The Doctor – William Hartnell
Susan Foreman – Carole Ann Ford
Barbara Wright – Jacqueline Hill
Hur – Alethea Charlton
Old Mother – Eileen Way
Kal – Jeremy Young
Horg – Howard Lang
Main Production Credits
Story Editor – David Whitaker
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Special Sound – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Story Summary (SPOILERS!):
Between Time and Relative (Telos Novella) and The Daleks (TV Episode)
Barbara Wright – ‘Silly isn’t it. I feel frightened...as if we’re about to interfere in something that is best left alone.’
The Doctor – ‘The point is not whether you understand...what is going to happen to you?’
Barbara Wright – ‘But you are one of us! You look like us, you sound like us...’
Susan – ‘I was born in another time, another world.’
The Doctor – ‘If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds, and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?’
The mystery is also upheld through the masterful characterisations of the Doctor and Susan, who both betray an aloof, but cold detachment from their surroundings – a clever way of hinting at their true alien natures. Susan in particular is quite nervous, perhaps as a result of being less experienced to Time Travel than the Doctor, but is rather dreamy too, which also adds to her mystery, and makes the story more compelling. The Doctor is equally, if not more compelling in his first appearance. He comes across as a sharp-witted, whimsical and very elusive character, while clearly being highly intelligent, only explains and reveals what he has to. His secretive and slightly mercurial nature created a layer of mystery around the character that we only really began to understand at the climax of The War Games, six years later.
It’s worth noting at this point that the interpretations of these characters were originally much darker and harsher in the Pilot episode (which was an earlier trial production of the first episode of An Unearthly Child). Here, the two alien time travellers were much colder, but also had much more great lyrical dialogue that was immensely quotable like:
The Doctor – ‘We are not of this race. We are not of this Earth. We are wanderers in the fourth dimensions of space and time...’
The Doctor – ‘Think what would have happened to the ancient Romans, if they’d possessed the power of gunpowder; if Napoleon had been given the secret of the aeroplane? No my child, we both know that we cannot let our secret loose into the world of the twentieth century!
Susan – ‘But you can’t keep them prisoners here!
Ian – ‘You can’t keep us prisoners anywhere’.
The Doctor – ‘I cannot let you go school teacher. Whether you believe what you have been told is of no importance! You and your companion would be footprints in a time where you were not supposed to have walked’.
The other two central characters, Ian and Barbara are very strong too. Ian is a very charming and dynamic gentleman who was intended to be the hero of the programme in its early stages, but thankfully becomes so much more due to his down-to-earth nature. Barbara on the other hand is a conscientious and caring woman that has been slightly hardened by her life experiences, and yet is also very independent and open-minded. The framing of their characters as school teachers also gives them a welcome air of authority, which comes in handy very quickly when they have to confront the difficult Doctor. Both of them are two of Doctor Who’s most believable characters ever, and also two of the strongest companions in the show’s entire history.
Back to the story though, the introduction of the TARDIS ten minutes before the end of the first episode is a supreme game-changing moment for the story, let alone the series itself. Although we seasoned Doctor Who viewers often take the TARDIS for granted as a mere plot device these days, the dramatic impact made by its first arrival into the programme cannot be overestimated. This defining television moment exploded the scale of the story from an intriguing, gripping and personal mystery to an adventure into Time and Space that could literally go anywhere. It was a moment that was truly magical, and yet feels far more fascinating and substantial than the magic doors of Alice in Wonderland and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that have clearly inspired part of it, perhaps due to the glorious technological machinery that the TARDIS appears to show us. Other viewers may see the original TARDIS interior as cheap and cumbersome, but I don’t. It still looks as amazing to me as an adult, as it did when I was a child.
We then move into the iconic first take-off sequence that is very cleverly done through the eyes of the TARDIS as London disappears into the mystical waves and shapes of what would much later be termed as the Time Vortex, created in the same manner as parts of the programme’s original title sequence. At this point I feel I should also praise the work of both Bernard Lodge and the Radiophonic Workshop.
