The Tribe of Gum

100,000 BC

For administrative purposes, I am treating what we now refer to as “the three caveman episodes of An Unearthly Child” as their own self-contained story.  Trust me, I don’t sit around the house referring to this one as The Tribe of Gum.while thoughtfully stroking my beard  But I do enjoy them for, quite literally, childish reasons.  The suburban subdivision in which I grew up, on Long Island, New York, had all its streets named after the children and grandchildren of the developers and contractors.  Hence I grew up on Kathleen Drive and, later, on Patricia Lane.  Misplaced across town, but which felt like it belonged in our subdivision, was a street called Eileen Way.  When I first saw An Unearthly Child on PBS in 1985, at almost 12 years old, I couldn’t stop laughing over the irony that “Old Mother”, the creepy-voiced reactionary grandmother who becomes Doctor Who’s first ever on-screen murder victim, was named Eileen Way, just like the street in my hometown.

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.
Please stop stroking your bone.

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.

“I will squash you like a head of cabbage!”

As I noted above, the TARDIS crew scenes are sublime.  Carole Ann Ford, as would be the case for nearly the whole 1963-64 production block, gets a bit short-changed; her screams punctuate the soundtracks and puncture the eardrums, and the museum screening had the volume up way too loud so I still have a bit of Susan-induced tinnitus even a month later.  But Jacqueline Hill, apart from two screams and a contractually-obligated fall, is forceful and dignified for most of the show, especially when she interrupts an escape attempt to tend to Za’s camera-attack wounds.  The bickering between William Russell and William Hartnell is, to go back to what I said before, Mamet-esque.  The Doctor, it is implied, wants to bonk Za over the head with a rock in order to restart the getaway, but his speech about the Tribe’s intentions being fickle and capricious is, as we learn later on, completely accurate.  We also get the first use of the word “companion”, between Hill and Hartnell, in Part Three, and it’s hard to not stand up and cheer when that happens.  This material more than makes up for any deficiencies in the staging of the caveman business.

William  Hartnell suddenly realizes just what exactly he’s signed on for.

Now, let’s be fair, Doctor Who is well known for its continuity errors.  I just didn’t expect them to pop up so quickly in the series run.  During the cliffhanger between An Unearthly Child and The Cave of Skulls (i.e. the show’s very first cliffhanger ever), William Russell’s body changes position on the TARDIS floor, and the TARDIS door-control switch changes panels.  The two “Doctor Who?” jokes in the story drew warm laughter out of the audience; those jokes are, in a way, the literal cornerstone of the series, and the reason why we’re all still here 50 years later, and going to see these episodes in prestigious museums in midtown Manhattan.  I wonder what dire predictions that Eileen Way’s Old Mother would have had to say about that little bit of social progress.

About drwhonovels

An incredibly languid sojourn through the "Doctor Who" canon, with illustrations from the Topps 1979 baseball card set.
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