Make your own free website on

1x1. 100,000 B.C. (a.k.a. "An Unearthly Child")
Writer: Anthony Coburn
Director: Waris Hussein
Script Editor: David Whitaker
Producers: Verity Lambert & Mervyn Pinfield

Synopsis: Schoolteachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, curious about the strange behavior of their student Susan Foreman, follow her "home" only to stumble upon the Doctor and his TARDIS. Unwilling to let them leave, the Doctor transports them back in time to the Stone Age, where they all soon become captives of a tribe of cavemen. Rivals Za and Kal, contending for the tribe's leadership, have been trying and failing to make fire and are both convinced that the time travelers may possess the necessary knowledge.

Review: The most important task for the first episode of a television series is to introduce the premise and the characters in a way that makes it clear to the audience what the show is about and leaves them wanting to come back the next week. At that, "100,000 B.C." (more commonly, but apparently incorrectly, known by the title of its first part, "An Unearthly Child") is a success: by the time it's over, we know that the series will center around the adventures of the alien time traveler known as the Doctor, his granddaughter Susan, and their two unwilling human companions Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, and they're all interesting enough that we want to see more of them.

The Doctor as portrayed in "100,000 B.C." is not a particularly likeable or pleasant individual most of the time, more concerned with himself than with Ian and Barbara or the cavemen. He's willing to promise either fire or the lack thereof in order to bargain for his freedom, seemingly indifferent to how his decision might affect the tribe. Such a reaction is understandable coming from his frightened companions (who also seem willing to play both sides), and of course this is not Star Trek and there is no Prime Directive, but one might expect the Doctor to have a little more consideration for the consequences of his actions.  At one point it almost seems that he's about to kill or at least further incapacitate the wounded Za with a sharp rock rather than allow the others' concern for him to delay their escape. (When challenged by Ian, he claims that he had picked up the rock only so that Za could draw a map back to the TARDIS for them, but William Hartnell plays the scene so that we're not sure whether to believe him.) Still, he has his redeeming moments. By warning the tribe that he'll never give them fire if Ian is killed, he acknowledges that he's responsible for Ian's and Barbara's well-being now that he's brought them along on his travels, and his incitement of the tribe against Kal seems borne out of genuine dislike of his brutal tendencies.

Fortunately, Ian, Barbara, and Susan make for more accessible protagonists, and the conflict between the Doctor's selfishness and their more compassionate approach is refreshing for those of us who might find this early version of the Doctor a little hard to swallow. Ian and Barbara certainly do not want to be here, and Susan would prefer to have stayed in 1963 as well, but they can't bring themselves to just walk away when they find Za wounded by a confrontation with a wild animal. This humanitarian tendency is particularly strong in Barbara, who rightly takes offense when Ian, despite his willingness to help, makes a wisecrack that seems to compare Za to a stray animal. The only area where the script goes wrong with the companions is in having Barbara get so hysterical when they're out in the woods. Such a reaction might be understandable under the circumstances, but the fact that the equally inexperienced Ian is so much more composed makes it seem a bit dated and sexist.

The more noticeable shortcoming of "100,000 B.C." is its handling of the cavemen and their situation. To put it simply, Doctor Who can, and would, do a lot better than this when it comes to telling a strong self-contained story. One might argue that these cavemen represent the story of a society in transition, and the character of the old woman who thinks fire will destroy the tribe adds a little complexity to the situation, as she gives a human face to the fear that inevitably accompanies technological progress. But aside from her role, the conflicts are mostly driven by a simple battle for power between Za and Kal: these cavemen do not possess enough depth or energy for the audience to get very invested in their situation, and there's no sense of potential human progress to accompany the advance in technology. (To illustrate my point, suppose that, instead of a tribe in which no one knows how to make fire, we'd been given one in which a number of different members, and not just the leader, had learned how to make fire and thus posed a challenge to the tribe's system of one-man rule. Wouldn't that have been more interesting and relevant, and more engaging on a human level?)

Moreover, it isn't clear to me that Za or anyone else actually learns how to make fire without the help of the TARDIS crew. I'd say it's fairly likely that, before long, these people would be stuck right back where they were at the beginning of the story. The protagonists do not really effect any change for better or worse here (aside from maybe saving Za's life and exposing Kal's brutality, but others would probably soon fill both their places), and the script wraps things up by having them simply escape and go back to the TARDIS. The result is that the story doesn't really go anywhere, and the main characters' role amounts to a brief disruption in what seems to be an essentially static situation.

That said, there are no obvious plot holes, the story moves along at a reasonable pace, and it does at least provide an effective catalyst for some interesting interaction between the TARDIS crew. Although "100,000 B.C." does not represent the best that Doctor Who has to offer, it's an adequate introduction that at least occasionally shows hints of the imaginative and clever storytelling that we would eventually come to expect from the series.

Other notes:

- The question of whether or not the Doctor is really Susan's "grandfather" is one that, as far as I know, has never been completely resolved. Obviously, this will be something to watch for in future Hartnell episodes. My impression, though I can't swear to this, is that this was not part of the original concept for Susan's character; rather, the producers were worried that some might read unsavory implications into the idea of a 15-year-old girl and an old man traveling together and thought this would eliminate any such concerns.

- For some reason, the idea that Susan invented the term TARDIS doesn't seem quite right. I can't place a specific example, but I'm pretty sure that other Time Lord characters will use the term later in the series. I suppose one could rationalize it by saying that she came up with the term before she and the Doctor left Gallifrey and that it was then adopted by the others. (Of course, the mythos surrounding Gallifrey and the Doctor's departure had not yet been developed, so it's not surprising that there might be some incongruities.)

- Even in the very first episode, Doctor Who doesn't seem much like a kids' educational show. I realize that television was probably different in Britain in 1963, but I doubt that many kids' shows would feature a lead character as enigmatic and stubborn as the Doctor, especially in this early incarnation.

Rating: *** (out of four)

"Who is he? Doctor who?"
 -Ian Chesterton

Back to the main Doctor Who Reviews page.