An Unearthly ChildBookmark and Share

Sunday, 8 July 2007 - Reviewed by Finn Clark

"Everyone knows" that the four-part story known as An Unearthly Child is really two stories: a one-parter and a three-parter. Probably unsurprisingly, I disagree. There's a certain obvious truth to the statement, but I think they're less mismatched than people say. There's a change of setting from 1963 AD to 100,000 BC, but the Tribe of Gum extends and counterpoints the first episode's themes. In 1963, two humans stumble across the products of a civilisation so far in advance of their own that they can barely even comprehend it. They fight and go into denial, while the Doctor and Susan ignore them or treat them like children. The Doctor even explicitly likens them to primitives seeing their first steam engine.

Then back in the Stone Age, they find a world as far behind Ian and Barbara's developmental level as they were behind the Doctor and Susan. For these cavemen, fire is a technological miracle and social sciences aren't even in their infancy. "How can we explain this? She doesn't understand kindness, friendship." And then the Doctor: "These people have logic and reason, have they? Can't you see their minds change as rapidly as night and day?" They're staggeringly primitive, but they're still dangerous. You underestimate them at your peril.

The Cave of Skulls is arguably the first episode of a three-part historical (which might explain its slowness) but it's also very much part two of An Unearthly Child. It continues the story of the Doctor, Susan, Barbara and Ian, picking up where the first episode left off and extending its themes, arguments and character development.

The first episode is obviously fantastic, though a mere shadow of what it should have been. Having at last seen the pilot episode, I suspect I'll never watch the broadcast version again. From now on it's Scary Hartnell for me. Compared with that the remaining three-parter has a reputation for being a bit boring, which I can understand despite not finding entirely fair. There's a lot of good here. I like the aesthetic, for instance. These aren't glamorous "Raquel Welch in 1,000,000 Years BC" cavemen, but thoroughgoing savages that haven't been prettified for television in the slightest. It's uncompromising. There's a delicious brutality to part four's big fight, for instance. Any other story would have had the Doctor or one of his companions jumping in to save Kal's life when Za raises that rock. We've been programmed to expect it. We're waiting for it, but we wait in vain. Squish.

Unfortunately the problem is the performances. In comparison, think back to Carl Forgione as Nimrod in Ghost Light, who mostly lets the make-up sell him as a caveman and just gets on with playing the character and the situation. Admittedly the Tribe of Gum couldn't have gone that far, but visually they're so convincing that I think they could have afforded to pull back a little. Kal in particular needed to act more. He's the drag factor in episode two's lengthy confrontational scene, which is the only genuinely boring bit in the whole serial. It should have been compelling, but it drags. Derek Newark is putting in the effort as Za, but Jeremy Young's Kal is just grunting out his lines. Visually he's great, with that menacing face, but he's clearly the worst thing in the story and things improve considerably once he's dead. Until then it's basically Doctor Who's first example of Two Alien Factions and we know how badly they tend to turn out.

There are some startling accents ("Oi was a great leaderrrr of many men"), although this makes sense since this patchwork community is sheltering the last survivors of other now-dead tribes. However it's still disconcerting to get this huge range of speech, from the aforementioned Farmer Palmer or Kal's barely human grunting to Za's near-eloquence. It's appropriate for Za to be the articulate one, though. He thinks. He has ideas about what a leader should be and even if everything isn't clear in his head, at least you know he's making an effort to work it out. Interestingly though, in their own ways both Kal and Za are correct. Za's attempts at firemaking are indeed risible, about which he's a bit too fatalistic. If at first you don't succeed, plod on moronically with what you've already proved is ineffective. However on the other hand Kal would indeed be a terrible leader. At least Za has thought processes.

Mind you, I admire Kal's way of getting out of a pinch in part four. "Yes, I killed the old woman." You can't beat honesty.

