TV reflection: Doctor Who episode 1: “An Unearthly Child”

My familiarity with the first twenty-six seasons of the original Doctor Who is hardly comprehensive, but it predates my interactions with the new show by several months. For the last seven or eight years I’ve been watching through the old show more or less at random. A few months before I started grad school, I finally hit the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child,” and decided I’d share my thoughts on it. I don’t intend to make a practice out of this like I do for the new show, but I may share my thoughts about specific stories I find particularly good, particularly bad, or otherwise noteworthy. For now, “An Unearthly Child.”

This episode basically comes in three parts. In the first part, history teacher Barbara Wright and science teacher Ian Chesterton discuss one of their more peculiar pupils, fifteen-year-old Susan Foreman. Barbara convinces Ian to drive to the junkyard which corresponds to Susan’s home address and find out just exactly where her home is.

In the second part, Barbara and Ian see Susan disappear into the junkyard and try to follow her. While they cannot find Susan, they do discover a police telephone box which they cannot open, and an eccentric old man who acts very evasive about said box. He tries to get them to leave, but then Susan’s voice calls out of the police box and the door swings open, and Ian and Barbara rush in, followed by the old man.

In the final part, Susan and her grandfather attempt to explain about the TARDIS’ bigger-on-the-inside-than-it-is-on-the-outside nature and space/time travel. Susan’s grandfather just wants to get rid of the interlopers, but finally accedes to Susan’s requests to let them go—by warping them all out of the twentieth century and onto a desolate plain, where the shadow of a caveperson looks on presumably in disbelief.

I’m going to discuss “An Unearthly Child” from the perspective of someone who’s already familiar with the show and its mythology, because that’s the only way I can interact with it at this point. From that perspective, the first part, with Barbara and Ian puzzling over Susan’s alien brilliance is by far the most entertaining. The second part is fairly amusing because the Doctor clearly hasn’t got the hang of dealing with nosy people yet, and his evasions are hilariously weak and transparent; but when you get right down to it, this whole sequence is just an overly drawn-out build-up to a revelation which at this point, anyone who’d be watching the episode already knows all about. The third part is even worse, as it consists of an even more tediously drawn-out sequence establishing stuff we already know and have seen explained more entertainingly and concisely elsewhere, and a less-than-riveting buildup to a by now foregone conclusion.

One can’t blame the writer or the director or anyone else connected to the project for failing to predict what a massive hit Doctor Who would become, or for having different standards for pacing from what we consider ideal fifty years later. “An Unearthly Child” was probably a more than adequate introduction to the show at the time, but it’s long since been overtaken by material which is, if not outright better, then certainly more accessible to a modern viewer.

It’s still watchable (and better than many episodes the new series has subjected us to), but aside from a chance to see where it all began, there’s not much to recommend it.

As a matter of fact, my favorite parts of this episode are when it’s being completely stupid. When Barbara and Ian first discover the TARDIS, they put their hands to a panel on the door, and Ian exclaims, “It’s vibrating; this thing’s alive!” Gee, Einstein, is that what you say when you put your hand on the hood of your car with the engine warmed up, too?

There’s also, unfortunately, a truly cringe-worthy instance of early 1960s racism—so blunt and uncouth compared to our enlightened and sophisticated mid 2010s racism—when the Doctor compares Barbara’s and Ian’s narrow-mindedness regarding his and Susan’s and the TARDIS’ alien nature to a “primitive … red Indian” presented with a steam engine. Bad Doctor Who, bad!

Anyway, that was “An Unearthly Child.” It leads directly into a three-part story involving cavepeople, but it’s mostly a standalone story, and I have no great inclination to watch the next few episodes. Til next time.

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