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A Doctor Who Exegesis: An Unearthly Child

By Richard Scheib

A study of the Doctor Who universe in many, many parts by Richard Scheib.

Why, you may have wondered, is it that no matter where the Doctor and companions materialize the inhabitants seem to speak perfect English? How is it in The Silurians cavemen and dinosaurs can exist together in an epoch some millions of years before either should have? Why do so many alien races want to invade Earth? How is it that the TARDIS with it's faulty controls, and even after a randomizer has been installed, manages to materialize on Earth about 40% of the time? These, and many other questions shall be answered, in the continuing series of 'The Doctor Who Exegesis'.


Plot Synopsis: Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, respectively the history and science teachers at Coal Hill School in London, 1963, become suspicious of the new pupil Susan Foreman whose mind seems near genius but occasionally erratic. Barbara and Ian follow Susan home after Barbara discovers Susan's home address is a junkyard. They follow Susan in and find a police box, and a strange, crotchety old man, but not Susan. The old man suggests they go to the police but after they turn to leave they hear Susan's voice coming from inside the box. They burst in, finding an ultra modern control room, considerably larger on the inside than the outside. The old man, the Doctor, tells them that he and Susan are aliens and that this, the TARDIS is a machine that can travel in space and time. Threatened with discovery he takes Ian and Barbara with him. Ian does not believe him until he opens the doors and finds different terrain. They are some 30 to 100 thousand years ago. The Doctor is abducted by the caveman Kal, who wishes to contest the tribes leader, Za, for leadership as Za cannot make fire, Kal seeing an opportunity when he sees the Doctor lighting his pipe. After they discredit Kal the Doctor shows Za the secret of fire making, but he keeps them imprisoned in case he loses it. They make an escape by playing on the tribe's superstitions.

The Doctor
He is described as white-haired, wearing a cloak, an oddly shaped fur hat and a long, striped scarf. He coughs as some old people do. (Although this is probably more due to the thinness of the air. From the need for two hearts and the Doctor's greater strength, frequently demonstrated, we must conclude that Gallifrey is a higher gravity planet than Earth, so the Doctor will be experiencing some difficulty in breathing our air under a much lighter density air-pressure than normal. From the amount of running around and physical exertion he does in later adventures he must have created some type of oxygen compensating system for his lungs.) He is not a Doctor of medicine. Susan is his granddaughter so he must have been married and raised at least one child in order for this. He says they are exiles, cut off from their world without friends or protection. (This does tend to contradict the reasons he gives on other occasions - that he left because he didn't like the stuffy, unadventurous attitude of the Time Lords. They could be voluntary exiles but the words are couched too strongly to sound like this could be so).

Ian Chesterton
A cheerful, open-faced young man. Dresses casually, takes life as it comes and refuses to let anything worry him. He and Barbara are good friends (no hint of their romance at this junction) despite their differences in personality. He is said to one of the few who would dare tease her, one of the few who sees beneath her severe exterior.

Barbara Wright
Dark-haired, slim, pretty-faced. Would be prettier if her face did not wear its habitual expression of disapproval. A strong conviction that she knows what is best for everyone. Later described as unthinkingly busy.

Takes the surname Foreman while on Earth from the name on the junkyard sign. Appears about fifteen years old, tall for her age. Dark hair, cut short, framing an elfin face. Genius level IQ (by Earth standards). Speech described as pure and precise (see point 5 below). Has a way of automatically observing people as thought they are a member of a potentially dangerous alien race. Unquestionably trusting of the Doctor.

Points arising from the plot

1) Why does the Doctor buy the junkyard? He never does anything like this in any of his other travels. Perhaps he is using it as a base of operations, somewhere he can hide the TARDIS where people will not constantly be trying to use it a a police box and where it will not attract attention after the police come to investigate a police box that nobody can get into. He will need something like this during the period that he will be staying on Earth to educate Susan at the school.

