Sunday, February 9, 2014

Doctor Who and the Silurians - "This other species has developed its own civilisation. We must accept them as equals."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Doctor Who and the Silurians - Details

Season 7, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #52) | Previous - Next | Index

Doctor Who and the Silurians

This is, to a great degree. Doctor Who for me. What I mean by that is, while this story isn't best the show has ever done, it's an exemplar of what the show could be, week in and week out. It's got this great sci-fi idea that examines dilemmas societies have faced, and will continue to struggle with for the foreseeable future, and it presents that idea in an engaging story that works on different levels. We've got characters, both "good" and "bad" with motives we can understand on both sides of the conflict. It's also pure Who in that it's got: guys in rubber suits with electronically altered voices (well, one voice actually), an unconvincing dinosaur, dubious cave sets, debuts the series' use of CSO (the bĂȘte noire of the True Believers and casual viewers alike), sounds wonky (not sure if using someone other Dudley Simpson for the incidental music worked here or not), and feels a bit padded. Like I said, this isn't "The Brain of Morbius" or "The Ark in Space", where you're just blown away by how great it is, but it is one where you come away from it thinking it was better than any show with guys struggling to see where they're going in costumes that aren't fooling anybody has any right to be.

Having said all that, there's a significant way that this isn't Doctor Who. Much as I love Pertwee's Doctor and this era of the show, the change to make this an earthbound series makes it sidetrack from the series. Simply put, without the TARDIS in play, an element is missing that simply cannot be made up in other ways. Our madman in a box can be separated from his box, but not for long. Doctor Who can't only be Quatermass, or The X-Files, with the distinction being the main character is a Time Lord, or it becomes merely some other show that happens to have a Time Lord in it. Grounding the Doctor for a spell wasn't a bad idea, exactly, but it was more than just a limiting tweak in the premise. What we gained in structure and in the comfort of returning characters like Brigadier was gained at a cost. Effectively losing the TARDIS was too great a price to pay for long. I don't think the TARDIS ever appeared in this story. Bessie is no substitute. But I digress ...

The great sci-fi idea that Terrance Dicks came up with here was to twist the dials on the alien invasion story to make it so the aliens are actually from here, are not actually aliens, and they're not here to conquer because they're aggressive. They just want their world back. The Silurians were an advanced civilization -- let's be deliberately vague here to get around the impossibility of the timelines -- during the time of the dinosaurs who detected an incoming planetoid that they determined would cause catastrophic damage to the Earth when it impacted. They put themselves in suspended animation deep underground to wait out what would otherwise have been an extinction event. They awoke later than intended to find the filthy apes had evolved and taken over the world. Their world.

There's more to the story than just this, there's commentary on government bureaucracy and scientific overreach, but just that one nifty premise sets up a solid story. What makes it better, what makes it Doctor Who, is how the Doctor meets a Silurian and, instead of being driven mad from fear, or reacting defensively, or with outright hostility, or with self-serving greed, the Doctor meets a Silurian and extends his hand in friendship.

Humans and Silurians are in a precarious position, they both want to dominion over the planet. Humanity has it, the Silurians want it back. On both sides there are level heads open to solving the problem by negotiation and compromise, and on both sides there are belligerent fools. The Doctor takes it on himself to try to prevent a war and shows what bravery really looks like. It's not reaching for a gun; it's encountering the Other and making the first attempt to open a dialogue when the first instinct is fight or flight.

Now, in the end, it all goes south. The Brigadier seizes the opportunity to blow up the Silurians once he thinks the Doctor is out of the way. I'm a fan of the character. I named one of my dogs Brigadier because I love Nicholas Courtney in the role. But this is the Brigadier's worst moment. Sure, he's on humanity's side, but what he does is absolutely inhumane and the Doctor, bizarrely, never makes him accountable for his actions here. And yet, as awful as this ending is, as awful as it reveals the Brigadier to be in that moment, it's a fitting end. It keeps the history of the world on a track that is recognizable. Much later in the series, when Ten lets Harriet Jones have it for what she did to the Sycorax, I think the series acknowledges that this is terrible, and it's also our nature, and gives the Doctor a chance to express his condemnation of the fearful regression to violence a bit more forcefully than Three's grim acceptance of it here. (And, of course, the Doctor will get a chance to encounter this emergent Silurian threat to humanity again in "The Hungry Earth"/"Cold Blood".

Stray thoughts:

I generally watch the stories in one sitting these days, unlike when I was kid watching them daily, an episode at a time, on public television, so this one being split over two discs means I had to wait for the ending after sending disc one back to Netflix. One thing this does is remind that these stories weren't made to be watched in a single sitting. The structure of the cliffhanger every 25 minutes or so feels different when you watch the resolution a week later. Sandifer discusses this throughout the Eruditorum, but it's one thing to read it and another to re-experience it. I'll never finish this project if watch an episode a week though so binge watching and its attendant distortion of the experience are a necessary flaw in my scheme.

Let's get the "his name is Doctor Who" thing out of the way. The Doctor's surname is no more Who than his given name is Doctor. It certainly isn't in the new series nor was it in the classic. The title of this episode was a mistake by the graphics group in putting the title card together. That's per the infotext on the DVD release and, while individual writers may have been confused here and there, the production team deliberately fixed any accidental references to his name being Doctor Who so that he was called simply 'the Doctor'. It's settled. Whatever his 'real name' might be, it's not Doctor Who.

The timing of the UNIT era is another source of contention. Is it supposed to be the near future, from the time of production? Or, was it meant to be contemporary? Regardless of what they were trying for, I think what we ended up with is best understood as an 'alternate contemporary' where thing were a little more advanced, like Britain's space program, but we should understand the Pertwee/UNIT years to be the 1970s. (I'll have to come back and revise this later because I read somewhere recently a pretty conclusive take on this that firmly puts these Pertwee stories in the 1970s only it escapes me at the moment where it was.)

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