Introducing: Doctor Who And The Silurians

It’s difficult to believe that The War Games was less than a year before the Third Doctor’s second serial Doctor Who and the Silurians – it’s even more remarkable that it’s made by many of the same people.

Part of that marked difference is owed to the switch to colour – which included the early adoption of CSO (Colour Separation Overlay), the precursor to green screen which allowed the manipulation of one image either in the foreground or background of another. It would go on, for better or worse, to become a staple of Barry Lett’s time as producer.

Another staple would be an air of sophistication. Letts and his script editor Terrance Dicks would form a symbiotic partnership over the coming years, and speaking later in his 2007 memoir Who and Me, he would describe as:

“Simply put, each of us understood what the other was saying.”

Dicks and Letts

It’s the kind of modest, practical appraisal that typifies his personality and it’s reflected in the respect he commanded during and after his time on Doctor Who.

His first alteration to a script came with his first story, Doctor Who and the Silurians, a serial he inherited midway through its production and one that, thanks to budgetary constraints, was extended to seven episodes – three more than its hugely influential and successful predecessor, Spearhead from Space.

It’s his first serial that really cements the change of format: while Spearhead from Space spent most of its time establishing the Doctor’s new base on Earth after his exile, it’s Doctor Who and the Silurians that put the Doctor back at the centre of proceedings.

Letts was lucky enough to have inherited a smart, complex script from esteemed Doctor Who writer Malcolm Hulke, who in his brief was asked to ‘do something in caves’, and then presented something that cut to the heart of science fiction and ultimately our humanity.

In remarks reprinted in Doctor Who: The Doctor – His Lives and Times, Hulke said:

“In science-fiction there are only two stories. They come to us, or we go to them. I thought… what about… they come to us, but they’ve always been here. I described them as reptilian men in the script. It seemed to go down very well.”

Malcolm-Hulke

However in Dick’s introduction to the Target novelisation, Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters, he recalls the events surrounding the Silurians script differently. Worried by the Doctors exile to Earth, ‘Mac’ as Dicks affectionately calls him, said:

“Well Terrance…You’ve now only got two stories, alien invasion or mad scientist!”

Coming to the realisation that there may be something in Hulke’s gloomy outlook, Dicks went into a funk for a day and a half. It wasn’t until inspiration struck, and he called Hulke to reveal his plan, that the idea of an invasion from within was first expressed.

Those reptilian men, the Silurians as they are later referred to at some point between these events and The Sea Devils, are from the distant past. Forced underground by an impending planetary catastrophe, the species awoke to discover that the apes had evolved and now claimed ownership of the planet.

It’s very similar to Nigel Kneale’s 1950s TV serial Quatermass And The Pit, where the presence of alien life suddenly awake primal memories in the observing humans, driving them to mass panic and reversion to their more primitive selves. It’s partly the reason why some of the humans go crazy at the sight of the Silurians and their pet dinosaurs. This idea of regression is largely cast aside for the social and political ramifications of the supposed enemies shared, uneasy existence.

There are other clear influences on Hulke; the idea of an ancient threat triggering repressed primal urges was a popular one in the 1970’s, thanks largely to Chariots Of The Gods author Erich von Daniken, and, of course, there’s a striking similarity to Planet of the Apes, with the suggestion that our ancestors were dominated by another species.

The beauty of the script is that it’s broad enough to serve as an allegory for any political or humanitarian conflict – the cold war, any situation where the indigenous people are threatened by colonists – with the caveat that, thanks to Silurians being here first, one allegory where both sides are simultaneously the conquering force and the oppressed natives.

Silurian_and_the_Doctor

This moral ‘greyness’ was relatively new to Doctor Who – we weren’t worrying about good Daleks or conflicted Cybermen just yet – it may seem quaint now, but this was real progress; it’s this genuine valid claim from both sides and the Doctor’s attempts to get both sides to recognise that, which put the Doctor at the heart of the conflict and its one that’s still topical today.

Even the usual standards by which we judge the other, human characters are called into question by this new paradigm. Dr Quinn should be the kind of character that we form a bond with, being that he quickly assumes the role of the Doctor’s sympathetic confidant. However, his need for knowledge results in him bartering with the lives of the Silurian captives in order to gain the technology promised to him, is one of the first indicators that the Silurians are something other than a threat.