With the help of Norman Taylor (BBC Technical Operations Manager who originally created the effect) and Hugh Sheppard (Camera Operator), Bernard Lodge discovered a new form of visual video effect, created from inducing video feedback when an operating camera is pointed at the monitor screen through which the camera’s signal is broadcast back to the production team (these days a director). The effect occurred when a stray light hit the monitor screen, and sent the video feedback into ‘swirling’ images of black and white (quoted from Norman Taylor). The famous titles were created when the feedback was induced deliberately and mixed with the standard white caption of ‘Doctor Who’ into the camera as a further experiment. The result is to be frank, amazing. In fact I would say this is probably Doctor Who’s best ever title sequence ever. No I’m not just saying that for sake of this review, I really do think it’s the best. Sure it may not be in colour, and the quality of the raw titles footage may have deteriorated a bit over the many decades, but the patterns created look so natural, that they can’t help but be immensely captivating and fascinating to watch. The flow of the white shapes and lines are so unusual, but seem so real, like the movement and flicker of fire flames that you really can imagine that the Space/Time Vortex is unfolding past you. Furthermore, because of how natural and real it looks, it will always be better than any amount of expensive CGI because it appears alive and uncontrollable like nature itself unlike the calculated and moderated images from a computer. In short the discovery of this new technique, later termed as the ‘howlaround’ effect, is nothing short of genius – which is also why it is so enthralling to see an extended version on the TARDIS take-off sequence.
The sound of the TARDIS itself was also pure genius too. Created by Brian Hodgson as part of the now legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop, it really does feel like the sound of the Universe, as you hear the audible ‘tearing of the fabric of reality’, as Hodgson so eloquently put it himself, and is every bit as iconic now as the image of the the old 1960’s blue Police Box that represents the exterior of the TARDIS. An even greater legend came out of the Radiophonic Workshop however – Delia Derbyshire. Just as John Barry did with Monty Norman’s James Bond theme, Delia took the basic original composition from Ron Grainer and expanded upon it, determining what would become the definitive sound of what Doctor Who music should be like. Of course, the majority of her musical input into Doctor Who rarely ventured beyond its title theme, but what a title theme it is! Delia Derbyshire took one written composition, arranged and realised it electronically to create a visionary masterpiece of electronic music, and the best TV theme of all time! Such is the sheer quality and cultural impact of the music she created, that her original 1963 arrangement of the theme stands as a major and key piece in the entire history of electronic music that in my mind at least, is unsurpassed. The legacy of Delia Derbyshire’s work (as well as the Doctor Who theme) stands as a beacon of achievement to all students and lovers of music everywhere.
Back to An Unearthly Child, the first episode ends on another iconic image, as the TARDIS’ Police Box exterior stands alone in a barren desert, in the large shadow of a bemused caveman...
Unfortunately, here’s where the critical consensus ends. Almost everyone agrees to the brilliance of Doctor Who’s opening episode. As to the remaining three episodes of An Unearthly Child though, the perceived critical opinion is that they are of little to no consequence. A failed early experiment into the ‘historical’ format of Doctor Who stories, and is best ignored in favour of The Daleks. However, as you can probably tell by my rating of the story, I greatly disagree with the critical reading of those episodes. It is true that there are small periods of padding in the script, particularly in episodes 3 and 4, as the Time Travellers escape, get recaptured, and then escape again. However, if you look in detail at the journeys of the four lead characters throughout episodes 2 to 4, you’ll see that the real story behind An Unearthly Child, aside from the first episode introduction, is not about how a tribe of Cavemen regain the secret of Fire, but in fact how our 4 new lead characters react to this hostile world, which although our own, is just as alien a world as Skaro would be in The Daleks, a couple of episodes later. The story is also about how the four Time Travellers go from being strangers, unwillingly thrown together into an impossible situation, to eventually come together to survive, beginning a big character story arc, concluding in The Edge of Destruction, as the four leads gradually turn into the heroes we know and love.
So in short An Unearthly Child is an experiment, but it’s an experiment into what makes our characters tick. For instance, Susan becomes tense and occasionally hysterically at being faced with their difficult situation, but quickly moves into action when called for. Meanwhile Barbara’s strong composure falls away to uncertainty and feelings of helplessness, but holds onto her moral instincts for strength, as signified by her support of Za, after being badly wounded by a Tiger. Ian, on the other hand, like any other sure-minded scientist, finds himself in denial, but doesn’t take long to accept humble pie; becoming the better man and supportive friend that Barbara needs him to be. The Doctor though is the one going through the most fascinating character development.
So as our Time Travellers unknowingly leave for their famous visit to Skaro, I ask you to look back and notice An Unearthly Child’s true worth. It was an experimental first leap for a programme that had yet to find its feet, but my goodness what a giant leap it is. An Unearthly Child is a truly groundbreaking story, not just because it started Doctor Who off to a resounding success (even if not all the viewers realised it at the time), but also because it is a groundbreaking piece of television too. It set the template for many good drama pilots to come and many more besides. However, even its success would be partially swept away in memory by some of the many great adventures that were to come...