The first adventure the crew of the TARDIS share takes place far in the past, pitting them against primitive cave men who have forgotten the secret of making fire. This is an archetype for stories where the crew encounter primitive cultures, whether in Earth’s own history or on alien planets.
In this environment it is knowledge that gives the player characters an edge. This type of story is rich in potential for natives to be frightened by simple trinkets such as watches or matches and a time traveller can seem like a shaman with just a small amount of scientific knowledge.
The triumph of intellect over physical force, which is arguably at the heart of Doctor Who, is never clearer than in stories of this type. It can be used to engineer escapes, inspire fear or be useful as a bargaining chip.
Knowledge can also drive a story. Just as the first episode was about the introduction of a fantastic new concept, that of time travel, this story is about the secret of making fire. Having this knowledge is key to being the leader of the tribe, as it will ensure their survival in the winter.
Yet this knowledge is also dangerous. Za’s father knew how to make fire and was killed for it, people believing it better to stay as they were. Discoveries have the potential to transform societies but people fear change. Through the centuries new ideas have been called evil or heretical. Sometimes they are right but the tribe of gum find that without this information they are doomed.
Gaining information can motivate protagonists and antagonists alike. Plots can be built around this quest, whether it is a hero seeking the cure for a plague or villains attempting to steal secret martial art techniques.
The transformative effect of new knowledge can also be the crux of an adventure and present ethical problems for a time traveller. Should they reveal information that could help a society but transform their culture? Could there be long term consequences of this knowledge and might the web or time be harmed by changes? In addition there is also the choice of who they reveal information to. Can they trust the person they tell to use it wisely or abuse it?
We’ll save the discussion of active attempts to change time to a more appropriate episode. In primitive cultures little revelations are usually safe as they lack the ability to comprehend the workings. For example, firing a gun in front of savages won’t give them the secret of metal working or gun powder. It will seem to be magic as far as they are concerned.
Encounters with primitive cultures, human or otherwise, reminds time travellers of their humble beginnings. The main concerns are food, heat and shelter. The motivation of all the characters encountered are just this simple. What can they eat? How can they stay warm? Where can they hide from predators and shield themselves from the rain? If they have the means to satisfy this need you can be sure there is someone else who will want what they have.
These basic needs will also be important to the time travellers if they ever become stranded in isolated locations, far from civilisation. It is brutal and frightening, a world where it is kill or be killed. It may concern the player characters what they might have to do in order to survive.
It isn’t just cave men who are a threat but also wild beasts and the environment. Being able to defend yourself from predators, being able to hunt for food and protect ones self from the elements are all concerns. Not only that but navigation can be a problem, it is easy to loose ones way in dense jungles or featureless deserts. It can be a real challenge just to find the way back to the time ship.
A simplistic framework is provided by this story:
One or more of the time travellers are captured by the locals. If any of the group are still free they still can’t leave without abandoning their friends, requiring them to seek them out.
The captives must escape from where ever they are imprisoned or those who are free must rescue them. Escape could be by finding a way out of the area they are confined in, overcoming guards or interacting with their captors, winning their freedom through negotiation, bribery or trickery.
3. Return to the time ship
Once freed they must then make their way to their time ship and leave. This can be made more difficult if they can’t find their way and if they are being pursued.
That can be enough for an adventure but this story goes further, having the time travellers overcome their fear of their capturers and begin to pity them, choosing to help them rather than escape, essentially adding an extra stage between step 2 and 3.
Za and Hur are initially confused by this, it is revelation to them that these people do not kill. This is a good example of how the time travellers can teach savages. The locals are not evil, they simply don’t know any better. In situations such as this education can only be a good thing, it bring enlightenment.
It isn’t just the idea that one doesn’t have to kill , how to provide first aid and make fire that the TARDIS crew give the cave people. It is also the concept that the tribe as whole is stronger than the individual.
What ideas could a group of player characters impart to savages that are obvious to us? Knowing about love, pity, mercy and hope are just as important as the secret of fire. It is these concepts that raise us up above being mere animals. They can be a wonderful gift for a time traveller to bestow on those they meet.
What the crew of the TARDIS soon learn is that it can take time for these ideas to take hold. They are still held prisoner even after they help Za and provide him with fire. Revolutions rarely take place over night.
Player characters should bear this in mind. They can’t expect to change the behaviour of NPCs instantly. The most they can do is plant the seed and hope that it grows.