The Unearthly Child is so unlike what was to come, concentrating on two teachers investigating a mysterious student only to find a time machine in a junk yard. The Doctor doesn’t appear until near the end of the episode and even then he is more of an antagonist, standing in the way of the main characters.
This does provide an interesting view of how a campaign concentrating on the companions could be run. An NPC time lord is a mystery, a true alien. His motives are unknown and he is capable of deceit, quite willing to abduct people against their will or lie about technical problems with his TARDIS in order to get his way.
The 1st Doctor is good at getting Ian and Barbara into trouble but leaves them to solve problems, often only agreeing with them once they have hit upon a solution. This is the ideal situation, you don’t want the NPC saving the day each adventure. Making him frail, absent minded or a ditherer puts the player characters in the lime light.
In this way a NPC time lord can be used simply to ferry the characters from one time and place to another, his curiosity leading them into all types of problems. The player characters can’t simply abandon the troublesome time lord, they need him to pilot the ship, so they must put up with his behaviour.
This tension can be milked for a good while, letting the player characters question the time lords agenda. Will he abandon them? Should they betray him if there is a chance of getting home? Can they believe what he tells them about protecting history or should they help avert injustice?
Only through each party helping the other time and again will trust be established. Peril and imminent death are good reasons to pull together, even if it is temporary. An episode like ‘Edge of Destruction’ can bring this issue to a head, where the characters have only each other to depend on.
When the episode was first broadcast it was set in the ‘modern day’. The viewer would have identified strongly with Ian and Barbara, while Susan would have seemed alien with her knowledge of future events.
Now it is much easier to put ourselves in the place of Susan. She is living in the 1960s, a foreign land and time, trying her best to blend in. She can’t help but stand out, despite her best efforts. It easy to imagine that we could get confused about when decimalisation was used in the UK or put people off with our ‘futuristic’ hairdos and dance moves.
This is important to bear in mind when setting adventures in different time periods. To the locals that is the ‘modern day’. The past is not just facts and figures but a living, breathing place with people who are little different from today. Clichés are handy tools to sketch out a time period but it won’t feel real unless the people do.
The central premise, a strange school girl is actually a time travelling alien, is worth exploring. In this story Susan and her Grandfather are benign, for the most part, but what if they weren’t?
What if a group of aliens are trying to pass as human and the player characters how noticed something is odd about them? What would Ian and Barbara have done if they’d discovered, not a time machine in the junkyard, but an alien invasion fleet?
Those tired of evil invaders might consider a scenario in which the aliens are truly stranded and are just trying to live a normal life. An investigation into their true origins could threaten to reveal their secret and put them in danger, requiring player characters to help them. In this case the player characters are actively trying to hide the truth to protect innocent people.
The TARDIS starts a reoccurring theme in Doctor Who, the extraordinary being discovered in ordinary settings. Both its exterior as a common police box, found on many streets at the time, and its location in a junk yard make the existence of the time machine even more startling.
How much of the time ship’s impact would have been lost if it had been discovered in a science lab or even on board an alien ship? The mind would already be expecting something strange.
Place it in a common, every day location and its appearance is a shock That is why we still thrill at seeing Cybermen outside St Paul’s cathedral, Yeti in the underground and Autons smashing their way out of shop windows. Something to think about when writing an adventure.
Coal Hill school is also an intriguing starting point. It makes for an interesting setting or background for characters, especially in light of what happens not long after Barbara and Ian vanish, as shown in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks.’
What would the teachers and students think of the disappearance of two members of staff and a student? What might Susan have accidently let slip about future events which could influence her class mates later in their lives?
The most important thing about ‘The Unearthly Child’ is that it is a beginning. All future adventures emerged from the curiosity of two school teachers and when the TARDIS first dematerialised no one could have predicted where it would go.