness in not helping the injured Za is not due to the fact that he does not care, but more that he is trying to convince his ‘friends’ that the tribe do not possess any of the qualities that they have — charm, kindness, a forgiving nature.

The worst episode is definitely the third, and this is mainly due to Jacqueline Hill's performance. Barbara is not known for her screaming, but in this episode she simply moans and grizzles from one scene to another. It almost sounds like she's giving birth. The other thing that annoys me about that episode is Ian and the Doctor's constant bickering. Okay, so maybe I also would be angry with a person who drags me away from my comfort zones, but in a situation where you're trying to escape, I doubt I would start arguing with that same person, otherwise I might end up being left behind.

Reviews of this story in NZ newspapers and magazines have described Ian as being like a young Ken Barlow from Coronation Street. I cannot see the resemblance. Young Kenneth was a bit of a snobbish lad who spoke with a very posh English accent (the same kind that our TV announcers used to speak in back in the 1960s), whereas Ian speaks with a more natural accent that isn't posh sounding at all. As for the Unearthly Child herself, well she's not too different from the character that appears in stories such as The Keys of Marinus (one of my favourite Season One stories). She calls her schoolteachers Mr Chesterton and Miss Wright, she screams a couple of times and she obeys her grandfather's commands. But to me, the biggest thing is that she isn't that mysterious or strange. Her character is somewhat mellower than the Susan seen in The Pilot Episode is. Apart from the decimal currency slip, perhaps all Ian and Barbara are worried about is the fact that Susan tends to wear the same clothes in school (as observed by DWM's ‘Time Team’). The biggest difference with all of the regulars, however, is that there is none of the camaraderie that normally occurs during a companion's introductory story. Ian and Barbara seem to distrust the Doctor throughout, unlike other companions such as Polly, Jamie, Liz, Leela, Peri and Ace who tend to trust the Doctor from the moment they first meet him.

The violence displayed in this story may look unengaging for 1960s TV, but the death of Kal by Za in the cave of skulls is very brutal. If you ignore the fact that Za brings a polystyrene rock down on Kal's head, then a shiver should run down your spine. It's also one of the few stories where the regulars end up being covered in dirt by the end of the story (Haven't you ever wondered how the incumbent regulars manage to stay clean throughout the whole story? No, neither have I).

Technically speaking, this version of Unearthly Child looks very sharp indeed. The only difference between this release and the original release is that the prints of all four episodes have been cleaned up and re-mastered by the Doctor Who Restoration Team.

If, like former DWM reviewer Gary Russell, I rated this story out of five TARDISes, I would give it four for an outstanding story that, although simple in plot-terms, began one of the great television shows of all time.

Some things you may have missed...

An Unearthly Child

During the scene when the Doctor examines the clock inside the TARDIS, both William Hartnell and William Russell interrupt each other.

When the Doctor walks over to the console, an audible cue can be heard.

Ian says that he saw the Doctor close the TARDIS doors — but in fact it was Susan who closed the doors.

In the final shot, Kal's shadow extends too far over the landscape.

The Forest of Fear

The hole in the skull seen in the reprise is bigger than the one seen in the previous episode's cliffhanger.

The Firemaker

In the reprise, Ian tells the others to move back into the forest, and then the hidden tribe stands up — only in the cliffhanger, the tribe stood up first, before William Russell delivered his line.

Ian manages to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together — however, William Russell doesn't rub the two sticks together at all, but he still manages to start a fire.

The TARDIS crew run through the forest to make their escape back to the TARDIS — but in reality, the four regulars are jogging on the spot while stagehands whip them with tree branches.

This item appeared in TSV 61 (December 2000).

Index nodes: 100,000 BC/An Unearthly Child