Writer: Anthony Coburn, C. E. Webber (1 episode, uncredited)
Director: Waris Hussein
Parts: 4, made up of An Unearthly Child, The Cave of Skulls, The Forest of Fear and The Firemaker.
Starring: William Hartnell (First Doctor), Carol Ann Ford (Susan), William Russell (Ian Chesterton), Jacqueline Hill (Barbara Wright), Derek Newark (Za), Alethea Charlton (Hur), Eileen Way (Old Mother), Jeremy Young (Kal), Howard Lang (Horg)
Review: It is a shame that the promise shown in the first part of this episode does almost melt away as we get to about the half-way stage of The Cave of Skulls, and this demonstrates almost perfectly why the BBC were prepared to pull the plug on the show in 1963. It almost feels like the Stone Age story doesn’t have enough plot or any real compelling characters to keep your attention, as opposed to the intriguing part one. This is not intended as a slight towards any of the actors, the director or the production team, but shows that, if the show had followed creator Sydney Newman’s vision of an educational show with no “bug-eyed monsters”, it may have ended up in Totters Lane scrapyard itself.
I don’t want to be entirely negative about the first story of Doctor Who. As alluded to previously, the first part is great. It is a four-hander between Ian, Barbara, Susan and the crotchety First Doctor, as the two teachers, Ian and Barbara start the episode discussing their unusual student, Susan, and her elusive grandfather, “Doctor Foreman”. When they decide to follow Susan home, they find that she disappears into a scrapyard which contains, amongst other things, a blue telephone box and an enigmatic and unhelpful old man, the Doctor.
I just want to make a quick comment on the First Doctor, as to a modern audience, maybe only familiar with Eccleston, Tennant, Smith and Capaldi, he may seem a bit jarring. In the first part, the Doctor is referred to as not liking strangers and he himself states that he is unwilling to divulge information about his private life to Ian and Barbara. There is a twinkle to Hartnell’s grouchiness and, especially in the first part, he is brilliantly mysterious and there are aspects of his performance that have been picked up on by future actors, especially Tom Baker and Peter Davison. However, later on in the story, he is almost unrecognisable as the Doctor. Whilst watching, I noticed how useless the Doctor was, especially in the second part, and in the third and fourth parts, he is downright unlikeable in The Forest of Fear, criticising Ian’s attempts to try and get to them to escape the Cave of Skulls and later sulking because he doesn’t get his own way, refusing to help his companions. Although his behaviour could be seen as being due to his irritation at having two more hangers on, or just because he hasn’t been travelling in time and space for very long, it is an odd decision for the writer and production team to have your lead be so irritating.
The major downside of this episode though, is that from the underwhelming cliffhanger, the episode seems overly stretched. The story of the cavemen, a battle for power between Za and Kal centred on the quest to make fire, does not seem to be at all suitable for the opening story. On watching this episode, I was thinking about how having a historical with no aliens could work in this episode if it was a more interesting period of ancient history, for instance, ancient Romans or Greeks. There also isn’t a lot for Susan and Barbara to do except screech and scream – in fact, whilst making notes on this episode, I labelled Susan ‘chief screamer.’
In modern television, an opening episode such as this one may set alarm bells ringing, but Doctor Who would get lucky, with its next story, The Daleks, making Doctor Who must-watch television.
Verdict: A strong opening part is let down by an uninspiring three parter. 4/10
- Susan states that she made up the name TARDIS from Time and Relavtive Dimensions in Space.
- Certain aspects of the TARDIS are shown to have broken, including the Year-o-meter and chameleon circuit (which isn’t named as such here). Perhaps the radiation machine is broken too, as it sneaks upwards at the end of the episode after Susan has looked at it.
- Ian calls the Doctor ‘Doctor Foreman’ at one point, to which the response is “Eh? Doctor Foreman? Who’s that?”
- The Doctor states at the end of the story that he can’t effectively fly the TARDIS.
- The Doctor says to Barbara that “Fear makes companions of all of us.”
- Ian puts his hand on the TARDIS and states that it is alive.
- The Doctor states that he is not a Doctor of Medicine.