An Unearthly Child
by Stephen R. Hulse and Laurence Marcus

An Unearthly Child

The Plot

In 1963 Barbara Wright a history teacher at Coal Hill School becomes intrigued by one of her pupils. Susan Foreman is something of an enigma, excelling at certain subjects whilst being outrageously bad at others. After school one evening she voices her concerns to a fellow teacher, the science master Ian Chesterton. Barbara reveals that she has checked the school records to find out where Susan lives so that she might talk to Susan's guardian, her grandfather, of whom very little is known other than that he's a doctor. However, when Barbara went to the address previously, (76 Totters Lane), all she found there was an old junk yard. She persuades Ian to accompany her on a return visit.

Driving to the address Ian and Barbara arrive before Susan and sit in wait for her. When she finally appears she looks around cautiously before entering through the junk yard gates. The two school teachers grow suspicious and follow. Inside they fumble around in the darkness but find no sign of Susan. Then they make a curious discovery. In the middle of the yard is a Police Box; a telephone call box that the Metropolitan Police (as well as members of the public) may use to communicate messages in an emergency (this being many years before walkie-talkies or mobile phones). Ian remarks how these boxes are usually found in the street. He steps forward and touches it then quickly steps back as he feels a strange vibration coming from it. "It's alive!" He cries. He is walking around the box trying to find out if there are any wires coming out of it when a noise of a door closing at the back of the yard disturbs him. The teachers hide as an elderly, white haired man approaches the Police Box and takes out a key to open it. "There you are, grandfather!" says Susan's voice, seemingly coming from inside the box. "It's Susan!" Exclaims Barbara, giving herself and Ian away. The old man stops in his tracks and wheels around to confront the teachers.

There follows an awkward conversation in which the old man accuses the teachers of spying on him, and tries to convince them that they are mistaken in thinking that the girl they seek is anywhere near the junkyard. Tempers begin to flare but Susan speaks again prompting the teachers to push past the old man and through the doors of the Police Box. They are aghast as they enter, not a small compact box, but a large brightly lit control room at the centre of which is a large console with flashing lights, levers and dials. Susan, on the old man's command closes the doors by operating a switch on the console. Ian tries to push the old man for an explanation, unable to comprehend what is happening around him. Barbara, though, is a little more level headed and seems to accept the situation more readily. "So this is where you live, Susan. And this must be your grandfather?" The Doctor is dismissive of the two schoolteachers especially when they try to convince Susan that the whole scenario is nothing more than a game the she and her grandfather play.

The Doctor begins to get cross at the teachers stubbornness and refusal to accept their situation even when Susan tells them that she and her grandfather were born in another time, another place. The Doctor says that they are wanderers in the fourth dimension, cut off from their own world, and describes the Police Box as "a ship." Ian questions his use of the term, but Susan tells him that the TARDIS can go "anywhere in time and space," and that the name stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. The Doctor's attitude turns from annoyance to one of menace when the schoolteachers decide that they want to leave. He secretly turns a dial on the console. Ian, growing impatient and annoyed at The Doctor's refusal to let them go decides to find the door switch himself, but as he touches the console he receives an electric shock that knocks him backwards.

Susan tells The Doctor that he has to let the teachers go and he tells her that if he allows them to go then they (The Doctor and Susan) must leave too, but Susan says she doesn't want to leave the twentieth century as the last six months have been the happiest of her life and she'd rather leave The Doctor and the TARDIS. Reluctantly The Doctor agrees to let them all go and turns to the console as if to open the door. But as Susan's attention is diverted her grandfather begins to furiously throw a combination of switches. Susan turns and tries to wrestle him away from the console as the central column illuminates and begins to rise and fall, the sound of the ships engines begin to fill the room. Ian and Barbara are thrown to the sides as the TARDIS begins to shift through the time vortex.

Moments later an exterior view of the TARDIS sees it framed against a barren landscape. It has arrived in another place...another time.

The History

Doctor Who was the brainchild of Canadian Sydney Newman who joined the BBC as Head of Drama in 1962. A big science fiction fan himself Newman was looking for a programme that would capture the Saturday teatime audience and bridge the gap between the afternoon sports programme Grandstand and the early evening schedule that kicked off with the popular music show Juke Box Jury. What Newman wanted was a show that was suitable family viewing attracting the younger children and teenagers as well as their parents. To this end it was suggested that the series be tilted towards the 14-year old age group, which at that time was considered 'the most difficult, critical, even sophisticated audience there is for TV.'

Newman knew that it would be difficult to get the correct balance and saw in science fiction a concept that would appeal to all age ranges. He then set about developing the character of The Doctor describing him thus: A man who is 764 years old - who is senile but with extraordinary flashes of intellectual brilliance. A crotchety old bugger - any kids grandfather - who had, in a state of terror, escaped in his machine from an advanced civilisation on a distant planet, which had been taken over by some unknown enemy. He did not know how to operate the time-space machine and he never intended to come to our Earth. In trying to get home he simply pressed the wrong buttons - and kept on pressing the wrong buttons, taking his human passengers backwards and forwards and in and out of time and space.

Having decided on that concept Newman then approached his Head of Script Department Donald Wilson to compile a list of suggestions for a workable format for the series, which would run for 52 weeks of the year and be comprised of a number of shorter serials within its overall conceptual framework. Over a period of many months Doctor Who went through a number of changes before Newman was happy with a workable format. However, when An Unearthly Child did finally make it in front of the cameras (27/09/1963) Newman was far from pleased with the result and in an unprecedented move he ordered the whole episode be re-shot with a number of 'fine-tune' alterations made to the script, as well as the character of The Doctor.

