Saturday, August 08, 2009


Doctor Who and the Silurians

One of the best Doctor Who stories ever made, and one of the most atypical – unusually long, highly political (even highly liberal), with not even a mention of the TARDIS and refusing to side with the ‘humans’ against the ‘monsters’, I’ve often said this was the story that turned me into a Liberal. For the new producer at the time, though, Doctor Who and the Silurians was even more significant, as a technological breakthrough forty years ago this week demonstrated…
“There’s a wealth of scientific knowledge down here, Brigadier – and I can’t wait to get started on it.”
Warning: More Spoilers than usual…

There are few Doctor Who stories about which I have such a wealth of feeling and which have had such profound effects on me. This may, on the face of it, seem a little strange – after all, I wasn’t born when it was first transmitted, and didn’t actually see it until the not terribly impressionable age of 21. This is, of course, because when I watch it now, it seems inseparable from Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters, a closely related story in novel form indelibly imprinted on me from the day I bought it (as pictures of little blond me clasping it excitedly to my little bosom on the way home from Blackpool will testify).

It’s a cracking story – slow and grim, but feeling unusually ‘real’ and undoubtedly the series’ best ‘world disaster’. One of the few seven-parters that seems epic enough for its length, this is easily the best Pertwee for me, and one of my all-time faves. It’s the only Third Doctor TV adventure I find as good as the book, a great relief after finding several of those other strange TV stories that came to me as ‘adaptation of the novel’ such a let-down.

Despite my delight in it, I can see a few flaws from the off. Some Who stories work best watched episodically rather than all in a bunch, but this is not one of those stories. It’s not hard to see why, stretched over seven weeks, it didn’t capture such a huge audience in the most recent BBC repeat (but it cheered me up, as at the time I was mostly working in Wallasey, hundreds of miles from my beloved and thoroughly cheesed off in a grotty hotel. Besides, it was jollier than listening to The Massacre on headphones). Although it builds up brilliantly by the end, it doesn’t start by following on from Spearhead From Space with anything like the same punch, verve or on-screen expense. It could do with a bit of a kick near the beginning to draw people in.

Starting off on colourised video, it immediately looks cheaper than the preceding story, and the dodgy T-Rex is no help. Not as dodgy as Bessie seems, though; with the Doctor tinkering to get his car going, you reckon that the Brigadier bought it for him from a scrap merchant to save on the budget. Once the story gets going, it’s terrific, but it seems to take an age to start up, and the ‘mystery’ of the opening episode isn’t pulled off as excitingly as it should be. But at least – despite the opening – it seems much more cerebral than last week (must be all the scientists about).

What makes Doctor Who and the Silurians work right from Episode 1 nonetheless is the quality of the characters, and the actors playing them, even before we come to the first not-all-bad ‘monster’ characters since Varga the Ice Warrior. It’s striking that no one character that can be labelled as just ‘utterly evil’, or ‘completely insane’ (at least to start with), the usual Doctor Who shorthands for the villain. Malcolm Hulke captures a fatal flaw in the Doctor here, perhaps more craftily than at any other point in the show. He writes for Pertwee at the perfect time when he’s still new and appealing and can get away with lines that make him less likeable, without coming over as merely unpleasant. Liz Shaw remains one of the most fabulous companions, despite being treated appallingly at times – already sidelined in just her second story, it’s sad that in a saga full of doctorates, only Dr Shaw is deprived of hers and made to work as a secretary: “Personnel will be handled by Miss Shaw.” Among many guest appearances, Peter Miles stands out in the first of many shrill, manic parts, and Fulton Mackay steals the show with the charismatic Dr Quinn. He’s frightfully good, very laid-back and with a little humour, though with an unmistakable undercurrent of bitterness. It’s a real shock when he dies so early, adding to the unexpected realism. Perhaps the standout performance, though, is Nick Courtney’s Brigadier, who in a story crammed with much better-drawn characters than we usually get still emerges as the most complex of the lot. While not playing the lead in the way he did in much of Spearhead From Space, he manages to move from hero to villain while remaining entirely true to the spirit of the man.

