There’s a school of thought that says an An Unearthly Child consists of an exceptional first episode followed by three rubbish ones about cavemen. I’m afraid I’m going to have to dispute that. For me, the story is complete in and of itself. The theme is clearly presented in both the settings of 1963 and 100,000 BC and explores how the technologically advanced appear to be god-like to those less developed, more primitive. It is central in the way this programme straddles the status quo of pre-Sixties culture whilst also recognising the revolutionary forces propelling Britain into the 1970s.
The first episode highlights this with Barbara and Ian’s stumble into the TARDIS - contemporary humans facing a civilsation far in advance of their own - whilst the remaining three episodes switch this around and posit their own contemporariness in bold contrast to the tribe of cavemen who squabble over the power inherent in the knowledge of fire making. In that first encounter, the Doctor not only tests Ian and Barbara’s understanding of the TARDIS’s dimensionality by using television as an example to explain their arrival in an alien environment (which director Waris Hussein then visually illustrates by zooming in on the TARDIS scanner to depict the city of London shrinking into blackness to be replaced by a swirling vortex as the ship dematerialises) but he also likens them to the very primitives they all eventually meet in 100,000 BC.
Looking at it now, it’s clear that, beyond the central mystery, the story is about ‘strangers in a strange land’ where two viewpoints dovetail neatly together. Ian and Barbara stumble into the world of the Doctor and Susan – 20th century primitives tangling with the surreal alien and god like environment of the TARDIS - and then the coin is flipped and through antagonistic sparring with this strange old man both teachers are flung back into time where they are those same gods to Kal and Za in a bleak, harsh landscape at the dawn of time. The gift of fire to the cavemen is the knowledge of the future, the journey in the TARDIS is the same knowledge but handed out to our erstwhile teachers. As this theme flip-flops through the story, Ian and Barbara remain the audience identification figures, our representatives.
I had never seen it this way before, but Colins’s interpretation of “An Unearthly Child” is incredibly strong. This wonderful first story for Doctor Who has become stronger for me. Brilliant.