This is the very first Doctor Who story. It is also one of the best..well, that is if you don’t include episodes two to four.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the entire story but the first episode is infinitely superior to the latter three. In my mind, these four episodes feel like two different stories. So, for the benefit of this unreview, I will refer to episode one as An Unearthly Child, and the other episodes will be referred to as 100,000BC. If nothing else, this should appease the Whovians who can’t decide what this story is actually called. To casual readers, don’t ask. You really don’t want me to open up that particular can of marsh minnows.
An Unearthly Child
A junkyard and a policeman in the mist. This is how it all begins.
The show is not in a hurry to reveal itself to us. Even the time period is shrouded in the mists as we watch the policeman approach the yard and make sure nobody has broken into it. This could be any era from the Victorian age to today. It is well filmed with lingering shots to highlight the first mystery of the show: why is a policebox in a junkyard?
The second mystery answers our question of era. The impossible girl that is Susan Foreman who in a later scene is heard listening to the music of John Smith and the Common Men. This music could only be from the early 1960s. Why is she a mystery? Because of her staggering intelligence and the juxtaposition of her mule-headed ignorance.
Her teachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, are puzzled by this girl. So they do what any teacher would do. They ignore the problem, spend a few hours bemoaning the standard of the children’s intellect and then go home to drink away their gloom in a dark room before crying themselves to sleep.
Of course not! No, they drive to her home address and wait for her in the think fog. Actions which would get any modern teacher struck off and put on the sex offender’s register.
As they wait, we get to see the finest scenes of the first-half as Ian and Barbara discuss Susan. In flashbacks, we get to see the aforementioned girl at Coal Hill School. Carole Ann Ford’s reactions to the questions posed by her teachers is just brilliant. She gives off this stubborn vulnerability that is a joy to watch. I advise you to try and find these scenes on Youtube.
At this point, for no apparent reason, I began to believe that Ian and Barbara were Labour voters. Or at least, I would hope they would be. A much better belief at this point would be that I also thought that Jacqueline Hill as Barbara showed the same stubborn vulnerability as Susan.
Susan arrives and disappears into Foreman’s scrapyard. Then her teachers, as you do, follow her but … where has she gone? The impossible girl has vanished into the ether. This could be a case for Mulder and Scully rather than Chesterton and Wright.
When the intrepid teachers enter the yard, there is no sign of Susan. After a half-hearted look, they are surprised to see a police box which on closer inspection seems to be humming the song ‘The Girl From Ipanema’. The first mystery has reappeared, humming to itself.
Ian and Barbara hide when they suddenly hear the phlegmatic coughing of a sixty-a-day smoker in the street outside. Could it be Albert Steptoe? I wish!
It is Susan’s grandfather, the Doctor. An old man with long white hair, Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen’s fashion sense and more vague answers than a politician. He is not impressed with the Labour-supporting interlopers and why should he be? This Doctor is clearly a supporter of the Tories. You don’t think he would support ’em? Just wait until the next story, 100,000BC, and you will see his underhand behaviour.
Like any good Tory, the Doctor denies everything and blames their actions and suspicions on Labour. He is undermined when his Green Party supporting (probably) granddaughter calls out from within the police box. D’oh!
Barging into the box, Ian and Barbara are shocked to discover a technological wonderland, the hub of a spaceship complete with mushroom-shaped console, roundels (gotta love the round things), antique knick-knacks and a confused Susan Foreman. Oh, and it is bigger inside than out!
The Doctor can’t allow them to tell anyone about him and his granddaughter but instead of hosing the teachers down with cheap rum so that they would be accused of being drunken fantasists by the local police, he kidnaps them by sending them and the TARDIS, Susan’s name for the police box, spinning off into black-and-white footage of what it must be like to take drugs. Groovy.
The police box is a time machine. Bill and Ted eat your heart out. The first mystery is solved but who are Susan and the Doctor? They say they are exiles but is that true? Who knows…
They arrive upon a desolate plain where their materialization has been seen but by whom? Tune in next week, folks. Same bat time, same bat channel!
It starts where the last story left off with a solitary shadow seen cast across the desert sands towards the TARDIS. But this time we get to see who is casting the shadow. It is the late-60s version of Ringo Starr dressed in furs.
We then cut to a cave where a bunch of cave-dwellers are watching Za try to make fire by rolling a bone between the palms of his hands. Oor arr, missus! No, not innuendo, he is really trying to make fire.
Then there is a bit of prehistoric Realpolitik as Za’s mother refuses to tell him how his father made fire, and his girlfriend may be forced to marry the outsider, RIngo Sta…ahem…Kal, who is seen as stronger.
Back in the Ship, Barbara and Ian don’t believe that they have travelled in space or that the TARDIS interior is contained in the skinny blue box. The Doctor explains the latter by comparing the time machine to a television which can show a big building upon its screen. Yes, quite. This is comparable with the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where Calvin asks why the wind blows through the trees and his father explains that it is actually the trees sneezing.
To prove the former issue, they all go outside and the Doctor wanders off for a crafty smoke where he is promptly bopped on the turnip by Captain Caveman AKA Kal. A man who can make fire appear from his fingers would be ideal for Kal’s leadership attempt. It is the modern equivalent of a politician using a baby to make himself more appealing to the voting masses.
