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Retro Review: First ‘Doctor Who’ Episodes ‘An Unearthly Child’

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Fans of Doctor Who know just how important this coming year is for the long-running sci-fi series. Starting this month, Doctor Who is entering its 60th year of bringing adventures with The Doctor and his companions to television screens around the world. The 13th Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, just ended her time on the series, leaving a bigger mystery with the return of David Tennant as the 14th Doctor and a monumental shift in the show as Russell T. Davies returns as showrunner along with a new partnership with Disney+ for global streaming rights around the world and some creative input to boot. 

Big things are happening for Doctor Who and we here at The Cosmic Circus cannot wait to see where this show goes in the future. We’re so beyond excited for the series of specials celebrating the 60th anniversary and thought, why should we wait until next November to start the celebration? An occasion this big deserves an entire year of celebrating, after all, it’s not every day that a show turns sixty. 

Throughout the next year, I and a few other writers are going to bring you a mind-boggling array of Doctor Who articles, highlighting many of the best parts of the fandom and giving each Doctor their time in the sun.

To start off this Year of Who, I thought why not take you back to the very beginning with some of the first Doctor Who episodes? The first Doctor Who serial, starring William Hartnell as the Doctor, consists of four episodes, beginning with “An Unearthly Child.” It was the first serial that aired on the BBC and began the journey for this beloved Alien with two hearts.

[Warning: Spoilers from Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child are below!]

The mystery of Susan Foreman

“An Unearthly Child” begins not in the TARDIS like so many episodes of the revival era, but instead at ordinary school. That’s where we find Barbra Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian Chesterton (William Russell), two teachers who have a peculiar student in common. The student in question is Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford), a girl who is incredibly bright for her age but seems out of place for the early 1960s.  

Barbra is quite bothered by the entire situation and wishes to speak with Susan’s grandfather, however, can’t seem to find him. With Ian in tow, the history teacher is determined to get some answers and tails, Susan, to a junkyard. 

The Doctor, His Granddaughter, and Ian
LtR: Ian (William Russell), The Doctor (William Hartnell), and Susan (Carole Ann Ford) from Doctor Who “An Unearthly Child.” (BBC)

When these two individuals expected to find a house of some sort, all they found is a blue police box. Susan has seemingly disappeared as well, confusing Barbra and Ian even more. That’s when Hartnell’s Doctor appears, as if almost out of thin air. He’s wearing a dark coat and matching cap, with an air of superiority and annoyance, or a jovial mood depending on which version of the pilot you watch.

After a brief confrontation, Barbra and Ian end up on board the TARDIS, where The Doctor traps them out of fear. He’s worried that they’ll return to Earth and tell everyone about the box which is bigger on the inside and the aliens who are on board. So instead, The Doctor kidnaps the two Coal Hill School teachers, along with Susan, transporting them back in time.

Traveling through time with The Doctor

The first half-hour episode was strictly setting up the idea of Doctor Who, by introducing The Doctor, his granddaughter, and their spaceship. It also helps establish his companions, who stay long past this one adventure, even though they are reluctant time travelers.

That being said, the other three parts (“The Cave of Skulls”, “The Forest of Fear”, and “The Firemaker”) put The Doctor and his companions in the middle of a caveman-sized problem – making it feel like a more traditional Doctor Who story. 

The TARDIS lands incredibly far back in the past, much to the annoyance of The Doctor. Ian is disbelieving that they are in a different time than 30 seconds previously, demanding proof. The doors to the TARDIS open wide and the group steps out into a world that isn’t theirs. Which I can imagine would be both exhilarating and terrifying.

The bringers of fire

The episodes also follow Za (Derek Newark), the son of a former tribe leader of cavemen, who has some problems of his own. His father never taught him how to create fire, a sign of a true leader. His inability to do so means he may be outed as the leader of the tribe, with a caveman from a different tribe, Kal (Jeremy Young), stepping into his place.

