In which we witness a cave-man political debate and Susan’s characterization finally hits its stride.
“Za make fire!”
Young Za has some big shoes to fill. His father was a great leader, but his father also made fire. Sadly, while his father passed on knowledge of the hunt to Za, he did not pass on knowledge of fire. So now Za is in a bit of a power struggle with Kal, a man from a neighboring, now deceased tribe. At stake is the status as leader, but also a young woman. The political stakes were rather simple back then.
The Doctor and his companions have gone back in time. They are in a prehistoric era. At first Ian insists that this is a scientific impossibility, but as evidence mounts he soon comes to believe that The Doctor and Susan may indeed be who they claim. We also learn that the time machine, the TARDIS, is capable of changing its shape in order to blend in to its surroundings. This particular function seems to be broken at the moment. As Ian and Barbara wander in amazement The Doctor wanders off to gather samples so he can pinpoint the date, and he soon becomes the object of the aforementioned political struggle as Kal watches The Doctor light a pipe.
This episode is admittedly weaker than the previous. An Unearthly Child left us with so much promise and potential, and this story, while suspenseful, seemed a bit lacking in comparison. However, there are a lot of interesting things going on here if you bother to look. The struggle between Za and Kal, while seemingly simplistic, is surprisingly indicative of human nature. We have an established leader who lacks the skill of a great leader before him. We have the young upstart who believes he can be a great leader and threatens the power of the established leader. We have the fickle public who respond to promises of what the two candidates can give to them, in this case meat and fire. We even have a bit of conservative values represented by the old woman who thinks that fire is evil and unnatural and we were just fine prior to its existence. There is even the element of religion as Za and Kal appeal to the mighty Orb (the Sun) for fire.
The Doctor quickly catches on to the struggle and is only too happy to help, unfortunately he has dropped his matches when Kal attacked him. He and the companions are now at the mercy of the cavemen, quite the contrast to where we started with the “primitive” Ian and Barbara at the mercy of the “advanced” Doctor. The tables have been turned in a most undesirable way. Perhaps Ian and Barbara were not quite so primitive after all.
Susan’s character is shown a bit more this time, and sadly it is not flattering. She spends much of her time in a panic over the disappearance of her grandfather. Memory of these early episodes of Doctor Who seems to indicate that this will be a common occurrence for her. It’s easy to write her off as just a teenage girl, even if she is from another planet. It was fun seeing her more knowledgeable in the previous episode and the first few moments of this one. Maybe my memory cheats and she will be stronger than I remember.
The episode ends with The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan being imprisoned in The Cave of Skulls, which is what the name says: A cave with skulls. However, as the final, gruesome shot of the episode indicates, the skulls have been bashed in. They are from people who had been killed. Things do not look promising for our time travelers.