Chapter 65. Doctor Who and An Unearthly Child (1981)

Synopsis: A thing that looks like a police box, standing in a junkyard. Home to a secretive old man and his strange granddaughter. Two schoolteachers allow curiosity to lead them into a terrifying journey back to a time where the greatest power is the ability to make fire, and the second greatest is merely to survive.

Chapter Titles

  • 1. The Girl Who Was Different
  • 2. Enter the Doctor
  • 3. The TARDIS
  • 4. The Dawn of Time
  • 5. The Disappearance
  • 6. The Cave of Skulls
  • 7. The Knife
  • 8. The Forest of Fear
  • 9. Ambush
  • 10. Captured
  • 11. The Firemaker
  • 12. Escape into Danger

Background: Terrance Dicks adapts Anthony Coburn’s scripts for the very first TV story. At 17 years, ten months and three or so weeks, this is now the record holder for the longest gap between broadcast of a story and release of the novelisation. Though this record will be broken a few times more in the future, this book can lay claim to another odd record in that the novelisation was released 18 days prior to being repeated in full for the first time.

Notes: We learn from the policeman in the opening scene that the old man who recently became the proprietor of the junkyard in Totter’s Lane has disappeared, along with his granddaughter and two teachers from a local school – so the rest of the story here is told in flashback (and the later flashback to Susan in the classroom is flashing even further back!). We briefly meet Susan in the first Coal Hill School scene as she waits for Miss Wright to fetch the book, and she’s ‘tall for her age, with short dark hair framing a rather elfin face’. Apparently Barbara Wright doesn’t ‘stand for any nonsense’ and Terrance Dicks gives her a rather balanced but critical appraisal: 

Someone had once said, rather unkindly, that Barbara Wright was a typical schoolmistress. She was dark-haired and slim, always neatly dressed, with a face that would have been even prettier without its habitual expression of rather mild disapproval. 

There was undeniably some truth in the unkind remark. Barbara Wright had many good qualities, but she also had a strong conviction that she knew what was best, not only for herself but for everyone else. It suited her temperament to be in charge. 

Ian in contrast is said to be ‘a cheerful, open-faced young man… about as different in temperament from Barbara Wright as could be imagined.’ Ian teaches Science and Mathematics, which explains why he sets his class a problem involving the dimensions ‘a, b and c’. When Barbara tells Ian about Susan’s mistake over decimal currency, she adds that ‘The United States and most European countries have a decimal system’, but Susan then claims ‘You’ll change over in a few years’ time!’ Susan explains that TARDIS stands for ‘Time and Relative Dimension in Space’ (singular) as on TV [see The Daleks, The Time Meddler and others]. As he removes his jacket in the TARDIS control room, the Doctor has the impression of ‘a family solicitor from some nineteenth-century novel’. When Barbara calls him ‘Doctor Foreman’, the Doctor confesses that he stole that name from the gates of the junkyard and suggests ‘It might be best if you were to address me simply as Doctor’. Most helpful of him, even if he then acts as if he’s never heard the name when Ian uses it in the next chapter!

It’s confirmed that Za is the son of Old Mother, who he saved from being cast out by the Tribe (as is their custom) after the death of his father, Gor after (it’s presumed, but not confirmed) a hunting accident. This act of kindness was viewed by the old woman as weakness, hence why she undermines him at every opportunity.

The final chapter is called ‘Escape into Danger’. It ends with a foreshadowing of the next adventure, on a wartorn planet called Skaro – home of the Daleks!

Cover: The first cover to use the Sid Sutton-designed ‘neon’ logo from the TV show, with metallic foil effect on the first edition’s logo, and with a red flash across the corner to tell us this is the ‘First publication of the very first Doctor Who story’. It’s such a simple cover really, as Andrew Skilleter recreates the set of the junkyard from a photo now believed to be lost. It could have done with being set at night, but the details are very satisfying as this cover is now our best view of that very cluttered set. A 1990 reprint used Alister Pearson’s VHS cover and it’s beautifully simplistic. Taking its inspiration from the cover art for Queen’s The Miracle (1989), Pearson merges the Doctor and Susan so they share an eye, positioned above a rocky landscape where the TARDIS is materialising.

Final Analysis: Terrance had just two weeks to complete this, to tie in with the ‘Five Faces of Doctor Who’ repeats, on the suggestion of producer John Nathan-Turner. It was also the first novelisation in six months, due to a writers’ strike that Terrance felt compelled to honour. There’s a Reithian hand at work here, as Terrance guides the young Target reader through some fairly alien concepts: Through the police officer in the opening scene, we learn that police boxes used to be a common sight on British streets and the policeman speculates that they might soon be phased out in favour of individual walkie-talkies; Ian tries to remember what kind of animals might have existed in the time of the cavemen, such as mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers, but making the point that there’d be no dinosaurs as ‘that was a common mistake’; and of course, Anthony Coburn’s original script included a means to make fire that every eager Scout or pyromaniac should know.

One other lovely detail is how Dicks describes Kal as having a ‘short jutting beard’. It’s the kind of description Malcolm Hulke might have used for the same purpose, as later, when the time travellers’ escape route is cut off by tribesmen, their leader is said to have a ‘short jutting beard’ – the viewers would recognise him as Kal, but the travellers wouldn’t, yet – so the reader is given this subtle clue. There’s one small issue with the first edition though – as Za enters the clearing and hears a low growl behind him; it’s such an amazing paragraph that it was repeated a few lines later… oops!

So we now have a novel of the first story, which leads directly into the next – the novel of which is hugely contradictory as we’ve already seen. Heaven help anyone trying this pilgrimage in broadcast order. Much better this way!

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