The Cosmic Hobo

Thoughts & reviews about the science fiction series Doctor Who.

Serial Review: An Unearthly Child (Season 1)

“An Unearthly Child”
Written by Anthony Coburn, directed by Waris Hussein
Featuring the Doctor, Susan, Ian & Barbara

Rating: C+

Anyone who calls themself a serious Doctor Who fan will probably have a special place in their heart for “An Unearthly Child,” whether because they actually think it is a strong episode, or because it is the first episode of something so huge and, in the eyes of fans like myself, wonderful. I think if you remove sentimentality from the picture and compare it to the other Doctor Who episodes purely on its own merit, it comes out slightly above average, but hardly a stand out.

I always thought it was kind of strange that a very clearly science fiction show barely shows any signs of being such until the last few minutes of the first episode. Up until companions Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright finally end up in the TARDIS with the Doctor, it might have just been a drama about a crazy old man and his granddaughter. That first episode is really outstanding, though, and I find it hard to fault anything about it. The pacing is perfect, and it is remarkably well-shot and directed.

I find it a bit amusing that at this point in the show, we didn’t know the TARDIS was translating for us, and yet the cavemen featured in the rest of the story speak broken English with an English accent. Even with the TARDIS translating, you would think that the TARDIS would translate it in your head to NOT be broken, wouldn’t it? This is merely me nitpicking, and doesn’t weigh in on my actual opinion of the episode. The problem is really that it’s just average, more than anything.

The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan get into the middle of a small clan of cave men and women fighting over fire. One of them witnesses the Doctor lighting his pipe, and decide from this that the Doctor has magic powers, and kidnap him in order to force him to make fire for them. The theme of the early humans making fire and it’s influence on the course of human history is a common theme, but I feel like the overall execution should have been a bit better. While the first part had flawless pacing, the rest of it struggles from the slowness and bad cliffhangers that would be associated with most of the classic series.

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18 thoughts on “Serial Review: An Unearthly Child (Season 1)

  1. I disagree. I think An Unearthly Child is absolutely brilliant, including the Cavemen episodes. The sets are cheap but effective, the story is exciting, it fits in with classic Doctor Who themes about the relationship between power and technology and the whole cast is taking it seriously.

    The cavemen do use a simplistic form of speech, but the lines they are given are very good and show them to be genuinely thoughtful and reflective people.

    • I just meant in terms of the TARDIS translating, it seems unlikely that it would translate the language into sort of broken English.

      I think the sets are great for its era, and I can’t criticize the acting too heavily. Hartnell obviously took a little time to get a feel for the role, but that is to be expected. Jacqueline Hill and especially William Russell are fantastic. Carole Ann Ford is good most of the time but I find her a bit grating when she has to get upset/yell. If I judged every serial on the basis of the acting, pretty much everything William Russell was in would be great. I do think the supporting cast in this one do a pretty good job as well. I just think the plot is a bit simplistic; cave men fighting for fire has just be done in all forms of media for so long that it didn’t feel new or exciting. The next serial, “The Daleks,” is where I think Who really finds its feet and becomes something unique. Thanks a bunch for commenting.

      • I am a canon rebel on the issue of TARDIS translation.

        The new series follows the New Adventures in seeing the translation thing as a property of the TARDIS.

        Nevertheless, in Masque of Mandragora, the Doctor describes it as a ‘Time Lord gift’ that he chooses to share. The implication seems to be that it is an ability of the Doctor, rather than a property of the TARDIS. This makes much more sense given that the Doctor and companions are often separated from the TARDIS, sometimes by time and space.

  2. It’s established in the new series that it is definitely the TARDIS doing the translating. In “Fires of Pompeii” in Series 4, Donna sees letters that should have been in Latin translated for her in English and asks the Doctor about it. Honestly, I don’t know that it is really important either way.

    Also, in “The Mind Robber,” Gulliver speaks to the Doctor in many other languages before English, and the Doctor doesn’t understand any of them. This makes sense, because during that episode before he meets Gulliver, the TARDIS explodes. If it were a Time Lord gift, it wouldn’t be an issue in translation.

