Thursday, November 24, 2011

Doctor Who #2: The Cave of Skulls

"If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds, and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?”TECHNICAL SPECS: The episode is on disc 1 of The Beginning DVD boxed set. It is either Part 1 or Part 2 of 100,000 B.C., depending on your point of view. First aired Nov.30 1963.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara step off into prehistory, and are soon captured (for the first of many times) by a tribe of cavemen questing for fire.

REVIEW: With all of time and space as a canvas, it may seem a little lackluster to drop the TARDIS into the Ice Age, with filthy cavemen for a guest cast. But I rather enjoy it. The cave-people's culture are given proper attention. They use a satisfyingly literate vocabulary that respects their world view (shades of the cod-Shakespearean of later historicals), worship Orb (the sun), and naively rub bones and sticks hoping to draw fire from them. We see their children playing at Hunters & Leopards. They seem real. The power struggle between the unsuccessful son of the previous firemaker, Za, and the newly arrived Kal is at times political (with public opinion swaying from one to the other depending on the circumstance), and at others personal, with Za desperate to win the hand of Hur by becoming leader. Za has Hur's support (will she prove to be a Lady MacBeth?), while the Old Mother backs up Kal (but is really more against this newfangled idea of fire), with Hur's father representing the swing vote. Though the trappings are primitive, the story of professional and romantic ambition, as old as Man itself, is universal. The choice of era and location also creates an important contrast for the TARDIS, highlighting the plot point that the chameleon circuit isn't working.

The characters are still evolving, trying to find their proper niche. Strangely, Barbara and Ian have switched their Scully-Mulder attitudes around since the previous episode. Now she's the one who believes and it's Ian who must be convinced. Either works, but it makes sense that the scientist of the two who have a more experiential approach. Susan has her first fit of hysterics, progressing towards the "scream queen" archetype that will make the show lose more than one actress over its history. But she also shows acute intuition, almost a sixth sense that makes her feel danger before it happens. It's another ability that's bound to be phased out, though it's the first hint that Time Lords may have psychic abilities. As for the Doctor, it's the only time he's portrayed as a smoker, but he loses his matches and never touches tobacco again. Otherwise, he's his recognizable self, trying to confound his prehistoric captors with words. We also get our first "Doctor who?" moment when Ian calls him Doctor Foreman, words reprised by Ian later when he wonders just who this man is and if he can be trusted. The title of the show would eventually become more mysterious - they didn't go around plugging it as often as they do today, and before reruns, would not be seen again - but here it is explained to its original audience. Crucially, the Doctor is more of an explorer than a righter of wrongs at this point. On this first trip, writer Anthony Coburn has the Doctor bring a geiger counter and take soil samples. He checks atmosphere, radiation and temperature for safety.

The TARDIS set is also evolving, its huge double doors opening up right on the barren landscape, without the dark antechamber that will later be used like a money-saving airlock. The exit doesn't match the size or look of the outside view, providing a visual shock as Hussein cuts from one to the other. The prehistoric sets don't quite make the same impression, with landscape obviously painted on drapes and obvious seams separating blocks of stone inside the caves. The Cave of Skulls, finally seen at the end, is much better, however, filled with creepy skeletons and smashed-in skulls promising a nasty end for our four captured time travelers.

THEORIES: While the year is conjectural (it can't really be 100,000 B.C. despite the production title for the story, not from what we know about the development of early Man), some have theorized that it could be the future as easily as the past, albeit a postapocalyptic future where Man has regressed, or even a parallel society on another planet. I don't believe one word of it. Ian asks the Doctor if they've really gone BACK in time, and he confirms it. Yes, the Doctor doesn't have full control of his machine and could theoretically be lying to cover that up, but I prefer to invoke Occam's Razor here.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - We're so early in the series that everything has special meaning. It's all firsts and prototypes, and anyone interested in the series' evolution and development should take a gander. More than that, the caveman drama is actually better than you might expect.


LiamKav said...

Is this the one where the Doctor goes to bash the caveman on the head, or is that tomorrow?

Siskoid said...

Tomorrow, tomorrow, I bash you, tomorrow, Tomorrow's just a stone's throw a-wayyyyyyyy.

Randal said...

I always loved the whole "Doctor? Doctor Who?" and variations running gag, culminating in the final lines of this past season. Sometimes it's overplayed, but I appreciate it.

One big Roy Thomas-like-continuity-patch-for-no-real-reason was the whole I.M. Foreman was a Gallifreyan monk who ran a traveling space-time circus or some such nonsense in the Interference novels. By that time the BBC Eighth Doctor books had run off the rails anyway.

Siskoid said...

The thing about retcons to an otherwise evolving story is that they'll invariably spawn more when the extracanonical retcon is ignored by one of more "lines" (audio, novels, tv show). Beware anything written by Gary Russell, who is the king of this.

David H. said...

sorry to go off topic here Siskoid but are you having any problems with blogger? in particular with missing images.

Siskoid said...


LiamKav said...

A couple of things that stuck out at me as I watched this:

1. The Doctor warning people that he needs to check the environment to see if it is safe is pretty hilarous, considering that later Doctor's would often walk out the door without even seeing what things looked like, never mind if it was breathable. I always expected that one day he'd open the doors and flood the TARDIS, or find that the ship is floating in space and that he's just blown all the air out. (Of course, walking out into the middle of a gangland shooting and getting himself, all because he didn't look at the screen shows that, often, he really wasn't paying any attention.)

2. The way Ian leans over Barbara at the end, to my modern TV watching mind, it really looks like he wants to kiss her. Scandel!

3. I'm sure the control room has already shrunk. Maybe the bad take-off generated a spatial anomoly centered around the control room that affected it's 3-dimensional properties?

Siskoid said...

1. Possibly, the TARDIS gets more accommodating. Early stories focus on how the TARDIS is malfunctioning etc. Eventually, it might get under control and avoid lethal environments.

2. It gets worse.

3. Since the TARDIS interior is mathematically pliable, I'm not sure we even need an anomaly. Strange that the characters don't notice it though.