A Doctor Who A Day: An Unearthly Child — The Forest Of Fear

By David Wharton | Published

This article is more than 2 years old

ForestFearOriginally aired December 7, 1963
Yesterday we left the Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara all trussed up and prisoners of a tribe of cave people. They saw the Doctor lighting up a pipe and now are demanding that he teach them how to “make fire.” Our heroes spend some time trying to untie or cut through their bonds, a task that isn’t going well — the cave people may not know how to make fire, but by god their knot-tying skills are at Eagle Scout level at least. Thankfully, the Creepy Old Woman sneaks in through an enormous, easily seen crack in the cavern wall, suggesting this cave is the least secure prison facility this side of Arkham Asylum.

She doesn’t want the tribe to learn how to make fire for some reason that’s never adequately explained, but Ian and the rest aren’t the sort to look a gift Creepy Old Woman in the mouth. Probably because this is the Stone Age and her breath is almost certainly nightmarish. Our heroes sneak out through the giant crack, but Cave Man Leader Candidate #1, having noticed that Creepy Old Woman has snuck off with his knife, heaves the rock blocking the cave entrance out of the way in time to see the fleeing companions. He and his Female Cohort take off into the forest in pursuit of the escaped prisoners.

Out in the forest (of fear) Ian tries to figure out how to get back to the TARDIS, Barbara repeatedly breaks down into hysterics, and the Doctor complains and generally seems to be in need of a sound thrashing. Clearly his mother never instilled the whole “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” lesson. Our heroes hear Cave Man Leader Candidate #1 and Female Cohort approaching, so they hunker down and watch as he is suddenly attacked by an offscreen BBC makeup artist armed with unconvincing stage blood. While Ian and the Doctor want to use the distraction as a chance to make a break for the TARDIS, Barbara has to go and bring human decency and compassion into it, so they stop to help the wounded cave man.

They decide to take Wounded Cave Man Leader Candidate #1 back to the TARDIS so they can use their crazy future magic to help heal him. Unfortunately, when they arrive at the TARDIS they find the way blocked by Cave Man Leader Candidate #2, who has convinced the tribe that Cave Man Leader Candidate #1 is pulling a fast one and stealing the secret of fire so they can’t have it. We’re left with the TARDIS travelers staring down the business end of several pointy sticks.

DoctorAloofThe Good
After spending most of the previous episode watching cave men stand around and argue about things, the comparatively brisk pace of “The Forest of Fear” is a welcome change. Honestly, the previous episode could have easily been folded into this one and we wouldn’t have really lost anything important. Cave men want fire. We get it. Let’s get to the great escape already.

The First Doctor continues his trend of kind of being a dick. Pretty much the only productive thing he contributes this episode is suggesting that they use some of the fractured bones in the cave to help cut through their bonds. And given that they’re trapped inside a cave filled with nothing but bones, I have to imagine the other companions would have had that eureka moment even if he wasn’t there.The rest of the time he pretty much just complains or second-guesses everybody. Dude is seriously putting a damper on the excitement of traveling through time and space.

But again, I’m actually loving the Doctor’s general dickishness, simply because it’s so far removed from what and who the Doctor has become over the decades. Aside from being generally cranky, he suggests they leave the wounded cave man to die so they can make their escape to the TARDIS. Pragmatic advice, certainly, but not very compassionate, and not a choice you can see the later Doctors making, or at least not making quite so easily. It doesn’t do much to make the Doctor a sympathetic character, but it does give the character plenty of room to evolve.

There’s also a line that resonates powerfully with the seventh season finale and with where the character of the Doctor is as we approach the 50th anniversary special. The finale, entitled “The Name of the Doctor,” explained that the Doctor’s true name isn’t important; “the Doctor” is the name he chose to define himself. He’s the one who helps, who cares for the weak, who wants to make things better. Those phrases, so far, don’t really describe this First Doctor. At least not yet.

At one point Ian asks the Time Lord to help with the wounded cave man and the Doctor snaps that “I am not a Doctor of medicine!” Barbara then calls him out, saying, “You treat everybody and everything as something less important than yourself!” And it’s absolutely true. Our favorite Time Lord has a long journey ahead of him before the name of the Doctor conjures both hope and fear in equal measure.

The Bad
While the Doctor’s crankiness and uselessness in this episode works for me from a character standpoint because at this point they’re clearly not trying to make him very likable yet. Barabara, however, has a breakdown as they flee the cave that seems very out of character from what we’ve seen of her so far. I realize this was the ‘60s and so every female character is in constant danger of having a fainting spell and needing a Big Strong Man to comfort her, but still. She saves some face when she insists on helping the injured cave man, an act of very human kindness that stands as all the more admirable compared to the Doctor’s impatient disinterest. I’m hoping there won’t be too many more semi-misogynistic “hysterical woman” moments in the episodes to come.

Quote of the Day

‘Fear makes companions of us all.’ – The Doctor