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Recap / Doctor Who S1 E1 "An Unearthly Child"

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"If you could touch the alien sand, and hear the cry of strange birds, and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?"
The Doctor, Part Two - "The Cave of Skulls"

Production code: A

The one where it all began...

The very first serial of Doctor Who, written by Anthony Coburn. This four-episode serial first aired from November 23 to December 14, 1963.

Episodes: "An Unearthly Child", "The Cave of Skulls", "The Forest of Fear", "The Firemaker".

We commence with the World's Trippiest Title Sequence and the first time an audience would hear the "Oooh-ee-oooh" of the theme tune. (Don't believe us? watch this (with about two minutes worth of unused footage).)

Two teachers, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton, think their super-bright pupil, Susan Foreman, is a bit on the strange side. She's bored with regular physics and maths and wants to move on to multidimensional physics and maths, and she thinks that the UK has decimalised its currency, which hasn't yet happened in 1963: Britain would decimalise the pound in February 1971, after a few years of preparation.note  So, they decide to follow her home one night. This being 1963, it's benign concern for the welfare of a child, and not at all creepy.

They arrive at Susan's home address of 76 Totter's Lane. It's a junkyard. They hear Susan's voice coming from inside a police box, which for some reason is sitting in the junkyard instead of out in the street. Thinking that her grandfather, "I. M. Foreman", has locked her in there, they proceed to open the door and enter a room Bigger on the Inside than out. As Susan explains, this is Time And Relative Dimension In Space, or the TARDIS, a time machine and spaceship with the ability to disguise itself to match its surroundings. And her grandfather, a very crotchety old man, is the Doctornote , who reveals the two of them are renegades who stole the TARDIS and left their planet in order to explore the universes temporal and physical.

Deciding that he can't have them tell the world about the Cool Ship and that the "Foremans" will need to leave the 1960s, he starts up the TARDIS, acquiring the first two companions via abduction. Ian and Barbara are knocked unconscious by the TARDIS as it begins to time travel.

When they've landed again, the foursome step out of the TARDIS and Susan quickly exposits that it was supposed to have changed shape: the first clue that while it's more advanced than any Earth technology, it's still the equivalent of a used car. Before long, the Doctor is kidnapped by a Kal, a man from a tribe of cavemen when he sees the Doctor smoking his pipe which he never smokes again. The one person in this tribe who knew how to make fire died, leaving the other cavemen there cold and helpless. Kal wants to take over leadership of the tribe from Za, and knows that the ability to make fire will facilitate this. The Doctor agrees to make fire, but unfortunately he has lost his matches. His three companions try to rescue him, but only succeed in getting themselves captured too. The tribe of primitive humans with monolithic names keep their captives in a cave full of skulls, skulls that have been obviously split open. Charming.

The old woman of the tribe, afraid of the change that fire will bring, unties them, and they make tracks. However, the tribe's leader Za follows them into the jungle, still hoping to obtain the secret of fire from them, and gets mauled by a beast. Ian, Barbara, and Susan stop to tend to Za's wounds. It's strongly implied that the Doctor intends to disable or kill him, not wanting to be slowed down. This earns him his first ever What the Hell, Hero? from Ian, who prevents the murder. The stop to help Za does indeed slow the group enough that the tribe catches them and returns them to the cave.

Eventually, the Doctor tricks Kal, the hostile aspiring caveman leader, into admitting he killed the old woman, after Kal had blamed Za. The Doctor leads the tribe in driving Kal out. Ian gives Za the gift of fire, but Za still will not let them leave. Some burning skulls terrify and distract the superstitious cavemen, allowing the travelers to escape, and they barely make it back to the TARDIS in time to avoid being caught yet again. But since they had to take off in a hurry on account to avoid being speared, the Doctor was unable to make the calculations necessary to chart a course back to 1963. Hopefully their next landing spot will be a bit less eventful...

