Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child, Part Three: The Forest of Fear

“Fear makes companions of all of us.” – The Doctor

This second caveman-focused episode is an improvement over the first, in large part because the first had to spend so much time setting up the conflict and the story. This episode flows quickly, establishes a clear villain, and is overall fun to watch. We also get some running!

More after the recap.

"The Forest of Fear", Season 1, Episode 3. First broadcast December 7, 1963.
“The Forest of Fear”, Season 1, Episode 3. First broadcast December 7, 1963.


In the “Cave of Skulls”, the Doctor is terribly sorry for landing the group in this predicament. Shattered skulls lay strewn around the cave floor and it is clear to everyone what their fate will be in the morning, if they do not escape.  The Doctor fights hopelessness while Ian and the others are trying to find ways to cut through their bonds. Ian can feel air coming into the cave, so he knows there’s an opening someplace. The Doctor asks Barbara to concentrate on remembering the way back to the TARDIS.

Back in the tribe’s cave, the Old Mother wakes and steals Za’s knife before sneaking out. Hur catches her leaving. The Old Mother doesn’t try to go through the impassable boulder, but instead knows a secret entrance to the cave. Meanwhile, Hur wakes up Za and they realize that the mother is going to the cave. Is she trying to kill the companions? If so, he can save their lives in exchange for fire.

The Old Mother enters our heroes’ cave through a large and obvious back door. Rather than killing everyone, she sets everyone free– on the condition that they do not agree to make fire. As they flee, Za and Hur succeed in moving the stone at the front of the cave and rush in. The Old Mother is thrown to the ground, injured, but the others escape with Za and Hur in close pursuit.

Out in the forest, the companions run like hell– the very first of many “running” scenes in Doctor Who. They are exhausted, but they need to keep moving. Barbara is near to panic and screams when she finds a freshly-killed animal in the forest. Za and Hur follow the sounds, but the companions hide in the bushes. Just as he arrives, a mysterious animal attacks and mauls the caveman. Barbara and Susan insist that they help the injured man, but the Doctor refuses and it is left to Ian to tend to the injured man. Barbara negotiates with Hur: if he helps them to get back to the TARDIS (where there are medical supplies), they will help to heal Za and teach them fire. The group believes that the Old Mother won’t betray them, but the Doctor does not believe that these early humans have enough logic and reason to be trusted.

Meanwhile, Kal has sensed something wrong and has gone to the Cave of Skulls. Discovering only the injured Old Mother, he interrogates her and finds that Za and Hur have left already. Seizing the opportunity, he kills her and then returns to his people to inform them that the companions have escaped and that the Old Mother is dead. Moreover, he has had a vision:  Za and Hur came to free the companions to gain fire for themselves, but the Old Mother tried to stop them. Za killed her for it.  Za has taken away fire from the tribe. Hurg agrees with this vision and the tribe agrees to follow Kal.

Finally, the companions with Za and Hur arrive at the TARDIS but find it surrounded by Kal’s tribe, now very angry. To be continued!

“You treat everybody and everything as less important than yourself!” – Barbara to the Doctor

Final Thoughts

The Good:

  • Some of the characterization is spot on here. Compared to the distraught and useless Susan of the previous episode, Susan is the only one of the companions to remember how to get back to the TARDIS. It’s not exactly mastery of science, but it was great that she was given something to show her intelligence.
  • The constant misunderstandings are interesting, but Kal’s caveman masterstroke was fantastic. Despite not showing any deviousness in the previous episode, his “eyes see things” speech was a great way for him to wrest control of the tribe away from Za. And though Hurg only was given a small role, his agreement to this – even when confronted by evidence of his daughter’s betrayal – was both well-played and within the character of him as a power broker of sorts. He is the one that really passes the torch to Kal.
  • Ian is a great leader here. He holds Barbara together and the Doctor in check. Similarly, Barbara’s show of compassion is a great character element for her. In short, all of the leads had something to do that fit their characters well.
  • You could argue that the Doctor is out of character here, both in his considering killing Za and in his embrace of hopelessness. I hope we see more of this side to his character, and for him to gradually become the grandfatherly the First Doctor that we know from later stories. His line about how “fear makes companions of us all” and his accepting of Ian and Barbara into the group is fantastic.

The Bad:

  • It’s understandable that we never see the wild beast that stalks the companions and that mauls Za, but the scenes could have been directed better.
  • Hur isn’t really given anything interesting to do here.
  • We have another characterization slip. In the previous episode, Susan was overly emotional, but here Barbara is the one that is crying all the time. This could be because Susan has found her grandfather again, but especially given the Doctor’s instruction to Barbara that she remember the way back to the TARDIS (when Susan was the one that actually remembered), I wonder if the writers didn’t flip-flop on the two of them at the last minute.

Much more good than bad overall, if you can forgive the 1960s budget and direction. I am looking forward to finding out how it ends.

Previous episodes this season:

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