When BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman first decided that a sci-fi series was what was needed for the Saturday evening lineup, he wanted the characters to be time travelers so that history lessons could also be worked into the show, an educational angle for the younger viewers.
The first serial to be developed for the Doctor Who series was writer C.E. Webber’s idea entitled The Giants, which was to feature the Doctor and his companions experiencing some Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-esque shenanigans. When it was decided that the idea lacked the punch required of a first serial and that the special effects would be too complicated, The Giants was dropped (the series would get around to shrinking its characters eventually) and the story writer Anthony Coburn had come up with for the second serial, which is known by a multitude of titles, including by that of the series’ first episode (An Unearthly Child), 100,000 B.C., The Tribe of Gum, The Stone Age, and The Palaeolithic Age, was moved up into its place.
While many involved still weren’t very enthused about the replacement serial’s setting or storyline, it was what they had to work with, so production marched on. Doctor Who would start off with the sort of historical-setting episodes Newman had mandated, with a serial that, as the list of alternate titles reveal, goes about as far back into human history as possible.
The An Unearthly Child episode ended with the Doctor activating his ship, dubbed the TARDIS by his granddaughter Susan, and it disappeared from 1963 London with school teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright still on board with the alien travelers of space and time. When it again materializes, it’s in the middle of a vast land of sand and rock… and something has gone wrong with the ship. Its exterior is supposed to change appearance to blend into its surroundings, but it remains in the form of a London police call box. Also, the control panel doesn’t give the Doctor a proper calculation of where or when they’ve arrived at.
At first, Ian doesn’t believe that they’ve actually gone anywhere – a call box is not a transportation device, no matter how much bigger it is on the inside than it appears to be on the outside. While arguing with the Doctor, he refers to him by the name he assumes he has, since Susan was enrolled at his school under the name Susan Foreman – he calls him Doctor Foreman. That not being the Doctor’s name, he’s confused to hear himself referred to this way. “Doctor who?”
To prove to Ian that they’re not in London any longer, the Doctor leads the group outside to look around. Which proves to be a bad idea. While the others are off on their own, the Doctor takes a moment to light his pipe and is immediately attacked by a scraggly, raggedly dressed human assailant.
Having arrived in, according to one of the titles, 100,000 B.C., the TARDIS group finds themselves in the midst of a caveman power struggle. After the murder of their leader, a tribe has been left in flux. In losing their leader they’ve lost their firemaker, and no one else knows how to make the stuff. The fallen leader’s son, Za, is desperately trying to figure out how to bring fire back to his tribe so he can become the new leader, but his people are growing impatient. As time goes on, they’re putting more faith in a man named Kal, a stranger who showed up after his own tribe died off. At least Kal provides the tribe with meat. But with winter approaching, the need for fire is growing. Za’s determination to become leader is also driven by the fact that he loves a woman named Hur, and despite Hur loving him as well, her father will force her to become the new leader’s woman, no matter who he happens to be. Za certainly doesn’t intend to lose Hur to the outsider Kal. He prays hard to his god Orb (a.k.a. the sun) that he’ll spark a fire in time.
Adding further antagonism to the situation is a tribe member called Old Mother, whose fear of fire is so great that she’s willing to sabotage anyone who tries to bring it back to the tribe. I guess she likes being cold and eating raw meat.
Kal is the one who attacked the Doctor, knocking him out and bringing him back to the tribe’s cave. Having seen the Doctor use fire to light his pipe, Kal believes he has found his way to becoming leader, demanding that the Doctor make fire when he regains consciousness. Unfortunately, the Doctor lost his matches when Kal knocked him out, so now he’s nothing but a captive. When the others arrive and attempt to rescue the Doctor, they too end up prisoners in the tribe’s dreaded Cave of Skulls, so called because it’s littered with the bones of people who had their heads bashed in.
Over the course of three episodes, entitled The Cave of Skulls, The Forest of Fear, and The Firemaker, the Doctor and his cohorts try to find a way out of their predicament, alternating between trying to escape from the tribe and make fire for them, whatever will get them back to the TARDIS.
As the situation plays out, the Doctor becomes slightly more caring toward the teachers he’s stuck with, referring to them as his companions, but they’re also shown to have serious differences when it comes to the choices they make.
When Za is mauled by a prehistoric animal while pursuing the group through a forest, the others stop and start giving the caveman, who has been an enemy to them up to this point, their best attempt at medical attention, establishing the goodness of their characters. Meanwhile, the Doctor thinks they should leave him behind to die while they continue on to the TARDIS. Unable to convince the others to go on, he even moves to take Za out of the equation, appearing to be about to smash the injured man’s head with a rock before Ian stops him. It’s a very strong scene for Ian, but they were clearly still figuring the Doctor out at this time and this moment seems to be left over from the “too mean” portrayal of him in the first version of the An Unearthly Child episode, before he was softened up a bit in the reshoot. I doubt the Doctor goes about killing people to get his way as the series goes on.
During the pursuit through the forest, the Doctor becomes very out of breath and has to stop and rest for a while. This is a trait that William Hartnell’s iteration of the character had all through his run, his Doctor was not in shape for action.
I have to say that I agree with those involved who were not sure about moving forward with 100,000 B.C. as a serial. Starting off a series with a story of cavemen fighting over fire is not a grand way to capture my imagination. The story moves along at an enjoyable pace at first, but the interactions with the cavemen soon become frustratingly repetitious and the dialogue between the tribe members can be maddening. As you would expect, they’re not very bright, and as the Doctor points out, they change their minds as rapidly as night and day, which becomes quite tiring.
The idea behind serials with historical settings was to be educational, but I don’t think anyone learned anything from watching these cavemen babble nonsensically. What we do learn from these episodes is that Ian Chesterton is going to be quite capable at handling himself in the scrapes the characters get into.
Eventually, thanks to a plan devised by Ian, our travelers manage to escape their captors again (saving viewers from being all annoyed to death by them) and finally return to the TARDIS. Ian and Barbara hope to be taken back to their own place and time, but the Doctor tells them it’s not possible. The TARDIS is not functioning properly, and he can’t set a specific destination without first programming in precise information to the second of the beginning of the journey, information which his ship is not providing him. They must jump blindly into space and time…
And when they again materialize, the Doctor will have his first televised encounter with the most popular villains of the series.