Aired 23 November – 14 December 1963
Needing to set the stage, introduce the characters and allow their personalities to begin to show, and start shedding light on where the programme will go in the future, the first episode of any series is- by necessity- burdened with a degree of prologue, information, and initial intrigue.
Reviewing ‘An Unearthly Child’ (which this four-story arc will be called despite the total difference of the last three episodes from the first) can be done in one of two ways, either taken in context as just the serial itself or taken as the foundation for what would become the longest-running science fiction series in history. The former approach will be taken, and ‘An Unearthly Child’ sets up the adventures of the Doctor and his companions wonderfully.
The first of the four stories is set in 1963 London, the present day at the time of original broadcast. Very quickly we are introduced to Susan Foreman in class at Coal Hill School, and the mystery surrounding her quickly sets the events of the serial and series in motion. Two of her chummy teachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, label her as something of an outsider with strange personality quirks, never quite meshing with the other pupils around her. This, paired with an official address that leads only to a junkyard, causes the curious teachers to follow her ‘home,’ and they quickly find themselves inside of the now-iconic TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space), a transdimensional ship that can travel through time and space, now disguised as a London police box.
The first serial is quite interesting in that there is no actual villain as such, the role of antagonist really being fulfilled by the Doctor himself, portrayed by William Hartnell. The Doctor we are introduced to here is not pleased to have these teachers on board and is actually quite rough, offputting, and rude in some scenes. His devotion to and pride in his granddaughter Susan and his ship is unwavering, and while he briefly explains to the teachers in broad strokes that he and his granddaughter are exiles from their planet now traveling through space and time, he is less keen to have this information divulged publicly. Wanted or not, the Doctor forcefully takes Susan’s ‘primitive’ teachers aboard as traveling companions, and the stage is superbly set for adventures into the unknown.
At all times, Hartnell completely commands every scene he is in, setting himself up as sort of an anti-hero from the start. Carol Ann Ford does just enough in her movements to give a sense of alien to the proceedings, and William Russell and Jacqueline Hill stay true to their educated yet modern personalities as they strive to comprehend what is happening while trying to get to the bottom of the mystery at hand. More questions are raised than are answered, but the foundation is firmly built and established quite quickly, with four arresting leads to guide us.
The remaining three stories of this serial take place in a wholly different and brutal time and place. The barren wasteland hinted at as the credits rolled at the end of the first episode is, in fact, set in prehistoric times (labeled as 100,000 B.C.). Within minutes, the tone is set as the Doctor is clubbed over the head and the group of travelers imprisoned by a violent, desperate tribe.
Quickly we find a power struggle occurring as two men strive to make fire to prove their worthiness of leading the tribe. Catching what would become a rare break, the Doctor and his company are released by the tribe’s elder woman, one who professes to be afraid of fire and its power. However, this quickly leads to a pursuit and one of the darkest moments in the characterization of this Doctor, as he threatens to kill a pursuer who is already down after being attacked (off-screen) by an animal. Fortunately, Ian is there to hold him back, ultimately adding a new level to their burgeoning relationship.
What ultimately follows is a rather plot-lite affair; the travelers are again trapped and use their cunning as well as bargains and tricks with fire to escape the clutches of the tribe. More interesting, though, are the shrouded morals on display from the tribe’s members. Of the two leading men of the tribe, neither is inherently good or without guilt, both looking out for himself moreso than the struggling tribe as a whole. The power struggle, while perhaps not convincingly portrayed on screen, is fascinating to experience. All the while, the actions of their captors allow us to gain further insight into our new four leads.
As noted, the latter three stories are radically different from the initial, and other than adding depth and layers to the Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara, they don’t live up to the superb first episode. Still, the groundwork is laid and the characters already proven to be insightful and engaging. The Doctor is, of course, the most fascinating here because he is still so clearly anguished and secretive, but occasionally we get glimpses of revealing moments of kindness and heart. Still, this is a man whose first on-screen actions were to kidnap and run away, recklessly entering a dangerous situation without a plan in order to satisfy his curiosity. Ian and Barbara, a science and history teacher, respectively, serve tremendously as the viewer’s eyes and ears, asking questions to try to unravel the mystery and to make sense of this strange new world in which they find themselves. There is a genuine sense of respect and admiration from them to the Doctor; that glint of fear is also never far from the surface, but neither is afraid to address the Doctor as needed. Susan, of course, has the respect of both her teachers as well as her grandfather, but only glimpses into her personality are attained through these episodes. She is undoubtedly a strong woman, but it is apparent that she is trying to find herself as well as the adventures progress.
Not looking ahead to where the characters will ultimately end up or who the Doctor will continue to become, these first stories offer a fascinating initial insight into the core characters, superbly setting up the tale while maintaining a tremendous sense of mystery and unknown. While the prehistory storyline does not live up to the 1963 London opening, the four stories combined give a strong foundation to build upon and explore going forward.