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A subterranean Loch Ness Monster?

Doctor Who
The Silurians

No, I’m not going to refer to The Silurians as Doctor Who and the Silurians. I’m going to refer to it as Doctor Who and the Eocenes. The Silurians plays a blinder. Because both this and Inferno know the secret of an extended – some might say overlong – story is to keep the plot moving, they barely drag at all and are consequently much fleeter of foot than many a four parter. Unlike Malcolm Hulke’s sequel The Sea Devils, The Silurians has more than enough plot and deals it out judiciously (the plague, when it comes, kicks the story up a gear at the precarious burn-out stage of a typical four-plus parter). What’s most notable, though, is how engaging those first four episodes are, building the story slowly but absorbingly and with persuasive confidence.

The Doctor: Hello, are you a Silurian?

Season Seven, like Season Eighteen in a way, represented something a false dawn for the manner in which show might have played out during the course of the subsequent decade. Neither was exactly a massive hit (Season Seven began well, but was in deadly Season Six territory by the end) and both conceived of a more adult-orientated approach to storytelling (even if Season Eighteen shot such inclinations in the foot with a raft of juvenile new companions, and such a designation fails to recognise that the Graham Williams era was neither dumb nor unsophisticated).

Young Silurian: You will take us to the nuclear generator. Or we will kill you all.

Sure, The Silurians throws in commonplace nuclear energy broad strokes – some might say to match actual science’s broad strokes – with Wenley Moor’s DU(M)B nuclear research centre. It is designed to produce cheap, safe atomic energy, but one look from the Doctor declares otherwise (“Your nuclear reactor could turn into a massive atomic bomb”; quite how this is supposed to happen is, perhaps fortunately, never elaborated upon). There’s a similar on-the-lam approach to medicine, but more of that later.

The Doctor: Some kind of fear. It’s absolutely incredible. It’s thrown his mind back millions of years!

One might also draw attention to the story’s design issues, but the series has seen worse studio caves. And worse CSO. Carey Blyton’s score is occasionally too much (but you could say the same of Deadly Dudley). And if the Young Silurian (Nigel Johns) appears to be suffering from early-onset Parkinson’s, the greater concern is their seemingly unquantifiable psycho-energetic skills (melting and reforming rock and walls – why, it’s tantamount to magic!)

The Doctor: Your catastrophe never happened!

About Time documents various production issues, such as Timothy Combe not knowing what he was doing. If he didn’t, he had remarkably good beginner’s luck (although, he’d already graduated to directing on soap The Newcomers in 1968). His location material, in particular, is highly inventive and atmospheric, from the Silurian silhouetted against the Sun as it breaks onto the moor in Episode Two to scenes of escalation and panic in a plague-stricken London in Episode Six. No, it can’t get away from the research centre sets being very obviously sets, while the Silurian performers could undoubtedly have done with more sensitive direction as to manner and movement, but Combe’s input is far more pluses than minuses (generally, the Pertwee era has very solid directors when they aren’t meat-and-potatoes-and-CSO Barry Letts, but that doesn’t mean they able to tighten the slack of an era too dependent on the six parter). Michael E Briant’s work on The Sea Devils may be superior overall, but he just doesn’t have the same calibre of material.

Lawrence: The man’s a raving lunatic! He’s insolent. He’s impertinent. He shows no respect for my authority!

Malcolm Hulke was highly intelligent, for a (for a period) committed commie. It’s unclear if he ever understood the movement’s genesis as planned opposition to the West – and its entirely doubtful he would have perceived it as a waystation to the transhumanist “ideal” – but he was clearly adept at seeing all sides in any scenario or disagreement, and the capacity to do the wrong thing with the best intentions (Greta would be fuming at Invasion of the Dinosaurs, but then she only ever has the intentions she has been directed to express). In The Silurians, the Doctor doesn’t even have a proper conversation with the title characters until Episode Five, and then, ironically, it’s the least engaging part of the episode (indeed, this is the only part of the story where I felt things were dragging). Try as he might, Hulke can’t make noble discussion of appeasement and mutual cooperation interesting, so the flawed humans and inflamed Young Silurian inevitably make for more engaging drama.

The Brigadier: There’ll be the devil to pay if Baker shot some poor innocent potholer.

There’s a host of flawed humans here, being Hulke’s forte, and all of them make an impact. Barring, perhaps Paul Darrow’s Captain Hawkins (Darrow had also worked with Combe on The Newcomers). We might speculate how Darrow might have fared as Captain Mike Yates the following year, but the starchy officer type doesn’t really seem his forte on this evidence (not that the flamboyant Mike we got was starchy). Fulton Mackay’s over-confident Doctor Quinn, making a bargain with the reptile men and doted after by fusty Miss Dawson (Thomasine Heiner), might at first glance seem to be acting from noble motives, but he’s really out for the acclaim (“He only wants to steal the credit for my discoveries!” is his assessment of the Doctor’s presence). Major Baker (Norman Jones, later boasting a mighty beard in The Masque of Mandragora) is a security chief still projecting military life wherever he goes and blessed with a very limited conception of both reality and morality.

