Reviews of An Unearthly Child traditionally focus on the first thirty minutes – and Daniel makes a sound case that Doctor Who could not have started any other way.
But what strikes me on a ”fresh” viewing is what a great piece of tellie this is and how well the whole pre-history set piece works.
These are strong, gritty and intentionally humourless performances that really do make you feel out of place and disconcerted as you come to terms with how disconnected from modernity the tribe really are – these are not people we recognise physically, morally and temperamentally, even if they lay the template for later human foibles.
The Tardis may have only moved in time for this first adventure, but pre-history feels as alien and scary as anywhere else they might have landed.
The Tribe of Gum make later exotic wonders like the Sensorites or the Dulcians look as scary as a set of frightened puppies in a thunderstorm.
Exotic indeed is the Doctors granddaughter Susan. Carole Ann Ford gives a genuinely bizarre performance that is innocent, beguiling as she oscillates between hysteria, fun and precociousness, sometimes in the same scene.
In contrast Ian and Barbara really do represent we viewers – and the best of us too.
You cannot help but adore Ian as he channels late-20 something 1960’s-teacher-trying-to-be-cool – “John Smith is the stage name of the honourable Aubrey Waites” he intones. One can imagine his other students rolling their eyes and groaning. Susan’s polite response only reinforces how strange she is.
Barbara is the pitch perfect heroine and probably, with the exception of Liz Sladen, the best companion ever seen in the program before or since – strong, elegant, poised, vulnerable and totally believable. Such a stunning actress and if she had been born a few decades earlier and on the other side of the Atlantic one cannot imagine how she would have escaped the notice of Hollywood producers.
William Hartnell is sharp casting as the Doctor. Those eyes really do sparkle and his is the inspired piece of character actor casting that sets the tone for the series entire run. From a viewing in 2011 there really are moments where you can see and believe the entire continuity of the character. From the alien aloofness of a Tom Baker, to the scattered eccentric in a box of a Troughton or a Matt Smith, it’s all there at the start.
Episode two feels like a stoneage version of the last season of The West Wing as Kal and Za stage a sort of ongoing election campaign with setpiece debates. Kal and Za both go negative and focus on the record “Za promises you fire, but fails”, while Za reminds us that “Kal had to leave his last settlement after they all starved to death”. The stoneage was clearly all about realpolitic – no meat, no fire, no leadership.
Za has to deal with harrying constituents worried about who can really deliver the heat and the meat and channels George W Bush as he vainly strives to shake off the image of his father who everyone suspects was much more up to the job of making fire than him. Kal is derided as an outsider of questionable origins – hello Birther movement.
At the very end having beaten Kal to the ground and crushed his head in with a very believable giant rock (a shockingly realistic fight scene – is this really ”children’s Television”?) Za even suggests the Dr’s ‘’tribe’’ and his merge – an unlikely early coalition of convenience with all the perverse promise of the Lib-Dem-Tory alliance in the UK.
The unforgettable crone that is ‘’Old Mother’’ is a wily old uberconservative who hates the idea of fire altogether and would happily let the Doctor and crew all shuffle off back to wherever they came from than have anyone fiddle with the established order – a Forest of Fear indeed. It is no accident that she resembles an accidental merger between Madeline Allbright and Panna from Kinda.
Moments of greatness
- The bizarre junkyard with its menagerie of spooky props
- The TARDIS takes off and England zooms away into the evening
- Our delicious delight as Barbara slowly begins to believe that the Doctor and Susan are telling the truth
- When Za ponders why Ian didn’t kill him when he was weak and Hur says wonderingly that their faces were not fierce but gentle like a woman with a baby
- The Doctor picks up a stone and looks about to kill Za
- Ian’s reluctance as he acknowledges the Doctor as the leader of our party – we wonder who the lead of the show actually is
- When discussing the tribal merger Za points out to the Dr and crew there is a stone with water in it, some meat and no one has tried to kill them – what more could they want? Dr Foreman makes clear with an arched eyebrow and a grunt that he is having none of it.
Easy. Writer Anthony Coburn was an Australian television writer and producer, who spent much of his professional career living and working in the United Kingdom.
Craig Wallace is a marketing manager and project coordinator with Nican a national community organisation and has been a community leader with various organisations for more than a decade. He is the President of People with Disability Australia, a leading cross disability rights organisation in Australia and is a member of the ACT BLITS business group.