An Unearthly Child

I’ve made a couple of commitments to myself in the new year. One, try to remember how to draw after letting my abilities wither for the better part of a decade; and two, take more time away from working and productivity to take in things I’ve been meaning to get around to enjoying. Books, movies, whatever. When possible, I will try killing two birds with one stone. As here:


…in which I finally make an effort to watch Doctor Who, which everyone I know is always going on about. No better place to start than at the beginning with the First Doctor, right? Whom I have drawn somewhat poorly here. Bear with me. I’ve got years of rust to knock away.

“An Unearthly Child” is pretty weird, even accounting for the fact that it was filmed 50 years ago. For one thing, prior to this I had seen a few of the Christopher Eccleston Doctor Whos, so trying to reconcile the curmudgeonly old coot who was the Doctor half a century ago with Eccleston’s glib mania feels a little much for my poor brain to grasp. I’m sure it all makes more sense if you see it all in sequence, but I’ve gone and done it backward.

Apparently all the old Doctor Who stories unfolded via multi-episode arcs; “An Unearthly Child” isn’t really the arc I would have picked to kick off one of the longest-running television serials of all time. Not that I imagine they had any idea they were doing such a thing at the time. I’m just saying. The first episode is actually pretty strong; it introduces the otherworldly Doctor and his companion (his granddaughter Susan) from the grounded perspective of two modern-day adults who end up tagging along for the adventure, giving the viewer a relatable window into the impending weirdness.

There are some clever ideas at work in this first episode: The TARDIS basically serves the same role as Star Trek‘s transporter (a cheap visual effect to instantly allow a change of scenery on a limited television budget) a good year before that show hit the airwaves. The “chameleon circuit” breakdown that causes the TARDIS to become stuck in telephone box form immediately gives the show an iconic visual as well as a lifeline to contemporary culture. The idea of a mysterious otherworldly old traveler who relies on the wise but bright-eyed perspective of his granddaughter for perspective has a lot of merit, too (though of course that element would change before too long). It’s a solid start for a show, laying down the rules and simultaneously managing to be both alien and familiar.

Beyond that first episode, though, the arc quickly becomes practically unwatchable. While I am rather intrigued by this early rendition of the Doctor — cantankerous, fallible, and seemingly out of his depth — the story he and his companions fall into really stinks. They end up in a prehistoric land, enmeshed in the squabbles of some semi-simian tribe of proto-humans, and frankly it’s hard to care about any of it because it’s both hammily acted and confusingly written. At no point is it really clear who we should be rooting for, and the ape-men all endanger the lives of the Doctor’s crew at some point or another. Eventually, the guy who seemed to be the straightest shooter ends up dead, and… people… angry? Murder ritual? Sun something? Eh, who knows. The second serial is called “The Daleks,” so I’m hoping that whatever they find on the mysterious irradiated world they arrive upon at episode’s end turns out to be less tedious than their first adventure.

I know, it’s not fair to judge a 50-year-old television show filmed live to tape with a pittance of a budget by contemporary standards. “An Unearthly Child” makes for an interesting pop culture curio, but I can’t imagine I’ll be watching it again anytime soon (as in, within the confines of my current life. Maybe after I regenerate).

12 thoughts on “An Unearthly Child

  1. Yep, you probably should have been warned that the black and white episodes have not aged quite as well and are not really the best starting point when diving into Classic Who. There are plenty of gems, but if you want to go Classic start with Tom Baker, most of his stuff has aged fairly well. Otherwise the final couple of Sly McCoy’s stories are a good starting point. That is what I was told, and I am now a massive fan of the Classic era, even more so than the current run.

  2. I was New to Who up until a few years ago and trust me, it is hard to watch the black & white stuff. “The Daleks” will introduce The Doctor’s long-standing foes but the story draaaaaags over six half-hour episodes and the titular Daleks are easily overpowered.
    My suggestion: the nature of the show allows for jumping around. Sample each Doctor and get a feel for him. Four (Tom Baker) is the best of the Classic bunch, but Three (John Pertwee) is also a hoot. If you have Netflix Instant, there’s a great selection of shows from every era. “City of Death” is a fan favorite, written by Douglas Adams. Yes, that Douglas Adams.
    The three “modern” Doctors are all terrific. I’d put “The Eleventh Hour” (Matt Smith’s debut) up there as the best possible introduction to the show. He was my first Doctor and now I’m a positive Who-addict.

  3. I myself just recently finished running through the entire series of Doctor Who. It took me nearly two years to do it (catching up just in time for the 50th anniversary) but the journey was definitely worth it. Make sure you don’t tap out of the Hartnell era until you at least hit the sixth serial, The Aztecs. That one really took me by surprise and let me know that watching the show from the beginning wasn’t as insane an idea as most people told me it was. Still, there is undoubtedly some rough patches to go through with Hartnell (mostly the third season) but I hope you stay with it. The 70’s were indeed a wonderful time for the show and further on, I’m dying to hear what you would think of the much maligned Colin Baker era.

