Prehistoric Week: Doctor Who - Revisiting 100,000 BC

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Andrew East goes back, way back...


100,000 BC, An Unearthly Child, Doctor Who and the Tribe of Gum, the Palaeolithic Age, the untitled first Doctor Who serial…all of these are apparently ‘titles’ of the first ever Doctor Who story. I’ve always been an exponent of 100,000 BC as the ‘correct’ title, but even more so in this retrospective as I have chosen to view the three ‘stone age’ episodes separately from the initial ‘An Unearthly Child’, 1963 set episode.

There is such a clear division between the two sections of the serial that they are effectively separate stories entirely. Whereas An Unearthly Child deals with a mysterious police box in the junkyard and it’s even more mysterious inhabitants, the Doctor and Susan – all seen through the eyes of 1960s Ian and Barbara, The Cave of Skulls, The Forest of Fear and The Firemaker are more concerned with the power play of a Stone Age tribe and the survival of four disparate time travellers in this most alien of times.

100,000 BC has a reputation of being a bit dull and stagey after the brilliance of that first, ground-breaking, episode. Taken in isolation a slightly fairer evaluation can be made. They are still a little dull, with The Forest of Fear being the worst offender, but on the whole provide excellent performances of some wonderful dialogue, both from the regulars and the guest cast of cave people. They also feature some impressive sets and genuine tension surrounding the survival of the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara.


Much is made in the production notes for the DVD issue of this serial that the script began with much less dialogue written for the cave people. It seems clear that, initially at least, the Stone Age characters for this story were seen as the stereotypical Ug and Og brigade often seen in cartoons and comedy films. Anthony Coburn, however, in redrafts gave the guest characters more and more to say with increasingly eloquent dialogue which, although probably historically inaccurate, provides a life to the tribe that would have been sorely lacking otherwise. The almost poetic or Shakespearean words paint a picture of a tribe on the brink of collapse, of a leader who is lost and a usurper who sees his chance to take control. This is slightly off-set by furry animal skins, a couple of dodgy hairdos/wigs and by the vaguely comical names of Za, Kal, Hur and Horg, but really, what else could they be called?

And what of these characters? As people they are incredibly well-defined and superbly acted by Derek Newark, Jeremy Young, Alethea Charlton, Howard Lang and Eileen Way. Each of these actors, with the exception (I think) of Howard Lang, would return to Doctor Who in the future of the series, but I wonder if any topped their performance here. They carry entire scenes with the machinations of the tribe and as a viewer you are drawn into the power struggle regardless of its effect on the regulars.


My love for the original TARDIS crew begins with this story – although I don’t think I’d have been too upset if Susan had been clonked on the head by a stone age axe so that, after her strong start here, we were spared the development into scream-teen we get later on in the first series’ run. Jacqueline Hill and William Russell are completely engaging as the ordinary teachers thrown into a world completely removed from their own. William Hartnell gives a tour de force performance as the strange alien who is mocking, irascible and potentially murderous; willing as he is to kill Za rather than risk his and Susan’s lives for the sake of a wounded caveman.

Across the story, we get a good range of prehistoric locations: the open plain, the jungle and a cave. All are convincing and, knowing the limitations of the production itself, quite frankly amazing. The production notes of the DVD state that the designer, Barry Newbery based his forest plants on real fossilised leaves he had researched. The cave is convincingly claustrophobic – particularly the ‘Cave of Skulls’ area (even more so on film for the Ealing-filmed fight scene between Za and Kal – a surprisingly violent set piece).

Revisit the three installments of 100,000 BC in isolation, separate from the opening episode, and you may just find that there's a lot more to enjoy in this section of Doctor Who's very first story than you may remember.

A primary school teacher and father of two, Andrew finds respite in the worlds of Doctor Who, Disney and general geekiness. Unhealthily obsessed with Lance Parkin’s A History, his Doctor Who viewing marathon is slowly following Earth history from the Dawn of Time to the End of the World. He would live in a Disney theme park if given half the chance.

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