Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child. Part Four – The Firemaker

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During season one the Doctor is a rather self-centered sort of person – far removed from the champion of the oppressed that he’d later become.

Sydney Newman’s original concept had portrayed the Doctor as something of an anti-hero and this is maintained through the early stories. Yes, he does help the Thals defeat the Daleks (but only because he needs to retrieve the fluid link – otherwise he’d have happily left them to their own devices at the end of episode four). Other examples (in both The Keys of Marinus and The Sensorites the Doctor would have sloped off early if the TARDIS hadn’t been immobilised) aren’t difficult to find.

This first story is also concerned with the Doctor’s attempt to escape and return to the ship. He’s not interested in the power-struggles of the tribe (although the others are) and in the end it turns out that he was right not to get involved as it’s debatable what (if anything) Za and Hur learnt from Ian and Barbara.

In an earlier draft of Anthony Coburn’s script, Ian’s influence was much more explicit. He insisted that he’d only show the whole tribe how fire was made (Za agreed to this) and therefore the fight between Za and Kal was not just a battle for tribal supremacy. If Kal had won then he’d have carried on as an autocratic leader (jealously guarding the secret of fire) whereas Za offered a more inclusive, enlightened leadership.

But since this part of the script was later redrafted the contrast between Za and Kal was somewhat lost. Although there is one exchange between Za and Hur –

ZA: They are a new tribe. Not like us. Not like Kal. The young one, whose name is Friend, spoke to me.
HUR: Do you remember it?
ZA: He said, Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe.
HUR: I do not understand.
ZA: The whole tribe drove Kal away with the stones. The whole tribe can collect more fruit than one. The whole tribe can kill a beast where one of the tribe would die.

Which indicates that some of Ian’s words have struck home.

The question of leadership is settled when Za kills Kal in an excellently directed film sequence (shot by production assistant Douglas Camfield). Camfield’s obvious affinity with both film & VT cameras would be seen time and again (not only on Doctor Who but numerous other series during the 1960’s, 1970’s and early 1980’s). The shots of the time-travellers, lit by the flickering fire recently made by Ian, are especially impressive – and it’s their reactions to the fairly brutal fight which really help to give it an impact.

Thanks to a ruse with some skulls and Ian’s fire, the TARDIS crew manage to make their escape. The shots of them escaping through the forest (shot at Ealing) are simply done – stage-hands brush plants at their faces as they run on the spot. It’s not sophisticated, but it works, so who can ask for more? Indeed, the tight focus on their faces might have been borne out of necessity – since the forest set was rather small – but it also works to the benefit of the scene.

Although the three episodes of tribal antics have never been to everybody’s tastes, I’ve always found plenty to enjoy in them. The barren landscape strips the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara of any sort of superiority (see how the Doctor’s link with technology – his scientific equipment – is lost at the start of the second episode) so if they’re going to survive then they’ll need to rely on just their wits and ingenuity.

It demonstrates the first faltering steps that they take together, although it won’t be until the end of The Edge of Destruction that they finally become a fully-functioning unit.

The Doctor has intelligence and wisdom, but at the moment he’s disinclined to help others unless it’s of benefit to him. Ian is practical and able to organise whilst Barbara is the moral centre of the party. Since the three of them all have very clear skills it does pose the uncomfortable question as to exactly what Susan contributes.

In many ways Susan is what the traditional companion will become – someone who’ll fall over, sprain their ankle and need rescuing. Over the years we’ll see how the Doctor inherits the character traits of both Ian and Barbara, meaning they’ll only be room for a Susan-type companion.

But as this point the Doctor is far from infallible and is capable of capricious judgements – as we’ll see as the four explore The Dead Planet.

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