The first four episodes of Doctor Who are included on an extra DVD that comes with the BBC film about the creation and early days of the series, An Adventure in Space and Time. I’ve already reviewed the pilot, “An Unearthly Child,” which aired in late November 1963 and introduced two UK schoolteachers and the general public to a mysterious and somewhat cranky old man from another planet who traveled around time and space with his teenaged granddaughter in a police box. Now it’s time to see what happens after that.
In its very earliest days, each individual episode of Doctor Who was given its own title; it wasn’t until later that all the episodes covering one storyline had an overall name. I’ve decided to go through all three of these at once.
Cave of Skulls
This episode picks up where An Unearthly Child left off, with the Tardis sitting in a desolate, sandy landscape and the shadow of a human figure nearby. We now see that it’s a caveman; the flashback that follows reveals that his name is Kal and gives us the situation that sets the plot up. In short: Kal is a scheming outsider who has recently come to the local tribe, and sees a situation he can take advantage of.
Among this tribe, the one who can make fire is their leader, but the last Firemaker has died and didn’t pass on the secret. His son, Za, has no clue how to go about it and sits pathetically rolling what looks like a humerus (upper arm) bone between his hands over a pile of twigs and invoking Orb, the sun god to give him flame. Uh, no.
“Za will never make fire,” taunts the Old Mother of the tribe. Whether or not she’s his mother is unclear, but she’s quite right. He should’ve paid more attention to Dad.
A younger woman of the tribe, Hur, is more personally concerned about Za’s inability to start a fire. She is destined for the tribe’s leader. She’d prefer it to be Za, but if Kal can prove his worthiness as a hunter and provider, then her father Horg will give Hur to him. I’m not sure why the older caveman has the power to decide who will lead them without being the leader himself, but there it is.
Inside the Tardis, Ian and Barbara were knocked unconscious by their first trip through space and time, and are just now waking up as the Doctor and Susan check the instruments on the console and determine that they don’t know where or when they are. The “Year-ometer” isn’t calculating properly. All they have is what they can see of their sandy surroundings through the viewscreen.
Ian scoffs at the idea that they’re no longer in London, and argues with the Doctor about what’s outside the Tardis’s door. It takes some time before they actually open the door to peek out.
During this argument, Ian addresses the Doctor as “Dr. Foreman,” since that’s Susan’s last name (taken from the name on the doors of the junkyard where the Tardis has been parked).
“Dr. Who?” the Doctor responds archly, but of course doesn’t give Ian another name.
Eventually, they do go outside. The Doctor is surprised to see that the Tardis still looks like a police box. “How very disturbing.”
Ian is finally forced to accept the reality of the situation.
While Ian and Barbara discuss the Doctor (and do that “Dr. Who?” thing again), the Doctor wanders off to gather some samples hoping that this will give him some clue to their location. He pauses in his work to light up a pipe.
Kal, who’s still lurking nearby, sees this and clobbers him. He carries his prisoner back to present to the tribe, certain that this old man’s fire-making powers will make him their new leader.
Unfortunately, the Doctor dropped his matches when he was attacked. When the tribe sees that the old man in the “strange skins” doesn’t have the magic of fire in his fingertips as claimed, they’re ready to kill him.
But it’s Ian to the rescue! He and Barbara and Susan discovered the Doctor’s broken equipment and followed the tracks in the sand. A struggle ensues, but two schoolteachers and a young girl are no match for a bunch of cave-people and in minutes they’re all prisoners. Instead of being killed right away (because that would make this a very short series instead of one that’s been running for 50+ years), they get tossed into the Cave of Skulls to be sacrificed at daybreak in hopes that that will make Orb look favorably on the tribe and give them fire.
The Forest of Fear
The Cave of Skulls is just what you’d expect: it’s a cave… and there are skulls in it. Ian observes that all the skulls have the same nasty fracture across the top, as if all these people were killed in the same way.
As the foursome try to help each other work loose their bonds so they can escape, some emotional bonding occurs. Not that Ian and the Doctor are anywhere near done arguing with each other.
After everybody in the tribe has fallen asleep, the Old Mother takes Za’s flint knife and sneaks over to the Cave of Skulls via a secret crevice in the rocks hidden by vines. We’re meant to think that she’s intending to kill the prisoners, since that’s what she was urging the men to do earlier, but what she actually does is use the knife to cut their bonds and shows them the secret way out. She’s old-fashioned and doesn’t want the tribe to have any more of this new-fangled fire, since it’s been causing so much trouble.
The Doctor et al run through the forest that stands between the tribal caves and the sandy area; the forest set is pretty good considering it’s in a tiny TV studio. No one is sure how to get back to the Tardis. The Doctor and Ian quarrel as they go concerning the order in which they should run and about who’s in charge of this little group. Even though Susan seems to remember best where they were parked, there’s no question of her or Barbara leading since they’re much too busy with important girly jobs like being hysterical and tripping over things.
Back at the caves, Hur saw the old woman go, and tells Za. These two chase after the escaped prisoners. Along the way, Za runs into a sabretoothed tiger (not shown) and gets badly clawed.