Lawrence: I’ve had enough of you!

And Peter Miles’ Dr Lawrence is the not atypically on-edge facility director, refusing to countenance any presences or ideas that would impinge on his work; About Time considers Miles’ performance entirely over the top and completely out of place, but I’d suggest he’s enormous value, offering dry put downs (“Do I now take it you have arrested my security officer?” he asks after Baker has been detained) and, once he’s under the bacterial influence, launching into a marvellously berserk assault on the Brigadier.

Masters: This could be a national disaster. I must get back to London.

You’d can perhaps expect one memorable supporting character in an average story, but Hulke’s readily able to deliver half a dozen. There’s not much to Masters on paper, but just the presence of a pre-Reggie Perrin Geoffrey Palmer makes him noteworthy. Rewatching the story, even the one-episode-only Travis (Ian Talbot, later in The Leisure Hive) stands out as an over-efficient control room technician (he’s a hoot). Hulke also writes the Brigadier well, lending him a witty relationship with the Doctor (he’s a few seasons yet from the buffoon) – “Come on, Doctor Watson” – and a devious bent, such that he waits until the Time Lord is out of the way before blowing the caves. The implication here is that he has committed an act of genocide (“He’s just wiped them out”) but that isn’t his expressed intention in the previous scene (“I want that Silurian base sealed permanently”). Unless the Doctor is psychic, he can’t possibly know for sure, and the evidence is inconclusive (the Young Silurian pegs it, but beyond that… Well, Walker says they’re blown up in The Sea Devils, but presumably, if the caves are sealed, no one was able to confirm).

The Doctor: They only attack for survival.

I have to admit that, while the Doctor’s intentions are theoretically sound, I can’t land on the side of the Brigadier’s response being excessive. The Doctor’s is repeatedly reckless throughout The Silurians, averring to one principle over another equally valid one, so it’s unsurprising the Baker should conclude “You’re nothing but a traitor!” At what point would he have admitted defeat? He has no idea why he is leading the Silurians to the nuclear reactor. He hasn’t a hope of persuading them after their leader has been murdered, and yet still he persists. He’s being very deontological, which is something of his wont whenever a companion in his held ransom against a greater good, but his persistence here makes him seem ultimately wrong-headed, such that his final tutting is as illiterate to the reality of the situation as his later remonstrating in Warriors of the Deep. He wasn’t, after all, to know the Silurians intended to go back into hibernation for fifty years. They might simply have regrouped.

The Doctor: I’m beginning to lose confidence for the first time in my life. And that covers several thousand years.

Pertwee’s on good form. He may over boggle when under attack at the climaxes of Episodes Four and Six (anyone would think it was a Colin season with that kind of repetition), but he gets away with a t-shirt much better than old-man scruff-bag Capaldi ever would. And he puts Jabberwocky to song and makes no bones about the idiots surrounding him. About Time tries to argue he isn’t saying he’s several thousand years old, but I don’t see why he wouldn’t later be rounding down, after reaching that difficult fourth incarnation. It seems entirely reasonable, particularly given the flagrant way Moffat threw millennia away and Chibnall… well, best not to discuss that potty-training disaster. The Doctor’s confrontation with Baker (“You are very ill”) is particularly memorable. Liz makes less of an impression, required to remind the patrician Brigadier “I am a scientist, not an office boy” (certainly not in that skirt).

The Doctor: She was found in the barn, paralysed with fear. She must have seen something.

The idea for the Silurians famously came from Hulke tut-tutting the limitations of an Earth-based Doctor Who, suggesting the only possibilities where mad scientists and alien invasions (that would be the rest of the season sorted then) – Dicks came up with the “They were always here” counter punch. It’s a smart conceit, if by no means a new one. Besides the season’s much-noted Quatermass trappings, continued here, the advanced reptilian race with significant mind/telepathic powers – not a nifty third eye, admittedly, which About Time sniffs at with a glib “all very Theosophical and what have you” – can be found in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar series. About Time mentions The Coming Race’s subterranean intelligence reclaiming the planet (and the Vril – Miles Mathers would have you believe such literary conceits directly fed into the sermons of agents of The Powers That Be, in the form of gurus like Helena Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner. Maybe they did, and maybe they were, and maybe Mathers and his collective are agents themselves, designated to promulgate confusion and despair. They do, after all, attest the Kennedy clan are all still alive, and we know who has been flying that flag most recently).

The Doctor: Only, it is rather like the reptile house in a zoo, isnt it?

