Doctor Who (Classic Series): An Unearthly Child parts 2-4

Overview

These three episodes constitute the first adventure by a TARDIS crew in Doctor Who. This adventure is marked by angry, resentment, and fear. Even though they follow closely from the events of An Unearthly Child, I have chose to group them separately to evaluate this story on its own merits. These episodes were written by Anthony Coburn and directed by Waris Hussein

making-fire
Making fire. Copyright BBC.

Story

The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan awake from their struggle to find they are in a new time period. While never explicitly stated in the story, it is clear that the author intended the setting to be prehistoric humanity. This is a story of tribes learning to work together, the Tribe of Gum and what I teasingly refer to as the Tribe of TARDIS. The Doctor is still dismissive of Ian and Barbara, but he no longer fears them. He has cast them all into the same fate. In some way, it seems the Doctor no longer cares what happens to the two teachers. He is now involved in figuring out where he is. Wandering off on his own, he is captured by a Kal, a prehistoric hunter who saw the Doctor light a pipe. Seeing the fire, Kal figured he could gain influence over the Tribe because “the leader is the one who makes fire.” Having lost his matches, the Doctor is powerless to grant Kal’s wishes. The time travelers are held captive as pawns in the power struggle between the outsider Kal and Za, the son of the former leader.

Characters

vlcsnap-2010-10-20-11h17m02s60
Main cast. Copyright BBC.

In general, the characters are good. There is clear characterization and growth, especially among the leads, but not limited to them. Za and Hur grow and change as a result of their experiences with the Doctor and his companions. This change is believable. They incorporate the new information into their contextual framework. Coburn doesn’t present the time travelers as enlightened figures imparting modern ideals to the past, with Za and Hur accepting them and finding similar enlightenment. Such plotting would be a strong marker for bad historical fiction. Za is intrigued by the wisdom the travelers offer, but he still filters such wisdom through his historical context. This is what I appreciate about good historical fiction: the humans do no have our perspective. They are foreign; they are alien. Great change, then, is gradual and takes time. The change that the Doctor and his companions bring to the Tribe is not a change that upsets human history.

Sadly, the only problem I have with character in this story is Susan. Having seen the unaired pilot, I know that Carole Ann Ford could play the character different. Unfortunately, that version of the character was scrapped. Instead, we are given Susan Foreman as a teenager that seems more human than alien. I think that Susan was done the greatest injustice in this early era of the show, as she was typically written and portrayed as panicky, flighty, and silly. I think they were trying to make a character the kids could identify with, but in the end, the character often doesn’t work. I look forward to revisiting these early stories to see how she fares throughout. I know that Barbara has great moments ahead, but I can’t remember if Susan does.

Presentation

Generally, the presentation here is good. There were definitely some obstacles to overcome with the technology and the filming space. The cameras were extremely heavy and hard to move. The studio was small, and the TARDIS set was a permanent fixture. So, they did the best they could. Hussein creates some great shots with depth, framing a character in the background with characters in the foreground.

Other methods used to overcome obstacles worked at the time but don’t hold up. For example, to create the impression of running, we are given close ups of characters’ faces as they run in place and stagehands brush their faces with branches and leaves. It simulates a running effect, but it now LOOKS like a simulation. It was a good solution, but the development of film and television over the decades have caused this effect to not age well.

Themes

This story has some great themes. As mentioned before the struggles of the Tribe of Gum and the time travelers work in parallel. Just as the Tribe needs to learn to work together to survive the ice age, the travelers need to work together to survive their ordeal: being lost in time. Division will tear them apart and ultimately destroy them. As Ian says, “Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe.” When unified, the tribe can stand against outsiders. This cuts both ways, sadly. If the whole tribe chooses to reject wisdom, then the wisdom can be lost. The whole tribe can choose destruction. But I am continually fascinated that Za, rather than choosing to destroy the strangers and their potentially subversive ideas, offers an alliance. Maybe “offers” is to light a term. He basically chooses to imprison them indefinitely so he can learn from them. But, the growth he shows as a character in this moment, the acknowledgment of his own weakness as a leader and his desire to learn, is still fascinating.

Another theme, intended or not, is wisdom imparted from a higher power. There are certain fringe theories that human development escalated in prehistory due to outside influences (gods, aliens, a more advanced group of humans from a lost civilization). Intended or not, this story says the outside influence was time travelers, and the greatest wisdom they imparted was not fire, but the realization that a tribe that works together can improve the tribe and possibly survive great adversity.

Personal

Each time I watch this story, I am more and more impressed with its themes. But I never look forward to watching it. I never crave watching it. My enjoyment of the story is more analytical, not emotional. As a result, this story is more of an acquired taste. Modern viewers may have difficulty with it because the presentation is dated and almost foreign. However, there are a lot of gems to unearth if you are patient and willing to dig deep.

Final rating: 8/10

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