    • The TARDIS also exploded in Frontios and he had no problems with language.

      • Haven’t seen Frontios yet. I’m almost done with 3rd Doctor and have seen the first season and a few other eps of 4th. As of right now, I’ve only seen “Castrovalva,” “The Five Doctors,” and “The Caves of Androzani” of Fifth Doctor stuff.

        From a glance at the TARDIS wiki page for Frontios, though, the Doctor crash lands on a human colony in the far future. Being that they’re human, perhaps they speak English? Doctor has also been established to speak at the very least French (The Mind Robber), and Mandarin (The Mind of Evil).

      • He also talks to a creature called the Gravis.

        The colony is about a million years into the future. Would they really be speaking recognisable English then?

        In Genesis of the Daleks, the Doctor and companions are separated from the TARDIS by thousands of years. Does that bracelet translate for them, even when it is taken away from them? That is a bit rich.

        In Daleks’ Masterplan, the Doctor and companions travel to several planets without the TARDIS. Does the translation circuit really have such a long range?

        By following the New Adventures (much as I adore them), rather than looking closely at the classic series, RT Davies has done a retcon that really does not wash.

  3. While Doctor Who was mostly an intelligently written program in the 60’s, in the early days they were still mapping out several ideas that fans obsess over today. The first episode, An Unearthly Child, isn’t just a good Doctor Who story but an amazing piece of television. The remaining three installments are more challenging for a modern audience and the RADA-trained cave men don’t help any. But that said, the main cast of characters are so well developed and the scene where the Doctor almost kills someone just so they don’t get slowed up remains the most daring moment in the program’s history.

    I look forward to seeing what you make of the Davison era. I have a special place for Frontios, an intelligent apocalyptic future story with a strange sense of dark humor… and goofy monsters.

    • Well, based on the few I have scene, and the audios (having listened to “Phantasmagoria,” “The Land of the Dead,” “Red Dawn,” “Winter for the Adept,” and “The Mutant Phase”) In my minimal experience with his companions, I found Nyssa to be the most bearable, but I think she’s actually really bad in the audios I’ve heard. Tegan and Adric are both very irritating on screen, too. The only companion I can say I like from his era is Turlough, and I only tolerate Peri. This isn’t to say that my mind could be changed by further exposure, but I don’t know.

      As far as Davison himself goes, I was unimpressed with him in “Castrovalva” and in “The Five Doctors,” but thought he was good in “The Caves of Androzani.” I don’t think “Androzani” is quite the classic everyone thinks it is, but I certainly think it is very good, perhaps a B+ (more on that if you check out episode two of my podcast: http://raggedypodcast.libsyn.com) … That being said, I think Davison is significantly better now in the audios than he was on television. He is always the highlight of the Fifth Doctor audios, and makes them listenable (no matter how hard Sarah Sutton seems to be trying to make them unbearable.) Might be a harsh opinion, I’m sorry. 😦

      • Nah, not at all. I used to prescribe Davison episodes to anyone suffering from insomnia until a high school friend reminded me that the fifth Doctor used to be my favorite. This prompted me to revisit his era and while I have a greater appreciation for his stories, I do think that most if that is down to nostalgia.

        His companions are just awful… aside from Turlough who often gets forgotten (wait until you see Resurrection of the Daleks when he is the only actor on screen yet has no dialog). Nyssa is tolerable but rather plain. She fares better in the audios. Turlough is just amazing in the audios. In addition to Phantasmagoria, check out Loups Garoux.

        Davison has said many times that he was restricted from injecting any wit or humor due to Tom Baker backlash. In the Big Finish audios, he’s like an entirely new version of the 5th Doctor, much more full of personality. You can also see his love of Troughton’s style of Doctor in his audio performances.

