Doctor Who and the Silurians, to give it it’s full and very Target-esque title, is superficially a Second Doctor story. There is a base that is under attack, being run by a blinkered fanatic who puts his work above any other considerations, and a human who is working with the invaders for his own personal gain, this time to take the credit for the scientific discoveries they promise to reveal to him. But it doesn’t feel anything like a Troughton story, because Pertwee puts his own stamp firmly on the Doctor here. For the Second Doctor this would have been a “corner of the universe” with a “monster” to fight. The Third Doctor wants to broker peace, and goes about trying to achieve that in a direct manner and with supreme confidence, strolling into situations where the Second Doctor would have sneaked around in the background, gathering information. This allows for some wonderful conflicts, and the best is probably a human one, between the Doctor and Quinn (the fabulous Fulton Mackay). The scene where the Doctor turns up at Quinn’s house, nosing around, is very funny and very Third Doctor.
But this new Doctor’s approach, storming in and making instant value judgements about the situation (where his predecessor would have been scouting things out in the shadows), leads him astray. He never quite understands the kind of story he is in. He thinks he is meeting an oppressed indigenous population, when instead he really is fighting monsters.
The big clue to this is in Malcolm Hulke’s original script, which lacked the Doctor’s moral outrage at the end of the story. Instead he simply complained about the loss of scientific knowledge. It was Barry Letts, coming late to the party, who reworked the ending, presumably misinterpreting what the whole story was about.
So most people when they watch this probably assume it is some kind of a parable about imperialism, or maybe American settlement and treatment of Native Americans. But there are two key factors missing that would be necessary to make this work. The Silurians are not the innocent victims, and they weren’t there first.
To take the first of those points, we have only one Silurian who is really anything other than a fanatical killer who wants to wipe out every human on the planet. As soon as he is killed all the others fall in line. Admittedly we have maybe three humans who don’t want to do the same to the Silurians, but it is the Silurians who draw our focus on the ethical questions. There are strong parallels here between both sides, but the difference is that the “good” Silurian is dispatched with two episodes still to go because he is getting in the way of the monster-of-the-week main thrust of the story. This is the most significant attempt at shades of grey in a non-human race we have seen in Doctor Who for a long time, but it’s little more than a means to stretch out the story, and it does actually help to justify the episode count. But it does little to make the Silurians a sympathetic race.
As for the second missing element, the Silurians are quite deliberately not written as a race that was here first. That would have been the more logical thing to do, and easier to square with the history of the planet, but Hulke isn’t telling that story. The Silurians were active on Earth at the same time as our ancestors, and have a superior, racist attitude toward the “apes”. So these are quite definitively not innocent indigenous people who have been invaded by human colonists. They are a minority who used to hold power, and consider themselves superior, to have ownership of the land, and they care little about the lives of the people who now inhabit the land.
They are absentee landlords.
Malcolm Hulke was probably the most actively left-wing writer who ever wrote for the series, and he was the last writer who would ever need to have his scripts edited in the way that Letts did. The strongest historical equivalent he was probably drawing on was nothing to do with American or Australian colonists, etc, but something much closer to home: Highland clearances. He wrote a story that offered a parallel between the Silurians and the privileged classes, and resolved it by having the underclass majority rise up against them.
Chris Chibnall understood this when he brought the Silurians back:
We used to hunt apes for sport. When we came underground, they bred and polluted this planet.
I mean, they’re virtually Tories. And Letts thought he was making a different story and changed the ending, which is why it really doesn’t work very well. Looking at this in its original weekly episodic context, I doubt many viewers would have agreed with the Doctor in his regret for the loss of a race who tried to wipe out every human on the planet. Twice. Those who gave consideration to the Doctor’s objection to the Brigadier committing genocide (he doesn’t, but we don’t know that at this point), would surely be puzzled as to why he would continue to have anything to do with the Brigadier, a man who he believes has just wiped out an entire, intelligent species. So the story’s reputation is largely built on it being experienced as a discrete entity for the last four decades, without having to rationalise it with a Doctor who goes back to work with the Brigadier the next week.
