Sunday, March 13, 2011

An Unearthly Child/The Cave of Skulls

[1963, Season 1, Episodes 1-4]

“Nothing about this girl makes sense...”

Susan Foreman is a strange girl.  Two of her teachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, wonder together just what it is that makes her so odd.  Her intelligence is stunning in many ways, and Ian’s science experiments and Barbara’s history lessons are child’s play to her.  But she’s also completely lost in other, seemingly simple matters.  When Ian asks her to solve a problem with three variables, she insists that the problem can’t be solved without five, because you can’t approach the world without seeing all five dimensions.  In Barbara’s class, she doesn't know how many shillings were in a pound, and claims she had forgotten that Britain hadn’t changed to the decimal system yet.

It gets stranger when Barbara tries to meet her mysterious grandfather, and finds that the address listed by the school is just an abandoned junkyard.

Ian and Barbara, obviously close friends, decide to follow her home to try to figure out just what, exactly, is up with her.  They follow her to the junkyard.  Inside, they don’t find her, but they do find a police box for some reason.  Soon after, an odd old man comes in.  They confront him and figure out quickly that he is Susan’s grandfather.  He acts very suspicious, even sinister.

Then they hear Susan’s voice coming from inside the police box.  They rush inside to find a gigantic, otherworldly room inside the small box.  The old man locks them inside and tells them that it is his ship that travels through space and time.  Susan confirms it.  Barbara and especially Ian are extremely skeptical.  Then the old man decides that they can’t leave, and will have to travel with him.  And thus he kidnaps them out of their own time and their own world, and off to strange new adventures…

The first ever Doctor Who episode opens with an amazing theme song. Ron Grainer composed an eerie, minor-key melody, countered by a major-key bridge and driven by a pulsing bassline. But Dellia Derbyshire's arrangement, produced electronically, but sounding nothing like a synthesized score, creates an utterly unique, mysterious sound with a sinister but melodic theme.  And the title sequence matches it for mysterious strangeness.

An Unearthly Child drips with atmosphere from the opening shot.  The camera is mobile and lively, but slow enough to never be distracting.  The direction, camerawork, and lighting are superb.

But the script is equally strong.  It’s tight, well-structured, character-driven science fiction of the highest order.
Ian and Barbara are the focus of the episode, and they’re exceedingly well developed without slowing down the plot.  A bit old fashioned, likable, and engaging, they seem like good teachers.  It’s also obvious in the performances by William Russell and Jacqueline Hill that they’re close friends.

Very close...

 Their following Susan home comes across as somewhat mischievious curiosity.  Barbara wonders if they really should be following her, even though it was her idea, but Ian dismisses it because it is a mystery they really do want an answer to.

Susan, the titular unearthly child, is every bit as interesting.  Carole Ann Ford seems very relatable and likable, but there is something strange and otherworldly about her.

But William Hartnell as The Doctor, despite not appearing until halfway through the story, walks away with the episode.  He’s grippingly charismatic and absolutely fascinating.  He’s also an eerie, threatening figure; even the way he holds his flashlight is somehow threatening.  It’s a terrific performance.

The first two-thirds of the story masterfully build mystery and interest, but the really impressive part is the final third, when they go inside the ship.  The revelation is even more interesting than the mysteries.  Inside, the drama and intensity builds superbly, enhanced by the brilliant hum of the ship.

"The point is not whether you understand.  What is going to happen to you?"

The TARDIS interior is an amazing piece of work - it really does seem like nothing on earth.  It's not futuristic so much as completely otherworldly.  None of the subsequent redesigns have matched the sheer impact of this initial version. (although the Eighth Doctor's is pretty impressive)

The Doctor shows more and more layers while still remaining completely mysterious.

            Ian: You’re treating us like children!

            Doctor: Am I?  The children of my civilization would be insulted.

            Ian: Your civilization?
Doctor: Yes, my civilization.  I tolerate this century, but I don’t enjoy it.  Have you ever though what it’s like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension?  Have you?  To be exiles…  Susan and I are cut off from our own planet, without protection.  But one day, we shall get back.  Yes, one day… one day…

Ian and Barbara’s incredulous reaction to all this is completely credible.  Susan tells them, “I was born in another time, on another world.”  They don’t believe her, either, understandably, even seeing the wonders of the TARDIS.