NB: This story is also sometimes called "100,000 BC", and less commonly called "The Tribe of Gum". "An Unearthly Child" is the title of the first episode (episodes were individually named until "The Savages" in Season 3), while "100,000 BC" was the title used internally by the BBC to refer to the entire serial during its production, and "The Tribe Of Gum" had been the working title. However, the VHS and DVD releases gave the title "An Unearthly Child" to the entire story, as did the Target Books novelisation, so "An Unearthly Child" is now considered the official BBC-sanctioned title for the story.


  • Accidental Misnaming: Ian is known to Hur as "Friend".
  • Action Girl: Susan shows signs of this as she attacks one of the cavemen with a rather disturbing enthusiasm.
  • The Alleged Car: After they arrive in pre-history, Susan expresses shock that the TARDIS still looks like a British police box. Its Chameleon Circuit is broken.
  • Arranged Marriage: Horg says his daughter Hur will marry the Chief of the tribe. With Za it seems a Perfectly Arranged Marriage.
  • Bad Liar: The Doctor, which is ironic in hindsight. When caught trying to grab a rock with an implicit intend to attack, the Doctor attempts to claim he merely wanted the caveman Barbara was tending to to try and draw the way back to the TARDIS. Understandably, Ian doesn't buy this.
    • Kal is also a bad liar. When the Doctor catches him in a lie about Za murdering the old woman by pointing out that Za's knife has no blood on it, the best that Kal can do is claim that it's a bad knife, because it doesn't show what it has done.
  • Batman Gambit: How the Doctor exposes Kal for murdering Old Mother, which Kal attempted to frame Za for. When Kal shows Za's knife around, presenting it as the murder weapon, the Doctor notices that it's completely clean (this being prehistoric times, cleaning blood off a knife wasn't exactly easy). The Doctor then decides to brag about how good it is compared to Kal's knife, knowing that the egotistical Kal will pull out his own knife to refute such claims. Sure enough, he does, and as the Doctor points out, it does have blood on it.
  • Big Bad: Kal the Caveman, the first in a long line of Doctor Who villains and the person responsible for its first two deaths before becoming the third.
  • Butterfly of Doom: The Doctor is so paranoid about the possible ramifications of this trope that he is convinced that the mere idea that a device such as the TARDIS exists could irreparably change the course of human history.
  • Carpet of Virility: Kal.
  • Characterization Marches On: In one episode, the Doctor — y'know, the poster boy for Technical Pacifism — is apparently prepared to bash a helpless man's head in with a rock... because Barbara's insistence on caring for his wounds is slowing them down as they try to escape. In general, the Doctor is kind of a dick for the first twelve-and-a-half episodes of the show, before he softens up at the end of "The Edge of Destruction", which is pretty off-putting to viewers who have the benefit of over fifty years' worth of lore about the character.
    • The Doctor Who Expanded Universe also has many, many theories on how this is precisely the moment that started his love for humans, realizing how they kept him from slipping into villainy.
  • Cliffhanger: The very first Doctor Who example, and it's a good one. The TARDIS has appeared on a mysterious, desolate plain... and an ominous shadow creeps into view downstage of it.
  • Damsel in Distress: Barbara in the last two episodes. It's fair enough, she's not used to a life of adventure yet, and the situation is a nightmare.
  • Dancing with Myself: Susan dances to John Smith and the Common Men, albeit...somewhat oddly.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Horg.
    Za: Tomorrow, I kill many bears. You will all have warm skins.
    Horg: I say tomorrow, you will rub your hands together and hold them to the dry sticks, and ask Orb to send you fire. And the bears will stay warm in their own skins.
  • The Discovery of Fire: The Tribe of Gum hold the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara prisoner and try to force them to make fire for them. Bit of a double subversion, as the tribe used to know how to start fires, but that ability was lost.
  • Discretion Shot: The fight between Kal and Za in the last episode ends with Za killing Kal with a rock, but the camera cuts away just as Za swings the rock, and instead shows Barbara flinching and looking away from the death.
