Doctor Who S01E01 – An Unearthly Child

I’ve now watched all of An Unearthly Child.

I’m glad I did. It’s very interesting on a number of levels, not least of which being the humble beginnings.

When it first started I was appalled by the production values; even given its age (1963?) it was terrible quality, barely visible as to what was going on. Fortunately this was just a side-effect of trying to film someone creeping around in the dark and was mostly sorted once the episode started proper.

Plot wise it’s actually not all that bad, though pacing is a bit slow in places. The first part is a corker, dealing with the mystery surrounding the eponymous “Child,” Susan Foreman, and her secretive grandfather. Two teachers take a received-pronunciation interest in her contradictory school results, leading to concern when her home address turns out not to exist. At the end of the episode however, the plot takes a sharp left turn as all they TARDIS off into the stone age.

We then spend the next three episodes involved in a tribal power struggle hinging on their inability to make fire. This in and of itself isn’t a bad story, but it would’ve been a lot better if they’d done it over two episodes (or even one) rather than spun out over three. Plus it’s hard to shake the feeling that someone’s changed channels after the first episode, so I never really engaged with the caveman story because I spent most of it thinking “hey, but I was watching that!”

Character wise, Susan makes for an interesting and fairly unique companion in that she already knows The Doctor and who / what he is. Of the two schoolteachers, the bloke makes a good counterpoint to the frail old Doctor, lending some muscle and presence to the group. The woman brings, well, this is the BBC in the early 60s, so she doesn’t bring as much as she could. She’s the empathy in the group perhaps, making sure that they do the Right Thing. (I’m assuming all three become ‘companions’ as we know them rather than just being protagonist-of-the-month, but I don’t know for sure.)

Which leaves us with The Doctor. It’s kinda weird to see the origins of a character which by definition (these days) regenerates with a new personality every few seasons. Nonetheless, this isn’t the Doctor we know; arguably perhaps, this is a Doctor long overdue for regenerating. He’s an old man playing an old man, and whilst he can be charming and enigmatic with idiosyncratic tics mm?, he’s also insular and impatient. Moreover, he’s also pretty useless, and this for me was where the whole thing came crashing down. He makes bad decisions, and spends a good chunk of the story either absent, unconscious, or being rescued.

I think perhaps this wouldn’t be an issue if we didn’t know what the show becomes. Seeing this when it was fresh and new would’ve been mind-blowing, I’m sure. Now it’s obviously dated, but it does still hold up better than you might expect. It’s got its fault but it’s surprising how much has endured some fifty years later. The iconic image of the TARDIS is fully realised and as identical as makes no odds (externally) to its current incarnation, and that sound effect is present and correct from day one, guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Overall, I’m glad I watched it, and I’d recommend others do too. Even just viewed as a history lesson, it’s pretty interesting stuff.

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