Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child (classic series)


Rating 2½ (5 for the pilot episode)

Written by Anthony Coburn (and C E Webber, uncredited)

Directed by Waris Hussein (and Douglas Camfield – film inserts, uncredited)

Starring William Hartnell (The Doctor), Carole Ann Ford (Susan Foreman), Jacqueline Hill (Barbara Wright), William Russell (Ian Chesterton), Derek Newark (Za), Jeremy Young (Kal), Alethea Charlton (Hur), Howard Lang (Horg) and Eileen Way (Old Mother)

Schoolteacher Barbara Wright is concerned about her pupil Susan Foreman and shares these concerns with her colleague Ian Chesterton. Susan is unusually bright in many respects, but strangely uninformed in others. She is also secretive about her home life, other than to say she lives with her grandfather, who doesn’t like strangers. Barbara and Ian decide to confront Susan’s grandfather and go to the scrap yard Susan has given as her address. When they go inside the gates they discover a blue Police box and are then confronted by the elderly man, who is both evasive and angry at their interference. When they hear Susan’s voice from inside the box they force their way past the old man, only to discover that it is considerably bigger on the inside than out. Susan tells her teachers they are in a machine that can travel in time and space, which they do not believe. The Doctor angrily tells them they can now not leave and uses the controls to take them away from London in 1963 back in time to the Stone Age, where they all find themselves in deadly danger.


The very first episode of ‘Doctor Who’, entitled ‘An Unearthly Child’, was broadcast on BBC (there was only one BBC channel at the time) on 23 November 1963. It was part of a story told across four episodes. During the early years of the series, up to the latter stages of the third season in the Spring of 1966, each episode was given a separate title. So it was that ‘An Unearthly Child’ was followed by the episodes ‘The Cave of Skulls’, ‘The Forest of Fear’ and ‘The Firemaker’. However, it is the opening episode that is of particular interest and especially an earlier version, filmed a month or so before the one that was broadcast. Referred to these days as the “pilot” episode, it was not intended as such, but there were several technical problems identified with it and the depiction of the Doctor was considered to be too sinister and too frightening for younger viewers. It is this pilot that is most interesting to me.

I think it is superior to the later version, although how long the series could have progressed with such a cruel and unsympathetic version of the Doctor is a moot point. Even with the character softened somewhat through re-writes, William Hartnell continued to play him as an irascible and autocratic figure, emphasising his alien nature. This is something, to a lesser extent, that subsequent actors who assumed the role later on have continued to do from time to time, right through to the revived series, starting with Christopher Eccleston’s war-scarred Doctor in 2005.

The pilot is certainly rough around the edges, but even after nearly 47 years it still packs a punch, as does the later broadcast version. A big part of this, of course, is thanks to the opening credit visuals and the extraordinary theme music, composed by Ron Grainer and created by Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, using electronic oscillators and various pioneering tape loop and reverse tape effects. The other most significant contribution to the early and ongoing success of the series is the TARDIS, the time machine shaped like a Police box. Although an anachronism now that many younger viewers would not be familiar with outside of the series, they were still a common sight throughout the 1960s and, in fact, there are apparently one of two still in use in rural areas.

The BBC already had an established reputation for innovative and popular sci-fi drama, first in the 1950s with the ‘Quatermass’ trilogy (the three serials were broadcast live) and then in 1961 with ‘A for Andromeda’, which starred Julie Christie in one of her earliest roles. Tragically, only one of the seven episodes has survived. Much like these earlier productions, the episode ‘An Unearthly Child’, whether the pilot or the broadcast version, remains a significant moment in the history of British television and film science-fiction.

The following three episodes that make up the first story are not of as much interest and seen through our eyes now are borderline offensive, with their depiction of unintelligent “savages”, and entirely historically unauthentic and unrealistic. However, they do need to be considered within the context of the time in which they were made. What is interesting is that it is the character Ian Chesterton who is most proactive in getting them out of the predicament they find themselves in, while the Doctor often sulks and behaves in an almost childish manner, his pride easily hurt. He is a long way removed from the humanitarian Doctor of later years.

The Foreman scrap yard visited by Barbara and Ian in the opening episode, where they first encounter the Doctor and enter the TARDIS, is seen again in two subsequent stories much later on – ‘Attack of the Cybermen’ in 1985 and ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ in 1989.

William Hartnell, the first Doctor, was an experienced theatre and film actor whose career dated back to the 1920s. He was 55 years old when he assumed the role, but he looked older. He was, by some accounts, not always easy to work with during his time on Doctor Who and ill health meant he had problems memorising his lines. He played the role in the first three seasons and the first two stories of season four. His final episode was broadcast on 29 October 1966. He returned briefly to appear in ‘The Three Doctors’ in December 1972 through into January 1973, although his appearance was limited by health problems. He died in 1975 at the age of 67.

Derek Newark, who appears in episodes two to four of this initial story, appeared in Doctor Who again in 1970 at the time of the third Doctor in a story called ‘Inferno’. It was primarily directed by Douglas Camfield, who was assistant director to Waris Hussein on ‘An Unearthly Child’ and directed some of the second unit film inserts.

Review posted 26 April 2010


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