Saturday, November 26, 2011

Doctor Who #4: The Firemaker

"In our tribe, the firemaker is the least important man."TECHNICAL SPECS: The episode is on disc 1 of The Beginning DVD boxed set. It is the last chapter of 100,000 B.C. First aired Dec.14 1963.

IN THIS ONE... The gang is recaptured, Ian gives the cave people fire, and then they all escape to the TARDIS for realz.

REVIEW: Anthony Coburn's script is really quite remarkable. In his final episode (ever), he has Ian admit that the Doctor is the leader of the group. More than a simple settling into the show's premise, it's entirely motivated. By what, is up to interpretation. He may have been convinced by the clever way the Doctor proves Kal was framing Za for the murder of the Old Mother. Though the cave people have simple minds, their poetic language and symbolist logic makes this look like a rhetorical feat. (The grunting extras are more underwhelming, especially in the shouty riot bits.) Or Ian may be motivated by seeing how the tribal rivals act and deciding to be the bigger and more civilized man. On a thematic level, the Doctor is the "firemaker" of the group, though the secret of making fire here is the secret of time travel. (Look back two episodes hence, when the Doctor can't make fire because he's lost his matches, and compare to his inability to pilot the TARDIS because of missing elements.) By Za's logic, the Doctor IS the leader. Ian's anti-class speech about the firemaker being the least important man (because everyone can make fire) is subverted once we get back to the TARDIS where the Doctor has a secret he does not share with his "tribe". As if to prove Ian's previous point, mistrust ensues as the Doctor avoids ever giving a direct answer about whether or not he can bring Barbara and Ian back to 1963.

The episode also gives us our first fight choreography on film, and though it goes on a bit, it exceeds the program's later standard. And it's quite brutal. They don't put the sound effect of Kal's skull being cracked open, but the shocked reaction shots of the cast in flickering firelight tells the tale. Then, Za drags the dead Kal around like a piece of meat, an image strengthened by the furs over the dead man's head, like some indeterminate animal. The characters are then left in the Cave of Skulls with a rotting corpse. It's Susan's intuition that finds the key to their escape, and it's just as macabre. A line of fiery skulls provides the required distraction. A cool and crazy visual that makes fear and horror one of the program's initial ingredients. You need not wait for the Daleks for that.

Also of interest is how Ian puts words into Za's mouth and eventually, Prometheus-like, gives him fire. He's a teacher, after all. That's what he does. Star Trek is three years away, so Doctor Who never suffered from Prime Directive anxiety. Sometimes it's wrong to change the course of events (when it would change written history for the companions), sometimes it isn't. It would be fun to think that the TARDIS crew were responsible for humanity gaining fire and friendship, but the truth is, Za's father could make fire, and Kal was a mutant in that he was his culture's first liar. Humanity was on its way whether the TARDIS landed near one particular enclave or not. As we leave prehistory behind to lay our gaze on an alien world, we may imagine the Tribe of Gum surviving the winter or not.

THEORIES: In the closing moments of the episode, the Doctor says he can't control the destination of the TARDIS because he didn't have time to properly input the starting coordinates, as if time travel was more a matter of setting direction and speed than typing in a specific place and date. The TARDIS has made two quick, unprepared trips already, and as long as the character narrowly escape from each destination (or not have any data about when and where they are), the craft could well be lost in time. It's ambiguous whether the Doctor has never been able to pilot the ship adequately or if he can, but has lost his bearings in the time vortex due to these events. Of course, he also mutters about TARDIS systems being in disrepair and missing elements and formulas, so he could just be saying anything to cover up his inability to pilot the TARDIS. See Rule #1.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - On the surface, perhaps after a single viewing, The Firemaker may look like a bunch of dirty, grunting cavemen bothering characters that escape from the Cave of Skulls for the second time in as many episodes. But there's a depth here thanks to the characters' ethical dilemmas, strong thematic content, and a real sense of danger evoked by a harsh and hostile world.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: High - Everyone needs to see An Unearthly Child at least once in their lives. It's where it all began! And though the 100,000 B.C. story doesn't have the same impact, it's still relevant. It's the cast's first voyage through time and whether you enjoy the caveman stuff or not, the way the TARDISeers group dynamic evolves, and the themes explored by Coburn's script, are well worth the viewing session.


LiamKav said...

Good points. I'd put on the info text for this episode, because I found my mind wandering during the previous one. I turned it off after about 10 minutes because I was genuinly enjoying the episode itself.

We do get our first "TARDIS dematerialises in front of shocked locals" moment. And, I'd argue, the first proper instance of the Doctor using his quick thinking and quick mouth to get out of a situation. You could have Tennant's Doctor go "nah, I've never seen a better knife than that. Good knife. Nice and sharp for knifing things, all knify-style" and the scene would play out exactly the same.

(You know, that's a challenge for SFX teams in 30 years time... replacing Doctor's with different Doctor's in old episodes.)

Siskoid said...

No one's tried that on you-tube yet? ;)