Everything you ever wanted to know about An Unearthly Child but were afraid to ask

I thought it might be fun to start some threads above individual stories to get discussions going and what better way to start after the 60th anniversary but where it all began.

This story is (or rather the first episode is) considered to be one of the all-time greats and it isn’t hard to see why. Everyone of the four regular cast makes an immediate impact and the contrast between the cluttered, gloomy junkyard of the first half with the gleaming white time machine of the second half is excellent. Waris Hussein’s direction is superb but what I think is overlooked is just how good the following three ‘caveman’ episodes are.

Often dismissed as ‘not very good’ or certainly ‘not as good as the opening episode’, these three are properly engaging, thrillng Doctor Who. The stakes are high and the guest cast - especially Jeremy Young, Derek Newark and Alethea Charlton, are all brilliant.

It’s a real shame this story is now in limbo because of one man’s rather unbalanced view of the world but thank goodness that most fans already own a copy (or know where to find the story if they are that desperate).

I went down a bit of a rabbit hole with this story and put together a Wakelet of everything online I could find related to the story, its production and its legacy.

A link to my review of the cavemen episodes as well as Toby Hadoke’s superb podcast about the production of the story as well as commentaries on those three episodes are available in the Community tab on TARDIS Guide’s page for this story.

What do others think about this dawn of a TV legend?

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The first episode is brilliant. It’s eerie, and also so momentous but so small as well - just a few scenes at school, and some in the junkyard, then the TARDIS.

I love it. I also really like the unaired pilot (which I must add to the site, not sure how to categorise it) because it shows a different characterisation of the Doctor.

I’m not so keen on the caveman stuff though. And the Doctor almost brains someone with a rock… eek!

I must watch it again soon - shame I can’t stream it on iPlayer! It’s even gone from BritBox too now :sleepy:

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Bloomin Stef Coburn :face_with_symbols_over_mouth:

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There are so many things I could praise about the incredible first episode (I agree that the remaining three are still good, but the first one’s in another league altogether), but I want to mention one that I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone else talk about, but really helps sell me on the episode every time right at the start. Before we meet Barbara and Ian and the story properly begins, but after that policeman moves across the opening credits, one of my favorite scenes in the episode is the brief clip of a group of schoolkids leaving class. A boy looks over the shoulders of two girls and puts on an exaggeratedly knowing act at whatever they’re talking about, clearly not having a clue, and they roll their eyes and move on. It’s such a normal, ordinary thing to happen, a sort of interaction I’ve seen (and been on both sides of) plenty of times, and the perfect little believable slice of real life that makes the whole thing feel so much more alive. It’s the cherry on top of an already brilliant episode.

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‘Kenneth Williams’ guy - he’s legendary among fandom.

Toby Hadoke - podcaster and Doctor Who interviewer/historian extraordinaire released a podcast where he managed to research biographies of all the Coal Hill School children. It’s a phenomenal piece of work and available to listen to free here:

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Thank you so much for sharing this! I’m checking out this podcast episode immediately!

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As everyone says, the first episode is magic. The caveman stuff isn’t as good, but it’s not terrible. Granted, the best moments in the last three episodes are the interactions between the three regulars.

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I have to say I really like the performances of Derek Newark, Jeremy Young, Alethea Charlton, Howard Lang and Eileen Way. They have an extremely difficult task of playing the cave people and I think they do it with great dignity and some very good reading of the lines. And the final fight scene between Za and Kal is as visceral as Doctor Who ever gets really.

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I mean, yes they do a good job making the cavemen not seem completely stupid, but the scripted caveman dialogue isn’t the greatest. I love the first episode and enjoy the last three. That said, they aren’t my favorite story. (I’ve seen the argument that one could consider this to be two separate stories: a one-part and a three-part.)

The dialogue is a darn sight better than the original plan, I believe, to have them talking more in grunts!

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That would’ve been terrible. At least in this version we can follow the plot.