  4. Interesting. I actually checked the show out for the first time maybe a year ago? But I started with the Eccleston stuff (i.e. “Season 1” of the reboot/new stuff) and haven’t watched any of the black & white / older episodes yet. I’ve been watching them on Amazon Prime though which I don’t think has a very good selection of the old stuff (it has all of the new ones for free, with the exception of anything from the second half of season 7 or newer which you have to pay for still… *grr*.. but I did catch those on BBC eventually)

    So yeah, I can’t comment on the older episodes but all the new episodes are pretty great. I think season one starts out a bit slow (and a little weird/low budget… the first episode is very hand-cam-ish), but picks up quite a bit after a couple episodes. I’d also say, while everything in general is pretty good, it seems like it follows Star Trek movie rules where the even-numbered seasons tend to be the best (at least IMO, they have more consistently good episodes).

  5. William Hartnell’s entire run is basically unwatchable. It’s like he’s Dr. Smith from Lost in Space, just randomly terrorizing these people. Patrick Troughton’s run starts looking like Doctor Who a bit if you have a strong stomach for ’60s TV. Jon Pertwee’s run takes some impressive risks in altering the format but it starts getting legitimately quite good. Tom Baker I think honestly gets more credit than is due just for being on the show over twice as long as everyone else. Personally I was annoyed with how campy it got and how deep it slid into the impact crater of Star Wars. Peter Davison’s run is really underrated, lots of major character arc stuff going on. Collin Baker’s run was bad enough I’m amazed the show survived. Sylvester McCoy’s is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from post-gap episodes except for the episodes being longer and the production values being a bit lower, plus best sidekick ever. The movie is… worth watching to see just how bad it is. Past there it’s good times and clear sailing.

  6. Since you’ve decided to go back and watch some classic Doctor Who, watch the special BBC did titled Adventures in Time and Space. Interesting fill in of behind the scenes of the series and what it took to get it on the air. I suspect if I had been able to watch it back in the beginning, I would have been hooked. Definitely my kind of thing.

    As you catch up to the most recent shows be sure to watch the little web only shorts which help give background to the upcoming season. Otherwise the start of last season with Amy and Rory can be a bit confusing.

  7. Exactly what mom said – I´d really recommend, you check out An Adventure in Space and Time. Not only is it tremendously fun to watch and VERY emotional (its by Mark Gatiss after all), it serves brilliantly at giving you context on the show. And after all, Doctor Who was aimed at kids back then and that’s true, to a certain degree, even today.

  8. You know, this is exactly my opinion on the show’s start as well. The first episode is tremendous, managing to have mysterious elements that are still highly entertaining even when you know the answers to the questions raised.

    Please, be patient with it. The 60s era can drag quite a bit in terms of pacing. It gets better towards the end, but there are still instances of ridiculous slowness. I assure you that the gems that you will find are more than worth the various slogs ahead.

    How are you tackling the missing episodes? Watching the recons or skipping them outright? If you intend to watch them, well… Please be patient with them. They’re really best viewed and intended for people that are already fans of the show. One of my favorites is entirely a reconstruction, and since it is Troughton’s first story as well you really should watch it.

    I would also recommend that you only watch An Adventure in Time and Space after Tenth Planet. You’ll have a better context for various things shown in the docudrama. It’s very good. If you’re like me, you’ll cry a little at the end.

  9. Oh yeah, I guess I’ll also jump in and recommend An Adventure in Space and Time. Really great look at how the show was originally made – and apparently how it was very close to being cancelled after a couple episodes. Airing your first episode on the day after Kennedy was shot has to be a bummer for a new show :P

  10. “Oh you should just skip to Baker!”

    NAY! Soldier on! Learn the nuances of Hartnell, Troughton, and Pertwee!

  11. The first hour of An Unearthly Child is good, but the rest really suffers from a show that is still trying to figure out what’s what.

    Watch “The Daleks” if you’re interested in seeing something that created a cultural phenomenon and was watched by a huge amount of the UK back in the day when there were only two TV channels. But “Genesis of the Daleks” from the Tom Baker era is probably your best window (in that it has long-standing relevance going forward) to what people consider ‘classic’ Doctor Who.

    As far as the reboot, I really suggest watching the Eccleston/Tennant seasons before the most recent guy, because the show in that period is sort of tacky in that Power Rangers meets Goosebumps sort of way (killer farting rubber monsters! Silly one-liners! Buzzsaw Christmas trees! Bizarre species that are not seen again!) Even Tennant’s very last episode features a nemesis showing up for no reason other than a cheesy one-liner.

    The current show is much more American-friendly in it’s production/camerawork, I don’t find it nearly as creatively engaging as the old show, but it is a bit more consistent and going backward will only look painful.

  12. Just to clarify, when I say “the old show”, I mean under the current showrunner. The change from 10th to 11th had some production changes as well, which is why it looks more NBC than BBC Two at times now.

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