The nature of the Doctor, the shape of the story and the social context - these are the three pillars upon which Doctor Who is built. When all three are in place, the show is at its best; when one or more are undermined, the show becomes unstable and suffers both critically and in the audience ratings.
Originally aired on November 23rd, 1963, the very first episode of Doctor Who could hardly have chosen a more dramatic moment in which to appear. US President John F. Kennedy, the embodiment for many of a new era which was leaving the Second World War behind and entering into the new challenge of the Space Race with the Soviet Union, had just been assassinated. So powerful was the impact of this event, that occurred literally hours before the programme’s premiere, that producers made the decision to show the first episode again the following week to make sure that they got the public’s attention.
‘An Unearthly Child’ is a four-part serial, originally broadcast in 25-minute segments over four weeks. It consists of two separate stories, the first episode establishing the overall premise of the show and introducing the four main characters and the time-space vessel, the Tardis, and the next three episodes forming the travellers' first proper ‘adventure’. The key section is the first half an hour - the rest of the story is limited in its scope.
There are several things that ‘An Unearthly Child’ gets right in that first episode, which we can tell both from hindsight - the show has gone on to become the world’s longest-running science fiction programme - and from our principles above.
The first thing we actually see on-screen (after the marvellously unique and haunting opening theme, ahead of its time) is a policeman making his rounds through a foggy, barely visible (in the fuzzy black and white television picture of 1963) neighbourhood in London. He seems vaguely curious about a junkyard marked with the sign ‘I.M. Foreman, Scrap Merchant, 76 Totters Lane’, checking to see if its gates are properly locked before moving on. Oddly, as he moves off, never to be seen again, the gates to the junkyard swing inexplicably open - even though we have just been shown that they were locked - and we follow the camera through them, glimpsing a blanket, a rake, and other assorted items. Already the apparent laws of material objects are being casually broken, it seems. But then the camera rests on an old police box, an object which viewers in 1963 would have found quite ordinary and mundane. Except that it is in a junkyard. The policeman who should have had access to such a thing has walked by on the other side of a locked gate. And there’s some kind of electronic humming noise coming from inside it. These images are only on screen for seconds, but a core mood has been established: there is something strange going on, a juxtaposition that shouldn’t be. It’s almost the kind of juxtaposition one would find in something from the horror genre: things are placed together which shouldn’t be together; things are apart which shouldn’t be apart.
One of the pillars of the programme is quickly and firmly embedded: the story begins properly with the teachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, in the context of their ordinary, everyday lives at Coal Hill School, being both curious about one of their students and morally responsible, deciding to investigate, as they do, where exactly she lives. Susan Foreman, the student in question, has behaved oddly: she seems to know both more than she should in some cases, and less than she should in others. She mentions a decimal currency system years before it was introduced in Britain and yet seems unable to compute with simple geometry. And it seems that the address given to the school is an old junkyard, not a house. ‘She lets her knowledge out a little bit at a time, so as not to embarrass me,’ Ian says; Barbara’s offer of a visit to her home is refused because her grandfather ‘doesn't like strangers’. When we first see Susan, her dancing to the radio’s pop music is meant to seem a little ‘unearthly’. But though she is the focus of our attention, the narrative viewpoint is unquestionably with the two ordinary people, Ian and Barbara. When they offer Susan a ride home, she replies ‘I like walking through the dark; it's mysterious.’ This leads Ian and Barbara to drive to the junkyard and await Susan’s arrival, motivated, as they admit to each other, by the mystery around the girl.
Ian and Barbara follow Susan inside the junkyard, but find that she has vanished. There are no other ways out. They are astonished to find a police box in the yard, and even more amazed to find out that ‘It’s alive’ as Ian exclaims when he touches it.
Susan's grandfather then appears. We are never told where he has just been. Dressed in slightly outmoded black clothes, he seems gruff, off-putting and rude, evading their questions. He seems relieved when he finds out that they are not from the police. But Ian and Barbara, hearing Susan's voice from inside the police box, assume she's trapped inside. They try to get in. The Doctor is slyly amused: what if they were to succeed, viewers can almost see him think?
Our tension has reached breaking point as viewers by now: we know there’s something odd about the police box from the opening scene; we have seen how strange Susan is; the setting is foggy and dark, as is the Doctor - now, suspecting that Susan is stuck inside what should be and was a symbol of help and reassurance to the population, we need some kind of resolution. What we get is a totally unexpected (on first watching) twist which refuses to sit comfortably in our minds: Ian and Barbara blunder inside the police box to find that it is bigger inside than it is outside. Not only have they left the ordinary world behind, they have gone beyond conventional thinking and have entered realms where anything could happen.
The Doctor ‘explains everything’ in his own terms behind the locked doors of the ship: he and Susan are exiles, the police box is a time-travelling vessel. But is he really trying to explain? ‘Have you ever thought what it's like to be wanderers in the Fourth Dimension? Have you? To be exiles? Susan and I are cut off from our own planet - without friends or protection. But one day we shall get back. Yes, one day.’ This is more of an appeal for affinity, for understanding, but with an implicit acknowledgement that it is unlikely he will get it. This is backed up by Susan’s statement: ‘I know these Earth people better than you, their minds reject things they don't understand.’ Susan has developed an affinity for earthlings, but knows that it is pretty hopeless desiring that it be returned. What comes across in these brief introductory remarks is that these two are lonely in a way that we struggle to grasp.
Meanwhile Ian speaks for the newly-immersed audience: ‘Let me get this straight. A thing that looks like a police box, standing in a junkyard, it can move anywhere in time and space?’
‘If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds, and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?’ says the Doctor, in a remark hardly designed to put Ian, or anyone else, at ease.
The overall result of these gripping few minutes is that we are distanced from the Doctor; we are meant to feel his isolation, and Susan’s, both in terms of their alien experience and in terms of their removal from us and our ordinary ways of perceiving the world. There is no hint here that we can share his viewpoint: he is remote. When Ian protests that he is treating them like children, he replies ‘The children of my civilisation would be insulted!’ Then, just as a lesser story might have things settle down and become a little more stable, the Doctor does something that confirms his aloofness from us: under the pretence that he will let Ian and Barbara go, he dematerialises the Tardis, and off we go, leaving our ordinary world even further behind, irrevocably and for the next fifty years at least.
The Tardis - resonating with the image of C. S. Lewis’s wardrobe that leads to another world (Lewis himself had died the day before the show was first broadcast) - acts as the Door to a new reality in the sane way that television itself was a gateway to new experiences, growing rapidly to dominate the attention of the British populus in the early 60s and proving itself bigger inside than out in many ways.
As we are led through a visual effect meant to illustrate time-space travel, linking in with the series opening special effect of swirling white clouds, we hover as viewers on the edge of the horror genre again. This is further reinforced by the closing shot of the police box appearing in the middle of a barren desert, and by the menacing human shadow that looms over it as the credits roll.
Just what have we gotten into?