A brand new review of the very first Doctor Who story. Once upon a time there was a junkyard shrouded in fog on a London street. Inside that junkyard was a man in a magic box. And that man was frightening. He was a kidnapper and he was even capable of murder, until an ordinary school teacher stepped in and stopped him. It was Ian who made Doctor Who what it would become, by setting the Doctor on the right path in that incredible moment.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s look at what we have to look at here, because it’s not straightforward. Firstly, we don’t actually have a four-part story. Forget the production code, director, novelisation, VHS and DVD releases – that’s all about one thing: convenience. After all, a video with one episode on wouldn’t have been acceptable, nor would three episodes of Stone Age tedium have set the world alight in the sales charts. But this is most certainly an opening individual Doctor Who episode, followed be a three-episode story, if you look at what we actually have on screen. Despite that, let’s look at all four episodes, to avoid confusion if nothing else.
Then we have the added confusion of the “pilot episode”. It is remarkable that this survived and we are very lucky to have it, but let’s not run away with the idea that it is anything other than a bunch of failed takes of the first episode. There is not even one coherent “pilot episode” – what with the broadcast version in 1991, the VHS version and the DVD version, this has now been cobbled together in three different ways. However, it holds a special place for me because it is something that contributed to me becomming a fan of Who. I can vaguely recall getting the impression at the time of the 1991 showing that this was the actual first episode of Doctor Who that had been lost and refound. I suspect it was hyped as such in the media although I cannot say for sure. A lot of fuss was made about a failed take, and a broadcast of the final version of the episode would have perhaps been a more logical thing to show the British viewers, but I can understand the thinking behind it all. I had watched some Doctor Who as a child, starting with some Davison episodes, abandoning the show when the man who I viewed at the time as Mr Nasty took over from him (and there was the lure of The A Team on the other side), and then returning to the series when some exciting monsters brought me back for Season 25. After Who finished in ’89 I was not particularly bothered/interested/aware and could certainly not have been described as a fan. But that broadcast of the pilot episode and all the hype that surrounded it sparked off a little flame of interest. The scariness of the junkyard in the fog, all in black and white which seemed so alien and from so long ago (although I had a black and white television in my bedroom, so this was hardly something from antiquity!). It was all so compelling, and perhaps this was the start of my love for the black and white era of Doctor Who, which I will openly admit is by far my favourite. So in a bizarre way, like a child of the 60s, William Hartnell was “my Doctor” for this child of the 80s/90s. It is not what made me a fan – a couple of VHS tapes bought for me the following year (followed by Doctor Who Magazine Issue 186, and then the recovery of The Tomb of the Cybermen) really did that, but it was nonetheless a significant moment.
And that all gives me a little bit of an insight into what that must have been like for a child in 1963, watching that amazing episode (albeit a better version of it!). Because in many ways it really has never been bettered and nothing quite like it has ever been done again. However…
I fully expect most people will disagree with this, but making the Doctor an anti-hero was a mistake. Much is made of Ian being our hero, but he’s not the lead and the show is not called “Ian”. Each and every time a new Doctor has been introduced who was not a very nice person it has failed (Sixth and Twelfth), and the First Doctor is no exception to that. Without the Daleks, four episodes later, Doctor Who would probably have ended after it’s first run of 13 episodes. Here’s what we could have had:
An Unearthly Child
The Masters of Luxor
The Edge of Destruction
…and that’s it. We wouldn’t even have that, because the whole lot would have been wiped. So it was the Daleks that saved Who, and the decision to make the Doctor an anti-hero was rapidly abandoned. Those who remember Hartnell as a grumpy Doctor have cheating memories. There are virtually no stories other than the first two where that can be claimed with any conviction. For most of his era he is quite an amiable chap (see The Romans for the best example). The production team recognised pretty quickly that a Doctor who was really not a very nice person was not the way to go.
