The first SERIAL to
be broadcast, THIS
NOVELLA "TIME AND
RELATIVE" AND THE
SCRIPT BOOK "THE
ANTHONY COBURN &
C. E. WEBBER
100,000 BC &
THE TRIBE OF GUM
'THE BEGINNING' DVD
BOX SET (BBCDVD1882)
RELEASED IN JANUARY
Susan Foreman is a
mystery to teachers
Ian Chesterton and
more than she should
about the past... and
Their curiosity leads
them to follow her
home one night, only
to find that her SHE
appears to LIVE IN a
THERE they discover a
police telephone box
and aN old man, who
claims to be Susan’s
calls himself the
Doctor. The journey
of a lifetime is about
An Unearthly Child
23RD NOVEMBER 1963 - 14TH DECEMBER 1963
1. AN UNEARTHLY CHILD 2. THE CAVE OF SKULLS
3. THE FOREST OF FEAR 4. THE FIREMAKER
At long last An Unearthly Child, The Daleks, The Edge of Destruction and even
a brilliant reconstruction of the lost Marco Polo arrive on DVD, gloriously re-mastered. And “The Beginning” DVD box set was certainly well worth the wait.
Rather than trying to compete with the recent eye-catching release of the 2005 series in a TARDIS-shaped box set, the BBC have instead elected to release the first four Doctor Who stories in a stylish near-monochrome DVD slipcase which houses the three discs as if they were separate releases, with the individual discs each featuring wonderful covers by Clayton Hickman in the current in-house style.
Superb value for money, “The Beginning” is an absolute must for any
Doctor Who fan. The Restoration Team have done real wonders in
bringing these (now over forty years old) episodes to life once again
with superb picture and sound quality so that we can rediscover that
mysterious old Police box, stuck in a junk yard on Totter’s Lane and
begin the trip of a lifetime all over again…
Above: Nothing at the end of the lane?
An Unearthly Child heralded a new era for science fiction, and indeed for television. Hell,
it heralded a new era for culture. The first episode of Doctor Who is an absolute triumph, a television gem that will live on for as long as people watch the idiot’s lantern.
The first twenty-five magical minutes
of Doctor Who still cut the mustard
even today. The TARDIS is without
question the greatest storytelling
device ever devised; undoubtedly
one of the main reasons for the
show’s unprecedented longevity.
There are no limits to the kind of story that can be told – futuristic, historical, ‘sideways’… The scene where Ian and Barbara burst into the ship was as epic for its time as Rose’s beautifully cinematic entrance into the TARDIS more than forty years later would be, if not more so, as the show had the element of surprise on its side the first time around.
“…let me get this straight. A thing that looks like a Police Box,
stuck in a junk yard, can move anywhere in Time and Space?”
And despite the genuinely wobbly sets, the characters instantly shone. We have the stalwart Ian Chesterton; the show’s hero. His female colleague, Barbara Wright; a woman clearly out of her depth with whom the audience can empathise. Susan, the eponymous unearthly child, whom if ‘expanded universe’ Doctor Who lore is to be given credence was the last child to be born on Gallifrey prior to the Pythia’s curse. And then the Doctor…
William Hartnell’s initial portrayal isn’t far short of villainous, and it works spectacularly well. He is a complete mystery; a selfish, sinister and manipulative old man, and though we will soon learn that his hearts are in the right places, in this story he heartlessly kidnaps Ian and Barbara to protect his secrets. What a start…
Sadly though, the TARDIS’s first televised journey is infinitely less compelling than the first episode. In fact, save for the wonderfully evocative cliffhanger ending to An Unearthly Child, there is very little that we can take from the ensuing 100,000 BC / Tribe of Gum story. The main characters, particularly the Doctor, continue to intrigue the audience, but beyond that the plot is paper thin and - really quite worryingly for an ‘educational’ show - many of the so-called educational elements are wildly inaccurate!
Further, this part of the story has become infamous within fan circles thanks to the scene where the Doctor picks up a rock and gives the injured caveman that is slowing them down
a murderous look - a moment that does not hold true with how the character would develop (and which Terrance Dicks would later rectify, albeit rather crudely, in his novel The Eight Doctors). Still, it is intriguing to see just how ruthless this (relatively) young Time Lord was…
The DVD release of An Unearthly Child is one that does the groundbreaking story justice. Interestingly though, it is the first complete story to be released on DVD that does not come with a full commentary track since the experimental release of The Five Doctors special edition back in 1999. However, the pilot episode, An Unearthly Child, and The Firemaker
each have excellent commentaries, all expertly moderated by
Gary Russell. These older stories particularly benefit from his
probing questions and prompting.
