Here, have some heresy: Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters is better than Doctor Who and the Silurians.
Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters was published in 1974 – that’s 42 years ago. It was one of two novels issued by Target at the time: the other was Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion. These were the first of Target’s original Who books, following their success with their reissue of the three 1960s Muller novels.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Target range, want to read some but don’t know where to start, it’s worth bearing in mind that the early ones are generally better than the later ones. Why? In 1974, it wasn’t known that all bar a couple of classic Who stories would be novelised. The ‘bang ’em out and sell ’em quick’ production line releases hadn’t yet started, and Target clearly wanted to produce books that were as well-written as David Whitaker’s superb ’60s novels that had sold so well for them before. Quality was more important than quantity. Malcolm Hulke (who wrote The Cave-Monsters) and Terrance Dicks (The Auton Invasion) were highly experienced and skilled writers, even if they were not yet prolific novelists. And the best of their work was excellent.
I highly recommend Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters. I’ve already made a short selection of the best Target novels; they’re genuinely worth reading, even if you know the TV versions inside out. The writers of the books I selected are at the top of their game. The quality of the complete Target range, though, varies enormously. As you know, Terrance Dicks wrote more of them than anyone else. It’s often said that Dicks’ later novels are little more than transcripts of the screenplays with minimal description and ‘he said, she said’ bunged in. This is a bit of an exaggeration – even Dicks’ least good efforts have some echoes of his earlier brilliance: a humdrum tale like Meglos is redeemed by its jolly introduction about Mr George Morris, the mild mannered assistant bank manager who enjoys his daily walk across the common, returns home at the same time each day to a glass of dry sherry poured for him by Mrs Morris, who ‘sometimes… found herself wishing George would be a little less predictable.’ (Thus is ‘The Earthling’ given substance.) Target’s later practice of asking the TV authors to novelise their own work was a mixed blessing: while Dicks, Hulke, Hales, and Davis had mastered the skill of writing prose fiction (a very different skill from producing screenplays), many of the other writers were simply too inexperienced to do it well. Some, though not all, of the Colin Baker and McCoy stories suffered badly as a result.
Thus Target’s output varied tremendously in quality. But the good stuff really is good, and all of Malcolm Hulke’s novels are excellent.
I claimed at the beginning that The Cave-Monsters is better than The Silurians. Well, it’s a bit of a silly thing to say: it’s difficult to draw comparisons between two very different versions of the same story in different media. The Silurians had a superb cast: the regulars are outstanding; Geoffrey Palmer, Peter Miles, Norman Jones, and even Paul Darrow are superb, and, for my money, Fulton McKay gives one of the greatest guest stars performances in the programme’s history. (He would have made a superb Doctor; Barry Letts was quite right to sound him out about taking the part.) And there’s the lavish and expensive location filming, too.
And yet… the story itself is better told in the book. Hulke takes the unusual option of effectively producing a new draft of his screenplay – it’s as substantially different from the televised version as Whitaker’s first novel is different from Story B (whatever one wants to call that story; I still favour The Dead Planet). Hulke’s script for The Silurians was excellent; the novel adds another layer of gloss, and the results are superb.
You probably know about one of the results of the rewrites: the Silurians in the novel have names. More importantly, their characters are deepened. The Old Silurian is now Okdel; the Young Silurian is Morka; the Silurian Scientist is K’to. There were problems with the TV originals: the costumes weren’t that great; the actors do some rather silly mimes to compensate for the fact that their mouths don’t move; and it was probably a mistake to give all the voices to Peter ‘Packer’ Halliday: he overdoes the differences in the characterisations and the Young Silurian ends up sounding daft. All this, of course, vanishes in the novel. Okdel is effectively drawn as a moderate who is willing to share the planet with the humans; unlike his peers, he didn’t consider the mammals to be pests, hairy, dirty, and disgusting: his affection for his pet ape is benign and eccentric, and ‘he was certain that his own pet furry animal understood many of the things said to it, even though it only chattered and grunted in reply.’ Okdel tenderly releases it into the wild two days before the cataclysm, ‘so that for what remained of its life it would enjoy freedom to climb trees and race across open spaces.’ Perhaps it’s his fondness for his long dead pet that makes him tolerate the mammals who take over his planet, millions of years later. When they wake up, all the reptile men (and they’re all men in this story) are profoundly shocked to discover that the Apes have grown up.