It’s his death that serves to galvanise others opinions either for or against co-habitation. Especially after the elder Silurian is murdered by his younger, second-in-command (it’s interesting that, even with their claim to Earth, the Silurian’s still act a lot like any other invading alien species). What follows is an argument between two perfectly rational points of view. It’s not impossible to think that the Brigadier made the right choice when he decided to seal the Silurian base with explosives and likewise, it’s understandable to see something of the Doctor in his actions too – after all, hasn’t he take drastic military action when it comes to the Daleks, Cybermen, and the Ice Warriors?

It’s remarkable that, given this was to be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between the Doctor, the Brigadier, and UNIT, this potential, permanent division between the two was raised at all. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that, if he still had a functioning TARDIS, he would have climbed on board and left UNIT to deal with the aftermath.

silurians1

No, what ultimately keeps each side from turning on the other is the Doctor’s humanity. In Barry Letts’ first major contribution to the show, he replaced the original scripted ending, which had the Doctor reacting angrily to the Brigadier’s actions, with something that emphasised the Doctors compassion.

As Letts himself explains:

“The Doctor, if he is to be true to himself, must be more humane than many a human”.

The show may have reverted back to the status quo after the events of Doctor Who and the Silurians – it never really did a great job of following up on this idea – but the idea of building ‘moral passion’ as Letts described it in his memoir, into the show was one personal philosophy that would serve as the backbone for storytelling during his tenure and leave a lasting impression on the future of the show.

  • bar

    Pardon me, but are you a silurians fan? Sorry, couln’t resist. Liz never gets the recognition she deserved as a woman scientist, despite the Doctor treating her as more of an equal than he does the Brig here. Sadly, my two main memories of her in dwats are her passing the doctor his test tubes, abd being menaced by a silurian in a barn. Feminism had to wait a while!

    • Dr. Moo

      The way everyone called her “Miss Shaw” really gets to me. Call her “Dr Shaw” please, you know, her actual title! As a scientist myself that’s maybe more a noticeable issue to me than it is to others but it’s still a problem. She was a scientist but never got treated as much more than the Doctor’s tea lady. I’m a HUGE fan of season seven, the Third Doctor, Liz and basically everything about Jon Pertwee’s time in the TARDIS – but that one thing manages to annoy me.

      That said, DW&tS is a great story so I can look past these problems and enjoy a masterclass in how to do Doctor Who to near-perfection. The issues I just described are not issues with Doctor Who but cultural issues that the 1970s were filled with in every area of life. That doesn’t make it okay but at least we have (most of us) moved on from that as a society. We should be pleased that a woman working in science was a major character in our beloved show so relatively early in its long history.

      • Peter Rabytt

        Hi, you don’t have to be a scientist to notice blatant patronising sexism, it was atrocious in that era, in Who and other TV. The miss Shaw business is ridiculous, in an almost Austin Powers type way. Still around today of course, just more subtle and insidious, or expressed in ways that are supposed to make it feel acceptable today. But season 7 did have a certain energy about it, and its 70s style is enjoyable in a kitsch way, blayant sexism aside. And it is quintessential classic Doctor Who.

      • Mark North

        As someone who turned eighteen in 1970, the women’s revolution began in the late 60’s-early 70’s, but didn’t really come to nationwide attention in the U.S. as something more than a fad until the late 70’s…You could see the acceptance as women as equals slowly gain acceptance in Dr Who ,in the 70’s and 80’s until Ace came to Dr Who. She was never put down or denigrated by DR 7 (well except for that one spot in “The Curse of Fenric.)” With the revival of DR Who, of course the portrayal of women as equals is so much more pronounced…

  • TimeChaser

    They really wrote themselves into a corner with the ending of The Silurians. The Brigadier’s actions should have caused a very terrible rift between him and the Doctor, but the problems were 1) the relationship was still forming at this point, and not enough time between the two had passed for this to be truly effective in a dramatic sense, 2) facing facts, classic Who was never very good at carrying on much in the way of long-term story arcs the ways television does now, and 3) it was so early in the development of the new Earth-bound format that to actually acknowledge something like this would have been very tricky to properly explore.

    It is a shame that the ending let’s the side down, as otherwise it’s quite a good serial.