Doctor Who couldn’t have started any other way

The TARDIS in the Palaeolithic age

I wonder what William Hartnell—whom I’m convinced is still somewhere up there in time and space looking down on us here on Earth—thinks about his action figure. The story goes that he was convinced that Doctor Who would run for years and years and years, and what do you know: he was right. Here we are, 48 years later, and Doctor Who is more popular than ever. But this is where it all started, one foggy November evening in 1963.

It’s difficult not to approach An Unearthly Child without bringing along some baggage. The first Doctor Who story I saw as a kid in the 1980s was Peter Davison‘s inaugural serial, Castrovalva, and by the time this particular story aired on our local PBS station, I already knew who Susan Foreman, Ian Chesterton, Barbara Wright, and the Doctor were, as well as the TARDIS and the entire premise of the show. Nevertheless, there’s certainly something special and mysterious about this first story, seeing these characters for the first time, and watching how their—and, therefore, our—journey into time and space began all those years ago. It’s certainly hard not to feel at least slightly envious of those people who watched it broadcast on BBCtv on November 23, 1963.

Like Rose in 2005, An Unearthly Child has more or less one function, which is to introduce the main characters and to establish that our protagonists can “go anywhere in time and space” in the strange and magical TARDIS. Ostensibly, this story can be viewed as a standalone that, while leading directly into the next as many of these early stories did, is completely separate from the three part serial that follows.

Susan, the so-called “unearthly child,” is the hook that draws schoolteachers Barbara and Ian into the story: Susan is “absolutely brilliant at some things, and excruciatingly bad at others.”  Other little things—her address on file with the school secretary, 76, Totters Lane, is just an old junkyard, for example—don’t make sense.  To their credit, Ian and Barbara are concerned enough about Susan and her home life that they follow her back to the junkyard to see what happens and where she goes.

The other hook, of course, is the police telephone box Ian and Barbara discover when they follow Susan inside.  Police boxes, which would have been completely common and ordinary in 1960s London, allowed beat cops and the police station to communicate with each other before the advent of personal police radios.  This is another mystery, because, as Ian comments, “These things are usually on the street.”  Furthermore, police boxes were constructed mainly of cement (not wood as is commonly believed), so it’s unlikely that one would be brought to a junkyard if it were beyond its functional life.  This is something that most viewers would overlook today, but it’s a fact that wouldn’t have gone unnoticed when this story was originally broadcast.  It’s also vibrating, another impossibility, and they’re convinced that the obstinate, unhelpful old man they meet has Susan locked inside to nefarious ends.  They seize an opportunity, Barbara pushes open the doors, and—

The interior of the police box is expansive, brightly lit, and even futuristic.  We expect a dark, cramped space, and Ian and Barbara are blindsided, as the old man—Susan’s grandfather, we learn—commands her to “close the doors.”  The schoolteachers’ reactions to the shock of learning the police box is bigger on the inside seem surprising and wrong at first. It’s Ian who is clearly the most troubled by this revelation, and who is struggling to reconcile this reality with what should be. Only moments before, however, he claimed that he “[takes] things as they come.” This seems at odds with his reaction, until one considers that Ian is a man guided by reason and logic—and the reality of the TARDIS is completely unreasonable and totally illogical. It simply doesn’t fit into Ian’s accepted worldview. Barbara, on the other hand, while still shocked at seeing the Ship, seems to accept it more easily than Ian, perhaps because her background as a history teacher is not so grounded in logic and reason: like the TARDIS, people throughout history have been unreasonable and illogical. Furthermore, Barbara’s main concern is Susan’s well-being; everything else is secondary.

