'Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child' 2
The rest of the first adventure of Doctor Who, commonly known by its opening episode ‘An Unearthly Child’, is comparatively uninteresting, but worth examining simply because it is the rest of the first story of what would become an all-time television classic.
The Tardis has shifted from a recognisably contemporary 1963 setting to a brutal and simplistic period, the Stone Age. What follows is a kind of pastiche of commonly-held notions about Palaeolithic times: the Doctor is clubbed by a skin-clad caveman and the crew all end up captives of a violent and possibly cannibalistic clan who are near the edge of death. Grunting, semi-coherent Za and Kal vie to take the place of a recently-deceased leader, both claiming the divine support of the ‘fire orb in the sky’, both desiring the power to make fire. The story unfolds like a reduced schoolboy’s tale of ‘everything that we know about cavemen’: violent beasts, constant barking conflict, lots of shouting and running around, not much cohesion. Fascinating from our perspective is the portrayal of the Doctor: ready to kill, ambivalent, sneaky and untrustworthy but also demonstrating kindness and concern for Susan his granddaughter, Hartnell is able to project authenticity onto his character’s anguish about being left all alone and friendless, never able to return home. This is partly good writing, partly Hartnell’s good acting. Something is scaring him; and yet his suspicious behaviour verges on criminal. Here he is in the Stone Age, having decided to flee from twentieth century London, taking the two teachers with him - he’s made a decision and he has turned out to be horribly mistaken. However, though he has caused the main event of the story, he is not a protagonist in the classic sense: that job falls to Ian, who is quick, resourceful, persuasive and dynamic. Interestingly, Ian names the Doctor as ‘leader of the Tardis tribe’ at one point, while the Doctor himself comes across as vulnerable and a little panicked by events, hardly the Oncoming Storm of modern episodes. As the Doctor evolves into the central figure in the show, becoming a god-like wizard of time and space with the power to re-set the entire universe, so does the show grow weaker, as we will see.
One of the original concepts about the character of the Doctor was that he had returned to the past to interfere with the development of his own civilisation - hardly the world-saving hero of later stories. Sidney Newman guided the character elsewhere, but what remains comes across here as petulant and naive, overwhelmed and troubled, yet possessing some humanity - a three-dimensional character, in other words.
Unfortunately the plot suffers from a lot of back-and-forth which seems partly time-filling: the tribe's old woman, who is terrified of fire, lets them go and Za and Hur have to chase them down. Kal is the obvious villain of the piece, but Za is not an obvious good guy. Eventually there’s a moral lesson: ‘Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe’ and he perishes, killed by Za in a savage fight before Za imprisons all the crew again, even after Ian tries to bargain for release by giving them fire.
Ian and Barbara are clearly the story’s bridge to the audience; as teachers, they were supposed to be part of the show’s educational slant, Ian teaching science, Barbara teaching history. They are knowledgeable but friendly, active but also occasionally relaxed, considering that they have been catapulted out of their own time by a device that they can’t hope to comprehend. Barbara is quieter, more fitting with the stereotypical woman of 1963 Britain, but she is not stupid.
In all of it, though, what is clear is that the Doctor’s motivations are obscure. Perhaps his decision to steal the Tardis and flee from his own people was just as rash as his decision to kidnap the teachers from 1963’s London. He certainly lacks the clear-headedness and wisdom which he was to gain later. This wasn’t intentional on the part of the writers, but what is left is the sense that we are caught up, as he is, in a larger drama and swept along, as he is, by events.
The concept would be further defined in the second story of Doctor Who. In finding an adversary, a character’s outlines can be sharpened. And that’s exactly what happens when the Tardis lands on the distant planet of Skaro.