Soph Watches Classic Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child (Part 2 of 2)

by Sophie Iles

I have a confession to make about the Unearthly Child Serial now we’ve moved on from the first episode which you can read my article on here. if I’m honest, the first time I watched this serial I didn’t like it very much. This wasn’t recently, probably about three years ago during the fiftieth anniversary and after the initial TARDIS interaction in the first episode I was bored and listless through the rest of the episodes.

But this was also a person who had not dealt well previously with anything black and white and anything older than a 1970s seems alien to her. Luckily for everyone involved, my taste improved.

When I rewatched it again last year when my real love for Classic Who started, and then again last week to write you this article I must also admit it is now one of my favourite serials. Why? Because it really sets up it’s characters for us and here’s just how it does it.

For those who need to recap lets walk through the basics of the rest of this four part story before we focus on some of my favourite moments and why I consider it one of my favs. After arguing with Susan in their space ship about whether to let Ian and Barbara leave, The Doctor tricks Susan into thinking he will let them go before sending them all back in time with a flick of a few switches and a bit of an evil chuckle.

IAN: I don’t believe it.
THE DOCTOR: You really are a stubborn young man, aren’t you?
IAN: All right, show me some proof. Give me some concrete evidence. I’m sorry, Susan. I don’t want to hurt you, but it’s time you were brought back to reality.

Ian, Barbara and Susan outside the TARDIS during the Stone Age

When they land, Susan and the Doctor, seemingly unshaded by their initial argument and instead are eager to prove to the humans that they really have travelled backwards. They open the TARDIS doors to reveal a barren desert landscape thereafter established to be the Stone Age. The audience, much like Ian Chesterton slowly step out to look at what might as well be an alien world to two Sixties teachers, before discovering that the Doctor has been kidnapped by a caveman called Kal and they set off to find him.

This leads into the set up that Kal, a newly adopted member of a paleolithic tribe is trying to establish himself as leader to a now leaderless band of early humans. The son of the previous leader Za is also trying to do the same, and they both come to the conclusion that providing fire is what will win their tribe over, something that Za’s father had been able to do before and something they believe was granted to them by Sun Gods.

Enter the Doctor, who was only kidnapped by Kal and brought back to the tribe due to his use of a match to light his pipe. Believing that he can spark fire from his fingers, Kal demands to produce fire for him but the Doctor, now run out of matches, tells them he cannot and is about to be killed for his refusal. Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be: Ian, Barbara and Susan turn up before the Doctor can be stoned for his unwillingness to help and they are all taken away to an early prison, known only to us as the Cave of Skulls.

Over the rest of the four parter, the party escape with the help of an old woman but when Za pursues them through the Forest of Fear but he is cut open by a beast. They know they should just run to the TARDIS but Barbara cannot leave a man to bleed to death, to the Doctor’s frustration. Both the teachers start to try and help with his wounds so he will live. Of course in a land where kindness is not valued, when Za is well again, they are once again put in the Cave of Skulls and even when Ian is able to produce fire for them, Za is not willing to let them leave. This after all has made him leader, and he is not willing to let his Fire-Makers disappear.

With a clever trick with some meat fat, a skull and some fire they are able to set up a terrifying display for the tribe and make their escape back to the TARDIS, in the hope that their adventures are over.

The TARDIS Team looking back after running from the Cavemen Tribe

The story itself is pretty simple, it is clear what everyones motivations are and that’s not just the cavemen but our main characters too. Ian and Barbara just want to get back to the TARDIS, and by this point, the Doctor and Susan aren’t eager to hang around either, even if they are used to adventures at this point.

For me what makes this whole serial my favourite is this is the Doctor before he becomes this heroic persona that we know today. This is a Doctor who spent the entire serial only thinking about himself and Susan. Even at the beginning when Ian was so unable to believe that the TARDIS had really gone back in time, his ego got in the way of just telling the truth and just giving snide remarks and half truths until he opened the doors to prove his point.

DOCTOR: One minute ago we were trying desperately to get away from these savages.
IAN: All right, now we’re helping them. You’re a doctor, do something.
DOCTOR: I’m not a doctor of medicine.
SUSAN: Grandfather, we can make friends with them.
DOCTOR: Oh, don’t be ridiculous, child.

The worst part for me in this venture, was when the Doctor had no sense of kindness for the injured Za.  In fact he would have, if not for Ian noticing, have beaten the man’s head with a rock so as to keep him quiet and that they could have just rushed back to the TARDIS and not face the consequences of the crime.

We also see just what a manipulative and cunning man he can be in one of my favourite sequences involving the first Doctor. After the old woman allowed them to escape, Kal killed her with his sharpened knife and tried to frame Za for the death. However, The Doctor rightly so pointed out that Za’s knife did not have blood on it for it to be the culprit and he had not seen such a fine knife before. Furious and eager to prove as he has the entire serial that he is better than Za, Kal brandishes his knife to prove himself, forgetting in the process that his knife is covered in blood and the Doctor doesn’t let him forget it. So much so it is the Doctor who is manipulating the surrounding tribe to cast Kal out by starting to chuck stones at him as punishment. It really does show just how far The Doctor will go to make sure he makes out of a situation unscathed.

There are some other great moments of course. Barbara and Ian’s relationship only seems to strengthen throughout the episode, as they are quite literally all that holds the other up. Barbara is utterly terrified (as I think most would be in this situation) and Ian is trying to assure her that everything is going to be fine as he comes to terms with science as he knew it is completely wrong.

Though is isn’t a very Barbara or Susan strong episode mostly due to their characters not being well established yet, though don’t worry, there are plenty of moments coming to show them off as a more than capable companions. It is Ian who gets to shine here as the action man he was undoubtedly cast as. He’s able to think on his feet, is able to fight with the Doctor on morales of right and wrong, and of course, despite the fact he in the eyes of the cavemen should be leader, denounces himself as such and tells them all that the Doctor is in charge of their tribe. A rather humble approach to the situation he is in.

That’s that for this serial, and it really is one of my favourites. It is not perfect. The cavemen can be a bit stilted and some of the camera angles are choppy but it’s the imperfections and knowing that this was created unaware of just how big it was going to be that make it a really good serial in my eyes.

Next week I take on looking at the Daleks, again we’ll split it into two because it is a wonderfully epic six parter. We’ll take a look at the how Terry Nation introduced his ‘bug eyed monsters’,  we ask ourselves why the Doctor didn’t check the radiation counter again and how lucky Susan is to get the only chair in Skaro.

As per my last post, I will also be adding my silly doodles, so here’s The First Doctor brandishing a knife.