This week, myself and co-contributor Jamie Greene bring to you the first week in a series of Doctor Who Rewind reviews. We’re going to be going chronologically, one serial each week, through the iconic classic series of Doctor Who. While we will endeavor to make these reviews spoiler-light, so that the episodes will still be enjoyable to watch after reading the review, be warned that some spoilers are inherent in a 50-year-old show.
Jamie and I will be tackling this review from two angles: the classic Whovian (myself) and the post-2005 Whovian (Jamie), who will be experiencing most of these episodes for the first time. Both of us are coming at these classic episodes eagerly, with a respect for the history of the show, but with very different experiences regarding the classic series. Together, we will be walking though the show’s history, reviewing each serial based on its own merits, divorced from our expectations of the newer series. And this, on November 23rd, 1963, less than twenty-four hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, is where it all begins.
This serial, alternately called “An Unearthly Child” for the title of the pilot episode or “100,000 BC” for the title of the 3 episodes that follow in the serial, was aired between November 23rd and December 14, 1963. William Hartnell, the first Doctor, was a well-known character actor, commonly cast as villains and gruff heroes. The show, created by Sydney Newman and produced by Verity Lambert, was conceptualized as an educational children’s television show. The Doctor, using his TARDIS, would take two human teachers all over time and space, both entertaining and informing British children. At the time, nobody imagined that it would last one decade, let alone five. But here we are, fifty-one years later, reviewing the pilot serial of a show that beat all the odds.
If you haven’t seen this serial, we highly suggest it. This serial and the next two we’ll be discussing are available on the Doctor Who: The Beginning (An Unearthly Child / The Daleks / The Edge of Destruction) (Stories 1 – 3) DVD box set and is also one of the few classic Doctor Who episodes currently available on Netflix.
Mark’s (Classic Whovian) Review
My history with Doctor Who begins differently than most. Mine began in 1996, on Fox, with a Doctor that we wouldn’t see again on-screen for 18 years. I loved it, every aspect of it. The ’90s cheese, the science fiction, the humor, the quirkiness. I was enraptured. But then, it ended, and it didn’t come back. It was the genius of Fox’s marketing plan that no mention was made of the fact that this special feature was an extension of a show that had been cancelled 7 years earlier. Doctor Who wasn’t on my radar, so eventually this quirky time-traveller and his blue box got consigned to the same area of memory that all ’90s TV movies eventually end up in.
Fast-forward twelve years. A friend of mine, knowing I love science fiction and smart comedy, decides to introduce me to this British show that just came back on the air after 19 years away, well … except for one failed TV movie that “nobody watched,” a show called Doctor Who. It all came back to me, and I was hooked. I watched through all four seasons in a matter of weeks and then dove into the classic series. At first I only watched the episodes everyone agreed were good: “Genesis of the Daleks,” “Tombs of the Cybermen,” etc. Then I ran out of those and started watching everything I could get my hands on.
When I came back to college after winter break, I had a mission. I wanted to introduce as many Americans as possible to this then-obscure British show. I slowly converted people until there were enough to form a campus organization, and then we started meeting officially. Over the next four years the club (eventually named UNIT – United Nerdy Intertemporal Travelers … a name that was once blessed by the first Doctor I ever saw on television) grew and grew until, when I handed over the reins at the end of my senior year, we had a regular attendance the size of some classes.
One thing I always held to be true in my club was the equality of the classic and newer seasons. All those who came in singing only the gospels of Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith were soon baptized in the redeeming waters of Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, Baker, Davison, Baker, McCoy, and our patron saint, McGann. So, doing this series of reviews, it feels like home. I know some of you will have been watching Doctor Who longer than I’ve been alive, while others may have started with the new series and never ventured into the 4:3 ratio, Technicolor, or black-and-white past. Either way, this is a journey that I’ve loved every time I’ve taken it, because it reminds me why I love the whole of the show, not just the portions that were produced since I’ve been alive.
Whenever I think about this serial as a complete unit, instead of just thinking about the pilot episode, the first thing I see is a criticism. This is unusual for me, the person in the Doctor Who argument who is least likely to complain about almost any episode. This serial, however, really feels like two. The pilot episode “An Unearthly Child” just feels like a completely different serial than “100,000 B.C.” So, in the interest of giving equal attention to both halves of this identity-crisis of a serial, I’ll be handling the pilot episode separately from the episodes that follow.