What story we get in the first episode largely consists of a spy plot, which might work a little better if it wasn’t dropped so quickly not because of underterrestrial evidence, but because the plot no longer needs it. Quinn and his would-be strumpet are briefly implicated, his throwaway line about knowledge to be gained providing the most intriguing moment. We hear about a planned programme of sabotage, but it never quite gets going. The Doctor, however, is on a planned programme of really winding everybody up. He’s already far less likeable than he was in Spearhead! “It’s not worth fifteen million pins if it doesn’t work, is it?” never fails to make me smile, but it’s not a line calculated to win co-operation. His threat to Dr Meredith that he can do whatever he pleases is also jarring; in the past, he may have said such things as a “Provincial Officer” or an “official Examiner,” yet that was play-acting, and our Doctor now appears to have become an authoritarian for real. Thank heavens the Brigadier is there to take him down a peg. Can you imagine anyone else getting away with dismissing all his clues and calling him “Dr Watson,” a bright remark which sends the Doctor into such a sulk that he decides to go down into the caves very suddenly. As if just for the cliffhanger.

It’s not as if the first cliffhanger is even much cop. We may have had a little tension from ancient mind-destroying horrors, all very At the Mountains of Madness and Quatermass and the Pit, but they lose their nerve and reach for the unconvincing T-Rex (or “some sort of dinosaur”) when it comes to something to bring us back next week. It’s then lured away by the sound of someone having sex on creaky bedsprings. I’m scared. As if to draw further attention to budgetary shortcomings, Lethbridge-Stewart admits he only has five or six men – and they really have a Brigadier in charge of them? The Doctor even returns from his deadly cliffhanger with no ill effects at all. Fortunately, it’s about this point that things really take off, with Baker swiped in the caves and the reptile person emerging into the light and wandering about so gorgeously shot it’s as if the director’s just woken up. Simmering tensions between Lawrence and Quinn come crashing on Miss Dawson, and all at once the stakes seem raised – it’s only Episode 2, and the director of the centre is already demanding UNIT be recalled.

Admittedly, Farmer Squire’s wife isn’t a patch on Meg Seeley, but I’m always a sucker for that Quatermass-style selective race memory, and the great three-eye-view of Liz as she’s attacked for the cliffhanger is actually rather gripping. Amazingly, the pace keeps up, and the Doctor both spots what’s suspicious and doesn’t help very much, forcing Quinn onto the defensive instead of gaining his confidence. And, gosh, they’ve got a ’copter for the search (which is done rather well). It all looks much darker than Spearhead, and the tone’s darker too, with very little comic relief and rather less pizzazz – but it no longer feels cheaper, and by now it’s drawn you in.

The Doctor’s baiting of Quinn at his cottage is well done, and finally gets under Quinn’s cool, but it’s a shame; if the Doctor had still been Troughton, he might have charmed him into something, not just got his back up. It’s a miracle that he nearly gets something out of Miss Dawson, given that she and Quinn are so blatantly both in love with the same person – Dr Quinn. It remains difficult not to feel rather sad and rather regretful at the Doctor’s tactics when we find Quinn dead, despite the rather good cliffhanger to introduce the new race. Given all that, the bathos of the following scene is shocking. Is “Hello – are you a Silurian?” the silliest line the Doctor’s ever uttered?

Hulke’s characterisation of the Doctor in regularly giving him such ‘foibles’ as being a git and lying to people, rather than making him entirely heroic, again come to the fore when his not informing the Brigadier of Quinn’s death instantly begins to undermine his position with Lethbridge-Stewart. While there’s perhaps a little much dodging in and out of the caves, Baker being trapped in the foaming rock pool looks rather nastily effective (and more interesting than the more prosaic mantrap of the book). The Doctor and Liz going down and then Liz popping up again seems a little easy, but it sets up the arguments which make up most of the next episode, and concludes, in effect, the first story. Yes, that’s right. It’s really two stories meshing in the middle, rather as if the Bob Holmes ‘split story’ technique had come in early: Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters (ooh, what’s going on in the caves?) followed by Doctor Who and the Silurian Plague, with a whole new set of issues once all the first have actually been resolved. Perhaps it’s this aspect that makes the serial seem to go on far less long than many other six-or-seven-parters, even if it means one story ends with a rather unimpressive gurning cliffhanger.

