|Fun fact: The third eye can both burn a hole through a wall|
and repair it again after. Steven Moffat should really
have used that in A Good Man Goes to War.
It’s January 31st, 1970. Edison Lighthouse have been so kind as to depose Rolf Harris, reaching number one with “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes).” It holds number one for five weeks before being unseated by Lee Marvin’s “Wand’rin Star,” Peter, Paul, and Mary, Jethro Tull, the Jackson 5, Simon and Garfunkel, and Chicago are also in the charts, but perhaps the most interesting thing is the Beatles “Let it Be” debuting at its chart peak position of #2 in the last week of this story. Also in music news, Black Sabbath releases their first album, effectively establishing heavy metal music.
Elsewhere, avalanches and train crashes give everything a nice disastrous feel. But here’s perhaps the more interesting thing. Something we have to remember about 1970 was that what we now call “the sixties” was not entirely and firmly tied to the calendar decade. What I mean by this was that hippies and the like did not simply roll over and die at the strike of midnight on January 1st. Case in point, Jeffrey R. MacDonald, a US Army officer, murdered his entire family and then claimed “drugged out hippies” had done it. This, however, is really just a reference to the Manson murders, another story that unwound over the six months between seasons. The significant thing about the Manson murders is not the murders themselves, which are just a sightly more homicidal version of Jim Jones, David Koresh, or the Heaven’s Gate cult. No, what’s significant about the Manson killings is the fact that they fed a story that hippies were dangerous. Note that the prosecution in the Manson murders stuck closely to arguing the connection between the Beatles and hippie culture. The central idea of the Manson murders and the reason they grabbed the popular imagination was because they featured the real fear of evil hippies. This, again, shows us how quickly things were collapsing and changing.
Other news involves the Weathermen, America’s most hilariously toothless domestic terrorist organization, inadvertently blowing three of their own members up (two more than the death toll of non-members across their bombing campaigns). The Poseidon bubble, a bizarre speculative bubble involving Australian nickel mining, bursts. Rhodesia fully separates from the UK, and still nobody supports their existence. And the Chicago Seven are acquitted.
Interesting times in other words. On television it’s interesting as well, with The Silurians, mistakenly broadcast under the title Doctor Who and the Silurians, airing. The Silurians is interesting for a couple of reasons. It’s the first solo script of Malcolm Hulke, who has previously co-authored for both Season 4 and Season 6. But this is perhaps less interesting than the fact that it’s the first Pertwee script by an avowed skeptic of the Pertwee era. This is ironic given that of the eight scripts Hulke was involved in for Doctor Who, six are in the Pertwee era. And yet he was the most vocal critic of the earthbound idea.
Even more ironic is that, given all of that, Hulke gets only three non-Earthbound stories in his entire tenure, and one of those is The War Games. He’s very, very good at the thriller subgenre and puts out many of the best earthbound Doctor Who stories. All the same, he viewed the move to Earth as extremely limiting for the series. Legend goes – though legend, in this case, is told by Terrance Dicks, and thus, as is common in series lore as told by Terrance Dicks, features him as the hero – that after Hulke criticized the idea of an earthbound Doctor Who as being good only for alien invasions and mad scientists, Dicks shot back with the premise of this story.
Let’s back up, actually, and establish the premise of this story. One of four televised Doctor Who stories to date featuring some version of these antagonists, The Silurians features one of the more interesting setups for an alien invasion in Doctor Who. The aliens are actually the former dominant species on the planet, forced into hibernation for vaguely defined reasons. The plot generally involves them waking up and wanting their planet back. Obviously what’s interesting about this is that they’re not entirely unsympathetic. The setup is an obvious analogue for the politics of indigenous peoples (a slight parallel, then, to the Rhodesia situation), with the Silurians being the put upon indigenous people who just want a place to live and are being mistreated by their invaders, the humans.
It’s an interesting concept in that once it’s uncovered the Doctor usually ends up having to play against two sides. This twist is clever, especially because it helpfully obscures the fact that the actual concept here – a scientific institution whose nuclear reactor is awakening the Silurians – is a warmed over base under siege. But instead of the Doctor helping strictly maintain the barrier between inside and outside – an essentially xenophobic line – Hulke continues the series’ new commitment to a more social-justice sort of storytelling.
There are a few problems here. First of all, for all the purity of his moral commitment (and I think Hulke is easily the most steadfastly moral writer of the Pertwee era), he’s not as good at dealing with human beings as, well, Robert Holmes. Remember Monday that the thing we praised Holmes for just about the most ardently was that he does an incredibly good job of bringing in characters who had an involvement in proceedings beyond an immediate investment in the alien invasion. That’s mostly lacking in this story, where every character of any note is either working on the base somewhere or a Silurian. (There’s a brief farmer who gets killed by a Silurian, but he’s largely decoration).
In other words, this is very much a Troughton-style base under siege with a slight tinkering to the moral logic. Certainly the idea that this story is set on Earth is largely inessential – a colonized planet would do just as well for this story. This shouldn’t be the case. It should be the case that it matters that these events take place on Earth – that it be recognizable human beings that are tasked with understanding and accepting the legitimacy of the Silurians’ claim to the planet. But Hulke never quite gets there. His idea is more interesting than his execution, and that hampers this story.
