The Doctor and his companions use guile and cunning to escape death at the hands of their Stone Age captors. The Doctor decides that the only way to escape is to show the cave dwellers how to make fire.
Considering the past two episodes seem to have been rather slow in terms of story development, I find it somewhat odd that more seems to happen in the first four minutes of this episode than the past forty minutes. The tribe cast Kal out after a short rule of tyranny, and the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan are once again back in the Cave of Skulls.
There’s a whole theme of unity in this episode, both in terms of the unity of the tribe of cavemen, and the unity of the new TARDIS team. Za however, is still desperate to know how to make fire; so the logical leap for him is to ask his prisoners how to do so. Luckily for him, Ian is in the process of making fire, by rubbing two sticks near one another, although they never touch. (I know that’s not how you really make fire, but that’s what Ian does in this episode, and it confuses me why he couldn’t have just rubbed the sticks together in the studio, oh well.)
For some reason, there’s then a bit of an altercation between Za and another caveman, probably used to inject some action into proceedings; it’s fairly well choreographed and well filmed, using a lot of quick cuts to add to the unease of the situation. My biggest problem with the fight though is that it feels as if it was added to round up the run time. It goes on for around ninety seconds, which in a twenty-five minute slot, is a rather considerable amount of time. It’s a shame that such a fight sequence feels more like a filler than a set piece.
Once the tribe has fire once more, you’d expect the tribe to allow the Doctor and his companions go free, but that’s not the case. Instead, Za goes out to get some meat, and the TARDIS gang are still stuck in the Cave of Skulls, presumedly so they can keep making fire for Za.
Susan and Ian then come up with a rather bizarre plan to escape; using four flaming sticks with skulls on them to try and trick the tribe into believing that they are dead so that they can escape. Strangely enough it works, and the tribe seem to be actively grieving the loss of their prisoners. It seems that cavemen really are as stupid as comedies would make you believe.
The gang escape, with Barbara only tripping over once, which in classic Doctor Who, is an impressive feat for a female companion. I’m surprised she didn’t twist her ankle. The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan make it back to the TARDIS in one piece, and the Doctor is quick to escape the fate of the cavemen. The cavemen are awestruck by the majesty of the TARDIS dematerialising (which looks impressive, even to this day) and the TARDIS hurls her crew into a new adventure. But not back to 1963, much to the dismay of Ian and Barbara.
The conclusion of this episode really leads into the next story, which gives the sense of a constant continuity. You know exactly that the events of one story are going to lead into the next; and I really enjoy it.
Overall, I think that this episode is the best in An Unearthly Child, and it really flies when watching it. Sure, there are a few questionable lines and directions, but it’s a good episode nonetheless.