100 000 B. C. (aka An Unearthly Child) is consistently excellent throughout, but analysis of it tends to be somewhat top-heavy. I dont need to go into too much detail, as its 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 Ive 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 theyre 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 Ill 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 shows 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. Theres 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, its wonderful. However, Ian and Barbaras 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.
Susans entrance is a little bit stiff (although I do like the song shes listening to) as shes 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 shell 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 Ians dismissive I suppose she couldnt be a foreigner is a comment that hasnt warn well. Its not racist as hes not negative towards Susan, but it's a spurious explanation for her oddities. Then theres Barbara saying that she might be meeting a boy who says theres 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 Barbaras comment that I feel like were interfering in something best left alone lack subtlety and undermine the illusion a bit, they are effective. Its 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 thats 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 (its 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 whats about to happen.
Its 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 youd expect considering it cost half the seasons 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. Thats aside from the idea of the TARDIS itself this has a conceptual richness that the new series, rather than being unable to achieve, just doesnt 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. Susans desperation works well in contrast with Hartnells 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 its taken for granted so much now that I almost stop noticing it, but its 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 hasnt 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. Its this sense of magic that makes these early episodes so effective. The screeching children attacking the skin made me jump out of my skin Id 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 Zas 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 Husseins 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. Im comparing the old and new series a lot, but theres 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; its simply left to stand alone in one of the shows 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 theres blood, too! All over the place! In the context Im 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. Its 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 shows history, helped immensely by being recorded on film. Using this, its possible to infer that the sword-fight at the end of Marco Polo might have been superb. Kals shriek as Za strangles him is horrifying even today, as is Za stoving his head in with a rock; the storys mortality rate is 40%, as only two characters die, but each one is incredibly vicious.
Ah, Susans plan
just add burning skulls to the list of dismembered corpses, beast attacks, decapitated animals and smashed-in heads. Theres so much of this Im beginning to feel like Im 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. Ians 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. Its a sure sign that were about to enter the wonderful world of Terry Nation! Thats 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.