Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child, Part Two: The Cave of Skulls

“If we knew his name, we might have a clue to all this.” – Ian

After a fantastic first episode, the second has a reputation for being terrible. It is not, but it is also not the classic that the first was. The script is poor and the acting is worse.  That said, the premise is decent and the episode is mature fiction: there is no clear antagonist and the relationships between the characters are complex, as are what drives the plot forward. But even so, the script isn’t as tight as the first episode, the direction and costuming not as well done. The guest stars here are simply unable to build the gravitas they need while covered in fake dirt and furs. It is worth watching, but just.

"The Cave of Skulls", Season 1, Episode 2. First aired November 30, 1963.
“The Cave of Skulls”, Season 1, Episode 2. First aired November 30, 1963.

The Recap

Instead of jumping into the episode in chronological order, it’s easier to look at the relationships that set up the plot and there are three sets of individuals all vying for power of some kind. The episode centers on a stone-age tribe, not prior to the discovery of fire but in a time when mastery over fire was rare. The tribe itself is complex, with some members refugees from other less-successful tribes. Za may be the main antagonist, he’s the de facto leader of the tribe and the son of the previous leader and firemaker.  The script does not say how the previous firemaker died, but it is implied to be by a rival tribe because of his fire-making prowess.  The tribe’s patience with Za is running out and he is losing self-confidence, all while lashing out at those that would deny him his authority. Za’s primary rival is Kal, a refugee from a tribe that did not survive the previous winter. Kal is a skilled hunter, but believes that he will be given the power over fire. Both antagonists worship a sun god “Orb” and hope for assistance from him. Adding complexity is another pair of refugees: Horg and dis daughter, Hur. Once the leader of a now-dead tribe, Horg does not aspire to rule directly, but rather through his daughter: she will be given to whomever (Kal or Za) become the leader. This allows him to emerge as something of a mediator or power broker in the group. A final source of power, of a sort, is the Old Mother. Implied to be Za’s mother, she is a force of conservatism. She doesn’t like fire because it led to Za’s father’s death and believes that the tribe can live on quite well without the new ways. She probably would not want to buy the latest iPhone, either.

As I type it out, I realize that there is a rich complexity to this story. It is a shame it fails to come through in the episode itself.

“It’s still a police box! Why hasn’t it changed? Dear, dear. Very disturbing…” – The Doctor

As the episode begins, Za is failing to make fire in the more ridiculous way possible while being watched by the tribe. It is humiliating. His father did not pass on the knowledge on to him before he was killed, so he has little chance of succeeding. Meanwhile in the TARDIS,  Brabara and Ian wake up to find Susan and the Doctor checking the TARDIS after it has landed. The TARDIS’s “yearometer” reads zero and the Doctor isn’t sure when they are and will have to go out to scan rocks and plants to figure it out. After some brief preparation, the four step outside into an alien landscape. As Ian, Barbara, and Susan remain near the TARDIS, the Doctor travels farther afield to gather his samples. Unbeknownst to all of them, Kal has seen them leave the TARDIS (which he believes to be an odd tree) and is now watching them closely. While gathering his samples, the Doctor lights a pipe. Seeing the fire, and thinking that the group are emissaries from Orb (the sun god), he attacks the Doctor, knocks him unconscious, and takes him back to the tribe’s cave. The other companions hear the altercation and rush toward the Doctor, but he is already gone. All that remains are his hat, notebook, and a broken geiger counter.

At this point, Susan starts to scream. Quite a bit. It’s very annoying.

Kal brings the Doctor to the cave. He and Za argue over the Doctor and Kal believes that he is there to cement his promotion to leader. Za threatens that he can just have the old man taken to the Cave of Skulls where he can force him to share the secret of fire. The Doctor awakens, at first agrees to provide fire in exchange for his own life, but then recants when he realizes that he has lost his matches in the skirmish. Za pounces on this moment of weakness and delivers the caveman equivalent of a stump speech, painting Kal as a liar and showing Za as the only trustworthy chief. Kal panics and threatens to kill the Doctor if he doesn’t make fire immediately. At that moment, Ian, Susan, and Barbara rush in and rescue the Doctor, only to have Ian be nearly killed. At the last moment, the Doctor again promises to make fire and they spare his life, only to have the group delivered, bound, to the Cave of Skulls, to be sacrificed to Orb in the morning.

The episode ends with the Doctor contrite. He is desperately sorry for the position that they find themselves in. The floor of the cave is littered with skulls, each with their heads bashed in. They know what they have to look forward to in the morning.

Final Thoughts

Some good points:

  • I really liked the scene of the children playing “hunter” in the cave. It’s a small moment and it goes by quickly, but it’s a great little way to flesh out the world that the travelers find themselves in.
  • Caveman language must be close to the edge of what the TARDIS can translate (although any translation that is going on remains unsaid here). It appears that while the Doctor can understand them, they do not all understand the Doctor or understand him well. This may be based on intelligence: Horg, who has the most devious plan to gain power appears to understand the Doctor the best.
  • Speaking of intelligence, Za appears to be the smarter of the pair between him and Kal. He recognizes the Doctor as being an oddly dressed human, while Kal thinks of him as a “creature”. This may be because Kal saw him breathe smoke (from his pipe) and light fire from his fingers (matches).
  • We also have the first time (for the characters) that the TARDIS is shown to not transform: it remains a police box, even in the stone age. This detail is of course resonant with later Who viewers that know this particular bug will never be fixed, but for the viewers of the time it is another in a line of TARDIS failure. Will this crazy time machine hold itself together?
  • Foreshadowing: The destruction of the geiger counter sets up a challenge the group will encounter in The Daleks. I was not expecting this type of cross-serial continuity and I am curious whether we continue to see these details as the show progresses.

The Bad:

  • There’s a flip-flop from the previous episode. In episode one, it was Barbara that does not believe that the TARDIS was real, and Ian understanding. But in the beginning of this episode, it’s Barbara that has come to terms with it rather than Ian.
  • No trace of Susan as a genius in this episode. She could not identify the horse (?) skull, although biology is perhaps not her thing. She also screams in a particularly annoying fashion.
  • No explanation is given about how the companions managed to find the Doctor in the nick of time. It is not a trope yet, but having the companions rescue a kidnapped Doctor is quite different from the other Doctor Who that I have seen.
  • Unclear what the Doctor’s motivation is at this point. His line “There you are, a new world for you.” to Ian and Barbara may imply that he was planning on marooning the pair back in the stone age, but that’s unclear. I’m impatient to get to episode four to see how he comes to the decision to keep them along.

As I write it all out now, I’m thinking that it wasn’t too bad. But that’s not at all how I felt actually watching the thing. Onward to episode three!

Previous episodes this season:

E01: An Unearthly Child


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