I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately.
Lockdown seems finally to have given me time to savour some of the world’s better literary endeavours; I’ve already mentioned The Plague, and other recent reads have included The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Robinson Crusoe, and Sense and Sensibility, along with Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories and the Jeeves series by PG Wodehouse.
Yesterday afternoon I read the novelisation of the first Doctor Who story, An Unearthly Child – and, believe it or not, this was the one that started me thinking about story structure; the kind of story people set out to tell and the devices they use to tell it. It’s not great literature, much as I adore the noveliser, dear old Tewwance Dicks – but it’s straightforward and simple.
I ended up deconstructing the story – the main story about cave-people, subtitled 100,000 BC, not the introductory episode, which set up the premise of the entire series – and came to some surprising conclusions!
It begins with two protagonists who are vying for the position of tribal leader. Za is the son of the old chief, who has recently died. Kal is a newcomer to the tribe who wants to take over. Traditionally, the chief is the one who knows how to make fire, but neither of these two knows how to do it; Za’s father died before handing him the secret and Kal has never had a chance to find out.
(Is this a story about mankind’s discovery of fire, then? No. Fire has clearly been discovered already. But Doctor Who was intended to be at least partly educational, especially in its historic stories, which include this one. What, then?)
We are encouraged to consider Kal as the baddie. I wonder whether it’s because he’s the outsider; that would suggest the original writer, Anthony Coburn, was playing on the viewer’s (remember this was a TV show first) own tribal prejudices. He makes this easy because, when Kal happens upon a man who’s casually making fire, his first instinct is to attack. So he wallops the Doctor over the head while he’s trying to have a sly puff on his pipe, and carries him off to the tribe.
It looks like this is going to be a very simple story: Kal gets the Doc to reveal the secret of fire to him, and becomes tribal chief. But that wouldn’t be very interesting or exciting, and it would mean the bad guy wins – we can’t have that.
So it turns out that, when Kal demands fire, the newly-recovered Doctor discovers that his matches were left behind when he was carried off. And his travelling companions are no more able to help when they turn up, having followed him to the tribe’s caves only to be captured themselves (dummies!). They all end up imprisoned in the ‘Cave of Skulls’, a nasty little hole full of dead people’s heads – all with holes of their own, so we have an intimation of the fate that may befall our heroes.
(Now what? Nobody’s getting anything they want!)
Enter Old Mother. She was the mate of the old chief – the firemaker – and blames his ability to make fire for his death. My opinion? She’s a senile old bat; there’s nothing in the story to indicate that the old chief died because of fire. Still, she waits for a chance to nip out to the ‘Cave of Skulls’ and tries to kill our heroes (fat chance; she’s old and weak) but ends up releasing them instead.
Za also wakes up and realises something’s up. He trots off to the Cave of Skulls too, with his girlfriend Hur (who’s worried her father will give her to Kal if the baddie gets to be tribal leader), and finds the Doctor and the others recently escaped. They pursue. This looks like a set-up for a major development!
In the jungle (yeah, there’s a jungle!) our heroes realise they’re being pursued and hide, in time to see Za turn up. But he’s just realised that he’s being pursued as well – a sabre-toothed tiger does a number on him and leaves him for dead.
Major development ahead: our heroes are all set to run off and leave Hur weeping over Za’s body when Barbara (the compassionate one) decides they can’t leave the cave people like this and drags them back to help out instead. They tend to Za’s injuries and make a stretcher to get him (and them) out of harm’s way – teaching him a new word, “friend”, along the way. (Is this about early humans learning the meaning and value of friendship, then?)
Meanwhile, Kal discovers Old Mother in the cave and she tells him she has released the Doctor’s party – so, enraged, he kills her with his knife. Then he raises the alarm and lies to the other tribespeople that Za has killed her and set our heroes free. So we can see that Old Mother is nothing more than a cipher; she existed only to push the plot along by releasing the Doctor’s party and getting killed to give Kal a chance to show us he’s a wrong ‘un.
Before long, the Doctor’s group, Za and Hur are recaptured and dragged back to the caves (again!), where the Doctor traps Kal into admitting that he murdered Old Mother; it’s simple logic – if Za did the killing, his knife would be covered in blood but it isn’t. The Doctor baits Kal into drawing his own knife, simply by saying that Za’s is the better blade (Kal’s pride won’t accept it) – and of course the old woman’s blood is all over it. Kal does a runner.
(So is this the meaning of the story? That you can get a villain to give the game away by tricking them with logic? Not exactly the most useful message, unless you’re likely to be outsmarting baddies yourself every day. Still, it’s the Doctor who unmasks the villain, and that makes it important.)
(No, the meaning of the story, it seems, is that an individual may be stronger than other individuals, but cannot be stronger than a whole group. It is the tribe that drives Kal away. Communism! Golly. And this was on the BBC!)
All’s well then. right? The baddie’s been seen off and our heroes are free to go, having made friends with Za, who’s now chief. Wrong. The Doctor and the others end up right back in the ‘Cave of Skulls’, as firemakers to the tribe. So much for the value of friendship!
They get on with working out how to make fire the old-fashioned way, and there’s a handy bit of instruction for anyone who doesn’t know. I think somewhere around here, Kal comes back and has the big fight with Za that, let’s be honest, we’ve been expecting since the start. Of course Za ends up the winner.
The Doctor and the scientific companion, Ian, succeed in making fire, and show Za how to make it. He’s delighted, because he’s convinced that it will make him chief – but the Doctor says everyone in the tribe should be shown how to make fire; in his tribe, the firemaker is the least important person because they can all make it.
(Perhaps this is the message of the piece: it takes more to make a leader than being able to do something that anyone else can manage.)
Now the only problem is the fact that our heroes are still stuck in a cave. Fortunately they have one more weapon to use: superstition. They set four skulls on fire and kid the guard that they’ve died and the skulls are their restless spirits, come to do him in. He runs away like a sissy and they escape.
It’s a really simple story, but it shows how particular obstacles are necessary to make the narrative interesting. The Doctor has to lose his matches but even then, the gang could have made fire with the tools to hand. Old Mother has to release them and get killed, not only to create the possibility of an alliance with Za but also to show Kal’s villainy. Kal’s mischief has to be shown up in front of the whole tribe so they learn the value of banding together. And the Doctor’s party has to have made fire in order to escape using the trick they employ.
The story is moved forward by characters acting according to their natures: if Kal wasn’t a git, he wouldn’t have kidnapped the Doctor; if Old Mother didn’t hate fire, the gang wouldn’t have escaped; if Barbara wasn’t compassionate, Za wouldn’t have been brought on-side (as much as it was possible to do so); if the tribe weren’t superstitious primitives, our heroes would not have been able to escape.
It works. It all fits together nicely. But it’s a bit slow. Still, it’s turned up a surprising author’s message (Communism!).
If I get a chance to go into this storytelling malarky any further, I’ll see if I can show up ways to make the story more interesting.