Perhaps resting on the cliffhanger point itself is a little unfair. Watching it now, it’s striking that the real revelation – and of course the ‘message’ – that we have by the end of Episode 4 is that both sides are very similar people, and not in a very attractive way. The immediate ancestors of this story are not the more straightforward monster tales of the Troughton era, but David Whitaker’s earlier-starting historicals and accounts of high-ranking intrigue. I wonder if Galaxy 4 would have had the same effect on me? I suspect not, with its simpler ‘Beautiful can be bad, ugly can be good’ reversal rather than shades of grey and two races each split into myriad fears and hopes, and without the critical innovation of the ‘prior claim’ on what we think of as our planet. It’s on these people that the story turns: a politician trying to do what’s best but with the minimum of embarrassment; young Silurian Morka arrogantly refusing to see any other view than that the planet belongs to his people; the Brigadier increasingly frustrated as the Doctor’s behaviour and lack of trust forces him into a corner; old Silurian Okdel hesitantly prepared to exchange knowledge; Miss Dawson gunning for the ‘monsters’. Having said all that about ‘character’, it’s interesting that Vietnam-era aggressor Morka (the book providing so much more memorable a name than ‘Young’ – presumably he wears a leather jacket and, aged only 65,226,801, is much more hip than Old Okdel’s ungroovy 65,226,858) is the only reptile person that sounds like he’s doing an American accent. Satire, or just bad acting?

Altogether, this patch has got some splendid dialogue, with actors mainly arguing in twos – Young Silurian and Scientist, Doctor and Old Silurian, Lawrence and Masters (a youngish Geoffrey Palmer), plus that great debate, with Liz speaking for the liberals, Miss Dawson subbing for the Daily Mail (‘String the monsters up! It’s the only language they understand!’), Masterly inaction and the increasingly deranged Dr Lawrence hilariously accusing everyone else of delusions. Who says ‘talky’ means dull? The argument between Liz and Dawson fair blazes, for example, while the discussion between the Doctor and Okdel is far calmer, with the revelation of the Moon – and Baker shouting “traitor” (off) at him. Admittedly, I suspect the Saudis would have something to say about humanity giving away hot places, but at least it saves the Brigadier (ironically). It’s still not got quite everything going for it, though, as some splendid reptile people plotting and Baker’s near-escape are made far less watchable by the music reaching new lows – this is ‘When Kazoos Go Bad’. They’re so intrusive, you could call it ‘The Power of the Kazoos’, couldn’t you, making the ear-splitting Sea-quel ‘The Evil of the Kazoos’…

It’s a good job there are so many character moments about, of course, as once again the action seems to consist of people going into the caves and coming back out again. When the mucky Brigadier responds to another childish diatribe with “I lost a lot of men in those caves, Dr Lawrence,” there’s a calm pain about him that’s really impressive, and only slightly undermined by the way he’s already admitted he has very few men, none of whom were seen to die there. Meanwhile, back in the reptile people’s shelter, things are no more harmonious. There’s quite a savage row between the cave leaders, with Okdel basically saying ‘Shut up or I’ll kill you’. He’s clearly shaken by the time he gives the Doctor the bacteria, though (as well as shaking!), and then Morka does the equivalent of shooting him in the back. It’s not even a trial of strength! It’s a shame, as Hulke has given some thought to ‘creature character’, yet neither their characters nor culture are as complex as the humans’, and Morka in particular often comes over as caricatured (but I suppose you can’t get it all right first time). Let’s face it, this is hardly a very stable or civilised system of government. Mind you, the Cabinet might be more fun with third eyes; Brown boggles Blair while he’s not looking, Beckett blasts Brown over dinner, but is toasted by Jack Straw with his three-eyed glasses, and Straw’s then savaged by Blunkett’s guide dinosaur… Which all makes it rather odd that, up top, Masters remains an unusually subtle and well-meaning Doctor Who politician (or possibly civil servant, as it’s never made clear on screen, and the book gives him a civil servant’s rank but makes him an MP!). “My report will of course exonerate you completely – I’m sure you did everything in your power,” though, is just the sort of kindly way of saying ‘Bang goes your funding, good luck finding a university post’ that actually makes you sorry for Lawrence, a wretched man with no faith but suddenly acquiring Job’s job description.