      • On your podcast… I’d recommend re-watching Caves of Androzani again after you watch the entire Davison era (which unfortunately, unlike other classic Doctor’s eras, has to be watched in order). I can’t see getting much out of Caves without seeing the entire path that the Fifth Doctor takes through his time on the program.

        I always had a hard time understanding the strength of the Fifth Doctor until I watched an interview where Davison explained his approach. Essentially, his idea was for the Doctor to stick to the background until the 11th hour when he would sweep out and solve everything. This was signposted by an all-beige costume, I guess.

        I do agree with you, by the way on Paradise Towers. It’s great, but on talking about individual points it’s quite bad. How is that? So many great ideas played out so badly, perhaps.

        (By the way, Tom Baker had six six parters: Genesis of the Daleks, Seeds of Doom, Talons of Weng Chiang, Armageddon Factor, Invasion of Time and the aborted Shada)

        Regarding Big Finish, I do really enjoy their releases and promote their material, but they have done some damage to their reputation in the US. There was a small shop in Mass that I spoke to that was apparently in talks to be a domestic retailer for their releases and more or less had the rug pulled out from under them at the last minute. So no US reseller. They do have the Blake’s 7 audios that I heartily recommend (you need to search out a bootleg of that TV series).

        I enjoyed listening to your podcast, but I wish there was a way to contribute to it as I kept filling in the blanks in your collective knowledge. Not sure if such a thing would be possible.

  4. Yeah, I’m actually listening to “Loups-Garoux” right now. So far it is good. Would much rather see more Fifth/Turlough stuff than Fifth/Nyssa. I actually think Nyssa is worse in the audios than on screen, somehow. I’m glad that Janet Fielding hasn’t done many audios…

    • She’s grumpy/feisty.

      • There was an interview recently with her in Doctor Who Magazine. She seems like a total bitch, really. Spent a good chunk of the article making fun of Matthew Waterhouse for writing an autobiography.

      • I really like Janet Fielding on screen, but she really has been cruel to Waterhouse and when she offers intelligent opinions on the show (like in the Snakedance commentary), it does come across like she is showing off.

        You have to hear how she sounded in the 80s. She really did talk posher than our Queen.

  5. Fielding clashed with JNT and the BBC in general during her time on Doctor Who over various things. She’s very very opinionated and some of her opinions are worth hearing if you can see through the vitriol. If you prefer poetic justice, she was also Paul McGann’s agent when he was cast as the Eight Doctor in 1996, so she had to resume a relationship that she had hoped was far behind her. In the end, Kinda, Snakedance and many other stories benefit from her performances, so she did make a strong contribution to the program, though Davison seemed to spend most of his first year wrangling his companions.

    Regarding ‘Blue Box Boy,’ the early publicity for Waterhouse’ book centered on his depiction of Tom Baker as a loutish drunk sweating whiskey through his jacket. Apparently, it’s a good read and worth a look, but I can understand Janet Fielding giving him a good deal of flack. However, almost everyone makes fun of Waterhouse, so where’s the challenge?

  6. Anything we get wrong or don’t come up with, feel free to drop us a line at theraggedypodcast@gmail.com — we’d be happy to be corrected and on the next podcast, we’ll talk about them and plug your blog while we’re at it.

    As far as Waterhouse goes, I think it is pretty pretentious that he wrote his autobiography in third person perspective, but from what I’ve heard from everyone else, his description of Tom Baker was pretty accurate over those last couple of seasons. He was rarely liked by his co-stars, from what I know. Interesting that Fielding represented McGann… Wendy Padbury represented Matt Smith, if my information is correct.

    • “from what I’ve heard from everyone else, his description of Tom Baker was pretty accurate over those last couple of seasons. ”

      True, but I mean Baker himself has shamelessly described himself as a drunken lout who was impossible to work with. Waterhouse seemed to think it was a controversial expose to say such things decades later which couldn’t be further from the truth.

      Thanks on the podcast suggestion. I’ll definitely keep it in mind. Just to clarify, that wasn’t meant to be a criticism at all, just a contribution.

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