Imagine if House of Cards featured cold sun-worshipping cavemen and a knocked-out old codger, then you get the idea. Kal and Za are at each other’s throat, in their desperate bids to appear more manly and more worthy of being the leader of the moth-eaten savages. With Za and Kal fighting over the leadership and Hur indoors, I couldn’t help but wish that they just whipped their noodly appendages out and have a pissing competition to settle who should be leader of the cave folk. I know they are cavemen but there is more male testosterone here than at a Canadian Lumberjack Convention.
I was also wondering how they named these primitives. Did they pick random letters out of a Scrabble bag? And also, why did call the sun ‘Orb’? Is that not a little imaginative for these cavemen?
Anyhow, they are tugging the Doctor backwards and forwards in order to place the word ‘fire’ on the triple word score and usurp the leadership.
“Make fire from your fingers!”
“Make milk squirt from your nose!”
Following all this, the Doctor is sent to the prehistoric naughty step which they prosaically call the Cave of Skulls. Where he is then joined by Ian, Barbara and Susan whom we last saw wondering where the Doctor had gone.
Later, Old Mother steals a stone knife. Perhaps to cut off the stubble off her face? While she is half-inching a bit of sharp stone, Ian tries to use bone shards to untie the ropes binding them. They are surprised when Old Mama breaks through the sticks that hide the secret and bloody obvious second entrance to the cave of craniums. But Hur warns Za and they both have it away on their toes only to find that the big massive stone blocking the main entrance is still in place. Surely they don’t think that the old woman could have moved it and then moved it back afterwards? By herself? Even Za needs help from Hur to move it. They are too late though, the old kook has allowed our heroes to escape into the night.
Daylight comes and the Doctor and all are running through the forest. But this is not just any forest, oh no, this is a forest of fear, oh yes! Full of rumbling animals and chirpy birds. Scary stuff.
I love how William Russell as Ian comforts Barbara. It is a small scene but it speaks volumes about their relationship.
Za and Hur, being the expert hunter-gatherers that they are, track the TARDIS gang through the forest of afraidiness.
I thought, when rewatching this episode, that Hur looked a little like the fork-and-spoon operator who plays Sonia in Eastenders. Not that this does her any good when a mystery animal attacks Za.
Susan and the humans, hearing the attack, decide to help the caveman. The Doctor is all for abandoning Za to his injuries. This is a far cry from the man who would later say he made a vow to be neither cruel or cowardly.
Back in the cave, Kal is awake. After pumping Old Mother for information, Ringo Kal murders the eldster by his favourite method of attack: blunt force trauma.
Back in the forest, Hur is puzzled as to why the strangers would want to help Za. The Doctor stands apart from the action until he tries to take a page from Kal’s book by smashing Za’s skull in. Luckily, Ian stops the cruel and cowardly Doctor. See? This is typical Tory behaviour.
Kal has framed Za in a scene that wouldn’t be amiss in House of Cards, and just like the snakes in aforementioned serial drama, he spins events to his advantage. He must be a real expert in spin because he has somehow placed some of his cavemen henchmen to lay in wait at the TARDIS. How does he manage this? If the cavemen are this speedy, why doesn’t he just ambush them in the forest? Strange.
Even strange is Kal’s oddly oiled chest when everyone is brought back to the caves. Our oily anti-hero tries to fake evidence but the Doctor turns the tables on him. Kal is banished and he takes his oiled muscles with him.
Not that Za is thankful. He just has the TARDIS crew shoved back into the cave of skulls. If you can’t trust a murderous savage, who can you trust?
All is not lost though. Hur tries to convince Za that this new tribe are friends. The concept of friendship sends Za exposition crazy.
Ian is trying to make fire when Za pops in for a chin-wag. Za, whose intelligence seems to be increasing with every scene (evolution in progress?), bribes our heroes with freedom if he gets to learn the secrets of the crazy world of Arthur Brown: fire!
When Kal returns, a huge fight occurs between him and Za. By flickering firelight, they struggle before Za steals Kal’s patented turnip-smashing moves and kills him stone dead. Stone Age dead in fact, geddit? Geddit? Meh, suit yourself…
When Za brings out Ian’s fire, he is given the Beatles treatment with cheering fans, screaming girls and one teen cavegirl who wants Za to sign her breast with a piece of charcoal (as soon as they invent some that is). But before he can claim ‘to be bigger than Orb’, he pops off for a hunt. As you do. Za is a modest chap.
The crew are disappointed when Hur visits them in the cave (of skulls) to inform them that Za has screwed them royally. They are still prisoners.
When Za returns, he is quite solicitous to our heroes but he still won’t allow them to scarper.
But Susan isn’t dismayed though. She has made her very own Ghost Rider effigy. This gives Ian a kernel of an escape plan. They will fool the primitives into thinking a bunch of burning skulls on sticks are the crew. Fool proof!
This cunning plan works. Really.
Our heroes escape to the TARDIS. Huzzah! The cavemen throw spears at the vanishing time machine. Tough luck, dum-dums! Adiós and farewell.
But all is not well, the TARDIS arrives in a forest (my money is on Sherwood Forest) and the radiation counter is faulty. But that is another story and shall be unreviewed another time…