That’s not to say, though, that the execution is bad so much as it is not good enough for the idea. As I said, Hulke is very good at this type of story. The popular critique is that The Silurians is overlong. Tat Wood (I should note that the third volume of About Time is, in its second edition version, which is the one I own, credited purely to Tat Wood. In fact it’s a revised version of the Wood/Miles-penned first edition and still has large chunks of Lawrence Miles in it, but the book credits just Wood and I’ll reflect that throughout the Pertwee era) makes the sensible argument that if you watch The Silurians not as a seven-part single story but as a seven-episode experiment in crashing Doctor Who into an imaginary TV program about the Silurians. It’s mostly a fair argument. I’m not entirely convinced that season seven, a season of Doctor Who with only four stories in it, something otherwise unheard of prior to 1986, is the right place to advance an argument that is so dependent on the idea of the show as a continual serial. On the other hand, the propensity of season seven to engage in long seven-part epics does give this season a sort of long-form feel that is itself kind of lost until 2005. Certainly Wood is correct that the story, week to week, moves to new places and works well serialized – which is, as I often point out, exactly how these stories were meant to be watched. It all comes to a bit of an abrupt conclusion, sure, but it’s tough to treat that as the biggest problem its ending has, as we’ll get to.
The larger problem is that the story ends up wasting most of its cast. Hulke may have found a way to make Doctor Who work as an earth-based thriller, but he’s clearly got massive problems with the cast he’s given here. By structuring this around a base under siege, he’s forced to find ways of sidelining the Brigadier from performing his designated plot function of calling in a lot of soldiers for as long as possible. Unfortunately, this is a base under siege, and the structure requires an intransigent commander who stonewalls the good guys at every turn. Which means the Brigadier is left angrily pouting about how he’s going to say very mean things to some civil servants. Likewise, Hulke seems not quite sure what to do with Liz, leaving her never quite on anybody’s side and, with irritating frequency, standing around with nothing to do.
Of course, this does have the side effect of actually debuting Jon Pertwee’s Doctor. Pertwee, of course, debuted last story, and was solid enough, but was basically given entirely lines and scenes written for Troughton. Whereas in this story, at the start of episode four, after a cliffhanger designed entirely around the monster unveiling, Pertwee gets his first truly distinctive scene as the Doctor when, confronted with the monster, he extends his hand and happily says “Hello, are you a Silurian?” This is great – probably the best moment of the story. By and large, the distinctive thing about Pertwee’s Doctor is his unflappable confidence. Where Troughton’s Doctor was always scheming, reacting, and planning, Pertwee’s Doctor maintains an implacable calm over all proceedings, and this is the first time that is used consciously, with the Doctor confidently subverting expectations of a cliffhanger resolution.
All told, a story that actually gave Pertwee some chances to shine was probably what the series needed for these seven weeks, having barely introduced him in the first story. Especially because the freed up time lets Hulke accomplish the other thing this story really needs to work – extended amounts of time with the Silurians. Who we should probably talk about in more detail at this point..
One of the most interesting things about the Silurians is how ahead of their time they are. Given that the BBC costuming department was nowhere near able to produce decent Silurian costumes that would allow for expressive acting, the entire production has a bit of a problem with these guys. They’re supposed to be aliens that have actual personalities and individual motivations. But with a set of identical costumes, no facial expressions, and Peter Haliday doing all the voices, the show is largely hamstrung on this front. Which means that much of what people respond to here is more the idea of the Silurians.
What’s odd, then, is how much of the idea they miss. The Silurians introduces a significant theme in the Pertwee era – one that gets revisited in significant ways at least twice more. On the surface, the plot of this is a clone of Quatermass and the Pit, except the aliens are also natives of Earth. But look under the hood and there’s more to it. The clue comes in the reason the Silurians went underground in this story. (As I said, the explanation drifts around a bit.)
This time, the claim is the implausible idea that a giant asteroid strike was predicted, but that the asteroid instead got pulled into orbit and became the moon. Any attempt to retcon this and say that actually they correctly foresaw the asteroid that formed the Chicxulub crater runs into the larger problem that they’re firmly established as having co-existed with apes. The long and short of this is that there is no remotely plausible way to reconcile the Silurians as a race with established human science – in no small part because of their name, the Silurians, which makes no sense from a paleographic perspective.
But even if the science is preposterous, we can see what’s going on from the shape of the claim. The idea that the Silurians form, in part, a secret origin of the moon. Similarly, look at how the race memory/fear idea is actually handled. Initially it’s one of the mysteries – why is everyone afraid of something in the caves? The explanation – that there’s a primal memory of fear of the Silurians who once hunted man – puts this story firmly in the tradition of “the secret explanation for X is Y,” where Y is a fairly paranormal event usually involving aliens. This sort of thing was huge in the 1970s – we’ll see it in Doctor Who in one form or another throughout the next decade. But it does form a significant difference between this story and Quatermass and the Pit. Where Quatermass and the Pit was about the novel radicalness of the idea, this story is very much about taking the by-then familiar idea and using it to tell a story about indigenous people.
