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Tansy Rayner Roberts

The Mystery of the Unearthly Teenager [WHO-50—1963]

November 13th, 2012 at 8:10

Yep, I’m blogging about something for every year of Doctor Who, once a week, as a countdown towards the 50th anniversary next year. Even those years when there’s no Doctor Who to speak of. I do like a challenge…

“An Unearthly Child,” the first episode of Doctor Who, screened on 23 November 1963 and has always been considered something of an odd duck. It’s not like any other story that would follow over the next couple of years, doesn’t quite fit with the other three episodes that are considered part of the same “story” (and not only because even the most committed fans are usually tempted to skip past the embarrassing cavemen of episodes 2, 3 & 4 and go straight to the Daleks).

On rewatching, this first episode is as strange and compelling as I remembered. The mist and fog gives the London streets a sinister atmosphere, and even the ordinary sets such as the classrooms take on a surreal and otherworldly aspect in the little vignette flashbacks that build up the Mystery of Susan Foreman.

It’s all so domestic, the tale of the two teachers investigating a problem student, and despite the Twilight Zoney mood of the piece, you can believe right up to the last ten minutes that it’s going to continue on as a TV show set purely in 1963 London.

But how much information do we actually get about the show’s mythology, the Doctor himself, and particularly the character of Susan, who remains partly shrouded in mystery even to this day?

Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter, is probably the most important element of the show’s mythology that has not yet been mined by New Who. There have been a few hints here and there – “I was a Dad” and so on, and fans were briefly tantalised by that mysterious lady in The End of Time in the hopes that she might, might be one of the two Time Lord women we actually care about (she wasn’t).

We may never get more Susan in the show – and my wistful hopes of an Eleven-and-River-leave-a-baby-basket-on-One’s-doorstep story are probably going to be fruitless. But if she was going to show up again, the 50th anniversary of her first appearance would be a really good time to do it, just saying!

SO WHAT DO WE LEARN ABOUT SUSAN, THE DOCTOR AND OUR NEW FAVOURITE TV SHOW IN “AN UNEARTHLY CHILD”?

For a start, the TARDIS. I mean, the police box, in the junk yard. It’s important. It has to be important, because it’s humming, and the camera is getting all excited about this close up shot, so early in the first scene. If the police box is not important, this is bizarre camerawork!

Susan is a scientific genius. Ian Chesterton, her science teacher, acknowledges her as such, and also that she “lets her knowledge out a bit of a time so as not to embarrass me.”

Also, Susan’s grandfather doesn’t like strangers. This seems to be one of the greatest understatements of the episode, though it’s also one of those facts that won’t always hold true.

Susan is a fan of contemporary music, especially John Smith and the Common Men. Until about a fortnight ago, I always thought this was a real band and am a little saddened to learn that’s not the case (damn you, Wikipedia). Alarming that Ian knew so much about them, considering that Susan blatantly made them up. Trying too hard to be ‘with it,’ Mr Chesterton? Best stick to the Beatles. The line about how ‘John Smith’ is a stage name for a peer called Aubrey Waits sounds like a clever foreshadowing of the way that the Doctor would regularly use John Smith as a pseudonym in later years, but probably isn’t.

Susan reads fast – she claims that she would easily be finished with Barbara Wright’s massive tome on The French Revolution the next day. Then again, the teens in 1963 didn’t have the internet or texting, so chances were it wasn’t that major an achievement to finish a book overnight. Especially when Susan seemed mainly to want to flip it open to random pages and argue with it.

She likes walking through the dark, because “it’s mysterious.” This is in direct contradiction to her nervous disposition as conveyed in Episode 2, when she has a major panic attack upon realising her Grandfather hasn’t been on screen for two minutes, but then again, this is the 20th century, and it’s pretty clear that she has got deeply attached to this particular time and place. A placid, slightly emo geek girl.

As they kill time in the car between the “appropriate concern for a student” scene (at the school) and the “inappropriate concern for a student” scene (following her home, manhandling her grandfather, entering her domicile without permission) history teacher Barbara and science teacher Ian reveal all manner of intelligence they have gathered on Susan, mostly revolving around the odd juxtaposition of what she knows (“these simple experiments are child’s play to her”) and what she doesn’t know (that Britain is yet to go on to the decimal system)

Ian sums her up as “A fifteen year old girl who is brilliant at some things and excruciatingly bad at others.”

But that scene with the car chat and all the flashbacks reveals one other key fact: Susan’s experience with and knowledge about Time and Space as the fourth and fifth dimensions. Nonsense, thinks Ian. But Barbara is not so sure… (Barbara, you might as well know now, is the smart one)

Not related to Susan at all but can I just say the music in this episode is uncanny – it sounds so similar to the kind of music being used more than a decade later in Pertwee and Baker stories! Especially the oboe.

Now we get down to the good stuff: Susan and her mysterious grandfather (who is a doctor, you know) turn out to live in that humming police box we saw back in the opening shot of the episode. And, after Ian has carefully walked around said police box, we discover that it is bigger on the inside than the outside!

NO.