When the Doctor tries to kidnap the teachers, Susan’s response is firm:

            Susan: I won’t go!  I’d rather be in the 20th century than in the TARDIS with you!

            Doctor: Now you’re being sentimental and childish.

            Susan: No, I mean it!

            Doctor: Very well.

But he ignores her instead, flying into the unknown.

An Unearthly Child’s 25 minutes are stunning – introducing four characters with incredible depth, introducing the concepts and premise of the show, and above all, telling a tense, tight, exciting story.

The general consensus on the first four-part serial is that the first part is great, and the rest is rubbish.  It’s an understandable reaction, though it has more to do with the far the drop in quality than the actual merits of the next three episodes.  Still, The Cave of Skulls, despite one of the coolest titles ever, is certainly lacking in many respects, and its two successors, The Forest of Fear and The Firemaker, don’t pick up the slack.  It’s a different plot entirely, although it certainly follows very directly from Unearthly Child and reflects it in interesting ways.  But all in all, it’s a different story, and I’m going to treat it as such in my ratings because this is my website, dammit.

This three-part tale, which I’m going to refer to overall as The Cave of Skulls because that title is way too cool to not say as many times as possible, concerns a tribe of cavemen on an unnamed planet struggling to survive without fire.  There was a man who used to know how to use it, but the knowledge was lost when he was killed.  His son, Za, is obsessed by the notion that if his father knew it, he can learn it.  Za is leader of his tribe, but the elders are increasingly impressed by the stranger Kal, who has been providing meat to the tribe daily, while Za only tries without success to make fire.  This power struggle is thrown wildly out of whack when four bizarre people come in a large blue box, and throw great confusion into the midst.

Did I mention there's a cave with skulls in it?

Cavemen are rarely depicted convincingly in movies and television.  And by “rarely,” I mean Quest For Fire and that’s it.  Almost every other attempt goes for b-movie silliness, and only delivers on occasion.  The second-best caveman film is probably One Million BC on virtue of a couple minutes of Harryhousan effects and Raquel Welch in a bikini in virtually every scene.

Quest For Fire is different: it takes it seriously, and sets out to tell an engaging story while capturing the grim realities of its setting.  Unlike a few other serious attempts at the subject (like, say, Clan of the Cavebear), it doesn’t compromise with laughably-written attempts at feminism (or the 1980s Hollywood version) or outrageousness: it commits fully to its ideals, and the strength of its convictions make it a funny, exciting, and fascinating epic. (Since writing this, I've seen Fred Schepisi's terrific Iceman, which makes two good cavemen movies.)

Cave of Skulls, despite being what was intended as a children’s show, aims for the same goal: a grim, gritty, realistic vision of horrific times.  And, given the agonizingly low budget, it does a good job.  The sets are small but atmospheric, the costumes simple but effective.

The plot itself, though… the plot is a political struggle between two incredibly simpleminded idiots, with political intrigue provided by other simpleminded people.  Within about two minutes, every possible avenue they can think of is used up.  The story, unfortunately, takes over an hour to unfurl.  The setting may be well-established, but that doesn’t make it terribly interesting.

What is interesting, however, is the characterization of the Doctor, Ian, and Barbara.  Ian and Barbara react very convincingly to the strange world they’ve been dropped into.  Even after the TARDIS lands and they see the other world on the monitor, Ian still isn’t convinced, not until the Doctor leads him outside.  After finding his footing in this new world, though, Ian still stands up to the Doctor without hesitation.  He’s willing to call the Doctor the “tribe leader”, but for the most part, he takes charge.  He also insists on helping a wounded caveman, even though the caveman was wounded following them.  He’s the hero of the group, and William Russell does a great job of it.

Barbara doesn’t show the same strength, but Jacqueline Hill’s performance is superb.  Her expression of fear is totally convincing.  Further, though, there’s a strength in her fear: she’s scared, yes, but she’s also trying as hard as she can to not fall apart.  Even better is her telling off of the Doctor late in Forest of Fear, when he callously wonders why they would consider helping a wounded enemy.

