“You’ve discovered television, haven’t you?” – The Doctor
“An Unearthly Child”, the first episode of the serial now given that name, is a science fiction classic. How could it not be? First airing on November 23, 1963 (the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy), the episode has held up surprisingly well over time – but only as an introduction to the characters, the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan. There is no villain of this episode, except perhaps the Doctor, and most of the 22 minutes are spent establishing the characters. As a result, Ian, Barbara, and Susan are better painted than most of the later companions of the classic series. It does not hurt that this entire episode is told through their eyes as they perceive the alienness of the Doctor and Susan.
The episode only consists of a few scenes: two classrooms, a school hallway, the inside of a car, the junkyard, inside the TARDIS, and a brief view of a prehistoric countryside. Through dialog, we are introduced to Ian and Barbara, two school teachers curious about the eponymous “Unearthly Child” they are teaching. As Ian says, she is “absolutely brilliant at some things, and excruciatingly bad at others.” She runs rings around him in science, but doesn’t know how many shillings are in a pound. How odd!
“I can see by your face, you don’t understand! And I knew you wouldn’t. Nevermind!” – Doctor
Naturally, the teachers decide that the best course of action is to follow the girl home. Barbara had done this already, but this time Ian tags along. They follow her into a junkyard, but find nothing. An old man, the Doctor (though not named in this episode), appears and they argue, as the teachers believe that Susan may be being held against her will. As they are about to leave to find a policeman, Susan’s voice is heard in the police box and Ian and Barbara rush in to discover the TARDIS.
In a scene very surprising to later viewers, the Doctor essentially takes the pair prisoner: he can not release them or they will go to the authorities. Susan finally convinces him to let the teachers go, on the condition that she too would remain trapped in 1963. The Doctor seems to agree, but rather than letting them go, he sets the time machine in motion. The teachers fall into unconsciousness. The Doctor stands at the console with an expression of “what have I done?” He’s fled into time, but now he has prisoners. A caveman outside spies the police box. To be continued.
In just a few minutes, there are a lot of characters and situation to develop. As expected, little is revealed about the Doctor himself, including his name. (Or rather, his title. He hasn’t told anyone to call him Doctor yet, although Susan has at some point said that he is a doctor as Ian remarks on it at school.) We learn that he is an exile in time and space with his granddaughter, and that he wants to go home. He’s obstinate, but he’s also weak: in our first glimpse of him, he coughs and wheezes. He also has the attention span of a cat: while arguing with Ian, he pauses and starts investigating an old empty picture frame and, later, a pot. Once in the TARDIS as Ian is spouting on about how it’s bigger in the inside, he is concerned about his broken clock. Despite being in 1960s England for 5 months, he seems to not know whether they have discovered television yet. But most of all, the Doctor is the antagonist here, or an anti-hero. He’s not likable and he takes our main characters, the viewpoint characters, hostage. He threatens to leave his 15-year old granddaughter in a strange time and place. This is a mysterious character, but not necessarily one that viewers will want to watch. I’m curious how he softens over the first few episodes or seasons.
“You’re treating us like children!” – Ian
Susan, in contrast, is more fleshed out. She looks around 15, she enjoys 1960s music and that weird thing that 1960s kids did with their hands when they were trying to be cool while listening to cool 1960s music. But she’s also a genius at science, even if her knowledge of recent events is somewhat poor. (She thinks that the UK has been decimalized, which wouldn’t happen for another decade or so.) But you can tell that she is lonely for friends: she was the one that wanted to stay in 1960s England; she liked it there, and her grandfather was kind enough to oblige even as he is worried about staying anywhere too long. She obviously didn’t need to go to school (the Doctor termed it “ridiculous”), but she chose to. She stood up for her teachers and she was brave to offer to stay in England in exchange for their freedom. I’m afraid that some of these traits may be forgotten in future episodes, but here they are played well.
Barbara is hard to pin down so far. She’s Susan’s history teacher and appears to have an interest in Ian that may be more than professional (though very subtle; this was 1963 and I may be reading too much into it. ) She’s nosier than Ian and has already been spying on Susan before the episode begins, even making a first visit to the junkyard. But she is also slow to accept things. Even in the TARDIS, she still thinks that everything is an illusion. Ian, while not as nosy as Barbara, is very quick to agree to her scheme and drive her to the junkyard. Ian is one of those “cool teachers”: he knows science, but also about the popular music of the day. He’s not impulsive, but as he says “I take things as they come.” Although he does not understand (and argues about it), he seems to believe in what he is seeing more quickly than Barbara.
In terms of direction, the episode seems fairly well done. I love the teacher-cam flashbacks as they show Susan answering questions in a weird way. I also appreciate the use of the opening titles (and more swirls) on the TARDIS view screen as the machine was in flight.
Overall, this episode is a great piece of character work. You care about what the characters will find when they open the door and whether Ian and Barbara will be able to escape and return home. This is a great start to the series and it’s a pity that more of the current fans can not see it.
This episode has a few things in common with “Rose”, the first episode of the revised series. Both episodes use a future companion as the main viewpoint character and both try to show the alienness of the Doctor (and Susan). In both cases, speed-reading (and with Susan’s, she didn’t even seem to turn the pages!) was a way to show alienness. Here however, there was no villain and we are left to the direction, the actors, and the writing to keep us in suspense. Since the episode succeeds, I’d say they did quite well.
Onward to some cavemen!