It is 100,000 BC. There is no number one single. There is no music industry. Indeed, there is no industry period. There’s not even really a humanity, period, with the great leap forward of behavioral modernity still lurking 50,000 years in the future. The peak of the ice age currently being enjoyed is about 80,000 years in the future. On a hillside, a blue box appears with a strange wheezing, groaning sound.
More usefully, it is the 30th of November, 1963. The Beatles recapture #1 with “She Loves You,” the biggest selling single of the 1960s, which is charting for the second time. It will hold that chart position for two weeks, before giving way in the final weeks of the year to “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The Kennedy assassination has long since turned to farce with Lee Harvey Oswald himself being murdered two days later. Now the world waits uncomfortably, aware that the progress of history has been diverted, but not knowing where, or towards what.
In later episodes, the disparity between the internal and external sizes of the TARDIS will be explained in terms of the interior being a different dimension. But last week, in the first episode, it was instead explained by analogy, with the Doctor referring to the way in which television allows a much larger world to be contained in a smaller space. It is an odd analogy, in no small part because, in the context of a fictional TV show, it appears to suggest that the interior of the TARDIS is fictional even within Doctor Who. Still, it is an explanation of sorts. We were invited to leave our world via the television. Who can blame us for doing so?
Escape is treated by the captives as an end in itself. It is not until you escape that you quite realize that escapes are not merely exits but entries. When last we left them, Ian and Barbara have fallen out of the world. Now we come to see where they have landed, and it is terrifying. Almost immediately, everything goes wrong. The Doctor is kidnapped by cavemen, sending Susan into a panic such that Ian and Barbara, skeptical and afraid as they are, go to help him.
The rescue is a complete disaster, and the four of them quickly find themselves tied up in the Cave of Skulls, named for its primary decorative feature, a large number of skulls that have been split open by an axe. From here the story is a fairly staid and at times repetitive sequence of escapes and recaptures. But over time, the reality of all of this sinks in. The three episodes’ most striking feature, in many ways, is Barbara’s nervous breakdown as the four leads wander through a forest (having escaped from the Cave of Skulls).
The breakdown is stunning in its realism. Eventually the show will get to the standard of people being absolutely thrilled by the adventure and excitement that traveling with the Doctor entails. But here, as she collapses, screaming in anguished confusion and wondering what has happened to her, there is none of that wonder. Falling through a hole in the world is not an easy proposition.
Just ask the Doctor. We don’t know yet where he came from, or why. In one telling sequence, Ian speculates that if only we knew his name, we might understand him better. Aside from being an excuse to work the words “Doctor who?” into the actual episode, this question is one of the episode’s central dramatic tensions. Prior to Barbara’s breakdown is what is, in many ways, an even more interesting moment of breakdown – the Doctor’s. As the party sits, tied up and terrified in the Cave of Skulls, he apologizes, saying that this is all his fault. He has not learned to be the Doctor yet. He’s just escaped. We first see him having fallen through a hole in his world, and now he, like Barbara, is left to figure out what this means.
In many ways, we know more than he does, although that is perhaps not clear yet. After all, on one level, nobody knows anything about the Doctor yet. The words “Gallifrey” and “Time Lord” have not been thought of yet. William Hartnell doesn’t know that he’s playing a Time Lord. He doesn’t know why he fled his homeworld. But most of this is irrelevant. He’s escaped. He’s not there anymore. What matters more is where he is now, and who he is.
It is telling that the first adventure in which he needs to become the Doctor is set… well, that’s the funny bit. It’s not clear where it’s set. The production materials suggest the title of 100,000 BC. History-wise, the date is tricky. The episode talks as though the major problem facing the tribe of cavemen is the looming ice age. They display behavioral modernity, by and large, with a religious system centered on the sun. That would suggest a later date. The question of where, on the other hand, is even trickier, as the range of dates is right along the periods of early human migrations. But the implications are telling. Historically, somewhere around 100,000 BC, a small family of humans crossed the Red Sea, exiting Africa and going on to populate the planet. And the Doctor gave them fire. The Doctor will not actually defend present-day Earth from evil threats for almost three years. But here we see, in his first adventure, the Doctor brings us fire. In this regard, we are his creation.
Strange, then, how little regard he pays us, being perfectly willing, at one moment, to bash a man’s head in simply because it would make his escape more convenient. As with much in these episodes, it feels wrong. This is not the Doctor, but an old man every bit as scared as Barbara. Or, perhaps more accurately, despite being played by the oldest actor to take the role, this is a young man in over his head.
At the end of the story, he is still not quite the Doctor yet. Much of the story is about the conflict between him and Ian over which of them should be the leader. In time this matter will be settled, but for now the conflict is, roughly, between Ian’s good nature and the Doctor’s actual competence. The Doctor wants to be leader in this story more because he does not want to follow and be imprisoned than out of any actual good naturedness. (This story is paralleled in the conflict between Kal and Za for leadership of the tribe, with each of them being pale and less sympathetic versions of the Doctor and Ian, helping further establish the theme of the Doctor as lover and protector of humanity even though that theme is not needed for years to come)
And yet in the Cave of Skulls, he comforts Barbara. And later, it is he who is inventive enough to engineer an escape from the cavemen via some clever manipulation. Already in this story he is learning to be the Doctor. But he’s not there yet. In part because he does not trust any of his traveling companions save Susan. (Crucially, his traveling companions trust Susan and not him, establishing and sustaining Susan’s role on the TARDIS) And in part because he still has only escaped. He has not realized where he is yet. This is made literal in the closing moments, where the Doctor explains that he can’t simply return Ian and Barbara home, as he has to first land somewhere he knows where is.
But perhaps most importantly, the Doctor cannot be the Doctor yet because there is something he doesn’t know about the universe. Something he won’t learn until the next story.
Monsters are real.