Doctor Who Rewind: An Unearthly Child (STORY REVIEW)


Doctor Who Rewind is a project I’ve been meaning to begin heading for some time. It’s an itch that’s needed scratching long before I got married. And watching my collection of Doctor Who DVDs slowly gather dust on their shelves isn’t something I wish to continue doing. The series is currently one of the most popular programs in the world, and the BBC’s most profitable show by far. But it wasn’t always so. Throughout its 51 years, over 800 episodes have aired, and many missed the mark. This series will see me bounce around to different stories in different eras of the show’s history. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched any Classic Who. Why not review them? And what better place to start than where it all began.

November 23rd 1963 saw the airing of the very first Doctor Who episode. This was sadly eclipsed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy the previous day. Ratings were low, so they chose to air the episode once more, on the following Saturday. It was a hit. And would forever burrow its way into the consciousness of British pop culture.

The four episodes that comprise the show’s first story (which is now most commonly titled after the first episode therein, An Unearthly Child) are charming as a whole, but hold up quite poorly next to majority of the show’s run. It’s only true star would be the first episode, where we are introduced to Susan Foreman – the Doctor’s granddaughter, her teachers Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton, as well as the irascible Doctor himself, as played by William Hartnell.

Over the course of the show’s history there have been many changing variables. But one constant that is introduced in An Unearthly Child stands front and center, down to this very day. The Doctor’s ship the TARDIS, which stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space (an anagram Susan takes all the credit for), is one of the most brilliant things about the episode. The blue police box is found in the middle of a junkyard, and the juxtaposition of its magisterial presence in lieu of the frankly creepy statues, dolls and other oddiments, is something worth seeing for yourself. Perhaps it was an unrealistically quick conclusion that Ian jumped to when he thought the police box was alive just after feeling it vibrate a little, but hey. All is forgiven when they show us the classy interior (which happens to be far larger on the inside).

The entirety of the first episode, wobbly sets and all, is a brilliant piece of fiction, and an episode all fans of the series should get around to viewing at some point. But the rest of the serial is rather mindless. Actually it’s almost painfully mindless. The four of them get lost some 100,000 years in the past, in the age of the cavemen (or at the very least how Anthony Coburn imagined the age of the cavemen being). They get stuck in a tribal drama over which cave-leader to follow. The only issue is the leader can only be someone respected for making fire, but the two warring tribesmen do not know how that is done. The next three episodes see the Doctor and his companions strung up multiple times, run away several times, and a lot of Susan yelling and Barbara falling ensues. (How the cavemen can even tie knots of rope together, but not understand how fire works is the true mystery.) In the end the Doctor and companions use sheer stupid logic to outsmart them into returning to safety.

And we get to witness a particularly graphic fight/brawl scene that ends with a gruesome death. This definitely wouldn’t fly in the current series.

Despite the fairly drastic dip in quality between the first episode and the rest, we have a lot to be thankful for from this story. Much of what we understand as canon comes directly from these crucial episodes. Namely that the TARDIS hasn’t changed its shape to match its surroundings because it can’t any longer, and the fact that it doesn’t take the Doctor where he wants it to go are paramount to both the ship’s iconic look and the show’s groundbreakingly simple formula. We get the very first mention of a ‘John Smith’ in episode one, a name the Doctor will use many times down the line as an alias. The sound of the TARDIS dematerializing is still very much the same exasperated whine here as it is in modern episodes. Even the classic tune created by Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire that we know and love is present, albeit in its earliest and eeriest state.

The First Doctor, as played by William Hartnell, is often a very cruel specimen in his early stories. None more so than An Unearthly Child, at one point even shocking Ian. This is actually quite an interesting thing to watch, his slow growth into the bumbling fool genius he will soon become.

Although this story is mostly just ridiculous filler, it’s what sprung the show into existence. And that’s fine by me.

Grab the first three stories on DVD.

20 thoughts on “Doctor Who Rewind: An Unearthly Child (STORY REVIEW)

  1. Hey I actually watched this… I keep meaning to go back and watch some more but haven’t yet… but one thing I do like about it is that it’s him just dealing with humans… I think you mentioned in one post how you wish it wasn’t all aliens all the time… and I think it was kind of cool to see the Doctor trying to get himself out of such a mundane situation… well if being trapped by cave men unless you can make fire be considered mundane…

    but hey they finally got Doctor Who season 8 up on Netflix… so happy… been going through it… did not like the first episode… but slowly liking the new doctor a bit more… he’s definitely different… and is it just me or are the episodes darker? I mean I was freaked out during the whole “is there really something under your bed” bit… probably gonna have nightmares tonight… or maybe it’s just because the Tardis seems darker and gloomy and more alien spacecraft… if that makes any sense… but definitely happy to finally see what all the fuss is about…

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  2. While I’m glad the new series hasn’t been a reboot… there was a part of me that wondered… “what if” the BBC were to do a series about a young Doctor… basically William Hartnell when he was a young man. They could tell Gallifrey stories and they could build up to Unearthly Child. If they don’t strike now while the iron is hot, they never will… and maybe they won’t… but I still wonder.

    I also have always thought that Colin Baker sometimes channeled William Hartnell. There’s a lot of stuff the older man Hartnell Doctor gets away with that Colin seemed mean for saying, but as you note Hartnell could be quite cruel sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Geekritique

      That’s not to say Colin couldn’t be cruel at times either. But I think the show had evolved so much at that point, it wasn’t what the audience wanted.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, I think that’s part of it… I also always felt an older actor can get away with it more. With Hartnell it felt more like your grandfather being stuck in his ways you you give him a pass.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. In a way, this is the definitive Doctor Who story. During this, we know the least about him (even in The Daleks, we learn at least something new), and the concept of being taken into a completely hostile world is a nice starting metaphor of what it’s like to travel with him: this will never be safe. An Adventure in Space and Time helps me appreciate it even more. Also, I’m so glad you started doing this. I’m gonna have to start reviewing the Classic Series some time.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Appreciate your review — when I watched this to kick off my own rewind project, I came away with a much more charitable view of the cavemen sequence. Uncompromising brutality, and very well directed by young radical Waris Hussein; the cavemen get lots of good philosophical lines of dialogue (I expect most of which were written by the great David Whitaker), and most of the actors under that caveman makeup would return to the series again, so very few slackers in the bunch. The first on-screen death in a “Doctor Who” story is somebody’s grandmother — that’s pretty gutsy storytelling.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Geekritique

      You and I saw two very different sides to the same story. But that’s the fantastic thing about different blogs doing similar revisits. So many perspectives. So many different things to comment on.

      I will admit that killing off the old woman was pretty gutsy!

      Liked by 1 person

      • When I did my rewind, in strict chrono order (which got as far as “The Enemy of the World” before my project got sidelined) I made a conscious effort to find something good to appreciate in every story. This was really easy and surprisingly fun to do… until I reached “The Web Planet”.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. This looks like a cool project, and I’ll be keen to see what you think of other classic episodes. I’ve been trying to watch more classic Who myself this year, though I’ve ended up doing so in no particular order. I got the Beginning boxset a little while ago and I agree that the first episode of An Unearthly Child is good to watch while the rest is rather weak – The Daleks is a better story overall.

    Liked by 1 person

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