Mithradates: Unearthly Child

Howdy folks. I’m Lime’s erstwhile interlocutor. Like him, I grew up on the third, fourth and fifth Doctors. In effect, my exposure has been limited to what has shown on American TV. I have watched some of the newer episodes with Eccleston and Tennant, but don’t get BBC America. I never saw an episode with Patrick Troughton (unless you count The Five Doctors) until a couple of years ago; my first William Hartnell serial was late last year. So I’m going into this without a lot of background. I happen to be a huge Trekkie, so may be making lots of references to that series in my reviews.

Unearthly Child was unexpected in some ways. When watching Tom Baker and the TARDIS, I always figured in the back of my mind that the sets and special effects (even the theme song) had changed since the series began. After all, John Pertwee had a futuristic car that disappeared in later episodes; I figured there were lots of such tweaks and changes from Doctor to Doctor. And there were so many references to the bum chameleon circuit that I thought it must have worked at one point. So I was unprepared to see the same old TARDIS that I was familiar with (granted, with a few small differences).

This Doctor is very different than the ones I grew up with. Baker, of course, is archetypal for many of my generation, so much so that the newest Doctors mimic his manic personableness. Pertwee was more restrained, of course, but even he was something of a man of action. Hartnell, however, appears in this first serial as a bit of a misanthrope, finding strangers unwelcome and wishing above all to be let alone. He also has much less of a moral compass, as seen when he looks ready to kill the caveman Za after he is incapacitated by a wild animal.

As for the episode in general, my response was much less favorable than my colleague. I felt Ian and Barbara didn’t react quite realistically to being brought across time and space, and subsequently being captured. Neither seem the least concerned about missing their classes or getting fired from their jobs, although such mundane concerns would come quickly to my mind. Conversely, Susan seems very excitable for a girl who was raised by the Doctor.

I also found the caveman plot rather tiring. Of course, I happen to be an archaeologist, so I am sensitive to anachronisms. Granted that the cavemen are a bit more sophisticated than is typical for the 60s, but nevertheless they are clearly anatomically modern (as implied by the original title, 100,000 B.C.) Humans by that time had long mastered the use of fire — it beggars the imagination to conceive of a tribe that has lost the ability to make it. More significantly, they are depicted as being unsophisticated to the point of being rather child-like. There is no reason, however, to think that early humans had social lives any less rich, or language skills less developed, than people in more recent times.

This would be tolerable if it didn’t make the whole drama somewhat farcical. We have four modern humans held prisoner by a group of about a dozen primitives, none of whom exhibit much intelligence. It diminishes the suspense for me markedly. In this respect the next serial, The Daleks, is a considerable improvement. Moreover the second half drags too much, padded as it is with a recapture (a failing also seen in The Daleks). Nevertheless, the curiosity value was high enough to keep me watching even through the slow patches.

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2 Comments

Filed under Dr. Who, William Hartnell

2 responses to “Mithradates: Unearthly Child

  1. I completely agree with your assessment of the 2nd through 4th episodes. Personally, I find that only the pilot episode (actually, the one that was transmitted on 23 Nov 1963, rather than the “pilot,” which was very slightly different) is worth showing those to whom I introduce the origins of the series.

    On a side note, I love that the actress who plays the chief’s woman (if memory serves) shows up again a couple years later as the wife of the village headman in The Time Meddler. (Why does she get typecast as a “primitive”?) The good ol’ BBC studio system at work…

  2. To be fair, I didn’t review episodes 2-4. But now I’ll have to–my kids loved them, as did I! We had no idea that UC would segue into a flaccid appearance of the famous pepperpots meeting Ziggy Stardust.

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