Review of Doctor Who ‘An Unearthly Child’ (Series 1)

Neela Debnath

20120119 171609 300x247 Review of Doctor Who ‘An Unearthly Child’ (Series 1)In the run up to the 50th anniversary of ‘Doctor Who’ in November 2013, Neela Debnath, with the help of BBC DVD, will be writing a review focusing on one story from each of the previous 31 series of the show. Each review will offer readers a snapshot from every series of ‘Doctor Who’ and celebrate the longest-running science fiction television programme in the world.

The date is the 23rd November 1963, the time is 5.15pm and JFK has been assassinated the day before. The tragedy has plunged the world into global mourning and there is a growing sense of fear that the planet is teetering on the brink of nuclear war – it is of course the middle of the Cold War. Despite this major historical event casting a long shadow over everything else, a British science fiction television show makes its humble debut.

The first ever ‘Doctor Who’ story was a four-part serial entitled ‘An Unearthly Child’ and introduced audiences to the kooky Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford) and her gruff grandfather (William Hartnell), known only as the ‘Doctor’. The plot revolved around Susan’s teachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) accidentally stumbling onto the TARDIS and being whisked away on a prehistoric adventure.

From a science fiction perspective, it seems like a strange choice to go back in time rather than forward or to an alien planet, given that the TARDIS can go anywhere in time and space. Yet it is by no means a dull story considering that the Doctor is kidnapped and forced to make fire for a tribe of cave people. His companions are also captured during their attempts to find him and the serial becomes an examination into human nature and the psyche of primitive man. The formula of the story is the original mould which the majority of ‘Doctor Who’ stories follow, whereby the Doctor turns up somewhere and unwittingly walks into trouble.

The importance of ‘An Unearthly Child’ is that it establishes the characters and how they react when placed in challenging situations. The most notable thing about the first Doctor is that he is not likeable, just like the grouchy grandfather you wouldn’t want to visit on a regular basis. He may be searingly brilliant but he lacks any sort of warmth or compassion. Far from being a time meddler, in ‘An Unearthly Child’ he is more than happy to leave others behind to suffer alone in their plight. Hartnell’s Doctor did thaw later on but here he is very alien and does not have the human qualities of later Doctors, he is certainly not amicable or jovial. Due to Hartnell’s age there were also physical limits on his capabilities and at times he comes across as frail and tired but this is all part of his Doctor.

Instead it is Susan who seems to be closer in character to the more recent Doctors. She is highly intelligent and exudes a wealth of knowledge. Although she may be an alien, she is very human and sympathetic towards others. The only annoying thing about her is that she descends into screaming hysterics a little too often. Given that she was born on a different world and has travelled with the Doctor, would she not have seen more than the average 15-year-old? Then again, she is very much like other heroines of the time who vocalised their fear frequently.

Every work of science fiction is a product of its time and it is clear from this story that the writer, Anthony Coburn, has drawn upon the unease and worry of nuclear war and radiation poisoning that existed in the 1960s. For instance, after landing the TARDIS, the Doctor checks the radiation levels before opening the doors. He even takes his Geiger counter with him when they venture out. Again, at the end of the episode, when they land on the planet Skaro, the Doctor asks Susan to check the radiation levels before they leave the ship. It is all very fitting for the era and is part of the show’s appeal because it takes something from reality and adds a healthy dose of escapism to it.

Overall, ‘An Unearthly Child’ is an involving watch and the cliffhanger on which each episode ends genuinely does evoke curiosity as to what will happen next. There is an underlying creepiness to the whole serial and a sense of unpredictability, all of which adds to the viewing experience. The choice to go back in time, right to the beginning of human history, is an unusual one but it works and this serial lays a firm foundation for what is to come. A ‘Radio Times’ preview of ‘Doctor Who’ from 1963 surmises the show wonderfully: ‘The whole cosmos in fact is their oyster’.

For more information about the classic series of ‘Doctor Who’ visit:

DVD & image credit: BBC

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  • CliffChapman

    Nonsense. I know they’re remastered by the restoration team, and that very, very minor errors occasionally sneak in (I’m not a fan of the regrading to the film sequences that make Davison’s red coat piping look orange in Five Doctors and Black Orchid) but they’re so minor compared to the picture improvements, and they’re NEVER George Lucas-style narrative changes. You get the original productions on DVD, better equipped to be viewed on televisions SO different to 405 line CRTS from fifty years ago. Lots of boom shadows and things that used to be hidden by the overscan of old TVs (which you don’t have in LCD/Plasmas etc) are still left in. And if you’d rather watch the absolutely abysmal 125 minute, censor-cut grey/brown smear with hissy sound that is The Dominators on VHS from 1990 rather than the DVD, good for you. And if you have that attitude about the Restoration Team, when if it wasn’t for them it’s highly likely we wouldn’t even HAVE The Lion, Day of Armageddon, Air Lock or Underwater Menace 2 (the four previously missing episodes all handed back as a direct result of the Restoration Team website and (in the first two cases, forum) being active, then good for you. A few very, very minor mistakes against the hundreds of hours of manual clean-up and work put into extras pale.

  • CliffChapman

    … And especially if you find the garish, nasty, fizzy CSO lines around everything in the Seventies stories in any way essential, charming or enjoyable, I’m very confused… The producers and directors never wanted chromakey to look that bad. A bit of careful noise reduction has made appalling effects work in stories like Planet of the Spiders and Robot tolerable for a new audience and dyed in the wool fans of twenty five years or more. If you want ‘raw’ Doctor Who, you shouldn’t have chucked your videos out. Buy them back on eBay, job done.

  • Peter Reid

    I’m not sure that it was the very first: the BBC production of 1984 (with a pre-Doctor Peter Cushing as Winston Smith), broadcast in December 1954, was repeated four days later (though at that time a repeat was essentially another live performance).

  • Martin_Kinsella

    Sadly they long since crossed the boundary from restoration to out and out tinkering. It is a shame really. The restored prints are terrific be it black and white stories or more recent stories like Castrovalva, The Visitation and Earthshock.

    They do make alot of mistakes which just goes to show you cannot replace the professionals with enthusiastic amateurs.

    However out and out tinkering is not necessary and you can rely on the army of restoration team sycophants to trot out the usual banalities about fans not appreciating etc etc (cont p94…)

  • Martin_Kinsella

    Utter nonsense about the missing episodes, there are a great many episode hunters out there and there have been before the RT existed and will be once they are disbanded.

    The Lion was found by dedicated fans in New Zealand.

    What would be a more reasonable comment would be the level and skill of restoration would probably be less on the recovered episodes.

    I do not doubt they do a reasonable job on Restoration however they crossed the restoration to tinkering boundary ages ago and their numerous errors are just plain sloppy.


    If so that makes you right but the Unearthly Child repeat would have been a recording so my claim may have some merit.


    12 December 1954, live – not recorded.
    BBC Television, 16 December 1954, live – exists as a 35mm film telerecording.

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