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Doctor Who: The Journey #1: An Unearthly Child

DJ Doctor Hartnell from An Unearthly Child
Back row: Ian, Barbara, Carol. Front: Dokter Hartnell: The Mad DJ.

Here’s a new entry into our array of pop culture excavation and analysis. PhantomV48, animator and bon vivant, has decided to plunge into the world of Doctor Who. And run the entire length of it. Knowing that this is not a journey to take alone, he is joined in his adventure by his fiancee, Fleshvine (co-host of the Kinky and the Geek podcast). They’ve packed supplies, a compass, and a bunch of coffee. Here they begin their journey. Wish them luck.

PhantomV48: Doctor Who has been around for 48 years. 48 years. More than half of the people reading this haven’t been alive that long; neither of us have.

Fleshvine: I’m closer than you are, babycakes.

[ad#longpost]PV48: In 48 years, the program has built up a little bit of a continuity. One that provides a barrier of entry for a lot of would-be fans. So, you can’t just jump into the middle of all that, can you? Well, of course you can; there are a ton of fine places to jump in, just in the modern series (circa 2005) alone. Or you can do it the hard way. The really, really, long, hard way.

FV: Heh heh… Long and hard…

PV48: That’s what we’re doing, so you don’t have to. We’ll be reviewing the stories and pointing out important bits to the character as he is now. Consider it a public service. Unless you want to pay us, that would be fine too. We accept PayPal.

FV: Seriously, we do.

PV48: Anyway, we’re not complete beginners to the Whoniverse. We’ve both seen all of the modern series, and some of the old stuff. Nothing substantial, and not in any real order.

FV: As a kid, I used to spend every Saturday night in front of the TV, desperately hoping that PBS wasn’t running another one of their damned pledge drives so that I could watch a full episode before bedtime. They showed a random assortment of Doctors, sometimes showing an arc over a series of weeks, sometimes just skipping around arbitrarily.

PV48: With that said, let’s get started with the very first episode.

An Unearthly Child

(Told in 4 parts: “An Unearthly Child,” “The Cave of Skulls,” “The Forest of Fear,” and “The Firemaker”)

PV48: So, this is where it all began. The first thing you notice is how different this is from the modern episodes.

FV: It’s a thing called “black-and-white,” honey. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. It’s from the olden days.

PV48: The second thing you notice is how much hasn’t changed in 48 years. The TARDIS (which is called a TARDIS) is a big blue (well, grey) police box. On the inside is a big roundish room with a rounding control console in the middle.

FV: Can someone explain the reason for the round things on the walls? They show up with each new TARDIS incarnation.

PV48: The theme music is essentially the same, the grindy TARDIS sound is exactly the same. The Doctor is played by William Hartnell: a charming, if crotchety old man, who looks a lot like Professor Marvel/The Wizard of Oz when he stands in a certain pose. His companion is Susan Foreman, played by Carol Ann Ford, whom we find out almost immediately is actually the Doctor’s granddaughter.

FV: She’s adorable for the first 5 minutes. Then she becomes a bit annoying.

PV48: Also involved are two of Carol’s schoolteachers, Ian and Barbara, who have decided to follow Susan home because Susan seems to have a different way of thinking than the other students. This was before the discovery of things like “Asperger Syndrome” and “Privacy.” When they follow Susan home, they find that she lives in a junkyard with her crazy old grandfather.

FV: Snappy dresser, though.

PV48: Rather than back away slowly, Ian and Barbara force themselves into the police box where this crazy old man and his granddaughter live. Twenty minutes of old fashioned British argument ensue, while the Doctor carts the gang off to the stone age.

FV: That’ll teach ’em!

Cavemen from Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child
Me hear Phish coming to town in April!

PV48: The whole crew then proceeds to get involved in a caveman presidential debate. People are kidnapped, saved, rekidnapped, unkidnapped, and kidnapped some more. Honestly, the whole plot was rather convoluted, and didn’t really matter much in the course of the series. The different parties of cavemen all want to elect the leader that can make fire, and if they can crack a few arbitrary skulls in the process, all the better. Preferably the skulls belonging to the newbies. You can pretty much fill in the blanks from there.

FV: Don’t forget the hilarity of the old crazy woman, an elder of maybe 40, who wanted to use the very small rock to bash in some heads. You have to admire her passion if not her common sense.

Skulls from Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child
Archaeologists believe this branch of mankind died out primarily because their skeletons were made of balsa wood and bits of wire.

PV48: Oh, and we also find out that the TARDIS’ “chameleon circuit” is suddenly broken. That’s why it’s a police box for the next 50 years.

FV: Don’t you hate when that happens? That’s how I got stuck with this 1990 Accord.

PV48: The gang, now thoroughly kidnapped, escapes by inventing the puppet show. They dazzle their primitive captors with skulls on top of flaming torches. This provides them with just enough time to run back to the TARDIS, before a volley of spears is launched at the big blue (grey) dematerializing box. The Doctor explains to the “crew” that he basically just hit “shuffle” on the control console, and has no idea where they are now. Wherever it is, it’s weird, and unbeknownst to the Doctor & Friends, “dangerously” radioactive (that’s according to the blinking “radiation” gauge).

Flaming skull puppet show! from Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child
We all support Susan's creative expression. We all also sleep with our doors locked.

Importance to the Overall Who Experience: 10, obviously. A great introduction to The Doctor: from crazy possible fugitive living in a junkyard to bizarre time traveling genius in less than twenty minutes. Sets the tone for Hartnell’s run as a likable–and cunning but stubborn–old coot. We learn more about the TARDIS in this episode than in any one episode of the modern run.

Watchability: 5. Starts strong, and ends well. There is a kitsch-factor to the cavemen (what happened to caveman stories anyway?). You can pretty much sleep through the middle two episodes and pick up the story just fine. It’s been stretched out to at least twice the length it needs to be. Something we’ll be seeing a lot of more of in the future. Which can be fine if the story is worthwhile but the premise is a bit weak.

Next episode: The Daleks! We’ll see you then, fellow travelers!

Episode 2 of The Journey is here!


  • PV48/FV continue to amaze and amuse me. Just like Dr. Who. It’s been so long since I last watched the show, and I am inspired to get in the wayback machine and relive, or try to remember, my hippie days with the futon on the floor and the 13 inch black and white tv. I laughed when you noted that the originals were B&W, because I wouldn’t have known!