‘An Unearthly Child’ launched the adventures of the universe’s most famous time traveller. We take a look inside this classic Doctor Who story.
Unfortunately, ‘An Unearthly Child’ won’t be on BBC iPlayer in time for the series’ 60th anniversary celebrations, as the BBC doesn’t own all the rights to this particular story. But you can certainly grab a copy on DVD, or download it on Amazon Prime. It’s definitely worth a watch – not least because it introduced the whole world to a zany, face-changing traveller with a physics-defying phone booth.
In ‘An Unearthly Child,’ two London school teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright grow curious about one of their students (Susan Foreman) and her seemingly supernatural knowledge of maths, science and history. They decide to follow her home – only to discover that “home” is a space-time machine, disguised as a police telephone box, and it can go anywhere in the universe, and any time. And her grandfather – known only as the Doctor – refuses to let the teachers go once they have seen his curious machine, the TARDIS, and activates the controls, sending them back to the dawn of civilisation.
‘An Unearthly Child’ sees the unwilling adventurers Ian and Barbara, together with the Doctor and Susan, trying to evade a vicious tribe of cavemen who are desperate to discover the secret of fire. They are particularly interested in the Doctor, who lit a pipe with a box of matches, and hound him relentlessly in a bid to acquire his knowledge. The travellers make a daring escape from a cave of skulls to a forest of fear, finally making it back to the safety of the TARDIS.
But their problems are not over, it would seem, as the TARDIS’ radiation meter slowly crawls towards the danger level.
So if you’re watching Doctor Who for the first time on BBC iPlayer, this is where your travels with the Doctor will begin, with the adventurers heading out to explore a seemingly dead world laden with radiation. This is the first part of the second Doctor Who story – ‘The Daleks,’ written by Terry Nation.
It’s a shame that, at the time of writing, many viewers will not be able to get their very first taste of the Doctor from ‘An Unearthly Child.’ In the adventure, he’s very similar to the Time Lord that we’ve come to know and love, but also different. This incarnation (expertly played by William Hartnell) is crotchety, with a dark streak. After all, he uproots Ian and Barbara from their home time and effectively abducts them, with no easy means of bringing them back. Because, at this point in the series’ history, the Doctor doesn’t have complete control of the TARDIS; he has no way of knowing when or where it will land next.
In short, he’s a much more abrasive character. And once you’ve got over the fact that he smokes a pipe in ‘An Unearthly Child’ (the only instance in Doctor Who history) you’ll then have to process the unnerving scene in which he contemplates murdering a caveman. Or, at least, that is the implication.
This takes place in the third episode of ‘An Unearthly Child’ when the Doctor and his companions are escaping through the darkness of the forest. One of their pursuers has been wounded by a predator, and Ian, Barbara and Susan are determined to help him, and they attempt to make a stretcher out of logs.
The Doctor, however, reaches over for a pointed stone and starts wandering towards the wounded caveman. It looks as if he’s considering murdering the man in order to save his own skin, and escape the forest.
As such, this early version of the Doctor is considerably darker and less predictable – a far cry from the chuckling, eccentric old man who would appear in later stories. And it takes several weeks for Hartnell’s portrayal to soften; it’s really not until ‘Marco Polo‘ (the fourth Doctor Who adventure) that his relationship with his companions really steadies. Alas, that particular story is currently missing from the BBC archives, so on the BBC iPlayer you will jump from ‘The Edge of Destruction’ to ‘The Keys of Marinus,’ unless the BBC includes some sort of reconstruction of the missing episodes.
‘An Unearthly Child’ also gives viewers an introduction to the mysterious Susan – a character that is still something of an enigma, even to this day. She claims to be the Doctor’s granddaughter, but it’s unclear whether this is an honorary title or whether he is, genuinely, related to her. All that is made clear in ‘An Unearthly Child’ is the fact that she comes from “another time, another world,” and that she comes from the same planet as the Doctor. “Susan and I are cut off from our own people, without friends or protection,” the Doctor says. “But one day, we shall get back.”
It wasn’t until much later in Doctor Who‘s run that these secrets were expanded upon, and the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey was revealed. And it wasn’t until the 2013 episode ‘The Name of the Doctor’ that viewers actually saw the Doctor and Susan fleeing from Gallifrey in a stolen TARDIS.
And even though, at the time of writing, it’s not possible to enjoy ‘An Unearthly Child’ on BBC iPlayer, you can get a taste for it in the 2013 docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time, which chronicles the creation of this classic story. And then there is the Seventh Doctor story ‘Remembrance of the Daleks‘ which acts as a sequel, of sorts, as it’s set in the same time and place and features a number of references to ‘An Unearthly Child.’
Then again, you might want to dive straight in with the earliest available story, ‘The Daleks.’ For more choices, check out Lovarzi’s guide for where to start with Classic Who.
In the meantime, if you’ve seen ‘An Unearthly Child’ before, what is your favourite moment from this adventure? Let us know in the comments below.