People have complained lately that Peter Capaldi’s Doctor was too angry and unfriendly in his first season or that David Tennant’s Doctor acted out of character by imprisoning the Family at the end of `Family of Blood` but what do they know? You only have to travel three episodes into the entire series to find the Doctor at his most unforgiving in a manner that makes his later incarnations seem like big softies by comparison. This episode is a tautly staged, powerful spin on how people react in extreme situations and really deserves as many plaudits at `An Unearthly Child` which it is the equal of.
For a start matters are basic and down to earth. Nobody produces a sonic device or even a thing made of what’s lying around- no, what our time travellers do is try to break through the bonds binding them without success just like you or I might. They’re already tired, dirty, irritable and frightened. It’s a bit like I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here because the tests have just begun. Old Woman as the old woman is known frees them in the episode’s only less than convincing moment as she discovers a gap between the walls that anyone could slip through. Anyway once freed the real point of the episode kicks in.
Fleeing through the night time jungle the quartet’s reactions are fascinating. Ian takes the lead offering practical solutions, Barbara is soon matching Susan’s panicked reaction to pretty much anything. You might dismiss this as chauvinism from the Sixties but it really does set the atmosphere in what would otherwise be a well- made studio set but still a set. Waris Hussein again brings a lot to the party lathering on the scares when they appear- lingering on an animal’s severed head because he can. Anthony Coburn continues his economical but to the point dialogue and sense of dramatics. Rumbling incidental music adds to the tone but the episode’s key moment is yet to come. Za and Hur follow the escapees almost catching them until he is attacked by something big and bestial which we don’t see but shudder along with the traveller’s shocked faces.
Then it is Barbara who steps forward insisting they help the stricken caveman. Overcoming her fears that we saw minutes ago her human nature comes to the fore in a remarkable scene that we’ve become used to seeing later Doctors act out. She wins the trust of Hur to organise the others to help treat Za’s wounds. And what does this Doctor do? He sulks, dismisses the cavemen as “savages”, declining to join in the building of a makeshift stretcher and when his companion’s eyes are turned, picks up a rock clearly intending to finish Za off. Ian stops him returning to the tension between the two that has already yielded a couple of antagonistic exchanges.
I don’t know what 1963 audiences made of this but the modern series would never countenance such an act or even the intent of it but it surely makes sense of any less than shining behaviour subsequent incarnations have displayed. Does it confirm the Doctor’s an alien or does it make him seem more human? Has the series given us its most daring moment just three weeks into a 53 years and counting history?
All four main actors throw themselves into the overwhelming savagery of the events with gusto; in other contexts it might be over the top but their reactions here are those of desperate people and off hand I can’t recall another sequence across the series where this has been the case. It’s not the Universe under threat or anything else; it’s just the four of them running and reaching for their lives.