Doctor Who and the Silurians

Written by:
Malcolm Hulke
Directed by: Timothy Combe
Starring: Jon Pertwee
Year: 1970
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try Amazon

"It would make a night - nice trip for us" says Caroline John, fluffing a line less than three minutes into the episode. Which doesn't spoil my enjoyment in the slightest, but I thought I'd mention it.

The first time I saw The Silurians I thought it was a terminal bore, but let's not get into that. I was wrong, pure and simple. Anyway, with its full title of Doctor Who and the Silurians, and a car with the licence plate Who 1, this is the sort of stuff that should bait fanboys.

Jon's Doctor shows signs of his later arrogance and bluster, though when physically attacked doesn't yet launch into Venusian Aikido. The episode in itself is mainly an establishing one, setting up the scene for the long haul, and what we know will be one of the most tragic endings in Who's history.
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Carey Blyton's score is bizarre, yet oddly likeable and hasn't dated. Maybe that's because it uses piano sounds, or maybe because it was never of the time in the first place. The dinosaur at the start of this one is perfectly reasonable to me within Who's budget, though is often slated. It's also interesting to note how the third Doctor's condescending attitude is rubbing up the secondary characters the wrong way, jeopardising his mission. I still can't get over his "Don't worry m'dear" and slap on the back of Miss Dawkins. Also of note is the inclusion of Paul Darrow, playing it straight but still as camp as anything - just check out that walk.

The scenes of the lone Silurian on the moorlands are what help elevate an averageish episode into a superior one. This is brilliantly combined with the revelation of Quinn colluding with the Silurians, though I almost docked a half-mark for the very silly scene where Pertwee draws a detailed Silurian in just two seconds…
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This is wonderful Doctor Who in many ways, because it's interested in telling a story. While the later Pertwee seasons could be fun, they were more interested in set piece and fast spectacle rather than how things developed and held together. You could argue that this was the final season where Doctor Who really told stories, as a preponderance of four parters and underdeveloped narratives ran through the series. Even classic works like The Deadly Assassin, while fundamentally more entertaining than The Silurians, don't possess characters scribed with the same amount of unselfconscious three-dimensionality.

It's slow, of course, and an episode too long as we shall later see. It's things like this that may make it seem boring to some, and certainly I was guilty of more than a few yawns on initial viewing. There's some great scenes in this one, though: The Doctor and Quinn, the Doctor and the Brigadier… all fantastic stuff.
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Now the initial set-up has been and gone (sadly taking Dr. Quinn with it) we're into the middle ground, treading water until the climax. In terms of narrative progression we get very little happening in this episode. There's some nice characterisation, but an episode where the Doctor goes down to the caves, evading capture, then goes back again, only to be captured… well, it's just a way to separate the credits with twenty-five minutes of television. Still good though.
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The Silurians is a story that works better for me in one sitting, (or two if I need a rest) rather than episodically over a period of seven weeks. I remember seeing the fourth episode when it was repeated recently on BBC2 and was greatly disappointed that nothing really happened plot-wise. Seen as a UK Gold Omnibus edition (complete with on-screen icon telling you to press the red button on your keypad for competitions) and it's far less offensive, more part of a greater whole.

It's odd how superfluous Liz is in this story, though I really like the Silurians and their voices. It's a shame that their third eye became a silly voice indicator in their return appearance, as their jittery body language and "bobbly-bobbly" voices work wonders here. And while their technology is just a board with fairground lights on it, the extremely subtle commentary on racism and the need for war makes The Silurians suddenly the most topical story of the series for 2003.
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The age-old problem of the six-parter (well, seven parts in this case): how to carry on the story without it coming to a natural end too early? Some just opt for the "drag it out" option (The Mutants, anyone?) while others go for the "introduce a new subplot to offset the main thrust of the story" decision. The Silurians does this second one better than most, by giving us some excellently directed location shots and a disease effecting the populace. This does lead to one of the most unbelievable scenes in Who history, though - I mean, would a London cabbie really tell you you've forgotten your change?

The Doctor and Liz debating test tubes is hardly likely to get a casual viewer's rocks off ("The addition of A37 in the presence of Z19") and the artificially-added dilemma of the disease seems fake. Yet it is quite graphically realised, despite a scene where Peter Miles overacts terribly and Mr.Boom Mike Shadow puts in a cameo. And for the Silurian disease you could now read ricin. Remember - the Silurians may be attacking the humans out of fear, but they've got their own motivations and aren't just black and white characters. Not only that, but the Doctor is striving for peace... shouldn't we be joining him?
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This is the first story to really show up the limited range of Jon's acting: let's be honest, he just can't do "knocked unconscious" acting, can he? Instead he sees gurning as his only option.

At the start of this review I said The Silurians was an episode too long... again, I was wrong. I think this is probably the fourth time I've seen the story, and the way characters are allowed to build slowly and debate the various ethics of the story without it feeling crammed is exceptional.

Here we have a cracking last episode, where Jon's Tony Benn tries one last time to find peace with the young Silurian who has seized leadership by force. It is weird seeing him repairing machinery in a T-shirt and slacks like your Uncle Derrick, and it does lead to yet another pat resolution whereby he defeats the Silurians by "fusing control of the neutron flow". However, such deus et machina shenanigans are more than made up for by one of the dozen best story endings in Who history. Jon actually acts, letting plaintive anger and sorrow play over his face as the Brigadier destroys the Silurians. "But that's murder... they were intelligent alien beings..." Superb.
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Even though only one single episode got a full five-star rating, I'm tempted to say this is far more than the sum of its parts and deserves such an overall score. It's certainly a superior Doctor Who story with political points to make that aren't overstated, and production is extremely good over the seven episodes. Exceptional.
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