Thursday, January 27, 2011

"An Unearthly Child"

Aired Nov. 23 - Dec. 14, 1963

Episode 1 – An Unearthly Child
Episode 2 – The Cave of Skulls
Episode 3 – The Forest of Fear
Episode 4 – The Firemaker

Story 1

Written by Anthony Coburn

Directed by Waris Hussein


Coal Hill Schoolteachers Barbara Wright and Ian Chesteron have the same problem student; Susan Foreman, a strange teenage girl who seems to be incredibly advanced in some areas, hopelessly ignorant in others, and overall an otherworldly presence in their classroom. 

Consumed by curiosity and concern for the girl, they visit her home address and are astounded when it turns out be a junkyard. Following Susan inside, they find what they assume to be an abandoned police box and encounter Susan's guardian, her grandfather. The old man is rude and secretive and dismissive of the two teachers, which only increase their suspicions. When Ian and Barbara hear Susan's voice from inside the police box, they force their way inside.

To their amazement, the police box is much larger on the inside than it appears, and the teachers find themselves in a huge, highly advanced control room. Susan and her grandfather, known as the Doctor, are aliens who travel through time and space in this ship, which is called the TARDIS. The Doctor, fearing that Ian and Barbara will reveal their presence in this time, sets the ship in motion, taking them all to a desolate freezing wasteland in Paleolithic times. There they become involved with a tribe of prehistoric humans who are in the midst of a power struggle over who has the knowledge to make fire. With their lives under threat, the travellers narrowly make it back to the TARDIS and escape. 

Setting off again, it is now all too clear to Ian and Barbara that the Doctor does not have full control over their travels, and returning to their own time may take far longer than they thought. The ship next materializes in a strange forest, and as the crew set outside to explore, the radiation meter on the TARDIS console begins to register "Danger."


Viewers who tuned in on that evening in November in 1963 must have been absolutely riveted to the first episode. The debut is packed with atmosphere and mystery and huge concepts, all centered around the enigmatic and anti-heroic lead character, brilliantly embodied by Hartnell. The Doctor is a completely unknown quantity here, an eccentric and arrogant magician from another world and another era. It's easy to see how Hartnell's performance in the role became so iconic; he immediately captivates and he's just so odd. The other regulars are top notch in the debut as well. Carole Ann Ford brings an otherworldly quality to Susan that is essential, but still manages to make us believe she is still a teenager, with all that entails. Ian and Barbara are hugely likable and immensely appealing, and successfully act as viewer surrogate. The TARDIS and the concepts surrounding it are so fresh and original, even today, and the set is incredible.

For years, many have decried the three episodes that follow as dull in comparison to the debut. However, pretty much anything would suffer compared to that amazing first episode. The Stone Age story is actually a perfect one to follow such a way out beginning. It's simple, direct, uncomplicated thriller stuff. This allows viewers to settle in and spend time with the regulars, getting to know them, and giving them a chance to interact with each other. I think if they had immediately gone into another high concept story, it might have been a mistake. The story itself may drag a little, but there's some genuine moments of excellence, from the flaming skulls, to some very good guest performances, to a terrific fight scene shot on film with tons of atmosphere.

It's a triumph all the way around, and a sign of incredible things to come.

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