There is a certain charm and mystery about the very first story of Doctor Who. There was no indication of what the show would become in future years, or even that there would be future years. Indeed, when one watches the 50th anniversary tribute, An Adventure in Space and Time, one appreciates just how fragile Doctor Who was until the series achieved audience breakthrough with The Daleks. At this point viewers knew nothing of this mysterious person simply identified as ‘The Doctor.’ Indeed by the end of episode one, the viewers’ sympathies would be largely with his unwilling first companions, schoolteachers Ian and Barbara, and perhaps for his granddaughter Susan, who seems much more gentle than the old man, but also somewhat under his thumb.
This preamble is all very important when watching An Unearthly Child, lest you run the risk of judging what in essence was a pilot episode from the 1960s, through 50 years of subsequent development and legacy. At this point there was no inkling who the Doctor’s race were (the actual pilot episode had Susan say “I was born in the 49th Century” before showrunner Sydney Newman insisted it be made more vague for the broadcast episode one) or why he and Susan were travelling the universe in their ship. Ian and Barbara are very much meant to be the viewers – brought into the adventure, experiencing it on our behalf. And in rather the same way that Rose needed to be earthbound so that a new generation could be introduced gently to Doctor Who, the first episode of An Unearthly Child largely served as the means of bringing Ian and Barbara into the TARDIS, so that the adventure could begin.
I really looked forward to watching this serial when I discovered it was to be shown on UK Gold – I don’t think any self-respecting Doctor Who fan would willfully choose to neglect the opportunity to watch the all-important first outing of the Doctor! Perhaps due to my relative youth, I was mostly unenamored by the story, which could be more or less summarised as: ‘The Doctor and his companions teach some cavemen the secret of fire.’ But when watching the DVD, my viewing was much more sympathetic. It certainly would not pass muster today for quality of effects or acting, or the pace of the action – but that’s a 21st Century audience. Watched through the lense of 1963, you cannot help but appreciate how groundbreaking this story was for its time – you are glad to be there for the Genesis of Doctor Who.
Of course, perhaps the biggest thrill comes right at the very end, when Susan mistakenly tells her grandfather “the radiation levels are normal” – for the camera to show the needle move determinedly to the danger mark. That by itself was a cliffhanger par excellence, but viewed in the lense of history, the viewer realises with a thrill that the next story was truly the one that started it all …