This episode having been stuffed full of more drama than you find in most whole Doctor Who stories, it’s glorious to reach the end and discover that the climax lives up to it. The Doctor arguing about confining Major Baker and not putting him into hospital is done with real conviction, and it’s notable that once he returns to the surface, all the talking starts to pay off. His leaving the caves triggers Morka’s coup, and gets everything moving up top. Baker is very eager to convince himself that he escaped… But it’s hardly surprising, as he’s been self-delusional all along, with his saboteur obsessions. Then he staggers out to die, for a staggeringly grim cliffhanger – surely the scariest in the series so far. And there are still two episodes to go…

Facing the gravest threat to humanity since the Black Death (or possibly the last story), the Doctor immediately trusts the Brigadier to act, and Lethbridge-Stewart appears to trust the Doctor again to get the problem sorted – though he’s not forgotten the trouble his scientific adviser’s been earlier. The Brigadier’s worth his weight in gold, doing the right thing immediately at the hospital (even though that happens to be ordering people about with a gun), and the Doctor sets up his regimen of injections. Part of the implicit bargain here appears to be that when the Brigadier tells the long-suffering Liz to staff the phones and she protests, once again the Doctor backs him up! No wonder she ends up leaving so soon, and of course sooner still it’s all the more ironic that the Brigadier completely stiffs the Doctor at the end, with Liz his apologist – as if even she finally loses patience with the Doctor, despite agreeing with his views (and in the book, of course, she’s pissed off with him throughout).

Even the Brigadier’s unusually efficient bit of martial law is unable to prevent Masters reaching London, and while the journey there may be less tense than in the novel, the arrival is stunning. The Marylebone scenes are extraordinarily well-mounted and scary; aliens with rayguns are one thing, but this is even worse than the more obviously memorable Autons on the high street; this is an everyday place ravaged by a horrible illness, and is horribly plausible in its turn. It looks like a documentary or some disaster drama. It makes you really proud of Doctor Who, that it can be so depressing! Oh, hang on… As the guard pitches over and the camera follows the blue lamp, it looks like the end of the world is approaching.

Mass death and panic are brought home by also focusing on the death of poor Masters, staggering around London before toppling down, and accompanied by Morka’s most chilling line so far, a whispered “I am the Leader now” that finally sounds in control, just as Lawrence is on the verge of finally losing his in winding up Dr Shaw. The effect is to suggest the Wenley Moor director is stupid and the new shelter leader isn’t, but viewers will of course know they share the same critical error of disregarding the Doctor: “They’re only apes,” says Morka.

Lawrence’s final end is striking in a number of ways – it’s yet another real character who hasn’t even made it to the final episode, let alone out of the final credits, and as well as his ghastly blistering from the plague helping bring home its threat, his raving is highly disturbing. As with the disease, this unusual story first warns, then illustrates – it doesn’t just tell us that the place is riddled with nervous breakdowns, but actually shows us one, and very squirmy it is to watch, too. The story’s length and well-drawn characters mean that almost uniquely in the series, Lawrence has time to descend into paranoid madness, and we care about it.

This is perhaps the most frightening episode of Doctor Who, because it’s the most believable. We see the spread of the disease; we see people we ‘know’ die from it or lose their minds from the horror; we see our heroes desperately struggling to find a cure, or the Brigadier trying to keep the country afloat on the ’phone. Extraordinarily, rather than becoming dated, the modern advance of combined drug treatments to check the effects of viruses like HIV only adds greater plausibility – though the same can hardly be said for the line,
“Some of these drugs are so new we don’t even know their properties yet.”
So they could be, what, dancefloor fun, or antifreeze?

So caught up can you be by the terrifying culture shock of the biological warfare that it’s easy to forget its instigators. Unwise, of course, but so do the regulars, and although it’s interesting to see ‘young stallion’ Morka cutting through rock from the front, it’s difficult not to feel that the cliffhanger reintroducing a less virulent threat and carrying off the Doctor with his most unconvincing boggle actually lowers the dramatic tension rather than raising it as a climax should. Still, more room for the Brigadier to come over well (“With respect, sir, I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation. …But there’s no time to refer it to the Defence Committee!”) before making something of a tactical blunder in allowing his men to be lured out.

