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Doctor Who (Classic): “Doctor Who And The Silurians”

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“Doctor Who And The Silurians” (season 7, episodes 5-11; originally aired 1/31-3/14/1970)

Jumping from “The War Games” to “The Silurians” is one of the smallest leaps forward in time we’ve made in this feature so far, with the two stories separated by only a single serial, “Spearhead From Space.” But although they were made less than a year apart, and by many of the same people, the differences between them make Doctor Who feel like it’s almost a completely new series.

A big part of that, of course, is the switch to color from black-and-white, and the increased use of on-location filming in places like Marylebone Station in London that brought a new realism to Doctor Who’s visual presentation. But there was also, as I noted in my “Spearhead From Space” writeup, a very conscious mandate for season seven to tell stories that were more morally complex than earlier years, and that would keep the attention of both adult audiences as well as the kids.  Season-opener “Spearhead From Space” laid the groundwork for this, but most of its energy went to establishing the fact of the Doctor’s new Earthbound exile after his “War Games” trial, and introducing the new triad of main characters (the Brigadier, Liz Shaw, and the Third Doctor), who would work together to defend Earth from alien invasion and other sci-fi threats. The Doctor himself had not been terribly active in “Spearhead From Space” either, spending half the story in a hospital bed, which was another way of giving the setting and supporting characters more screentime. “The Silurians” picked up those loose threads, putting the Doctor firmly back at center stage in a story that resisted being broken down into simple divisions of good versus evil. Although it’s three episodes longer than “Spearhead From Space,” “The Silurians” keeps a snappy pace throughout thanks to Malcolm Hulke’s well-plotted script.

The basic plot of “The Silurians” is an alien-invasion story, with the twist that the aliens aren’t from outer space but underground, and not from the future but the distant past. The title monsters are intelligent reptiles—apparently from the Age of Dinosaurs, but that detail is murky enough that I’ll come back to it again later—who went into hibernation to wait out a planet-threatening catastrophe and woke up to discover that the monkeys grew up and now think they run the place. The idea comes loosely from Nigel Kneale’s 1950s TV serial Quatermass And The Pit, in which the discovery of ancient aliens awakens genetic memories in the nearby humans of being hunted by the aliens, triggering mass panic and a reversion to a primitive state—which is why some of the humans here go crazy after seeing the Silurians and their pet dinosaur, and start drawing cave paintings in crayon on the walls. That aspect is dropped fairly quickly, though, as Hulke chooses instead to focus less on the Silurians as a primordial menace than one whose relationship with us paralleled real human political and social divisions. (The idea of an ancient alien menace that triggers a deep instinctual fear in humans was a popular one in the 1970s, though, thanks to Chariots Of The Gods author Erich von Daniken, and Doctor Who would return to it in “The Daemons” and “Image Of The Fendahl.” Season seven would draw on the Quatermass series again in the next serial, “The Ambassadors of Death,” which takes its possessed-evil-astronaut concept from The Quatermass Experiment.) I wonder if there isn’t also a little bit of the Planet Of The Apes series in the DNA of “The Silurians,” with its socially concerned themes and hints that the Silurians may have dominated our ancestors. There’s an obvious Cold War parable in the way two species’ mutual mistrust threatens to lead to a catastrophic genocidal war, which is just the most overt way the story picks up on the sociopolitical atmosphere of the 1970s. It’s also a story about the rights of indigenous people against colonialists, with the twist that humanity is being invaded by creatures who were here first, meaning that both sides are simultaneously conquerors and natives, or immigrants and xenophobes, depending on how you look at it.

In most previous Doctor Who stories, the aliens the Doctor meets were more or less monolithically villainous or virtuous. There’s no such thing as a good Cyberman or War Lord, and the Ice Warriors that the Second Doctor fought were grey because the cameras shot in black-and-white, not because the scripts gave them a moral gradient. Only humans are shown to be complex enough to be good or evil, or a mix of both at once. But the Silurians had the same divisions between militants and peacemakers, between those driven by fear and by hope, as the humans. It seems almost quaint in 2011 when we’re used to more complicated storytelling, but it was a progression. Beyond individual character motivations, there’s also the new wrinkle provided by the very nature of the Silurians: They’re not extraterrestrials, but extra terrestrials: Superfluous Earthlings that want a place at the table again. They have as much right to live on the Earth as the humans do, and the question motivating the Doctor is how to get both sides to recognize that before it’s too late. If you’re a new-series Doctor Who fan, that idea will be familiar from the Silurians' reappearance in the recent two-parter “The Hungry Earth”/“Cold Blood”—40 years later it's still a topical theme, sad to say.

