Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child – Final Review and Comments

doctorwho1963blWhen An Unearthly Child was written, more than 50 years ago, it is doubtful that anyone expected that we would still be talking about this serial today. Doctor Who has transcended time and generations, and appeals to many whose parents were not yet alive when the first episode was broadcast. With that in mind, it is difficult to look at these early episodes with anything less than awe at what they accomplished. Without serials such as this one, there would never have been a “revived” Doctor Who for me to fall in love with.

More after the break.

In case you missed them, here are the four individual episode reviews for this serial:

London street scene, 1965. (Copyright John Barrett.)
London street scene, 1965. (Copyright John Barrett.)

Present Day – London, 1963

The first episode deals with the discovery of the TARDIS by Ian and Barbara, when they follow Susan home from school. To prevent them from alerting the authorities, the Doctor kidnaps them and takes them to the Stone Age. This episode is a real sci-fi classic and holds up well today, though there is no villain except the Doctor. It does a good job of introducing the characters and getting you interested in following their adventures, though the formula would not be fully established until Marco Polo, a dozen episodes later.

Coal Hill School, where Ian and Barbara taught, as well as Foreman’s Yard, where the TARDIS was parked, will be brought back many times in the series and in the tie-in fiction. Foreman’s Yard (sometimes incorrectly called Totters Yard; the confusion is that the yard’s address is on Totters Lane) will be revisited in season twenty-two’s Attack of the Cybermen, as well as in season twenty-five’s Remembrance of the Daleks. Coal Hill School will be revisited first in Remembrance, but then become a recurring location from “Day of the Doctor”, the 50th anniversary episode, through to the end of series eight. (And possibly beyond, but I cannot see into the future!)

The present-day sections do have some excellent real- and fictional-life foreshadowing. Susan correctly predicts the decimalization of British currency in 1971, and her fascination with the French Revolution foreshadows The Reign of Terror, the final serial of the first season. We will get there in time!

A Stone Age handaxe.
A Stone Age handaxe.

Earth, 100,000 BC

The remaining three episodes of the serial are quite different in tone and scope, as the four unwilling traveling companions must bond and work together to outwit a group of cavemen. Unlike the later historical serials of Doctor Who, An Unearthly Child does not tell us much about when in the Earth’s past the Doctor is visiting… and he might not be visiting our past at all!  However, the original title for the serial, 100,000 BC, gives us a clue what the author was intending.

In real history, 100,000 years ago was part of the “Middle Paleolithic” age, sometimes referred to as the “Stone Age” based on the types of tools that early humans were creating from stone. At this time, humans were just beginning to migrate out of Africa, and competed for resources against other pre-humans such as Neanderthals and Homo erectus. Much like the characters in the serial, early man at this time probably had some sense of religion, may have practiced ceremonial burial, wore clothes, and may have used face paint or other decorations. Humans at this time had some control over fire, but how much is still debated by scholars. In researching this post, I was surprised to find out how accurately the writers may have depicted the period they visited and I can only conclude that the writers did their research.

Unlike the Coal Hill School and environs, the “Tribe of Gum” will never be revisited on-screen again, although they will appear in a 50th anniversary comic in Doctor Who Magazine.

Anthony Coburn, the writer of "An Unearthly Child"
Anthony Coburn, the writer of “An Unearthly Child”

Cast and Crew

The serial was written by Anthony Coburn who tried to get additional scripts made for Doctor Who, but never succeeded. (One of his unpublished scripts was made into an audiobook.) It is a shame because the script demonstrates some narrative complexity, but hides it in so much overbearing caveman-ese that it is hard to find the good stuff. The director was Waris Hussein; he also directed Marco Polo before heading off to greener pastures at the BBC.

Of the actors:

  • Kal was played by Jeremy Young. He returned to Doctor Who as Gordon Lowery in the now-lost Mission to the Unknown.
  • Za was played by Derek Newark. He returned to Doctor Who six years later in Inferno alongside the third Doctor. He died in 1998.
  • Hur was played by Alethea Charlton. She returned to Doctor Who the following year in The Time Meddler. She died in 1976.
  • The Old Mother was played by Eileen Way. She returned to Doctor Who twice: first as an unnamed woman in the second Peter Cushing Dalek film, then as Karela in The Creature from the Pit. She died in 1994.
  • Horg was played by Howard Lang. This was his only stint on Doctor Who and he died in 1989.

Final Thoughts

I am always embarrassed when I introduce new people to classic Doctor Who. I want to show them the show from the beginning, but wish I could skip the cavemen. I cheat: I show the first episode, then jump straight into The Daleks. It is not that the material is bad, but it just looks a bit silly, and at times like an amateur production of “Shakespeare in a cave”.  Watching it carefully for this review, I realized what they were trying to accomplish and how good some of the ideas are, but the execution is lacking. It’s a shame.

All the same, this episode sets the pattern for so much of Doctor Who: it gives us the first companions, the first sense that the TARDIS is alive, as well as her first appearance as a police box, and our first historical. It shows the Doctor as a bit aloof and not at all the hero he will later become, though there are hints. The real heroes are our audience surrogates, Ian and Barbara. Even Susan is depicted well here, mysterious and smart. It is a shame that the writers will not continue to do as good of a job with her. Not my favorite serial, but thankfully I do not need to rank them.

Up next will be The Daleks, the seven-part story that launches Doctor Who‘s most iconic villains.

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