As has been apparent all the way through the series’ debut story the combination of writer Anthony Coburn and director Waris Hussein has been vital in turning what could easily have been a far less impressive affair into something stylish and clever. Here in the final episode they both triumph bringing matters to an interesting conclusion.
Anthony Coburn’s script is masterful this week as he takes us through the tribes’ obsession with fire and leadership. There’s a great scene where Hur describes to Za what happened in the forest and it’s written at exactly the right level maintaining the idea that these are very primitive people yet also providing enough intelligence for the viewer. Coburn’s story also employs an unexpected denouement for our heroes which is in keeping with the times they live in. Susan’s idea of replacing themselves with burning skulls is a perfect gambit to allow their escape from the cave after the vacillating Za has not released them as they hoped he would. And after all they’ve done for him and all.
Throughout the episode Coburn lays with the concept to excellent effect. The Doctor here is wilier than the version we saw two weeks ago, ready to use the tribe’s internal politics to his advantage. Thus when Ian is assumed by Za to be the leader of his `tribe` the teacher defers to the Doctor and you know he’s not just talking about the present situation. At that moment he has accepted the Doctor’s authority and a sort of trust has emerged.
Waris Hussein’s imperial moment comes earlier as Kal and Za slug it out in a cave of skulls that suddenly expands in size in what is the series’ first major film sequence fight. If you can forgive the cave’s sudden growth (and we can) this is a tremendously staged sequence. The combat itself looks as un-staged and aggressive as its probably possible to get away with (though every beat was probably choreographed). It takes place in the half shadows cast by the fire the Doctor and co have lately lit and Hussein plays the shimmering light across the fight while cutting to full screen views of each of the travellers faces bathed in light. It looks stunning. Later he even manages to pull off that trickiest of tricks as the quartet scamper from the cave towards escape but really they’re running on the spot. Yet its’s done so well only the cynical 2016 viewer would realise.
That’s the main thing about this story actually. It is so absorbing, so involving that any notions of modern cynicism melt away. You have to admire the skills that all concerned brought to these four episodes. Watching the other three episodes properly for the first time – and considering the story as a whole- only reinforces the idea that, while the Daleks may well have been the spur for the series’ commercial success, these are the strong foundations from which everything in Doctor Who has developed.