This is where it all starts. The Doctor, the Tardis, the companions, time and space travel, all of it. Nearly 60 years of Doctor Who began in a junkyard in London in 1963. And what an underwhelming start it was.
Don’t get me wrong, the first of the four episodes in this serial is genius. Absolutely iconic and perfect. There is no way it could have set up the show we would come to know and love better. I think almost all the iconic elements of Doctor Who, all 58 years of it, can be found in the first episode of An Unearthly Child: the character of the Doctor, the companions and the Doctor-companion dynamic, time and space travel, character-driven storytelling, the moral overtones. These things would develop and evolve as the show got older, but it’s astonishing and a testament to the genius of the show’s formula, that the next 60 years of Doctor Who were, for the most part, all there in the very first 25-minute episode.
It’s the rest of the three episodes in this pilot serial that are underwhelming. Sure, it’s all orthodox, standard-issue Doctor Who, but it’s mediocre Doctor Who, too. There’d be a lot more of that to come. 75 minutes of mind-numbing caveman politics and the Doctor and his new companions trying to extricate themselves from the cavemen’s dim-witted clutches does not engaging television make, even, I expect, by 1963’s standards.
But let’s get past that and focus on what An Unearthly Child does right. First there’s the character dynamics. Right from episode 1, the show establishes the formula that would prove its success: the Doctor-companion relationship, and the focus on the companions as the main characters, the audience avatar (in this case, Ian and Barbara), rather than the alien Doctor. Ian and Barbara are introduced as likeable and very strong characters, anchors of familiarity when the viewer is suddenly transported into the unfamiliar world of the Palaeolithic alongside an alien girl and her eccentric grandfather.
The Doctor himself is established strongly. In our first meeting with Hartnell’s First Doctor, we’re left with an impression of him as a mysterious, enigmatic figure, someone with an identity to hide. As the serial unfolds, we’re shown more of the Doctor’s character. This isn’t the fully-developed Doctor we see by the time he takes the form of David Tennant strutting across our screen in his trenchcoat and Converses moralising to anyone who’ll listen; the seeds of David Tennant’s Doctor are there, but the Doctor of An Unearthly Child is still very much a Doctor working out who he is, what he’s about, and what his values are.
There’s the infamous scene where the Doctor tentatively takes up a stone with the intention of cracking open a caveman’s skull, only to be stopped by Ian, the voice of sense and virtue. But this also isn’t the Doctor we would later see who would boldly take charge of this shitty situation and try to fix it and (hopefully) leave everyone happy—Hartnell’s Doctor doesn’t give a damn about the cavemen’s problems, he just wants to remove himself and his friends from their capture, even if that involves decapitating a caveman, something later Doctors would not contemplate. Even though he’s played by an older man, it’s obvious that Hartnell’s Doctor is very much a younger Time Lord than David Tennant’s and Matt Smith’s Doctors.
Episode 1 Susan is wonderful, enigmatic and interesting in her own way as we’re shown clips of her blurting out very un-teenage girl-ish things in class, and of Ian and Barbara pontificating about her strangeness and plotting to stalk her to her inexplicable home. From episode 2 she’s already devolved into the screeching, air-headed teen girl she would remain for the rest of her tenure by the First Doctor’s side. Which is a shame, because the Susan we’re introduced to in episode 1 had the potential to be a genuinely strong and interesting companion.
There’s not much to say about the actual plot of this pilot serial other than that it’s about cavemen bickering non-stop over how they can make fire and who gets to be boss caveman while they keep the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara captive for no clear reason. It does drag awfully, but the dialogue between the Doctor and his new companions as they work together to figure out how to get themselves out of their situation is worth the watch. If you see the derivative caveman rubbish as the generic backdrop to the story of the Doctor and his companions’ first adventure and how, as new travel companions, they work together to fix the unfortunate situation they’ve found themselves in, it’s actually not a bad story.
Look, as a simple pilot whose purpose is to introduce the main characters, establish the formula of the show, what they do, what the show is about, and what the audience can expect from future episodes, An Unearthly Child does the job. It will feature on no list of all-time Doctor Who classics except with sole reference to the first of its four episodes, which was genius, the remaining three being mostly forgettable filler. But it’s done what it’s supposed to do, and whet the audience’s appetite for more adventures with the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara.