An Unearthly Child

Region 1
in "The Beginning"
3-story box set
for North America
Region 2
"The Beginning"
3-story box set

for the U.K.
VHS Video
(Doctor Who Story No. 1, starring William Hartnell)
  • written by Anthony Coburn
  • directed by Waris Hussein
  • produced by Verity Lambert
  • music by Norman Kay
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each:
    1. An Unearthly Child
    2. The Caves of Skulls
    3. The Forest of Fear
    4. The Firemaker
Story: Highschool student Susan Foreman displays unusual abilities and gaps in her knowledge. Teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright decide to investigate reports that she lives with her grandfather, a Doctor, inside a police box in a junkyard. The quartet soon find themselves 100 000 years in the past, where the re-discovery of the secret of fire could decide leadership in a tribe of primitive humans.

DVD Extras include:

  • Episode 1 audio commentary by William Russell (Ian), Carole Ann Ford (Susan), producer Verity Lambert, and moderator Gary Russell.
  • Episode 4 audio commentary by William Russell (Ian), Carole Ann Ford (Susan), director Waris Hussein, and moderator Gary Russell.
  • 36 minutes of unedited footage from the rejected version of the pilot episode
    • with optional audio commentary by Verity Lambert, Waris Hussein and Gary Russell.
  • A new 25-minute edit of the rejected version of the pilot episode,
    confusingly placed before the finished story on the menus and "Play All" function.
  • Pop-up Production Note subtitles, providing behind-the-scenes info as you watch.
  • Photo Gallery (6 min.)
  • Title Sequence / Theme Music Video (3 min.)
  • 4 self-indulgent Comedy Sketches (17 min. total), featuring Mark Gatiss and other prominent fans.

    Disc 3 in the box set also includes:

  • "Origins" documentary (54 min.) - an in-depth look at the creation of Doctor Who and the making of the first story,
    adding creator Sydney Newman, sound designer Brian Hodgson, title designer Bernard Lodge,
    title musician Delia Derbyshire, and future director Richard Martin.
  • "Masters of Sound" featurette (12 min.) on the creation of the theme music and sound effects for Doctor Who,
    with BBC Radiophonic Workshop soundsmiths Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson, and Dick Mills.
  • "Inside the Spaceship" featurette (10 min.) on the set & sound design of the TARDIS.
  • "An Unearthly Child" script and Radio Times billings for story nos. 1-4 in PDF format.
(Bundled with the next stories: "The Daleks" and "The Edge of Destruction", and all their extras....)

Buyers' Guide Review

by Martin Izsak

(A more in-depth analysis, containing "SPOILERS" and intended for those who have already seen the program, can be accessed here.)

In retrospect, it's quite an odd story that was chosen to originally launch Doctor Who back in November 1963, combining great material for introducing the series' main characters and vehicle, with a questionable setting and subject matter for their first "adventure". But, thanks to a creative and skilled director, and a team of cast, crew, and writer/developers who never stopped improving their product until it was done, both sides of this story work well and got filled with entertaining, dramatic content, even if later cliffhangers didn't leave audiences in remembrance or anticipation of the best bits. The end result remains one of the best stories featuring William Hartnell as the Doctor.

Episode One - An Unearthly Child

An innocent school mystery opens what will become the longest running science fiction television series in the world, and many strong, nostalgic elements are introduced here for the first time.

Cutting to the school with an effective establishing shot in the hallway, teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright are introduced, where the mystery is quickly told through dialogue. Listen closely though, or you'll miss it - it isn't the most effective way of grabbing an audience's attention, but if you've no distractions going on next to your television set, it does work well.

Finally the good Doctor appears on the scene. It is interesting to note how his character is presented differently in the broadcast version of the pilot versus in the rejected footage. In the rejected material, he is written to be a bit too gruff and obstructive, too focused on antagonizing his unexpected guests. However, in the broadcast version, the writing is more balanced and his character is softened, as he is now easily distracted by odd things and stray ideas, becoming more of a likeable absent-minded professor. The rejected material is still fascinating, for where the dialogue is identical with the broadcast version, William Hartnell's performance is a little more on the mark emotionally.

The scuffle outside the TARDIS and the all-important first transition into the interior (the only post-production edit allowed for this 1960's half-hour drama) are achieved with much greater brilliance, clarity and impact in the rejected version.

However, we can be thankful for many things in the broadcast version. Technically, it is simply much better executed, in terms of acting, camera-work, timing, etc. The TARDIS interior scene is free from several persisting scenery distractions that plagued the rejected version. The Doctor and Susan's explanations of themselves also better fit the ongoing continuity of the show.

Putting comparisons of the two pilots aside, this half-hour episode is good riveting sci-fi mystery and drama. An excellent start for the series. The cliffhanger is also quite well done.

