Doctor Who Project: 100,000 BC/An Unearthly Child

It’s still a police box! Why hasn’t it changed? Dear, dear, how very disturbing!

Having voraciously devoured the first three seasons of the new Doctor Who series, and with the fourth season still to come this spring on the BBC, I’ve decided to set my own time machine back to the beginning of all things Whovian and start watching the series from the start in November, 1963. Well, I’m not literally going back to 1963, but you never know when you hang out with the Doctor.

We begin with William Hartnell and the first story of Doctor Who, “100,000 BC.”

Shadow approaching the TARDIS at end of Episode 1, An Unearthly Child

I’ve seen the majority of Doctor Who stories, having lucked into the beginning of the cycle on Maryland Public Television in the mid-1990’s, so for most stories, I’ll be re-watching them, looking at them with a knowledge of what is to come in the series. My boon companion for this perhaps overly-grand project will be David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker’s Doctor Who: The Television Companion, an exhaustive story guide with critical commentary from the authors and from various Doctor Who fanzines.

“100,000 BC” (Story Production Code A, also known as “An Unearthly Child” owing to the first episode of the story) kicks off the central conceit of the series, The Doctor and his companion(s) arriving at an unknown destination.

This time, the First Doctor (though the notion of his regenerative powers were still a few seasons in the future), his granddaughter (!) Susan, and her teachers, Ian and Barbara, hurtle through time and possibly space to a prehistoric setting. A petulant Doctor wishes to teach Ian and Barbara a lesson in humility, because they had the audacity to suggest he couldn’t travel in time. The Doctor has no clue where or when they are, since the TARDIS is busted, and he needs to take a Geiger counter along to calibrate his time sensor as they hop out of the TARDIS into a studio set covered in sand. And then…

In short order, they split up, one of them is taken, the others come to the rescue but also get caught, and then they escape and turn the tables on their foes in a way that highlights both The Doctor’s essential goodness and his essential non-humanness. Then the TARDIS malfunctions and off they go again to destinations unknown.

Not that I’m complaining. The formula for Doctor Who succeeds wonderfully, most stories, in telling a smashing tale in an interesting setting while slowly building up the mythology of the Doctor Who universe. It’s this reverence for the backstory, for plot-based continuity, that endears Doctor Who to me. Granted, after the tenth revelation of the Daleks, you hope for another monster, but then you get another monster and wish it were a Dalek.

Re-watching this story, I’m struck immediately by the stylistic elements that remain with the series to this day. Ron Grainer’s title music, present in some form in every subsequent story of the whole series, sets the entire work in motion, and the concept for the interior of the TARDIS, with its central control console (that never quite works correctly) and vertically moving pillar changes but little in the years to come. And I might be mistaken, but William Hartnell wears the same basic costume/uniform for the remainder of his run, as his successors will do with their special looks.

Most importantly, though, “100,000 BC” gives us Companions, the Doctor’s travelling menagerie of strays picked up on his cosmic jaunts. The Doctor notes to Barbara in Part Three, “Fear makes companions of all of us,” re-emphasizing the word a moment later, saying “Your companion referred to it.” More than mere plot devices (usually), companions will later make the transitions between Doctors easier to bear, providing a bridge between actors whose approaches to the title character are at times wildly divergent. Doctor Who without Companions just isn’t Doctor Who.

On the whole, “100,000 BC” provides a nice introduction to the series, giving a glimpse at the character of the First Doctor (curmudgeonly know-it-all with a soft heart), a sense of the series’ scope (cave dwellers and non-human time travellers, oh my!), and a cliffhanger ending to bring you back next week (Danger! flashes the radiation detector), when we meet…the Daleks.

(Next Episode: The Mutants/The Daleks)

Post 1 of the Doctor Who Project

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