William Hartnell as the DoctorAnd then, of course, there’s the Doctor (who is, in fact, never named in this story), who is different here from the Doctor we all know and love: he is dismissive, condescending, arrogant, and completely unlikable. From a certain perspective, this may be understandable. After all, the two schoolteachers did follow his granddaughter back to Totters Lane, and they did shove their way into his home; certainly, he doesn’t owe them an explanation and is understandably reluctant to provide one. The Doctor doesn’t want anyone else aboard his TARDIS.  It doesn’t necessarily make sense, therefore, that he doesn’t just open the doors and let Barbara and Ian go, before quietly slipping away into time and space if he truly felt that he and Susan were in any danger. He is so possessive of his privacy and secrecy that he appears ready to abandon his own granddaughter to protect it, announcing as he moves to open the TARDIS doors that if he lets Ian and Barbara leave, then Susan must leave, too. Calous though he seems, the Doctor is almost certainly bluffing, and Susan knows it.

The logic or underlying motivation of the Doctor’s actions aside, one of my favorite sequences in the entire history of Doctor Who is when Susan realizes the Doctor’s deceit, but it’s too late: she grabs her grandfather’s arm, and tries to pull him away as he operates the controls that will activate the time machine—”Oh no, Grandfather, no!” she cries. And then: that iconic noise of the TARDIS’ engines is heard for the first time, as the Ship leaves the familiar world of 1960s London behind, embarking on a strange journey through a vast, yawning, howling netherworld. This is by far the very best realization of the Ship’s flight through time in the show’s history. This isn’t the flashy, zipping “time vortex”; rather, this the base of infinite space and time, a voyage through bizarre formless realms that we’re not prepared for, and which leaves us unsettled and apprehensive. The TARDIS reappears on an arid, rocky plateau, an ominous shadow falls over the landscape before the scene fades away, the credits roll, and we’re brought back into the so-called “real” world, at least temporarily.

An Unearthly Child isn’t without its flaws, but Waris Hussein’s direction—which lies somewhere between nouvelle vague, film noir, and Hitchcock—creates an interesting sense of foreboding, or as Barbara remarks, pulling her jacket tight against the cool November air, that she and Ian (and us, the viewers) are “about to interfere in things that are best left alone.” This, combined with a compelling, but sparingly used incidental score, make it easy to ignore the technical faults of this tentative first episode, and creates an eagerness to find out what happens next. This may not be the best Doctor Who story, but it’s certainly the best beginning. Our journey with the Doctor couldn’t have started any other way.

Expanded universe

Susan tells Ian and Barbara that she and her grandfather have been in London for at least five months, the “happiest” of Susan’s life. Immediately prior to arriving in London, the Doctor managed to steer the Ship to the planet Quinnis in the Fourth Universe. Susan mentions Quinnis in The Edge of Destruction as a place where they “nearly lost the TARDIS four or five journeys back,” and later recounts their adventures there in the appropriately-named Big Finish audio, Quinnis (and here—the trailer may contain spoilers for other Big Finish Doctor Who ranges).

At the end of that particular adventure—which I still have trouble getting my head around—the Doctor is determined to take Susan somewhere that she can go to school and interact with people her own age. This seems at odds with the Doctor’s behavior in An Unearthly Child only five months later, though it’s possible that Coal Hill School in 1963—which he derides as “ridiculous”—wasn’t quite what he had in mind.

Furthermore, an alternate version of how Ian and Barbara came to be aboard the TARDIS is given in story editor David Whitaker’s novel Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks. A traffic accident on Barnes Common that leaves at least one man dead sets off a chain of events that brings the companions together, and their ensuing adventure bypasses the Palaeolithic age altogether.

I.M. Foreman, whose name Susan adopts, and his junkyard at 76, Totters Lane are later revealed in the BBC Eighth Doctor novels to be something else entirely. (Warning: these links contain spoilers!)

Daniel Lestarjette

Daniel is the owner and Managing Editor of Time and The – !. He's been a fan of Doctor Who since watching Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison on his local PBS station as a kid. He launched Time and The – ! in 2011 after having the bright (?) idea to watch every Doctor Who story from the beginning and blog about it. (Yeah, he's way behind.)

What do you think? Please join the discussion!