The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, April 29, 2017

"Fear Makes Companions of us All": Doctor Who--The Cave of Skulls/The Forest of Fear/The Firemaker

Barbara Wright: [to the Doctor] Why? You treat everybody and everything as something less important than yourself.

Dr. Who: You're trying to say that everything you do is reasonable and everything I do is inhuman. Well, I'm afraid your judgement's at fault, Miss Wright, not mine. Haven't you realized that if these two people can follow us, any of these people can follow us? The tribe might descend upon us at any moment.

I don't remember where I ran across it, but there's a fan theory that the Doctor and the Master are in fact the same entity, with the Doctor representing the later, more civilized regenerations of the Time Lord. (Admittedly, not all that far off from the planned end game for Delgado's portrayal of the Master). Well, the best canonical evidence for the theory is the storyline beginning with An Unearthly Child and continuing with these three episodes.

In all the episodes I've viewed so far, the Doctor is affable on the surface (as his default), but condescending, manipulative and selfish. He tricks a frightened Ian into grasping an electrified TARDIS console--in order to leave the Doctor and Susan alone, like the Doctor says he wants--threatens to abandon Susan, if she won't leave 20th Century earth, and, in these three episodes, manipulates the cavemen to get what he wants (OK, mostly to be left alone), tries to murder a injured caveman, and is generally snarking about in the background while Ian and Barbara (oh, and usually Susan) try to help. (Shades of the Master's perfect response to the Brigadier's demand on how to cope with being at ground zero of a forthcoming nuclear explosion: "You could take the usual precautions...sticky tape on the windows, that sort of thing").

No, the Doctor is, at this point, at best an antihero. Far from his "never cruel or cowardly" ethos, the Doctor has moments of both in this introductory serial. If there's a hero to be found, it's Ian, with Barbara playing the moral conscience of the group of travelers.


There's a reason why most discussions of "An Unearthly Child" spend most of their time on the superbly effective first episode. It's tight, economical, well acted, and pretty creepy at moments. Then we go back to the Age of the Low Budget Cave Dwellers. The choice of warfare between cavemen as an initial storyline was a peculiar one, in that it's hard to think of a way to frame a prehistoric story in really compelling way, particularly when it's being shot in a small studio with early 1960s resources.

And yet, even if you (like me) hate the whole caveman drama genre, it kinda works.

Kind of.

Partially because as children's TV goes, this story is pretty dark--the Cave of Skulls is just that--filled with skulls caved in by crude weaponry. The first world the Doctor's magic box visits is literally Hobbes's State of Nature, a time "where every man is enemy to every man," and life is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short."

The cave-people look duff, but the notion of a nascent society, just slowly beginning to contemplate more than bare survival, unable to understand mercy or compassion is an interesting concept, and the main guest actors successfully sell it. (Partially because the cast is really quite good, out of place though the actors are--to give one example, Eileen Way, who plays the thankless role of Old Woman (really) was a major theatrical performer. How'd they get her?) Also Waris Hussein and Douglas Camfield direct the hell out of this thing. No budget, no real props, no effects worth a damn--and something else they didn't have: anything to lose.

There's a reason Verity Lambert was a legend. Hussein and Camfield make almost all of it work, even 54 years later. (Except the "climactic" fight between Kal and Za. Yeah, not so much.)

The story postulates that having reached self-consciousness, the human race has not yet found a way to understand feeling, or affection--they're too busy trying to not get killed, and self-awareness seems to have inhibited them. So it's genuinely interesting that the nicest of the people the TARDIS party meet, Za and Hurr, are completely thrown when the TARDIS crew save Za's life when he's injured in pursuing them (so they can teach him how to make fire and win leadership of his tribe against his rival, Kal--whom Za let stay with the tribe when his tribe was, seemingly, wiped out by cold). In other words, Za had a rudimentary twinge of mercy and spared the man who would become his rival, and yet he can't understand Ian's sparing him.

Za learns from Ian that "Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe," and the wheels start turning in his mind; he becomes a leader in fact, and not just the loudest bully. But he breaks his word to the travelers--he will not let them leave. He shows a little uneasiness at this--he expects them to be pleased with the meat and fruit he brings them, and wants these clever strangers to stay, but still has no appreciation of freedom, or of a word given, So the TARDIS crew have to find their own way out. They escape not because of the Doctor, but because Susan has the germ of an idea, and Ian perfects it.

And yet the Doctor is not entirely useless--he handily fakes Kal out and gets him to reveal (by pulling out his bloody knife) that he has killed an old woman of the tribe (in fact, it's Eileen Way as "Old Woman," but you probably guessed that), and then the Doctor whips the tribe into an angry mob to drive Kal out.

The Delgado Master could hardly have done better.

Also, while Ian, Barbara, and Susan are trying to find a way to save Za, the Doctor tries to bash his head in with a rock, to resume the escape. Caught by Ian, he unconvincingly stammers an excuse, which, William Russell's performance makes eminently clear, does not fool the young mathematics teacher.

That's more Ainley Master, really.

The Doctor does have a few sympathetic moments--he comforts Barbara by thinking up a job for her to do, leading to the famous epigraph to this post, he apologizes to his three companions, blaming himself for their predicament. (Actually, only partly correct: The Doctor is abducted by Kal, who knocks him unconscious, but Ian, Barbara and Susan launch what really has to be the Worst. Rescue. Ever.

Yes, worse than this:

An eccentric story that should not have worked, but does. Doctor Who comes out punching above its weight.

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