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Doctor Who: And the Silurians (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

And the Silurians originally aired in 1970.

Doctor Who and the Silurians always struck me as a very strange episode title. I know that some of the spin-off media, like the books, have a habit of titles like “Doctor Who and the [title]”, but it really feels strange to have an episode title like that. Perhaps it’s because it seems to suggest the character’s name is actually “Doctor Who”, or perhaps it’s my internal OCD flying out of whack, finding it very strange that there’s only one televised episode to use that particular naming convention. Still, all of this debate about naming conventions aside, there’s no denying that The Siluriansstands as one of the highlights of Pertwee’s era, a fitting instalment in a superb first season that proved there was more to science-fiction than strange monsters each and every week.

The Doctor attempts to take the matter in hand...

It’s strange to look back on Pertwee’s first season, especially when comparing it to the ones that followed. While there are undoubtedly elements of camp (this is the serial that introduced Bessie, the character’s car, for example), there was generally a slightly more mature theme to the science-fiction, the show daring to suggest ideas and concepts that were more than just a gimmick to be used by the alien of the week as part of an invasion strategy. There was also a fairly conscious social subtext to all this, with the very early Pertwee stories playing into a sort of disillusioned paranoia in a generation just emerging from the “free love” of the sixties.

Whether it was Auton duplicates that looked just like people we trusted, or aliens serving as a distraction for a true human villain, or even our own authority figures reflected as power-mad despots, Pertwee’s first season seemed to be founded on the fundamental idea that you couldn’t trust anyone. Indeed, famously, this serial ends with the Doctor learning that he can’t even trust the Brigadier, who is arguably just as much of a companion as Liz Shaw. A few years before the Watergate Scandal, it’s interesting to look back at this year of the show and reflect on how far ahead of the times it actually was, as if tapping into some sort of primal fear we weren’t even fully aware of.

A scientific UNIT...

While Tom Baker’s Doctor fought our fears realised as body horror and transformations, external monsters that would attack and hound us – perhaps even turning “us” into “them” – Pertwee’s Doctor seemed to face institutions and conglomerations, concepts of evil and fear rather than any direct personification. Here it’s an atomic research facility being used to investigate the possibility of “cheap, safe, atomic energy.” Of course, the people running it can’t be trusted, and the Doctor soon runs into a conspiracy of silence. In fact, it’s possible to argue that the corrupt officials running the facility – including Dr. Quinn – are more villainous than the monsters living beneath the surface of the planet.

Even the Silurians themselves represent a threat from within rather than without. They aren’t an external force coming to colonise us, but rather a race with a claim to the planet that predates our own. You could make the case that the humans in this story are more likely to be deemed the alien invaders or colonists, having claimed a planet that was not rightfully ours. It’s a clever concept and one that actually seems relatively original. There’s a story that Terence Dick was depressed to realise that the earth-based setting of Pertwee’s first three years in the rule pretty much tied the writing team down to alien invasion and mad scientist stories, and The Silurians demonstrates that the writing staff was capable of generating enough clever twists to keep things interesting.

Doctor at work...

Malcolm Hulke wrote some of the best Third Doctor serials, and I have to admit that I like his core themes – the ones he returns to time and time again. I think they suit Pertwee’s take on the title character, arguably more than any other Doctor. With this iteration of the character trapped on the surface of a world that isn’t his own, Pertwee’s stories allowed to get a closer look at how humanity must appear to the Time Lord, and Hulke really hit upon the wonderful tragedy of the human race. We’re a race that has a huge capacity for denial, to the point where we won’t even acknowledge that we need help.

The story is populated with tragic instances where deaths could have been easily avoided, and it almost feels like a prototype for Peter Davison’s final year. “You’d save yourself a lot of trouble if you’d let me help you,” the Doctor advises Doctor Quinn, advice that falls on deaf ears. Even those suffering from the Silurian plague seem to refuse to admit there are problems, only allowing it to spread further. “There is no epidemic,” one character insists as his skin melts. It’s almost impossible for the Doctor to help a species that so strongly insists on its own independence and self-determination, despite the fact it clearly needs help.

The Doctor faces an inhuman solution...

More than that, though, Hulke doesn’t just hit on the tragedy of the human characters, but also of the Doctor himself. As tragic as it is to watch the helpless flail around refusing assistance, it’s even more so to watch the one person capable of assisting being forced to stand by and watch, powerless. When the Doctor discovers a wounded Silurian, the first thing he does is offer to help. “Well, what do your people want? How can we help you? How many are there of you? Tell us what we can do!” Pertwee beautifully translates the character’s frustration to the screen.

