Who Review – An Unearthly Child

Posted by Richo On January 3, 2012 ADD COMMENTS

Welcome to the first instalment of Who Review. This is the beginning of an epic undertaking on my part, as I endeavour to watch and review, in chronological order, every storyline of both the original 26-year Doctor Who series and the 2005 relaunch. All 784 episodes, 224 stories & 2 telemovies. I’ll be covering every available story in SF’s longest running television show.

So let’s begin by travelling back to where it all began – November 1963 and the screening of the 4-part “An Unearthly Child.” The early Doctor Who storylines did not feature an overarching title, choosing instead individual episode names. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll be using the title given to the DVD releases of these early episodes.

EPISODES: An Unearthly Child aka 100,000 BC (4 episodes)

BROADCAST DATE: 23 November – 14 December 1963

THE DOCTOR: William Hartnell


Susan Foreman

Barbara Wright

Ian Chesterton


An Unearthly Child opens with schoolteachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright following one of their students, Susan Foreman, to a junkyard in London. Ian and Barbara are concerned about Susan, an enigmatic 15-year-old girl of incredible knowledge and intellect who seems to have certain gaps in her understanding of the world around her, and whose world view seems very alien to her teachers and classmates.

It’s an intriguing opening to the series, presenting a strong mystery that quickly hooks the viewer. We see scenes of Susan’s more bizarre schoolroom moments that only heighten the mystery and draw us further in. In one particularly clever and telling flashback, Barbara gives Susan a book on the French Revolution, which Susan dismisses due to its historical inaccuracies. In another, while trying to work out British currency, she asks about the decimalisation of the pound, something that was not announced until 1968 and not implemented until 1971.

Within the junkyard, Ian and Barbara encounter Susan’s grandfather, the mysterious and incredibly cranky Doctor. He is hostile towards the teachers and highly protective of a police box that stands in the centre of the junkyard. Believing Susan to be locked in the police box, Ian and Barbara force their way past the Doctor and into the Box, only to discover that all is not what it seems. The police box is, of course, the TARDIS, the Doctor’s time machine that is much bigger on the inside than the outside.

We quickly learn that TARDIS stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space and allows the Doctor and Susan to travel through both space and time simultaneously. We also discover that that Doctor and Susan are “from another time, another place,” the first cryptic clues to the Doctor’s alien origins.

Fearful that Ian and Barbara will reveal the secrets of the TARDIS to others, the Doctor sends the TARDIS to the Stone Age. There, the Doctor and his companions become embroiled in a power struggle within a Palaeolithic tribe, as two warring tribesmen seek to discover the secrets of making fire. At first, the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan are imprisoned, but after an unsuccessful escape attempt they manage to mediate a peace between the warring factions before fleeing in the TARDIS.

Unfortunately, the Stone Age story doesn’t really live up to the potential of the pilot episode. It’s a plodding story that, while introducing us to the core character traits of both the Doctor and his companions, fails to really capture the imagination or entertain the viewer.  In a documentary interview that accompanies the DVD release of this storyline, series producer Verity Lambert states that in hindsight she wouldn’t have begun the series with this storyline, and I have to agree with her insight.

There are actually two versions of the first episode available for viewing. The original, unaired pilot features an even more hostile and threatening Doctor and describes the Doctor and Susan as being from the 49th Century.  The Doctor is dressed in a more contemporary outfit rather than the more famous Edwardian jacket that becomes one of his trademarks. BBC Head of Drama Sidney Newman had several problems with this pilot, hence the reshooting of key scenes in the episode and the removal of the elements listed above. Both versions of the first episode are available on DVD in the Doctor Who: The Beginning box set.

There are some key moments in episode 2 that inform some of the elements used in later episodes. Upon landing in the Palaeolithic era, both the Doctor and Susan are surprised to find that the TARDIS is still in the form of a police box, and that it should have altered its appearance to suit the era they have just arrived in. This is the first indication that the TARDIS will remain forever in its famous police box form.

In another scene, Ian calls to the Doctor, who replies with”Eh, Doctor who? What’s he talking about?” This is the first such mention of the Doctor Who name and sets the standard for the running Doctor Who jokes that appear both in the original and more recent series.

At the end of the Stone Age storyline, the TARDIS lands on a seemingly non-hostile alien planet. Disembarking, the Doctor and his companions fail to notice that radiation levels on the planet are at dangerous levels. This sets us up for the second storyline – The Daleks!


William Hartnell’s Doctor is a fascinatingly complex character. He’s cranky, arrogant and dismissive of others, but also incredibly caring and protective of his granddaughter Susan. He can be incredibly absentminded at times, yet quick-witted when he needs to be. There’s also a mischievous, sometimes manipulative side to his personality. Even in this first episode, we can see signs of some of the characteristics that would inform all subsequent depictions of the character.


Barbara and Ian are relatively strong POV characters. They provide a solid grounding in reality that enables us to experience the Doctor’s mysterious world through their eyes. Ian is also particularly resourceful and courageous, although a little overbearing and stoic at times. Barbara is less developed as a character, but still has some moments to shine in the story.

As history and science teachers respectively, Barbara and Ian also serve an important functional role in the series: they provide a simple vehicle for the imparting of important historical or scientific information to the audience.

The standout companion, however, is Susan. She clever, resilient, and thoughtful, and her relationship with the Doctor is one of the genuine highlights of the episode. In many respects, she’s as enigmatic as the Doctor is.


The pilot episode, An Unearthly Child, is a fantastic story that quickly and effortlessly introduces all of the key elements of the series in one tightly drafted story. The following Stone Age storyline doesn’t really deliver, but does provide some nice character moments that carry the viewer through the lacklustre plot.

Episode 1: 3 Lukes. Episodes 2-4: 1.5 Lukes


Next up is the 7-part story The Daleks, introducing the Doctor’s greatest and most enduring foes.

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