Doctor Who: The Long Way Round: An Unearthly Child – Part 2

An Unearthly Child: The Cave of Skulls

The Cave of Skulls

When The Doctor and Susan first encounter humanity, they were in the future of humanity and we saw how they put those who were different on an isolated planet, in a kind of prison, and obsessed with fighting alien life forms rather than negotiating. When we next rejoined them they were in 1960s London and we saw there that people who do not fit into a very thin definition of “normal” are met with suspicion and violence. Now we go back to early humanity (“zero” according to the Yearometer) and discover that this may not be a recent development but something that goes back to the beginnings of who we are as a species.

In fact there is very much a sense of “The More Things Change…” in this story. Strangers are not to be trusted and in another cold land we see the struggle for survival turning human beings vicious. Kal himself in some ways resembles The Doctor. He is an exile, possibly from a tribe that is all dead. However, the difference seems to lie in the fact that The Doctor merely wants to defend himself and keep travelling. Kal seeks to take control of the tribe for himself. Za is equally determined to retain power and keep control of what is his, including gaining Hur as his bride1. This is not meant to be just tribal grunting however, over The Doctor we see Kal and Za making what are clearly contemporary election speeches, talking about economics, power, religion and even honesty:

Za does not tell your lies. He does not say “I will do this things and does not do it”… Do you want a liar for your chief?”

When In fact, I have to say, what I love most about this episode is the dialogue. It is absolutely exquisite. My favourite is The Doctor’s line:

If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?”

As it serves the double purpose of both trapping Ian into finally admitting what has happened and to give us, as the audience, a real insight into the beauty of travelling that (in spite of all the horrors) The Doctor seems to feel. Before this it seems to be about hiding and solving problems but here, for a few moments, he seems to relish the idea of a whole new world outside the ship.

I will return to the travellers (especially our new passengers from the 1960s) in a little while but I wanted to make mention of some of the other personalities on display in the tribe outside of Kal and Za’s battle for supremacy. Whilst Hur is indeed seemingly being seen as a prize between Za and Kal, it seems fairly obvious she knows her own mind and wants to help Za retain his power. The Old Mother also seems to have her own opinions, that Fire is deadly and must not return under any circumstances. In fact the tribal member with the least agenda appears to Horg, who is happy to use his daughter as a political bargain chip. Even the children are quite brutal here, playing the game of hunting another child dressed as an animal. The brutality we saw in Hunters of Earth is not far off, but here it does not need a bomb to release it.

Whilst I have said how similar it is to the scenarios we have seen previously, there is something unique about the bleakness here because we seem to have gone back far enough that communication of the same ideas has failed. Just as we are seeing Ian struggling to believe the reality he finds himself in, the tribes people are unable to accept that the Doctor needs a special tool to make fire. Kal’s assertion that the Doctor can make fire would be as ridiculed as if our teachers had told their faculty Susan was an alien time traveller. This ramped up by the level of terror Susan demonstrates at The Doctor’s disappearance. Whilst she has been scared, her level of fear, even at the hands of oncoming danger seems to have been less than this.2

Speaking of Ian and Susan, it is interesting to see he does not “take things as they come” so much as just refuses to accept those things outside of his reality. Just as so many of the adults (likely including these two) made themselves forget the real incident of the Cold Knights, here he simply cannot accept that they have travelled in time. Why not? Because time travel doesn’t exist ergo this cannot be a time machine so they cannot travel in time. Even after Barbara has accepted the reality of what has really happened he still tries to convince Susan that it’s “time you were brought back to reality” (the sly smile Carol Ann Ford gives when the doors open is just a marvellous piece of acting). Even afterwards he is still struggling to cope, believing that if he knew The Doctor’s real name he might have an answer. As if he could look him up in a phone book and find out he’s actually just a stage hypnotist or a dealer in hallucinogenic drugs!

Barbara on the other hand has finally had a total turn around, apparently convinced by the certainty of the Doctor and Susan that they have indeed left 1963. Unfortunately, in this episode Barbara gets little more to do than act as a believing Mulder to Ian’s cynical Scully. Hopefully we will see more of her soon, just as Susan got much more expansion as a character after Frayed.

One final element that adds to the nightmare scenario is that the Ship no longer seems to be working as planned. We already saw in the last episode that The Doctor was having trouble with the ship, now it’s ability to disguise itself (like the Boulder on Iwa) has stopped and it is stuck as a police box. This means Kal knows they came out of a “tree”, not being able to hide from onlookers as before, meaning they have no sanctuary. As they sit in the Cave of Skulls surrounded by the skeletons of the dead it seems like the height of the nightmare. Will we get a move towards happiness for The Doctor and Susan and the two teachers? Or is this the continued story of the darkness the human race is capable of?

1. Just as I judged Coburn in the last episode for putting a line about “Red Indians” having a “savage mind”, here I am equally judgy that the women characters in this story are called Old Mother and Hur. Especially when Hur’s father, who only has 10 lines of seemingly less importance, is given the name Horg.

2 Also, whilst her later attack is ineffectual I have to say I appreciate the vigour with which Susan executes it. She is clearly devoted to her grandfather and willing to do whatever it takes to save him.

GS Blogger: Kris Vyas-Myall

More from the world of Geek Syndicate

%d bloggers like this: