Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child. Part Four – The Firemaker


During season one the Doctor is a rather self-centered sort of person – far removed from the champion of the oppressed that he’d later become.

Sydney Newman’s original concept had portrayed the Doctor as something of an anti-hero and this is maintained through the early stories. Yes, he does help the Thals defeat the Daleks (but only because he needs to retrieve the fluid link – otherwise he’d have happily left them to their own devices at the end of episode four). Other examples (in both The Keys of Marinus and The Sensorites the Doctor would have sloped off early if the TARDIS hadn’t been immobilised) aren’t difficult to find.

This first story is also concerned with the Doctor’s attempt to escape and return to the ship. He’s not interested in the power-struggles of the tribe (although the others are) and in the end it turns out that he was right not to get involved as it’s debatable what (if anything) Za and Hur learnt from Ian and Barbara.

In an earlier draft of Anthony Coburn’s script, Ian’s influence was much more explicit. He insisted that he’d only show the whole tribe how fire was made (Za agreed to this) and therefore the fight between Za and Kal was not just a battle for tribal supremacy. If Kal had won then he’d have carried on as an autocratic leader (jealously guarding the secret of fire) whereas Za offered a more inclusive, enlightened leadership.

But since this part of the script was later redrafted the contrast between Za and Kal was somewhat lost. Although there is one exchange between Za and Hur –

ZA: They are a new tribe. Not like us. Not like Kal. The young one, whose name is Friend, spoke to me.
HUR: Do you remember it?
ZA: He said, Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe.
HUR: I do not understand.
ZA: The whole tribe drove Kal away with the stones. The whole tribe can collect more fruit than one. The whole tribe can kill a beast where one of the tribe would die.

Which indicates that some of Ian’s words have struck home.

The question of leadership is settled when Za kills Kal in an excellently directed film sequence (shot by production assistant Douglas Camfield). Camfield’s obvious affinity with both film & VT cameras would be seen time and again (not only on Doctor Who but numerous other series during the 1960’s, 1970’s and early 1980’s). The shots of the time-travellers, lit by the flickering fire recently made by Ian, are especially impressive – and it’s their reactions to the fairly brutal fight which really help to give it an impact.

Thanks to a ruse with some skulls and Ian’s fire, the TARDIS crew manage to make their escape. The shots of them escaping through the forest (shot at Ealing) are simply done – stage-hands brush plants at their faces as they run on the spot. It’s not sophisticated, but it works, so who can ask for more? Indeed, the tight focus on their faces might have been borne out of necessity – since the forest set was rather small – but it also works to the benefit of the scene.

Although the three episodes of tribal antics have never been to everybody’s tastes, I’ve always found plenty to enjoy in them. The barren landscape strips the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara of any sort of superiority (see how the Doctor’s link with technology – his scientific equipment – is lost at the start of the second episode) so if they’re going to survive then they’ll need to rely on just their wits and ingenuity.

It demonstrates the first faltering steps that they take together, although it won’t be until the end of The Edge of Destruction that they finally become a fully-functioning unit.

The Doctor has intelligence and wisdom, but at the moment he’s disinclined to help others unless it’s of benefit to him. Ian is practical and able to organise whilst Barbara is the moral centre of the party. Since the three of them all have very clear skills it does pose the uncomfortable question as to exactly what Susan contributes.

In many ways Susan is what the traditional companion will become – someone who’ll fall over, sprain their ankle and need rescuing. Over the years we’ll see how the Doctor inherits the character traits of both Ian and Barbara, meaning they’ll only be room for a Susan-type companion.

But as this point the Doctor is far from infallible and is capable of capricious judgements – as we’ll see as the four explore The Dead Planet.

Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child. Part Three – The Forest of Fear


The early years of Doctor Who have some fine examples of caption acting. As the episode and writers credits were superimposed over the opening scene it often called for an actor to freeze in a suitably impressive way. Here, we see Eileen Way’s outstretched arm, holding Kal’s knife, remaining rock-solid for five seconds or so. There are plenty of others to look out for (The Firemaker is another good-un).

Inside the Cave of Skulls the Doctor is offering Barbara some moral support (“Fear makes companions of all of us”) whilst also offering more practical advice – he recommends that they all take it in turns to free Ian, since he’s the strongest and may have to defend them.

Another example of the lack of editing that was available at the time comes when the Old Mother breaks into the Cave. Either Carole Ann Ford was cued too early or the vision-mixer cut too soon, but there’s a pause of a few seconds before Eileen Way comes into view. A few years later this would have been easily tightened up, but given the restrictions on tape editing at the time it had to remain.