“An Unearthly Child”
This episode has a special place in my heart, if only because it reminds me that even an iconic institution of British television can have humble beginnings. It’s far from perfect, but I’m always impressed by how beautiful it really is. How futuristic, in 1960s terms, and how a surprising amount of that futuristic feel has survived today. To me, the original TARDIS console still looks like part of a space machine, even if it’s analog. It seems, in some ways, the strangeness of the TARDIS has helped preserve it.
This episode is not shy about the fact that it serves a single purpose, to introduce the viewers to the show and its characters, and it does so efficiently. My surprise, upon re-watching it with a more critical eye, is how natural it also seems. Susan Foreman is established as a mystery and her teachers, Ian and Barbara, are both curious and concerned about her. Within the first few minutes we’re introduced to Susan, Ian and Barbara, and in a series of short memories, the fact that Susan is suspicious in terms both what she knows and what she doesn’t know. All before any of the principal actors have left the school.
Further, the scene with the flashbacks is particularly impressive to me. In an age where flashbacks are so rarely used well, this scene just seemed to work. We’re shown Susan either answering questions that she had no way of knowing or giving answers that allude to her not being from England in 1963. Without saying a word, and in only a couple of minutes of television, the central drive of the show is introduced. Ian and Barbara, constrained as they are in the world of 1963 Britain, don’t see it, but the viewers do. Susan Foreman, whatever she is, is not originally from 1963. This is further reenforced, for those that who might have found themselves as confused as Ian and Barbara, by Susan’s last scene in the school. She picks up a textbook on the French Revolution, turns to a page, and with a look of confusion states, “that isn’t right at all.”
The second half of the episode takes a slightly slower pace, the main work of introductions now complete, as Ian and Barbara find a strange police box in a junkyard and meet an unusual old man. The Doctor here, in his first scene, is shown as aloof and mysterious, much like how Susan is shown. This is maintained for several serials, contributing to why Hartnell is rarely a viewer’s favorite Doctor. However, even here you can see some of the playful mischief that will come to become a major aspect of his Doctor’s later serials.
Aesthetically, our first view of the TARDIS is a huge moment for the episode. Up until now all of our shots have been either dark or close. For the first time we’re given a wide shot in a white room, accentuating the TARDIS being “bigger on the inside.” This transition also corresponds to a change in our characters. The Doctor’s aloofness takes on a suspicious tone while Ian and Barbara’s worried curiosity becomes protective. This becomes an “us versus them” moment with the revelation that the Doctor and Susan are aliens and time travelers, spawning perhaps the strangest transition in Doctor Who history, and that’s saying something.
While I love this episode, its ending is one area I take some issue with. The Doctor is arguing with Susan and her teachers, explaining that, if Ian and Barbara were allowed to leave, they (Susan and the Doctor) would have to go someplace else. Susan, being a typical fifteen-year-old girl, exclaims that she isn’t going to leave 20th century England and that the Doctor would have to leave her behind as well (incidentally, an interesting foreshadowing). This is where things get weird. Under the illusion of opening the doors to allow Susan to leave her with teachers, the Doctor takes the TARDIS into flight, sending them deep into the past.
This is the one moment when suspension-of-disbelief was broken, and has been every time I’ve viewed the episode. To me, it’s a clear moment of forcing the story to meet the needs of a greater narrative. They needed the TARDIS to be in the past for episode 2, so they made it happen. The transition, however, is, at best, troubling for the Doctor’s character so early on. Here he’s arguing with his granddaughter’s teachers and making veiled threats that they won’t be allowed to leave, and then he’s abducting them and taking them thousands of years into the past. While this isn’t the atmosphere that persists for the first TARDIS crew, it’s an inauspicious beginning and feels like a bit of a forced transition to an episode 2 that feels like an entirely different serial.
