001 – An Unearthly Child

In which two school teacher learn that curiosity may not necessarily kill the cat, but it may kidnap it.

"Get a good look at it because we shot the budget on it."

“I tolerate this century, but I don’t enjoy it.”

The theme of this episode is mystery, from the eerie music and televisual feedback of the opening theme to the very title of the series itself.  Doctor Who is not so much a character name as it is a question.  Who is The Doctor?  While there are many adventures to be had in time and space, the central question of the show is bound up in the identity of the lead character.

The episode involves the investigation by school teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright into the home life of a most curious student–Susan Foreman.  Susan lives with her grandfather and has little to do with other students.  She is incredibly knowledgeable in history and science, but has limited knowledge of contemporary issues.  Barbara even tried to speak to Susan’s grandfather but found that Susan’s address led to a junkyard.  So, after sufficient set-up, the two teachers decide to follow Susan and satisfy their curiosity.

After following Susan into the junkyard, the two teachers meet up with a mysterious old man, who seems quite amused with their accusations that he is holding Susan against her will.  He denies that any girl entered the junkyard and is almost successful in getting Ian and Barbara to leave when Susan opens the door of a police box and calls out to her grandfather.  Ian wrestles with the old man and Barbara enters the police box to find that it is really a ship.

“Just let me get this right.  A thing that looks like a police box, stuck in a junkyard, can move anywhere in time and space?”

So what do we learn from this episode?  The Doctor and Susan are from another time on another planet.  They had not planned to stay on Earth long, but Susan wanted to go to school.  We don’t know why they are traveling and it seems that for one reason or another, they are unable to return home.   Ian and Barbara are very intelligent and protective of Susan.  They are now The Doctor’s prisoners, kidnapped for fear they would go to the authorities.  It is hard to comment on a story that is merely set-up, but this episode does have some distinct strengths.  For a story filmed in 1963 it holds up surprisingly well.  The script may be heavy-handed in places, but it is very effective in others, especially in moments of characterization and the reveal of The Doctor.  William Hartnell, as The Doctor, is quite the disconcerting figure in this episode.  When he first meets the teachers, he is quite aloof.  He plays a character who is in complete control and is very patronizing.  At one point he even accuses the teachers of being primitive and child-like, something that children on his planet would find insulting.  He also seems rather dangerous, covertly electrifying the control panel of his ship, then later kidnapping the two humans.

William Russell plays science teacher Ian with charm and strength, while Jacqueline Hill as history teacher Barbara conveys a mixture of busy-body curiosity, motherly protectiveness, and just a hint of affection toward Ian.  What is the exact nature of the relationship between these two people before they were forced away from their home?  They seem more than just colleagues but not quite more than friends.  Carol Ann Ford as Susan is a bit harder to peg.  While much of the story revolves around the mystery of her identity, she is talked about more than actually seen.  In one point we literally see her from Ian and Barbara’s point-of-view.  Susan in school is someone on guard, having to reign in her enthusiasm, and in the final third of the episode is someone trying to mediate the conflict between her grandfather and the teachers.  Her character needs to be fleshed out a bit more, but considering how much this 25 minute episode had to accomplish, I think this is forgivable.

In all, a strong start.  The final shot of a police box in a desolated wasteland with a shadow falling from just off camera is wonderfully creepy.  We could be anywhere, in the past, in the future, or on a distant planet.  But we know from the closing titles that there will probably be a “Cave of Skulls” involved.

Maybe one day we'll be able to film this in Dubai.

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