In the endgame, it’s obviously easier to convey the drama of a big ticking bomb / gun / molecular disperser than it is to show a disease being cured all round (thrilling zooms on: hospital beds and Horlicks!), even if it still feels like a lower gear than last week’s. More interestingly, you can see points at which the trust between the Doctor and the Brigadier deteriorates further; after being kept waiting so long for the antidote formula, Lethbridge-Stewart would be only human to entertain the odd doubt on the Doctor disappearing in the company of ‘the enemy’. The Doctor then reappearing, in white, framed by psychotic reptile people, not only looks scary – he actually shows no sign of being bothered at first that they’re going to kill UNIT’s CO. It’s Hawkins’ attack that saves him, and only then does the Doctor appear to make up his mind (but, some might say, at least Avon gets killed).

The reptile people’s random killing of base staff at the end is actually quite chilling, too. Monsters usually threaten; they don’t just scythe down characters straight away! It’s rather more like a modern terrorist drama than typical Doctor Who, and serves to emphasise both this serial’s unusually high body count and how few of those have actually died in the ‘thrilling shoot-out’ action you’d normally expect. We’re still some way off the end credits for Episode 7, yet most of the people in Episode 1 are long-dead, and half the cast who made it this far will be dead by the end. It also serves to emphasise the deadly intent of the rather uninspiring prehistoric microwave with which the human race is to be cooked, though in fairness the machine also supplies more evidence of the so far somewhat sparse reptile civilisation. A bit of art wouldn’t hurt, a bit more technology, or more than two sound effects while they do everything by third eye ‘magic’.

“Doctor, what do you think you’re doing?” asks the Brigadier, who by now is clearly far from convinced that the Doctor is play-acting when he goes to help the Elder Earthlings (and in that rather unwise t-shirt, he does look a bit shifty). “You mustn’t help him!” he even orders Liz, who – like the audience – has more faith, but the skilful writing and Courtney’s performance make his not trusting the Doctor an inch perfectly understandable. It’s also rather impressive that the Doctor really does have to overload the power core to scare off the reptile people – for once, it’s not just a bluff – and that the same thing that wakes the reptile people in the first place becomes the cause of their downfall, rather than the power being merely a background detail.

With the machine blown up, the monsters in retreat and the Doctor saying “Yes, I know, I’ll try fusing the control of the neutron flow” (admittedly not then the cosy nod that that sort of line has become in retrospect), you’d expect this to be the end, but the last few minutes are brilliant – just when every other Who story would finish, we get great stuff like Morka finally showing he’s not just a violent egomaniac, as he realises that leadership involves responsibility. It makes his death suddenly poignant, and rather graphic. The Doctor is really, well, Doctorish with his pursuit of scientific knowledge, and what a joy it is to see that – except for the Brigadier, who is having none of it, but not yet blustering. Lethbridge-Stewart gives him a seriously evil look as the Doctor contemplates a reptile revival, and while I’m on the Doctor’s side through and through, now I can see what’s brought the Brigadier to this point, I wonder if the Doctor couldn’t have retained his trust, and so kept Morka’s people alive. It isn’t really their disagreement that precipitates the final crisis, but their distrust – it’s not impossible that the Brigadier’s sealing of the caves is not inevitable, but in part a lesson to the Doctor, to show him ‘who’s boss’. Both actors are at their very best, with shock meeting quiet, deadly efficiency. Has Jon Pertwee a finer moment than that appalled look at the exploding caves, in a fantastic Doctor scene that lures you into thinking it’ll just be the comic relief?

The Doctor loses. He actually loses. And the first person to beat him since The Aztecs Tlotoxl is to become his friend; it’s easy to conclude that it’s a shame they had to get on after this. I’m no longer sure that’s true. Perhaps this is simply a better story than any that follow with the Doctor and UNIT, and none of the rest could cope with this level of drama. But perhaps also the Doctor realises that UNIT is in the right place at the right time, and could be doing the right thing if he changed tactics and tried harder to persuade them; it’s a better excuse for his becoming the ‘establishment’ Doctor than any other I’ve heard, and despite his loud distaste for politicians, for once it’s an argument for working ‘inside the system’. This Doctor’s instincts have been spot-on, and he’s tried to do good throughout, but it’s all undermined by his own fatal flaw: arrogance. Ironically, the Doctor realises that the solution is for everybody just to get along with each other, but his confrontational approach and unwillingness to trust people with information shows that he’s incapable of following his own advice. In life, in politics and in Doctor Who and the Silurians, getting everyone’s backs up rarely gets you results, even if you’re right.

