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Monday, August 01, 2011
Retro TV Round-Up: Doctor Who
Doctor Who and the Silurians

When writer Malcolm Hulke first heard that the Doctor had been exiled to Earth for the early part of the Jon Pertwee era, script editor Terrance Dicks says he thought for a moment and then replied the new series format gave the show two possible stories--mad scientists or alien invaders. And as Dicks is fond of pointing out in many of the Pertwee era extras, it didn't take long for Dicks to realize that Hulke was right.

So, it's interesting that for his first contribution to the Pertwee years, Hulke would deliver a story that featured both mad scientist and alien invaders. But instead of the aliens coming from outer space, Hulke would subvert the format by casting humanity itself as the alien invaders--at least if you consider the story from the point of the view of the guys in the rubber suits.

The first season featuring Jon Pertwee is arguably one of the top five seasons in the close to 50 year run of the series, featuring stories that could be labeled as more "adult" than much of what we saw before or after. And it's not "adult" in the same way that Torchwood sees adult, but adult in the themes and ideas laid out in the stories. Another term used to describe season seven is "gritty" and that view if on full diplay in "Doctor Who and the Silurians."

When UNIT is called in to investigate power losses at a nuclear power station built inside a series of caves on Wenley Moore, the Brigadier calls on the services of the Doctor and Liz Shaw to assist the investigation. The Doctor quickly uncovers a conspiracy that seems to center on the caves in which the station was built. Exploring the caves, the Doctor discovers a race of reptile creatures who were once the dominant life form of planet Earth. Fearing a small planet would destroy their ability to survive on the surface, they went into suspended animation in the caves only to see the alarm clock fail and not revive them on schedule. In that time, humanity evolved and took over. Now using power from the generator and by making promises to several scientists, the Silurians (as they've called in the story) are beginning to revive. Several of them have designs on re-establishing themselves as the highest form of life on planet Earth and are pretty upset that the ape descendants are running the show now. One thinks a peace treaty can be brokered to allow both races to co-exist on the planet. The Doctor is firmly caught in the middle, trying to broker a peace and keep both sides from destroying each other due to mistrust and fear.

Eventually, a younger faction of Silurians eliminate the Old Silurian who along with the Doctor is committed to peaceful co-existence. They release a deadly virus to wipe out humanity. The Doctor finds a cure and then sets the reactor into meltdown mode to trick the Silurians back into hibernation. His hope is to revive them one at a time and convince them and humanity that we can all live on the planet together. The Brigadier has other ideas, blowing up the base and sealing the Silurians in the caves forever.

At seven episodes in length, it'd be easy for "Doctor Who and the Silurians" to drag or have the typical six-part treading water moments where little if anything is done to advance the plot. And while episode six suffers from a bit of water treading (we spend a long time watching the Doctor try to find a cure), it's not so much water treading as it is allowing the story time to breath and to let the implications of what is going on fully sink in. Yes, we see what seem like multiple permutations of the Doctor failing to find the cure just yet, but it's interspersed with scenes of the impact the plague is having and reinforcing why the Doctor needs to find a cure and find it soon.

It's not just in that area that the story builds its tension. The story wisely keeps our view of the Silurians themselves limited for the first three episodes. We see the creatures in shadows and see things like an arm or a leg, but we don't see the full on creature until the cliffhanger for episode three. And while visually these are little more than guys in rubber suit monsters, Hulke makes them a bit more than your standard monster hell-bent on conquering the Earth. It's an interesting contrast to the previous story where the Autons were simply invading the Earth. In the case of the Silurians, the shoe's on the other foot since technically we're the invaders and they're just trying to take back what was theirs.

It's interesting to see how the Silurians are willing and able to manipulate certain members of humanity to fulfill their needs. When the story begins, one of the scientists, Dr. Quinn, has been promised vast scientific secrets if he'll help them revive their race. Of course, Quinn is eventually killed for his troubles, but that's only after he ceases to be of use to the Silurians. Also of interest is the reaction of several minor characters who see the Silurians early in the story (before the big reveal). One scientist in particular who is found wandering the caves after his fellow caver is killed by the Silurians watchdog dinosaur (and yes, it's every bit as ineffective as you might think visually) triggers some kind of racial fear of the Silurians, possibly left over from the time before the reptilian creatures went underground. There's a sense early on and throughout some of the later episodes at some kind of primal fear of the Silurians on the part of humanity.

But for all its strengths, there are still some weak points to the story. As has been pointed out time and again, Malcolm Hulke is a good writer but at times his cliffhangers are forced into the story. It's not quite as bad here as it is in "Frontier in Space" but there are still a few that feel forced. For example, in episode one the Doctor suddenly feels a great urge to run down into the caves, setting up his own meeting with the watchdog dinosaur. Then in episode six, the Silurians spend a long time tunneling up to come kidnap the Doctor...or at least it seems that way based on how thing are unfolding on screen.

In the long run, those are minor quibbles really in what is, quite frankly, one of the better Pertwee era stories and a good example of how Doctor Who can be adult in terms of themes examined, character development and creating conflict by having both sides of the argument have some legitimate points. It's leaps and bounds better than what Russell T. Davies considers as adult in the first two seasons of Torchwood and it shows the Who universe is one that can both entertain and make you think without missing a beat.

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posted by Michael Hickerson at 8/01/2011 12:29:00 PM | |
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