The caveman story in Unearthly is something I’ve always enjoyed, although in retrospect it’s a bit of an odd choice (and I’m being charitable here) for a science-fiction series, aimed in the general direction of children, and with an educational remit, to make its first voyage in time and space a visit to bunch of grunting, grimy cave-dwellers. Not much spectacle or grandeur here, not for a series that would soon visit the Pyramids. The cavemen, when they’re not grunting or shaking bones at the ashes of dead fires (seriously!), engage in pre-Lee Atwater and Karl Rove political manipulations, while confused, reactionary old folk played by the likes of Eileen Way mutter dire warnings about where things are headed. Interestingly, Howard Lang, who once played Winston Churchill in one of those 20-hour US network TV miniseries based on Herman Wouk novels, shows up as the always-hungry, oft-confused, very un-Churchillian father-in-law of Za, the tribe’s leader. I wonder how many children in British schoolyards in December 1963 were running around kvelling about Doctor Who and trying out their Howard Lang impressions on one another?
The Tribe of Gum, like An Unearthly Child, was written by Anthony Coburn. While the scenes featuring only the TARDIS crew benefit from Coburn’s rapid-fire, near Mamet-esque dialogue (albeit lacking Mamet’s profanities), alternating between profound statements of philosophy and quick-witted zingers, the conversations become slower and exposition-heavy, albeit still thoughtful, when the cavemen take center stage. Tribe leader Za (Derek Newark, in a very nuanced acting performance, when you compared it to his much-later role in Inferno), engages in innumerable verbal fencing matches with the other Tribe members. Jeremy Young (Kal, the main villain) has a wonderfully craggy face, highlighted by some very underrated makeup work, and a terrific voice for this kind of verbally-manipulative villainy; his visage, which in extreme close-up comprises the Part Three cliffhanger, is, in retrospect, more menacing than the sink-plunger cliffhanger to follow two episodes later.
The caveman plot is a bit heavy-handed; five classically-trained actors don thick, matted hair wigs, and faux-bearskins that show an awful lot of leg (even on Way and Lang), and speak in affected grunt-heavy dialogue about the quest for fire, the angry demands of the sun god, and weighty sentiments about fighting the tiger and the bear. The action sequences haven’t aged that well. Director Waris Hussein does at least some brilliant work in the tiger attack on Za in Part Three; without the budget for a live animal or even a convincing dummy, the camera plays the role of tiger POV and the vision mixer does some very effective quick cuts to suggest screaming and chaos. Spielberg later did something similar in the early filming of JAWS, before they got that mechanical shark to work properly. But there wasn’t enough studio space to properly play out the chase sequences, which are reduced to having the TARDIS crew jog in place while off-screen hands smack them with twigs. The fight scene between Kal and Za is well-staged, and shot on film, but I watched this story at a museum screening in Manhattan, surrounded by many younger New Series fans, and their laughter at this sequence wasn’t exactly kind or respectful.