Most fascinating, however, is the Doctor.  After laughing at Ian and Barbara for being, to him, part of a backwards civilization, he’s dropped into a world far less civilized, and captured and at the edge of death, he finds himself defeated by a people who can’t even manage to light a fire.  He begins begging for his life, saying he’s merely an old man, then offering to give these people the secret of fire before realizing that he dropped his matches.  It’s only when the other three show up to save him that he begins to become effectively manipulative, saving Ian’s life by telling the savages that he will not give them fire if they kill the young man.  It’s not out of compassion, however; he simply sees Ian as a means to escape.  In this first story, the Doctor is a cold, dark figure, willing to kill a helpless, wounded caveman with a rock simply because it seems expedient to him.

It’s here that a crucial piece of character development begins for the Doctor: Ian and Barbara insist on compassion and mercy.  These two traits over the years come to define the Doctor; that he learns the traits from two humans, the first two he really knew, makes his love for the planet Earth totally clear.  It’s never been said explicitely, and doesn’t have to be; it’s crystal clear, right here, where he begins his journey into the complex hero he would become.
Not that he becomes a hero in this story, or even comes close; but the beginnings are here.  Still, what does become obvious is his intelligence and skilled manipulations.  The beginning of episode four has a brilliant sequence where he tricks Kal into admitting his murderous activities.  It’s impressive not because of who he tricks, since Kal isn’t exactly one of the more intelligent forms of sentient life out there, and could probably be outsmarted by a rock.  It’s impressive because of the immediacy of the Doctor’s actions: the very moment Kal shows a weakness, the Doctor knows exactly how to trick him, and does it with stunning efficiency and coldness.  It’s a thrilling, sensational sequence; he may be tricking an idiot, but he’s doing a magnificent job of it.

The picture next to "cunning" in the dictionary.

Hartnell’s performance is astounding throughout.  The Doctor may not be likable at the beginning of his travels – at times, he’s downright detestable – but Hartnell’s presence and charisma are enrapturing.  Masterful, gripping work by a brilliant actor.

These relationships are also well-established.  By the end, Ian and Barbara are, by necessity, part of the crew, and they are beginning to show how they contribute to the team.  Ian and the Doctor, for all their clashing, are able by the end to work together during dangerous situations.  It’s solid television writing.

Susan, unfortunately, doesn’t fare as well as the other three.  She does bravely charge into the tribe to save her grandfather, but her freak-out when she first sees that he’s missing is a bit much, and she spends most of the story screaming and cowering in fear.  While fear is understandable, she brings it a bit too far.  It seems perhaps she was right to want to stay in the relative safety of the 20th century.  All in all, she doesn’t get much here beyond “the Doctor’s granddaughter.”  Still, Carole Ann Ford remains likable.

The Cave of Skulls has one great strength, and that’s in the characterization of three of the four leads, which is compelling throughout.  The main story is slow and dull, but it’s a backdrop, really, to the continuing development of Ian, Barbara, and the enigmatic Doctor.  That and the compellingly-captured setting are enough, in my mind, to give it a weak three stars.

An Unearthly Child, on the other hand, is one of the series’ greatest achievements, reaching a peak only a handful of stories in the entire half-century history of Who can reach.

An Unearthly Child:    * * * *
The Cave of Skulls:     * * *

·        The DVD contains a fascinating extra: the original unaired version of An Unearthly Child.  On the whole, it’s not as good as the actual version, but the differences are interesting.  There are some odd little changes to the title theme, and the opening shot on the whole is less effective.  But one of the biggest differences is immediate almost immediately: the relationship between Ian and Barbara.  Rather than a strong, relaxed friendship, they seem more like professionals, which makes their actions much less explicable.  William Russell and Jacqueline Hill are still clearly good actors, but they aren’t nearly as good in the role as they are in the aired version; it’s as though between showings, they got to know each other better, and the friendliness showed through, enhancing their own character work as well.  The banter and performances are still good, but they just aren’t anywhere near as sharp, and they flub lines like Hartnell in some of his later episodes.

