Doctor Who @ 50 The time travellers narrowly escape their first adventure in 100,000 BC

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.

Susan and her Grandfather. But who is he?

Susan and her Grandfather; but who is he?

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!

The travellers escape their first adventure in Doctor Who: 100,000 BC

The travellers escape their first adventure in Doctor Who: 100,000 BC

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.

Which brings us nicely to The Daleks

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About the Author

A long-term Doctor Who fan, Christian grew up watching the show and has early memories of the Graham Williams era. His favourite stories are Inferno, The Seeds of Doom and Human Nature (although The Empty Child, Blink and Utopia all come close). When he’s not bossing around the news team, Christian is a freelance writer specialising in mobile technology and domestic computing, and enjoys classic rock, cooking and spending time in the countryside with his wife and young children. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.




11 Responses to An Unearthly Child/100,000 BC

  1. Solonor says:

    Excellent review! I never got into the rest of the first serial after the initial episode, partly because it is so damned incredible, imprinting so much of the lore of the show right from the get-go. I’m still blown away by the fact that 50 years ago, Ian told us that the TARDIS was alive, and that we got to see that borne out so beautifully in “The Doctor’s Wife.” But not just that…the alien nature of Susan and the Doctor, the role of the companions, the idea that the traveling wouldn’t be under much control, the first mention of the chamelion circuit being stuck as a police box, that wonderful theme tune… it’s all there from the beginning.

  2. Rick Lundeen says:

    That first adventure really did have everything and served as a template for the new series when it came back. It also featured that magnificent original control room with the ceiling design piece. And I’m not sure if anyone really took notice…but in the very first episode, Hartnells’ wide open eyes, his dialogue, his verbal fencing with Ian, is very similar to Tom Baker with his mannerisms. He could have passed for Tom’s father or uncle. Keep that in mind upon further screenings.

    Ian and Barbara’s humanity contrasting with Susan and the Doctor’s attitudes and actions were eerie. The entire adventure was a magnificent start to an amazing series.


    • Yes, good call on the control room, Rick. It’s a thing of alien wonder, counterpointed by various artefacts and so beautifully designed!

  3. Philip Bates says:

    I really enjoyed An Unearthly Child. I think those who bashed it forgot that the serial was so good it started a series that still continues today! Incredible stuff.

    Hartnell’s often overlooked too, and yet he’s fantastic. Such a good Doctor – and the chemistry of that first TARDIS team works brilliantly. William would certanly be proud of Doctor Who’s success.

    And great review, Christian. :)

  4. Castellan Spandrel says:

    I’ve always thought this story *as a whole* is one of the best. And it’s unremittingly grim after the TARDIS lands in Stone Age times (or at least we assume that’s where it lands, as it’s never made clear – very bold for the first story in a series that they couldn’t have known would be a surefire success.

    The characters of the ‘cavemen’ are nicely shaded – they’re capable of craftiness in their primitive way and there’s some nice dialogue to convey the way they see the world, particularly with regard to the importance of fire to their survival. A confident triumph, first time round!

  5. Castellan Spandrel says:

    I meant the ‘grimness’ was bold rather than the lack of a clear location/time – forgot the closing bracket!

  6. Solonor says:

    I keep wondering why the Doctor never goes back to check on Susan…or even gives her much visible thought, really. Then I remember that, from his perspective, she left him over 500 years ago! It’s amazing he remembered Sarah Jane, for that matter, as she was a couple hundred years in his rear view mirror. Timey wimey…

  7. Tomspy77 says:

    I will agree that the opening episode is done to perfection, which Probably has a lot to do that these scenes were written and performed twice, once for the pilot and once for the transmitted version.

    Nice touch with the blatant nod at the Cold War.

    This does give me an idea of what you expect from the other writers in this review series though.

  8. Pingback: Geekdom Nation - Obsessed with War — An Unearthly Child →

  9. Gavin Noble says:

    I think Ian and Barbara are two of the best companions on the series history. They work together so well and in this story they get across the fear and danger of the unknown so well, whilst at the same time being ‘so human’, Barbara especially when wanting to help the injured Za.

    I’m not such a fan of Susan and don’t think she was written very well in most of her stories but Hartnell shines from the word go.

    I’ve recently started watching/listening to the series in transmission order(have reached The Macra Terror)and I still think An Unearthly Child stands up well against more modern stories. It had a big job to do in terms of launching the show and the characters and whilst it isn’t the greatest story in the show’s history in terms of plot it introduces the characters and concept of the TARDIS really well.

  10. sharazkapel77 says:

    It always puzzles me why it is generally accepted that the first episode is part of the same serial as the following three. I mean, obviously the novelisation groups them together, but effectively they’re two different stories.

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