If the monsters here are more complex than usual for Doctor Who, the humans tend to be even more so. Dr. Quinn, the scientist in charge of the nuclear cyclotron from which the Silurians are drawing their power, seems at first to be filling the role of the story’s sympathetic, rational, pro-science figure. He earns the friendship of the Doctor early on, which is usually a sign that the audience should trust his judgment, and which helps us take the Silurians as potentially something other than a threat when Quinn reveals that he’s secretly working with them. But Quinn isn’t all good, and his greed for knowledge leads him to ransom his captive reptilian in exchange for the technology he’s been promised—a betrayal that leads to his murder and the escalation of hostility on both sides. His death also prompts a sea change in Miss Dawson, the other person in the cyclotron group who seemed likely to be sympathetic to the Doctor’s pleas for diplomacy, and her grief and anger instead makes her an ardent advocate of wiping the reptiles out. Especially after the Silurian leader is murdered by his second-in-command (named here simply “Old Silurian” and “Young Silurian”), the reptiles mostly behave in the same aggressive, destructive way that alien invaders usually do on Doctor Who—killing soldiers, torturing people to discover military weakness, and eventually trying to wipe out all the humans with their plague virus and the radiation-generating molecular disperser.


Eventually, the Doctor and Liz are the only ones left alive who favor the diplomatic option. Although the audience has gotten to know the Silurians well enough that we know the Doctor is right, it’s not at all difficult to understand the Brigadier’s incredulity that the Doctor could still think coexistence was worth the risk. And it’s not impossible to think that the Brigadier might have made the right decision to seal the Silurian base with explosives. A tragic decision, definitely. Murder, as the Doctor says? I wouldn’t dispute that either. Self-defense? Arguably. But it’s the Brigadier’s job, in the end, to make the military decision when it’s the final resort. And the Doctor himself has been willing to take such violent action many times before—killing off hundreds of Daleks, Cybermen, or Ice Warriors without batting an eye. This is a new place for the Doctor, and Doctor Who, to be in, and if it's it's tragic that diplomacy fails—which obviously it is—then as the central figure of the show it's the Doctor's tragedy for failing to make his viewpoint win the day. That goes a long way, at least for me, in explaining why he continues to work with the Brigadier and UNIT after the abrupt downbeat ending of this story—before the Time Lords stranded him on Earth, his usual m.o. would be to get in the TARDIS and leave, so for all he knows this kind of thing happens all the time after he's supposedly fixed some dispute between two alien races. Season Seven confronts him with the idea that blowing up the alien base leaves a lot of messy debris behind. Doctor Who never did a fantastic job of following through on that idea—for one thing, the nature of the series still required a return to the status quo, more or less, at the end of each serial—but it was still a breakthrough that it was brought up at all.

Stray observations:

