An Unearthly Child, Season 1 Episode 1 (1963)
Written by, Anthony Coburn
Directed by, Waris Hussein
I can relate too much to Barbara & Ian, played by Jacqueline Hill and William Russell, in this opening episode of Doctor Who. They are teachers struggling to understand the oddball, yet genius, student. She confounds them with how much she knows, while at the same time expressing little to no common sense.
This is a very honest reaction teachers have to gifted and talented students in their room. A massive ability to regurgitate and retain knowledge, yet inability to get through practical life matters. The difference here is that Susan, played by Carol Ann Ford, is just mixing up a massive amount of history, from the whole universe, in her brain. Instead of a lack of experiences and chances to problem solve, she’s had too much.
It’s hard for me to imagine what it was like for people watching this episode for the first time, with no knowledge of what is about to happen. Susan must of seemed very odd. The Doctor, played by William Hartnell, extremely suspicious. Barbara & Ian seem a little too eager to insert themselves into the situation. However, being American and not alive in 1963, I lack the background information to fully appreciate if they are doing their due diligence as teachers or just being busybodies.
“But I want to understand!”
– Ian Chesterton
- There is a hefty amount of time spent explaining how the TARDIS works. From its acronym of “Time And Relative Dimension In Space,” to the racist explanation that Ian doesn’t understand just like the “red Indian” didn’t understand the first explorers appearing in the western hemisphere. Major ideas that continue through the series today are laid out in this first episodes:
- moving through time and space
- a vehicle being bigger on the inside than the outside
- Susan and the Doctor are aliens from the future
Lots of things are explained without explicitly being shown, right away. It’s the exposition dump of what Ian assumes to be a crazy old man and the delusional granddaughter who indulges him.
I do wonder if the TARDIS has ever given anyone an electric shock, like it did Ian, any time after this episode. I also find the Doctor’s desire to take off with Barbara and Ian inside somewhat lacking in reasoning. Understandably, they need to get the action of the series going. The Doctor wants to show he is not crazy. However, what unfolds in later episodes makes all these plot points seem weak.
An oddity for me is the music and credits overlapping with the actual episode at the beginning instead of being in a pre-produced opening. I know it’s not something that lasts long, but I will make a point this time around to see how long it lasts.
I’d like to give a shout-out to the random girls in the opening shots of Coal Hill School. For some reason, every time I watch this episode my brain labels them as “girls who wanted to be Susan, but instead have too much eye liner and know how to eyeroll.” I have a whole fanfic backstory on them basically being the mean girls of Coal Hill who have made Susan’s life a mess up until the day she disappeared.
The episode ends with everyone passed out from a sudden trip through time, and landing on a desolate piece of land with the shadow looming. The first time I ever watched this story, it was just before I had taken ill and spent three days at home, having coughing fits and binge watching classic Doctor Who on Hulu. I wasn’t fully sick at this time. However, it was just enough to make my brain fuzzy and not fully recall everything that happened later. My next opportunity to watch this serial occurred after I had picked up the DVD. I then made the mistake of watching the pilot episode of “An Unearthly Child” instead of the re-shoot that was actually the broadcast version. It was startling to watch the difference. While the script, and even many of the shots, didn’t seem different on the surface, the tone and facial expressions of the actor made the whole thing so much darker. While Susan felt much more alien, she also felt less emotional and heartless. The Doctor felt much more menacing, devious and dangerous. I would get completely done with the episode and look over the DVD menu before realizing what had happened, and relief to wash over me.
Episode Summary: Two nosy teachers get kidnapped by some aliens after learning about a police box that actually travel through time and space, and is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
What do you think? Any massive themes that I missed or ignored that you’d like to discuss? Leave a comment below.