RERUN REVIEW: Doctor Who 1×001 – “An Unearthly Child”

I’ve started watching Doctor Who. I’ve seen a few episodes with Tom Baker here and there over the years, but never took the time to give it a good college try. I have a lot of friends who love the new relaunch of the series, and fans of the Doctor are all over comic book shows now.

I decided to do this right. A lot of young Doctor Who fans I know haven’t seen much, if any, of what are now considered the “classic” Doctors (the first eight), so I decided to start with the first Doctor – William Hartnell. I’m watching whatever I can find on Hulu, Netflix, and other online channels.  I wanted to follow the Doctor from his origins and see if any of the early episodes are referred to in later ones (I’ve heard this is the case.). I also enjoy old sci-fi television, and I knew nothing about William Hartnell, the first Doctor, or any of his companions.

Hartnell, it turns out, had a great career in British TV and film starting in the 1930s. He was even in The Mouse that Roared with Peter Sellers in 1959 and one of the many Carry On films (Carry On Seargent) before he became the first Doctor and ushered in a sci-fi franchise.

The first adventure features the Doctor, his granddaughter, Susan (Carole Ann Ford), and two of her teachers, Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill). Ian and Barbara are concerned about Susan, a quirky girl who seems to know a lot about science and history, because she appears to be homeless and living in a junkyard. They follow her there, discover the TARDIS (although they don’t know what it is at the time) and the Doctor, who is supposedly Susan’s grandfather. They can’t find Susan, however, but then barge into the TARDIS when they hear Susan inside and think the weird old man (A) isn’t really her grandfather and (B) has kidnapped her (especially after he’s evasive with their questions).

The TARDIS is accidentally activated (Or is it? The Doctor seems mischievous and might have decided to take the pesky teachers on a trip through time and space just to shock them.) and they’re whisked to prehistoric times. There they run afoul of cave dwellers who seek a way to make fire, especially after they see the Doctor lighting his pipe with a match and think he can make fire with his fingers. There’s a power struggle between two cave warriors, Za (Derek Newark, who had a great TV career) and Kal (Jeremy Young) for control of the tribe. The Doctor and his companions have to figure out how to escape back to the TARDIS without being killed in the Cave of Skulls. Can they convince the cave tribe that they mean no harm to them?  Will they give them the secret of fire to do it?

William Hartnell is charming and intriguing right off the bat. I want to seek out other things he did now. The companions take to their new predicament quickly, which seems cliche (and lazy by the writers) at first, but is properly explained by the simple notion of Ian saying, “What else can we do?”. He and Barbara often say things to each other like, “Complaining about it won’t do any good now. We have to figure a way out of this.”. They’re the pragmatists while the Doctor is the loose cannon and Susan is essentially the viewer with her wide-eyed wonder about the universe and shock at any sign of danger.

The first adventure has a nice bit of writing. The cave dwellers are obsessed with making fire. They had fire before, but the leader of the tribe died and never passed on the secret of making it. An old woman in the tribe is adamant that fire is bad and says, “There were leaders before fire.” Later, the new leader wonders if the Doctor and his companions are from “the other side of the mountain.” His wife says, “No one lives there.” No part of the adventure ever takes the characters to “the other side of the mountain,” which I’m sure was for budgetary reasons, but what would they have found there?

They were subtle hints that the TARDIS hadn’t taken them to prehistoric Earth, but actually a far future Earth that had become primitive again due to some catastrophe (possibly involving nuclear fire). This possibility was never confirmed or refuted, and I liked that it left it unanswered. It would also explain why all of these “cave people” spoke English. Did the Doctor and his companions go far forward instead of far backward in time?

The next adventure includes the first appearance of the Daleks (AKA The Salt Shaker Monsters), so I’m happy about that.

What are your thoughts on the first Doctor Who adventure? Let us know in the comments section below!

About the author

Nik Havert