|This isn't the most exciting story in the world, and it's largely overshadowed by being
sandwiched between the spellbinding first episode, and the history-making (but dull) Dalek
story. Which means that this story is not held in high regard by fans. And yet, at the heart
of this story is one of the most important things ever to happen in Doctor Who - the
birth of the human race. According to Doctor Who - The Television Companion
(Howe/Walker, BBC Books, 1998) it is a "popular myth" that this story is set on Earth, as
nowhere in the three episodes does it state that this is the case. It could just as easily be
the stone age of any other planet. This is the sort of pointless pedantry that makes fans look
like a bunch of sad wankers. Of course the story is set on Earth - what possible reason would
Doctor Who have for visiting any other planet's stone age? As Russell T Davies might
say, we're not interested in the people of planet Zog - we certainly wouldn't care about
Which brings me back to my point. There's a widespread belief amongst Doctor Who fans that the cavemen seen in this story are a Neanderthal tribe. This is also a "popular myth" by Howe's and Walker's criteria, since it's not stated anywhere in the three episodes, and yet you never see this challenged. Except here. Anyone who thinks the tribe are Neanderthals really doesn't understand what the story is about.
A few simple facts first. We know that Neanderthals were not very efficient hunters, and generally suffered from malnutrition. That's not the case here. The tribe appear to be successful hunter-gatherers. They've got enough food to be able to feed their prisoners for instance - and when challenged, Za seems quite confident of being able to slay many beasts for food the next day. These people are quite clearly early homo sapiens, perhaps on the verge of making the evolutionary jump to modern man. And that fundamentally is what the story is about. Doctor Who may have an alien as its lead character, but it's always been more concerned with the human race. So what more important event to show us right at the beginning of the series, than the birth of humanity itself? There's a scene in The Firemaker where Za suddenly grasps the logic of what Ian has told him ("Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe"). This contradicts the Doctor's earlier statement that the tribe are not capable of reason or logical thought. It's an important moment. Here, we the viewers are witnessing the birth of man as an intelligent, reasoning creature. Za is the ancestor of us all.
It's been reported that one of Anthony Coburn's working titles for these episodes was The Dawn of Knowledge. I think this makes the true intent of the script clear, so much so that there's no point arguing about it.