Doctor Who and The Unearthly Child

A novelization by Terrance Dicks

While attempting to satisfy their curiosity about an unusual student, teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright find themselves trapped with a mysterious old man at the beginnings of the ice age.

I wrote in a previous post that my preferred Target novelizations were those that took the opportunity to flesh out characters and situations in greater detail than the episodes on which they are based or for the author of the story to give a greater indication of his or her vision of the story than was achieved on television.  Doctor Who and The Unearthly Child does not deliver this.  On the latter point, it can’t.  The original story was written by Anthony Coburn while the novelization fell to the prolific (by necessity) Terrance Dicks.  Now, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with how Dicks adapted this story.  It is perfectly by the numbers and by reading it, you get an accurate vision of what was on the screen.  So accurate that when you actually watch the episode, you see very little difference.  Dick’s adaptation was written about nineteen years after the original broadcast, so I don’t know if he was drawing from scripts or the episodes themselves.  There will be some minor deviations and differences.  I imagine it would be hard to write for The First Doctor when Dicks has written for the Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth by this point.  So much development has come to the character and certain ideas of who The Doctor is have changed in the intervening years.  Despite this, Dicks reproduces the Hartnell Doctor quite well.  The characters are reminiscent of who they were on the screen as well.  Of the changes, the most-striking that I noticed was when the idea for using the skulls and fire were devised.  In the televised story, Susan began inexplicably playing with the fire and skulls, which gave Ian an idea.  In the novel, this scene is played much more naturally.  I honestly think it works better.

In my review of the televised An Unearthly Child, I played with the idea of cave-man politics not being so far removed from modern day politics.  In the novel, the political nature of the struggle between Kal and Za is much more explicit.  In fact, this struggle is juxtaposed a bit with the power struggle between The Doctor and Ian.  It isn’t masterfully written, but the idea does seem present and I think the story is better for it.  Likewise, the parallels between Ian and Barbara’s primitive nature (in comparison to The Doctor) and the prehistoric humans are quite striking.  Setting the beginning of an epic (well, long) journey in the dawn of civilization may be a bit heavy-handed, but no more so than beginning a novel range at the point of the first written-epic (see Timewyrm: Genesis).  Yet, as a way to draw parallels between the lead characters and how they could potentially relate to one another, it works great as a metaphor.  Likewise, the TARDIS crew, forced together by circumstance, must learn to work together to survive while at the same time showing Za and his tribe how to work together to survive the ice age.  In many ways you could say that The Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara are the founders of human survival and civilization due to the lessons they taught the tribe.  Those in humanity’s future helped those in humanity’s past to survive and flourish.  How very Moffat.

The more I ponder this story, the more I think about the novel, the more I am coming to like it.  So while Doctor Who and An Unearthly Child may not offer much more than the story upon which it is based, it does help one to re-evaluate the story and engage with it in a deeper and more meaningful way.  The story that Coburn (and here, Dicks) crafted really does work, despite being a bit slow and boring at times.  But metaphorically and structurally, it seems quite ambitious and does achieve some wonderful symbolism.

Excellent passages

First description of Susan:  “She had a way of observing you cautiously all the time, as if you were a member of some interesting but potentially dangerous alien species.”

“Kal saw his hopes of leadership dissolving in the laughter of the Tribe.  He grabbed The Doctor by his shoulder, lifting him almost off his fee.  ‘Make fire, old man!  Make fire come from your fingers as I saw today!'”

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3 thoughts on “Doctor Who and The Unearthly Child

  1. I never read this one. Mayeb the lack of monsters put me off in the days when I read lots of Target novels.

    I think one of Dicks’ main aims in his novelisations was to describe what the stories ought to look like without the budget constraints.

  2. Terrance Dicks did a terrible job of writing for Susan in The Five Doctors. He had no feel for the character. All he could think of for her to do was to have her twist her ankle. Apparently he originally scripted her as addressing her grandfather as ‘Doctor,’ which is a denial of the first principles of the character. He also gave her no interaction with the later incarnations of the Doctor.

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