Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child. Part One

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If you’ve seen the pilot episode, then you’ll know that technically the transmitted An Unearthly Child was considerably smoother – although it’s still far from perfect.

For example, In Ian and Barbara’s first scene, as they discuss the mysterious Susan, it’s hard not to be distracted by the loud off-screen banging (is this the reason why Jackie Hill seems to raise her voice at certain times?)

It’s a pity that couldn’t have gone back to the start, especially since there’s an edit at 5:47, just after Susan says “I like walking through the dark. It’s mysterious”, which indicates that the original plan – to shoot continually from the opening to the point where the Doctor, Ian and Barbara enter the TARDIS – had to be abandoned.

But Jacqueline Hill and William Russell, pros that they were, were able to carry on and this initial scene clearly defines their characters. Barbara dislikes mysteries – and the puzzle of Susan Foreman is an itch that won’t go away. Ian is mildly intrigued, but he doesn’t seem to be bothered either way. He’s also presented as a sober rationalist – a man of science – and it’s instructive to watch how his certainties are stripped away as the episode progresses.

Ian knows that the TARDIS is a scientific impossibility, but that doesn’t explain how he comes to be inside it. His initial narrow-minded attitude is contrasted by Barbara. She has no more understanding of the situation than he does – but she simply accepts the situation.

An Unearthly Child might have been filmed in a cramped studio with ancient cameras, but the few limited tricks it uses do work well. It’s possible to believe that Ian’s car actually moves – thanks to the combination of sound effects, camera angles and some judicious shaking by the stage hands!

And as Ian and Barbara sit in the car, waiting for Susan to return home, we flashback to scenes in the school as they both remember instances of Susan’s strange behaviour. It’s shot in the only way possible – we see Susan and the other pupils in the classroom whilst hearing the pre-recorded voices of Ian and Barbara – but although this was borne out of necessity it does work to the strength of the scene. Since we can’t see the teachers, the camera has to stand in for them – creating an unsettling atmosphere as it focuses in on Carole Ann Ford’s face.

This episode is a good vehicle for Ford – but once the mystery of Susan is solved mid-way through the character will very much be relegated fourth in the pecking order. With an initial production block of fifty two episodes eventually confirmed she’ll have her moments – but she’ll rarely get the opportunity to be more than the fifteen-year old girl she appears to be.

I love William Hartnell. I think it’s hard to be a Doctor Who fan and not have a deep appreciation of the man – although some people seem to manage it. Although Hartnell’s off-screen behaviour is a problem for many, it is true that whilst there’s plenty of evidence that he was unpleasant and prejudiced, there’s also countless anecdotes that speak to the contrary. He may have been a flawed human-being, like all of us, but there’s something magical about his Doctor right from the start.

I tolerate this century, but I don’t enjoy it. Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? Have you? To be exiles? Susan and I are cut off from our own planet, without friends or protection. But one day we shall get back. Yes, one day. One day.

This episode was my first exposure to Hartnell’s Doctor, way back in 1981 as part of the Five Faces season of repeats. It does seem slightly staggering that back then the story was a mere eighteen years old (which today would be like watching something from 1997) as it seemed to come from another age entirely.

The odd technical imperfection apart, this episode is pretty much perfect. Certainly as an introduction to the four regulars it couldn’t be bettered, especially since they share all the lines between them. It was clearly important to delineate all their characters precisely before they became prisoners in The Cave of Skulls.

Ah, yes. If An Unearthly Child is an excellent opening episode, then the next three do have their critics – with the likes of Verity Lambert, David Whitaker and Waris Hussein being amongst the first to express reservations (even before they were transmitted).

Had more time been available then they may have done something different, but there’s plenty of drama to be found with the tribe (of Gum?) especially when contrasting their values against those of the TARDIS crew.

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5 thoughts on “Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child. Part One

  1. Yes interesting. I haven’t seen this but i do remember seeing some Hartnell episodes as a young child. To be frank he scared me as much as any of the monsters. The Troughton era was where i really got going with the series but that’s only because i was getting slightly older. I’d really like to go back and investigate these early ones particularly having seen the excellent Mark Gatiss written ‘An Adventure in time and Space.’

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    • It’s a good time to be picking up the DVDs as they’re pretty cheap at present (in a few years time they might start to drift OOP, as they have in the US).

      Like the rest of the range, the Hartnell DVDs look pretty spiffy – with cleaned up PQ and oodles of documentaries and commentaries. You could do worse than pick up The Beginning – a boxset which contains the first three stories.

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  2. Thanks i might just do that. I bought two Tom Baker DVDs having read your critiques. I’m useless with titles but the one set in a lighthouse and the Victorian Fu Manchu looking story. My problem is actually being able to watch them as i have to wait until everyone else is out (a rare treat sadly)

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    • Talons of Weng-Chiang and Horror of Fang Rock, both good choices. Hartnell-wise, you may want to excercise caution with The Web Planet (it has a strange hypnotic quality but at times is also a shambles) but otherwise you can’t go that wrong with any of his stories, all of which have something to offer.

      Apart from The Beginning, I’d recommend The Aztecs, The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Rescue/The Romans, The Time Meddler, The Gunfighters, The War Machines and The Tenth Planet.

      That’ll give you a good mix of historical and SF stories across the three years of Hartnell’s era.

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