‘An Unearthly Child’ begins with what could be a kitchen sink drama. Two teachers, Barbara and Ian, are troubled by the odd behaviour of one of their students and the behaviour of her guardian, her grandfather Doctor Foreman. Concerned they investigate the junkyard in which the two apparently live.
The magic of the series is that Susan and her grandfather turned out to be unearthly and that they lived in a time machine. The world in which Ian and Barbara lived was changed, revealed to be far different from that of the audience. From then on the world of Doctor Who would have monsters, aliens and fantasy.
Imagine instead that there hadn’t been something extraordinary in the junkyard. What if the series remained in our world of human tragedy? This would be perfectly in keeping with the tone of the episode thus far but would have changed things dramatically.
Ian and Barbara may have discovered that the Doctor and Susan were living rough in the junkyard, unbeknownst to Foreman. The police box would have provided some shelter from the elements, if a little cramped.
Susan’s oddness could stem from her own genius. Her other eccentricities can easily be explained by mental illness and delusions. Her correct prediction that Britain would move to a decimal currency explained by either her ability to anticipate such a change or a wild guess that turned out to be correct.
The Doctor is a simple thief or con artist, using his cunning and appearance to get what he wants. He may have unwillingly accepted guardianship of Susan when her parents died during the war. A burden which he reluctantly accepts, allowing her to go to school to let her bright mind flourish despite his fears that remaining in one place too long will bring the unwanted attention of the law.
Seeing through the Doctor’s bluff Ian bursts into the police box only to find Susan in the cramped quarters, surrounded by blankets, a meagre selection of food and the odd trinkets that the Doctor has stolen.
Would the Doctor had turned violent, surprising the teachers just long enough so he and his grand daughter could escape? Would the rest of the series have followed them as they tried to stay one step ahead of the law, struggling just to survive?
Each episode could have been in a new location, whether it be a district of London or another city entirely. What challenges and dangers would they encounter there? Would they be menaced by criminals, street gangs and the police? Even the elements could threaten their life.
This could be the perfect avenue to explore social issues of the day. Would Susan fall in with the wrong crowd? Would she be faced with the temptation of drugs and alcohol or try to make money through unsavoury means.
Could the Doctor give her moral guidance when he was on the wrong side of the law and never achieved anything in his life? Would their bond keep them together through the bad times? Would he redeem himself by giving Susan a good life?
The show could have been more whimsical, following the tone of ‘Steptoe and Son’ or ‘Only Fools and Horses’ or ‘The Minder’. Each episode the Doctor has a new get rich quick scheme while Susan dreams of having a normal life.
What if the Doctor realised defeat and either accepted the inevitable or abandoned Susan to escape himself? Susan would almost certainly have been taken into care and perhaps given the education and counselling she required.
Ian and Barbara might have been hailed as local heroes. They might be the toast of Coal Hill school school for a short time and even made the newspaper if it was a slow news day. Then life would have gone back to normal, their actions forgotten.
They might feel responsible for Susan’s separation from her grandfather and personally tutored her. Susan might have been capable of extraordinary things and they could feel proud they’d helped her achieve her full potential.
The series might have charted Susan, Ian and Barbara’s progress with the Doctor a peripheral figure. He would always be in the background, a symbol of the life Susan had left behind but always felt the need to rejoin.
The obligation to family versus the opportunity for self improvement could have been an ongoing conflict for Susan. What if her grandfather returned asking for money, shelter or sympathy? Would she sacrifice everything she had gained for him?
In both scenarios Susan might fantasise that her life had gone very differently. That she, her grandfather and her teachers had gone on a series of adventures through space and time. Wouldn’t that be better than reality?
The stories that could have been told had the series not been science fiction are worth telling and could be filled with drama. They are fundamentally different from the series that we have followed for 50 years now and had this been the path taken there would be no regenerations to explain the recasting of the central character.
The role of the Doctor could have been recast or the character simply never appearing, such as with ‘Taggart’. Susan might have become a doctor herself or the show could have ignored the issue, having grown past its origins.
In the bigger picture such change would have huge consequences for the Doctor Who universe as a whole. Without this single incident would that mean that there were no monsters, no time travel or alien invasions?
The world of Doctor Who might have mirrored ours exactly, right up to the modern day with the only difference being the existence of the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara. Everything would be just as it is now.
Alternatively just because the Doctor and Susan weren’t time travellers doesn’t mean that Mondas wouldn’t return to our solar system in the 1980s, that a reptilian race wouldn’t be discovered in hibernation or that a mining operation wouldn’t unleash an inferno.
The Doctor might exist, he just wasn’t Susan’s grandfather. He could be out saving the world without the main characters of the show ever being aware of the fact. One day they might meet and instantly realise what could have been.
Maybe the world they live in was never meant to be. Maybe someone has taken the magic out the world deliberately to make the world drab and grey. Such an action would be the cruellest attack against the Doctor, changing his origin at its very starting point.
What if Susan was the only one who knew what had happened and had to find a way to put it right?
In a choice between realism and the fantastic I know what I’d choose.