It’s a bit hard to accept one monster, let alone two.
The Third Doctor and UNIT go hand in hand. Far from being a harmonious relationship, however, the Doctor often finds himself at odds with his putative employer, and as Malcolm Hulke’s oddly titled “Doctor Who and the Silurians” (Story Production Code BBB) demonstrates, UNIT and the military-bureaucratic mindset it represents serve as a second foe more often than not, one occasionally as deadly and bloodthirsty as the monster of the week.
From a narrative perspective, the bureaucratic bumbling that prevents UNIT from mustering sufficient resources to answer threats helps drive, and pad, all the stories of the UNIT era, here allowing this tale of a reptilian civilization that has slumbered, and now awakens, in a cave network under Britain to reach seven episodes.
But more than that, this inertial force helps define the Third Doctor quite clearly, and consequently we have a more distinct understanding of his essential character more quickly than we did with either of his predecessors. For while the Doctor has always been disdainful of the martial mindset, the force-before-reason mentality, this story cements the Third Doctor as a scientist first and foremost, with no patience for rules and no qualms about subverting his relationship with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and the military organization he represents if needed to save lives.
Neatly, Hulke provides the Doctor with a Silurian counterpart who shares his efforts to broker a truce between the former masters of the planet and the current inhabitants, and the nameless reptilian leader has his own version of the Brigadier to contend with. This one, however, has the ability to kill with a third eye at the top of his head and desires the complete eradication of the “apes” infesting the Earth; our Brigadier just has a mustache and a little portable radio. But in the end, the Brigadier is the one who oversees a mass extermination.
Prior to becoming the harbinger of the Silurian apocalypse, the Brigadier and UNIT are called in to an atomic research center buried in a cave complex in Britain to examine unexplained power losses that have slowed progress there. The Doctor and Liz immediately confront a hostile staff and administration who seem oblivious to the fact that someone was mauled to death in one of the adjoining caves and that a survivor of the attack is doodling prehistoric images on the hospital wall. Indeed, Hulke and the production team waste no time putting a monster on the screen, opening with a dinosaur-type creature. Typically, Doctor Who never reveals a monster until the end of the first episode, but not here, because it’s not the main foe. This creature merely guards the caves for the Silurians, and they call it off when the Doctor goes spelunking and encounters it.
Still, its presence throws off the viewer for the time being, giving the eventual revelation of the Silurians more impact. This subversion of expectation extends throughout the story. Once the lead atomic scientist, Quinn, is shown to be working with the Silurians, feeding them power from the plant in exchange for the promise of scientific knowledge, the stage seems set for a Faustian tale. But then he’s killed off at the end of the third episode by the Silurian he has held hostage in a vain attempt to wrest control over the situation. Just like that, a seemingly major player in the story is gone.
Quinn’s death spurs the story into another direction, with the Silurians finally revealed to the viewer and to the Brigadier, UNIT, and the various governmental functionaries hovering around the research facility. But at the same time, the entire thread of Quinn’s dealings with the Silurians, their odd ability to control his mind and those of people working in the atomic control room, just disappears after three episodes of build-up. The entire notion that human ancestors encountered them millions of years ago and that seeing them triggers fears via the collective unconscious, a fascinating concept worthy of exploration, vanishes. For once, it seems there’s too much story for a seven episode tale.
Through this point, we have a story not unlike “Spearhead from Space” or “The Invasion,” with a power-hungry or foolhardy human in cahoots with shadowy aliens bent on conquering the Earth. The remaining four episodes focus on the Silurian civilization and the Doctor’s attempts to reason with them while trying to prevent UNIT from barging in guns blazing, and that’s a story we haven’t seen yet. It’s a welcome change, but the abrupt shift in focus jars somewhat, as though two stories were stapled together.
Of equal tonal dissonance, the Doctor and the Brigadier’s relationship turns very frosty, to the point of barely concealed venom. The Doctor actively deceives the Brigadier on several occasions, much to Liz’s shock. And where previously the Brigadier served as the audience’s bridge between the Second and Third Doctors and represented the forces of good, here he’s quite quickly morphed into the figurehead for what the Doctor grouses is the “military mind.” Brusque interactions rule the day, with the Brigadier disclaiming, “There are times, Doctor, when you sorely try my patience,” but to Hulke’s credit, he weaves the Doctor’s insistence on being left alone into the plot, thereby giving the Silurians the opportunity to kidnap the solitary Doctor.
