Doctor Who is Great – 1 – “An Unearthly Child”

This is the first in a (hopefully) series in which I choose one serial per season which is unusually well-made and/or innovative. It’s also intended to serve as a recommendation of where to start for people unfamiliar with the show in general or with the classic series in particular. Today I’m talking about Doctor Who‘s first ever episode.

Doctor Who’s first ever episode is a masterclass in quietly building up tension and intrigue over the course of a 25-minute run. The entire plot of the episode can be summarised as: Ian and Barbara talk about how weird Susan is, they follow her to a junkyard, and then find out that the junkyard contains a spaceship disguised as a police box. In the modern-day incarnation of the show this would be over in 10 minutes; it’s a credit to writer Anthony Coburn and director Waris Hussein that they are able to stretch it out over nearly half an hour without issues in the pacing.

From that initial shot of a police box in a junkyard we know that something strange is going on here. The police box is such an iconic image of the show that it’s easy to forget what an ordinary, everyday object it was in 1963 – the mystery being what one is doing in a junkyard, rather than on the street.

For the first third of the episode the action is focused on Ian and Barbara as they discuss their strange pupil Susan Foreman and her unseen, stranger-averse grandfather. The original intention of the show was to have the two schoolteachers, not the Doctor, as the main characters, and that can clearly be seen here. For this portion of the episode we are given some detail to flesh out the mystery of Susan – she is excellent at history and science, but so ignorant of current affairs that she is unaware of the contemporary British currency system.

Around 10 minutes, in Ian and Barbara enter the junkyard and meet the mysterious old man who refuses to let them enter the police box (which Ian theorises is “alive!”), and whom they suspect of having locked Susan inside the contraption. The stranger dodges their questions and seems eager for them to run off to get a policeman rather than continue bothering him. The big reveal comes when Susan opens the door to find out what’s going on, and Barbara seizes the chance to force her way inside.

What she (and the audience) sees in there is hardly likely to come as a shock to a modern-day viewer, but at the time it must have been incredible. Barbara looks around in silence as the camera pans across, allowing us to take in the vast, white space inside the tiny phone box. In the background is none of the impressive, orchestral music common in the 21st century but an eerie hum, emphasising the unearthliness of what we’re seeing.

In the minutes that follow Ian and Barbara keep pressing the Doctor for an explanation, but he claims they don’t deserve one and would be unable to understand. Ian protests that the Doctor is treating them like children, to which he replies, “The children of my civilisation would be insulted!” In dribs and drabs we gradually find out more: the police box is a ship, which can move in time as well as space, and Susan has named it the ‘TARDIS’ – Time And Relative Dimension In Space.

The Doctor and Susan come from another planet, from a civilisation far more advanced than that of Earth in the 1960s. For whatever reason they are exiles but the Doctor muses, in a speech reminiscent of the one he would go on to make at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, that “one day, we shall get back. Yes, one day.”

The Doctor and Susan argue over the fate of their intruders – the Doctor insists they if Ian and Barbara are allowed to go then he and Susan will have to leave Earth or face being exposed. Susan protests that even if her grandfather leaves, she wishes to stay. Rather than lose his granddaughter the Doctor sets the ship in motion before she can stop him. The episode ends as a shadow falls over the TARDIS, which has moved from the junkyard to a desert.

It’s hard to imagine seeing this episode for the first time, with no prior knowledge of Doctor Who, and not wanting to carry on watching. It’s a wonderfully mysterious start to an iconic show and I could think of no better place to begin this series.

Next time: The Dalek Invasion of Earth

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