Episode Two - The Cave of Skulls

Showing this episode back to back with the pilot on Nov 30, 1963 was one of the best moves that producer Verity Lambert ever fought for. "An Unearthly Child" and "The Cave of Skulls" complement each other beautifully. Although the main guest characters of the tribe are introduced well, the main action is solidly on the four time travellers, who come to grips with the real heart of all good science fiction: exploration. Here, they discuss time travel theory, explore a new world, and investigate more of the myth and "nuts and bolts" of the Doctor Who series as a whole. This episode owes its success to being all about exploring both the new world and the Doctor.

Near the end of the episode, however, things begin to slide downhill, with Susan panicking and turning into a jellyfish, the Doctor losing his wits for clever dialogue, and a generally confusing and lacklustre treatment of the action and the cliffhanger. I elaborate on that in the In-depth Analysis version of this review.

Episode Three - The Forest of Fear

The Doctor's first television adventure story has its strengths and its faults, and these begin to polarize in episode three. Generally, the interaction between the four time travellers is quite good, as they get to know each other and their different values and priorities begin to clash. The question of leadership arises for them - the Doctor is used to having Susan follow his instructions on their travels, but now Ian and Barbara challenge his authority.

The interaction between the various members of the tribe also works well, and for much the same reason. Leadership needs to be decided on, and the plot and drama unfold very much like an Elizabethan/Shakespearean play, although without the famous bard's poetic, metaphoric dialogue.

The story's biggest problem is in the main action plot, in the interaction between the time travellers and the tribe. Even though all the members of the tribe can express their complex ideas well through the simplest words (something all students of English should study), the time travellers persist in talking down to them, not explaining their ideas truthfully to the best of their ability, and unfairly treating the tribe people like children. The time travellers also have no goals in this time-space location - their only aim is in getting away, and this type of story-line will always encourage an audience to lose interest in the location as well.

Episode three does contain the best example of the break-away from these problems - and if you don't mind reading "spoilers", I'll describe that specific moment in greater detail in the In-depth analysis version of this review. Barbara leads the heroic charge during this moment, with Ian deciding to support her once her mind is set, and this seems to be a moment that the Doctor reluctantly learns a lot from. This is quite possibly the best moment in the tribe half of the story. It could have been even better, if Barbara's well-written moment had been acted out with less panic and desperation and more resolve and determination, but Jacqueline Hill would soon learn and shine brighter in such moments later on.

The cliffhanger works fairly well as an unfortunate surprise, although it doesn't do much in the way of creating anticipation for a new and exciting next episode. Rather, hang in for more of the same.

Episode Four - The Firemaker

Long-time Doctor Who fans might begin to suspect that their hero will finally take charge in this story, after some great moments at the beginning of this episode, but unfortunately, his heroics remain quite limited.

The episode then revolves around fire, and is not so much about the first discovery of fire (which would really threaten to create a catch-22 time-loop if Ian learned it from his ancestors and then went back in time to give it to them all over again). No, human tribes everywhere have the secret of fire already at this time-period. This episode is about the use of the making of fire as a symbol of power, something to be kept secret among tribe leaders to help them hold their high position.

Slowly the story begins to wrap itself up. The Elizabethan power-struggle between Za and Kal comes to a predictable, but somewhat satisfactory conclusion. However, the time-travellers appear somewhat bored, tired, and turned-off by most of the proceedings, disappointed with the inevitable, and anxious to be on their way. Can you blame any audience for feeling it with them?

The power-struggle between the Doctor and his two new human companions also appears to be resolved as Ian admits that the Doctor is leader of their "tribe". Although this pleases the Doctor enormously, is it really true? The role of leader / main character / hero was still not set in stone, and would not be for much of the William Hartnell era.

Finally we are left with the best cliffhanger in the story, as the TARDIS lands in a place that "could be anywhere", a short teaser that enticingly invites viewers to the exploration of "The Dead Planet" Skaro in the next episode.

DVD Presentation

DVD releases of future Doctor Who stories are great for typically spoiling us fans with engaging audio commentaries on EVERY episode, in addition to many other special features that put most other television shows to shame. So it is a bit strange here that only some of the episodes have audio commentary, especially since director Waris Hussein is so lively and full of interesting bits of information. I really wish he'd been allowed to lead a commentary on all episodes, with or without a moderator's help. At least we get a lot of really rich documentaries and featurettes on the third disc of this set, making this a very worthwhile and essential collection to own.

The dramatic tension expertly maintained throughout this adventure, combined with all the early character set-up sequences that launched this giant among sci-fi franchises, ensures that "An Unearthly Child" will remain one of the great Doctor Who stories of this era, and one that no fan will want to miss. But even as good as this is, the next story is set to top it....

This story has become available on DVD as the first adventure in "The Beginning" DVD box set.
Although the popular original edition from 2006 has now become a rare item,
a newer 2013 re-issue offers identical content at a more competitive price...
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DVD NTSC Region 1
"The Beginning" 3-story box set
for the North American market:
DVD PAL Region 2
"The Beginning"
3-story box set
VHS Video
NTSC A for North America
NTSC B for North America
PAL for the U.K.
original issue:

identical content
new re-issue:

original issue:

identical content
new re-issue:

original issue:

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Read the Buyers' Guide Review for the next story: "The Daleks"

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