Old Mother sets them free and the four time-travellers make their way back to the TARDIS through the forest of fear. It’s very noticeable how dirty and disheveled they are – something we rarely see in the years to come – which helps to add an extra level of reality to their situation. This is no casual stroll back to freedom, there’s a sense of desperation and hysteria about their escape.

And the worst affected is Barbara – she’ll later become such a sold reassuring presence that it’s disturbing to see her in such a state (Oh, we’re never going to get out of this awful place! Never! Never! Never!”). Her breakdown is what you’d expect for a middle-class woman snatched from 1963 and planted down into a totally alien landscape, but her extreme reaction couldn’t have been repeated too many times. So you can contrast this with the casual way the time-travellers view the various sights they encounter a few stories later in The Keys of Marinus.

Za’s not a very good leader is he? And if it wasn’t for Hur, constantly guiding him, it’s clear that story would have ended in episode three. Hur is something of a Lady Macbeth, having to constantly prod and push her man in order for him to do the right thing. She isn’t evil though – and neither is Za – they just live on a totally different level to the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara.

Although Za and Hur catch up with the Doctor and the others, when Za is attacked by an (obviously) off-screen animal it’s the perfect time for them to make their escape. It’s therefore intriguing that it’s only Barbara, the one who’s been the most desperate to escape, who decides to stay and help him.

Ian and Susan are initially reluctant, but acquiesce when they see that Barbara won’t be persuaded. This leaves the Doctor as the sole dissenting voice as he tells Barbara that “you’re trying to say that everything you do is reasonable, and everything I do is inhuman. Well, I’m afraid your judgement’s at fault.”

Barbara explains to Hur that “we will make him well again. We will teach you how to make fire. In return, you show us the way back to our cave.” It sounds like a decent plan but we’ll see that things don’t quite work out like that. The Doctor’s observation that the tribe’s minds change as rapidly as night and day seems to be quite astute.

The Forest of Fear also has the noteworthy moment when the Doctor picks up a rock and attempts to murder Ka. Or does he? The interpretation of this scene is certainly open to debate and it’s not as cut and dried as received wisdom would suggest. Yes, he picks up a rock and moves towards Ka but there’s not even a hint that he’s preparing to strike. And although he’s initially hesitant to explain himself when confronted by Ian, is that really enough to condemn him? In these early stories the Doctor was played as an elderly man, so it seems unlikely that he would have had the strength to bash Kal’s brains in, even if he’d wanted to.

I’ve always found the chronology of the cliffhanger to be odd. In the penultimate scene we see Kal and the others decide to set off after Za, Hur and the strange tribe – but how can Kal have caught up with them by the very next scene? Ideally Kal should have set off earlier in the episode, that way it wouldn’t seem so jarring to suddenly see him pop up to bar the way to the TARDIS.

Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child. Part Two – The Cave of Skulls


After acting in a malevolent and mocking way in the previous episode (the highlight being his attempt to electrocute Ian) the Doctor’s in a much more friendly and mellow mood in The Cave of Skulls. Was this inconsistent scripting or intentional – ensuring that the audience would be forced to keep guessing about his ultimate motivations?

But maybe he only mildly rebukes Ian’s continuing inability to accept the situation (“You really are a stubborn young man, aren’t you?”) because he’s now in command, having left London in 1963. Whatever the reason, the Doctor’s keen to explore (which will, for the first but not the last time, get him into trouble).

If the title of 100,000 BC is to be believed, then the Doctor’s correct in his assumption that they’ve travelled back in time. It’s interesting though that this is never confirmed on screen – it’s explicitly stated that the TARDIS’ “yearometer” isn’t functioning and so the date can’t be confirmed.

Had it been revealed at the end of episode four that this was actually a future vision of the Earth, following a nuclear holocaust, then it wouldn’t have come as a surprise. Maybe this was the original intention but got lost after one of the many rewrites? Not that it really matters, but it would have given the story an extra little frisson.

The tribe are a mixed bunch. Most mannered is Howard Lang as Horg who’s difficult to take seriously, although Derek Newark (Za), Alethea Charlton (Hur), Kal (Jeremy Young) and Eileen Way (Old Mother) are much better. All would return to the series in later years, as well as popping up in numerous other series of the time.

Za, Hur and Kal form an unlikely love triangle with Old Mother looking on ironically from the sidelines, constantly muttering that it would be better if Za never learns the secret of fire. It’s hard to understand her vehemence against fire, especially if one believes Za’s statement that without fire they’d die. Exactly why fire strikes such fear into her heart is never explained.