The Doctor and his companions are hiding in the bushes only a few feet away when this happens. Barbara wants to help the injured caveman, and Susan insists on staying with her. Ian, who sees this as a chance to run, gives in and goes with them to render First Aid. The Doctor protests–he knows they can’t expect gratitude or any reasonable response from people this primitive. In fact, Hur does react violently at first when Barbara tries to touch Za, but eventually it dents her prehistoric brain that these strange people are trying to help.
This is where the one moment in this first story that’s most often referred to later occurs:
The Doctor continues to object while the others make a stretcher to carry Za. He desperately wants them to move on. Surreptitiously, he picks up a sharp rock and is about to brain Za with it–but Ian stops him.
The Doctor plays innocent and says he was going to ask the injured caveman to draw them a map to the Tardis. Really, throughout this whole forest part of the story, he’s more like the craven Dr. Smith than any Doctor I’m later familiar with.
As it turns out, the two cavepeople do show them back to the Tardis.
Back at the caves, Kal has murdered the old woman and is trying to frame Za for it. He gets the tribe on his side.
Just as our heroes, such as they are, are in sight of the Tardis, the cavepeople intercept them.
And so it’s back to the caves we go. Hur tries to stand up for the strangers. Kal accuses Za of killing the Old Mother, but at this point the Doctor finally does something useful and shows the tribe that it’s Kal’s flint knife, not Za’s, that has blood on it. This turns the tribe against Kal and they chase him out.
Za is vindicated… but there’s still that problem of how to make fire. Demonstrating that he’s just as ungrateful as the Doctor said he would be, Za shuts the prisoners back up in the Cave of Skulls with an ultimatum: Make fire or die.
Ian does make a fire using the proper Boy Scout method of rubbing two sticks together. He wants to teach everyone in the tribe how to do this, so that leadership isn’t dependent on this one skill that’s become so important on their survival, what with an Ice Age coming on. The issue of leadership has been a theme throughout this story, and not just for the cave-people. Ian and the Doctor have been arguing and having their own power struggle almost from the moment they met. But now Ian acknowledges that the Doctor is the leader of their little group.
But Za has other plans. He carries a flaming torch out to show the other cave-people and so becomes their leader. Even though he’s only still alive and in this position now through the efforts of the Doctor’s group, he and Hur further show their shallow understanding of gratitude by deciding to keep the four prisoners indefinitely.
It’s Susan who gets a bright idea about how to scare the furry pants off the cave-people. The flaming skulls do the trick long enough for our heroes to make their escape. When the torches fall over, the tribe is off in pursuit.
The Doctor et al run back to the Tardis without quarreling or getting lost this time–although Barbara, not Susan, trips and falls. They reach the safety of the police box just before the tribe catches up with them and throws some spears. The Doctor shuts the doors and starts the Tardis up… and it disappears before the cavepeople’s amazed and bewildered eyes.
The Tardis lands in another uncertain destination. All they can see outside on the viewscreen now is a forest of pale trees, unlike the Stone Age one they just left.
The Doctor and Susan check the console and see that the atmosphere and radiation levels look okay. It will be safe to go out. But first, they decide to go and clean up after their recent ordeal.
As they head into the as-yet unseen part of the Tardis to freshen up, the camera zooms in on the Radiation monitor. The needle slowly moves from a low level up into the Danger zone.
We’ll be meeting the Daleks next, but that’s another story for another time.
This story was a bit of a let-down after the introductory pilot. The internal politics of the tribe get a bit tedious over three episodes. The most interesting thing going in the story is the conflict between the Doctor and Ian. Susan and Barbara, on the other hand, get very little to do to define their characters further.
What’s also interesting is the suggestion that the Tardis is only now malfunctioning, and that it never has before. It will be stuck as a police box hereafter, but Susan tells her teachers that it has been a column and a sedan chair on her previous journey with her grandfather to other locations.
One thought on “Dr. Who: The first episodes”
It’s me, Ginger Mayerson, and this is an awesome review. I think I accidentally saw this episode. Being a child in the mid-sixties, I was already jaded with Soupy Sales, Shari Lewis and Lambchop, and the dreaded Miss Nancy and her Romper Room panopticon, so the aesthetics of early Dr. Who wouldn’t have appealed to me. That being said, this is probably why the comic genius of Show of Shows was erased by some soulless flunky at CBS. On the other hand, the amazing fact that a b/w show with, um, quaint production values, a cranky old guy (yes, his hair looks kind of nice), a pert girl-child, and a couple of middle-class ninnies lasted 50+ years AND IS STILL GOING says something about human society. I have no idea what it says about human society, but I’m sure it says something. I almost feel sorry for the alien archeologists who get to figure out this mess, all of it, in a million years. Based on our radio waves, or whatever they are, reaching the far reaches of the universe, Terra is probably on the “don’t bother to visit” or “for God’s sake don’t go there” list of whatever the equivalent of Auto Club is in the galaxy of MACS0647-JD (and NASA, sell the naming rights to this thing asap, you know you want to).
Great work, Kit. Please keep writing these. They always cheer me up, or at least make my smile broader, even if I don’t get around to mentioning it in a comment. I do try to comment. It’s like clapping for Tinker Bell or something.
Comments are closed.