Travelling back in time to 1963 to the humble beginnings of a small show titled Doctor Who, you wouldn't be blamed for lowering your expectations to the bargain basement level of television. Much has been said about the 'classic' episodes of Doctor Who, and for many who are familiar with only the contemporary series the ostensibly thrifty nature of the show's early years may be a turn-off. It's an act of reductionism to paint the 'classic' episodes with a singular brush. The classic episodes of the show were on air for 25 years, and experienced as much light and shade during that time as any show. Think of The Simpsons, or even popular music. While costumes and design were often necessarily 'home-made' in appearance, the writing and performances were frequently sharp and easily at pace with the contemporary episodes.
Surprisingly, one of those is the very first episode, The Unearthly Child. It's easy to dress-up the episode in romantic, simplistic sentimentality, especially in the wake of the 50th anniversary and the peculiarly reverential The Adventures of Space and Time, which dramatised the making of the show's early episodes. The Unearthly Child isn't in need of such reverence. I'm shocked by how easily it stands by itself. I recently watched it for the third or fourth time, and continue to enjoy it more than most of the later Smith episodes. It's sharp, clean, and tense.
The first four episodes of the show follow a story which has now been dubbed 100,000 BC, written by Antony Coburn. Coburn's contribution to the canon is not to be underestimated. While the overall vision and concept of the show was placed by the legendary producer Verity Lambert, the Doctor's tone and compelling character choices are down to Coburn. Coburn was rather pleasingly Australian, but the show unfortunately didn't look after him as much as they should have, and after having other scripts rejected and delayed, Coburn cut his ties with the show and never wrote for it again.
Importantly, the first half of the first episode, where the Doctor is discovered, is told through his absence. The story in this first episode is actually about two school teachers investigating a rather perplexing student, and stumbling into a time machine. Ian and Barbara are rather forgettable companions in every other sense, but here they're introduced as the main characters. In fact, Ian and Barbara are the heroes of the story. They're moral and sentimental.
In episode three, The Forest of Fear, a neanderthal is attacked and suffers near-death wounds. He had been chasing after our heroes only moments before, but after falling victim to animal savagery, Barbara and Ian pause to help their former enemy. The Doctor is aghast, and insists on running away back to the TARDIS, leaving the man to die. Barbara and Ian label him arrogant and selfish, and they're right. The Doctor's reaction is wonderfully childish. In fact, it's murderous. He picks up a sharp stone, apparently to hurt the man, but is stopped by Ian. It's a fantastic moment for fans who are aware of the larger context that the creators weren't. This is a very young Time Lord. He's rebellious, fearful, xenophobic and violent. This is perhaps the first moment where a human has to teach him ethics. It's a point that the David Tenant years wisely picked up on. Matt Smith, the most human doctor of all, was more likely to cry over an innocent victim than kill him. But then, he was a Doctor that's 800-odd years older than William Hartnell. The Doctor, rather impressively given his hundreds of writers, has managed to have a fifty-year character arc.
So Ian and Barbara are the heroes. Susan, the teenage companion, is near useless. She throws herself in to fits of angst at the slightest incident. She's there for fear. She is importantly and mysteriously the Doctor's 'grand-daughter'. Coburn is credited with this twist of canon. He ostensibly felt that an old man travelling with a teenage girl had uncomfortable connotations unless they were related. Oh, Anthony. You're so right. But sadly your logic didn't stick for the following 49 years of the show.
If this is a children's show, it's unlike any that you've seen before. There's a plot that revolves around the internal break down of a cave man tribe and the invention of fire. (Tellingly, it's Ian that gives them fire and allows the Neanderthals to survive - not the Doctor.) Any action or violence is short-lived, and usually cut away from, and heard off-screen. Coburn makes good use of only a handful of sets by placing long, dialogue-heavy scenes with a lot of people arguing. It's easy to see British television's roots in these scenes. The actors, almost all certainly RADA trained or with extensive Shakespeare affiliation, play these scenes like they're from a lesser-known work of the Bard - all pomp and ego tension. Children must have been intrigued by the world and the concept, but to even entertain the idea that adults would find nothing compelling in the show is bizarre. The figure that children would easily identify with, Susan, is kept to the background, and Ian and Barbara emerge triumphant. There's no easy ending either, the Doctor and the team are forced to fake their own deaths (a plan devised by Ian), and all relationships with the tribe are left quite unresolved. It's exciting, and leaves me longing for some less tidy endings instead of the rather formulaic 'Doctor saying goodbye to grateful local citizens' endings that soon became the show's norm.
In short, if you've never indulged, The Unearthly Child and the following story are surprisingly wonderful pieces of television. It's contemporary, accessible, and exciting. I think it should be compulsory viewing for anyone involved in the show, perhaps at least once a year.