An Unearthly Child

In the space between the halves of season “6” of Doctor Who, I’m planning to watch Doctor Who, the classic series. I’m not watching in order or anything crazy like that; my collection’s nowhere near that complete. But I’m starting with the first three stories, since my girlfriend gave them to me for Christmas, and since I haven’t seen them in something like 15 years, maybe more.

Inspired by the brilliant, irreverent Adventures With the Wife in Space, which has conclusively proven to me that reading non-fan reactions to this show is far more fun than reading fan reactions to it, I invited my girlfriend to watch An Unearthly Child with me. I told her what she needed to know: it aired the day after the Kennedy assassination, it’s the very first Doctor Who ever, and it might be a little hard to get through. She sweetly agreed to give it a shot over lasagna with sweet red wine and fruit for dessert.

If you haven’t seen any of these early stories, you really ought to check this one out. I love the first episode, where schoolteachers Ian and Barbara compare notes on their problem student Susan: she knows history as if she lived it, and science as if she invented it, but doesn’t know how many shillings are in a pound, and has no idea how to get along with her classmates (it probably doesn’t help that she gets hysterical at the drop of a hat). The obvious explanation would be that she’s “not from ’round here,” but because Ian and Barbara are reasonable, down-to-earth types they don’t have any far-fetched theories like “she’s a Communist spy” or “she’s an alien from a race of time-travellers.” They just figure maybe there’s a problem at home and decide to follow her and see what’s up with her. They discover she lives in a junkyard with her grandfather, who is pretty much of an asshole, and what’s more, they live together in a police box, which was a pretty normal sight in the 60s, just out on the street and not in the midst of piles of junk.

Of course, her grandfather is the Doctor. I let my girlfriend point out what an asshole he is, and then explained that back in the beginning, the Doctor was not required to be a young, attractive, impeccably appealing character with zero moral failings. Instead, Ian and Barbara were our identification characters, and the Doctor was almost an antihero, at least for a while — an unpredictable, infirm alien with an alien’s moral compass. It’s frequently pointed out that there’s a moment in this first story where the Doctor appears ready to murder an incapacitated caveman in cold blood just because he’s slowing them down. Try to imagine Eccleston, Tennant or Smith getting away with that. The only other Doctor who’d even contemplate this kind of thing would be Six (Colin Baker), and even he caught a lot of shit for the morally questionable stunts he pulled. Compared to Hartnell, he’s a pussycat.

Unfortunately, our identification characters are sometimes trying as well. Ian’s a rock, of course, after he gets past his “bigger on the inside” disorientation, but Barbara isn’t taking well to being kidnapped by the Doctor (that’s right — they don’t sit on their suitcases all night waiting to become part of the TARDIS crew; can you imagine?) and she does a lot of tripping and wailing and freaking out, giving Susan a run for her money as the most hysterical female in sight. It’s not like they’re even dealing with crazy rubber monsters in this one, just cavemen with some really tiresome political struggles over who can make fire and thus lead the tribe and get the only eligible bachelorette in evidence. But there’s quite a lot of blood and violence, and being introduced to one’s ancestors has to be a bit of a shock.

As you’re gathering, the last three episodes here are a bit of a drag, but they’re not the worst Hartnell has to offer, and if you’re going to introduce a series about time travel and about using brains and compassion to solve problems, you could do worse than caveman days. Every viewer understands the circumstances as soon as they see slightly unkempt actors with worse-than-usual teeth in animal skins with clubs, so you can put the focus on how our main characters react to adversity, and how they behave when forced to work together to escape. It’s not quite a changing-history thing; we know that the main caveman’s father knew how to make fire but neglected to teach his son (maybe he got mauled by a sabertooth before he had the chance), so they’ve discovered it before, and though Ian makes fire later on, he doesn’t teach anyone. The biggest change in history, then, is that this small tribe has a fire that they might not have had (so maybe they survive when they wouldn’t have), and that there’s a book of matches somewhere on prehistoric Earth that the Doctor dropped when he was captured.

What did my girlfriend think? Well, she tolerated it. We enjoyed heckling it, and here are my favorite things she said.

On the Doctor’s appearance:

“He’s like Colonel Sanders!”

On quieting a hysterical woman:

“Shut the fuck up, Barbara!”

When the lead caveman, Za, is mauled by a sabertooth:

“He is now…pieces of ‘za.”

On the title sequence:

“Doctor OHO!”

When the Doctor incites a stoning (yes, really):

“Doctor Murder!”

And my very favorite, as our title character appears for the first time:

“He looks like a fuckin’ old man sailor. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum in time and space!”

I love that girl.