The TARDIS crew are all fantastic, obviously. Note that Ian takes the bull-headed sceptic role that could have made him look like an idiot, but William Russell avoids that trap. He seems practical, not stupid. Once he's seen prehistoric Earth with his own eyes, he accepts the evidence and quietly adjusts to his changed situation. Barbara is the group's heart. "Your flat must be littered with stray cats and dogs." "These are human beings, Ian." Hartnell of course is a god, especially if you watched the pilot episode, although I was surprised by how understated is the famous moment where he's about to murder Za. I particularly love his big scene in part four, manipulating the tribe and basically condemning Kal to death. "I have never seen a better knife." "This knife shows what it has done." You get him, you old bastard! It makes the character far more interesting that in his early days the Doctor wasn't a straightforward hero but a selfish old goat willing to do just about anything to ensure his own safety.

He's obviously still unfamiliar with the TARDIS. He's unusually cautious, taking his Geiger counter outside even after Susan's checked the radiation levels. It's also startling to see how disturbed he is by the failure of the chameleon circuit. Oh, and that's a fantastic final cliffhanger. The TARDIS lands on some strange world, with a scanner image that's freakier than anything in both Cushing movies put together. Our heroes talk about going out to investigate this place from which any sane person would run in horror, then the radiation meter creeps up into the danger zone and we see the next episode caption: "The Dead Planet". I shivered.

As an aside, this story makes a perfect companion piece with Survival, together bookending the classic series. Both stories put the Doctor with another Time Lord with whom he has a long-standing relationship and some ordinary humans in two settings: (a) contemporary London, portrayed with a realistic mundanity that's almost without parallel throughout the rest of the series, and (b) a Stone Age world with nothing to offer but fighting for survival. If you really wanted to stretch the comparison, you could glue the TVM to the end of Survival and turn it into a Stone Age three-parter and a mostly (but not entirely) unrelated one-off pilot set on modern Earth in which the Doctor picks up a couple of humans but has as his only travelling companion that aforementioned Time Lord.

This story is fascinating. Its reputation for boredom is actually the fault of episode two and specifically one long-winded scene. Once you're past that, you're flying. There are some dodgy 1960s production values if you're feeling uncharitable, but personally I thought the visuals were surprisingly effective. The cavemen are almost too convincing, the TARDIS hardly ever looked better and we even get to see out through the doors! That's something we rarely got. Between Hartnell and Eccleston I can only think offhand of Pyramids of Mars. Returning to An Unearthly Child, the only silly-looking bit is the regulars running on the spot in part four. Otherwise I like the way this looks. In particular there's something primal about skulls and fire. The script has interesting themes, its TARDIS crew are vividly realised and the whole thing has electricity. It's lightning in a bottle, captured at a time when Doctor Who's formulae hadn't yet been invented. One of the best pilots I've ever seen, for anything.

FILTER: - Series 1 - First Doctor - Television

An Unearthly ChildBookmark and Share

Sunday, 8 July 2007 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

100 000 B. C. (aka An Unearthly Child) is consistently excellent throughout, but analysis of it tends to be somewhat top-heavy. I don’t need to go into too much detail, as it’s hardly a groundbreaking statement to say how the first episode overshadows the other three. To be honest, An Unearthly Child gets listed as the best single episode ever that I’ve deliberately cast about trying to find a better one. While a few obvious candidates come to mind (The War Games part ten, Inferno part six, The Deadly Assassin part three), ultimately I just have to concede on this one; An Unearthly Child is the best single episode of Doctor Who.

This being the first of the first, it seems like an opportune moment to say something about the original title sequence. It might be reactionary of me, but this is my favourite: the psychedelic spangles of later years are all very well but this is a real mood piece, in special effects terms a triumph of serendipity, and no title sequence has ever meshed with the theme music so brilliantly. Later sequences are slicker, but they’re just CGI, and the ubiquity of that sets a limit to how impressive it can be. This on the other hand, simple and elegant, is completely unique, and nothing has been seen like it since. The music too is darker, throbbing, pulsing, and spine-tingling in a way that none of the others were.

