Doctor Who From the Beginning: Serial 1, Episode 1: An Unearthly Child

I’m pleased to announce that a new writer is joining us at Gods & Galaxies! He’ll be tackling the behemoth that is older Doctor Who among other things. So without further ado, I’ll let Bryan introduce himself and leave you in his capable hands. 

Hiya folks, I’m really looking forward to playing around in this fantastic sandbox you’ve got here, but before I get into all that, a little background on me.

I love geek stuff. Comic books, foreign films, obscure genre writers, I’m never happier than when I’m digging into these things to unearth some new curiosity. There’s something about cult phenomena that I find fascinating, that strange power it holds over small, but dedicated groups of people.

During one of my usual geek binges, I stumbled onto what is perhaps the largest gap in my nerd knowledge, that mammoth juggernaut known as Doctor Who.

With 800 episodes reaching back to the early sixties, as well as an assortment of specials, novels, comics, and audio dramas, it’s an incredibly daunting franchise. And yet despite that vast backlog of content, I must confess I know next to nothing about the actual series.

Sure, I’m aware of the show’s basic concepts, time machine disguised as police box, alien protagonist that regenerates new identities, I can even pick a Dalek out of a lineup, but past that, my knowledge of the show dries up pretty fast. For years, it’s just sort of been there, existing on the periphery.

Needless to say, I find that quite unacceptable and thought it long past time I dig into the good Doctor’s world and find out what this thing is all about.

Another thing you should know about me, I’m kind of a completist. Be it with authors, shows, or film directors, I like to start at the beginning and work my way forward. So, even though Doctor Who’s 2005 relaunch offers a perfectly good jumping on point, I decided to wade into more distant waters and experience this strange phenomena from the very beginning.

I’m not entirely sure just how ambitious this will get (800 episodes is 800 episodes after all), but at the very least I’d like to hit each of the various eras, get a feel for how it’s changed over time. So, with that out of the way, let’s get down to it with the first ever Doctor Who serial, An Unearthly Child.

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BBC

The show opens on a mysterious note, the now-famous Doctor Who theme playing on in the background as the camera tracks in on a warehouse door, which swings open to reveal a nondescript police box.

From there we cut to a school classroom where we’re introduced to Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton, two teachers who are puzzled by the strange behavior of a mutual student. Incredibly brilliant, but with strange gaps in her knowledge, teenager Susan Foreman is something of a mystery to them both. After comparing notes for a few moments, the two of them decide to follow her home and get to the bottom of just what’s going on.

They end up at the warehouse teased in the show’s opening where they meet a strange, surly old man dressed in Edwardian clothing. They hear Susan’s voice coming from what sounds like the police box and after a heated argument with the unusual man, they manage to to force their way inside the police box where they find themselves standing on the bridge of some mysterious ship.

Not really knowing what I was in for, this episode was something of a pleasant surprise. With its black and white videography and central mystery, it has a real Twilight Zone vibe to it. It does a good job of setting things up, framing the action through two grounded characters and parceling out the fantastic premise a little bit at a time.

We get some brief bits of backstory. The police box is called the TARDIS, which stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space and the doctor reveals that he and Susan are aliens, cut off from their planet, but that’s about it. A lot of the background hasn’t been revealed, which is fine because the mysterious atmosphere really helped this episode along.

I was kind of surprised by some of the relationships. I know the companions are a recurring role throughout the show, but I was surprised that Susan is a direct relation to the Doctor. I also didn’t expect there to be so damn many people filling the role. I’d always thought the companion/doctor dynamic was a one to one thing, but here, we’ve got three separate characters filling the role.

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From left: Barbara, Susan & Ian – BBC

As for the Doctor himself, well, he’s…kind of a dick and, frankly, it’s fantastic. Most of these adventure stories build their heroes from the same template, a kind of Flash Gordon/John Carter man of action. Here though, we have a character who has much more in common with Sherlock Holmes, arrogant and dismissive, with a bitter, misanthropic edge.

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BBC

In these scenes, William Hartnell is awesome, delivering lines like, “I tolerate this civilization, but I don’t enjoy it,” with an acid crankiness. Obviously the teachers are pretty gobsmacked by what they’ve stumbled into and the Doctor uses the occasion to mock them roundly, laughing at their confusion, before finally refusing to let them leave. He allows Ian to electrocute himself on the ship’s instrument panel, then nearly kicks his own granddaughter out into the cold, when she finally sticks up for her teachers.

It’s one hell of a character introduction, especially for the guy whose name is up there on the title. I’m not quite sure where we go from here, but I can only hope it continues in this vein, three reluctant castaways hurtling through time with a deranged and hateful Willy Wonka at the helm.

So far I’m liking what I’m seeing. An unusual lead character with a mysterious background, galavanting around in a glorified phone booth? Sign me up for more.

The episode ends with the TARDIS trapped in some rocky wasteland with a long shadow draped across the ground. Next episode: “The Cave of Skulls.”

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