Doctor Who: The Long Way Round: An Unearthly Child – Part 4

An Unearthly Child: The Firemaker

 

As we are at the end of this serial, I think it makes sense to start with the key break to the format confirmed at the end. In the first 5 parts it has very much been The Doctor and Susan against the rest of the universe in exile. There is an alternative version of this story where the Doctor learns a valuable lesson about trust, returns Ian and Barbara to London (with the promise of keeping their secret) and the TARDIS either flies off to a new planet or settles down in Totter’s Lane to deal with menaces to Earth.

We now appear to have a new dynamic established. Ian and Barbara no longer appear to be guests but regular time travellers as much as The Doctor and Susan1. Just as in the previous episode, the fear of the situation is helping them gel together as a team. The most significant development, for me, is Ian agreeing to see The Doctor as leader, when it was only a short while before in the forest that they are still sniping at each other whilst struggling for control. Having seen The Doctor use his wits to save them, Ian seems willing to follow The Doctor’s lead now.

But it should not be seen in a hierarchical manner, more as an organiser in recognition of his ability. It follows from what The Doctor said before “Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe”. From this Za only takes the power of demagogy, seeing how Ian and The Doctor are able to turn the rest of the tribe against Kal. Za will not share his knowledge of fire with the whole tribe because he sees it as diminishing his power, nor does he seem to understand when Barbara wants reciprocity.

By contrast, the travellers freely share their ideas allowing them to escape. The Doctor mumbles to himself some ideas including the possibility of “scaring them somehow”, this appears to inspire Susan to come up with the plan to put the fire in the skull. By showing this to the others it allows Ian’s suggestion of four torches to make them seem like they are dead.

The one slight disappointment I had is that Barbara really doesn’t have much of a role this time around. Last week she had a very interesting role as the humanitarian against The Doctor’s utilitarianism, but the situation here did not really allow for that. If anything it goes against it. For the kindness shown is rewarded with their lives initially, but not with their freedom. Instead they are forced into a different kind of nightmarish evil.

For when Za talks about the tribes joining together, it is pretty obvious he is not thinking of them living in the next cave over and sharing resources. He seems to want to force marriage to combine them together, just as he is bringing in Horg by marrying Hur.2 So, it appears that the travellers were not able to actually make the situation better overall. Maybe they saved some lives by giving fire? Or perhaps Kal’s leadership would have been better? But the hope we get out of it is the escape of the travellers and them being reborn out of this “death” as a team for their next adventure.

For too much seems to be made of the tribes superstitions and how foolish they are. I am generally against any judgement of people’s belief systems but this seems particularly out of place compared to the previous parts. Whilst we did see them worshipping Orb, it appeared to be not significantly different from many modern religions, it provided support and affirmed leadership. Here they are clamouring to sacrifice the strangers for no reason other than killing outsiders might appease Orb. We are given no attempts to explain why this would be so, instead it just appears to merely be a convenient threat.

Then we have the escape itself. For as much as I enjoy seeing the time travellers working together, it is hard to comprehend why the tribe think those skulls with flames in them are some kind of spirits of the strangers. From what we can tell death is all around them and skulls would not be an oddity. And whilst fire returning is a major event to the tribe, it was treated more as a necessity and a sign of leadership before, rather than the supernatural. To even see the pragmatist Za fooled by this is disappointing. It could easily have been a single guard, established as afraid of fire already being tricked into letting them free. To have the whole tribe whimpering is a let down.

Also, technically it is not as accomplished. The fight between Za and Kal is an interesting change but it is overlong and largely unnecessary. Kal’s driving out by The Doctor and Ian was the real climax to the power struggle and battle of ideas. Also whilst some of the dialogue is good, much of it lacks the flair Coburn demonstrated in the previous parts. Horg talking about the meat and fire coming together is a particularly poor example.

But just as the travellers fled in the TARDIS away from the tribe in all haste, I do not want to dwell to long on these elements. We now have a fascinating new dynamic and apparently no hope of getting back to London in 19633 or even really knowing where they are. There is, of course, one final extra dynamic. The ship no longer seems to be working properly and is therefore unable to warn them of the impending danger promptly. We will have to see how this shake up plays out but it has the initial promise of being something very special indeed.

1. Of course it is also plausible they could be settling down in this new time & place or die horribly there. However the story beats do seem to be setting them up for the long haul.

2. We are not given to see if they have any proscriptions on polyamory but I don’t think it would be far fetched to imagine he would consider taking Barbara as his wife. Even if she did want to do this I don’t imagine it would be long before Hur would have her killed and the rest of them driven out.

3. Unless, of course, The Doctor is lying to keep Ian and Barbara on board the ship. However, Susan’s reaction seems to support The Doctor’s.

GS Blogger: Kris Vyas-Myall

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