Early Doctor Who, up to the end of Inside The Spaceship, is seriously dark. This isn't the last time I’ll mention that, but it strikes me here in this relatively domestic first episode because the initial imagery of dark, foggy streets with a funereal tolling bell are far closer to horror than to science fiction. This sets an unusual, unsettling tone for the episode and for the programme in general, given its contrast to much of the show’s future content.

After an innovative piece of direction (in the sense that blur-cuts are rarely seen in this era) we meet the first regulars. There’s a real sense that William Russell and Jacqueline Hill are feeling round their roles, but nevertheless they exude charisma and even at this early stage have a wonderful presence on screen together. In writing terms the episode is pitched perfectly, with the dialogue eloquent without being florid; it is structurally perfect, since by having the mystery described to us before we get to see it ourselves adds to the mystique further by distancing the viewer an extra step from the answers. This is done three times in one episode: first with Susan, then with the Doctor, and then with the TARDIS. And each time, it’s wonderful. However, Ian and Barbara’s plan to follow a student home seems dodgier and dodgier the older the story gets, as the subtext of (unintentional and misunderstood) child abuse becomes harder to avoid.

Susan’s entrance is a little bit stiff (although I do like the song she’s listening to) as she’s the weakest of the four regulars in this era, but the quality of her characterisation means that she acquits herself well here, being a sweet likable girl but without losing the mysterious quality of the pilot, particularly where she casually tells Barbara that she’ll have finished an enormous book on the French Revolution by the next morning. 

The flashback scenes in the car are well handled (a narrative complexity very rarely seen, not just in this era but in the show in general), with the decimal system debate being a particular highpoint (although those “laughing” extras hold it back) mainly because of the fact that it came true eight years later. It is effectively juxtaposed with some fascinatingly psychological dialogue in the car, although Ian’s dismissive “I suppose she couldn’t be a foreigner” is a comment that hasn’t warn well. It’s not racist as he’s not negative towards Susan, but it's a spurious explanation for her oddities. Then there’s Barbara saying that she might be meeting a boy – who says there’s no sex in Doctor Who?

The episode cranks up a gear as they enter the junkyard – helped immensely by the low lighting – and while the crushed dummies and Barbara’s comment that “I feel like we’re interfering in something best left alone” lack subtlety and undermine the illusion a bit, they are effective. It’s impossible not to shiver at the first sight of the TARDIS, although it's viewed in a very different context now as a visual icon of science fiction; to understand the scene you have to appreciate that Barbara and Ian are looking at something that’s incongruous through its very ordinariness.

Hartnell has possibly the best entrance of any Doctor, walking through the mist to the TARDIS – made a frightening character by the sinister subtext that the episode has built up around him so far. This is another case of contextual effect though, since his anti-hero stance seems strikingly odd to someone so familiar with the rest of the show. His acting is superb (it’s difficult to believe he was only 54), and his looking straight into the camera adds to the surrealism of the set up. His faux-scepticism is more brilliant characterisation since theoretically he is making the reasonable argument, adding to the extraordinary effect of what’s about to happen.

It’s hard to put into words the effect of seeing the TARDIS interior for the first time. The sudden cut from dingy junkyard to gleaming spacecraft is startling, and the bigger-on-the-inside set up is one of the elements of the original series that still feels original and unique decades later, even if it began as a narrative device allowing the production team to have a small ship that nevertheless allowed the actors plenty of room to work. The set is superb, which you’d expect considering it cost half the season’s budget. The scene itself is outstanding, one of the best pieces of television ever recorded, both in terms of the complexity of the effect the TARDIS has on Ian and Barbara and the language used to express them. That’s aside from the idea of the TARDIS itself – this has a conceptual richness that the new series, rather than being unable to achieve, just doesn’t allow itself the time for. There is, I should say, a great sense of psychological realism throughout season one. It takes Hartnell thirteen episodes to soften, while in the new series Sarah Jane Smith switches opinions in the space of a scene. Susan’s desperation works well in contrast with Hartnell’s sternness, while Ian and Barbara stay in the middle trying to make sense of everything.