Run end credits – and notice how much shorter they are than for than Episode 1. Oh, and I have to get this out of my system: he’s not Doctor Who. They’re not Silurians. But it’s still a cool title.

This story has a lot to answer for… Reading its message that green scaly rubber people are people too turned me into a Liberal. Appropriately, it’s one of the few [Twentieth Century] Doctor Who stories I saw first as an adult that I can remember exactly where I was when I saw it for the first time. It was five am the day after it was released by BBC Video, and I was crashing in a sleeping bag on someone’s floor (the glamour of politics) and blearily determined to get it all watched before it was time to go out for another day’s trudging the streets to canvass and deliver leaflets in the 1993 Christchurch by-election, which turned out to be a great Liberal Democrat victory over the Tories. Devoted as I was to the cause, this story was still something I desperately wanted to make time for as early as possible, and I was thrilled – even though it had actually been a life-changing experience many years earlier. And without having read the book, who knows? Perhaps I wouldn’t have been there at all…

So that – originally written in 2002 – was where my crucial political breakthrough took place, probably aged about seven when I found a copy of the novelisation on holiday. I still love both the book and the TV story, though I often wonder what I’d have made of the Doctor (Jon Pertwee, of whom I have mixed feelings) suddenly stuck on Earth and working for the military rather than travelling through history and to alien worlds if I’d already been watching the series at the time. I might have hated it. But I wasn’t born by 1970, and with the Doctor long since freed to wander again through time and space by the time I was captivated by first seeing Doctor Who, it’s easy to be fond of a time that had finished. I love Doctor Who for its variety – and the period during which he was exiled to Earth, while denying that variety when it was all there was, is now an interesting part of it when I can look back across the lot.

Doctor Who In 1970, In Colour (Separation Overlay)

1970 was an extraordinary year for Doctor Who. A bold relaunch for the series, in colour, with a new Doctor exiled to modern-day-after-tomorrow Earth, it’s by a long way the most Earthbound the series has ever been. Again, you’d think that means I’d hate it. And yet… Each one of the stories is just so good. Doctor Who and the Silurians is undoubtedly the best of them, but I’ve also written reviews of Spearhead From Space and Inferno, and I’m sure I’ll be excited enough to do the same when The Ambassadors of Death makes it to DVD, so I can’t think of any other season where every single story is of such consistently high quality. It’s certainly not my favourite year of Who – yes, I do prefer those with more variety, with different times, different worlds, and a different tone to the fairly relentless butch soldiery – but that’s not any of the individual stories’ faults; the season’s hugely impressive, but it’s a little less than the sum of its parts.

I mentioned a technological as well as a political breakthrough above – on 6th August 1969 there was a five-hour test session at the BBC for a new technique called Colour Separation Overlay, or CSO. Well, it was called that at the BBC; everyone else called it “Chromakey,” or more commonly these days “greenscreen” or “bluescreen”; it’s when you programme a video camera so it doesn’t capture anything in a particular colour, usually green or blue, so you can insert the bit the camera does ‘see’ onto another shot (for example, have someone mime flying against a blue background, then add them to a picture of the sky). But in Doctor Who, of course, the colour of monsters is green and the TARDIS is blue, so in the early ’70s they used a lot of disappearing yellow backgrounds instead. As Doctor Who and the Silurians was the first of the series to be shot on colour videotape (Spearhead From Space, the first colour Who story, was on film, which needs different techniques), it was the first to use CSO. It’s to make the caves look bigger in Episode 6, if you’re wondering, but the man in charge of that August 6th effects test was Barry Letts, who took over as producer of Doctor Who with …and the Silurians and devoutly believed that you could use CSO to do anything. So, over the next five years, he tried to prove it…

Bye-Bye, But Why? Outpost Gallifrey

But back to my review above. It’s a little odd reading it after about seven years. My style’s changed a great deal, and so has the context. I originally wrote it for Outpost Gallifrey, at the time the biggest Doctor Who fan site. Regular readers of my summer repeats season (stalled in the last few weeks) will be aware that, as well as that site’s owner closing down its associated private forum and its successor forum, in an act of vandalism, he’s now obliterated the main site, too. I really can’t see the point: he’s said that the closed forums had to be deleted for privacy’s sake, but the thousands of reviews and articles people had contributed to Outpost Gallifrey were always free for use of the public. I had only eight pieces on there, but one bloke had reviewed every single Twentieth Century Who TV story, and many others as well – and, unlike a lot of Internet reviews, his were rather interesting. That’s about 200 just from one chap that I enjoyed reading and can’t any more, for no particular reason save selfish destructiveness, and the fact that the site domain still exists as a big advert for a money-spinning convention makes it seem like two fingers up to all the people whose work for free had made the original site a success.


