Doctor Who, “An Unearthly Child”
Written by Anthony Coburn
Directed by Waris Hussein
Originally aired November 23, 1963 on BBC TV
“Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension?”
Setting aside how iconic Doctor Who has become, in watching its pilot episode “An Unearthly Child”, it’s stunning how ambitious and magical the episode still feels; it’s not hard to see why the show has lasted 50 years.
Technically speaking, “pilot” was not a term used in British television at the time Doctor Who was commissioned and the version of “An Unearthly Child” that aired was not the first one shot. There were adjustments to the characters, especially the Doctor, who was made to be less cruel (at one point he called Susan a “stupid child”), as well as the technical side of the production. The episode benefited from this tinkering, however, and Doctor Who was born.
“An Unearthly Child” begins when science teacher Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and history teacher Barbra Wright (Jacqueline Hill) follow brilliant student Susan Foreman (Carol Ann Ford) home from school and see her enter an old police box in a junkyard. It’s there that they meet her grandfather, a man calling himself the Doctor (William Hartnell) and learn that the police box is actually a disguised TARDIS, a device capable of traveling through time and space.
“An Unearthly Child”, ironically enough, works as a kind of time capsule. This Doctor Who is not the technologically advanced work that NuWho fans are used to. But what these two incarnations of the show have in common, and what’s so evident in “An Unearthly Child”, is the series’ almost boundless energy and fearless ambition. Ian and Susan’s first introduction to the TARDIS and the Doctor is one of the finest scenes of the episode. The viewer immediately feels a connection to their outlandish situation and the adventure that’s soon to follow for both of them.
The people who watch the pilot now tend to only be familiar with NuWho, making the technical failings of that first episode, or any of the classic Who for that matter, stand out. But watch carefully, for these two versions of the Doctor Who pilot are familiar, if only for their inventiveness and choices.
The two versions of “An Unearthly Child” are not without their problems. They feel slightly rushed and it’s hard to watch the show now without attaching the baggage of what we know is coming in the future. However, “An Unearthly Child” is a great introduction to the world of the show and one that sets up the characters, especially the Doctor, incredibly well. For generations to come, Hartnell would define the role of the Doctor and what is apparent, even in “An Unearthly Child”, is how deeply connected he was to the character. Hartnell once said that the reasons he chose to play the Doctor were because it was an opportunity to break away from military themed roles and that he relished what the Doctor meant to people, particularly children. His glee in playing the Doctor comes out, particularly when he’s asking Ian and Barbra to join them in space travel.
For all of its ambitions and potential, “An Unearthly Child” does have some issues. Although charming and intriguing, the characters, with the exception of the Doctor and Susan, don’t seem fully realized. The central story also leaves something to be desired. Fifty years later, it’s a little hard to swallow the idea of two teachers following a young girl from school simply because she seems odd. Those issues aside, “An Unearthly Child” is fearless and charming. Doctor Who would quickly become a cultural touchstone, but this episode stands on its own as a time capsule and a great springboard for a show that would go on to become wildly inventive and influential.