  • The story is badly served by the Silurian costumes, which are terrible even by the standards of low-budget, 1970s TV, and barely bother to disguise the fact that the rubber headpiece doesn’t fit onto the actors’ shoulders or allow the mouth or eyes to move. The Silurians need to be creatures we immediately feel a kinship with, and instead we’re fighting our own suspension of disbelief. It’s also a little odd that the individual Silurians don’t get names of their own. And the decision to have all of them voiced by the same actor, Peter Halliday (Packer in “The Invasion”) could have gone dreadfully wrong as well if Halliday hadn’t done such fine work previously.
  • Due to a production error, this story is unique in having the words “Doctor Who” in the title itself, implying that this is the Doctor’s actual surname.
  • Jon Pertwee had trouble remembering the Doctor’s technobabble dialogue, and eventually came to favor one memorable catch-all phrase, “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.” This marks its first, not-quite-perfected appearance, when the Doctor tries fixing the Cyclotron by “fusing the control of the neutron flow.”
  • Apparently, the Quatermass influence was far from coincidental: On the behind-the-scenes documentary on the “Silurians” DVD, script editor Terrance Dicks says that there was some discussion in the late ’60s of canceling Doctor Who outright in favor of a new Quatermass series to be written by Nigel Kneale, which didn’t happen but still crept into the way Dicks and producer Barry Letts approached their series in the 1970s.
  • When I rewatched "Spearhead From Space" for this column a few months ago, I was struck by the similarity of the Third Doctor/UNIT team-based premise to more recent shows like The X-Files and Fringe (and Torchwood, of course). And that continues here, as "The Silurians" mixes its sci-fi action-adventure with topical, hot-button social and scientific issues of the time—plate tectonics, nuclear power, indigenous people's rights, etc. But like its descendants, Doctor Who has never been particularly rigorous about the scientific details in its stories, with a marked tendency to let entertainment and expedience trump accuracy. Which is fine, for the most part, because it's not as if anyone ever claimed this was a documentary. What's more important in separating a great Doctor Who story like "The Silurians" or "The Brain of Morbius" from an excruciating one like "The Twin Dilemma" is basic storytelling principles like dialogue, characterization, and pacing, not the science. Having said that: Nothing illustrates Doctor Who's lazy science better than the Silurians, who start out problematic enough but also suffer from the fact that every subsequent attempt to fix or explain away the previous errors has only made their back story more confused. (And I'm going deep down the nerd hole here, so bear with me.) Let's start with their name, which was chosen by Hulke and Dicks because it sounded cool and has a certain prehistoric flair to it, since there really is a geological period called the Silurian Era. And that's not a bad reason in itself, but the story then goes on to imply that the Silurians are actually from the Silurian Era—a time 200 million years before the dinosaurs, when there wasn't any life on land but plants and insects. But they're clearly from a later period, and since they're advanced reptiles who own pet tyrannosaurs, it's probably the Cretaceous. So should we call them Cretaceans, then? Apparently not: When Hulke introduced the Silurians' aquatic cousins, the Sea Devils, two years after this story, he tried to fix his earlier chronology gaffe by having the Doctor suggest that "Eocene" would be a more accurate name. Except that the dinosaurs had all been killed off long before the Eocene, so that doesn't work either. And none of those periods line up properly with the other two things we're told about Silurian history in this story—that they lived alongside our ape ancestors (who didn't evolve until long after the Eocene) and that they went into hibernation to escape the arrival of the Moon (which happened billions of years earlier). The return of the Silurians in "Hungry Earth"/"Cold Blood" muddied the waters again by giving them a plausible-sounding taxonomic Latin name, homo reptilia, which implies that they're actually mammals, not reptiles, and more closely related to humans than dinosaurs. The easiest and probably wisest way to deal with these issues as a viewer is the Mystery Science Theater 3000 method: It's just a show, you should really just relax. But I kind of like the continuity implications that come up if you assume that all those seeming errors are actually true—not for us, but for the Doctor and everyone else in Doctor Who's specific universe. It suggests that maybe all the time-traveling the Doctor's been doing, centuries' worth by his own personal timeline, has changed history so often that there is no such thing as a consistent history anymore except for the Doctor's own biography. The warped and completely unrecognizable version of history created in "The Wedding of River Song" may only be unusual in his world for how severe it is. Maybe at one time in the Who universe, the Earth's orbital capture of the Moon really did kill off the dinosaurs, an event that gets rewritten later on in "Earthshock" when the Cybermen and Adric go back in time and accidentally commit the crime themselves. (Which sets up a potential Silurian grudge against the Cybermen, so you're welcome, fan-fiction writers.)
  • In more general Doctor Who news, it's great to hear that two of the long-lost missing episodes from the black-and-white years— episode three of William Hartnell's "Galaxy Four," and episode Two of Patrick Troughton's "The Underwater Menace"—have been found. All things considered, it's not as big a deal as it could have been, since neither story is generally considered top-tier in quality and both are still missing other sections, but it's still good news. The story that's been floating around about astronomers picking up bounced-back satellite signals of 47-year-old Doctor Who broadcasts, though? That's an April Fools' hoax, at least in our universe.
  • Upcoming schedule: Because of the holiday schedule, we're back on Jan. 8 when Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor visits Paris in the Douglas Adams-penned "City of Death," then in biweekly hops we'll watch the Fifth Doctor in "Mawdryn Undead," Six in "Vengeance on Varos," and Seven in "The Curse of Fenric." After that, we'll begin the cycle again with the First Doctor in "The Time Meddler," the Second in "The Seeds of Death," and the Third in "The Curse of Peladon." Then it starts to get tricky to jump around nonconsecutively, because the Fifth Doctor era in particular is so full of returns by old villains that I think it might be hard to talk about them without the earlier context, so I'll probably move toward a schedule based on how the stories all connect. To that end, let's run through the Davros-era Dalek tales in order, starting with "Genesis Of The Daleks," and on through "Destiny," "Resurrection," "Revelation," and "Remembrance."