Despite having already covered the classic era of Doctor Who, I have wanted to dive back in using this new review format. I used the classic era to jumpstart a regular writing/posting habit many years ago, and I hope to do so again. The format, then, is to review complete stories. Once I finish a serial, I will post a review. My goal is one review per week until I get caught up. And yes, caught up means the new series, which will likely be well in to the Chris Chibnall era.
One more thing to clarify: I’m approaching An Unearthly Child as a stand-alone episode. While there are character conflicts that continue throughout the 4-part story, An Unearthly Child works well as its own story. It introduces all the main characters and concepts in a mere 25 minutes. The episode doesn’t wait around, and just hits the ground running. It’s a bit impressive.
An Unearthly Child starts with Barbara and Ian, the history and science teachers at Coal Hill School, discussing Susan Foreman, a mysterious student. She is a gifted student, but she also has some strange gaps in her knowledge of present-day England. She doesn’t fit in. Oddly, she it sounds like she is the type of genius that just can’t be bothered with ordinary, mundane things. But she doesn’t fit in to this proper British school and Barbara wants to know more about her. Barbara follows Susan home one night. Susan, apparently, lives with her grandfather in a junk yard. Enlisting Ian’s help, Barbara sets out to confront this situation. The two teachers follow the young girl into the junk yard, and immediately lose track of her. They find an old police telephone box that seems to be connected to some sort of power source. They are discovered by an old man, who turns out to be Susan’s grandfather. Then, they hear Susan call out from inside the police box. Thinking Susan is being held against her will, Barbara forces her way in. The police box is bigger on the inside, and the inside is full of high-tech gadgetry side-by-side with antique furniture and a clock. Susan’s grandfather refuses to let the teachers go, hits a switch, and propels the police box through space and/or time. The episode leaves their destination in question.
It is no surprise that successful “reboots” of Doctor Who model themselves on this episode. The companions are introduced. We get a feel for who they are. The companions face a mystery. Through that mystery, they come to meet the Doctor and encounter the TARDIS. Each episode of the new series that introduces a new companion (a soft reboot, in a way) uses this pattern. Where this episode differs, however, is the mystery of the Doctor and Susan. They were introduced without 50+ years of lore and fan-baggage. As a result, there is no attempt to explain who the Doctor and Susan are beyond “exiles in the 4th dimension.” In a way, it’s fun to adopt this mindset and let the show provide its own answers. (Sometimes these answers are very different from what the show has become.)
This episode sets up a mystery, and as Ian and Barbara investigate the mystery, they find more questions. They are forced into a larger world, not by choice, but through kidnapping. It’s an interesting starting point.
BARBARA: I feel frightened, as if we are about to interfere in something that is best left alone. Don’t you feel it?
IAN: I take things as they come.
There is surprising depth to these characters. The quotes above give a concise encapsulation of who they are. Barbara is curious but has a sense of right and wrong. Ian is more relaxed in his approach.
Susan enjoys the world she is in, despite her struggles, but feels very close to her grandfather. She will do what he says, regardless of what she wants. In a way, she is trapped by his over-protection. The Doctor is suspicious, calm, and calculating. He seems dangerous and untrustworthy and at this point. This is especially true after he kidnaps the two teachers.
Personally, I think the episode stumbles a bit when Barbara tries to explain to Susan that the TARDIS is an illusion. She rejects what she has seen. Ian has difficulty with this as well, explaining that he doesn’t expect the mysteries of time travel to be solved in a junk yard. While I think this is a lapse of character, it does reinforce the idea that adherence to the status-quo is a strong desire. Susan’s inability to fit in started this adventure, and now the teachers must stare it directly in the face. They reject it.
Decades of stories that portray a call to adventure (Luke in Star Wars, Harry in Harry Potter, Bilbo and Frodo in Tolkien’s novels) always start with a realization that the status quo doesn’t work any longer. The characters often take a first step into adventure, but then reject it. However, the first step cannot be undone, and so they are forced out against their will. Luke wanted to leave home, met Obi Wan, started gaining knowledge, but then refused the call. He returned home to find his aunt and uncle killed. He then returned to Obi Wan. (Okay, it doesn’t quite work with Harry Potter, but his pre-called life was tangibly unpleasant as opposed to existentially unpleasant.)
There is a similar, though rearranged, call here. Barbara and Ian are firmly in the status quo, but their call comes from their observation that Susan is not of the status quo. They actually want to mold her giftedness into something that would work for the world as they see it, but Susan either can’t (because of her grandfather) or won’t (if she has any choice, which she probably doesn’t). And so, the teachers investigate. They are soon forced to stare the call directly in the face as they enter the TARDIS. But the Doctor won’t let them leave, and now they are trapped—for better or for worse.
And so, it would seem, the deeper theme of the episode is that once you take steps to investigate this mystery, this call, this place where the status-quo breaks down, you have altered your fate.
I’m grading this one on a curve. This is 1960s British television. Decades of film and television innovation have not yet happened, and most of the framing for the episode is done similar to stage productions. It’s actually fun to watch for shots that attempt to frame all the characters in a shot. It’s fun to see how director Waris Hussein works with depth.
And I’m particularly impressed with the shot of Ian and Barbara in the car.
It is difficult, however, to watch some of the camera movements. The cameras used at the time didn’t have lenses that could zoom, so the cameras had to be physically moved. This causes problems with focus and framing. We often lose sight of the characters in the shot. Sadly, these moments haven’t aged well, though they were standard at the time. But I don’t want to detract from evaluating presentation due to the technical limitations. Instead, I want to see how they used what they had, and I think that An Unearthly Child did quite well. It’s a solidly shot episode.
Sadly, I wasn’t really engaged with the episode on this viewing. I’ve seen it many times, so there aren’t a lot of surprises. I still enjoy it because Ian and Barbara are some of my favorite Doctor Who companions, but at this point, we are still just putting pieces into place. I know what the pieces are, and so I’m ready for the adventure. But still, An Unearthly Child is immensely watchable and, technical considerations aside, holds up well for the era.
Final Rating: 7/10