Doctor Who episode 1: An Unearthly Child (23/11/1963)

Although I’ve seen or heard every Doctor Who story at some point, I’ve never done the start-to-finish, episode by episode watch through that’s the hallmark of a true fan. So, in this hiatus year I thought I’d take the opportunity to go back, back to the beginning, and review each episode, one by one. Here goes…

 

It’s weird from the off: strange, swirling interference, like something’s gone wrong with the TV. Without resorting to The Outer Limits’ ominous voiceover, it’s basically saying that for the next 25 minutes we’re entering the Doctor’s world. The first character we see is a policeman, drawn towards a strange, humming Police Box that then dissolves into the corridors of Coal Hill school. The next five minutes introduce three of the four regulars. Barbara gets the first line: she’s established as being considerate, tenacious and interested in people. Ian is a bit more laid back: wry, plain speaking, with a matter-of-fact solidity to him that balances out Barbara’s intuition. The third wheel is Susan, who’s just a bit odd and exotic. Right from the off she’s more an object of idle curiosity than a character with much agency of her own.

The middle of the episode returns to the junkyard and the Police Box. A broken-headed dummy prefigures the grisly discovery of the Cave of Skulls. And the junkyard is an ideal image for Doctor Who as it will be – bits and pieces from here and there, jumbled together. You might find anything in here. Even free movement in time and space. Ian discovers the humming Police Box, and touches it. ‘It’s alive!’ he exclaims, like Colin Clive’s Frankenstein, discovering the monster. This is the moment when the Doctor enters: hat, scarf, big coat – all the basic elements already in place, but alien. He’s sinister, confrontational, sarcastic. Ian tries to be reasonable, but his temper is short. Barbara stays focused on the point of this adventure: Susan’s welfare. The three of them tumble together through the doors Susan has opened, into the TARDIS.

The last third is a sustained info-dump, but done with a pace, clarity and conviction that the series hardly ever achieves: we learn the Doctor and Susan are aliens, time travellers, exiles. Ian is good at clarifying the plot by asking sensible questions. The Doctor remains high-handed: ‘I don’t discuss my private life with strangers’, and mocks the backwardness of Ian and Barbara. While Ian rises to it, argumentative, disbelieving, Barbara lets the sci-fi wash over her. She’s not interested, as Ian is, in the nuts and bolts – it’s Susan she cares about. In a funny way, this makes her the most Doctorish character, because it’s only when Susan threatens to leave him that the Doctor sets the controls in motion and the swirling interference of the title sequence intrudes into the story itself. From the moment that howlround began, the audience left the ordinary world behind. Now Ian and Barbara are embarking on the same journey. Nothing will ever be the same again.

 

Next episode: The Cave of Skulls

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