The Doctor shows no hesitation to potentially risk the lives of the Brigadier and UNIT soldiers when he warns the Silurians that the humans are about to mount an attack. Preventing any bloodshed—human and Silurian—sits paramount in his mind, highlighted by several instances in this story where his non-human origins are referenced:
Silurian Leader: Would your people agree to this?
Doctor: Well, they’re not my people, but I think I could convince them.
He simply does not value human lives over other lives, and while he has fought to preserve alien lives previously, this story marks the first time where he has placed both on the same level, and Hulke attempts to give dimension to the Silurians to help bolster the Doctor’s position.
While negotiating a peace with the Silurian Leader—a plan by which the Silurians would colonize hot desert areas unusable by humans—the Doctor learns that two hundred million years ago, during the Silurian era (actually somewhat closer to four hundred million years ago, but who’s counting?), the Silurians possessed a great and vast civilization on Earth. Seeing a planet hurtling towards Earth, they hastily conceived a plan to hibernate until the event was over, but the planet turned out to be the Moon, and the anticipated catastrophe never manifested.
Throw in a faulty hibernation system and the Silurians did not wake up until the construction of the atomic research facility accidentally provided enough power to re-start the process. It’s a dense info-dump, but there’s a sense of pathos there, of a wasted civilization, and the Silurian Leader, though contemptuous of human claims to the planet, nevertheless sees peace as a preferable option to conquest and exterminations. No other “alien” species to date has had quite so full of a backstory as the Silurians.
But when the militant Silurian counterpart to the Brigadier unleashes a fatal disease that spreads rapidly and kills then the Silurian Leader for giving the Doctor a sample with which to attempt to find a cure, the Doctor must find a means of containing the Silurians without killing them. And all the while, he’s racing the clock to defeat the disease. It’s at this point that the Doctor moves into full scientist mode, fiddling with a scanning microscope, mounting blood samples on slides, and fiddling with nuclear power plants.
Liz Shaw comes into her own here, assisting ably and suggesting drug combinations, nearly the Doctor’s equal in this regard. Given that she’s spent much of the story being forced into traditionally female roles—sorting files, answering phones, staying behind despite her protestations—it’s good to see her with a strong stake in the story’s resolution.
In the end, the Doctor manages to trick the Silurians into returning to the hibernation chambers by faking an imminent nuclear explosion. Except it’s not quite fake, and the Doctor, upon realizing there’s no escape for the humans (and himself) at the research facility because of a wonky elevator, has to quickly…well, it’s not clear what he does. He strips off his shirt and twists some wires and says some words in order to stop a nuclear meltdown. All in a day’s work. The reptiles, meanwhile, fear their base will be irradiated for a half century and set the hibernation timers to wake them at that point, confident that the humans are about to be destroyed.
The Doctor returns to the caverns to investigate and is almost killed by the Silurian Brigadier, who in turn is gunned down by the human Brigadier. The Doctor compliments the Brigadier, though it’s hard to tell if there’s sarcasm at play.
And then follows the darkest ending of any story to date.
Hoping to learn from the Silurians, the Doctor plans on reviving them one at a time, to slowly bring about an accord between the humans and the Silurians. He and Liz drive off to recruit scientists for the project, only to witness fireballs once they reach the surface. The Brigadier, acting on orders from above, destroys the Silurian base with explosives. It is, the Doctor says, “murder.”
It is a devastating ending. Perhaps “The Daleks’ Master Plan” or “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve” come close, but in the latter, the writers lacked the courage to end on a morally ambiguous note and introduced Dodo in a comic postscript. Not so here as the writers keep their nerve and provide no narrative solace. Jon Pertwee manages to rein in his highly expressive, and frequently comedic, visage, and Caroline Shaw delivers a sadly knowing glance; both sum up the moment crisply and efficiently in one of the series’ best acted scenes to date.
Perhaps the ending explains the odd title. This story focuses on the Doctor as much as the Silurians. Both are defeated, and we are left with only end credits to ease the pain.
(Previous Story: Spearhead from Space)
(Next Story: The Ambassadors of Death)
Post 54 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project