Weighing in at an impressive 800 episodes, Doctor Who has been entertaining audiences for the past 50 years. Yet, despite this vast backlog of content, I know next to nothing about the actual series. For that reason, I’ve decided to watch this unique show from the beginning, to discover the source of its unique appeal. Come with me as I tackle this daunting sci-fi phenomena from the very beginning in The Complete Doctor Who.
Last time we tackled the first ever episode of Doctor Who, which introduced us to the first Doctor, as well as his granddaughter Susan and reluctant companions Ian and Barbara. At episode’s end they were whisked away courtesy of the TARDIS, depositing them into their first ever adventure. Quick note everybody, the following contains spoilers, fifty year old spoilers, but spoilers all the same.
Have you ever been dragged to a party only to discover you’ve made a terrible mistake? That’s a lot like the opening scenes here. A bunch of people in animal skins crowd around as their would-be leader Za rubs a bone between his fingers in a futile attempt to make fire.
That’s right, given the opportunity to travel anywhere in time and space, the writers have seen fit to drop us into the middle of cave man times. <sigh> Okay, to be fair, it’s a low budget show, and rocks, caves, and animal skin costumes come pretty cheap. I suppose if we’re being honest, every planet in Star Trek looked like it was shot on the edge of a California freeway so I suppose I can deal with a few rocks and dirt.
As Za plays with his collection of sticks and bones, we get some great ominous ranting from a terrifying old woman. The actress’ name is Eileen Way and she’s really quite fantastic. Her vacant stare and rasping voice are genuinely creepy and I found myself wishing she played a larger role in the story.
We’re also treated to a nearly endless repetition of the word fire, which will continue for the duration of the next three episodes. Are you starting to feel glad I’m watching this and not you?
After this, it’s back to the TARDIS where we learn that the Doctor has no idea where they are. That’s right, as if being trapped with the Doctor wasn’t terrifying enough, it seems the TARDIS itself is on the fritz, depositing them randomly into various places and times. It’s also supposed to change shape, camouflaging itself as something from their surroundings, but for some reason, it still appears as a police box.
The doctor goes out to “get samples” which is apparently Time Lord slang for smoke up.
His trip to flavor country gets cut short though when he gets conked on the head and carted off by a wandering caveman.
This introduces us to Kal, Za’s chief rival for leader and as the two square off, their conflict plays out like a primitive election, with fire, animal skins, and meat being the central issues of the day. We even get our first negative attack ad with Kal declaring, “Za will give you to the tiger. Za will give you to the cold.”
If Mitt Romney had crafted a gem like that, things might have turned out very different.
Soon after, Barbara, Susan, and Ian stage what is perhaps the world’s most terrible rescue attempt, which basically consists of them running into the cave screaming.
Surprising no one, they are immediately captured and tossed into a space called The Cave of Skulls, which is about as pleasant as it sounds.
Later on that night though, the weird old woman breaks into the cave and helps them escape, motivated by a profound fear of fire that is never really elaborated on. Not that it really matters though because she’s killed shortly afterward, robbing the episode of its most interesting character.
Za is awakened by his girlfriend (wife?) and told what has happened. He chases them into the jungle, only to get gored offscreen by some kind of wild animal. The Doctor tries to make a break for it, but Barbara insists they help him, saving Za’s life in the process. Za’s rewards them for this act of mercy by promptly recapturing them.
Then it’s back to The Cave of Skulls. Za gets his fire, Kal is slain, and the crew of the TARDIS escape by balancing skulls on the edge of torches.
No, I’m not making that up.
I think it’s safe to say this is not the Doctor’s finest hour. The story seems padded and it’s at least one episode too long. It takes our heroes far too long to outwit a group whose IQ hovers somewhere in the single digits and let’s face it, if a time-traveling alien can’t outwit a bunch of fire-obsessed neanderthals then what good is he?
It’s not a fantastic story, but at least some of the pieces are slowly staring to take shape. The companions have started slipping into their roles. Ian is becoming the man of action. There is also a decent character moment for Barbara in her insistence on saving Za. It’s a good character beat that sets her up as the group’s conscience. Susan still doesn’t do much besides scream, but you know what, two out of three ain’t bad.
William Hartnell’s turn as the Doctor continues to please. Here, he is largely devoid of compassion, functioning as more of an anti-hero than anything else. The other characters are in constant conflict with him. We haven’t been told how long the Doctor has been separated from his people or why that happened in the first place and I’m beginning to suspect that may play a role in his prickly demeanor. In any case, I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out over time. Will he soften under his companions’ influence, or will they continue on as the world’s most dysfunctional group of time travelers?
While the look of the show is pretty flat, it does have occasional flashes of visual ingenuity. The final confrontation between Za and Kal feels particularly brutal, alternating frantic close-ups with reaction shots from the Doctor and his crew that really sell the off-screen violence.
Throughout the fight, the flame light flickers over the cavemen’s bodies, underscoring the source of their conflict. A really effective scene that manages to sidestep the show’s technical limitations.
That’s it for now. Hopefully next episode will bring us somewhere more compelling as the Doctor squares off against the Daleks for the first time.