Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

There are some characters who are perennially reinvented for a new generation. Frankenstein, Dracula, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Superman, Batman…the list goes on and on. These iconic figures have something in common; they may now be more well known to audiences from films but they all originated in printed media be it books or comics. It’s hard to think of a character created for movies or television who has shown this kind of lasting appeal…with one exception.

There are the horror franchises of course but they are a relatively new development, it’s only been 35 years since the creation of Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees is 33 and Freddy Krueger isn’t even 30 yet. You could make an argument for Kirk and Spock from Star Trek both recently re-imagined for modern cinemagoers but they’ve so far only been played by two actors and it remains to be seen how long the current iterations will last.

Please feel free to correct me in the comments but I can only think of one character created for film and television who has shown the sort of longevity I’ve been talking about and appropriately enough he’s a Time Lord. The Doctor is 50 and even if you can think of another example of a character with that sort of staying power there’s something that sets him apart. Unlike those examples I gave at the start and any others you care to think of the Doctor’s story is unique and what makes it unique is just that, it is one ongoing story, an epic 50 year narrative that while frequently reinventing itself has always remained true(ish) to its history. Sean Connery and Daniel Craig give us their interpretation of James Bond, William Hartnell and Matt Smith are playing the same man.

I imagine like many a Who fan I’ve long harboured an ambition to watch every episode of the series in chronological order (some have already accomplished it) and on Saturday 23rd November 2013 at 5:16, exactly 50 years since the first episode aired I started this little odyssey. There are currently 799 episodes which at one a day will take me a little over 2 years and 2 months. Of course by the time I get to that 799th episode, The Day of the Doctor there will have been at least one more season, hopefully two and a few Christmas specials so the end date isn’t set yet. Anyway without further ado let’s turn our attention to the first Doctor Who story An Unearthly Child (please note there will be a few spoilers).

Anyone coming to this story having watched any of the later Doctors is in for a bit of a shock. William Hartnell’s Doctor is unfriendly, self-serving and downright devious, at least here at the start he is, he’d mellow as time went on.

While the Doctor may be decidedly different this story did lay the groundwork for much that would follow in the next 50 years. The first episode, titled An Unearthly Child, introduces us to the shows recurring cast. We have the mysterious teenager Susan, far too clever for her years. Then there are Ian and Barbara, two of Susan’s teachers. Determined to solve the riddle of this girl with a genius IQ and a liking for Sixties pop music they follow her home only to find home is a junkyard in which stands an incongruous Police Box…

As opening episodes go Doctor Who’s is a doozy. There may not be much action, we only leave the junkyard in the episode’s final moments and most of the character confrontations are verbal (although the Doctor does electrocute Ian at one point, I told you this was a very different Doctor) but the cast play it so well and the script is so good that the 25 minutes zip by. It doesn’t feel like a Sixties drama in pacing or structure, it’s use of flashbacks to fill in some back story feels very modern.

That’s not to say it’s flawless. There are fluffed lines (“Get back to the ship child” says the Doctor to granddaughter Susan when they are already in the TARDIS and about to take off) and Ian gets a bit of dialogue that’s less science teacher and more mad scientist in a 1930’s Universal monster movie (“It’s alive!” he exclaims when he puts his hand on the outside of the Police Box and feels it vibrating). But these are minor quibbles and the fluffed lines are something we will become accustomed to during Hartnell’s time in the TARDIS, being affectionately known among fans as BIlly fluffs.

So the pilot gives us companions, the TARDIS (one can only imagine how the “it’s bigger on the inside” concept went down with those initial viewers, it is the shows first WOW moment), and of course that wonderfully terrifying theme tune that would regenerate along with the Doctor over the years but would never get better than this, the original incarnation.

That theme tune, which would send youngsters scurrying behind the sofa for years to come, is just one example of how Doctor Who was born out of combined ideas, in this case composer Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Everyone knows who created Star Trek (Gene Roddenberry in case you didn’t) but Who, while the initial brainchild of Sydney Newman, had many parents. It’s that cross pollination of ideas I think that made An Unearthly Child the success it is.

The rest of the story is a little underwhelming after that excellent opening. The TARDIS comes to rest in the distant past. At least we assume it to be the past just as we assume it’s Earth but the Doctor’s hurried exit from 1963 or a TARDIS malfunction result in the “Yearometer” not working. What follows is three episodes involving cavemen and their quest for fire which would add some more familiar ingredients to the show’s formula, namely capture, escape and running.

The story isn’t really what’s important here though, it’s the interplay between the characters as they get to know each other. The Doctor and Ian have a clash of egos, Susan gets to show her screaming ability and Barbara takes on the role of mediator. Action wise there is a rough and tumble fight between two cavemen that’s surprisingly brutal for the time and an attack by a beast of some kind which leaves the leader of the cavemen wounded. It’s at this point that Hartnell cements just how un-doctor like he is here, as he’s quite ready to bash the wounded man’s head in with a rock.

It’s strange to think that audiences just accepted the fact that cavemen (and later all sorts of aliens) spoke perfect English. It wasn’t till much later that the series would offer up an explanation for this.

We find out little about the Doctor in this opening story. He refers to himself as an exile and a wanderer in the fourth dimension but that’s as far as his back story goes. We also get one more important reference in this story and that’s to the TARDIS’ chameleon circuit which seems to be broken, the ship being stuck as a Police Box which is very out of place in the world they find themselves in. It has to be said though that the device is of questionable use even when it is working as a Police Box is hardly the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a junkyard.

So we’re off on our travels through space and time. This first story may not have offered a particularly thrilling plot or memorable villains but it does serve as an excellent introduction to the cast.

(Anyone keeping track of dates will know that I should have completed season one by now and in fact I have just started watching the first story of season two, Planet of Giants. Finding the time to do the reviews has proved more difficult than finding 25 minutes everyday to watch an episodes but hopefully things will speed up a bit now.)

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