Hulke’s skill in characterisation is in his sympathy with his characters: even with the nasty and the stupid, we can understand their point of view. When the reptile men find that a minor species has evolved into their usurpers, they react as one would expect them to: they simply can’t bear it. They can’t accept their day has passed, and their attitude to humans is the realistic one of racism. Not pleasant, not ethical, but entirely understandable. Even Okdel is racist, though his prejudice is gentle in comparison with Morka’s thuggish, exterminationist xenophobia: while Okdel is willing to share the planet, he does not agree with the Doctor’s assertion that ‘these days, people don’t talk about superior and inferior races. Everyone is equal.’ Okdel’s reply is telling: ‘Every one of the humans is equal. But we must be respected.’
(The documentaries on the DVD of The Silurians provide a comprehensive exploration of its theme of racism. The TV story was made in 1969, just a year after Enoch Powell’s notorious Rivers of Blood speech, opposing mass immigration. One of the DVD’s interviewees is no less than the Right Honourable Roy Hattersley, deputy leader of the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock, cabinet minister under Jim Callaghan, and a scourge of Tony Blair. Hattersley discusses the prevalence and viciousness of racism in the 1960s and 1970s, how it was whipped up by irresponsible politicians like Powell, and considers how it’s reflected in Doctor Who and the Silurians. There are, in these glorious post-Brexit days, no parallels at all with irresponsible and glory-seeking politicians fanning the flames of anti-immigrant and jingoistic hatred in order to further their own careers. None at all.)
So, Hulke develops the Silurians. And he develops another character too by effectively replacing him with an unhinged though similarly named substitute. Exit Major Baker and enter Major Barker.
Major Baker was a well-written character, excellently played by Norman Jones (and the hint of his having a soft spot for Liz was one of the many subtleties Jones brought to his performance): a career soldier, somewhat limited, but essentially decent.
Major Barker in the novel is essentially an imbecile. He is aptly renamed: ‘barker’ designates someone who is barking mad. And this sums up Major Barker. He is an insane, crass, bone-headed, hot-headed, conceited, jingoistic, racist, wilfully stupid oaf. He likes England. He doesn’t like anything else. He has no time for johnny foreigner, lefties, students, long haired layabouts, comprehensive schoolteachers, social workers, softies, bleeding hearts, traitors / the enemies of England (i.e. anyone who Major Barker doesn’t like), pacifists, spies (i.e. any foreigner), socialists, liberals, Guardian readers or the BBC; and he certainly has no time for woolly, softie, namby-pamby moddlecoddling liberal intellectuals like the Doctor.
Major Barker is an utterly superb creation. He is a great comic character and the novel is worth reading for him alone. He is laugh-out-loud funny. When he is attacked by the Silurians, he cries out, ‘I die for England, and St George!’ He is brilliantly portrayed by Caroline John in the audiobook. He is a buffoon. He is Nigel Farage on acid. He considers Roberts, the traumatised scientist who draws cave-paintings of prehistoric animals on the walls of the sick bay, to be a skiving, shamming weakling. He announces Liz to Dr Meredith, on her visit to Roberts, with his characteristic sensitivity and courtesy: ‘This is Miss Shaw, from UNIT. Wants to see the loonie.’ He says this because he thinks all Roberts needs is a bloody good kick up the backside. When the deeply distressed Roberts later attacks Liz, Barker defends her honour by bringing his revolver butt down hard on the man’s head: ‘Only way to stop the blighter.’ But the force Barker uses is excessive, and the blow is so ferocious that it kills Roberts instantly.
Barker, then, is a man whose beliefs are sincerely but fanatically held and hence he is a menace: a fool who is so convinced of his own rectitude that he causes havoc. Roberts is not the first man he kills in anger. In a brilliant passage, absent from the screenplay (not least because it would not fit the character of Barker’s much nicer television counterpart), Hulke describes a tour of duty undertaken by Barker in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. An IRA sniper has just surrendered to the patrol Barker is leading. Hulke goes on:
As Major Barker called on his men to break cover and arrest the sniper, shots ran out from another building, instantly killing the young soldier next to Major Barker. Without a second’s thought, Barker aimed his revolver at the sniper standing with his hands up in surrender, and shot him dead. For that moment of anger, Major Barker had been asked to resign from the British Army and to find another job.
Chilling. And totally believable. On Bloody Sunday, on 30th January 1972, British troops shot 26 unarmed civilians who were protesting against the government’s treatment of suspected terrorists. Fourteen people were killed. The army denied any wrongdoing and stuck to its story until the truth finally came out in the Saville Enquiry, 38 years later. Barker’s excesses would have pre-dated Bloody Sunday; Hulke depicts the armed forces as abominating such atrocities. Sadly, this attitude was not always a reflection of the historical reality.
Barker is very funny, but he is also an entirely believable character: the kind of cretin who was once all too commonly found on the backbenches of the Commons, in the army and in the police –before such bodies became sensible of the need to weed out such maniacs. You’d hope you would never find him in any army or police force, or on any backbench in the UK today.
