Two high school teachers, standing around between classes, have a conversation about an impossible student. This girl is an utter genius who knows science they can’t imagine and seems to have an intimate knowledge with the details of history, yet somehow not only is her homework suffering, but the basic minutiae of everyday life escapes. This, somehow, is the conversation that spawned what is, to this day, still the longest-running Science Fiction franchise on television.
Almost anybody who discusses Doctor Who comes to the first episode with one consensus: “An Unearthly Child” is more Doctor Who than an episode from 1963 in the first season of a show that barely knows what it is has any right to be. In 24 minutes, “An Unearthly Child” shows us an episode that would fit just as well in any era of Doctor Who to come. Over the course of the next year, the Doctor will strongly assert that the best course of action is to murder a wounded man in order to escape unimpeded, risk his companions’ lives in a lie in order to explore a strange planet, and make every effort to throw his helpless companions into the void between times and worlds because they were a nuisance. Yet somehow, none of those problems plague the first episode. Sure, the Doctor is a dick, but in his position, a lot of people would be – and tact is not one of the Doctor’s cardinal traits. That’s the kind of man he is: rude and not ginger.
The first half of the episode is an extremely simple formula: two schoolteachers at Coal Hill School, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton are talking about one of their students. The two are clearly friends already, presumably from having worked together for some time, but there is no need to pepper the dialogue with such comments as “as you know, I have Susan in my 4th period history class”. They’re just talking naturally, with Barbara already knowing that Ian is a science teacher, Ian already knowing that Barbara is a history teacher, and both of them knowing who Susan Foreman is as well as the other.
While there are small deviations up until this point, the unaired pilot was largely the same. The biggest difference up until this point is a doodling sequence of Susan’s. From here, the main difference is the directing. In the pilot, the First Doctor is an angry old man, as aggressive as he would be at any point in “The Tribe of Gum” or “The Reign of Terror”, for examples. The sequence also includes discussion of what century the Doctor and Susan are from, a detail that failing to remove would have drastically changed the future of the show, as it would have implied a connection with humanity that was severed by developments to come.
BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman wanted a few changes made, which is what led to the last twenty minutes of the actual episode. Instead of being aggressive, the Doctor plays a trickster. He plays this part identically to how Tom Baker would have played the part thirteen years later, actually, which is remarkable for entirely different reasons. It’s also notable that this is the way William Hartnell wanted to play the role, and he was unhappy to be as belligerent as he was in the pilot. This might have something to do with why the Doctor seems so exceptionally pleased with himself while he’s trying to convince Barbara and Ian to leave.
This, of course, is unsuccessful, which is what leads to the show happening. The pair hear Susan’s voice in the police box, force themselves in, and engage in a discussion about how the TARDIS works. It is as scientifically sound as many such explanations (it is likened to putting a large room on the television and putting that in your living room) but symbolically it does what it’s intended to. Perhaps as a response to this doubt, the Doctor takes them into the time vortex – the one and only time that the black and white opening is used for the vortex, which sets a precedent for various versions of the vortex being used in the opening of the show over the next 50 years. The shock knocks the two humans unconscious, and they gradually come to as we segue into the next episode, which I am treating as a separate story for several reasons.
“An Unearthly Child” was remade, twice. Once, as part of a docudrama, re-displaying many of the initial scenes along with the behind the scenes information I just told you (and some more, besides; I still haven’t gotten to the inception of the show), and also as part of Doctor Who and the Daleks, the first Peter Cushing movie which went on to skip “The Tribe of Gum” and moved on to “The Daleks” (the novelization of “The Daleks” did the same thing). This latter reason is a large part of why I separate these reviews: “An Unearthly Child” is an irreplaceable part of Doctor Who history. “The Tribe of Gum”, while also very important to the Doctor’s development as a character, ultimately is not.
This episode is all that one could want in the first episode of a series. It sets all of the ambiguity needed, as well as the premise of the show, both as a drama and as a Sci-Fi showcase. It established the show as a thing of mystery, with a setting that could take it into any kind of story, even if it would take some time to truly capitalize on that. It also established the connection between the TARDIS and the television, a thing that stands up to no in-universe scrutiny but sets the stage for what it means to the viewer. Almost as importantly, this could have been reshot in 1966 with Patrick Troughton, 1973 with Jon Pertwee, 1976 with Tom Baker, 1982 with Peter Davison, 1985 with Colin Baker, 1987 with Sylvester McCoy, 1996 with Paul McGann, 2005 with Christopher Eccleston, 2007 with David Tennant, 2010 with Matt Smith, or even in 2014 with Peter Capaldi and still have been the same story, with the same meaning. As a piece of Doctor Who, it is timeless as long as the show perseveres.