Which is an immensely appealing idea, but relatively ill-served in this particular script. For one thing, the Silurians have exactly one sympathetic character who they kill off when he starts to get in the way of them being over the top villains. Yes, excepting Hulke’s own work, this is more dissent than we’ve seen among aliens since The Ark, but it’s still pretty feeble. The idea of the Silurians is done a lot better elsewhere – including, for all of its faults, in the Matt Smith Silurian two-parter, in which you can practically see Chibnall ticking off the boxes of problems with this story and fixing them as he writes it. The result is a deeply clumsy 2010 story, and I think The Silurians is a much better 1970 story than Chibnall’s version is a 2010 story. But as a Silurian story, Chibnall’s is by miles the superior take. Put another way, try explaining to someone who has just watched this why it’s inferior to a remake in which the Silurians have faces, the characters have motivations other than how they respond to alien invasions and the tragic ending actually extends from a character trait.
Ah, yes. The tragic ending. I suppose we have wrapped around to that now. Which first means going back to production details. Let’s start at the very beginning, which is to say, actually, The Celestial Toymaker, the first story produced by Innes Lloyd following the brief and apparently (in the BBC’s eyes) unhappy tenure of John Wiles. Given the brevity of Wiles’s tenure, we can basically treat Innes Lloyd as inaugurating the second coherent era of Doctor Who following Verity Lambert’s initial run. Lloyd was followed by Peter Bryant, who was script editor under Lloyd and who Lloyd actively tried out as producer on Tomb of the Cybermen. Bryant was, at least in terms of the credits, followed by Derek Sherwin, who produced The War Games and Spearhead From Space. But in practice, Sherwin and Bryant were effectively co-producers for the end of Troughton’s run and the start of Pertwee’s. What I’m trying to say is that there’s a fairly unbroken run of thought about the program from Innes Lloyd to Derek Sherwin that forms, in a real sense, the second “era” of the show.
With this story, however, Sherwin and Bryant left for another project and the BBC put Barry Letts, who had previously directed The Enemy of the World, in as producer, thus inaugurating the third creative era of the show. Letts, however, had to finish a commitment to another show, and so only came in towards the end of production on this. His first act as producer was thus to rejig the final episode to focus more on the moral outrage of the destruction of the Silurians, including the addition of the final scene.
Letts is an interesting figure. Much like Hulke, he’s one of the primary forces for overtly progressive politics in the show. He’s also, uniquely among producers, both a writer and director, and he wore those hats at times during his tenure as well. This means that he has a measure of deep influence on the show that we’ve never really seen before. Much of it is good. Some of it is bad. And then there’s this, his first and most strangely ambiguous act.
Basically, the issue is this. After the Doctor tricks the Silurians back into hibernation, he wants to pry them out one by one to negotiate peace. The Brigadier, apparently acting on orders from above, blows up their base without telling the Doctor. Staring in horror at the exploding base, the Doctor declares, “That’s murder. They were intelligent alien beings, a whole race of them, and he’s just wiped them out.” I give the quote because there are people who try to underplay the apparent intent of this moment, particularly based on later stories that establish that there are scads of Silurians about. But the quote is unambiguous. The Brigadier has wiped out an entire race of alien beings, and the Doctor views it as murder. This is unambiguously an accusation that the Brigadier has committed genocide.
Watching it in sequence, it’s difficult to imagine how any viewer seeing this wouldn’t assume that the Doctor and UNIT were not going to be working together anymore. That is, after all, surely the only thing that can possibly follow this. The alternative is for the Doctor to accept genocide – to say that sometimes intelligent species that have brilliant scientists and civilization – get exterminated, and that’s OK. If the Doctor shows up next episode, he effectively undermines the entire point of this story.
And of course, he does, and it does. And if it were just Hulke that was responsible for this, you know, I’d assume that it was a deliberate attack on the new premise of the show. That, given his distaste for this new direction, he was simply demonstrating conclusively, in one shot, why it couldn’t possibly work. That this was an overt effort to force a change of direction in the show. But it appears that it wasn’t just Hulke. That it was actually Barry Letts who set up this ridiculous undermining of the show’s premise, knowing full well that he wasn’t going to carry through on its consequences.
It’s bewildering. It’s a massive blunder for Letts to do it, creatively speaking. And yet it’s widely cited as the best part of the story. Ironically, this isn’t even entirely wrong. It’s admirable that the show is willing to follow the premise of a story so thoroughly and to that kind of a consequence. And if you take this story in isolation – if you don’t treat it as something that has to segue into another story next week, it even works.
Which is, admittedly, how a lot of fans approach it. But just as it doesn’t make sense to complain about the pacing because it doesn’t work when you watch it all in one chunk, it doesn’t make sense to praise the ending because you don’t have to tune in next week. As an end to a story, it’s great. As something that sets up the next one, it’s damn near series-destroying.