Doctor Who: Season 1, Episode 1

An Unearthly Child (23 Nov. 1963)

TV Episode  -   -  Adventure | Drama | Sci-Fi
8.4
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Ratings: 8.4/10 from 641 users  
Reviews: 8 user | 6 critic

Two schoolteachers investigate the personal life of one of their brilliant students and her mysterious grandfather.

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Cast

Episode complete credited cast:
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William Russell ...
Jacqueline Hill ...
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Storyline

Two schoolteachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, become concerned by the unusual behavior of their fifteen-year-old student, Susan Foreman. When they follow her home, they meet her mysterious grandfather, the Doctor, and find themselves unwilling passengers on his time ship, the TARDIS... Written by Sarah Hadley

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23 November 1963 (UK)  »

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1.33 : 1
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Did You Know?

Trivia

After Barbara and Ian leave Susan alone in the class room, the idea that Susan should do something mysterious was a late, unscripted inclusion. In the previously recorded original version, Susan doodled in the book. In this version, it was decided to abandon the doodling, and zoom in on the book instead. The design team asked for a book with an identifiable picture of Robespierre on the cover. See more »

Quotes

Ian Chesterton: And, frankly, I don't understand your attitude.
The Doctor: Yours leaves a lot to be desired.
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Connections

Referenced in Last Stop White City (2010) See more »

Soundtracks

Three Guitars Mood 2
(uncredited)
Performed by the Arthur Nelson Group
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User Reviews

A Flying Start
20 June 2014 | by (Tunbridge Wells, England) – See all my reviews

23rd November 1963 was not, perhaps, the most auspicious day to launch a ground-breaking television series. Much of the country was affected by a power cut, and President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated the previous day, which meant that people could talk about little else. And yet, despite these disadvantages, "Doctor Who" went on to become one of the greatest success stories in British TV history, still going strong more than half a century later.

The first few seconds of "An Unearthly Child" introduce some of the series' most iconic elements. We hear that famous electronic music against that strange, psychedelic title sequence. And then we see a policeman looking round a London junkyard where he spots a police box which, unknown to him, is of course the Doctor's TARDIS. This is the serial in which it is explained that the TARDIS is, or should be, capable of disguising itself to blend in with its surroundings. Owing to a malfunction, however, it has remained a police box ever since. Evidently, despite the Time Lords' mastery of time-travel, none of the various manifestations of the Doctor has ever had time to repair the fault.

We do not, however, immediately meet the Doctor himself. Instead, the scene shifts to a London secondary school where two teachers, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton, are discussing one of their pupils, fifteen- year-old Susan Foreman. Susan is precocious, but seems to be curiously ignorant of many aspects of British society. Believing that Susan lives with her elderly grandfather, Barbara and Ian decide to investigate by visiting the address she has given. The grandfather turns out to be the Doctor himself, and a series of events leads to all four travelling back in time to the Stone Age, where they become embroiled in a power struggle between two rival factions of cavemen. Hence the serial's alternative title "100,000 BC". Strictly speaking, the only human inhabitants of Britain during this year would have been Neanderthals rather than the modern humans shown here, although I won't claim this as a goof as the date is not actually mentioned in the script.

(My own childhood recollections of "Doctor Who" generally date from the Pertwee/Baker era of the seventies, when most of the stories seemed to be set either in contemporary Britain or on an alien planet, but in the sixties part of the programme's educational remit was to teach children about history, so stories set during the earth's past were quite common).

One thing we learn about the Doctor in this serial is that "Who" is not his surname. The title derives from an incident when Ian and Barbara address him as "Doctor Foreman"- Susan has appropriated that surname from the owner of the junkyard- and he replies "Doctor who?" We also learn that he and Susan are members of an alien race- the expression "Time Lord" is never actually mentioned- who have mastered the science of travel through time and space.

What struck me when I first saw "An Unearthly Child" was William Hartnell's characterisation of the Doctor. Having grown up with Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, I always thought of Doctor Who as a kindly, if occasionally eccentric, uncle. There is, however, nothing avuncular about Hartnell's Doctor, although he is certainly eccentric. He is also suspicious, cranky and hostile, and surprisingly callous and amoral during the "caveman" episodes. It is the human characters Barbara and Ian who show far more compassion and morality than does the alien Doctor, although it must be said that Susan generally sides with them against him. This characterisation has always struck me as a weakness in the early part of the series, just as the generally sympathetic characterisation of most of the later Doctors has been one of its strengths, and so it is not surprising that his character was very much softened later in Hartnell's tenure.

The Doctor may be an exception, but the serial as a whole does show evidence of the BBC's traditional social liberalism, especially during the scenes where Ian and Barbara, as didactic in 100,000 BC as they were in 1963 AD, try to teach the prehistoric tribe about kindness, friendship and compassion, all virtues previously unknown to them, and even socialist democracy. ("A tyrant is not as strong as the whole tribe acting collectively").

I won't award "An Unearthly Child" a mark out of ten. Certainly the whole "Doctor Who" concept in itself is a ten- if not an eleven- in my eyes, but few of the individual serials or episodes would in themselves merit this mark. This is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Hartnell's character in his serial is not one I can warm to, but the story itself is surprisingly dramatic and exciting, despite the low budgets for which the series was later to become notorious. It did enough to get the series off to a flying start.


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