An Unearthly Child (Episode) Summary

001 an-unearthly-child

Ahh, the first ever episode of Doctor Who. If you haven’t seen it yet, you absolutely should – you can’t call yourself a Whovian until you have.

If you haven’t, well, here’s a summary I put together which I would highly recommend reading before watching An Adventure in Space and Time this weekend. It’s a fantastic episode, and serves as a precedent for a more elements of the show than you might expect.

Episode Summary

England, 1963. The sun is setting and  a policeman shines his torch on a gate painted with the words “I.M. Foreman. Scrap Merchant. 76 Totter’s Lane”. The gates open and we catch a glimpse of a police telephone box.

001 01

We’re brought to Coal Hill School – the bell rings and hoards of teenagers with fantastic hair stream out of the classrooms, followed by history teacher Barbara Wright. She enters one of the science labs and greets head of science Ian Chesterton; she wants to chat to him about one of their students, Susan Foreman. She’s 15 years old, but she acts as though their work is “child’s play”, and doesn’t know some of the most basic knowledge (such as the number of shillings in a pound; she “thought they were on the decimal system”). Ian recounts a story of how she insisted there was not three dimensions, but in fact five – the other two being time and space. Barbara explains that she wanted to speak to Susan’s mysterious grandfather and got his address from the school secretary, but when she went to 76 Totter’s Lane there was nothing but a junkyard. Convinced there’s a simple explanation, they decide to follow her home and see where she goes.

001 04

Susan is waiting in the neighboring classroom, listening to John Smith & the Common Men on the radio. Ian and Barbara enter, and Ian remarks that “John Smith is the stage name of the Honourable Aubery Waites”. Barbara then lends Susan a book on the French Revolution, and Susan says she’ll “have it finished by tomorrow”. Ian offers her a lift home, but she declines, claiming she “likes walking in the dark, it’s mysterious” (the original line in the pilot episode was “I like walking in the English fog”). The teachers leave, and she opens the book and remarks “that’s not right…” (in the original pilot she paints a hexagon on paper).

001 05Cut to Ian and Barbara, sitting in a car outside 76 Totter’s Lane. They ponder on whether they’re doing the right thing, but admit they’re madly curious about Susan and her mysterious grandfather. They watch her enter the junkyard and follow her, puzzled by their surroundings. They see a police box, which Ian remarks is strange – “you normally see those on the street”. He touches it and feels and faint vibration, and then walks all the way around it to see if it’s wired to anything before concluding “it’s alive!” They hear a noise from inside the box and quickly hide, before an old man exits and looks around. He notices the pair hiding nearby and shouts “what are you doing here?!” (as some would say, the REAL ‘oldest question in the universe’). The teachers demand to know where Susan is, but the man firmly insists that there is nobody else in the junkyard and they must leave immediately. After a struggle Ian and Barbara find themselves in his police box.

001 06Ian and Barbara cannot explain the room before them, and conclude it is a trick, an illusion, a game. “But it was a police telephone box!” Ian exclaims. “I walked all round’ it! Barbara, you saw me!”. The old man mocks them and remarks that “you don’t understand, so you find excuses” before using a rubbish illustration of how you can fit the image of a large building onto a small TV screen. Susan then explains that the TARDIS can go anywhere, and Ian rattles off a rather famous quote: “let me get this straight – a thing that looks like a police box, standing in a junkyard; it can move anywhere in time and space?! That’s ridiculous!” The old man then poses an interesting question: “do you know what it’s like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension?” He refers to himself and Susan as “exiles” and claims that they’ve been “cut off from their own planet without friends or protection. But one day, we shall get back. Yes, one day”.

Ian and Barbara try to leave, but the old man simply giggles and refuses to let them go. Ian tries to find the door switch, but Susan shouts “don’t touch it, it’s live!” and he gets a zap from the console. The man keeps giggling, and claims that if he lets them go they’ll report him to the police and turn them into a public spectacle. He then pushes buttons on the console and the TARDIS takes off (see the video below).

100 000 BC: Parts 2-4

The remaining episodes of this story are not that important, however the first few minutes of part two do establish other significant precedents:

Ian: Just open the doors, Dr Foreman
Doctor: Hey? Doctor Who? What’s he talking about?

This is followed by another interesting set of lines:

Ian: Time doesn’t just go round and round in circles. You can’t get on and off wherever you like in the past or future.
Doctor: Where does time go then?
Ian: It doesn’t go anywhere, it just happens and then it’s finished.
(The Doctor laughs)

Remind you of a particular quote from Steven Moffat’s Blink?

Also, see the video below for the Doctor’s remark regarding the TARDIS not changing appearance.

Other clips from this story

A Very Brief Unearthly History

There a few important things behind this episode that are common knowledge within the fandom, and I predict will be helpful to know before the docudrama.

  • Originally, Ian’s name was ‘Cliff’ and Barbara had no first name – she was simply ‘Miss McGovern’. Ian’s character was created to appeal to older women, and Barbara to appeal to the men – the show was designed to fill the timeslot after the sports report. Susan was added later as more of a plot device to “make mistakes and get into trouble”.
  • While the episodes were recorded ahead of time, they were done almost in real time – the cast would spend a week rehearsing the episode, then record it in about 30 minutes. There was very little time for retakes, and they only did them if the actors made a serious error.
  • Verity Lambert, the show’s producer, wasn’t happy with the first pilot they shot and fought for another to be made. A few elements were changed in the second version, and the acting was a lot better.
  • The early episodes were shot at Lime Grove Studio D, which at the time was quite rubbish compared to the brand new television centre.
  • The original working title for this serial was “Nothing Down the End of the Lane”. The story itself exists officially as An Unearthly Child, however many fans prefer to refer to it as 100,000 BC. 
  • This is more of a fan fact: the 50th anniversary comic strip, Hunters of the Burning Stone, provided a fantastic explanation as to why the TARDIS remains a police box. *Spoilers* The Eleventh Doctor went back in time and disabled the chameleon circuit so the image of the blue box became and icon throughout time.
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Posted in Classic Series Tele-Stories (does not include DVD photo galleries), Doctors, First Doctor, Other Post Types, Story Media, Summaries
4 comments on “An Unearthly Child (Episode) Summary
  1. XxXLazorBoy1337XxX says:

    She doesn’t say “it’s alive!” She says “it’s live” referring to the electrical current now coursing through the TARDIS’ console.

  2. […] An Unearthly Child (Episode) Summary ( […]

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