Soph Watches Classic Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child (Part 1 of 2)

Sophie Iles

And here we are presenting another new column! Sophie Iles is going to be regaling us of her adventures into Classic Doctor Who every Saturday with some insight as recent lover of the new 2005 series. Expect to being taken along for the ride as she discovers each fun development of the show from the very start to hopefully, the very finish of its 26 year run… 

It’s a strange sensation watching a TV series from the beginning when its been around for so long. Usually in the days of modern television when you watch a series for the first time, everything is being established for a long run if it can get the go ahead. The audience get to meet the principle cast and the ideas about them are already being set out. Who’s the hero? who’s the villain? who’s the relatable every day character you latch onto? Of course, every series is different, every story is different, but no matter the set up, you’re sure of the roles that these characters play and that there are twists and turns to watch out for.

However, back in 1963 when Doctor Who was created and The Unearthly Child was pitched it had an air of mystery around it as much the Doctor himself. Both actors William Hartnell and Carole Ann Ford, playing the Doctor and his granddaughter Susan even revealed they made up their own back stories because they didn’t know anything about their characters….that was part of the whole point. Doctor Who?

Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) searching the junkyard in Totters Lane

When I was asked to write this series of articles I was thrilled, partly because I’ve not written an article before for anyone except in the odd test situation and because I really wanted to look at the episodes as I discovered them. Though this isn’t my first venture looking at the First Doctor Era, it’s certainly fun to rewatch and relearn.

My aim is to really look at these stories and characters and their historical merit today, how their stories are told, and how I, a rather fresh faced wanderer in the Doctor Who Fandom, reacts as we go back in time to see just what the appeal was for Dr. Who.

Immediately, even without the spooky titles it all feels like it’s grounded in reality somehow. The school feels real, and Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, the two teachers that will soon become companions of the Doctor feel like real teachers, and in turn real friends. Ian Chesterton is clearly used to his friend barging into his room whilst marking to listen to her worries and concerns. Clearly the subject of this particular student has come up before, Susan Foreman, a girl of mystery. We are completely on the teacher’s side due to the way it’s been filmed, from their point of view, as we see Susan’s errors first hand and they just can’t help their concern.

BARBARA: Too many questions and not enough answers.
IAN: Stupid? Or just doesn’t know. So we have a fifteen year old girl who is absolutely brilliant at some things, and excruciatingly bad at others.

So, spurred by their worries and their insatiable curiosity, they drive to her supposed destination and wait for her to arrive before following her inside the junkyard where she’s supposed to live and stumble across not only the truth, that inside this junkyard lies an alien spaceship disguised as a 1950’s police box and that this is where she has been living all this time with her grandfather.

When we do finally truly get to know Susan Foreman in this episode she is a wonderful mystery, perhaps more so than the Doctor in my opinion as we start off on this journey. From what we gather she doesn’t seem to have friends easily as per Ian and Barbara’s flashbacks of her at school. She often gets things wrong about the culture she’s pretending to be in and yet in her short scene in the school she thrives off what she’s learning. She clearly wants to fit in, have a place in the universe. Something that we can see with her interactions later she’s probably not had in a long while in her explorations with her grandfather….

The Doctor’s first incarnation, played by William Hartnell

And speaking of Grandfather, The Doctor is a very different man (or woman thanks to our newest showrunner Chris Chibnall) that the current fandom are used to. When he is introduced to us, catching these two teachers looking for Susan, he’s not only short tempered, but comically amused at their worry about her safety. Already we can see he’s pompous and self serving or at least, in the case of him and his granddaughter most certainly doesn’t care about much else. If not for Susan’s calling out, Ian and Barbara would have never headed inside the TARDIS in the first place and we’d have not had the adventures that followed.

Before I press on, the TARDIS itself is another marvel. Using a police box as a spaceship — not only to save on budget but also as a fantastic idea to claim it as a chameleon and fit in its surroundings — and a broken one at that. It’s clearly it’s all designed in a rush but its gorgeous simplicity and stark white imagery really does make the real world out in the junkyard feel more like Earth. The wonderful humming noise, which is used to suggest the ship is alive does wonders to keep that illusion going even with some of the odd cuts between characters as they discuss the situation they find themselves in.

The Doctor telling his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) that he found her two teachers looking for her in the junkyard.

We discover, as do Ian and Barbara, that Susan and her grandfather the Doctor, are aliens from another world and time, exiled from their own people.

When her grandfather tells Susan that her teachers were following her, she wants them to understand that what she’s saying is true and when she senses her grandfather’s plan she wants to be let go because in her own words ‘they are good and kind people’. However, this is not a Doctor we are used to seeing on screen, it’s this Doctor that decides they are safer taking them away from 1963 akin to the BFG’s reasoning for taking Sophie from the orphanage in Roald Dahl’s classic tale. Fearing that these simple humans won’t be able to keep their mouth shut.  

IAN: You’re treating us like children.
DOCTOR: Am I? The children of my civilisation would be insulted.

With the teachers refusing to believe what we as an audience are now sure to be true, even with Susan’s protests they are swept away into space and time, the now infamous title sequence used to show the passage of time without much other fanfare. Then we cut to the police box on what appears to be an alien world, on a crisp desert landscape, and a foreboding shadow coming forwards stage right.

The adventure certainly doesn’t end there, the beginning of a lifelong adventure has only just begun.

Next time, tune in for part two of this wonderful caper; for the Stone Age, The Doctor’s truer colours, and how important it is to bring your matches with you to meet some hungry cavemen.

Also, as a bonus for these articles, I’ll be doing doodles and such like, so here’s my coloured up doodle I drew of Ian and Barbara, during one of my favourite moments before the teachers are snatched away into time and space.