The initial TARDIS scene is notable for allowing the doors to open on the alien landscape. This wasn’t very common (although it would crop up again in The Sensorites) but I’m grateful they did it here since it really helps to sell the illusion of stepping from the ship into the unknown.

The forced perspective sets of the apparently endless plains may be obvious if you look too hard, but given the small amount of money Barry Newbery had to play with they’re still impressive. The wind sound effects help to create the impression that it’s freezing (although that makes the moment when Ian touches the sand and is astonished how cold it is, all the more strange).

We get the first of Susan’s hysterical fits, when the Doctor disappears – I really wish Barbara had slapped her hard as it might have discouraged her from doing it again! As for the Doctor, we see him enjoying a crafty smoke with a pipe – clearly this was only introduced so that Kal could see the Doctor make fire (or maybe the trauma in the Cave of Skulls was the moment he decided to kick the habit?)

Although Ian’s still in denial about everything, there’s also the first sign of his practical nature – after the Doctor disappears he automatically takes command. And when they’re all imprisoned in the Cave of Skulls it’s no surprise that Barbara is the one he checks on first (“Are you all right? Did they hurt you?”). Although never explicitly stated on-screen it seems obvious Barbara and Ian are very much a couple (as David Whitaker later confirmed in The Crusaders novelisation).

With the Doctor having seemingly lost all of his previous bluster (“Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, it’s all my fault. I’m desperately sorry.”) things look bleak for our four heroes as they contemplate the myriad of skulls – all of which have been split open.

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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The Five Faces of Doctor Who


It’s a little staggering to realise that The Five Faces of Doctor Who repeat season began airing in early November 1981.  Thirty five years, where has the time gone?

Back then, the eighteen year old An Unearthly Child and even The Krotons (a mere thirteen years old) seemed like relics from a different age.  The flickery black and white telerecordings had a lot to do with that of course, the lack of colour made them appear much older than they actually were.  But it’s still more than a little strange that Survival seems like a much more current story today than An Unearthly Child did then, despite the fact that Survival is a whopping twenty seven years old.  Funny thing time …..

If you weren’t there, it’s difficult to describe just how important The Five Faces of Doctor Who was.  Old Doctor Who didn’t get repeated and the first commercially available story wouldn’t hit the shelves until 1983.  So if you wanted to get a feel for pre-Baker Doctor Who then your options were rather limited – Target novelisations were your best bet, although there were also the World Distributors annuals (even if their vision of the Doctor Who universe was idiosyncratic, to put it kindly).

Factual information could be gleaned from Doctor Who Weekly and Doctor Who Monthly, whilst a small handful of books – The Making of Doctor Who, The Doctor Who Monster Book – also offered tantalising glimpses of these “lost” stories.  After all, back then we weren’t concerned about the stories which were actually missing from the archives, everything from the past was as good as lost to us.

And then in early November 1981 we had the chance to see how it all started.  I’ve written here about how I view An Unearthly Child today, rewinding thirty five years I’m pretty sure I was just as taken with it then.  Three episodes of caveman antics might not be to everyone’s tastes, but the grime and despair of those episodes fitted perfectly with the dark winter evenings in 1981 (just as they would have done in 1963).  I loved it then and I love it now and I know I always will.

The Krotons had a bit of a bumpier ride.  My ten-year-old self found the story a little thin, but Troughton (like Hartnell) impressed right from the start.  It’s a story I’ve grown to appreciate a little more over the years, as it’s perfect undemanding fare.  And the lovely Wendy Padbury wears a very short skirt, which is nice.

If the internet had existed in 1981 then no doubt it would have gone into meltdown after Carnival of Monsters and The Three Doctors were broadcast the wrong way round.  Carnival, thanks to Vorg and Shirna, looked a little odd back then, and it would take a few more watches before the cleverness of Robert Holmes’ script became clear to me.  The Three Doctors is good fun, nothing more, nothing less.  It was nice to see the Brig in action for the first time though, even if I’d later realise we weren’t really seeing him at his best here.

Logopolis was an obvious choice, as Castrovalva was less than a month away from broadcast (and since it featured Davison’s sole appearance to date, if they hadn’t shown this one then the Five Faces tag wouldn’t have worked).  Since it was a current story it rather lacked the “wow” feeling of the others, but in the pre-VHS age, “another chance to see” was always welcome and following this broadcast I wouldn’t see it again for nearly a decade (a pirate copy came my way in the late eighties).

I’m off to recreate those winter evenings from 1981 with a rewatch over the next few weeks of those five serials – splendid stories, all of them.