Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child Review

DW An Unearthly Child

How can I properly frame the importance of this episode? It should seem obvious being the very first episode, but it establishes pretty much everything: The Doctor is an alien with a police box that’s bigger on the inside than the outside, that can travel in both time and space. The imagination in Episode 1 for the time is still great today, it’s just a shame about Episodes 2 – 4, which decides to tell a relatively slow story about cavemen… Ah well, let’s have a good look overall and kick off the Doctor Debut Story countdown, shall we?


Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton, two humble teachers during 1963, are surprised by a bright student named Susan Foreman. Confused by the contradictions in Susan’s knowledge, Barbara had decided to visit her home, only to learn that the address on record is a junkyard. She and Ian decide to wait at the location until Susan or her grandfather show up. There, they discover a junkyard inhabited by her grandfather, simply known as “the Doctor”, and he doesn’t want them lurking about.

*spoilers appear from here on out!*

Cast of Characters:

DW An Unearthly Child 1

The Doctor ponders on how to deal with these meddling humans…

The Doctor (William Hartnell) – The Doctor has recently left his home planet with his granddaughter Susan, for reasons he keeps to himself. While repairing the TARDIS, his ship, he has spent time on 1960s Earth, allowing Susan the time to see what schools were like on this world… a decision that will change his soon-to-be long… long life forever.

Susan (Carole Anne Ford) – Susan is, deep down, scared of the life she now has to lead, in exile from her own people. For that reason a regular schedule and hanging out with people of a similar age (outwardly) is what she wants, leading to her applying to Coal Hill School while her and her granddad are on Earth…

Ian Chesterton (William Russell) – Just your regular science teacher in 1963 London, on friendly terms with history teacher Barbara. Recently student Susan Foreman has been acting oddly, often seemingly smarter than even he is…

Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) – Barbara is Coal Hill School’s history teacher, and has been getting a bit cross with student Susan Foreman, and then equally confused with her as it turns out her address is a junkyard…

Za (Derek Newark) – Za is the leader of a primitive Earth tribe some 100,000 BC. His role as leader is threatened when his father and previous leader died before teaching him the method of creating fire, the sign of leadership to his people…

Hur (Alethea Charlton) – Hur is Za’s mate, though that is threatened when his leadership is questioned. Hur wants to be with Za, but must go along with her father’s wishes if Kal were to become leader…

Kal (Jeremy Young) – Kal originally came from another tribe that was wiped out, and he was luckily welcomed into Za’s tribe. That being said, Kal has eyes on becoming tribe leader, all he needs to do is learn how to make fire, or find someone who does…

Plus more!

The Good:

DW An Unearthly Child 4

The Cliffhanger to Episode 1 is really well shot! Shame it doesn’t lead to much…

The good is An Unearthly Child itself, a.k.a. Episode 1. The shots of the TARDIS in the mist, Ian and Barbara talking about the strange child Susan, the mystery of her living in a junkyard, it all starts off with a good layer of intrigue. When Ian and Barbara search the junkyard and meet the suspicious and cranky Doctor and eventually find their way into the TARDIS, it leads to the very first “look around in amazement” scene. After a brief conversation Ian lays it out plainly “Let me get this straight. A thing that looks like a police box, standing in a junkyard, it can move anywhere in time and space?” Yep, that’s the premise of the show Ian, cheers! The Doctor then panics about them “calling a policeman” and so lifts the TARDIS off into the unknown… I’m pretty sure he could have dealt with a policeman quite easily, or just lifted off after Barbara and Ian left, but hey-ho, The Doctor is arrogant and immature at this point, so I guess he wanted to teach them a lesson, and prove he is what he says he is…

I like that both the Doctor and Susan are baffled at why the TARDIS is stuck in the shape of a police box instead of blending in to the new barren surroundings… It’s just funny to see such an iconic part of the show being puzzled over by The Doctor. One of the joys of looking back at the start of the show.

There isn’t much to talk about for the three episodes set in caveman times. There is one great scene where an injured Za is being treated by Ian and Barbara and The Doctor picks up a rock, clearly with the intention of bashing the primitive’s skull in, but he’s stopped by Ian. The Doctor tries to play it off like he wouldn’t do such a thing, but it does go to show what kind of person he was turning out to be if it weren’t for the intervention of these Earthlings and the adventures they’d go on. Retroactively we see how much more… Time Lord-y The Doctor was, full of arrogance towards lesser beings (“I tolerate this century, but I don’t enjoy it.”) and willingness to kill. He becomes the anti-Time Lord through his adventures with these lesser mortals, and, as I said, retroactively we see that perfectly.

The Bad:

DW An Unearthly Child 3

That child caveman is now over 50 years old…

Beyond that one scene with the rock, there isn’t much to say about Episodes 2 – 4. Za wants to lead his tribe but needs to learn how to make fire, but he can’t and so his leadership is questioned by outsider Kal. The Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara get counted as a tribe from far away “in strange skins” and get captured, escape, captured, escape… more internal caveman tribe politics… It’s just not very interesting. Out of all the historical time periods they could have chosen, and would later chose, why they went with this for the first historical story I’ll never know… At least their first sci-fi story was better picked!

The Continuity:

DW An Unearthly Child 2

“What a perfectly plain life we lead!” “Yes I know, I doubt anything exciting will ever happen to either of us!”

Well, I’m not going to list all the “first time this happened” because, well, it’s all the first time anything happened!

More specifically: 76 Totter’s Lane, where the TARDIS is “parked”, is later revisited by the First Doctor himself in audio “The Perpetual Bond”, the Sixth Doctor in “Attack of the Cybermen”, and his Seventh incarnation twice, both in 63 again in “Remembrance of the Daleks” and in 2021 in “The Harvest”, where Totter’s Lane is now a car park.

Speaking of Remembrance, it is revealed during that story that The Doctor while on Earth here at the start of this story, brought with him the “Hand of Omega” and had it buried, where the Seventh Doctor would then use it.

The 50th Anniversary Eleventh Doctor comic story “Hunters of the Burning Stone” has a lot of connections to this story. The primitive tribe seen here are given powers by a cosmic entity and used to attack The Eleventh Doctor, who has met back up with Ian and Barbara. At the end of the story The Doctor goes back in time to 63 and sabotages the TARDIS’s chameleon circuit, explaining how it broke between the scenes in Episode 1 and the start of Episode 2.

Speaking of visiting Doctors, the Eighth Doctor appears before his first self during the caveman portion of the story in the book “The Eight Doctors“.

Susan listens to “John Smith and the Common Men”, a group that The Doctor would come to like and meet in person in the Fifth Doctor audio “Fanfare for the Common Men”, itself also part of the 50th Anniversary celebrations.

Overall Thoughts:

So, there we have it. How it all began. The original episode (ignoring the unaired Pilot before it, though I don’t know when or where I’ll look at that…) does a great job of getting across what is a pretty crazy plot by today’s standards, let alone back in 63. The remaining three episodes are rather dull sadly, so much so that I think I’ll do a very rare breaking up on the score, despite it being counted as one story. The first episode is a perfect starting point, it needs to be recognised as such…

Episode 1:

5 Star Watch

Episodes 2 – 4:

2 Star Watch

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