The take off showcases the famous sound effect for the first time – it’s taken for granted so much now that I almost stop noticing it, but it’s hard not to be impressed with it here as it blends so perfectly with the images (cleverly culled from unseen footage of the title sequence). The cliffhanger, with the ordinary police box now standing on a barren landscape, is extraordinary.

Where I perhaps differ from some fans is that I happen to think that the next three episodes maintain the quality of the first, as the atmosphere they create of squalor and the desperate fight for survival is lovingly crafted and is always solid throughout. Za rubbing his bone (!) shows the kind of attention to detail given to these cavemen, in their attempts to impose a meaning on what they cannot understand. I always liked to think that this is Earth – in fact, I like to read in the interpretation that the TARDIS hasn’t moved in space at all; the tribe are terrified about the oncoming winter, and the episode was transmitted in early winter 1963 – I like to think that suggests to the viewer a fairly exact, linear movement back in time. Their dialogue is so lyrical and complex and certainly unrealistic, but the scenes featuring them are eminently watchable.

The TARDIS scene has a sense of inevitability as Ian and Barbara finally begin to realise the truth of their situation. The “Dr. Who?” line actually works here, once as a serious question and once as a quotation from Ian. Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat might want to take note that this was the first and last time it worked. The “yearometer” is an unusually crude, almost Nation-esque device, but the “cry of strange birds” line is one of my all time favourite quotations from the show. The exploration of the new environment is atmospheric, helped by the sound effects (although admittedly this is for the nostalgia value rather than their quality). There is a real sense of wonder and excitement about early Doctor Who, and a sense of possibilities waiting to be tapped. Not for this show the endless trips back to London council estates; they have a universe to explore. It’s this sense of magic that makes these early episodes so effective. The screeching children attacking the skin made me jump out of my skin – I’d forgotten how scary the episode is.

Jeremy Young is a bit of a ham-ster (geddit?), but Derek Newark and Alethea Charlton are both excellent; the inflections in Za’s dialogue (“he lay down to sleep” rather than “I belted him out cold”) add to the sense of not understanding how the human body works, saying so much in such an economical way. The battle of wits between Za and Kal is so dynamic throughout the whole serial; the important roles of the manipulative Hur and the wise old Horg show how tightly structured the story is, but if anything the characters are too strongly defined to the extent that they are unable to break out of the single roles they play in the narrative. The cliffhanger is extraordinary – “look at those mangled human remains” – but the darkness and scariness of the episode is never gratuitous as it helps the themes of the story. This, like many early episodes, is a story of concepts and themes. And very good it is too.

“Fear makes companions of all of us” is a brilliant line, but let down by an overstated explanation of hope. The forest set is good, as they often are in black and white, and may not have actually been better than any other in production terms. However, Waris Hussein’s direction (he focuses on close ups a lot of the time, obscuring background detail) helps the sense of claustrophobia. Even freedom is terrifying, as the characters are exhausted, lost and in danger of recapture. There is no optimism at all; this is a world away from the new series, which in comparison has been significantly toned down. I’m comparing the old and new series a lot, but there’s just such an extraordinary contrast.

The superiority of Ian and Barbara over the cavemen carries an important message of relativity; they found themselves transplanted into a scenario where they were the weak unenlightened ones, unable to do anything but gaze in wonder. Now, however, they are the strong ones again by being transplanted into a new situation where they are facing savages. This really keys into the concept of the show, that nothing you know is constant and everything can change with the flick of a switch. This makes it a very effective first serial, regardless of whatever Verity Lambert might say.

And then Barbara falls onto a severed warthog head. Just like that. Always in my top five scary moments, this is an absolutely extraordinary set piece that would never be repeated again throughout the series; it’s simply left to stand alone in one of the show’s most disturbing episodes. Move over Genesis Of The Daleks: this is my candidate for the darkest story of all time, ironically the first one ever – I suppose you have to get these things out of your system. The beast attack on Za is also scary, possibly due to the gusto with which Hur reacts – and there’s blood, too! All over the place! In the context I’m writing this (series two of the new series is currently showing) this is deeply shocking, both for the visuals and for its psychological effectiveness. The Doctor is mean and merciless, but actually has a point with regards to the reactions of the tribe. However, his plan to kill Za in cold blood is different. It’s something you just have to let go as the show finding its feet in its early stages; in any other episode it would be indefensible. Fortunately, nothing like it happened in any other episode. The cliffhanger to part three is dynamic and well shot.

Hartnell swings into life in the fourth episode, his plans and schemes pointing forward to the hero he would become, but without actually softening. Za, meanwhile is also changing, explaining to Hur these new ideas the strangers have brought him – at this early stage there is a subtle sense of the characters affecting those they meet. Is there a better-crafted story than this one?

The fight scene between Za and Kal is one of the most brutal, visceral and realistic in the show’s history, helped immensely by being recorded on film. Using this, it’s possible to infer that the sword-fight at the end of Marco Polo might have been superb. Kal’s shriek as Za strangles him is horrifying even today, as is Za stoving his head in with a rock; the story’s mortality rate is 40%, as only two characters die, but each one is incredibly vicious. 

Ah, Susan’s plan…just add burning skulls to the list of dismembered corpses, beast attacks, decapitated animals and smashed-in heads. There’s so much of this I’m beginning to feel like I’m repeating myself. However, “peg it back to the ship” is hardly the most dramatic finale. Then again, what other option is there? After all, this is a story about intellectual drama, not about set pieces. Maybe Lambert was right to say that something bolder and brighter would have made a more appropriate first serial at the time, but in retrospect this holds up exceptionally well. Ian’s line of “come on Doctor, get us off, get us off” scores high on the double entendre register (ahem, for those who like that sort of thing *cough*), and the cliffhanger is silly and contrived, with the needle pointing to danger only after Susan looks away. It’s a sure sign that we’re about to enter the wonderful world of Terry Nation! That’s a slightly disingenuous comment perhaps as I really like The Daleks, but its nowhere near as sophisticated as this.

100 000 B. C. is extraordinary television, dark, frightening, brutal, and deeply satisfying to watch. Just talking about it now makes me want to harpoon a newbie and force them to watch it – you can keep Rose, for this is as fine an introduction as any programme could possibly hope for.

FILTER: - Series 1 - First Doctor - Television

An Unearthly ChildBookmark and Share

Sunday, 8 July 2007 - Reviewed by Shane Anderson

I first recall seeing “An Unearthly Child” back in 1985 on my local PBS station. I still have my off-air VHS copy from that broadcast, which is still watchable after 20 years. In between the obligatory pledge breaks are four really good episodes, proof positive that Doctor Who hit the ground running with a good solid concept, good drama and four very good characters. No wonder I still like it so much! 

Episode one, the only one actually titled “An Unearthly Child”, is the best of the four, and honestly ranks pretty high in the series as a whole with its level of storytelling. It’s a strong beginning, and sets up the mystery of who Susan is with her strange mix of knowledge and ignorance. William Russell and Jacqueline Hill are never less than warm and believable as the two schoolteachers who are curious and concerned about their student. Carole Ann Ford is always likeable as Susan (at least until she starts getting hysterical later) and her love of the 20th century is rather endearing, especially with the knowledge that she feels like she doesn't belong anywhere, and is looking for a home. She is of course the hook to draw Ian and Barbara into the scrapyard and into a meeting with the Doctor.

I can’t say enough good things about William Hartnell’s performance. He is instantly intriguing, and when he’s on the screen, I’m always interested in what he’s doing or saying. Like Tom Baker or Patrick Troughton, Hartnell is always worth watching, always entertaining, even if the story itself isn't as strong as it could be. Here in the junkyard he tries to deal with the sudden intrusion of Ian and Barbara into his life with less than successful results. That and his patronizing explanations to Ian about the nature of the TARDIS are clues that he doesn’t really relate to others well, including his granddaughter Susan. And while he may be arrogant, short-tempered and patronizing, he’s also protective of Susan, which softens his character just enough for me to like him, despite his flaws. 

Hartnell really sells the character by taking the part dead seriously, as do the other actors. There’s not a hint of whimsy, and indeed precious little humor in this story. Contrast this with later episodes, or indeed Christopher Eccleston’s first episode, and it becomes very refreshing to see actors taking what is really an absurd set of ideas and circumstances and making them convincing. The idea of time travel, or the ship that’s larger inside than out, or even the cavemen later on could all be cringe-inducing if played over-earnestly, or in self-referentially humorous fashion, but everyone involved in “An Unearthly Child” plays the script and ideas and characters dead straight, with just the right tone of seriousness, and that translates into a top-notch production. The acting and characters transcend the budgetary and production limitations, as is often the case with Doctor Who.

Since this story contains the first appearance of the TARDIS, let me take a moment to comment. It’s a fantastic concept in more ways than one. A ship that can travel anywhere in time, or anywhere in space, that disguises itself wherever it goes, and trancends dimensionally restraints... that’s a big idea, and pretty original. We can be thankful for budget limitations that forced the writers to come up with the idea of it being stuck in one form, because the Police Box exterior has been the only constant in an ever-changing series, even if it has varied in appearance from time to time. It’s the equivalent of the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ first Narnia story. It’s the seemingly ordinary object that opens up onto a whole new world that we can explore. And has the console room ever been more expansive, until Paul McGann’s version appears on screen? As the vehicle for all the adventures that follow, the TARDIS has to capture the imagination, and it does just that.

I used to be of the opinion that the first episode was the good one, and the other three were rather dull. I’ve since changed my mind about that. While the first episode is undoubtedly the best, the other three really do contain some compelling drama. Being plunged from a safe school-teaching job into a very literal struggle to survive is a sound premise from which to wring some drama, and it instantly demonstrates the dangers of time travel. The unreasoning and fickle cavemen are as dangerous a foe as any alien menace that the Doctor faces on his travels. They help one minute, and turn on him the next. It’s fascinating to watch Ian try to convey new ideas and concepts to the primitive mind of Za, such as working together to achieve a goal, or sharing the firemaking skills among the whole tribe, ideas that Za clearly struggles to grasp. We also get a picture here of the difficulty the Doctor has in relating to Ian, since Ian is as far behind him in knowledge as Za is behind Ian. Kudos to the writer for the ‘show not tell’ approach. It’s something that went over my head when I first saw the story at 14 years old, but appreciate now, and is a fine example of a multi-layered approach to storytelling. 

The story, being studio-bound, has the feel of a stage play. It’s a script that contains lots of dialogue punctuated by the occasional action sequence. It’s slow by modern standards, but if you have the patience to stick with it, you’ll enjoy some good performances and good dialogue. There’s no quick-cutting soundbite storytelling here. 

To sum it up, there’s very little to find fault with in Doctor Who’s first serial. Only the production values seem lacking in 2006, but that’s a limitation of budget and technology, and as such can’t really be counted as a fault. Other productions have failed miserably to suspend disbelief with far more time and money to work with. “An Unearthly Child” generally transcends its limitations, has a strong concept behind it, contains a good setup episode that gets the basic concepts of the series across very well, and gives us a good survival story with four strong characters. No production is ever perfect, but this comes close. 9 out of 10.

FILTER: - Series 1 - First Doctor - Television