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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

TARDIS Tuesday: "The Cave of Skulls" [Review]

Episode: Doctor Who, Season 01, Episode 002, Story 001 - Part 2 of 4
Title: "The Cave of Skulls"
Original Air Date: 30 November 1963
Run-time: 24:26

First Doctor (William Hartnell)
Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford)
Ian Chesterton (William Russell)
Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill)

[Image Source: The BBC]

In last week's "TARDIS Tuesday", we focused on the very first episode of Doctor Who, "The Unearthly Child." In that episode we met school schoolteachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright who serves as the audience's surrogates in our first encounter with the enigmatic Doctor and his granddaughter, Susan Foreman. That episode was fairly slow-paced and served mostly to introduce us to the four main characters and to the TARDIS, the Doctor's mysterious time machine. The episode ended in a cliffhanger as the Doctor kidnaps the schoolteachers in an attempt to prevent them from going to the authorities.

Episode 2 is when everything starts to get interesting. We learn that the TARDIS disguises itself to match its surroundings. (Previous disguises include an ionic column and a sedan chair.) Unfortunately, this time around the ship does not change forms, establishing one of the most iconic elements of the show: a time-traveling police box. The cranky, old Doctor reveals a cunning side and acts as a protector to his companions. Also a running joke in the series finds its genesis in this episode when Ian says, "Well just open the doors, Doctor Foreman." To which the Doctor replies, "Eh, Doctor who? — what's he talking about?"

We also begin to see how low-budget the show really was. Seams between sections of background set pieces are visible—as if the fake horizon was not obviously-painted enough.  A lot of the action takes place in close quarters, so when the entire episode cast (extras and all) are in a scene, it gets very claustrophobic very fast, and is indicative of the small sound stage used for production.

Yet, at the same time, the story is itself is compelling, replete with allegory and subtext.

 "The Caves of Skulls" opens where the first episode leaves off. The TARDIS has materialized (still in its phone box disguise) in the middle of a barren wasteland as an ominous silhouette appears on screen. Soon, we learn that the shadow belongs to a caveman, a member of a tribe in the midst of a power struggle. The Doctor and his friends are captured and become immersed in Ice Age politics.

Two major themes run throughout . The first theme is of faith. It is present among the cave people who struggle to choose between their faith in religion (the Orb/sun deity) to save them from the cold and faith in new technology (fire).  We also witness this struggle in the Doctor's companion Ian who must choose between accepting the established sciences that form the foundations of his beliefs and training as a schoolteacher and the wonders the Doctor presents to him, wonders that contradicts everything he knows.

The second theme is about the power of technology. Fire is a life-saving tool but also possess political implications, much like most of the technology we take for grant today. Among the cave people, he who possess the ability to create fire shall become the leader.  This leads to a power grab among the tribe, a situation that quickly ensnares the Doctor and his friends. We also see this theme play out in how the cavemen treat the technologically-advanced Doctor as a supernatural being. In a way the show asks its audience whether a technologically superior race or nation to our own might appear equally god-like? 

On the surface, the story might seem campy. But on closer examination, we find that this Doctor Who episode hides some philosophical context within its educational content.

My only complaint about this episode so far is that character of Susan Foreman. I felt that she lacked true development and was easily pushed into over-played (in every sense of the word) hysterics. I'm not sure if Carole Ann Ford chose to portray the character as an overly-attached five year old in a teenager's body or if serial writer Anthony Coburn wrote her that way. It became very grating after the third time she screamed "Grandfather!" in less than a minute. Otherwise, it was a decent episode and I was really tempted to watch the next episode ahead of schedule. 

Next week, we tackle Episode 3: "The Forest of Fear".