  • Distinguished Gentleman's Pipe: The Doctor smokes one just before he's captured. Unfortunately, he drops his matches, meaning he can't make fire for the tribe. This was the first and last time he was ever seen smoking. Perhaps the experience put him off it.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The first episode, which until the reveal could easily be a story about child abuse and the Subtext is very intentional. Imagine that you are a schoolteacher and in your class there is a strange teenage girl who seems ignorant about some things and very knowledgeable on others, waits in school until after dark before she goes home, works hard in school but never does her homework, and becomes very distressed easily. She claims to live with her grandfather who never comes into the school, and won't talk to her teachers because he 'doesn't like strangers'. You discover her address on the school's records is fake, because it leads to a junkyard. When you go and investigate an old man emerges, who treats you with disdain, refuses to talk to you about your pupil and dares you to call the police, but then you hear the girl's voice coming from a locked, junked piece of street furniture and realise he's got her locked up in there...
  • Down in the Dumps: The entire Whoniverse kicks off with a pair of teachers investigating a mystery in a junkyard.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness:
    • In the unaired first version of the episode (dubbed the "pilot" version, but not a Pilot in the modern sense), the Doctor appears even more belligerent and sinister, including actively berating Susan for leading Ian and Barbara back to the TARDIS. Susan also acts and dresses older and more "unearthly". Then there's Susan's reference to coming from the 49th century, a background element which was abandoned. The TARDIS also doesn't make its distinctive "wheezing and groaning" yet when they travel back in time. Interestingly though, some other details in the pilot sound more like the Gallifrey eventually established a few years later - the broadcast version is much more vague about their origins.
    • The Doctor describes himself and Susan as being "cut off" from their home planet, making it seem like they're exiles or refugees. Later on it's made very clear that the Doctor is a wilful Defector from Decadence who got fed up with his own people. More worryingly, the Doctor mutters that someday, he and Susan will return home, but his tone makes him sound less wistful and more vengeful.
    • Episode 2 shows the Doctor smoking a pipe. This is the only on-screen occasion in which he is ever shown smoking; hereafter he is a non-smoker. Also, the Doctor's justification for taking Barbara and Ian captive was the apparent danger in allowing knowledge of things like aliens and the TARDIS to fall into contemporary human hands. He'd then spend the next fifty years taking humans as companions and telling them (both those taken as companions and those not) about things like aliens and the TARDIS.
    • When the TARDIS dematerialises for the first time, both Ian and Barbara faint. This effect is unique to this story as Ian and Barbara show no further ill effects in subsequent dematerialisations (at least not of this nature and not caused directly by the TARDIS activating), nor do any future new TARDIS passengers.
    • Susan claims that she made up the term TARDIS from the initials of Time and Relative Dimension in Space. It is later revealed that Gallifreyan society is several million years old and everyone uses the shortened name for the ship.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The First Doctor is secretive and dismissive of Ian and Barbara until caught, after which he shows disdain for the more primitive civilization he finds himself in. Barbara is introduced being neurotic about a girl in her class. Ian is introduced supporting her and suggesting a plan of action. Susan is introduced alienating everyone around her and dancing to pop music coming from a strange futuristic radio.
  • Establishing Series Moment: The first fifteen-odd minutes could have been a fairly straight-forward drama about a couple of teachers trying to help a troubled, slightly unusual student with some strange ideas who apparently lives under the thumb of her sinister, hostile grandfather, perhaps building up to some kind of socially aware message about child abuse. Then those teachers, trying to find that student in a darkened junkyard over the objections of her grandfather, suddenly stumble into a police telephone box — only to discover that it's Bigger on the Inside than the outside and can travel through time...
  • Eternal English: The cavemen and women can somehow communicate perfectly well with visitors from the future using the power of English. The ability of the Doctor's companions to understand languages other than their native tongue will get an explanation years down the road, but no thought is given to explaining it here.
