Monday, October 18, 2010

Doctor Who from the Beginning: 100,000 BC

In my last post, I examined “An Unearthly Child,” the very first episode of Doctor Who. The next three episodes of the program (“The Cave of Skulls,” “The Forest of Fear,” and “The Firemaker”) form a serial of sorts, which I am going to refer to as 100,000 BC and discuss together in this post.

Curiously, “The Cave of Skulls” does not pick up directly where “An Unearthly Child” left off (with the Doctor and his granddaughter Susan taking their two new captives, Ian and Barbara, for an unwanted ride in the TARDIS). Instead, the episode begins by introducing the viewers to a crowd of dirty, Stone Age tribesmen who are all dressed in rags and are fairly indistinguishable from one another. Bold move for only the second episode of a new program! From what I could gather in this scene, Za, son of the tribe’s previous firemaker is having problems making fire. His father appears to still be alive and well, although he, too, is now unable to produce fire. The inability to make fire must run in the family, which makes me wonder how Za’s dad got fire the first time. Was he just walking in the woods and found a burning stick or something? Anyway, Za wants to make fire so he can become leader of the tribe, marry his sweetheart (creatively named Hur), and live a life of cave-bound luxury. Unfortunately for Za, the rest of the tribe, including the requisite Creepy Old Woman, wants the hunter named Kal (who is an outsider from a destroyed tribe) to step up and be their new leader. It’s hard to feel too bad for rather whiny Za given that his attempts to make fire seem to consist solely of rubbing both of his hands on an animal bone. He says he expects “Orb” (the sun, I guess) to show him how to make fire because he’s special or something. I guess religion hasn’t changed much in the last 100,000 years.

After this scintillating opening, we finally cut back to the TARDIS. The Doctor says he doesn’t know where they are, but Ian insists that they’re still in the junkyard. At one point in this scene Ian calls the Doctor “Dr. Foreman” and the Doctor promptly replies, “Eh, doctor who?” Ah, that old chestnut. As a matter of fact, that “joke” is used not once, but twice in this serial. Eventually they all leave the TARDIS and even Ian is forced to accept that they’ve moved. What convinces him? An old horse skull, of course! I guess they didn’t have horses in London in the 1960s. Interestingly, from a Doctor Who fan perspective, this is the first time that the TARDIS’s broken disguise mechanism (later called a “chameleon circuit”) is mentioned. The doctor looks at his ship and mumbles, “It’s still a police box. Why hasn’t it changed?” As the Doctor ponders this issue, Kal the hunter sneaks up on him, knocks him out, and kidnaps him because he saw the Doctor light his pipe with a match. Or maybe he was just hunting old men. Hard to tell with Kal. When the Doctor’s abduction is discovered, Susan becomes scarily hysterical. Is it just me or does this kid seem seriously psychologically messed up? Maybe all Gallifreyan kids are this weird? Meanwhile, Kal has brought the still-unconscious Doctor back to the tribe and tells them that the old man will make fire appear from his fingers for the tribe. Because “the creature” is his, Kal says, he should be the leader. The Doctor finally wakes up and tells the tribe that he can make fire for them – if they take him back to his ship. How is the Doctor able to speak their primitive language, I wonder? Ian, Barbara, and Susan then conveniently/inconveniently stumble into the tribe and are taken captive. Za says they should wait until daybreak when Orb shines again before killing them; maybe that will bring them fire, he hypothesizes. Convinced by Za’s sound logic, the tribe tosses the four captives into the Cave of Skulls where Barbara promptly tries to get romantic with Ian before noticing the piles and piles of split-open human skulls surrounding them.

