An Unearthly Child

Written by:
Anthony Coburn
Directed by: Waris Hussein
Starring: William Hartnell
Year: 1963
Video Availability: Try

Okay, I'm including this for completeness' sake. There are actually three versions of the pilot, the first (the one covered below) lasting 25'23m and the third lasting 25'55m. All are identical from the start, right up to the junkyard scenes, and only differ with the scenes shot in the Tardis. The second take of these scenes was aborted, while the third, which I've never seen seen, can be found on The Hartnell Years tape. But it's the funniest, most goof-packed version that was broadcast on television in 1991 and is the version I got to see.

The televised version of the pilot is notable for containing a different version of the theme tune, the infamous "banging doors" of the Tardis and Billy accidentally almost grabbing Susan's left breast. There are also amusements like William Russell saying many of his lines off-mike and Carole Ann Ford's "2 to 19… 19 to 2". Continuity wise, then instead of flicking through a book on the French revolution and declaring "but that's not right!" Susan sits on a desk making her own Rorschach test like a right loony. Most significantly, Susan also claims to have been born in "the 49th century", while Hartnell's performance is even more malicious than in the final version. Look out too for the stagy "laughing" of Susan's class and the odd whine of the Tardis interior. While it is fairly amateurishly made, it's weird how it was blasted for being filmed with a single camera… nowadays it's Doctor Who's multi-camera set-up that dates it. Yet despite all this they gave it another go and remounted the pilot, which is a completely different work altogether…

If you're the sort of person that likes to read Who reviews in chronological order, then be aware I've written the reviews on this site at random. Save for the Pertwee era, none of them were written in sequence, and so you'll probably find them rising and falling in focus and quality throughout. For an indication of how much I've done then as I come to review the first-ever Doctor Who story I've already reviewed 146 of those that followed, including all the colour stories and the rest of the Hartnell era. Also, a warning: this is the most extreme part of The Anorak Zone, and while none of it is exactly adult material, there might be some swearing and sexual references in some of the reviews that may offend those of a sensitive constitution. You have been warned.
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Absolutely captivating from start to finish, this is perfect Doctor Who. An ideal way in for new viewers even forty years later, it remains extraordinary television. Not only is the first appearance of the Tardis just utterly unique, but it's a rare glimpse of something original on television.

This is such a daring show that up until fifteen minutes in we're led to believe that the Doctor might be molesting Susan and holding her against her will. An astonishing first episode that sees dissolves, flashbacks, direct point of view camera angles and mixes. The editing may now seem primitive, but Waris Hussein was clearly the ideal choice for first director. Thanks to a strong narrative no matter how much technical advancement pushes this into the past, it'll never really date.

If I'm being honest then Jacqueline Hill and William Russell in particular seem stagier and less comfortable in their roles than they would later become, though this is small quibbling when faced with the very first (forced) materialisation, and the high drama therein, elevated by Susan's histrionics.

More in a perverse tribute rather than disparagement I'll be logging Hartnell's line fluffs on this site. However, his performance has never been better than here. Not only is he line perfect, but he's also positively magical… sinister, even. Doctor Who has never been better than this.
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I once saw a nice theory that pointed out that there's nothing to say the primitive civilisation of this story are on Earth. However, this has been somewhat dislodged by the finding of BBC documentation that shows the correct umbrella title for the story (each of the first twenty-five stories had individual episode titles, with this one "The Caves of Skulls") as 100,000 BC. I discuss the usage of the new "official" titles and their non-usage on this site under I discuss the novelisations of the television stories. However, while I'm not particularly enamoured of the range, I do recall reading this one many, many years ago and finding it totally absorbing. Whether it still is to an adult(ish) mind, I don't know - maybe I should find out - but it was a rare example of written Doctor Who being able to generate more tension than its visual counterpart.

For television this is perhaps the weakest instalment, with the travellers being recaptured after escaping… so they can escape again. Cue much "running on the spot with branches being waved in her face" from Susan. The limited set-bound nature of events means characters seem to spend their time walking from one side of the screen to another with no depth of field, yet it largely overcomes these narrow parameters by clever use of lighting. Unless it's just the archive nature of the material, An Unearthly Child is one darkest stories of all. But is it just me or is Ian not even touching those two sticks together?

A two minute long wrestling match between Kal and Za is either the sort of thing that inspired most of the season nine Pertwee stories, or homoerotica for Neanderthals. However, the Doctor's repulsed look of realisation when Kal gets his head smashed in with a rock (a thing he planned to do himself the previous episode) is a nice touch. Also worthy of praise is the original Tardis console, which looks genuinely alien and otherworldly. Compare this to the lollipop sticks version used in the later years, or even worse, the BBC Micro monstrosity from the 80s and it's clear that, while not wholly successful as an opening story, this still fine foundation for the series contained much good that they later threw away.
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This is where I give a brief summary of the story's qualities and a score for it as a whole. Is it as good as the sum of its parts? Better? Worse?
Naturally for this first one I'm not including the pilot, but even without it the classic first episode gets a certain drag factor from what follows. But it's only the difference between excellence and strong television - there's much to reward in all of it.
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