Monostat Fanfic Writer
Joined: Sat Sep 13, 2008 4:40 pm
Location: Fresno, California
Watching "Classic" Doctor Who
When I was 9 or 10, the PBS station out of Sacramento began showing Doctor Who, starting with the Tom Baker stories, and then going through to Peter Davidson, and then (once they had acquired the rights) going to John Pertwee, and then Baker, Davidson, and Colin Baker, then Sylvester McCoy, and then they acquired the broadcast rights for Hartnell and Troughton.
Long story short, I have, at some time, seen almost every surviving episode of the original series - all of them well before the current series began in 2005.
But it has been many, many years since I have seen the early episodes. It's been at least six years since I had seen a second Doctor story, and even longer since I last saw a first Doctor story. But my fiance likes to watch television series all the way through (whenever possible), and so, after finishing the most recent episode, she wanted to see where it all began.
So, the other night, we found ourselves watching "An Unearthly Child"
I remembered the Doctor being more sinister, cantankerous, and definitely not a hero. However, I also remembered him being more of a villainous character than he actually is - he is much more amoral than immoral, but having seen the 3rd through 7th Doctors before I saw this one, I was just shocked at how self-serving he could be. What's more, I was surprised at just how much of the character was already there - his tendency towards arrogant smart-assery, his assumption (usually correct) that he is the smartest person in the room, etc. However, it is interesting to note that, unlike the later versions of the Doctor, the 1st Doctor, at least in this introductory story is not someone that others pay attention to. He is ignored by the "cavemen" who take them captive once Ian (one of the Doctor's early companions, whom the Doctor kidnaps) is on the scene, and Ian and Barbara do come to admit that he is clearly intellectually advanced beyond them, but they are still unwilling to see him as a leader.
Also, the first episode, which features the two teachers (Ian and Barbara) trying to make sense out of Susan (the Doctor's grand daughter - yep, for those who only know the new series, the Doctor had children before "Jenny") is really quite good and interesting. The following episodes, featuring adventures with cavemen, are really, really awful.
Part of this is that the story of these cavemen is pretty dumb to begin with. Basically, The Doctor and company end up in the middle of a power struggle between a hunter-gatherer band who are arguing over whether the leader should be the greatest hunter of the person who can make fire, which is complicated by the fact that none of these people know how to make fire. One of them spies the Doctor lighting his pipe, and all hell breaks loose.
The story is poorly written, the power struggle doesn't seem to be clearly understood by the writers who keep shifting around whether the fire or the hunting are what the cave people care about more (maybe they were trying to show that the people themselves were confused, but instead it comes off like they are just dumb and indecisive), and the cave-people are all unsympathetic and, frankly, have so little in the way of survival know-how that it's a wonder that they haven't all been eaten by a mildly annoyed sloth. These are the Worst. Cavemen. Ever.
Also, given that the "cavemen" were clearly designed to show the "ladder of evolution" that had by this time been abandoned by most reputable anthropologists, but which had been used to justify racist colonial policies throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the treatment of the Cavemen is arguably racist, as they serve as a stand-in for any non-European.
Also, as an archaeologist, this story hurt me in ways that require me to show a psychologist where the show touched me.
The show was, at this point, intended to be educational, and as such it is not unreasonable to expect that the writers would make an effort to portray the prehistoric humans in a semi-realistic way, at least as understood in 1963. Instead, these are bizarre caricatures that would have been perfectly at home in an old Warner Brother cartoon, but which bear absolutely zero resemblance to prehistoric humans as understood via archaeology and comparative ethnology as early as the 1920s. Again, on a non-educational show, I'd just role my eyes and get on with it, but on a show which was at the time being sold as educational, there's really no excuse for not at least consulting the nearest encyclopedia.
That the Cavemen lacked fire is goofy, but given that there was at least some (though not much) debate back in 1963 over whether anatomically modern humans always had fire, or if it was something that they inherited from their hominid predecessors, that can slide. However, the other sins against anthropology committed in this story include:
- Wearing "furs": okay, by the time we were anatomically modern humans, we had the ability to sew and assemble clothing from animal skins that was more than simply a pelt draped roughly over one's shoulders. Examples of this sort of thing are found in European archaeology, and can even be found in Africa and Asia. What's more, it doesn't even make sense as a type of clothing to wear in an area where, as the story makes clear, it gets very cold and people die off due to lack of heat.
- Okay, lack of heat - if the cold is killing people off, then why the hell are these people living here. Humans evolved in a tropical climate, and didn't leave it until they had the tools (including fire) necessary to survive outside of it. And in every culture that we know of, including the literally stone-age cultures encountered by European explorers from the 15th through 19th centuries, most, if not all, people knew how to make fire. It was a basic survival skill that even children would be taught. While there was always local adaptation and the need for quick thinking, the notion that people would come to inhabit an area where they know that the cold will kill them off without having mastered fire is...well, these cavemen deserved to die off, is all I'm saying.
- "The Leader Makes Fire" - the hell? I don't expect a children's show to be able to explore the sheer complexity of hunter-gatherer social organization (and it can be very, very complex), but it's obnoxious that they went with this particular line of nonsense. This is worse than what I had previously held up as the worst example of misunderstanding hunter-gatherers (the Buffy Thanksgiving episode). This isn't how a leader would have been chosen, and if you are relying on only one person to know how to make something necessary for survival, then you are dooming your band to death.
- The modern-day Brits of course have to explain such things as "the tribe together is more powerful than one person alone", as well as explain the need to help your injured comrades rather than prey upon them. Yeah, because people living as a tight-knit band in a marginal environment where teamwork is necessary for basic survival wouldn't have already picked up on those life lessons.
- Okay, this is a technical one that I shouldn't nitpick, but because I'm already bitching about these things, I will. The "knives" being used by the cavemen are actually fairly accurate reproductions of a type of stone tool, but it isn't a knife. They are reproductions of rather large bifaces (tools made by knocking flakes off of both sides of a narrow piece of flakable stone) - knives are a type of biface, but are much, much smaller than the bifaces shown here, and would have been hafted onto a handle. In fact, trying to use a stone biface without a haft, as is done in this story, would result in you cutting the hell out of your own hand before you ever did any damage to whatever you were trying to cut. Again, Worst. Cavemen. Ever.
- Final complaint - why were they living in caves? Yeah, yeah, I know, they were Cavemen, but by the 1940s, archaeologists had long since worked out that the early humans weren't "cavemen" - yes, they sometimes would make use of caves for shelter, but they were far more likely to construct their shelters out of lightweight materials (leathers, wooden poles, etc.) in order to be mobile, and be able to easily do things like, oh, I don't know, get the hell out of a cold area before the weather literally turned killer. Again, these cavemen deserved to die, they are an evolutionary dead-end if ever I've seen one.
Again, the research that the writers of this "educational" show did was clearly to watch old Bugs Bunny cartoons and read old Alley Oop strips, as that is obviously where their characterization of the cave people came from. Had they bothered to look into an encyclopedia, or buy one of the many popular books on prehistoric people printed in England at the time that this was broadcast (I have several of them on the shelf in my office...if only I had a time machine that would allow me to bring the writers copies), then the story would have been very, very different, and probably much, much better - the prehistoric people could have been real characters rather than silly caricatures, and the power struggle between the would-be leaders might have had some real drama to it.
Oh well, at least, from this point on, the 1st Doctor's era had nowhere to go but up.
I'm like a boring, perpetually annoyed Indiana Jones - http://www.anthroslug.blogspot.com