Published on May 21st, 2012 | by Christian Cawley
An Unearthly Child/100,000 BC
So, back to the beginning. Remarkably, after 7 years of Kasterborous, this is the first time that anyone has reviewed the very first episode, the one that started it all off back on November 23rd 1963, and the three following episodes that comprise 100,000 BC.
To commemorate next year’s 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, we’re reviewing every episode from the beginning to 1989, thereby presenting on Kasterborous a complete set of reviews. But there is a slight twist: rather than regurgitate the opinions of fans as somehow formed in the 1980s as definitive, we’re taking a fresh look at these adventures…
The foggy alleyway and the Dixon of Dock Green-style wandering constable are well-known at the introduction of An Unearthly Child, the very first Doctor Who episode, and as familiar as they are these elements are also in place to underline both the unknown, isolated nature of the Doctor and Susan’s life, and even act as a metaphor for travelling through the unknown in a police box.
These two aspects also serve to position the opening episode as a powerful piece of drama that soon fades away into an aimless run-around with some cavemen… in conventional Whovian wisdom, in any case. Fortunately the truth is – as always – far, far more interesting: all four episodes are marvellous!
From the domestic beginnings in a school room scenario that predates Grange Hill or Waterloo Road the story quickly establishes that Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford) with her foreknowledge of decimalization, difficulty with basic maths and prodigious ability with complex numerical challenges is a bit of an oddball. It is true that Ford’s clipped tones help with this – she is truly like no other teenager you have ever seen – but the real icing on the cake is her “grooving” to John Smith and the Common Men on a small transistor radio.
What is so important to this story (and indeed the entire first season) is the relationship between teachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill). They’re clearly fond of each other in that stuffy, BBC manner of the 1960s, but here you see them thrown together – literally at times – into the early throes of a romance. Before they get to that, however, their plan to deal with Susan’s oddness and “address administration issue” is to travel to the location out of hours and find out what’s going on. Teachers in real life rare seem as vocational as those on TV…
If you haven’t already seen the opening episode then you’re missing out on an example of 1960s television drama at its finest. The episode’s quality cannot be overstated enough, and it is more than the Anthony Coburn’s (and the committee’s) dialogue that brings events to life. Waris Hussein draws fine performances from the stars, presents each new scene in a fascinating and interesting new way and even encourages the use of realistic, overlapping dialogue. As you know, few conversations in real life follow the A, B, A, B, C, B, A pattern of exchanges between three people; we’re always speaking over each other and interrupting, something that is rarely seen on screen.
Soon, the Doctor is introduced. At this stage, he is an unknown quantity; there is a sense of mystery and suspicion about his behaviour – but he remains ever engaging and interesting. Even when contemplating the euthanasia of the injured Za (Derek Newark, who will later turn up in Season 7′s Inferno) to hasten their failed return to the TARDIS in episode 3 (Forest of Fear) William Hartnell proves that he is absolutely perfect casting.
He is the Doctor.
This is the blueprint performance, the tetchiness and impatience, the moments of inspired genius in the face of adversity and the relieved return to the TARDIS. It’s all here in a performance from which every successive actor has drawn key elements. You can spot them very easily once you’ve spent a few minutes in the First Doctor’s company. Yes, he is sinister in some ways, but with the charm that Hartnell imbues in the role you never actually want Ian and Barbara to get away from him – Ian might represent the youth and the muscle, but the Doctor is the one that the viewer wants to learn more about.
He is beguiling.
There are plenty of twists and turns in 100,000 BC, as many as you might expect in a four-part classic series story. None of it feels forced, however – there is little padding, and events are driven by the characters, mostly the conflict between the two would be tribe leaders. Even the journeys through the forest are tight and well-paced, and the fight scene in the cave in part four (The Firemaker) is beautifully executed at Ealing studios and presented as a filmed insert.
As highlights go, there are probably three in this serial: the entire first episode, the cliffhanger to The Forest of Fear (the third episode, in which the travellers have made it almost back to the TARDIS only to be ambushed – the camera zoom on Kal is fantastic) and the moment in The Firemaker in which the Doctor proves Kal’s murder of the Old Woman. This is frankly brilliant stuff!
It’s probably likely that all of those other reviews of this story feel lopsided in favour of the opening episode because of its sheer strength in setting up the concept of Doctor Who so well, something that is only really successfully copied in Rose. This shouldn’t detract from the fact that the entire story is one that stands up as an enticing and intriguing introduction to the show. Yes, it’s a story about cavemen but contrary to the reputation formed in the 1980s it isn’t all “ugs” and a quest for fire. This is an arms race, a struggle between Za and the newcomer Kal (Jeremy Young) and the formation of a communal society rather than a patriarch-led one.
Scheduled at teatime on a Saturday night for young children to gain an understanding of science and history, this is clearly highbrow stuff. The performances of a few of the tribe might leave something to be desired but on the whole this is a group of actors who are playing a people frightened of a coming (mini?) ice age and desperate for survival – hence the quest for fire, which Ian eventually shares with them.
Set against a backdrop of 1963 with assassinations, the nuclear arms race, the narrowly averted conflict of the Cuban missile crisis and the Cold War, some of the metaphors are pretty blatant. Political killings of old women and the attempt to steal the “technology” of fire mirror real world events of the time. It is easy to forget – albeit fascinating – that Doctor Who viewers were living under the almost constant threat of a nuclear war between the west and the Eastern Bloc countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (Russia).
We should be relieved that Kal never got his hands on the secret of fire, lest war break out. The consequences of yet another conflict, just 18 years after World War II, the horror of it turning nuclear were too much for anyone to consider.