Doctor Who (Classic): S01E01 “An Unearthly Child”

Season 1
Directed by Waris Hussein
Written by Anthony Coburn

When talking about the early days of Doctor Who the first thing that always comes up is just how old the show is. It has been on the air in one form or another for all but 14 of the past 52 years with multiple spinoffs and yet all forming one large continuity aside from a few noncanonical works such as the Peter Cushing movies and “Scream of the Shalka”. To put this into perspective, when Doctor Who premiered in 1963, there were two channels in Britain, The Twilight Zone was still on the air, and the original Star Trek was still three years out.

As an American, the show never really came to my attention until somewhere during the Tenth Doctor’s run. I vaguely knew of the show a bit before then but it was basically thought of as some low budget, dated, and truly British thing and the show is very much all of those but that should not necessarily be taken as an insult. I eventually came on board by catching up on the modern era episodes sometime in Eleven’s run (I believe slightly before or during the break in episodes during Season 6) and instantly loved the show. I still took a long time to actually start the classic series though largely out of fear of how it has aged, but also because 26 seasons is frankly a huge time commitment with each Doctors’ run the equivalent of catching up on a show by itself.

If you are only familiar with the modern series (which is where I started and I’d recommend everyone start), it is certainly a transition to back to the First Doctor. Even beyond the obvious special effect upgrades and that we are currently on the Twelfth (well Thirteenth kind of) actor to play the lead role (and all in unique ways), it’s a very different show now then it was then tonally and in format. Episodes are only 25 minutes as opposed to the 45 minutes they are now, almost all the serials are 4 or more episodes long while now they are mostly one episode long with a couple two-parters each year (though season 9 flipped that), and there is no real mythology at the start. While originally intended as an educational show, and barring hallmarks of this until the Second Doctor’s era, the show very quickly (as I will discuss more next episode) abandoned that notion.

The first episode of “An Unearthly Child” eventually introduces us to The Doctor but that doesn’t happen until twelve minutes in. Instead it is primarily focused on introducing us to The Doctor’s granddaughter Susan and her teachers Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton (at a “modern for the time” Coal Hill School which later a large part of Series 8). The mystery is compelling though obviously much of it is diminished by the fact that as a modern viewer I knew the answers well beforehand (and better than the writers did).

I’ll try to avoid talking about the future episodes too much, especially the future classic ones if that makes any sense, but I will say that at first The Doctor is much different from what is to come both in this iteration and overall. He is called Dr. Who in the credits, a bit of a jerk who kidnaps Barbara and Ian because he’s afraid they will tell the newspapers about him (a trait which to my knowledge never comes up again), and not nearly so clever. There’s actual concern if the new planet/time is safe for everyone involved with The Doctor actually taking out equipment to check on it instead of everyone just wandering about right off the bat.

There are plenty of recognizable aspects of Doctor Who as in the first episode alone we are introduced to (and given a name for) the TARDIS with a recognizable interior and sounds and that it is bigger on the inside, that The Doctor and Susan are time travelers cut off from their planet, and that the TARDIS is actually capable of transporting itself at least in time. The later episodes also establish that the TARDIS is not functioning properly with the cloaking mechanism broken and not being able to tell where and when they are.

The remaining three episodes take place in the Stone Age and are, to put it charitably not great but hey at least they are still intact (and none are missing until the fourth serial). The Stone Age humans talk in generic caveman speak. The story is about a power play following the death of an elder and the quest for fire and there is way too much attention played to this dull plot instead of our new leads who remain only faint sketches of people. Susan screams a lot but is supposedly smart, Ian is the “leader” and the one who stands up to The Doctor the most, and Barbara is the more reasonable one. The show never really gives a reason why we should care about all these cavemen though aside from the fantastically named Za whose name is shouted quite frequently but is not really identifiable from all the other virtually identical looking bearded, longhaired white people.

Stray Observations

-The theme song right off the bat sounds great though the titles themselves would improve (and get worse at times).
-The music gets far too wacky during the action scenes which does make for big (unintentional) laughs of the serial.
-For a supposedly educational show, there is nothing educational to speak of here. Heck, our leads never even seem to display much knowledge of the time period themselves.
-Unless people reading this would prefer something different (assuming anyone does read it of course) I will be handling these reviews 1 serial at a time and considering just how many of these there are to get through, I will be publishing them twice a week. Any slower seems untenable considering the well 26 seasons ahead of me (and the fact that I don’t want to wait nearly a year to get to new episodes for myself), but I recognize this works out to 8+ episodes a week which while fine for me, well… everybody is not me.

Next Up: “The Daleks” on Friday (though open to suggestions on that).