Sunday, 6 September 2009

Doctor Who and the Silurians

Previous viewings - few

(Yes, it's Doctor Who and the Silurians, not The Silurians, production trivia is just that, trivia)

As Terrance Dicks is so fond of saying, this story was borne out of a desire to avoid the usual invasion of Earth or mad scientist scenario (did they ever do a straightforward mad scientist story? Robot might be the closest). Having monsters who aren't really monsters, but rather intelligent beings who happen to be reptiles, and who are native to Earth and want it back, is a fantastic alternative, because it opens up some political and moral issues in how they're dealt with. Even after seven episodes I think there's more mileage in the idea than is allowed for in the time available.

Malcolm Hulke writes Doctor Who and the Silurians. His is a very distinctive writing style - it always feels like he's trying to say something with his Doctor Who stories with his thoughtful depiction of aliens and in this story particularly how humans would react to aliens beyond the usual shock or fear. At times, it seems he is not writing an action/adventure at all, but something far more character-driven where any action is a natural consequence of the situation the characters have been placed in. For some reason he tends to be given the longer stories too, which fits his talent for writing epic but managing to keep it about the characters.

Is this what people want though? It's not the most exciting approach to a story - some early pure historicals like The Aztecs and The Crusade did something similar but the longer stories always seemed to be your more typical monster invasion of Earth extravaganzas, and with good reason. I'm not complaining, I loved those historicals I mentioned, and I love this.

The Doctor and Liz are summoned to Wenley Moor to help investigate power failures at a nuclear research base which is built into some caves. It's surprisingly difficult to pinpoint where Jon Pertwee nails the character of his Doctor and decides to play it that way until he leaves the role, although it's definitely somewhere in this story - in Spearhead from Space there were moments where I felt the role was written for Patrick Troughton, but as more familiar Third Doctor trappings show up, that has faded. Here we get our first proper glimpse of his less than flattering view of humans and the military in particular, which given his exile on Earth is an integral part of his character IMO, and while at the beginning of the story the Doctor is somewhat flippant that soon passes.

Just to note also, we have Bessie! How can anyone not love Bessie? That car has more personality than some of the companions.

The story doesn't exactly have me on the edge of my seat in the first episode, first of all we're back in the studio with the familiar colour videotape, which is a comedown after Spearhead from Space being handed its atmosphere on a plate, and secondly the power failures at the station aren't the most interesting problem. The Doctor becomes interested in a crazed worker who has seen something in the caves and is now making cave drawings in his hospital room. One could call the pacing here slow, but I prefer to think of it as relaxed - slow implies that it should be faster, but there's something to be said for a story that doesn't rush to introducing the monster, allowing time to establish the human characters while setting up the plot points that will be developed later. It's never boring because as the Doctor gets interested, so do the viewers.

The key base personnel are the resentful Director Lawrence, played by stalwart Peter Miles, plus the friendlier Dr. Quinn and his assistant Dr Meredith. Lawrence is yet another variation on the irrational base commander but here his behaviour seems understandable as it's not only the Doctor but UNIT interfering with his operation, quickly bringing it to a grinding halt, and he is at least co-operative at first. Peter Miles excels at playing unlikeable characters and Lawrence ranks as among the most unlikeable, with an irritating obsessive edge to him thats probably too lacking in humour. Quinn I liked more but it's too obvious that he's the traitor.

Believing the problems to originate in the caves, the Doctor goes down there himself to investigate and is attacked by a dinosaur in the show's first CSO nightmare. However, the creature backs off when it's called away by someone else. After a brief UNIT incursion into the caves, one of the reptile creatures escapes and goes missing in the countryside. This is definitely padding - at the very least the search for the missing Silurian plotline is allowed to run on too long, taking up nearly two whole episodes, but it's not like that's the only thing that's happening - one of the good things about the UNIT format is that there tends to be lots going on at any one time. While the Doctor does his own thing, the Brigadier and his troops are out somewhere else, and the screentime is shared between the various parties.

