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An Unearthly Child

The series' opening story is, in fact, very distinctly two stories. We have the episode An Unearthly Child, effectively the series pilot, serving to establish Ian, Barbara and Susan. Then we have a three-part caveman story.

The first episode itself is a thing of wonder. Generally, a lot is expected of first episodes of any show, and to be fair they tend to deliver within the science-fiction genre, especially compared to their immediate successors [The Prisoner's Arrival, Blake's 7's The Way Back and Survivors' The Fourth Horseman are all towards the business end of each series' quality ratio, and even something like Star Trek - The Next Generation's Encounter at Farpoint compares favourably with much of the first series of TNG]. Doctor Who's bow fails to disappoint.

It's directed imaginatively by Waris Hussein, and the steady build-up is most effective, especially as Ian and Barbara attempt to justify their curiosity about Susan to each other and themselves. Susan herself is the only bum note in the opening episode. Carole Ann Ford tends towards over-earnest stagey performance more often than not, and she's not helped by being given some silly scenes. The flashback sequences are the big problem. The idea seems to be that she's so naive and intelligent she can't help letting slip with her huge knowledge. However, it makes her look stupid as she sits in a classroom arguing that the country will have a decimal system in the future. Meaning she knows it doesn't have one now. So why is she saying it? And can you imagine even the first Doctor, arguably the most bumbling of the lot, allowing his grand-daughter to enrol in a local secondary school without telling her she wasn't to tell people about the future and the secrets of time and space?

Now, can you imagine this first Doctor doing it? This isn't the giggling, "Hmm"-ing old duffer the first Doctor that would later come along. This is a sinister, sharp-witted man. Hartnell is really having to work at his performance, and the result is an edgier and arguably more interesting Doctor. His verbal sparing with Ian and Barbara in the junkyard is an electrifying scene, as is his arrogant behaviour once they're inside the TARDIS. The episode introduces the four main characters efficiently, establishing a healthy measure of mystery in both the Doctor and Susan. One of the unusual things about the first two seasons compared to all of Doctor Who up until the Christopher Eccleston story is that the series very much has three leads - the Doctor, Ian and Barbara. The scripts are generally split up this way too, which leads to a pair of very well-rounded characters. It helps that William Russell is a fantastic actor, regularly outshining Hartnell. Jacqueline Hill does less well, mainly through Barbara being written rather weakly, especially as Ian pretty much takes being thrown back to the stone age in a police box in his stride.

The crew dynamic is excellent, with the Doctor vaguely sinister but seemingly out of his depth, Ian definitely out of his depth but resolute and decisive, Barbara trying to back up Ian despite her inadequacies, and Susan forming a bridge between Ian and the Doctor. This dynamic basically carries the last three episodes. The plot is tedious, and the tribe of cavemen are a dull bunch. While there's a commendable stab at giving them unusual speech patterns, most of them have rather civilised English accents, just depending on missing elaborate words out of their dialogue. There seems to be a lot of the travellers being thrown into the Cave of Skulls and bemoaning their fate going on, and the likes of Kal and Za are uninteresting. The viewer is left rapidly not caring for the fate of the tribe.

If it wasn't for the near-constant arguing between the leads, this would be very uninteresting. However, the Doctor swings from arrogant to self-pitying to callous [his attempt to kill the injured caveman is shocking viewed in retrospect], with Ian battling against him. The performances from the regulars are excellent, though Susan isn't left with a huge amount to do but whine "Grandfather!" as the plot meanders around.

Overall, it's a mixed, unbalanced story. Aside from the first episode, the main interest is the development of the leads, and if nothing else the slight plot gives the characters plenty of space to grow. It's worth seeing, though, for a startlingly different Doctor, largely concerned with his own survival. While the sixth Doctor in Season 22, or the seventh Doctor in Seasons 25-26 were both had a different set of morals to what had gone before them, this Doctor is another, quite different Time Lord.

Review by Tom Prankerd

You visited the Whoniverse at 3:37 pm GMT on Sunday 12th February 2006