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Saturday, 4 December 2004 - Reviewed by Lance Hall

Most first episodes tend to be a let down. Who can forget the dismal freshman outing of Star Trek: The Next Generation. However, for Doctor Who the first 25 minutes are among the best of the series. Sadly, the remaining 75 minutes of the initial "story" are somewhat less gripping. The "Tribe of Gum" aside, "An Unearthly Child" soars. The mystery surrounding the TARDIS, and the origins of the Doctor himself, are more tangible in this episode than any in the 26 seasons that followed. Rather than introduce us to the eccentric title character directly, we meet him through the eyes of the two befuddled teachers. The indeed unearthly Susan is the perfect bait leading us into the story and finally to the hook. The hook of course is the Doctor. Unfortunately, William Hartnell's Doc is not the most likeable, and in many ways the least likeable of the first TARDIS crew. As we move into the last three episodes of the story, and meet the Tribe, the Doctor very nearly becomes villainous. The disagreeability of the Doctor is almost made up for when he argues his case with the bloody and not-so-bloody knife. Where I come from that's called fancy lawyerin'! Good practice for his Matlock-esque performance in "The Keys of Marinus."

There are a few problems with this classic. The Tribe of Gum is aptly named as the plot seems to get slower and stickier the further along we go. Okay, I am well aware of the TARDIS translator/Time Lord gift whachamacallit, and with a few exceptions it provides a charming solution to the age old enigma concerning why every alien race in the Universe speaks the Queen's English. This is one of those exceptions. Cavemen who can express themselves as eloquently as this group need less a quest for fire, and more a quest for literary agents. Isn't Horg writing for the New Yorker now? 

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking I'm making too big a deal about the caveman vocabulary. Here's a challenge. Go read the Target novelisation and tell me if the level of conversation is Neanderthal or more like something you'd over hear at the Grocer's in 1963 England? Also, I'm surprised that a Tribe that lives exclusively on the darkest soundstage in London would choose the Sun as their deity. Have they ever seen the sun? I guess you don't have to see something to worship it, after all I've never actually seen Louise Jameson.





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Saturday, 4 December 2004 - Reviewed by Graham Roberts

The story that began the legend has a very interesting opening episode. The Doctor is seen from a distance, the audience sharing Ian and Barbara’s perspective. He is mysterious, intriguing, rather frightening and potentially dangerous. Hartnell captures the “magic” of the Doctor immediately – he is much more interesting and complicated than some future incarnations. I personally believe there were only two “great” Doctors – Hartnell and Tom Baker, always fascinating to watch. Hartnell here is charismatic and compelling – a very steely portrayal. The music adds to the “menacing mystery” of the puzzle Ian and Barbara wish to uncover.

The episode is almost a warning against curiosity, for this is what results in Ian and Barbara’s predicament. “Almost” for without it life would be a lot duller. Ian is very likeable and Barbara very caring – without Barbara’s concern about Susan nothing would have happened. Susan is also quite endearing – the necessary link between the teachers and the Doctor who is absolutely essential at the beginning. Without her the Doctor would probably abandon the teachers in some remote time – even with her it is hard to keep him content. It is an interesting relationship that develops well in season one as they all learn more about each other and adapt their behaviour and attitudes.

The cliffhanger is also effective – after a uniquely eerie and surreal journey through time (leaving the audience in no doubt as to the ship’s capabilities) we see the first sight (used again and again) of a police box incongruously standing in an environment it obviously doesn’t belong to. The shadow in the final moments hints of danger and the start of the real adventure.

This adventure is not about world domination, invading aliens or complex schemes. It is simply about survival – obviously the main characters, but also the tribe as well.. The tribe will die without fire – and the Doctor lighting a pipe plunges him into that fight for fire. The power struggle between Za and Kal also keeps the plot moving as alternately one asserts himself and the other tries to discredit him. The main characters are forced to rely on their wits to survive and this is interesting to watch. Despite their ideas it is the Old Mother who frees them – and it is Barbara’s compassion for Za that gets them dragged back again, for (as the Doctor knows) without that delay they could have made it. It is interesting to see the Doctor contemplate murder in direct contrast with Ian and Barbara’s attempts to help Za. For teatime viewing there are some strong and vivid images – split skulls (and the suggestion that the crew will have their heads smashed open), Za’s wounds, the fight between Kal and Za and the skulls looking macabre with fire inside them. The Doctor’s argument that the tribe cannot be reasoned with also gains substance – by the end they flee for their lives and do not turn back. It is a rather savage story (pun is unintentional) that makes Ian and Barbara’s predicament more shocking – from leaving their comfortable world they immediately are stripped down to the bare facts of survival. As other companions will discover, travelling with the Doctor is not a cosy experience…

As a debut story it is very strong. There is no trace of sentiment and the Doctor is a force to be reckoned with – though it is the teachers rather then his enemies who take the full brunt at the moment. There is also no trace of invulnerability – all are scared and Hartnell conveys fear very well. It is a bold approach to start the series like this, and I can’t imagine what a wonderful idea the TARDIS was at the time of transmission. But the programme would show that it was not just about escaping from cavemen…