  • Family-Unfriendly Violence: The oft-quoted truism that Doctor Who was originally supposed to be an educational programme for children seems somewhat dubious in light of this story. There are a lot of dark, violent themes and moments, such as the sight of Za's slashed up, bloody chest after an animal attack, the Doctor trying to smash open the head of an injured man and the heroes being trapped in a cave full of broken skulls, foreshadowing their possible fate. The most shocking part is a lot more subtle, as Ian and Barbara's attempt to get a policeman, and in particular their fear of what the Doctor might be doing to Susan in the mysterious blue box imply that they (wrongly) fear he may be molesting her.
  • Flaming Skulls: The Doctor's group escapes by scaring the cavemen by placing skulls inside a fire he has started.
  • Foreshadowing:
  • Future Imperfect: What draws the teachers' attention to Susan. Susan mixes up a question about British currency, due to forgetting she's in a time period before it switched to a decimal system. (This did indeed happen.)
  • Future Society, Present Values: Implied by the Doctor's statement "I tolerate this century but I don't enjoy it", and his comparison of Ian and Barbara to "the Red Indian" whose "savage mind", according to the Doctor, thought the steam powered trains of his day an illusion just as Ian thinks the TARDIS is an illusion. The Doctor clearly believes both himself, his civilization and his technology far superior to Earth of 1963, to the point of mocking Ian for not getting his television analogy.
  • Hard-to-Light Fire: The plot is driven by the fact that the Tribe of Gum no longer knows how to make fire.
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes:
    The Doctor: "Before your ancestors turned the first wheel, the people of my world had reduced movement through the farthest reaches of space to a game for children!"
    • As an outsider, the Doctor, alone of the four travelers, truly grasps the mindset of the tribe. While Ian and Barbara continue to treat them as they would a fellow human of the 20th century, expecting them to react in kind, the Doctor figures out how quickly the tribe change their minds, and how they have to be manipulated rather than reasoned with.
    Barbara: "The old woman won't give us away. She helped."
    The Doctor: "Do you think so? These people have logic and reason, have they? Can't you see their minds change as rapidly as night and day? She's probably telling the whole tribe at this very moment."
  • Idiot Ball: The Doctor carries it in Episode 2. Despite being from an advanced civilisation that has mastered time travel, and himself being a scientist, the Doctor appears to only know how to make fire using matches and not any number of other methods boy scouts have been using for generations to create flame. (A possible rationalization is he's playing dumb out of concern he might introduce fire too early to earth civilization, even though he's within earshot of cavepeople speaking openly about fire, meaning it isn't an unknown concept)
  • Insult to Rocks:
    Ian: "You're treating us like children!"
    The Doctor: "Am I? The children of my civilization would be insulted."
  • 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? "
  • Line-of-Sight Name: It is implied that Susan got her last name from the junkyard where she and her grandfather were hiding out.
  • More than Three Dimensions: Discussed briefly, demonstrating how strange Susan Foreman is. Worth noting that she's supposedly a 15-year-old girl at this point.
    Susan: [About a math problem] It's impossible unless you use D and E.
    Ian: D and E? Whatever for? Do the problem that's set, Susan.
    Susan: I can't, Mister Chesterton. You can't simply work on three of the dimensions.
    Ian: Three of them? Oh, time being the fourth dimension, I suppose? Then what do you need E for? What do you make the fifth dimension?
    Susan: Space.
  • Mundanger: The menace in the first Doctor Who story? Politics.
  • Names to Run Away From: Kal.
  • Never Mess with Granny: The oldest cavewoman is also the most vicious, and the most politically adept schemer.
  • Nightmare Face: Just when it seems the main characters are about to reach the TARDIS and escape at the end of Part III, the Tribe of Gum comes out of hiding and cuts them off. Ian tries to ward the others back into the relative safety of the forest, only to find Kal is right behind them. The camera slowly zooms in on Kal’s silent Death Glare, marking the episode’s cliffhanger and the segue into the closing credits.