These next three episodes feel like one complete serial, only tangentially connected to the first episode, but that’s not a bad thing; it’s a good serial. The plot of the episode is introduced immediately, with no immediate regard for the pressing issues left over from the previous episode. In fact, after some cursory annoyance, it’s “business as usual” in the TARDIS almost immediately. The focus of the early parts of the plot are more on whether or not the TARDIS has moved than why the Doctor kidnapped two school teachers. The TARDIS crew, and by extension the viewers, are thrown immediately into an alien landscape and expected to forget about the inconvenient conflicts left over from the pilot. It’s a testament to the strength of this initial story that, for the most part, it works. Before long I found myself engrossed in the story and forgetting that Ian and Barbara had reason to be WAY more distrusting of the Doctor than they were being.
This first story explores the complexity of the Doctor’s character. He’s a scientist, not a medical doctor (he makes this clear), and he’s as capable as he is childish and stubborn. He’s a man accustomed to getting everything he wants, and he’s petulant when someone refuses to give him it. In some ways, he’s just an old man, stuck in his ways and unhappy whenever he’s asked to change. This doesn’t make him the most sympathetic to younger viewers, but it gives him a character arc to traverse. We’re assured, by the flashes of kindness and humor, that he’s capable of loosening up and being a nicer man. For a children’s show, it’s a surprising depth of character.
One thing I’m reminded of, in the re-watching of these episodes, is the infuriating lack of strength to the female characters. Sure, they’re thrown a bone every now and again as they take the lead in caring for someone or come up with the ingenious idea, but far more often they’re relegated to being the show’s alarm system. In these early episodes, the audience’s cue for danger was a ramping up of the ambient music, accompanied by Susan or Barbara’s scream. This is one trend I don’t miss, as the show eventually features strong female leads like Sarah Jane Smith, Romana, Leela, and Ace (to name a few).
One of the reasons these episodes are less commonly enjoyed by modern audiences is the long-form story. This episode, on the shorter end of average for First Doctor episodes, clocks in at nearly 2 hours. The next episode is nearly 3 and a half. For this generation of viewers, expecting to binge-watch an entire season in around 12 hours, this season’s 17 1/2 hours for 8 stories seems slow. As someone who enjoys the slower form of storytelling, I’m going to avoid the argument of “which is better?” Instead, I’ll point out that one benefit of having more screen-time per story is seen in the cinematography. At the beginning of “Forest of Fear,” the old woman pulls a sharpened stone. The camera sits on that stone for a while, perhaps 5 or 10 seconds (a long time for the camera to be sitting on an unmoving object without dialogue), while the music plays dark and spooky notes. The effect is powerful. In that moment we begin to dread, suspecting what that stone might be used for, and that dread is all the more powerful because we reached the conclusion rather than having it force-fed to us by a line of dialogue. These are things that rarely happen (with a few notable exceptions like the descent of the Daleks or the arrival of the Cybermen) in the new series, due to a shorter amount of screen time per episode.
Additionally, it seems that more time is spent on emotion. The characters don’t express an emotion, immediately pull themselves together, and then move on. There are scenes of despair, hopelessness, and fear. These scenes evoke emotion in the viewer, raising the stakes, and making it feel as if the danger is real. Ideally, for a moment, we forget that our heroes are unlikely to die. These moments are always powerful, and they’re the moments we remember from the new series: Rose against the wall at the end of season 2, on the beach at the end of season 4, the 10th Doctor in the goodbye moments before his regeneration, and the 11th Doctor’s goodbye with “Amy” in the TARDIS before his. These strong moments are woven in the very fabric of classic Who. The stories are slow, but that’s because they’re intended to resonate. When our heroes escape, the relief is palpable, even though we knew it was inevitable.
Finally, as the story draws toward the close, I’m drawn to the woven stories inherent in these older episodes. While the cavemen are an important part of the Doctor’s tale in this adventure, there’s an additional story here as well. These stories, Za/Cal’s and the Doctor’s, are woven together until they finally mesh and then resolve. This is a theme we see all throughout classic Who. Sometimes the woven stories are because the TARDIS crew, usually quite a bit larger than the modern Doctor-companion setup, is split into two parties, and each has a story of their own. However it’s done, it gives these episodes a less Doctor-centric feel. The world is bigger than the Doctor, and he’s just an actor within it. Sometimes I miss that.
