I’m in bed, under the covers. The lights are off, and Kyle, my partner, is asleep. I don’t know where the cats are. I’m watching The Cave of Skulls on my iPad. It’s been a few days since watching and writing about the very first episode of Doctor Who, An Unearthly Child, but I need a short break between episodes.
Whereas the previous story is an introduction to the characters and premise of Doctor Who, this is, ostensibly, the beginning of the first serial, the format that carried the program from 1963 all the way through the end of the “classic” series in 1989. The previous episode would end on a cliffhanger, which would be reprised at the beginning of the next.
“Oh no, Grandfather, no!” Susan cries. And then: that iconic noise of the TARDIS’ engines is heard for the first time, as the Ship leaves the familiar world of 1960s London behind, embarking on a strange journey through a vast, yawning, howling netherworld. This is by far the very best realization of the Ship’s flight through time in the show’s history. This isn’t the flashy, zipping “time vortex”; rather, this the base of infinite space and time, a voyage through bizarre formless realms that we’re not prepared for, and which leaves us unsettled and apprehensive. The TARDIS reappears on an arid, rocky plateau, an ominous shadow falls over the landscape before the scene fades away…
The shadow belongs to Kal, a gruff, unkempt man with a scraggly beard. He’s seen a “strange tree” appear out of thin air right in front of his eyes. He’s gobsmacked, and understandably so. Elsewhere, a ragtag group of men, women, and children, dirty and dressed in animal skins, look on in silence and expectation as one man rubs a bone in his hands over a pile of sticks and twigs. Old Mother taunts him: “Where is the fire Za makes?”
The Upper Palaeolithic, which began roughly 40,000 years before the present day, and endured for another 30,000 years, is something I feel very much at home talking about (I studied archaeology at the University of Illinois at Chicago with a special interest in the Late Stone Age), and I feel a certain sense of gratification that writer Anthony Coburn’s story of a tribe of hunter-gatherers from that time period (“year zero,” according the the Ship’s yearometer) who have lost the ability to make fire won out over the other ideas for the series’ first adventure. And it’s not difficult to understand why: a number of palaeontological discoveries in the late fifties and early sixties, as well as the prehistoric, but nonetheless sublime cave paintings throughout France and Spain fueled the popular imagination about early man. It also fulfilled Doctor Who’s original brief as an educational series that highlighted historical and scientific subjects.
This serial is about politics and power struggles, not just between Kal and Za for leadership of the tribe, but also between Ian and the Doctor for leadership of the TARDIS crew. There are compelling arguments for and against both Za and Kal, and there are compelling arguments for and again both Ian and the Doctor. Of course, the Doctor is always going to prevail over Ian—come on, the show’s called Doctor Who—but it’s a theme that will carry on for most of the first season. In fact, Kal and Za’s struggle for control very neatly parallels the Doctor (Za) and Ian (as Kal, the outsider). The Doctor, while ostensibly a scientist and man of logic, is nevertheless like the magician with his miraculous box. And like the Doctor, Za spends his days rubbing bones and sticks together hoping against hope for a little magic that will secure his place as leader of the tribe, but more importantly, as the man who makes fire.
Ian, on the other hand, is far more practical minded: his focus quickly becomes keeping himself and his companions, including (especially) the Doctor, alive long enough to get back to the Ship and back to the twentieth century. Kal shares this practically. It’s all very well to have fire, but without food, the group will starve to death. He’s seen happen before to his own people during the previous winter, and is eager not to see it happen again. Like Ian (who is rapidly becoming the action hero), Kal’s focus is on the well-being of the people who took him in, and he is very rapidly gaining support and legitimacy over Za as their leader. When he see’s the Doctor light his pipe with a match, Kal is certain that Orb, the sun god, has selected him as leader over Za, and does what any good caveman would do: he clubs the Doctor over the head, and carries him back to camp, both as a trophy, and as the tool he needs to oust Za, take Hur as his mate, and rule the group.
The characterization of the Doctor and Susan while not wrong seems inconsistent from the previous episode, and this is my chief gripe about this otherwise excellent story. For the original viewers, a week had passed, but it’s only been moments since the Susan and the Doctor’s struggle at the TARDIS controls. Susan was angry and upset at her grandfather for blatantly lying to her and then taking them away from the place she had begun to consider home, yet here, she’s completely calm, as though she’s already completely forgotten about it. From one perspective, Susan and the Doctor are aliens (though we don’t necessarily know this at the time); this could explain some of this inconsistent behavior. On the other hand, they’re family, and sometimes it’s hard to stay angry with the people who are closest to you.
As for the Doctor, he seems almost gleeful in the TARDIS, and this is understandable. He stated very bluntly and with contempt that he tolerated London in 1963, “but I don’t enjoy it.” This certainly won’t be the last time the Doctor uses trickery and deceit against his companions in order to get his own way. If it weren’t for the timely intervention of Za, who orders the time travelers taken to the Cave of Skulls, Ian, Susan, and Barbara would have met a grisly end. And not for the last time, the Doctor is forced to admit that his actions have put everyone’s lives in danger.
For their part, Ian and Barbara are handling the reality of time travel very well, though it’s easy to imagine they’re exhausted (they did just put in a full day’s work) and probably in a little bit of shock. They remain remarkably calm and levelheaded even as Susan becomes hysterical when they discover the Doctor’s smashed geiger counter and abandoned notebook with the codes to Ship’s various systems, which, Susan claims, he would never leave behind.
In the Cave of Skulls, the time travelers are safe for the moment, but its not without reason it’s called that: to their horror, they find themselves surrounded by dozens of skulls—and they’ve all been killed by a single blow to the head…
Daniel is the owner and Managing Editor of Time and The – !. He's been a fan of Doctor Who since watching Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison on his local PBS station as a kid. He launched Time and The – ! in 2011 after having the bright (?) idea to watch every Doctor Who story from the beginning and blog about it. (Yeah, he's way behind.)