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…
The sexual revolution of the sixties notwithstanding, there’s something of a cliché when it comes to early Doctor Who: the women are often relegated to making the coffee for the men, who are busy doing all the really hard thinking and generally saving the day—no one ever said that sixties Who wasn’t a product of it’s time. Nevertheless, women as political and social agents in any society are sometimes overlooked, perhaps out of a misguided belief that only men have agency in any given cultural group. In all fairness, I don’t know if this was the case in the nineteen sixties; maybe, maybe not, but it’s not how anthropology works today.
Old Mother, for example, is, as Craig brilliantly describes her, an “überconservative” when it comes to tribal politics, especially in terms of fire: she’s fearful of the changes that possessing fire will bring to the tribe, and wants nothing more than to maintain the status quo. This group of people are, of course, fictional, but there’s certainly some evidence that ice age women were highly regarded and respected, and may have held important roles in some Upper Palaeolithic societies. It’s clear the women, while not necessarily equal to men in this society, certainly have some say in tribal affairs. Old Mother is not afraid to voice her opinion, even openly mocking Za’s (rather pathetic) attempts at lighting a fire in the previous episode. She even takes his hand axe while he sleeps in order to free the Doctor’s party, so they’ll leave without making fire. Later, her violent death at Kal’s hands is shocking and unexpected to us as well as to Hurg and the tribespeople when her body is discovered. It’s clear that murder like this is uncommon.
Hur, on the other hand, lends credence to the other cliché that behind every good man is a good woman: she has complete confidence in Za’s abilities as both leader and firemaker (even if he can’t actually make fire), and is fiercely loyal to him, too. She dislikes Old Mother, whom she sees as a threat (different, but equal to Kal) to Za’s leadership, and rightly so. However, Hur has considerable sway over Za, who listens to and trusts what she has to say, and she knows how to appeal to his masculine vanity. She loves Za—that much is clear—and is highly protective of him following his injury in the forest, as well as when she believes Susan hopes to take Hur’s place as Za’s mate. She’ll do anything to ensure his safety.
Finally, of course, there’s Barbara who is completely out of her element. In An Unearthly Child, and even at the beginning of The Cave of Skulls, she’s deliberately shown as stern and perhaps slightly humorless—the kind of teacher whom you don’t want to have to stay after school with. That aspect of her personally doesn’t go away, and she isn’t afraid to stand up to Doctor (who, arguably, is contemplating the cold blooded murder of Za): Barbara reacts angrily toward his apparent lack of compassion and altruism toward Hur the injured Za. At the same time, however, the full reality of their situation, that they’re tens of thousands of years away from 1963 is beginning to sink in; it may as well be tens of thousands of miles away, and scriptwriter Anthony Coburn deserves a great deal of credit for understanding human psychology well enough to script genuine and truthful responses that occur slowly over a period of time. Barbara’s “culture shock” is a theme that will carry over until at least the end of The Brink of Disaster. In the context of sixties culture, she reaches out to Ian, as the strong man, for reassurance. More realistically, she’s simply grasping for something—anything!—immediately familiar.
These characters are remarkably real and believable, which is sadly not always the case as Doctor Who progresses, and it’s frankly brilliant writing on Coburn’s part to achieve this.
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…
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.)