January 4, 2014

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

Here we are, fifty years ago in 1963, with the first episode of Doctor Who.  I tend to call each serial an episode because when I watched the show on PBS as a kid, they showed all the episodes of one serial together as one story.  Time to cast confusing pedantry aside and get into the episode.

"An Unearthly Child" opens with a policeman walking by the I.M. Foreman junkyard.  Fans of new Who may recognize that the 50th anniversary special opened the same way.  Cut to a school, where two teachers, Ian and Barbara, are discussing a perplexing student, Susan.  She is a genius, and yet she seems to be hiding an even greater intelligence than she lets on.  Her home life is a mystery.  They decide to investigate, which leads them to the scrapyard, the TARDIS, and the Doctor.

Ian and the Doctor
Ian and Barbara think that the Doctor has Susan trapped in a police box.  The Doctor is angry, gruff, and evasive.  He tries to get rid of them.  When Susan pops out of the TARDIS looking for the Doctor, Ian and Barbara push their way in before the Doctor can stop them.

l-r: Ian, the Doctor, Barbara, Susan
Not one person says that magic line, "It's bigger on the inside!"  Ian has a hard time accepting the internal dimensions of the TARDIS.  He later has a difficult time accepting the idea of time travel.  Maybe because he is a science teacher?  Barbara just goes with it.

Susan tells them that she and her grandfather travel in the TARDIS, which is a nickname she made up for the ship that stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space.  A nickname she made up?  No.  This is just the beginning of the continuity nightmare that is Doctor Who.  You have to let these things go, or it will drive you insane.  This is the show that sunk Atlantis three different times in three different ways.  Time Lords and Gallifrey and Type 40 TARDISes are all things to come in Doctor Who.  The Doctor and Susan are not from Earth.  They are from an advanced civilization.  That's all we have to go on at this point.  For that matter, is Susan a Time Lord?  Is she the Doctor's biological granddaughter?  These are points that have been debated by Whovians, but I see no reason why she wouldn't be, other than she doesn't act like one.  Full disclosure- I don't like Susan.  She mostly freaks out and screams and says how scared she is.  This is her contribution to the show.  Ian and Barbara talk about how smart she is, but she doesn't really demonstrate this intelligence herself.  So, for a long time, I thought she couldn't be a Time Lord.  Time Lords wouldn't act like that.  Time Lords wouldn't be so dumb.  I've let that personal bias go and have accepted that she is probably a Time Lord.  She's a lame one, but she is one.  She does get better over the course of her tenure on the show.  Maybe rewatching these episodes will give me a new appreciation of her character.  One more giant continuity issue- Susan says that TARDIS stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space.  Some later Classic Who Doctors refer to it as Dimensions, plural.  This has gone back and forth.  New Who always says Dimension, singular.  Fun with continuity!

The Doctor is very angry at everyone.  He blames Susan for wanting to go to that school.  He is scornful of Ian and Barbara.  He won't let them out of the TARDIS because he can't let anyone from 1960s Earth know of the technology of the TARDIS.  So, off they go.  The TARDIS makes the classic, wheezing TARDIS noise.  Huzzah!

The Doctor has taken them far back in time.  They all leave the TARDIS, and both the Doctor and Susan note that the TARDIS has not changed shape to match its surroundings.  I thought it was interesting that so early in the show both the TARDIS' ability to blend in and the fact that it was malfunctioning were mentioned.  The Doctor disappears.  Susan has a complete meltdown.  Wow- she is already annoying.  The Doctor has been captured by cavemen, who want him to make fire.  They have been having a hard time making fire lately.  And that's how the whole rest of this episode goes.  Make fire.  You make fire.  We need fire.  Who makes fire?  Yep.  The cavemen capture the rest of them and ask them to make fire.  The Doctor couldn't do it because he needed matches.  Oh, no sonic screwdriver to make fire for you, Doctor?  Later on in the episode, Barbara has a Susan-like freak out at a dead animal.  That was strange.  Barbara is generally level-headed.  I'm glad they gave her character more backbone in later episodes.  It was also weird to hear the Doctor call the cavemen "savages."  Classic Doctors can be condescending and rude (I'm looking at you, 3rd Doctor!), but they aren't usually that bad.  Then again, the first Doctor gets grumpy and angry a lot.

Run away!  Run away!
There are some first Doctor episodes I really like.  This isn't one of them.  This episode doesn't feel like Doctor Who.  This episode makes me wonder how the show lasted.  Oh, yeah, it lasted because the next episode has THE DALEKS.  Once they get back to the TARDIS, the Doctor takes them somewhere else.  He says he can't take Ian and Barbara home because he can't work the TARDIS/it isn't working right.  He doesn't want to take them home, anyway.  He already told them that they can't go home because of what they know about the TARDIS.  They are stuck with him.


Doctor: First
Companions: Susan, Ian Chesterton, Barbara Wright
Episode: #1, "An Unearthly Child," four parts- 'An Unearthly Child,' 'The Cave of Skulls,' 'The Forest of Fear,' 'The Firemaker'
Adversary: cavemen/prehistoric humans
Classic Lines: Ian, to the Doctor: "Don't just lie there criticizing us!  Do something!"; 
the Doctor: "It's still a police box.  Why hasn't it changed?  Dear, dear!  How very disturbing!"
Tuck This Away to Impress Your Friends:  Ian teaches science.  Barbara teaches history.  They teach at the Coal Hill School.  The address of the junkyard is 76 Totter's Lane.  Susan says the TARDIS has been an ionic column and a sedan chair, in addition to a police box.  
Next Up: "The Daleks"


  1. Re: Is Susan a Time Lady? I'm inclined to fall on the "she isn't" side of the argument. Then again, the concept is fairly sketchily defined and even the show uses "Time Lord" and "Gallifreyan" interchangeably with some frequency. For the purposes of this discussion, I'm calling a Time Lord/Lady a Gallifreyan who has completed his/her education.

    We're given differing accounts of her age, but the TV serials tend to support the interpretation that she's approximately as old as she looks. Romana was considered young at 125, and I just don't think that Susan would have been old enough to have gone through the academy.

    Is she his biological granddaughter? I personally like the fan theory that she just calls him grandfather as term of endearment, though I think the bottom line is that we don't have enough information to draw a conclusion.

    I like that the episodes have individual titles.

    JL: Oh, no sonic screwdriver to make fire for you, Doctor?

    Matt Smith mumbled something about his sonic screwdriver not working against the wooden Cyberman in Time of Doctor, so that's some fine continuity porn there.

    JL: Susan says the TARDIS has been an ionic column and a sedan chair, in addition to a police box.

    Yeah, Susan says a lot of things.

    I like that she returns in a story called "An Earthly Child", though.

    Really like the format and the layout of this post and I'm looking forward to more!

    1. I always fell on the side of Susan isn't a Time Lord, but I figured my personal dislike of her character was biasing my opinion. I do tend to use Time Lord and Gallifreyan interchangeably. I can see her being too young to have gone through the academy. I think it was the 10th Doctor who talked about having a family on Gallifrey- I could be mistaken there, though.


    2. Well, in your defense, I can't think of any named Gallifreyan we meet in the Classic series who is not also a Time Lord, so it seldom tends to be a distinction worth making.


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