The first episode of Doctor Who aired on BBC television at 5.15pm on Saturday 23rd November 1963. The day before the whole world had been shaken by the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, and as a result of many people's attention being turned to the unfolding true life events in Dallas, Texas (and an untimely power failure that affected large parts of the country) An Unearthly Child was not watched by as many people as the BBC had hoped for (4.4 million tuned in). However, critics in the British press received the show so well that the following week the BBC repeated the first episode immediately before showing part two (pulling in an audience of 5.9 million).

The Review

A claustrophobic economy of design and writing, allied to an unsettling juxtaposition of the mundanely familiar with the subtly strange, are key factors that mark the opening episode of Doctor Who as one of the finest examples of episodic drama ever produced for television.

From its classic opening continuous tracking shot which takes the viewers on a point-of-view journey from the fog shrouded confines of Totter's Lane in London, and on through the gates and into the interior of I.M. Foreman's shadowy and vaguely ominous scrap yard, to end before the incongruous exterior of an oddly humming official Police Call Box, we the viewers, are presented with a tight, skilful and economically written intellectual puzzle that serves as the fundamental foundation on which future decades of a televisual legend will be built.

Working in a near perfect unison of intent that few productions will ever come close to equalling, writer Anthony Coburn, Story Editor David Whitaker, director Waris Hussein and designers Peter Brachacki and Barry Newberry and the young but talented eye of producer Verity Lambert, have succeeded in fashioning twenty-five minutes of unique television drama that effortlessly succeeded in breaking new ground in the presentation of a science-fiction concept, to a mass early Saturday evening family viewing audience.

Brilliantly employing the characters of inquisitive school teachers, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton, as the eyes and ears of his wider audience, writer Coburn deftly defines the small mystery of a paradoxically brilliant but mysterious young schoolgirl that will ultimately lead the two adults - and by extension, we the viewers - to a revelation of literally staggering proportions. Character, economy and the inexorable build-up of tension as each small question about the true nature of the circumstances of young Susan Foreman's mysterious life lead tantalisingly to ever more larger questions, is the central cement that binds viewer to story forming an unbreakable bond. From the outset, Barbara and Ian are entirely believable as real people. Their initial introduction apart from giving spoken substance to the wordless mystery presented in the dialogue free opening tracking shot, also brilliantly imbues the characters with a genuine sense that these are people with fully functioning unseen lives and personal histories which exist beyond the confines of the story being presented. It's this very real substance to the characters that allow them the authority to act as the bridge between the events unfolding around them and the audience watching at home. And as such is as much a tribute to the acting acumen of Jacqueline Hill and William Russell as it is to Coburn's scripting.

Taken from a different angle, the same holds true for Carol Ann Ford's decidedly otherworldly portrayal of Susan, the eponymous Unearthly Child of the story's title. Armed with a specially created hairstyle from Vidal Sassoon, and a near ethereal mixture of otherworldly aloofness wedded to an entirely earthly sense of teenaged vulnerability, Ford's performance perfectly offsets the everyman normality of her teachers to become an integral factor in the overall believability of the air of subdued mystery that surrounds her.

But without doubt, from his first appearance over half way through the events of the story, the rock upon which the entire underlying series structure depends is William Hartnell's masterful performance as Susan's mysterious, quietly devious and imperious and high-handed Grandfather, Known simply as "The Doctor". In what amounts to a virtual master class in seemingly effortless acting technique, the veteran actor offers up a performance of such assured confidence and regal authority, that the character of the aging alien traveller through time and space assumes centre stage from his first bout of verbal sparring with his intrusive human interlopers. With sparse economy and perfectly pitched playing from the small, self-contained ensemble cast, the ultimate revelation of the Foreman's true nature and the enticing hints of their origins as well as that of the advanced technological marvel that serves as their habitat, are persuasively brought home to the appreciative viewing audience.

In fact, the sheer impact of the vast, alien machinery of the interior of the Doctor's TARDIS, housed as it is within the impossibly confined dimensions of its outer Police Box shell, are the greatest triumph of the episode from a purely design and technical standpoint. Up until Barbara and Ian's forcible invasion of the Doctor and Susan's sanctuary, director Waris Hussein has cleverly reinforced a near subliminal atmosphere of claustrophobic closeness in his framing and shooting of the earlier scenes, leading up to the revelation of the Police Box interior in such a way as to maximise the colossal surprise experienced by both teachers and viewers, when both are finally confronted by the near incomprehensible vastness of the alien craft's cavernous interior. That such an astonishing sight manages to succeeds in imparting such a genuine sense of credibility, despite the obvious impossibility of its existence, is as much a testament to TARDIS interior designer Peter Brachacki's, imaginative flair as it is to the performances of the actors and the joint imaginations of the writer and production team.

From its fog bound opening moments to its cliff-hanger ending which sees the TARDIS materialising within a bleak, rocky landscape over which an ominous shadow falls, Doctor Who: "An Unearthly Child", is a vastly imaginative and atmospheric exercise in mystery and adventure that will surely become a benchmark by which all subsequent new series introductions should be measured.


Laurence Marcus & Stephen R. Hulse 2001