But anyway, back in 2002 I wrote this review for what I assumed was an audience of Doctor Who fans who’d be intimately familiar with the story, or at least with the general details surrounding it. So the main thing that struck me was that now I wouldn’t write something quite so utterly preaching to the converted; enthusiastically insular as I may still be, these days I at least make the odd concession to readers who don’t know exactly what I’m talking about before I start (and I’ve added the odd expositionary word above to make some of it marginally less impenetrable). Following on from that, it’s also a lot more spoiler-heavy than many of my pieces now, and without any spoiler warnings for those who’ve not seen the story.

The other huge stylistic difference is how linear it all is. Were I starting out on a detailed review of Doctor Who and the Silurians today, I might base it around the themes, or the characters – I wouldn’t just plough through the story in order any more. In many ways, my reactive approach above (and particularly the funny asides I thought of and crowbarred in) reads like a ‘not the DVD commentary’ years before the story was released on DVD.

It’s not just the DVD release that’s changed the context since I wrote it, of course – Doctor Who’s come back on TV, and I’d assume that people interested in the show would be a far wider group, but also far less knowledgeable of every single story from the series’ whole forty-six years (and, of course, today I’d imagine very different members of the Cabinet slaughtering each other).

Beneath the Surface On DVD

If you want to experience Doctor Who and the Silurians for yourself, then – and, for me, it’s still one of the best Doctor Who stories ever made, even aside from its personal effect on me – pick up the Beneath the Surface DVD box set, which has been out a couple of years now and so you should be able to find fairly cheap. The two sequels with it decline sharply (one exciting but dumb, the other rather less exciting and dumber), though the three collected ‘reptile people’ stories have the distinction of all having their own isolated scores on the DVD, which in the case of the two ’70s stories makes them exceedingly rare – though the quality of the scores rises sharply, in inverse proportion to the stories themselves (perhaps fortunately, listening to the music for this story in isolation you realise how very little there is of it, however shonky the crumhorns are when they sound). You’ll also find that Doctor Who and the Silurians has inconsistent picture quality; restored from a good black and white print and a very, very poor colour home video, it’s a massive improvement on the old VHS restoration, but you can still tell there’s something a bit iffy about it. Despite that, some scenes are arrestingly impressive with the new treatment – Jon Pertwee no longer looking like he’s been coloured in with felt-tips for the terrific Episode 5 cliffhanger, for example, or the sweeping helicopter shots and fantastic zooms for the UNIT search across the moors now looking far more expensive and expansive than they did in grainy near-black and white.

The other advantage of seeing Doctor Who and the Silurians on DVD, of course, is that it’s packed with extras. There’s a particularly fine commentary, mixing people from before and behind the camera. That means it can move naturally from details like the director explaining his painting the upper third of the lens red for a Silurian-eye view – in a story all about seeing things from different people’s points of view – to moments of dry humour like Peter Miles admonishing Caroline John over her flippant wish for a third eye with which to shut people up (“Some of us died because of these things”), or the marvellous Geoffrey Palmer bringing it right up to date with
“My son would have been hiding behind the sofa while watching this… And in the last series that went out, he directed four of them.”
And, back to the different points of view, the actors all constantly debate the story’s politics, often though not always siding with their characters’ viewpoints, while script editor Terrance Dicks calls the Doctor “an incorrigible liberal” and “a Guardian-reading liberal”. Hurrah! The text notes are informative and often amusing – thankfully, over seven episodes, they’re written by Martin Wiggins, definitely the best of the DVD annotators, deftly explaining such elements as the slightly confused science without either getting defensive or just slagging the programme off; after sketching out the Silurian Era, he concludes, “So why are the reptiles in this serial known as Silurians? Simply because Malcolm Hulke liked the sound of the name!” Which is as good a writer’s reason as any. And, amongst all the on-screen documentaries and other extras – photo galleries, “Now and Then” location features, the music, the restoration – there’s arguably the best single DVD extra the range has yet offered, What Lies Beneath, a BBC4-style visual essay on the issues behind the story, splendidly narrated by Geoffrey Palmer (I mention him again, but he does have a marvellous voice and knows how to use it), featuring Doctor Who writers from the ’60s to today and even Roy Hattersley. Well, he’s not bad in this.

Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters

Given that the novelisation Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters had such a profound effect on me, though it’s long out of print, I should of course mention that it’s now available on a shiny silver disc of its own, read by Caroline John (Dr Liz Shaw) as a talking book. She even plugs it on the DVD commentary, bringing in some of its extra details. It’s well worth picking up and a rather good reading of an outstanding book that adds much extra depth to the characters and situation, though not perfect. It suffers from printing the novel’s gorgeous original internal illustrations not at full-page size, but rather smaller than postage stamps, which reduces their impact. Caroline’s brilliant as Liz, particularly when she comes close to murdering the Doctor in his smugger moments, and has fun with her pompous Doctor and Brigadier voices, but is slightly uncertain as a narrator, though noticeably gaining confidence as she goes along.

The biggest let-down of both elements is Dr Quinn; the most fascinating character for me growing up, tensely written like the spy drama double agent who’s got the secret communications device from his handlers, ambitious to make his own scientific mark, manipulating Miss Dawson, then finally dying in a thrillingly written sequence accompanied by an outstanding illustration. Neither has quite the same effect when you have to squint at a tiny picture and, unfortunately, Caroline’s terrible cod-Scots accent makes it less poignant and more of a relief for Quinn to be killed off. Still, if you can ignore what Dr Quinn sounds like, I’d thoroughly recommend the book either on the page or on CD – and when I picked it as one of my summer reading choices for another site last year, people even seemed to like my writing…

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Thank you for your wonderful review of everything "Doctor Who and the Silurians," including the audiobook. I found your site while trying to figure out why Caroline John's hair changed length so drastically during this episode. Though I'm still trying to find the answer to this bit of truly obscure knowledge, I'm definitely going to bookmark your site and return for further reading...the Nicholas and Caroline show, indeed. =) That was priceless and perfect.
Gosh! Thank you very much. Glad you enjoyed the reviews, and sorry I can't provide an answer to your question. Is it a wig, or a particularly curt cut between location filming and studio work?
Perhaps you've hit the nail on the head and the scenes with the longer hair were done first. I hadn't thought of that, as I suffer from believing scenes are shot in the order we see them with no deviation, but yes, that's probably it! I would be surprised if either length was a wig, for it looks far too good and far too realistic (and compared with some of her later hair styles, which I would bet money are wigs and no mistake), but I suppose anything is possible. Also, I think I've just taken my Liz Shaw obsession to new heights, by mentioning this issue outside my own wee blog. =)
I haven't actually checked (away for a few days and without my DVD collection), so I'm hypothesising without testing for the moment, but it seems a reasonable notion. She does have a fab wig in Inferno, though, doesn't she? And don't worry about a Liz Shaw obsession. Quite right, in my opinion.

Apologies for making you wait for comment moderation, btw: I don't usually, but after a rash of spam across old posts a few months ago, I've now got it set to warn me when something comes up on a post that's over a month old!
I think you're right, Alex, re that crazy Liz Shaw hair in Silurians. I checked "Doctor Who on Location" and as far as I can tell, there was a week's lapse between the long hair shots and the shorter hair shots. =) It's all good - I *especially* love the shots when she's standing over the Doctor as he works on Bessie. Her legs and her legs in those boots drive me mad. =) Oh, those poor wigs the woman had to wear...I am not fond of them at all, my obsession for Liz Shaw overshadows the dislike I have for those wigs. Hope all is well! =)
Glad my guesswork was of help! And sorry I took a few days to release your comment – got an e-mail notification at a busy time and forgot about it.

Great than you enjoy Liz so much, wigs apart! And your haikus are fabulous :)

Thanks very, very much for lavishing so much praise on my Spearhead review, too.

Just very sad this evening to have read about Barry Letts. At least …and the Silurians is, for me, his finest moment (or three hours). I really should write a piece on Dalek War in the next few days…
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