I remember, as a child, sitting in front of my grandmother’s old black and white television engrossed by an eccentric traveller who used his keen intelligence (as opposed to fists) to defeat evil. This man was, usually, civilised and … a gentleman. He saw the best in people and did what he could to make the Universe a better place.
He was The Doctor.
The story of the Doctor started all the way back in 1963 when the BBC was searching for a show that would appeal to everyone but would not contain any ‘bug eyed monsters’ but this will not be a recap of the history of the show – too many people have done that and it would take far more resources than I have in order to do it any sort of justice. Instead, I hope to write just thoughts and opinions on various Doctor Who stories from 1963 to the current day; just whatever catches my interest on a given day. But An Unearthly Child is just too obvious a choice to start off with.
The episode starts off with a quintessentially English scene, that of a bobby (Police Officer with a distinctive helmet) patrolling a very foggy street. The brickwork looks old and worn on nearby buildings, everything looks just a bit shabby. The Officer checks the gates (emblazoned with I.M. Foreman) of a junkyard though does a terrible job as the gates swing open as he leaves. All the while the original show theme music plays, a haunting and alien tune that was created with rather innovating techniques for the day. This conjures a wonderful sense of mystery, symbolised by the opening of the supposedly locked gates almost as if they were inviting the audience to see what this is all about in opposition to an authority figure who was trying to keep us all out. The camera pans in and centres on a Police Box, a common sight of the time, which is inexplicably humming with power.
The scene shifts to Coal Hill High School which is a great creative choice. Instead of some rugged action space hero, the audience is presented with normal people to identify with – the school teachers and then a little bit odd teenager. Having Susan be a bit weird compared to her peers is another great choice is most teenagers go through periods where they feel like they do not belong, a bit alien. Ian and Barbara represent elements that the show was aiming for, specifically the teaching of history and science in a pretty literal sense.
Ian and Barbara engage in the favourite activity of teachers everywhere, namely bitching about students, before deciding to follow Susan home in the evening to see what her deal is. Thinking that England will switch currencies to the decimal system is a bit weird, after all, though in the era of Brexit thinking the pound should be dropped is something more likely to get you lynched rather than get some odd looks. Note: Susan listens to music by John Smith which would later be used as an alias by the The Doctor. Used a lot. Knowing how this show goes, she was probably listening to the Peter Capaldi Doctor playing guitar without even realising it. Anyhow, Ian and Barbara stalk Susan back to the junk yard from the first scene and have some dialogue that sets up many themes of the show; the importance of rationality, curiosity and looking out for other people. The teachers follow Susan into the junk yard only to come face to face with a grumpy old man who is apparently her grandfather. He walks in coughing, not happy with the air and is in the process of unlocking the police box when Susan’s voice calls out from inside it. The verbal sparring between Ian and the Doctor is great, each trying to use reason against the other and eventually the Doctor just dismisses him and pretends to be interested in some random junk.
William Hartnell had a bit of a reputation for being a bit grumpy and difficult to work with at times but this introductory scene is wonderfully acted, a brilliant mix of mischievous grin, self confidence, intelligence all used to disguise the distinct sense that the Doctor is worried that these two walk-ins will discover his secret. You can never fault Hartnell’s acting, even when he had to deal with some dodgy scripts, substandard studios and his later illness.
Susan, not aware of what exactly is happening outside, opens the police box door which gives Ian and Barbara the chance to push their way inside. They find that it is much bigger on the inside (I bet that phrase is never used in the show again) and is a technological marvel. The camera break between the junk yard scene and the TARDIS interior is a little jarring but, considering the limitations the crew were working under, still works well – the close up of Barbara’s face with its clear expression of shock works to reflect the audiences bewilderment at this bizarre turn of events.
The Doctor, of course, has every right to be worried about two nosey Earth people – now that they have stumbled onto the impossibility that is the TARDIS and that the Doctor and Susan are aliens, it is no longer possible for them to remain living quiet lives in 1960s London. As Ian is trying to make sense of it all and demands answers from the Doctor, he is simply ignored by the old man who turns his attention to an old clock. Though the Doctors words here “It’s stopped again, you know. And I’ve tried…” makes you wonder if he’s referring to the clock or the TARDIS. “You don’t understand, so you find excuses” closely follows and just serves to reinforce the themes spoken of before, themes based around humanism and rationality that continue to be the backbone of the series.
The Doctor’s actions at this point force the audience to question who is the villain of the story; he is a grandfather and elderly, obviously looking out for the welfare of Susan. Yet he acts in a very condescending manner towards Ian and Barbara, he refuses to let them go and openly insults them at times. Even the laughter Hartnell produces as Ian and Barbara search for a way out is a strange mix of emotions and you just can not tell if he can be trusted, if he is what he appears. When the control console is purposefully made electrically live and Ian is electrocuted, you just do not know what to make of this enigmatic Doctor at all. Just like the fog at the start and the then unexplained camera shots, this works well to set up a great sense of mystery and ambiguity that grabs your attention and refuses to let go.
Susan states that she would rather leave the TARDIS and the Doctor than allow the teachers to be kept captive and this is where we get the first clear clues about the Doctor’s real concerns. While pretending to open the doors he sets his ship into flight, apparently petrified at the thought of Susan leaving, which takes us to the end of the first ever episode of Doctor Who – but also some great suspense as the police box shell of the ship is then seen in an unknowable landscape and a foreboding shadow enters the camera shot. With this many mysteries, how could people not tune in next week?
- Times the TARDIS crew is knocked out: Ian 1, Barbara 1.
- Times the TARDS crew is captured or taken prisoner: Ian 1, Barbara 1 (by the Doctor no less!)
- Times the TARDIS crew screams: 0 (wow)
- Times sonic screwdriver used: 0 (ages until it is first introduced)
- Overall rating: Must see.