Sunday, 25 March 2012

52: Doctor Who And The Silurians - Letts Make It More Than Just A Children's Programme

Written by: Malcolm Hulke.
Companions: The Doctor, Liz Shaw, The Brigadier.
Monsters/Villains: Silurians. Humans.
Brief Synopsis: Cave-dwelling Silurians are causing power losses in an underground atomic research centre.
Rating: 10/10.

This story marks the beginning of a totally new direction for Doctor Who as a programme. Barry Letts starts as producer proper and takes the show to new, intelligent highs and with the script penned by Malcolm Hulke the quality is greatly enhanced. As a child I could watch and be totally immersed in a plot of humanoid dinosaurs that have lain dormant for millions of years, buried under the earth whilst our species evolved from ape to man and then emerge to retake their planet, but as I watch now as an adult I see so much more…

Geoffrey Palmer as Masters and Peter Miles as Dr. Lawrence.
The cast assembled here are top notch, with Peter Miles as the Director Dr. Lawrence, Fulton McKay as Dr. Quinn, Norman Jones as Major Baker, Geoffrey Palmer as Masters and even a very young Paul Darrow as Captain Hawkins to name but a few. 

To start off we are introduced to the Doctor’s new earthbound transport, the vintage motorcar, Bessie with its license plate WHO1. Bessie would act as a sort of replacement for the TARDIS whilst it was ‘out of action.’ This story is also renowned as the very first Doctor Who story to pioneer CSO (Colour Separation Overlay) an early development of blue/green screen technology. However these firsts seem small when compared with the giant leaps this story takes the programme into a more adult and political arena, whilst still maintaining enough of an adventure feel and plenty of monsters to keep the younger viewers watching. When I think about it, Hulke really succeeded in subtly indoctrinating a younger me with his liberal views. He presents them strongly and although I never realised at the time Doctor Who And The Silurians was artfully teaching me some valuable lessons for life.

Malcolm Hulke.
We are plunged straight into the story. Arriving at a top-secret atomic research centre created in order to transform nuclear power straight into cheap electric energy, built in to a network of caves in Wenley Moor for added security, the Doctor and UNIT investigate odd mental breakdowns, personnel problems and the much more dangerous power losses. Malcolm Hulke was initially reluctant to write for Doctor Who, especially with Pertwee’s earthbound limitation, feeling restricted to either alien invasion or mad scientist stories; Doctor Who And The Silurians is neither one.

Spencer's got mad Palaeolithic cave painting skills.
The power losses are being caused by a race of cave dwelling aliens that pre-date man by millions of years. The Silurians are draining power from the centre to revive themselves but the breakdowns and personnel problems are a little less easy to explain. This is the one part of the plot that seems unnecessary and a tad on the weak side. Spenser who survives his encounter with the Silurian’s pet T-Rex is driven insane, for some reason making him an expert Palaeolithic cave artist. The Doctor says, “Fear has thrown his mind back millions of years.” When a farmer is found dead the Doctor says “the Claw marks didn't kill him, it was heart failure. He died of fear.” And finally when the Brig and his men are trapped in a section of cave by the Silurians, Private Robins goes mad and starts drawing cave paintings as well; sure they are running out of oxygen but he hasn’t even seen one of the creatures, why is this happening to him? If the Doctor were a real person I’m pretty sure I would take most things he said as red but I just don’t buy that someone can die of fear or that being trapped in a cave makes you really good a drawing like it was 2.6 million years ago. These few moments aside no time is wasted and the first five episodes really fly by.

The Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The thing that strikes me the most about Doctor Who And The Silurians is the brilliant and well-detailed writing. The excellent Malcolm Hulke adds so much colour and depth to each of his characters. These feel like real people, with real problems. Also there are no villains in this story. Dr. Quinn who allies himself with the Silurians and helps them to revive their species does so simply to learn from their advanced knowledge. The Silurians themselves aren’t really trying to invade earth at all as it was technically their planet first and for a long time really do no wrong. The large Tyrannosaurus Rex killed Davis, the man in the cave, by mistake. The creature was called off when it tried to attack the Doctor and Major Baker, even after Baker had injured one of the Silurians forcing it above ground. This Silurian does kill a farmer but only in self-defence. The same Silurian attacks Liz but it only maims her in order to escape and leaves her largely unharmed. Quinn is only killed when he tries to keep the same Silurian hostage.