“The Forest of Fear” reveals to us that Stone Age tribes apparently slept in one big pile, like a really boring orgy. While they sleep, their new captives are trying to escape, their time as prisoners uniting them. The Doctor tells Barbara that fear “makes companions of all of us.” This is where the four of them finally stop bickering (as much) and become a more unified crew. The Creepy Old Woman frees the TARDIS crew with Za’s knife and makes them promise not to make fire. She says that fire will bring trouble. I’m not sure what her motivations are here, to be quite honest. Has she seen fire destroy a tribe before? Does she just not want Za to get the credit because she’s a Libertarian and she’s backing Kal? And aside from the question of her motivation, how the hell did she move that giant stone at the doorway to the Cave of Skulls? Anyway, Za and Hur show right after the Doctor and company have escaped, so they assault the old broad. Meanwhile, in the forest, Barbara fakes a breakdown so Ian will hug her. Then she freaks out when she sees a dead boar. Maybe she wasn’t faking. Her screams bring Za and Hur. Before the two Stoners can recapture the TARDIS crew, he is mauled by an unseen (for budgetary reasons) wild animal. Tellingly, the men want to abandon Za, but the women force the Doctor and Ian to stay and help. Ian even mocks Barbara by saying, “Your flat must be littered with stray cats and dogs.” Sensitive comment, Ian! Especially when directed towards a woman who probably lives with at least 14 cats. In exchange for their help, Za and Hur agree to guide them back to the TARDIS. Back at the homestead, Kal goes to the Cave of Skulls, finds the Creepy Old Woman, and kills her because he thinks she let the captives go. Oh, Kal. She totally supported you, dude! When he discovers Za’s knife on her person, he decides to rather cleverly use the weapon to frame Za and Hur for the murder. The Doctor and company finally make it to the TARDIS, but are met there by the angry tribesmen. Oops!

At start of “The Firemaker,” Hur tries to explain to the tribe what really happened to the Creepy Old Woman, but because she’s just a stupid girl and Za is still unconscious from his previous mauling, her people refuse to believe her. The Doctor somehow proves that Kal really killed the old woman, though, so the tribe drives Kal away into exile. Yeah, that’ll stick.... Now it’s back to the Cave of Skulls for our heroes! Za recovers from his wounds and goes to visit the captives, who are busy trying to make fire with the old “rubbing two stick together” method. Ian proves that he is The Man by being the first to produce a flame. But is having a fire safe in such an enclosed environment as the Cave of Skulls? Ever hear of smoke inhalation, Ian? I thought you were a science teacher. Before anyone can get sick from the smoke, though, Kal appears and attacks Za. Begin filmed sequence of caveman on caveman action complete with anguished reaction shots from the regulars! Yay! Of course Za wins the fight, although I must admit that I had trouble telling the two hairy, dirty men apart until all the action was over. Stand-up guy that he is, Za then passes off Ian’s fire as his own and becomes leader of the tribe. Even though he’s achieved all of his dreams, including getting the luscious Hur, Za still insists on keeping the TARDIS crew captive. Because the episode is nearly over, though, they manage to escape by using a lame, unbelievable trick where they stick four skulls on torches and run away into the forest while the tribesmen cower in fear. They get to the TARDIS and dematerialize. Unfortunately for Barbara and Ian, the Doctor says he cannot take them back to their time because they “left the other place too quickly for him to properly set the coordinates.” So, they land in a strange-looking petrified forest, instead, and decide to go exploring. As they leave the TARDIS, a radiation meter on the console of the machine suddenly reads “Danger.” No one except the camera operator seems to notice, though.

This is an odd story. For one thing, it seems like Kal, the outsider underdog, is going to be the protagonist of the piece from the outset, not Za, the “privileged” son of the previous firemaker who convinces the rest of the tribe that they should kill the Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara at dawn. Even at the end, when it’s become apparent that we’re supposed to sympathize with Za, he just seems like a jerk, claiming that he made Ian’s fire and refusing to release the prisoners. Kal may have killed the Creepy Old Woman (for which we should all probably thank him), but I don’t doubt Za would have done the same if it had brought him power. Plus Kal shares Superman’s Kryptonian first name. How can he be bad? For another thing, the rather rudimentary politics of a Stone Age tribe does not make for the most fascinating basis for a plot. Although I said I liked the four-person crew in the previous story, some of the individual members of the crew don’t really get to do much in this serial. Instead, this seemed like a story that could have been told using just the Doctor and one other person, probably Ian. Does Susan even do anything in this story? In fact, both of the women characters just seem to get hysterical and scream a lot. Was this common in the 1960s, I wonder? Both of the women seemed necessary to the plot in “An Unearthly Child,” Susan because she set the story in motion with her weirdness and Barbara because she convinced Ian to help her investigate. I wish the two ladies got more to do in this story. I did like how Za and Hur related to the TARDIS members in ways that made sense to their limited experiences. For example, they call the TARDIS crew a “new tribe,” they decide that the TARDIS itself is “a tree,” and Hur says that Barbara watched over the injured Za “like a mother taking care of her baby.”

Next time: Introducing the sensational character find of 1963 – THE DALEKS! Yeah, I’m not really a fan....

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