The Doctor notices Quinn's suspicious movements and realises he has taken the wounded Silurian captive. I was surprised that Quinn was killed off but in retrospect it was a good move because first of all he had to die, and if he survived beyond the reveal of the Silurians en masse, he would have been on borrowed time and that could have tedious. The Doctor has correctly guessed that the Silurians aren't your typical monsters, and that any attack of a human has been because of a perceived threat. The turning point for the story is the Episode 3 cliffhanger, where the Doctor is confronted by the Silurian in Quinn's cottage, resolved by a friendly greeting from the Doctor, which the Silurian seems to listen to until he's scared off. It's a turning point because it's where the Doctor turns from investigator into peacemaker, as his main priority becomes preventing a war between humans and the Silurians in the caves.

Unfortunately, both sides seem to be against him. Having discovered that a large contingent of Silurians are waking up in the caves, the Doctor warns UNIT not to attack them, but the discovery of Quinn's body and the capture of Major Baker, plus the attacks so far, suggest the Silurians are dangerous, which is enough for everybody to support destroying them. For some reason, it's slightly uncomfortable to watch what is essentially the Doctor committing treason by warning the Silurians about the UNIT attack - it's been a long time since we've had reason to question whether the Doctor is morally right, or even naive. It's not a situation we often see the Doctor in, and I was struck by how much more three-dimensional a character the Doctor seemed as a result. He's never seemed less like a superhero, and it's brilliant.

After being captured in Episode 4, the Doctor spends most of Episode 5 negotiating with the good Silurian, who is a rare example of an alien who looks like a monster but gets characterisation and seems like a nice guy. The ancient inhabitants of the Earth, the Silurians want their planet back, but the good Silurian is receptive to the Doctor's suggestion that they inhabit the areas of the planet that are of little interest to humans. There's a sense of inevitablility to the outcome of this story because the Doctor's proposition is obviously not going to happen, but like the arrival of the Time Lords in The War Games, I can't help hoping that somehow we get that happy ending, even when I know we don't.

Obviously, there's a bad Silurian, who plots against the good Silurian and develops a virus intended to kill the humans, which he infects Baker with and allows him to escape to spread it. The Doctor is allowed to go free to try to contain the virus, but it's too late. Viruses in TV shows are usually restricted to a quarantined area, and for a while here it seems as though the worst has happened as the virus spreads overseas before the episode is out. I don't think this is padding because as the main 'bad' thing the villain does, it was needed, plus it justifies the Brigadier's later decision to destroy the Silurians and allows for some neat city location filming, which I always love (I think an effective studio-bound story is generally harder to pull off that something with plenty of location work).

The final action set-piece sees the Silurians attack the base (finally!) but the Doctor solves the problem by tricking the bad Silurian into thinking that his people must re-enter hiberation to protect themselves from the radiation from a reactor overload. Episode 7 is the most action-packed and action is welcome, but some reason it seemed shoehorned in, because a finale has to have lots of action.

As the story ends, the Doctor hopes to wake one Silurian at a time to make negotiations easier, but the Brigadier decides to destroy them while he has the chance, blowing up their entire network. It's a pity that we don't see the repercussions of this at the Doctor and the Brigadier's next meeting but that's probably beyond the remit of a family show and what we got did make a suitable ending for the story. Despite my noting that we're expected to take the Doctor's side, I'd say it only goes so far as to establish that fundamentally he is right - practically, the Brigadier's solution is the only solution. The Doctor's final line, "...but that's murder!" gives this viewer food for thought as the credits roll.

There are a few things I've not mentioned. First of all, the music! What was Carey Blyton thinking? The strange percussion sounds do their best to detract from the drama of this story, and is the sole thing responsible for this not being up there with Marco Polo. It's so distracting. Also, despite not having much to do here, Liz was better than in Spearhead from Space, and I prefer her new look to her old one.

All things considered, good show.

Horror quotient - As a deviation from the norm, the monsters aren't really monsters, but they still look like monsters. Less discerning children who don't pay attention to the plot might have been scared, or perhaps confused.
Comedy quotient - It's going to hard to get used to not giving the easy answer of the Doctor. There wasn't much going on here on that front.
Drama quotient - We're back to the times when drama was the highpoint, and I love stories like that. Mac Hulke scores his biggest hit.

A thoughtful, well-written story which manages its length particularly well. The Doctor hasn't been this interesting a character since 1964.


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