The start of this episode gives Hartnell a great moment of showmanship, unveiling Kal as the murderer of Old Mother by manipulating him into revealing the murder weapon, and then encouraging the tribe to turn against him. It’s a fantastic scene, and I think an inspiration for the Millennius trial sequence in The Keys of Marinus. It’s probably this moment of cunning that later convinces Ian to acknowledge the Doctor as the TARDIS ‘tribe’s’ leader to Za, although the final moments of the episode make it clear that this is only a temporary rapprochement.
The first scene is also key because it contains the most important line of the episode: ‘Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe.’ The Doctor’s words clearly have an impact on Za: this new tribe ‘from the other side of the mountains’ intrigues him. He seeks them out to learn more, and is treated to a lesson in 1960s collectivism, which is fascinating because it’s basically the same message the series is still preaching in the very last episodes from 1989. However, any dreams of establishing a prehistoric New Jerusalem go by the wayside once Za has the secret of fire, and immediately turns it on the time travellers: ‘We have fire now’. At a stretch, this could even be a critique of Attlee’s post-war Labour government being diverted from their socialist mission to investing time and effort into getting a ‘British atom bomb’ for national prestige.
Most reviews of this story focus on some of the amusingly low-rent bits of the production, like the infamous ‘whipped by branches’ escape sequence. That’s not fair. This is really well directed – the fight on film is truly brutal, with biting, kicking, and finally a head crushing. The flaming skulls are a nightmarishly brilliant image, too. The acting is also first rate: Alethea Charlton is particularly considered, chewing over the confusing ideas the time travellers have introduced her to, fascinatedly examining Kal’s shattered corpse, and finally begging Za to let the time travellers go while the rest of the tribe demand their heads.
The final scene confirms what The Cave of Skulls implied: the Doctor doesn’t really know how to operate the TARDIS. ‘The codes are still a secret,’ he snaps when challenged by Ian. As the radiation detector starts flashing its warning, we’re left wondering what fresh horror is waiting on The Dead Planet.
Next episode: The Dead Planet