In fact it contains an enormous, white room with a strange console in the middle (okay the word ‘console’ wasn’t in common use in the show until decades later but I’m a child of the ‘everything in the wrong order’ VHS age, so shut up). A much bigger console room, it has to be said, than we get at any other time in the show’s history until the 1996 TV Movie. It’s massive. No wonder Peter Cushing’s version was portrayed as a garden shed. You could grow a LOT of tomatoes in this greenhouse.

The Doctor himself actually gives a speech, right here in episode one in 1963, on why exactly the TARDIS is bigger on the inside than the outside, using television as a metaphor: ‘By showing an enormous building on your television screen you can do what seemed impossible.’ It’s nonsense, of course, but delivered with such élan and credibility… which is at its heart exactly what Doctor Who is all about: credible nonsense.

The bit which is perhaps most at odds with what we later came to know about the show’s mythology is Susan’s claim here that she made up the name ‘TARDIS’ from the initials ‘Time and Relative Dimensions in Space.’ It’s not impossible, of course, time travel being what it is, that she was around for the creation of the early TARDISes, but it does mean that it’s hard to accept the easiest possible explanation for her origins.

OR DOES IT?

The patriarchal and patronising aspect of the Doctor, which exists across all versions of his character to a greater or lesser degree, is most definitely in evidence here. He compares Ian and Barbara’s intelligence to that of “savages,” while Ian complains he is treating them “like children.”

Both Susan and her Grandfather are aliens. “I was born in another time, another world,” she claims, while he asks the quite bewildering rhetorical question, “Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? Exiles. Aliens.”

The tiny piece of Susan’s story which I see talked about least is the fact that, at this point in time, she has quit that life of wandering in the fourth dimension. She so attached to the 20th century that she yells she would rather leave the TARDIS and her Grandfather. She’s done with him, but he is not yet willing to let her go.

I’m not sure if this makes it better or worse that he later abandons her in the war-ravaged 26th century the second she shows interest in a boy, but it’s worth considering. Susan is desperate to stay in this one time and place, and the Doctor is desperate not to let go of her. Kidnapping Barbara and Ian is, apparently, his last ditch chance to keep his family together.

Oh, and the weird visual effect we see in the opening and closing credits is actually the time vortex. So, that too.

Wow, it’s amazing how much they packed that episode! So much mythology hitting the viewers all at once, and yet – nothing has been explained. That’s what the next fifty years is for, after all.

It even took until Episode 2, the Cave of Skulls, for us to learn that the TARDIS isn’t always a police box – it changes with every trip (“It’s been an Ionic column, and a sedan chair…”) but is now unaccountably broken. I blame Ian and his random button-pressing. Episode 2 also provides our first and second take on the “Doctor Who?” gag that justifies (apparently) the show’s title. Everyone groans at it in New Who, but you know what? Until they started doing that, I had never noticed it before in Classic Who. Now I see it everywhere.

Episode 2 is worth seeing, posh beardy cavemen aside, because it shows how much faster Barbara the history teacher is adapting to their whirlwind adventure than is Ian, the science teacher. Baffled by the sight of prehistoric Earth, he gasps, ‘there must be some explanation’ and she responds by giving him him such a withering look which to me translates as: ‘Dude we had the explanation ten minutes ago, keep up!’

Susan may be the mystery that launched the show back in 1963, but Barbara is the one already proving what is required for a good Doctor Who companion. Think fast, adapt to sudden changes in the environment and for heaven’s sake, KEEP UP.


ELSEWHERE, ON 1963:


The Creators of Doctor Who Were a Scandal

[i09]

Interview with Waris Hussein, first director of Doctor Who

[Radio Free Skaro]

Let’s Talk About Verity
[Doctor Her]

The First Doctor of Christmas
[Tor.com]

A Modern Woman’s Guide To Doctor Who: The First Doctor Years
[TansyRR.com]

An Unearthly Child
[Wife in Space]

An Unearthly Child
[Chronic Hysteresis]

An Unearthly Child
[Kasterborous]

Review of An Unearthly Child
[The Independent]

Original Radio Times Announcement for An Unearthly Child
[BBC Archive]

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3 Responses to “The Mystery of the Unearthly Teenager [WHO-50—1963]”

  1. Kerry Says:

    Great start. I look forward to the next 51!

  2. A Trail of Breadcrumbs | Beyond the Dreamline Says:

    [...] In Doctor Who news, we’re on a countdown now, because next year is the 50th anniversary of its television debut! Would it be too camp to say woo-who? It looks set to be a big year for the series, with hope for cameos from many favourites from the classic era pre-Eccleston (for those unfamiliar with the series, that means before its reboot in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston in the lead role. Also, you should start watching Doctor Who.) Tansy Rayner Roberts will be blogging about one episode from one season of the series each week in the lead-up to the anniversary on the 23rd of November next year, starting this week with the first ever episode, ‘An Unearthly Child’. You can read her post here. [...]

  3. Kezzie Says:

    Very well written! I haven’t watched An Unearthly child for a long time, I remember much of this but you’ve put it all really succinctly. I felt a little annoyed by the recent need by books or people to explain out of episode about who Susan was, I also hope they take the opportunity to reintroduce her. The same with Romana, I keep hoping that that Doctor Who annual that referred to President Romana as the one leading the time-war was a different one (why did he have t use Romana for that?) and we might just go back to E-space and find her again!!

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