He might be exiled to Earth, but he’s not exiled to Britain, and he’s certainly not exiled to UNIT. The ending to The Silurians is a powerful moment, but it briefly derails the whole series. RP
The view from across the pond:
Back in 1970, Jon Pertwee revolutionized the role of the Doctor with a more action-oriented approach to the character akin to a James Bond from Gallifrey. But his portrayal was not flawless and his chauvinism often rubbed me the wrong way. I could almost imagine how Liz Shaw felt. The big difference is that I didn’t leave, while she high-tailed it without so much as a goodbye! The nerve! His first story happens to be excellent but he’s still finding his time-feet and needs to become a little more established in the role. By The Silurians (because I refuse to call it Doctor Who and the Silurians), he’s a bit more established even after just one story. And in fairness, that story is pretty brilliant.
As Tom Baker once said while looking into a mirror, “…Nothing’s perfect” and that’s true of this story as well. It goes on for a whopping 7 episodes, which does get a little long in the tooth, but the story itself does deal with prehistoric threats so that shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s of such a quality that we can, perhaps, afford it some leeway. The issue with the longer stories is that if the subject matter had little interest for the viewer, they had to sit through potentially two and a half hours of it, albeit over the course of 7 weeks. But that meant a story they didn’t like might be on for 2 months. By today’s standards, that would drop the audience to nil. Thankfully, the 70’s didn’t have quite the selection…
Where the Silurians fails in giving the “enemy” race a name being taken from a time before reptiles roamed the earth, it succeeds on so many other levels that it’s a small price to pay. While the later “Homo Reptilia” sounds better anyway, the Silurians make for another of those mature races that don’t have to be an enemy. Too often, Science Fiction tells the story of two races at war usually making one out to be “evil” and the other “good”. This is usually done through oppression, where the oppressor has superior might and dominates a weaker race. Sort of bullying the lesser race and establishing themselves as the bad guys. In this, everything comes about from misunderstanding and fear. While in some ways the Silurians are more advanced, like their ability to engineer a virus on a moment’s notice, they are heavily outgunned. The humans end up being more like the standard villain, oppressing the weaker, and outnumbered, enemy. The Brigadier’s decision in the end is perhaps proof that might often wins out, and it’s somewhat unfair. Even the Doctor is unhappy about it. The Doctor is there to prove that it doesn’t have to be that way. To the Doctor’s dismay, the Silurians retreat for 50 years and eventually lead us to Matt Smith’s Doctor with The Hungry Earth storyline. But this story is not unclear in painting the aggressors as the humans and that makes for some interesting writing.
And perhaps that’s the lesson! Peace is something that requires one thing: being open-minded. Being driven by fear is a bad thing. Healthy skepticism is one thing, but fear is another. The military coming in and destroying the Silurian base probably had more to do with the inability to maintain a story long term. Specifically, once it was established that Silurians walked the Earth and could share with humanity, especially during Pertwee’s era, we’d have to see at least some of them in the next stories. To ignore that would have been ignoring this story, so Malcolm Hulke may have had little choice but to have them blasted in the end. Which is a shame but considering budgetary constraints at the time, it is understandable.
So what, the dinosaur looked like a bottle for a T-Rex bubble bath I had as a kid which may have taken away a bit of the reality, but it was still a far cry better than what we eventually had with Invasion of the Dinosaurs, so I’d be doing the story a disservice to complain too much! On the other hand, the first person perspective from the Silurian eye is a brilliant idea for creating some marvelously creepy effects, especially hearing the thing breathing as it ambles across the countryside. It was ahead of its time and no surprise that it succeeded. This is commonly done now, but at the time, it was new and it worked very effectively. There’s a scene of it walking with the sun glaring out from behind it, nearly obscuring it from view, which was cinematically incredibly appealing.
Pertwee’s era is one that I find a little challenging because of the over-long stories, but this one is a brilliant piece of science fiction writing that left enough things open for multiple sequels. The only thing no one expected was that, along with advanced technology, the Silurians had some damned fine plastic surgeons who were going to give them complete makeovers time and again. (Must have been a consolation prize for losing the planet to a bunch of apes!) ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Ambassadors of Death