This post is about the last two parts of the very first broadcast Doctor Who story, variously called in its entirety “An Unearthly Child,” “100,000 BC,” “The Tribe of Gum,” and a few other names besides. The fourth part, “The Firemaker,” is the one I’ve chosen to use in the title.
In parts three and four we see the Doctor express some remorse about placing his newfound companions in harm’s way. That element in the last season was a return to deep roots in the show’s history. So too was the question some viewers have asked lately, about whether the show is focused too much on companions and insufficiently on the Doctor. Although Ian states at one point that the Doctor is the leader of their tribe, it isn’t clear at this point whether that is entirely true. Without his resourceful companions, the Doctor would not escape from trouble, then or now – or at least would not have done so as quickly or in the same way.
But more generally, one way of thinking about the Doctor in the show is as the type of the old wizard who facilitates adventure for the main character(s) – like Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, to swap older mythology for Sci-Fi.
If we view the show as primarily about this one lonely traveler through time and space, and not about the adventures that people have as a result of encountering him, have we missed the focus of the show?
Listening to the story in audiobook form reinforced to me the impression I have always had from watching “An Unearthly Child”: It is filled with a lot of unintelligible grunting by cave-people and exaggerated screaming by female characters. Or perhaps we are to understand that the Doctor has really sheltered Susan from danger and death in a way that he would no longer be able to, now that the TARDIS instruments that would allow the Doctor to navigate were malfunctioning.
Presumably one message to viewers of this episode is that the primitive cave people are as far behind 20th century humans as the latter are behind the Doctor and his people – if not further. And so who are we to judge him when he makes surprising decisions or seems unempathetic?
That’s an argument that has historically also been applied to God – so much greater than us that we cannot fathom.
In fact, much of the episode shows the modern human characters going from merely trying to survive and escape to developing empathy for their distant ancestors. And we begin to see the Doctor developing in the same way.
The scene where the characters emphasize that among them a fire-maker is the least important person in the tribe, because everyone can make fire, also raises an interesting issue in relation to the Doctor. If the Doctor is from a “tribe” every member of which can time travel using technology, then do we have any reason at this stage to think of the Doctor as an important individual, as opposed to perhaps a dubious individual from a highly advanced civilization. It may be hard for those who have watched Doctor Who for a long time to imagine themselves back into a situation in which this question could be raised as a real possibility.
The episode ends with the group’s arrival on a new planet, not knowing which, and with the radiation meter rising to warn of danger only after they have stopped looking at it. The planet will turn out to be Skaro – but that we learn only later.