Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright are surprised by the contradictory knowledge of one of their pupils, Susan Foreman. They visit her home address which turns out to be a junkyard and Susan’s grandfather, who only calls himself The Doctor, is not pleased to see them.
The two teachers refuse to leave and discover a police box that is bigger on the inside. The Doctor decides that they know too much and takes them on a journey through time and space.
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
Cast: 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)
Writer: Anthony Coburn, C. E. Webber (1 episode, uncredited)
Director: Waris Hussein
Parts: 4 (An Unearthly Child, The Cave of Skulls, The Forest of Fear and The Firemaker).
Broadcast Dates: 23 November – 14 December 1963
Behind the Scenes
- Due to the assassination of the President of the United States John F Kennedy on 22 November, the decision was made to repeat the first part of this serial immediately before the airing of The Cave of Skulls on 30 November, which was unusual in 1963.
- The production team initially debated the TARDIS having a working chameleon circuit, which was rejected on grounds of cost.
- Verity Lambert’s predecessor as producer, Rex Tucker, offered the role to Hugh David, who rejected the part as he did not wish to be involved in another ongoing series. The part was also turned down by Leslie French, Cyril Cusack, Alan Webb and Geoffrey Bayldon.
- Among other actresses, future companion Anneke Wills was in consideration to play Susan before Carol Ann Ford was cast.
- The shooting of the first episode was pretty disastrous, beset by technical issues and the TARDIS doors failing to close properly. Sydney Newman ordered that the first episode be remade, during which time changes were made to costuming, effects, performances and scripts.
- Jacqueline Hill would go on to appear as the priestess Lexa in Meglos.
- Derek Newark would go on to appear in Inferno, playing Greg Sutton and his counterpart.
- Alethea Charlton also appeared in The Time Meddler, playing Edith.
- Eileen Way holds the distinction of playing the first character to die in Doctor Who. She would later appear in Fourth Doctor serial The Creature from the Pit as Karela and was in the Peter Cushing movie Daleks’ Invasion 2150A.D.
- Jeremy Young would appear in Mission to the Unknown as Gordon Lowery.
The moment that Ian and Barbara both set foot in the TARDIS for the first time is a lovely moment.
If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cry of strange birds and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?