I think what The Silurians does remarkably well is to illustrate just how powerless the Doctor is in his current predicament – how incredibly dependent he is on UNIT. Far from being a man who can appear and disappear at will, storming off and distancing himself from those who fail to live up to his high moral standards, he is forced to deal with them on equal terms. He can’t kick the Brigadier out of the TARDIS and continue on his merry way, because he doesn’t have a TARDIS. He needsthem.

Eye for an eye...

And that, I’d suggest, is why the Brigadier is such a fascinating companion. Even though he doesn’t travel with the Doctor, I consider him to be a companion, appearing in so many episodes and fulfilling the plot function of a companion remarkably well. If you’ve been reading my reviews through the year, you’ll probably have noticed how fond I am of companions who don’t really fit the traditional pattern – I like Romana because she’s an intellectual equal (and possibly a better) or the Doctor, and Donna because she’s a moral equal of the Doctor. Here, the Brigadier very clearly holds all the power over the Doctor – there’s nothing for the Doctor to leverage against him.

It’s fascinating to see how, despite the fact they clearly respect one another, the pair have very different philosophical outlooks. In particular, the Brigadier seems to get genuinely frustrated at the Doctor’s antics and attitudes, insisting at one point,  that he “deserves all he gets.” As he states at one point, “There are times, Doctor, when you sorely try my patience.”Although Tegan and Peri may have bickered with the Doctor, it’s hard to imagine any companion speaking like that to the Doctor with the same  sort of frustration – it’s never personal, but rather an expression of the fact that the Doctor understands as little about the genuine security concerns as the Brigadier does about the scientific queries.

Monsters at the door...

There’s a sense the frustration is shared. The Doctor is resentful of being summoned to investigate, assuring Liz, “I never comport myself anywhere, certainly not forthwith.” Later on, when the Brigadier seems to take very few of his observations and suggestions on board, he demands, “Lethbridge-Stewart, what on earth is the point of my trying to discover things for you if you keep turning them down all the time?” One can sense that – at least at this early stage – Pertwee’s Doctor wouldn’t have a moment’s hesitation about flying away from UNIT and never coming back. In The God Complex, the Doctor suggests that he takes companions with him in the TARDIS to flatter himself, and Pertwee seems to genuinely resent the fact that the Brigadier doesn’t bow to his every observation.

This central tragedy plays itself out rather perfectly in the end of the tale. Despite the fact that the Silurians are obviously dangerous and have attempted genocide, the Doctor insists on reviving them again. “There’s a wealth of scientific knowledge down here, Brigadier,” he insists, “and I can’t wait to get started on it.” While the order to destroy the Silurians doesn’t come from the Brigadier, he lies and manipulates the Doctor to get him as far away as possible when the charges explode – a sign that he knows the character well enough to know he’d never win an argument. It’s hard to argue that either character was entirely right in their response to the situation, with Pertwee’s Doctor exclaiming, “But that’s murder! They were a race of intelligent alien beings and he’s just wiped them out.”

Car-ry on...

That said, as much as I like The Silurians, there are a few problems I found with it. The pacing feels rather strange. We don’t really encounter the Silurians until the cliffhanger of the third episode, by which point we’re half-way through the adventure. Since the meat of the story is in the tragedy of the interaction between humans and Silurians, it feels rather strange. The biological plague developed by the Silurians feels like a rushed plot point, pretty much covered in a single episode. We’re barely getting a sense of the scale of the devastation before the Doctor has a cure, so it doesn’t have quite the impact that it should. It should also be noted, despite some superb restoration work, the surviving copies of the serial really don’t look too good – the colours are blurry and the image is hazy.

Although I will confess an affection for how the episodes are handled. The eponymous creatures look very silly. It doesn’t help that they have the world’s silliest-looking dinosaur as a guard dog, nor that they move like they are doing the funky chicken. They seem to waddle. So director Timothy Combe does a remarkable job keeping them hidden in the first few episodes, as we glimpse them only from a distance, or only in small doses, while the sound of their breathing adds to the atmosphere. It’s clever, because the costume designs look really bad – especially when one considers how the Sea Devils look, or how these creatures would look in Warriors of the Deep. Not that that Peter Davison story didn’t have its own problems to worry about.

Enemy mine?

I like how Hulke suggests a similarity between the human and the Silurians, especially in their thinking. No sooner have the Silurians asked their prisoners “what other weapons do your soldiers carry?” than we cut to the Brigadier asking “what weapons do they carry?” The tragedy seems to be that – despite appearances – the humans and Silurians are far too similar to one another for their own good. Neither race could really fathom sharing the planet (barring an exception here or there).

Doctor Who and the Silurians is considered something of a classic. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but it’s a strong little story that is cleverly written and has no shortage of fascinating philosophical ideas, both on humanity as a whole and its central character. There’s a reason that the monsters have stuck around so long, despite the admittedly shoddy looking costumes.

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