7 Days of Classic Who continues with the serial with the questionable name that everybody ignores. Does it deserve its reputation?
The first serial story of Doctor Who is largely considered separate from the first episode for three reasons: because the first episode is so much more important, because it is considered so much better than the three that follow, and because it has been remade as though the serial itself never existed. This does the story a bit of a disservice.
The first half of episode two actually continues the conversation from the end of “An Unearthly Child”, so it’s clearly part of the same story. The fact that it continues to the first time they step foot on an alien planet (they describe it as Earth’s past, but they also have no idea when or where they are and it doesn’t really fit into Earth history. Such is the life of ’60s Who. Past these first few minutes, this serial especially and the season continuing features the four members of the TARDIS team learning to work together, and the Doctor learning a little bit about being a humanitarian rather than a fugitive. It can be argued that this season is largely what created the gulf between the Doctor’s and the Master’s way of looking at things – but of course, the Master hasn’t been introduced yet.
Watched in the mindset of 1963 Doctor Who, the pacing of this serial isn’t as terrible as it may seem at first glance. Compared to the strength of the first episode and the iconic nature of the two serials that will follow, however, this story is dreadful. The main reason for that, of course, is that the vast majority of the time the Doctor and his companions are literally sitting around doing nothing. It’s one thing when they’re off screen for much of the episode – something I’d hardly recommend for your first story arc of a new show, by the way – but when they’re on screen, but doing nothing, it hardly screams entertainment. The value of this episode lies in more subtle things, such as the Doctor and Ian’s battle for control mirroring that of the locals. The TARDIS team are required to use their brains to defeat a larger and more physically imposing force, and have chosen to do so without killing any of them. This is standard Doctor Who procedure now, but at the time, it was setting the course of what the show was to be about, at a time when it was still figuring it out.
There are other elements of this, less plot-crucial but still noteworthy for fans in this day and age. This is the first time the TARDIS is remarked as being unreliable: The Doctor explicitly comments as such, not to mention the dread he expresses upon discovery that the chameleon circuit (not named as such, but its function implied) is not working. As would happen in “Rose”, the Doctor starts off “Cave of Skulls” as openly antagonistic of his companion (he dawdles in the TARDIS for no reason other than to drive Ian batty, and as soon as he’s accomplished this mission, he no longer has time to spend another second in the TARDIS to answer what Ian has to say), and in the end, they form a team. Ian and Barbara still want to return home, but it’s not quite as terrible an idea to be trapped for the next season time travelling with this old man as it first seemed.
“The Tribe of Gum”, “100,000 BC”, or whatever you wish to call this serial, I can’t pretend to call it one of the best in the Doctor’s library – or even a good episode for its season. That doesn’t prevent me from calling it things like “precedent-setting”. My first goal in rewatching “The Daleks” will be to see just how much of it relies on this episode that none of us have ever taken into account. This isn’t an episode for everybody, and I can hardly argue with people who skip it when they introduce their new friends to the show, but it’s also a historical episode, and one that should be considered for any marathon by a fan or researcher.
An addendum to this critique: a rewrite of the script or a skilled edit of this story could make “The Tribe of Gum” match modern sensibilities. Cut the first four episodes (92 minutes) into an hour-long story, and I can guarantee you will have a winner on your hands.