November 22, 1963, that was one the first episode of the BBC series Doctor Who premiered. The first story, An Unearthly Child, also known as 100,000 B.C. is a four-part serial that introduces us to an alien traveler in time and space, known as The Doctor (William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carol Ann Ford) and two of her teachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill).
Opening on the now immortal 76 Totter’s Lane, the first part of the story is a lot of exposition as the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) is revealed to Ian and Barbara after they follow Susan home to meet her grandfather to talk about Susan’s performance in school.
Penned by Anthony Coburn (with uncredited assistance from CE Webber), we are introduced to many things that will become staples of the series, the fact that the chameleon circuit (not actually referred to as such) seems to be malfunctioning and keeping the TARDIS in the shape of a police box, The Question that everyone asks… Doctor Who?
Hartnell’s Doctor is a little mischievous, seems barely tolerant of Ian and Barbara, who rather pushed their way onto the TARDIS anyway, and doesn’t seem to be quite as open-minded as he later becomes.
Their first adventure sends them travelling backwards in time until they find themselves stuck in between two cavemen, Za (Derek Newark) and Kal (Jeremy Young), who are fighting for control of their tribe with the promises of both fire and meat.
Of course, when The Doctor is spotted lighting a pipe, he is captured and held along with the others who pursue him, in order to force them to make fire.
With some help, and not from The Doctor initially, they escape into the forest, and save Za’s life when he is attacked. They are returned to the cave, where Ian lights a fire, Za faces off against Kal, claims the fire, and our heroes escape!
Not the most exciting adventure to begin with, and The Doctor is a little grumpy initially, and not quite as clever as viewers who joined in 2005 expect, but the first episode sets everything up that follows, right up to the present, very well.
For a series that was shot entirely on set, the show looks surprisingly good, and makes the best of its constraints. Hartnell is a lot of fun, despite a rather cowardly turn halfway through the story, one could chart it up as he was simply occupied thinking of something else, but it was a troubling moment. He settles back in a few moments later, but then is quite happy to leave Za to die when he refers to them all as savages.
So not quite the charming Doctor some have grown to love yet, but the next story, scripted by Terry Nation, introduces one of The Doctor’s oldest enemies and no doubt will see all of the characters grow and evolve. I also like how the first story ends with just a hint of set-up for the next story, a radiation dial plunging into the “Danger” setting!
Join me next week when The Doctor encounters The Mutants… but we know the story better by another name now, because of its villains, The Daleks.