The Cold War.
The other aspect of Doctor Who And The Silurians that cannot be ignored is the stories comparison to the political climate of its time. The world was in the grips of the Cold War when this episode was first aired and there is no way one can avoid the comparison of the Human/Silurian crisis with that of the Democratic West and the Communist Soviet Union. Hulke had openly Communist views but provides both sides of the conflict with equal representation. The Brigadier, UNIT and the Permanent Under Secretary Masters clearly represent the Capitalist ideals Hulke was so against but he doesn’t portray them as evil, just that they have a different ideology. Equally the alien Silurians aren’t represented as monsters but as merely equal but different. The Doctor acts as a mediator as he is neither Silurian nor human. He is the moral compass of the story and tries on several occasions to make peace between the planet’s two races.

There is an excellent scene in which the Doctor is on the verge of talking the Brig and Masters in to letting him try to make peace with the Silurians, but Miss. Dawson comes in at just the wrong point and tells them that Quinn is dead saying, "We must destroy them before they destroy us." After his attempts with the Brigadier and Masters fail, the Doctor goes to try to reason with the Silurians. The blame, if there is any, is laid upon individuals instead of entire groups. The Old Silurian who is the race’s leader agrees to help the Doctor try to make a peace. But the Young Silurian has other ideas.

Bad timing.
The cave creatures are named Silurians on the presumption that they come from the Silurian Period. It was known that reptiles had not evolved by the Silurian Period, so technically the name is a misnomer. Nevertheless the name was kept because it sounded good for the story. In the novelisation of this story with the perhaps slightly better title Doctor Who and The Cave Monsters, the three lead Silurian Characters have names and individual personalities. We learn that the Silurians hid underground and suspended their lives when a small planet heading for the planet was predicated to draw away the earth's atmosphere. It turned out to be the moon. The Silurian’s hibernation systems were faulty and failed to revive them. They were awakened when the research centre was built nearby and power was drained to bring them back, hence the power losses.

The Young and Old Silurians.
The Young Silurian joins forces with the Silurian Scientist to overthrow the Old Silurian and infects the captured Major Baker with a virus that will wipe out mankind. The Old Silurian frees the Doctor to try to make peace but the Young Silurian also looses the infected Baker. The Old Silurian’s last act before he is overthrown and killed by the Young Silurian is to give the Doctor a sample of the bacteria to attempt to cure the virus and stop it from spreading. Baker escapes releasing the virus upon the world.

Things really slow down a bit in episode six. It takes the Doctor quite a while to find the cure to the virus. I can’t help but think you wouldn't get that in the new series. He’d come to the result in a matter of seconds. The Doctor gives us another clue of his age, but it’s a little confusing, especially when you consider Matt Smith’s Doctor is meant to be in his 900’s, “I'm beginning to lose confidence for the first time in my life and that spans several thousand years.” Hmmm.

How do the old and new Silurians compare?
The Young Silurian plans to make the planet uninhabitable for Humans, using a disperser powered from the research centre's nuclear generator to destroy the Van Allen belt, which filters out some of the Sun's radiation, thus killing all humans in the brightness of the sun. The Doctor damages the disperser and causes the reactor to overload driving the Silurians in to retreating to their base to re-hibernate and avoid the disaster. They are set to revive in 50 years time which if this story is set in 1970 (when it was written) would mean 2020 which is when the new series The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood is set. This story was considered so strong and effective it has been repeated almost verbatim in The Sea Devils and The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood.

The Doctor "fusing the control of the neutron flow."
The meltdown is averted with a typical deus ex machina when the Doctor "fuses the control of the neutron flow," whatever that means. The Doctor meets the Young Silurian once more, it tries to kill him but the Brig saves his friend by shooting the creature. 

Even after what the Silurians tried to do the Doctor plans to return to the Silurian base to revive them one at a time, to reason with them and try for peace. But as he leaves to get some testing equipment and more scientists the Brigadier orders explosive charges to be activated sealing the Silurian base indefinitely. Liz tries to label the Brigadier as a scapegoat with the notion that he must have had orders from the ministry but the Doctor cannot accept it. The story doesn’t have pure villains and yet it ends with the mass extermination of an entire intelligent alien race. I may have said I didn’t believe that fear could kill someone but it is the human’s fear of the Silurians that wipes out their whole race, maybe that was the point Hulke was trying to make.

Thank you Barry Letts.
Barry Letts is the man to thank for the arrival of this excellent story and new direction for the programme. This story appeals to the emotions and the mind. You enjoy the science fiction adventure but it also makes you think. Hulke has succeeded in his aim. Neither side is portrayed as entirely bad or entirely good, and the audience is left which a question and a decision to make: with which side would you agree?

Join me next time for The Ambassadors Of Death.

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