AN UNEARTHLY CHILD
First broadcast 23/11/63 starring William Hartnell
As the date suggests above, I’m just sticking with the opening episode of An Unearthly Child (the very first Doctor Who fact fans – like you didn’t know) and leaving out, for the most part, the other three which make up this First Doctor four~parter. When they started the show all those years ago, they got it right – so flippin’ very right.
The opener positively drips with atmosphere and tension (and how odd, now, watching it with the theme tune running on so much longer than we’re accustomed to) as a policeman wanders around a junkyard in the most creepy of fashions. And then, as Doctor Who still does to this day, it combines the otherly with the mundane – and here it’s a simple school. Susan, so oddly and alienly [is that even a word? – Ed.] played the beautiful Carole Ann Ford, we discover is the subject of suspicion by her teachers Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton (and not just because of her love for the chart-topping sounds of John Smith and the Common Men) due to her seemingly vast knowledge.
It’s so beautifully presented as the camera moves around the Doctor’s granddaughter emphasising her otherliness and alien qualities – and there’s even a flashback for those fond of time-breaks. But it’s when the teachers, and the audience, first meet “Dr. Who” (almost halfway through this episode, it should be noted) that the show delivers some remarkable and palpable punches.
William Hartnell’s Doctor is often described as “irascible” and this is no more apparent throughout his whole time in the TARDIS than it is here, in his first adventure. Immediately, he’s a liar and suspicious of the two Earthlings and cagey about his homelife – “I don’t discuss my private life with strangers,” he tells an inquisitive Ian. And then proceeds to patronise him in the most un-Doctorly of manners. All before kidnapping the teachers and traveling back in time with them.
It’s a frosty start to what would become an amazing and long friendship.
The very first reveal of the TARDIS takes place here too and, again, done expertly with William Russell and Jacqueline Hill playing their astonishment magnificently. That very first console room is till a thing of utter beauty and still so very alien. It’s gobsmacking how much the production managed to cram in to these early moments of the show; just check out Ian’s reaction to touching the TARDIS – “It’s alive!” he exclaims worriedly.
In the opening moments of the following episode, there are some more historic moments regarding his ship as The Doctor ponders, “It’s still a police box, why hasn’t it changed? Dear dear, how very disturbing.” AND the notion of timey-wimey-ness is broached when Ian questions the very notion of time-travel, the teacher states, “Time doesn’t go round and round in circles – you can’t get on and off whenever you like in the past or the future,” to which his elderly kidnapper replies with his own question, “Really? Where does time go then?”
And, back in the first episode, The Doctor reveals that he and Susan are not of this planet (or even time), but merely wanderers exiled from their own home, delivering the truly iconic line, “One day we shall get back. Yes, one day.” William Hartnell, for me, is one of my favourite Doctor Whos, and here he displays just why with his gamut of emotions and anti-hero tactics (like rocking someone over the head a couple of episodes later).
Despite a lapse into yawndom for the rest of the story, An Unearthly Child is a fascinating and perfect one~and~a~bit episodes with a cast on top form, a wonderful production and a script that suffered from no flabbiness and managed to create a deep and lasting mythology within minutes. Almost fifty years on, it’s still a shining example of Doctor Who and its possibilities.