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All of the relevant episodes are linked to on the Community section of this story’s entry on TARDIS Guide, but these podcasts from Toby Hadoke have researched the episodes in fine detail.

100% worth a listen

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I haven’t got much to add to this thread. But I’ll say this: the first episode is a legendary, momentous piece of sci-fi TV and British pop culture. Thank God it exists today (well, technically, at least). The rest of it is a major step down in quality, so much so that I usually skip episodes 2-4 on rewatches.

@shauny mentioned the infamous moment of the Doctor almost squashing a caveman’s head with a rock. Very uncharacteristic of the Doctor as we understand them these days, but a fascinating showcase of just how much the character has been developed over the decades—and even suring Hartnell’s time on the show. He was cantankerous, a bit selfish, and not very heroic to begin with, but slowly turned softer, more protective, and more altruistic as his era went on.

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My first experience of this story was in the 1981 repeat season The Five Faces of Doctor Who. It was shown on BBC2 in the 5.30 or 6pm slot on week days Monday to Thursday. At that time, I think it was opposite the news on BBC1, and they tended to show stuff like Flash Gordon from the 30s, Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd compilations and even Charlie Chaplin. We were used to seeing archive stuff. The telerecording wasn’t cleaned up at all and so it would have been much poorer quality than when it was originally broadcast from video tape. It looked and felt really old, despite having only been made 18 years previously. The quality was slightly poorer than most of the film shorts that I mentioned before, despite it having been made much more recently. This added to the atmosphere of part one, with the London mist and then the bright lights of the TARDIS interior, and it is a very strong episode, that I gather owed a lot to a previous draft by CE “Bunny” Webber, plus a lot of input from David Whitaker and others, right up to Sydney Newman. They also got two bites of the cherry to get part one right, which the other three episodes didn’t.

The poor picture quality worked against the cave people episodes. They were difficult to watch, they seemed to drag and my ten year old brain found them a little dull. I suspect much of received fan wisdom about these episodes came from the reaction to the 1981 screening in the UK.

Once the picture and sound had been restored for The Beginning box set, it became easier to follow the story. I don’t know why picture quality is so important, but it really does make a difference. Once the studio sequences had the electronic video look recreated, the atmosphere seemed more intimate. It plays a bit more like theatre than a really old film. It’s easier to follow the tribe politics, and it is a compelling story. That said, episode one is by far the superior one.

I’ve probably seen this story more than any other now, due to a number of failed attempts to watch classic Who through from the start. I am now well into a full watch through, thanks to #TARDISclub on Mastodon on Saturdays at 2pm GMT. We’ve just started Tom Baker’s run and will be watching The Ark in Space this coming Saturday.

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It’s important to acknowledge that the softening is in a large part thanks to the dynamic with Barbara who becomes his voice of reason. They’re scenes in The Aztecs are hugely important for the development of this, with it starting at the end of The Edge of Destruction.

I still argue that the quality of the caveman episodes isn’t as big a step down as some say it is, but I do see the contrast between the episodes. Hussein does an astounding job with what he has to work with script wise.

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It is really sad that the first episodes are denied to streaming services. I just hope that this will change in future. Despite the noise made by a key stakeholder and all the fan speculation, I remain hopeful that it is something that can be resolved. I count myself lucky to have The Beginning DVD box set, but would love for newer fans to have easy, legal access to these episodes.

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It’s also important to recognise that we view the story through the prism of having seen a goodly chunk of newer Doctor Who first. When this originally aired, the show was still working itself out and viewers wouldn’t expect a four part story to have any particular shape. In fact, most people watching wouldn’t have known that this was a four part story in the first place! What seems to be a 1:3 split to our eyes would have just been an unfolding adventure to contemporary viewers.

Re: Barbara, I agree 100%. She is a pivotal character in the first season and does more to shape the Doctor as we know and love them than anyone else.

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There’s also the Adventure in Space and Time physical media release that contains a DVD copy of An Unearthly Child.

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