Return to the Cave of Skulls (again)

The time travelers make their way through the forest and back to the plain. The TARDIS is only feet away. But then—three warriors are blocking their escape. Kal, the new leader of the tribe, emerges from jungle, and this time, there will be no escape…

I doubt The Firemaker is going to show up as everyone’s favorite episode in a Doctor Who Magazine poll anytime soon ever, but here’s a shocker: it should. It’s really, really good, yet incredibly underrated.

Waris Hussein is clearly influenced by the French nouvelle vague, yet his direction lacks the blatant pretentiousness of nouvelle vague cinema (compared, say, to Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville), and is stronger and far more honest because of it. Za and Kal’s fight to the death in the Cave of Skulls as the time travelers watch, terrified, is brilliantly realized: this is not the final battle between good and evil, but it’s what we, the viewers, expect from two so-called “cavemen.” But Hussein really shines in his direction of the series regulars, who, one-by-one and without speaking a word, deliver some of the best performances in the entire history of Doctor Who. Carole Ann Ford especially captures the sense of sheer terror; Susan’s look of sheer horror as Za break Kal’s neck right in front of them is truly inspired.

The chase through the forest as the time travelers make their way back to the Ship is equally compelling, too. Famously, the story goes that the actors ran in place while stagehands moved the foliage past them, yet this is an incredible and memorable sequence that’s hardly lacking in realism. Instead, it allows Hussein to create a real sense of urgency, and it’s unclear whether the any or all of the time travelers will make it out alive. Of course, they do all escape, but there a certain sense of uncertainty that accompanies them (and us) even after they’re safely inside the TARDIS. It’s not until the Doctor has activated the controls and the police box fades away, leaving the tribespeople to look on in shock. Perhaps they were from Orb after all.

It’s important to note that regardless of any accuracies, these are stereotypical “cavemen,” and perhaps bear little resemblance to “real” nomadic hunter-gatherers who wandered across the European landscape during the last ice age. I’m not certain that real hunter-gatherers would have been fooled by the “ghosts” in the Cave of Skulls, nor am I certain Kal, for example, would be so naïve as to not understand that Za’s hand axe would have had Old Mother’s blood on it if he had really killed her. It’s easy to forget that Upper Palaeolithic men and women were, after all, human beings who were just as intelligent in their own right—perhaps even more so—as any one of us in the modern age. The tribe here is what most people, especially in the early sixties, expect a Stone Age tribe to be. I think that’s fine from a storytelling perspective, but I believe it’s equally important to give our real ancestors a very great deal of credit: without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

(As an aside, I would love to see what happens next for Za, Hur, and the rest of the tribespeople. We may never know.)

Just as the initial flight of the TARDIS through the lonely infinity of space and time stands in my memory, the sight of the Ship on the arid plateau in the dead of night, and the Doctor standing in the doorway looking back over his shoulder is another image that’s difficult to forget. On the one hand, we, the viewers, are silently urging the Doctor inside and to take us away before the pursuers, only seconds behind, catch up—and yet, there’s another pull, to keep going, to keep running, and to see what really does lie on the other side of the mountains.  Perhaps exploring what’s on the other side of the mountain is what’s Doctor Who’s all about.

Finally, we learn the bitter truth: the Doctor cannot necessarily return the schoolteachers, and therefore, us, the viewers, to 1963. This is one of the major premises of the show that’s changed a very great deal over the course its history. Susan remains encouraging, if not completely confident, in her grandfather’s abilities to pilot the ship, even as the Doctor explains that he has, at least, “gotten us away from that other time.”

After a short time, the pattern begins to match up, the central column stops, and the Ship arrives in a strange, bizarre forest populated by chalky, ghostly trees. Unknown to the time travelers, the radiation meter moves into the danger zone, an unseen signal flashing urgently…

Daniel Lestarjette

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.)

What do you think? Please join the discussion!