That whole time travel thing really isn’t as easy as it looks! But here we are, 23 November 1963. It’s 17:16 and all across the UK children and parents alike are sitting down in front of the television. And experiencing something like nothing they have ever seen before as the theme tune that has become so well known begins to play.
A nice story to be sure, but not entirely accurate. At this point the world was still reeling from the assassination of JFK the day before. As a result not only was An Unearthly Child a minute late being shown (what TV show would intentionally start at 17:16 when there’s a perfectly good 17:15 right there.) but the viewing figures were way below predicted. The show was almost dead before it had even begun. However the creators were not going to let their show go without a fight. The episode was aired again the next week right before the next episode, a lifeline thrown out to stop the show from floundering. More than 50 years later, I think that probably worked!
The story itself is unusual. As Doctor Who was written to inform as well as entertain it was seen as an educational show instead of a TV drama. The main plot of episodes 2-4 of this story centre around cavemen and the quest for fire. But in order to introduce the premise and the characters, episode one is radically different to this.
It all started in a junkyard. 76 Totters Lane. This is where the TARDIS was parked. And just around the corner was a school that fans of the modern era will now be well acquainted with. 15 year old granddaughter of the Doctor attended Coal Hill School and her teachers were very worried about her. An unusual girl who spends most of her time either not paying attention or telling history teacher Barbara Wright and science teacher Ian Chesterton that they’re wrong. Or that the world doesn’t work the way textbooks say it does.
Concerned and unable to get hold of her enigmatic grandfather, they decide to join forces and follow her home one day only to discover that she and her grandfather live in a police box in the middle of a junk yard. Concerned about this, they try to force entry to the box, thinking that the young girl is being held captive there and in the aftermath of discovering that this police box is actually a bigger on the inside time capsule and the student they were so concerned about is an alien, Ian and Barbara are promptly kidnapped by the Doctor and transported back to prehistoric Earth.
The other three episodes of the story seem to be totally unrelated to the first. In a cave not far from where the TARDIS ends up landing, a tribe of prehistoric men and women are crowded around their leader – Za – as he attempts to make fire. It is clear that he is unable and we learn that there is discontent. That if Za is unable to make fire the elders of the tribe want to out him and make a stranger known as Kal their leader.
These prehistoric men take the Doctor and his new companions prisoner in order to make them light a fire for them. Despite the Doctor losing his matches partway through the story, Ian uses his amazing knowledge of friction in order to create a spark and light a fire for the tribe.
Kal kills a village elder and the Doctor proves this by tricking Kal into showing the rest of the tribe his blooded knife after Kal tries to blame the crime on Za and the TARDIS crew. Za decides that the Doctor and his friends should join with the tribe rather than be allowed to leave. Between them, Ian and Susan come up with an escape plan that involves putting skulls from the cave in which they’re imprisoned on burning torches as a distraction so they can leave.
They reach the TARDIS just before the tribe catch up with them and dematerialise. They land in a mysterious jungle and as they leave the radiation detector moves up into the danger zone.
As two totally separate stories, both parts are very good. The characters are diverse and interesting. Ian and Barbara are clearly written as they are because this show is made to be educational so having science and history teachers means that the companions have legitimate reasons both to know about things and educate the Doctor and Susan about things that are fairly commonplace on Earth and also means they can find ways to relate the alien things they encounter with real life experience and have that thirst for knowledge to discover more.
This is still one of my favourite stories. Not just because this is where it all started but because there’s a lot of it that does stand up to the test of time. It’s engaging and is educational without feeling condescending. It’s old fashioned and low budget but uses everything it can to create something that can inform, educate and inform (the BBC’s mission statement). This is where it all started and to see how far the show has come is amazing to behold.