DOCTOR WHO: Looking Back At AN UNEARTHLY CHILD - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Nathan Browne goes back to November 1963 and Doctor Who's debut adventure, An Unearthly Child.

There's an argument to be made that episode 1 of An Unearthly Child is the best individual Doctor Who episode of all time - it's certainly the most important that's for sure. Of all the stories from William Hartnell's era this single 23 minutes stands up today better than any other. The whole episode has a unique creepy atmosphere which is only enhanced by the black and white tone of the show, plus it features some surprisingly good special effects. You might be thinking that they are tame by modern standards, but take another look at the scene when the TARDIS first takes off from Earth and you'll see that it's all quite eerie.

No amount of expensive CGI trickery could improve on the atmosphere those 'primitive' effects created, more than likely modern technology would probably take something away from it.

William Hartnell gives one of his finest performances as the Doctor. Brilliantly portraying the otherworldly qualities of the character, more than in any other episode from his time. He's ably supported by William Russell and Jacqueline Hill as Ian and Barbara - in fact it's their show for the first half. These two caring but inquisitive school teachers follow Susan, the unearthly child, to her home which appears to be an old scrapyard. Introducing the Doctor through the eyes of two humans that we can relate to is a stroke of genius, it heightens the contrast between our everyday world and the Doctor's somewhat surreal existence, it's something Russell T Davies would replicate 42 years later.

There is not another episode like it. To start with the Doctor is borderline evil, certainly sinister, he's paranoid and xenophobic and down right brilliant. Imagine watching this for the first time and seeing these two very normal school teachers being abducted - because that's basically what's happening - by Look at how he treats them, look at how he reacts, 'who' is this character? He's a genuine mystery, an absolute enigma. There's your Doctor 'Who?'

The Doctor could never be played like this again. Sure we've had brief moments when we're not sure if we can trust him - I'm looking at you Colin Baker - and Peter Capaldi's debut season posed the question "am I a good man?" but we always knew he was, because by then we knew the man he was underneath. We'd seen the good, we'd seen the mysterious, we knew the backstory. He could be two steps ahead of us but we always knew we'd catch up. But on that very first Saturday tea time in November 1963 nobody knew if his intentions were good or bad. Only that they'd have to tune in the following week to find out.

All in all An Unearthly Child is very well-written and directed, Waris Hussein does an amazing job with a tiny budget and very little editing or retakes. Combine that with excellent performances from the four key cast members and An Unearthly Child is not just one of the best episodes of Doctor Who, but it also represents the very best science fiction television shows in general.

Sadly, I feel the following three episodes (The Cave of Skulls, The Forest of Fear and The Firemaker which make up The Tribe Of Gum trilogy), which make up the overall debut adventure, haven't aged anywhere near so well. I'm sure they were infinitely more exciting on broadcast in 1963 but judging them by modern standards it's all too slow and cumbersome. Kudos to the team for going back to the stone age, which offers an exciting premise, it's just a shame it wasn't all wrapped up in just one or two episodes to keep the momentum of that staggering opening going.

With this being said you can't fault the look and design of these three episodes. The prehistoric locations: the open plain, the jungle and a cave, are all convincing and, knowing the limitations of the 1963 budget and production itself, quite frankly amazing. The cave of skulls area is also quite convincingly claustrophobic.

I suspect that nowadays many Doctor Who fans have never seen a Classic Who episode, or at most sampled little more than a snippet of one or two. After all, New Who (or whatever it's called nowadays) is not at all new in the slightest any more. Does anyone under the age of 20 even realise that there was a period in time, the Wilderness Years, when Doctor Who wasn't on our screens? Do they even have a distinction between Classic and New? And that, in itself, is a good thing. And I think we have Steven Moffat to thanks for that as during his tenure as show runner he did so much to incorporate the past into the modern show. Thanks to him I suspect most viewers first exposure of the First Doctor was during Capaldi's swansong Twice Upon A Time with David Bradley in the role. As good as he was, and I did think he did a great job, he's no Hartnell.

William Hartnell might not win any favourite Doctor popularity contests but he gave it his all, living and breathing the roll (until ill health took its toll) in a way only Tom Baker would better more than a decade later. Remember, there was no mold for the Doctor. There was no inspiration from the past to pull upon (Matt Smith/Patrick Troughton), there were just words on a page. And this 55 year old who'd found himself typecast as the gruff military type jumped in with two feet and bought the mysterious character to life.

Going back to the last three episodes of An Unearthly Child, Hartnell gives a tour de force performance throughout. Still very much the strange alien who is mocking, irascible and potentially murderous. Remember, he's willing to kill Za rather than risk his and Susan’s lives for the sake of a wounded caveman, that's not the Doctor we know and love, that really is a mystery man - a Who? And when he ushers them all in to the TARDIS at the end, you know you're joining him, even though you still don't know if you can trust him. You don't join him because of where he's been for the last three episodes, you join him because you have absolutely no idea where he's going.

And you know you just have to find out.

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