2) The equation that Ian gives Susan to do, using A, B and C as three dimensions, she replying that the fourth and fifth dimensions will have to be used as well. He asks what would the fourth and fifth dimensions be and she replies that the fourth would be time and the fifth would be space. Unfortunately referring to time as the fourth dimension is really nothing more than metaphorical as time doesn't figure as the fourth dimension in the mathematically abstract sense (although coming from a race to which time travel is commonplace it more than likely would so figure) and secondly, space is the third dimension, not the fifth. (Perhaps what Susan refers to could be the continuum through which the TARDIS navigates around Time and Space). But, anyway, I can't see what relevance any equations in these dimensions could possibly have on a vectorial problem, which should be child's play for her to solve. I mean does one have to go calculating all sorts of time travel theory to plot a course for, say, the flight path of an aeroplane through three dimensions? Perhaps it is that she has grown so accustomed to calculating courses in five dimensions that she is totally perplexed by a normal three-dimensional equation?

a) Exterior mutable. Can be detected by a faint vibration. The interior is a large brightly lit, control-room with a many sided central structure, containing a number of instrument panels grouped around a central column which is packed with machinery that rises and falls during flight. The TARDIS is dimensionally transcendental (larger on the inside than out). It is probably built along the principals of a dimensional doorway built opening into a pocket universe. There is probably a foyer before one enters the control room as one sees people exiting the control room through double-doors much wider than the police boxes doors. They will open both those doors but only one of the police boxes' doors. It is probably a foyer that will function as an airlock and decontamination unit. The pocket universe/TARDIS portal is a fixed point, which the TARDIS then moves through Space/Time. Or rather around it - this fifth dimension will enable someone to navigate between given points in Time/Space in much quicker times. Susan says that she made up the name TARDIS, from its initials - Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. Unfortunately she has made these up in the English language. As we have other Time Lords calling them TARDISes we are faced with a small problem. It is extremely unlikely that the English language would be spoken on Gallifrey and that these same words would spell the same acronym. It is possible that when the TARDISes were created somebody with knowledge of the English language, as Susan may well have, considering her preoccupation with this planet may have called them this from that.

b) The TARDIS Chameleon Circuit. Does the TARDIS really change its exterior structure? It would require an enormous amount of power to be able to molecularly restructure the portal. What I think is more likely is that the chameleon circuit projects a telepathic illusion to everyone in sensing vicinity, telepathically projecting a visual, aural and tactile illusion which would be indistinguishable from the real thing. Why doesn't the Doctor ever repair the chameleon circuit? I suspect that his eccentric side rather likes the incongruity of a police box.

4) Why does the Doctor take Ian and Barbara with him? First the Doctor says he must take them as they could get away and tell everybody about the TARDIS. But in that time he could have taken off, and anyway, what sort of person is likely to listen to someone who talks of a time machine built in a police box that is larger on the inside than the outside? I think the Doctor, who in this body does seem rather cranky, took them, gaining somewhat of a satisfaction from proving Ian wrong. He does seem to have something of a sinister quality here in the places where he allows Ian to touch a live wire and the way he over-rules Susan and just takes off.

5) How is it that the Doctor and others can travel back in time and speak to, and be replied to, in English, by a tribe of Cro-Magnon men? We must postulate a universal translator which translates based upon conscious, as opposed to unconscious, thoughts that a speaker is trying to communicate. Although there is no record of it in this story or any other (except The Masque of Mandragora when Sarah Jane asks the Doctor why she is speaking Middle Ages Italian, to which he replies, rather enigmatically, that it is a Time Lord gift). Here I posit the Babel fish which the Daemons distributed universally during their seeding programs, except for some reason Earth, which developed its own lingual polyglot. (Well, we did receive it, but somehow lost it - we even named the myth after it -the Tower of Babel) However, this still isn't enough to explain cavemen speaking English (albeit translated English), as their language would have been made up by as many parts body language as it would be verbal, and secondly, their speech is far too sophisticated in its use of pronouns, definite and indefinite articles and prepositions. So what the Babel fish does is that it projects the telepathic illusion that each person is communicating in the other's language, which of course, would be a very good way for Time Lords, who only like to observe and not participate, to blend into alien cultures. Perhaps this is the Time Lord gift? A more sophisticated Babel fish.

6) Why does the Doctor allow intervention into prehistory here -teaching a tribe fire making - when in other places (The Aztecs, The Crusade) he strictly forbids it? No clearly answer. I think what the Doctor means is that a person should not interfere in his own pre-history, as it could well mean he is interfering with the events that led to his creation, as he seems to have no qualms about interfering in the future and other worlds' histories. Potentially any action that a time traveller may perform may change his own future and hence, his own existence. The pebble he kicks aside could be the one that a future history changer could trip on and be killed. However, if one takes a casual, linear view of time, then whatever the time traveller does is in the past so it will always have happened. However, this contradicts what the Doctor says.

This item appeared in TSV 7 (May 1988).

Index nodes: Exegesis, An Unearthly Child