But before they fixed Doctor Who, we have an oddity to look at: those three caveman episodes. And what an oddity they are: slow, visually unimpressive, with a pervading tone of violence and some quite shocking images for the time. We have a Doctor who wants to commit murder, and at least one companion who spends most of the story screaming or in hysterics. There are some quite atmospheric moments, but for the most part this is dreadful stuff, such a come-down from the brilliance of the opening episode. And the viewers really weren’t taking to this stuff. The whole serial failed to get into the weekly top 60, and it would take four episodes of Daleks to get Who into the top 30 (interestingly, and as an aside, The Aztecs brought Who into the top 20, so historical stories were not the barrier to success here, just historical stories done badly).
I know there is so much more to say about these first four episodes, but I will leave that to better writers than me, but I will leave you with this thought. Looking at the very start of Doctor Who, we can see a pattern that many years later would be re-used: (1) introduce Doctor Who through the eyes of a companion, (2) story in the past on Earth, (3) story in the future not on Earth. But here’s the thing: 2 and 3 are back to front. RP
The story reviewed above is also known by the title “100,000 BC”, which is the title used by Doctor Who Magazine. It’s the wrong title, but that’s a discussion to annoy people with another day…
The view from across the pond (kind of):
I’d really like to start our “views from across the pond” when I’m actually across the pond. At the moment, I’m in Ireland finishing my holidays but as I wait for my family to decide what we will do today, I have some time to write.
The fist episode of An Unearthly Child, the only part of the four actually about said child, is brilliant. As two school teachers are perplexed by a very strange child, they do something that would get them in a lot of trouble by today’s standards: they follow her home. Imagine the news broadcasts! Imagine the reputation such an act would cause today for Ian and Barbara! To add insult to injury, they find themselves in a junkyard where they are caught trespassing! If Susan, that unearthly child, were doing anything normal, this might make for a very awkward moment indeed. Luckily for viewers and science fiction TV, they do discover so much more: a crotchety old man, a mysterious box and a gateway to everything that ever happened or ever will. Music, special effects, acting… all come together to bring us a gripping 25 minutes of television. The ending leaves us wondering and anxious for part two.
Sadly, parts 2, 3 and 4 never amount to anything until the last few minutes of part 4 when we find ourselves on another world. But that’s another story. There’s a lot to dislike in these 3 parts. It’s slow, plodding, poorly acted in most cases. Caveman dialog is not strong at the best of times. Za and Cal need fight, need fire… need plot! One might wonder what the writers had in mind when they had the Doctor pick up a rock to bash in a caveman’s head. The show is called “Doctor Who” after all; making him beat someone to death might have been frowned upon. And as a Doctor, there would be no way to justify that action!
But it has some great scenes… As a non-smoker, I’d say my favorite message in this story is the anti-smoking one you might have missed. Namely, the one and only time the Doctor ever tries to smoke, lighting his Sherlock Holmes style calabash pipe, he is bashed on the head and abducted. Never do we see him attempt that again. As if smoking wasn’t bad enough, leading to being tied up in a cave of skulls seems to put the Doctor off ever lighting up again!
Susan, a time and space traveler with her grandfather (even if at this point we don’t know she isn’t human), should be an old hand at travel and should roll with the things she sees. Instead, she’s often reduced to a gibbering mass, screaming time and again as if Lovecraft’s Cthulhu has made an appearance, driving away any sanity she might have possessed. Susan is a wreck and a very hard character to like, even though she should be one of the best the series ever produced.
Ian and Barbara, by contrast, make great companions and will forever be among my favorites. But when it comes down to it, the attraction is the mysterious, grumpy old man that is the highlight of the show. William Hartnell pulls off the role with great skill, even if his health was weakening. And all that makes Doctor Who great about the Doctor was infecting Hartnell as well. He once said that “once you’ve been involved with the doctor, some of the magic stays with you for the rest of your life”. He couldn’t have been more right!
An Unearthly Child is not without problems. Truthfully, I’d be inclined to say that 3/4s of the story is problematic for network TV, but that first part is strong and kept people interested. For nostalgia, for understanding TV of the 60s, and for getting some insight into our favorite time traveler, it is worth watching. At least the first part should be viewed, but you might want to know what made the Doctor the man we know, and it starts here.
Looking forward to more reviews from across the pond… once I get back there! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Daleks