The camerawork and lighting, while still well-designed, are pretty clumsy.  I like the ambition in the roving camera, but it’s really struggling to hit its marks, and it doesn’t really gel until the last few minutes.  It’s also very strange to hear such different sounds coming out of the TARDIS.

There are two differences, though, that make some Whovians actually prefer this version.  The first is Hartnell’s portrayal.  He’s pretty threatening in the aired version, but here he plays the role like one of the gangsters that were his bread and butter in his pre-Who days.  It’s outright villainous, and it’s hard to believe this man could ever have evolved into the compassionate figure he became.  I like Hartnell when he’s being threatening, but I find this to be a little be too much, personally.  Still, it certainly makes for a very different interpretation.

The other element is Susan.  Carole Ann Ford plays her otherwordliness to a much further extreme.  She doesn’t just seem unearthly; she’s from a different universe.  It’s actually pretty creepy.  “I like walking home in the English fog,” is a wonderfully odd line anyway, but Ford’s delivery is incredibly unnerving.  Instead of looking at a book about the French Revolution and criticizing its inaccuracy, she creates a rorschach test, then destroys it for some reason; it’s a moment riveting in its strangeness.

After all her weirdness, her cries of “Grandfather, let them go!” near the end, as she sheds the inhuman bizarrities and becomes much more relatable, have a tremendous effect.  Ford’s performance here is astounding.  It’s a tragedy she wasn’t allowed to play Susan this way.

Also, her costume is awesome.

Other than Susan, though, I don’t think the Pilot version works terribly well.  The technical areas are much rougher, the reveal of the inside of the TARDIS isn’t as shocking, and the less interesting Russell and Hill performances make it a lot less involving.  But it definitely makes for a fascinating watch.

If you haven’t seen the story before, when you get a hold of the DVD, don’t use the “Play All” feature, which includes the pilot version; go to the episode selection, and go through the story that way, then check out the Pilot version later if you’re interested.  It’s certainly worth a look, but on balance, it isn’t really the superior version, and even for this show, it’s wildly out of continuity with the series overall.  But its version of Susan is fantastic.

·        The later three-episode arc is variously known as “The Tribe of Gum”, “100,000 BC”, “The Paleolithic Age”, “The Stone Age”, and generally with its predecessor as “An Unearthly Child.”  I stick by “Cave of Skulls”, and hope very deeply to start a trend in Dr. Who fandom.  Spread the word!

·        Incidentally, the German version of the novelization is translated as “Doctor Who and the Child From the Stars”, which is itself a pretty cool title.  The French version, on the other hand, translates as the uninspiring “Doctor Who Takes the Stage.”

·        The cliffhangers are strong in all four episodes.  The howling wind and eerie visual of the ancient world in one is hard to top, but the skulls in the second and the spear-wielding tribe in the third are excellent, as well.  The final one, though, really is the best, a simple camera move on a small detail that’s more gripping than the entire three episodes that preceeded it, and that propels them into their next adventure, where the show really begins…

See this, series?  This is how you do a cliffhanger.


  1. Thank you for this excellent review.

    Geez we agree so much I'm not sure what to comment on.

    Your balanced points about the Susan character are practically unique in their perceptiveness and fairness, so I'll comment about that.

    The contrast in treatment over the series between the two female roles as well as between the conceptual work for Susan and what was made of it turned out to be horribly revealing of social perceptions. Together with fan "reception" (to this day!) and what it did to the actresses' career on the screen, the treatment of Susan may be the worst stain on the production (and fandom) of early Who and certainly remains the least acknowledged. A shame too as there was so much potential and the show was so commendable on many other points (including the other female role!). So, thank you doubly for posting this refreshingly perceptive view of it.

    While I feel (as I think you mentioned here) that there are meaningful themes ongoing between the first and subsequent 3 eps, I've always considered them as warranting separate story titles. I'll take up your suggestion of The Cave of Skulls for the "caveman" eps!

    This also applies to your fantastic review of 'The Daleks'. Would that other reviews were more often up to this standard.