The Steiner connection links neatly to the Moon’s mechanisms per this story. Albeit, The Silurians’ Moon arrived in orbit, as opposed to breaking free from the Earth itself (again, About Time mentions this, in reference to Velikovsky, but Steiner also held that this had happened, albeit in a more mystical sense than a brush with a passing planet).

Young Silurian: This species is dangerous and hostile. We should kill them all.

About Time also touches on a fondly-floated notion in this regard, that of mankind being an inferior race: “… the fact [the scientific establishment theory/propaganda, more precisely] that humanity is not coeval with the planet chafed on the notion that we were special enough to have an elevated relationship with the creator”. Indeed, those rightly suspicious of the elevation of mainstream science to the status of an infallible religion have noted that certain other facts – an increasingly insignificant lifeform, one evolved from mere primitive simians as The Silurians repeatedly asserts, trapped on a fast-spinning ball in the vacuum of infinite space along with millions of other worlds just as likely to hold insignificant lifeforms – are also expressly designed to diminish any importance we may have prescribed our existence/status. Further still, to the point where we are told the best thing for us – or rather the planet cf Greta – would be if we weren’t here at all messing it up. The best thing to do in response to such a thorny issue, of course, would be to get rid of a lot of us, rather than the whole planet. Which is where the Silurians come in (or, per the utterance of a recently-announced-deceased monarch’s husband, to come back as something nasty – or nastier – that could get rid of the lot of us).

The Doctor: This is their planet now.
Silurian: This planet is ours. It always has been.

Indeed, the thematic significance of The Silurians has been expounded upon in various directions. The DVD doc deserves points for contextual diligence – Elizabeth Sandifer must have popped – but wheels on Paul Cornell to spout some stifling guff about how it’s really about immigration and colonialism. Of course, it is Paul, the immigrants and aborigines (Silurians) who haven’t actually been oppressed by the white patriarchy and indeed have actively treated them like vermin historically. The same immigrants and aboriginals who actually shared the same land as the “colonialists” in the first place and who plan to wage a genocidal campaign when they realise where it’s at (About Time recognises the contradictions in any attempt to make the story analogous, suggesting the Eocenes might be seen as both “parodic little-Englanders and the coming of the White Man threatening all-purpose indigenous peoples”). Naturally, skewing in the conspiratorial direction I tend towards, one might make an additional comparison… The Silurians – lizards operating behind the scenes, deep underground, with the means to end the world – are actually the Elite, poised to wipe out the inferior beings at the drop of a phial. Or at the point of a needle.

Lawrence: Why should I waste my time having useless injections against an imaginary epidemic?

Notably, The Silurians is a story featuring a politician flagrantly ignoring lockdowns, so endangering the entire capital and potentially the world (“Bad news, Miss Shaw The first one abroad, in Paris”). It also features its very own virus-denier in the form of Doctor Lawrence. And an anti-vaxer! Of course, he doesn’t believe in the lizards down below either, intent on culling the population and so resetting the planet to an earlier, more pleasant time. These would be entirely reasonable positions, but he doesn’t realise he’s in a fictional universe where Pasteur’s principles actually hold up. This being a devastating bacterium that acts like a Pasteurian – as opposed to Silurian – virus.

Liz: Do you think pumping broad-spectrum antibiotics into everyone is going to do any good?

Even if Doctor Lawrence and Bechamp can’t persuade you to reconsider what you think you know (or have been told by qualified experts), you’ll at least be aware that broad-spectrum antibiotics aren’t the solution to this particular health problem. Even allopathic medicine knows that (honestly, Gallifreyan medicine must really suck; perhaps that’s why Time Lords need to regenerate so often). The virus is, of course, a Doctor Who standby (from at least the inception of the show – The Sensorites – until the mid 80s – that damn Davros would do it), and it may one day be regarded with the same quaintly SF-ridden eyes as the rest of the SF in the show. It’s rarely been portrayed as effectively as this, though, with the trail of transmission over Episodes Five and Six playing like a fear-porn fever dream (or nightmare). Its only yield to nippers watching is that victims drop dead quite quickly rather than in protracted agony (indeed, they seem more prone to a protracted rant before expiring very suddenly).

Young Silurian: The apes have become dangerous. They must be destroyed.

About Time suggested The Silurians could have formed the basis for an entire series, rather than a single story. I wouldn’t go that far – one might argue Inferno is equally rich territory, hence Sliders – but it remains one of the most completely envisaged scenarios the show has seen. Sure, it gets a little rote with the nuclear-reactor gubbins in the final episode, but the story otherwise admirably eschews standard series fireworks in favour of intelligent plotting and characterisation. And if we are analogising the Silurians as an ancient elite who regard us as nothing but apes to be poisoned, an ancient elite who intended to wake up in 2020 to do just that, I know whose side I come down on regarding that the final scene.

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