Which all brings us on nicely to one of Malcolm Hulke’s central ideas. These pervade his writing and deserve consideration.
It’s now known that Hulke was a communist. That’s a dirty word for most people today; the crimes against humanity of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and the communist monarchy of North Korea certainly do not commend communism as a benign system. Hulke would certainly have had no time for such men. In western political thought, though, it was once possible and even respectable to be a communist – indeed, major figures in the Labour Party were communists in the 1930s, Denis Healey among them. This was before the cruelty of the Soviet Union was fully understood. After that, most became democratic socialists; it was hard to remain a communist once Stalin’s crimes became known.
Hulke was a hangover from that tradition, though unlike Healey and his ilk, he did not change his politics. He believed – most of us would say naively – in a benign form of communism, but he kept quiet about it. Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks commented that they knew Hulke was left of centre, but they did not know he was a Party member. It’s only recently that the truth came out. The secret services, paranoid about Red infiltration of the UK in the 1970s, even had a file on Hulke (where he was absurdly noted as being suspect, among other things, for his agnosticism).
At the height of the Cold War – and Doctor Who and the Silurians is Cold War fiction – Hulke believed that it was possible for moderates in both the West and the Communist bloc to co-exist peacefully and to respect each others’ differences. It was the maniacs, the hard-liners, who were the threat to peace. This view, that moderates can work together and that it is only the hard-liners who are to be feared, is reflected in his novels and screenplays. Major Barker is a maniac; his mania is mirrored on the Silurians’ side by Morka, as xenophobic and bigoted as his human counterpart. The Doctor and Okdel are moderates. The Brigadier is somewhere in the middle – and it’s notable that the Brig in this story is unusually colder and much less likeable than usual. This was brilliantly played by Nicholas Courtney on television, as the Brigadier’s darker side comes to the fore: in this story, he is deeply and genuinely angered by the Doctor’s opposition. The plot demands the Brigadier to function as the highly able professional soldier he is, even when that requires telling lies and acting without mercy. He knows the reptile men are people, but he will kill people when he has to, even if it means that innocents die with the guilty. (And it’s possible that this is even a bit out of character: the fluffier Brigadier of Planet of the Spiders and Robot might well have fallen in with the Doctor’s line.)
Hulke writes not in black and white, then, but in shades of grey. Even Barker and Morka do what they believe to be right. It is this subtlety of Doctor Who and the Silurians, explored more deeply in the book than on screen, that makes it one of the really great stories. Producer Barry Letts said that he wanted the programme to reflect how real people, faced with extraordinary situations, would actually behave. Hulke’s story is a superb presentation of this approach, one to be commended to Chris Chibnall and the new production team, and also one that Steven Moffat has too often lost sight of, to the detriment of Capaldi’s stories.
This is all getting a bit deep – and a bit long, too. What else is good about the novel?
There’s the prologue, impossible to realise on television, where the reptile men watch the little planet’s approach before going down into their shelters. An entire chapter is written from Morka’s point of view: when he hides in the barn, he cannot understand the Apes’ expressions, and mentally refers to the Apes as Fur Under Nose, Frock Coat, and Shiny Buttons. When one of the soldiers salutes, he assumes the Ape is putting its hand to its head to scratch away fleas. We also have Okdel’s life flashing before him while he is dying: ‘The pain raced through his old limbs. For a moment he remembered himself as a tiny reptile baby, breaking out from its egg. Then his mind went blank and he was dead.’ (Only a very fine writer could make you feel sorry for a biped lizard, yet Hulke manages it.) There’s the development of the romance between Dr Quinn and Miss Dawson, and the sadness in their backgrounds: Quinn always feeling he is an under-achiever, and Miss Dawson’s ghastly elderly mother blighting her young adulthood. And Masters is developed from the screenplay – in the book, he becomes a silly, vain idiot. Hulke had little patience with establishment careerists.
So, an excellent story, very well-told on television and superlatively well-told in the novel. Yes, the science is mainly nonsense: Hulke is hazy about what the Van Allen belt actually does, early hominids did not co-exist with dinosaurs, and the age of the reptiles was later than the Silurian Period. (In the Whoniverse, evolution on Earth clearly runs differently; this rewrite of history is perpetuated into the post-2005 series.) It’s worth recalling, too, that when Moffat commissioned The Hungry Earth/ Cold Blood, he directed Chris Chibnall not to Doctor Who and the Silurians but to Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters. The origin for nuWho’s Silurians is not their televised adventures, but the novel.
And, as I’ve said, it’s very, very good. Do read it. Or listen to Caroline John’s brilliant performance on the audiobook. You’ll enjoy it, every word.