Blurb: Susan Foreman is a mystery to teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, seemingly knowing more than she should about the past...and the future...Their curiosity leads them to follow her home one night, only to find that her "home" appears to be a deserted junkyard. In the junkyard, they discover and odd police box, and a strange old man, who claims to be Susan's grandfather, and calls himself the Doctor. The journey of a lifetime is about to begin...
Format: Television drama transmitted for November 23 - December 14, 1963. Released on DVD as part of The Beginning box set, published March 28, 2006.
Setting: Earth: London, England, 1963 and unknown planet at an unknown time. It is often believed that the stone age section of the story is set in prehistoric Earth, but with so many planets supporting a human-like population there's no reason why this needs to be the case. For all we know it could be prehistoric Skaro. Some production notes from the time show that for a while it was considered that this story would be referred to as 100,000 BC, but this date is clearly wrong even if this is Earth as the cavemen are early homo sapiens. Some guidebooks have inferred a date of somewhere between 40,000 and 10,000 BC.
Continuity: Susan takes on the surname "Foreman" from the gates of the scrapyard where the TARDIS lands. The Doctor seems not to know this as he's confused when Ian refers to him as Dr. Foreman. Who I. M. Foreman is and why he doesn't either notice the TARDIS' appearance or the fact that strange people keep coming and going from his scrapyard remains a mystery (It's quite possible that the Doctor met Mr Foreman and made some sort of deal with him). The Doctor seems worried that Ian and Barbara might be "the police", which now becomes a nice nod to Hunters of Earth. Susan says that the last five months have been the happiest of her life. This seems to imply that she's only been on Earth for five months, which would seem to contradict the novella Time and Relative, which has her on Earth as early as March. However, the events of that story were fairly traumatic so maybe she only means that she's been happy since things quieted down after that adventure. The Doctor admits that the TARDIS isn't working properly although he later waffles and says that some of its operation is still a mystery to him. This agrees with later material which says that the Doctor stole the TARDIS. Susan says that she came up with the term "TARDIS", which seems odd since every Time Lord we ever meet also uses the term. This is explained in the novel Lungbarrow. Za's father brought fire to the tribe, but the story City of Death implies that it was Scaroth who gave this technology to humans. As we never see The Great Firemaker this makes for some interesting speculation, although it's just as likely that Scaroth gave fire to a different tribe. The story ends with a cliffhanger for the Daleks as the crew goes to clean up inside the TARDIS as the radiation counter moves into the danger zone.
DVD: The extras on this one aren't so spectacular, probably because they released 3 stories at once. We have commentaries on the unaired pilot episode as well as episodes one and four of the transmitted episodes. Then there's a few comedy skits. I would have hoped for at least a documentary on the making of the episode, but it was not to be. The extras on most other Doctor Who releases are far better.
IMPORTANT NOTE FOR FIRST TIME WATCHERS: If you use the play-all feature on the DVD it will start you with the unaired pilot. This was very similar to the aired first episode but had some technical issues and it was felt that some of the performances and lines should be tweaked. If you use the play all feature and want to watch this for the first time, I strongly suggest you skip through the first episode and get to the second episode, which is actually the first episode of the transmitted version. It's a much more polished product.
Discussion: It's hard to imagine a story that has left such a lasting footprint in the psyche of humanity. If it weren't for An Unearthly Child, Doctor Who may have never existed beyond a few episodes in the early 1960's and would only be a footnote in stories of BBC history. The story had to be a success and it had to hook viewers right away. This flies in the face of most latter-day fan orthodoxy which states that the first episode is brilliant, but then the next three are awful. I come at this from a different angle.
It's true that the first episode has elements written by another writer, but one of the most interesting parts of An Unearthly Child is how well structured it is. We get 4 episodes of character development and a clear character arc of how 2 sets of people who are strangers to each other overcome their paranoia and fear and get to working together. You need that first episode with the air of mystery and the friction between the main characters to set that up and it is done effectively but you also need the remaining episodes to follow through. Things develop further when Ian and Barbara are confronted with the cavemen, people who are as primitive to them as she and Ian are to the Doctor. Now once the four time travelers share the same external threat, the bonds begin to grow. "Fear makes companions of all of us," the Doctor says, even if friction still remains between he and Ian. It's interesting to note that Ian the Doctor's struggles for dominance are mirrored by those of Za and Kal.
The tribe's antics would appear to be a simple alpha male struggle for dominance. Za's father brought them fire, but wanting to maintain his dominance never showed anyone, not even his son how it was made. This allowed the opening for a rival to come in and challenge his dominance. What makes this interesting are some of the ancillary factors. The Old Mother, likely the widow of Za's father believes that fire will bring death to the tribe and believes that they're better off without it. Hur's father wants her to be the leader's mate and she'd rather end up with Za than Kal. She shows considerable cunning in bringing Za to conclusions that she has made to help him secure his spot as leader. Even more interesting is that usually in this sort of dynamic the outsider would be the progressive. Yet, here Za is shown to be a man head of his time. He grasps Ian's concepts of group strength and friendship far earlier than the rest. He also showed compassion to Kal in originally accepting him into the tribe even though normally they would kill an outsider. There's some interesting maneuvering as a result of all of this and in many ways I'm glad that they added talking to the script as in the original version the cavemen would have been silent.
As the tribe pulls together, the Doctor and his companions do. I like the fact that things don't just instantly gel. I also like that originally the Doctor was a bit of a jerk. That side will always remain with the character but before he traveled with humans he was able to view us the same way that you might view a pet. You might be interested by it but you don't think about it on your terms. Traveling with Ian and Barbara changes him and as they're with him you get a clear character arc as the Doctor becomes less of an observer and more of a participator in events.
The rest of the cast get a good showing here. Ian helps teach Za and Hur about friendship and capitalizes on the Doctor's lessons on cooperation. He struggles with the Doctor but also realizes that he has the most experience and defers to him as their "leader" when Za asks. Barbara doesn't quite get the same range to do as Ian in this one but she is the moral center of the group. She's the one who insists on helping Za when he's fatally wounded, which at least gives them a chance to survive. Susan is odd here but in a sense that is understandable when you consider that she's an alien who has no home. She doesn't fit in. She's also assertive and fights with the cavemen when they've captured her grandfather. She also shows a bit of a macabre sense of humor towards the end, which seems like an interesting aspect of her personality to explore. She'll rarely get scenes as good as this for the rest of her time on the TV series.
Final Rating: 7/10
Recommendation: All-in-all this story remains fairly pacey. Yes it isn't as exciting as some stories but this is the one that brings the cast together. Watch it for the relationships rather than for the plot. Susan and the Doctor, Ian and Barbara, Ian and the Doctor, Za and Ian, Kal and Za, Hur and Za, and Old Mother and Za are the things that make this work. There's also an interesting story about technology and how its handled in society wrapped in a cloak of a struggle over fire. It's a great story and definitely worth a look if you want to understand Doctor Who.