13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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"Have you ever thought what it's like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? To be exiles?"
Can you imagine it? Teatime on a wintry November evening in 1963. You look up, startled, as out of the TV comes this incredible music...
What can we say? An Unearthly Child is a rock 'em, sock 'em, gobsmacking piece of television. If you ask us, it's the single best episode in more than twenty-five years of Doctor Who. It's perfect.
If An Unearthly Child's astonishingly powerful now, imagine what an impact it must have had when it was first broadcast. The atmospheric kickoff, with the policeman in the fog. The beautifully structured buildup about Susan and all her little weirdnesses. The extended tease of the junkyard sequence, with the striking first appearance of the Doctor. And then they go into the TARDIS.
Well, it's bigger on the inside. Everyone knows that, and it's still an incredible sight. But what an impact it must have had on those viewers in 1963. It's not just the bigger thing: it's also the breathtakingly stylised set design, with the bright white light and the roundels. And then the story really gets going.
A lot of the credit for the success of An Unearthly Child must go to William Hartnell. His Doctor here is absolutely magnificent: imperious, sly and deeply sinister. They damped down this side of him pretty damned quick: we'd love to have seen it developed further, but it probably frightened the kiddies. Boo.
Although Hartnell dominates proceedings, the rest of the cast are excellent too, with Susan particularly believable as the unearthly child of the title. Barbara immediately comes across as a character with light and shade, and Ian, although annoyingly bossy, was probably considered quite the heartthrob in his day.
The TARDIS, the time travelling, the terrifying kidnap of Ian and Barbara - you couldn't do better than that. And they don't. The rest of 100,000 BC is a tedious and plot-free runaround, seasoned with screaming. The writer must have been paid by the mention of the word "fire", so often is it chucked in. It's coma-inducingly slow and is the template for the escape-recapture curse that was to afflict Doctor Who for decades.
After seeming so poised in An Unearthly Child, Susan immediately lapses into the ear-shatteringly hysterical mode that makes her so annoying from this point on, and level-headed Barbara collapses into a pile of jelly. While the girls are screaming, the men are being heroic and are having all the ideas on how to get away. Sigh. The clashes between the Doctor and Ian are interesting, though, even if we do have the constant urge to punch Ian in the stomach to take the wind out of him.
As for the Doctor, his character has been disappointingly softened, with his line about being desperately sorry, but it's still an impressive performance. We particularly like the bit where he points out that his attitude might seem inhuman but too bad, he's right anyway.
If it had all been like the last three episodes, Doctor Who would probably have fallen over and quietly expired. (Luckily, the Daleks came along to save us.) But who cares? An Unearthly Child makes it all worthwhile, and then some.
MORAL: Don't play with fire.
THEY HADN'T INVENTED CRIME YET
It's interesting looking back from our paranoid times to see a teenage girl saying "I like walking through the dark" with no reaction from her teachers.
A SMALL POINT
That shadow at the end of An Unearthly Child is horribly out of proportion, showing the TARDIS to be the teensy little prop it is.
OUT IN THE COLD
All that stuff about having lost the secret of fire must have had a tremendous resonance at the time, given the famous Winter of 63.
Look, there's a young Cap'n Baines from The Onedin Line! He was back much later, too, in The Horror Of Fang Rock.
ALL MOUTH AND NO TROUSERS
Considering it's so cold, it's a shame they haven't got around to inventing trousers. Or sleeves, come to that. No, they've saved their technological ingenuity for the important stuff: underpants.
We love the way the Doctor uses cunning and guile to expose the murderer. Nice one, Doc.
THAT'S GOTTA HURT
That death scene's pretty horrific for a children's show, isn't it?
YEAH, MATE, IT'S CALLED A BARBECUE
You can only feel pity for actors lumbered with lines like "I remember how the meat and fire join together!"
YOU'VE GOT TO LAUGH
Isn't it nice how in the middle of all the trauma Susan manages to have fun by jiggling a skull around on a stick? What a card.