  2. ^ That should read, "Would that other reviews by other reviewers were more often up to this standard"! :)

  3. Thank you for your insightful comments! (and all over my blog, too...)

    One of the most frustrating things about Susan was that the one time they actually centered a serial on her with The Sensorites, they actually did a pretty good job of fleshing her out... and then completely ruined her in Reign of Terror. I imagine part of the problem was that the only Who writer of the time crazy enough to pull off a Star Child as one of the central characters was David Whitaker, and he only really got one shot with Edge of Destruction.

    I think the worst stain on early Who would have to be either Dodo or The Celestial Toymaker, but given that both largely don't exist anymore, they didn't have anywhere near the impact Susan had.

  4. Yeah. The Doctor's own kind and his family yet.

    But then Dodo wouldn't have ever happened if Susan had not been, shall we say "reduced and repurposed." Susan was originally a part of the core concept (though you'd never know it after the first ep... but can you glean how she "originally" fit in?). The exit was only written after Carole (understandably) sued (too late) to get out, to be used once they had another girl lined up to replace her in the respects they ended up wanting Susan to serve. Dodo was another.

    The best later roles (Sensorites and Giants) might even be what was left over from earlier scripts simply as they didn't feel it merited troubling with. Both were shuffled to places later in the run. In that case it was all downhill.

    As an obvious example, the Sensorite prez describes Susan directly from reading her mind (thus, truth). He reads us the "original Susan" - down to wanderlust, even. But the production now intends her to "retire" into marriage like good girls should, to be replaced, so we get Susan's closing dialogue to The Doctor directly contradicting it, and written straight. So there seems to be a direct character conflict (read: conflict of agenda) in the script of The Sensorites, the newer being imposed without so much as troubling to rewrite it to make sense. It's left to Hartnell and Carole to try making it play well... At least Sensorites has some good stuff to it and Susan is compelling in spite of anything.

    As another example, Susan is shown independently deducing the situation literally on equal par with The Doctor in Giants.

    I'll witter on even more later if that's all right, but dinner's on here!

  5. If you're wondering ;) I had the jones (probably possession by some darn critter seen somewhere in Who) to write a story set in Who-verse. When it came to the central characters being Rose, Ace and Susan, I went "yay!" "yay!" and "...uh oh." My first thought was, "I'll invent a regenerated Susan." But. Rewatching relevant stuff with that in mind and digging through everything, to my complete surprise I discovered a darn good character had been buried in there (and boy has Carole taken a lot of abuse from fans - her performances were fantastic). So that's why the analysis. Like 900 pages later, it's proven interesting in many ways. In hindsight I shouldn't have been so surprised, as the rest of the conceptual work for Who was freakin' brilliant.

    It's startling to see the difference in treatment given two women in the same show: Barbara is supported rock solidly throughout! It's not irrelevant that Barbara was in pretty much the most respectable situation a female could be in at that time. Susan? The most restrictive and sensitive situation. Sheez does it show.

    When we get down to the "nitty gritty" we come to the gulf between what they conceived in an open minded, imaginatively developed conceptual stage against what a "good" teenage female was thought to be in that society, what of that was thought useful for an adventure serial and what of that was right for Dad's TV in the living room at family hour of '63. But as Susan is alien, it originally was a chance to show a new example. They did have brilliant conceptualizing and the talents to pull off a lot of great potential, but when it came to being adults of 1963 writing a TV script... big difference.

    It's also startling to compare the "reception" Carole first got from Sidney Newman ("She's a bit strange? Tone it down!") with his thinking about all that by the end of his life (proposing The Doctor himself be a young female with a deliberately strange teen girl companion!). Sadly, waaay too late to help Carole or Susan.

    Can you believe they shot these things using cameras with fixed lenses? If they wanted to change, they had to stop, turn the table of iirc 4 fixed lens choices, recalibrate/focus then restart. The tube cameras were monsters. They spend more on lenses for one camera now than they made whole eps for then... which says a lot both ways.

    Reign of Terror. The Doctor? Fantastic! Susan? Was that pure trope or intentional humiliation? Yeesh. The Celestial Toymaker? Phew. Okay my mind's jell-o...

    Radioactive jell-o? I agree btw, that closing shot, it's just awesome.