30 November 2016

The Original #2 The Cave of Skulls

In which our newly minted time travellers encounter a Stone Age tribe engaged in a power struggle over who should be the leader setting the tone for all tribes ad infinitum. The line to be balanced with this kind of thing is how the portrayal of cavemen is achieved. There is much potential for over acting here and while occasionally this does happen, on the whole the production manages to achieve a believable take on such an ancient culture. While the tribe speak English they do so with enough linguistic skill to make the dialogue engaging enough. There’s a bit of grunting, usually when someone’s annoyed but only one occasion where things go right over the top. Poor old Za, trying his best to make fire fails in his goal and yells his head off. I suppose this is the Stone Age equivalent of clearing the air.

While the production could have taken the TARDIS straight to an alien world (like Skaro perhaps), it is much better that they first landed in the past because this would be alien enough for Ian and Barbara. Their differing reactions are a delight- she willing to accept things because of what she can see, he sceptical even though he can see it. Ian wants proof, Barbara believes what the Doctor is telling her. The Doctor- William Hartnell again pulling some enigmatic facial expressions only we can see- is hardly a heroic type here and seems unconcerned by the trauma the two newcomers have undergone. In just the second episode of the series though we see Susan’s character already sketching the template for generations of female companions to come. It doesn’t take her long to scream even though judging from the size of the hefty diary the Doctor drops, she’s had plenty of time and space experience. Her hysterical reaction to the Doctor’s disappearance- when at this point he might just have wandered a bit further- is just about ok when you think she’s supposed to be 15. Her later assault on the cavemen tips the hitherto balanced drama into silliness. Barbara on the other hand is only prepared to admit quietly to Ian that she’s scared. The two really do have an on screen rapport.

I was wondering what I’d make of the tribal discussions. Having only seen these episodes at a convention I don’t think I’d given them my full attention but found them to be surprisingly well composed. Anthony Coburn applies the same rigour to their internal debate as he did to last week’s dialogue when Ian and Barbara enter the TARDIS. To the modern ear it can seem a little formal yet it also settles everyone’s position in our minds. We see both Za and Kal making their power play. Za- a fierce Derek Newark- is the son of the previous firemaker so stakes what he feels is a legitimate claim. Kal- a more nuanced Jeremy Young -  is a stranger whose claim seems more tenuous till he brings back the Doctor whom he’s seen lighting his pipe. Did the Doctor ever smoke this rather over large pipe again? The women in the tribe may appear to play a subsidiary role but behind all the male bellowing they whisper and prophesise and probably have more ultimate influence. You would never imagine that in 2016 lengthy dialogue heavy scenes in which cavemen argue over who’s better at starting a fire would engage but thanks to Coburn it really does.

Visually the episode exceeds its obvious limitations. Waris Hussein shoots crowded scenes, often focussing on faces and holds our attention on the drama yet the set for the cave is impressive and if the wider locale is obviously studio based, it’s still very well designed. The tribe themselves are messy enough to pass muster; any more and they’d look too funny. This is a great example of a scene setting episode with enough ballast to keep it interesting.

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