Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child, Part Four: The Firemaker

“Are you saying you don’t know how to work this thing.” – Barbara

And so the first serial of Doctor Who ends with a whimper rather than a bang. This episode felt extraneous, the careful build-up of tension over the previous episodes was tossed aside quickly. Much of the intelligence of the script and characters are gone here, although the Doctor’s speech to the tribesmen stands out as the first time in the series that the Doctor talked himself out of a mess.

More after the recap.

"The Firemaker", Season 1, Episode 4. First broadcast December 14, 1963.
“The Firemaker”, Season 1, Episode 4. First broadcast December 14, 1963.

“Have you taken us back to our own time?” – Ian

Recap

First, a recap. The companions finally arrive at the TARDIS, only to find that it is surrounded by Kal and his new tribe and they are out for blood. Or, at least it appears they are, until they allow the travelers to return to their camp. Kal accuses Za of killing the Old Woman to stir up the tribe, but the Doctor tricks him: he notices that Za’s knife has no blood on it, while Kal’s does. When confronted, Kal admits to killing the woman and the Doctor is able to stir up the tribe enough to cast Kal out. Just when they think they are safe, Za, now awake and acting as leader again, has them taken prisoner and thrown back into the Cave of Skulls. This time, Za knows to guard both exits. He seems conflicted after Hur reveals that he was cured by the others, but he is fearful that Horg will still not permit him to be the leader without fire.

A short time later, Ian and Barbara are working to light a fire using conveniently placed sticks, string, and straw. Za threatens to sacrifice them to Orb, but this is a ploy: he will release them if he is given fire. While Za negotiates with the companions, Horg is back in the camp and turning the tribe against Za. Hur defends Za, but the lynch mob reconvenes and they head off to the Cave of Skulls to take revenge on Za. Meanwhile, Kal also has a grudge against Za and manages to take out the guard at the back door so that he can rush Za from behind. They fight, but in the end Za manages to kill Kal with a blow to the head.

Ian finally succeeds in making fire and gives it to Za, but rather than show gratitude, Za places a guard on the group until they agree to join the tribe.

Some time later, the group is still safe but inprisoned. Susan has a new escape plan: they will put skulls on flaming torches to fool the tribespeople that they are vindictive spirits or similar. Hur is the first to see the torches and she screams. Before long, most of the tribe is cowering in the cave while Ian and the rest slip away into the wilderness. Of course, the illusion is shattered when a torch falls and it is a pursuit once again.

Naturally, they make it to the TARDIS just in the nick of time and the Doctor takes off at random. As the companions head deeper into the TARDIS to clean up, the radiation meter on the console gradually climbs. To be continued!

Final Thoughts

This is not a bad start to the show, but also not a perfect one. The caveman setting is not a proper “historical” as Doctor Who would come to do (Marco Polo would be the first) and– except for the fantastic first episode– it does not really serve as a great introduction to the characters. By most accounts it is the next serial, The Daleks, where the show came into its own. I look forward to seeing how I feel about that as I rewatch it shortly.

The Bad
  • None of the characters act very intelligently this episode. Horg, the subtle power broken in previous episodes, serves only to excite the crowd to go attack Za again. Kal is also fooled far too easily by the bloody knife, even for a caveman.
  • Really? There’s no word for “friend” in caveman-ese? More importantly, did this episode imply that the “leader” is the only member of the tribe that hunts or does anything else of value? That seems unlikely.
  • The fight scene between Za and Kal was well-acted, but went on too long. It also looked to be shot differently from the rest of the episode, and while that was jarring it came out well enough. The “reaction shots” back to the Doctor, Ian, etc. were more funny than effective.
  • The cliffhanger was resolved far too easily. This is Doctor Who, but five words explaining how they didn’t get attacked and ended up back at the camp would have been nice.
  • Why did no one think to tie up the companions when they are thrown back in the Cave of Skulls?
The Good
  • The Doctor and Susan both get good moments. The Doctor’s prosecution of Kal in front of “his” tribe was a fun scene and Susan’s decision to use the torches and the skulls together shows creativity. Ian also got a good speech about the Doctor being the leader.
  • Very little unnecessary screaming this episode and no characters flipped roles or attitudes during the episode break.

The first serial is over. Three parts out of four aren’t bad though. Up next is The Daleks, another Doctor Who classic, in seven parts. I’m curious to see whether it can hold my attention that long.

Previous episodes this season:


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