Za is definitely a caveman down on his luck, with the prospect of losing his power and his girl he doesn’t seem to be in a great mood. Further complicating the situation, the rival Kal stumbles upon The Doctor who Kal believes can make fire. The caveman knocks The Doctor out, dragging him back to the tribe and hoping to clench the spot of the top caveman.

An Unearthly Child episode two
The opening title sequence from episode two features the TARDIS and a shadow of a caveman. Doctor Who (BBC).

The Doctor promises to create fire for the tribe, however, things take a turn for the worse and his life is in danger. Ian, Barbra, and Susan show up in time to save the doctor, but all four end up imprisoned in a cave.

The goal of the group is to escape the cavemen and return to the TARDIS before something horrible goes wrong. They also need to make sure that they don’t make too many changes to the timeline as well.

What ensues is definitely a traditional Doctor Who adventure, however, the feel is slightly different than that of NuWho. Ultimately the group makes it back to the space and time machine, although where and when they are going next is still up in the air.

The good and bad of Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

For me, one of the best parts of going back to the first serial of Doctor Who was being able to see how one of my favorite shows began. It was like stepping into a time capsule (no pun intended), and into a story that felt both a product of the time it was created in, and also incredibly advanced. You could see some of the typical ‘norms’ from media that date from the 1960s, which is absolutely a reflection of the era that it was created.

While this could be off-putting or bothersome to some, remembering the time in which this show is taking place and the boundaries that it pushed for years to come helps to decrease that annoyance. For me, Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child hit the nostalgia button for me, having grown up watching films such as The Sound of Music and Singing in the Rain. I would assume going back to watch Star Trek’s original series has a very similar feel to watching these early Doctor Who episodes.

Doctor Who was originally created as a children’s show to teach them about history (time) and science (space). He was to travel through time and space to provide lessons and information in a bite-size format that children can understand.

Keeping that in mind, these early Doctor Who episodes don’t have large budgets or the best graphics, which the latter was also because of the period in time these were filmed. This was a children/family-skewed series that didn’t gain its popular sci-fi status until much later. Therefore suspension of certain perceived notions is required for proper enjoyment of this classic Who adventure.

So if a black-and-white, low-budget sci-fi show rooted heavily in 1960’s societal norms isn’t your cup of tea, then this entry in Doctor Who may not be for you. However, if like me, you’re a massive Doctor Who fan and have watched most, if not all, of NuWho, then starting from Hartnell’s first episode as The Doctor is a great call.

Hartnell plays a more straight-laced Doctor, who is a bit tired and cranky, although there is a softer side under his rough exterior. He reminds me quite a bit of Capaldi’s Doctor, who was also cranky but with a huge heart.

Barbra and Ian are a fantastic duo, who I expect will continue to be fantastic companions. I think it’s rather fitting that Barbra is a history teacher, with Ian teaching science – the two subjects being taught to children through Doctor Who. Having expertise in those subjects will allow for greater integration of these two into the structure of the TARDIS team. It will also allow both of these individuals time to shine.

Final thoughts on Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

There may be a few brave souls who’ve never seen any Doctor Who and think that Hartnell’s Doctor is the logical place to start. For easier entry into the franchise and world of Doctor Who, I will always suggest starting with Christopher Eccleston. However, for those who have made it through all of NuWho and looking for more of The Doctor, starting with “An Unearthly Child” is a great call. 

It’s best to keep in mind that this isn’t the same Doctor Who you’re used to and suspending expectations is the best way to enjoy this. Going in with a clear mind and open to whatever is to come allows viewers to properly soak up this rich story and learn how Doctor Who first began.

These early Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child episodes are available for streaming on BritBox . Have you watched it before? What are your thoughts on this classic episode? Let us know on Twtter @kitson301 or @MyCosmicCircus. You can also join us in The Cosmic Circus Discord to discuss!

And if you haven’t read it already, check out my review of “The Power of the Doctor”, the latest special and final regular appearance of Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor.

Review: Doctor Who: the Power of the Doctor

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Brian Kitson

Working hard to bring you the latest news and thoughtful analysis of all things nerdy!

Brian Kitson has 358 posts and counting. See all posts by Brian Kitson