The rest of the special features are reasonably good - the four
comedy sketches are undoubtedly the disc’s best offering. It is
good to see Mark Gatiss and David Walliams’ sketches from
BBC 2’s 1999 Doctor Who night finally get released on DVD;
the ‘Kidnapped’ sketch with Peter Davison is hilarious! I can
only hope that all such ephemera is dug out for future DVD
releases. The pilot episode itself is interesting to watch and
play ‘Spot the Difference’ with the episode aired, but the
real gem is the studio recording footage of that inaugural
episode, complete with retakes and all. The theme music
video is also a nice little throwaway feature, and as standard
the disc is also equipped with insightful production subtitles
and a thorough photo gallery.
And so An Unearthly Child heralded the arrival of a television series that would still be
a remarkable success more than forty years on, and hopefully will be for much longer still. Whilst the Tribe of Gum episodes drag down the serial as a whole, the unrivalled brilliance
of Doctor Who’s first historic episode cannot be overstated.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2006
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
The first episode of Doctor Who is still one of the most innovative and stunning examples of science fiction that I have enjoyed. It is a magical step into another world for Ian
and Barbara (and the audience) but it also kick-started British phenomena; a juggernaut of storytelling that is still evolving and growing to this day. Now that’s staying power. It is a well constructed piece that draws the viewer in within minutes. Everybody loves a mystery and the question mark that hangs over this strange school girl remains compulsive viewing even in these deliriously-edited days of television.
What is great about An Unearthly Child is a
weakness in the overall first series as Susan
unfortunately would never be this interesting
again. Considering where their characters go
over the next two years William Russell and
Jacqueline Hill are both very grounded and
convince as concerned schoolteachers and
their reaction to Hartnell’s gruff and humourless Doctor Foreman kicks-starts some wond-erful chemistry between the actors and the characters. This is a kid’s show but the whole conceit of Susan being held captive against her will by this terrifying old man is quite adult and is certainly played that way. We take for granted the relative dimensions of the TARDIS but there is still something that gives me goosebumps when Barbara forces her way in and the camera pans around the sterile and yet utterly gorgeous first console room. The actors, writer and director probably did not realise what they were getting into taking such a huge leap from domestic drama to science fiction but the crossing of genres as they step from
the junkyard to the TARDIS is like a slap in the face; a total culture shock. I defy anybody to watch this episode and not be impressed by its risky storytelling.
So the trip of a lifetime begins with that first step into a gently-humming police box on a foggy winter’s evening. That initial step back in time turns into one of the most disturbing we would see in the series’ first few years. We might shrug our shoulders these days with the thought of walking through one door in London and stepping back out to prehistoric Britain, but back in 1963 this was such a radical concept. Ian and Barbara are used as our eyes and ears in this alien environment and it is their horrified reactions that make this story such a disturbing experience.
The Tribe of Gum is portrayed with absolute conviction with power struggles, starvation and a morbid fear of the terrifying beasts that stalk the forest, details that really help to convince the viewer that this is for real. Jacqueline Hill’s performance is especially good, she plays the eager schoolteacher with wide eyed wonder as she steps from the ship onto the sandy plain but soon devolves into a screaming fish out of water once she has been locked up in
a cave of skulls, hunted through woods and lands face down on a bloody tiger. Her near breakdown really sells the dangers the travellers are facing.
The first story has a treasure trove of little details that are worth hanging on through the three episodes of prehistoric politics to enjoy - the ambiguity of the Doctor’s near murder as he picks up the rock to help Za ‘draw a map’; his cunning in tricking Kal into admitting he killed the old woman; the shocking image of the skulls bathed in fire and the dash for the TARDIS at the end (never since has simply reaching the ship felt like such an achievement).
The crew may well have landed on an alien planet for all the otherworldliness that this serial exudes. It would be a long time before we visit another world as alien as this one. Some say that kicking off the show with a story featuring cavemen power struggles was a real mistake but watched in the dark alone Doctor Who was rarely as terrifying as it is here and the sheer nausea of the culture shock is phenomenal. The highlight of the story for me is the brutal fire lit struggle between Kal and Za in the final episode. As an example of how far this show can go this vicious and raw violence, intercut with startled and repulsed reactions from the four regulars, is proof that we are in for an uncomfortable ride.
It would be forty years before Christopher Eccleston’s ninth Doctor would talk about a trip of
a lifetime, but this is where it all began and it is well worth visiting to remind yourself just how strong this introduction to the thrilling world of Doctor Who was.
Copyright © Joe Ford 2010
Joe Ford has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
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