Written by Anthony Coburn
Directed by Waris Hussein
Doctor Who was commissioned with the remit to educate as well as entertain. Two of the Doctor’s original companions, Ian and Barbara were made school teachers, in science and history respectively, and it was decided that the stories would be alternately set in the future, to allow the writers to talk about science through Ian, and earths past to allow them to inform the viewer about, well, history. With this aim in mind, they did not get off to the best start.
The Cave of Skulls introduces us to a group of early humans struggling to make fire. Sadly, current thinking would suggest that by the time homo-sapiens had evolved our distant ancestors had been making fire for some 740,000 years previously in the lower-paleolithic when they were still homo-erectus. Oops.
Admittedly, a story about the Doctor and his friends (or acquaintances as they are at this stage really) interacting with some homo-erectus probably would not have been that interesting, not least because their anatomy would suggest that they were not capable of complex speech, though they may have communicated in a reasonably sophisticated proto-language. And if these cave dwellers are indeed homo-sapian, as they clearly appear to be, then why are they all morons? They may not be particularly educated, that’s fair enough, but this lot are downright fucking stupid. There’s no evidence to suggest that our species has gotten a whole lot brighter in the last 50,000 years, but this lot make Daily Mail readers and Republicans look kinda smart.
In fact, rather than listing all the inaccuracies, I think it would be quicker to list the things they got right. None. None things.
Despite all my bitching, I actually do quite like this story. Putting all that stuff to one side and looking at it for what it is, a kids show about a crazy man who lives in a time traveling box, it has quite a bit of drama and fun. It cracks along at a pretty good pace and although the plot is made up mostly of loops (more on them later) it kept me from wondering off halfway through, not something that can be said for every episode of Who.
Not that it is completely without problems. The most troubling thing about it for me is the way that women are treated. Barbara and Susan, who both started out as capable and intelligent in the opening episode of the show are soon reduced to hysterical wrecks. Ian shows a bit of misplaced chivalry, making a frail old man do heavy lifting while there are several fit women who were probably much stronger right there. The homo-nonspecific women don’t fair much better, either being male dependant shils of superstitious conservatives. The setup of Who could sometime be a bit patronising towards women simply because the Doctor is a man, and he’s smarter than just about everyone else, but in the early days it was often quite well balanced, perhaps due to the producer Verity Lambert being a driven and talented woman herself, so its in some ways quite surprising to see a story with this type of view being shown, even in 1963.
An unearthly child was the only Doctor Who story that’s been made when the show was not a household name in the UK, and as such is a highly interesting artifact in the show’s history. Aside from the wonderful first episode, however, its not alot else. Next up, the Doctor and his companions get to meet some besties who would catapult them into just about every living room in the country and give the show the momentum to still be around today, almost 50 years later.