  • No Name Given: At no point is the name "Tribe of Gum" uttered on screen. They wouldn't be named officially until a comic story much, much later, although the writers did refer to them using the term during the story's production.
  • Not That Kind of Doctor: When the Doctor is refusing to help Ian and Barbara administer first aid to the wounded Za, Barbara points out that he's a doctor, and he says that he isn't a medical doctor.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Susan tries this when in Coal Hill Academy but her tendency to blurt things out limits the success of this and Ian even says he suspects she's smarter than she lets on.
  • Random Smoking Scene: The Doctor is shown lighting up a pipe upon landing on prehistoric Earth - the story is about him being captured by a group of cavemen who want him to create fire for them, but he loses his matches. This was 1963, and public opinion about showing heroic characters in children's shows smoking changed soon afterward, meaning that neither he nor any of his future incarnations are ever seen smoking again.
  • Screaming Woman: Justified in the case of Susan; she's incredibly sheltered and repeatedly shown to be nervous and easily intimidated, and has been raised by the Doctor to view the outside world as an inherent threat. And, of course, she's also a child; younger by Gallifreyan standards than human ones, and even a shy human teenager could be forgiven for screaming while being kidnapped by cavemen.
    • It could be argued that applying this trope to Susan is unfair; she screams quite often, but is also shown to be remarkably intelligent, perceptive, and generally a very useful person to have around. She just gets excited from time to time.
  • Shaky P.O.V. Cam: Used to represent the jungle cat that attacks Za.
  • Styrofoam Rocks: Naturally, as the whole thing was filmed in a studio (and really looks it).
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: The story shows how people from the 20th century would cope with travelling to the past. Turns out the dawn of time was dangerous and they end up in desperate quest for survival.
  • Title Drop:
    • Ian addresses the Doctor as "Dr. Foreman"; the Doctor responds, "Eh? Doctor who?"invoked With that, a half-century Running Gag heard its starting gun.
    • Then, later, Ian to Barbara: "Who is he? Doctor who? Perhaps if we knew his name, we might have a clue to all this."
  • Unbuilt Trope: A commonly remarked-upon part of the show's premise is that it's about an old, sinister, extremely powerful man who goes travelling extra-legally with naive, sexy young women and holds total power over whether they come with him, get abandoned or die – and that this is played for Wish Fulfilment rather than as a really creepy variant of the Dirty Old Man. However, in the very first episode, it's clear that the reason Ian and Barbara are scared for Susan's safety is because they think her mysterious grandfather, the Doctor, is keeping her locked up in a police box in a junkyard, and refusing to let her see the outside world. Even after they are taken into the TARDIS, they believe that her grandfather has brainwashed her into believing they are aliens in order to keep her distressed and dependent on him, and Barbara attempts to explain to her that it is a game that he is playing with her.
  • Wham Shot: The first time we see what's inside that tiny police box.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Susan freaks out when the Doctor decides to keep Barbara and Ian prisoner. Two episodes later, the Doctor moves as if to bash an injured man's head in (because he wanted to escape to the TARDIS and thought they were wasting time), and Ian intercepts him asking what the hell he thought he was doing.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: What is clearly supposed to be the formula to solve a quadratic equation is seen on a chalkboard in the background. However, the denominator is written as 2ab instead of the actual 2a.
  • The X of Y: Episodes 2 and 3 are respectively titled "The Cave of Skulls" and "The Forest of Fear", kickstarting a long tradition of Doctor Who titles indulging in this trope (though in terms of overarching titles, that wouldn't kick in until "The Power of the Daleks", with stories before that only retroactively receiving overarching titles for home media releases).


Video Example(s):


Doctor Who (1963)

The moment that "Doctor Who" first reveals exactly what kind of series it's going to be (hint: it's not the kitchen sink drama about two teachers investigating an abusive grandparent you may have thought it was).

How well does it match the trope?

5 (16 votes)

Example of:

Main / EstablishingSeriesMoment

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