Jamie’s (New-Series Whovian) Review
Growing up, I was always tangentially aware of Doctor Who. I knew of it, but it never factored into my fandom at all. I was a child of the ’80s. If it wasn’t Star Wars or He-Man, then it was battling an uphill battle to my heart. My mother was/is a Trekkie, so the age-old battle between Star Wars and Star Trek was a mainstay in my house.
I caught the occasional Doctor Who episode on TV (usually Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor), and I remember really liking The Five Doctors, even though I understood almost none of it. More than anything, though, I suppose that Doctor Who always felt very … old. I never thought it had much to say to me.
I admit that even after the relaunch in 2005, I still didn’t have much interest. Then David Tennant came on the scene, and I couldn’t help but hear the rave reviews from all corners. Once the show hit Netflix, I started in with the Ninth Doctor and then, like a good geek, binged my way through the show.
And now I’m going back to the beginning. All the way back. This is not a “re-watch” for me. I’m watching these shows fresh. For the first time. I’ll do my best to leave preconceptions at the door, but I have no baggage at all that pertains to pre-Eccleston Who.
Obviously, I’m leaving the history and convoluted canon in more capable hands (i.e., Mark’s). I’m simply here to correct one of my most flagrant Geeky Blind Spots. There’s only 26 seasons and 8 Doctors to catch up on. Easy peasy.
“Well, open the doors, Doctor Foreman.”
“Hm? Doctor who? What’s he talking about?”
Going back to 1963, I really had no idea what to expect. However, from the get-go, it was all very familiar. The theme music has changed remarkably little over the past 52 years.
The establishing shot then focuses on a very familiar police box. Along with the music, the TARDIS has also changed very little. A minute and a half in, and I already feel at home.
This show is very much a product of the ’60s. It’s also very much a product of a small budget. It’d be all too easy to critique its low production value or cheesy special effects. But that wouldn’t be fair. It’s simply not fair to judge The First Doctor by The Twelfth Doctor’s standard. So I won’t.
What I can do is judge The First Doctor by how he’s presented to us. This is where the character begins, and, well, The First Doctor is … different. He’s not charismatic or charming or funny … or even very much likable. He’s meant to be refined and sophisticated. We’re meant to view him as a weary and jaded time traveler who’s seen and experienced more than we can even conceive. I’m honestly not sure if we’re meant to like him.
Naturally, he’s completely self-absorbed (which is a defining characteristic of The Doctor in any incarnation), but it doesn’t play here as a fun eccentricity or personality quirk. Whereas the self-absorption displayed by the Ninth through Twelfth Doctors betrays a cavalier attitude that is ultimately charming, William Hartnell’s Doctor is much more arrogant–and malevolent–than those modern interpretations.
The primary challenge that The Doctor and his companions face in this first serial is their inability to make fire. They’re trapped in a power struggle among cavemen, and their lack of matches puts their lives at risk. (There’s no sonic screwdriver yet to save the day.) It’s far from the most compelling storyline, but it establishes our main characters and successfully shows the dynamic among them.
Susan (despite being set up as a genius child) very quickly becomes a panicky handicap to the group. Barbara freaks out and is all but totally useless. The Doctor spends a majority of the story absentminded and helpless. Ian turns out to be the only one who keeps a cool head and saves the day.
More than once, The Doctor all but gives up and proclaims, “It’s hopeless.” He has no compassion. He cares very little for his companions and even less for the cavemen. He repeatedly calls them “savages,” treats them with contempt, and even tries to kill them. In short, he’s almost the polar opposite of The Doctor I know.
Like I said, it’s unfair to judge this show by the weight of the following 50 years, but this first serial manages to pack a lot in: the TARDIS (we’re even told that Susan named it … and we get its full name), the attractive female companion, the incredulity that the TARDIS is bigger on the inside, the signature engine noise, and stumbling headlong into trouble. All hallmarks of Doctor Who that will remain defining characteristics for decades to come.
It’s a rocky start, sure, but I’m in. This should be a fun ride.
To wrap it all up, there’s not much more to be said than “this is where it all begins.” It’s not perfect, but it’s good, worthy of the legacy that’s built upon these humble foundations. For all that’s different, or weird, or unexpected, there’s so much here that reminds us that this is absolutely the same show we’re still watching more than fifty years later. For everything else we see in our adventures with this eccentric time-traveler and his impossible box, it always does to remember that it began here. In a junkyard in 1963.