“I want to get into Doctor Who but I have no idea where to begin.” That’s a common sentence to hear whenever Doctor Who comes up. And since the show is over 50 years old it does seem intimidating. Most often the answer is to start with either Christopher Eccleston or Matt Smith. The Doctor Who that came back in 2005 is geared for modern television viewers, with tight pacing and state of the art special effects.
But starting with 2005 Doctor Who means a lot of Doctor Who – usually referred as Classic Who – gets left out. Before Christopher Eccleston was the Ninth Doctor, there were eight who came before him. I’ve got to be honest, I’ve seen every episode of new Who more than once, but I’ve only seen a smattering of Classic Who. So starting today, and then every two weeks, I’ll write my impressions of a Classic Who episode*.
The best place to start is at the beginning, so here are my thoughts on An Unearthly Child.
If you watched the 50th Anniversary you might have noticed the black and white opening credits, and the shot of a policeman walking by a sign for an “I.M. Foreman Scrap Merchant.” The very first episode of Doctor Who opened the same way.
Barbara, a history teacher, and Ian, a science teacher, spend the first episode discussing their pupil Susan Foreman. In some senses Susan is brilliant but in other ways she’s ignorant. There’s actually a flashback to when Susan forgets how many shillings are in a pound. She thinks there’s 10, but the UK doesn’t switch to a decimal system until seven years later, in 1971. The two teachers decide to visit Susan’s home to get to the bottom of the mystery.
The address from Susan’s school record is the junkyard we saw in the opening shot. After following Susan inside the junkyard, the teachers encounter the TARDIS for the first time. It’s just a police call box but it’s humming. When Ian feels it, he exclaims, “It’s alive!” Susan is nowhere to be found, but an old man enters the junkyard and is about to open the police box when Ian and Barbara ask him if he’s seen a girl come through.
The Doctor wants nothing to do with the teachers and doesn’t care that they’re looking for Susan. He’s very dismissive and gruff, and maybe a little paranoid. Ian and Barbara are convinced he knows what’s happened to Susan and are worried. When they hear her from inside the police box they rush inside.
Ian cannot believe his eyes. He had walked around the police box when they first found it so he’s convinced the bigger on the inside nature of the TARDIS is an illusion. Barbara is shocked as well. They try to tell Susan it’s just a game and she should leave with them. But the Doctor refuses to open the door, and takes off instead, essentially kidnapping them.
The Doctor in this story is like an extreme version of the modern Doctors. The First Doctor’s sense of self-preservation means he is hostile to Ian and Barbara. When they discover his TARDIS, he wants to escape, even though Susan likes living in 1963 and going to school. At one point when Ian and Barbara are tending to an injured caveman, the Doctor picks up a rock and approaches him. Ian catches his hand and the Doctor makes an excuse that he was going to ask for the caveman to draw a map to the TARDIS. Even in the first story, the Doctor lies.
Something else Classic Who has in common with the modern show, the opening credits are meant to depict the time vortex. Once the Doctor takes off, the same effect is superimposed over The Doctor’s and then Susan’s faces. I didn’t realize the credits from the First and Second Doctor eras were supposed to be the time vortex until I watched this episode.
Overall I enjoyed this story, even though I thought the caveman political drama in episode two extremely boring. It picked up again in episode three. I like Ian and Barbara and I get the sense they’re strong characters. Right from the start, they serve as the Doctor’s conscience, a theme that’s in the show today.
I would definitely recommend Whovians watch this story. The mystery of the Doctor is established here as the TARDIS’ broken chameleon circuit. I’d also recommend An Adventure in Space and Time a docudrama about the creation of Doctor Who.
*I’ll be watching stories on Hulu Plus. An Unearthly Child isn’t on Netflix or Amazon Instant.
Written by Caitlin Walsh