Sunday, 26 May 2013

Dr Who and the Silurians written by Malcolm Hulke and directed by Timothy Coombe

This story in a nutshell: Mankind learns that they were not the first bipeds to walk the Earth…

Good Grief: The Doctor has acquired a new car which he has sweetly named Bessie after his assistant (probably so he can hurl abuse at one or the other and they wont know who he is referring to). The Doctor never reports himself anywhere and particularly not forthwith so the Brigadier attempting to give him orders is completely the wrong approach. Verity Lambert lambasted the third Doctor for becoming an establishment figure (and I can see arguments for both sides) but at least he was resisting it for the entirety of his first season. It’s Terror of the Autons where he starts to look comfortable in the UNIT labs, talking about hobnobbing it with politicians in 'the Club.' Anybody else would look completely self conscious wearing a black and red velvet cloak and riding through a busy London high street in an old fashioned yellow roadster but the third Doctor seems to revel in sticking out like a sore thumb. He’s so completely rude to Dr Lawrence by walking around the room when he is telling them about the research centre and not even bothering to look at him when he interrupts with his questions that your sympathies are entirely with the Director initially. I know some people don’t like that spiky sort of arrogance but I love it in both the third and sixth Doctors – it shows a naïve lack of understanding of human behaviour and stresses the Doctor’s alien nature. He seems to perversely enjoy defying authority figures but in a very different way to how Troughton used to. With the second Doctor it was getting away with murder when they backs were turned but the third seems to love rubbing his defiance in their faces at every opportunity, even when it is clear they are psychologically unstable (‘Pompous idiot, I never could stand that man.’). When asked if the dinosaurs he has seen before were in a museum he takes great insult to the suggestion and then remembers he cannot show off like he used to or he would be packed off to the funny farm and agrees that yes it was. The Doctor enjoys playing with Quinn when he visits him at his cottage before showing his hand; it’s like a cat playing with a mouse before killing it. He thinks nothing of breaking into Quinn’s personal effects despite Liz’s objections. Dr Lawrence sums the Doctor up as insolent, impertinent and showing no respect for his authority. He certainly has no time to chat to Under Secretary’s, Permanent or otherwise! Major Baker casts the Doctor in the role of a traitor to mankind for warning the Silurians of the soldiers advance. The Brigadier sees him as a moral coward for not willing to face up to the danger of these creatures. It's absorbing to see how all the difference characters view the Doctor as he tries to negotiate a peace because at points they are all correct without ever being entirely so. At times Jon Pertwee has been accused of giving an overly earnest performance but it his absolute seriousness that sells the danger of Major Baker’s infection. The Doctor doesn't even notice the injection, which is a nice moment for the kids. Interesting that when the Brigadier shoots the Silurian who is threatening his life he says ‘Well done, Brigadier’ but condemns his actions thoroughly when he blows up their base and commits genocide. The climax is very powerful because despite all the Doctor's efforts to heal the wounds between the Silurians and humanity the Doctor is finally outfoxed by somebody who he considered to be a friend. It is clear that come to beginning of the next story that the wounds are still raw.

Sexy Scientist: As much as I adored Zoe (and I did adore her) and it might have been interesting to see how she worked in this format (it was on the cards), Caroline John brings a certain gravitas to the role of Liz Shaw that shows at all times that she isn’t just the Doctor’s assistant but her own person who can cope with her own investigations. Somehow when Liz talks about female emancipation she doesn’t sound like a militant feminist but simply a strong willed woman who doesn’t want to miss out on all the fun. Liz lets out her one scream in this story when she is clawed in the face by a green skinned assailant but it genuinely looks as though she facing death so we’ll let her have that one. She might be put off once at going down the caves but she insists on going after the Doctor the second time he heads off down there. She already knows what sort of trouble he gets into on his own.

Chap With Wings: The Brigadier is such a serious, authoritative figure in this season it is a world away from the comedy buffoon he would become in the next couple of years. Whilst I love watching Nicholas Courtney playing the role either way (as an actor he always knows how to charm me) I find the character far more credible in season seven than at any other point in his long run. His reaction to the Doctor’s ‘You’re not exactly a little Sherlock Holmes yourself, are you?’ is lovely. You can understand the Brigadier’s skepticism about the Doctor’s theory of two lots of monsters in the caves considering he has only been exposed to Yeti (robots), Cybermen (humans that look like robots) and Autons (dummies that act like robots). Actual living breathing aliens have eluded him to this point (and considering the Silurians aren't extraterrestrial but a home grown species it isn't until the next story that he comes across his first aliens). Whilst the Brigadier probably thought he was doing the right thing for the sake of the world by wiping out the Silurians it is exactly the same sort of action that the tenth Doctor brought down Harriet Jones for in The Christmas Invasion. He’s lucky that the Doctor needs him at the moment or he might just have suffered the same treatment.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’re not proposing to dismantle a piece of equipment worth 15 million pounds with a screwdriver?’ ‘Its not worth 15 millions pins if it doesn’t work!’
‘I take you’re yet another member of the UNIT team!’ ‘Yes. Depressing, isn’t it?’
‘This is our planet. We were here before man.’
‘Well you can clear out of here all of you! And take that crazy Doctor with you! And all of your military rubbish! I’m in charge of this place! When are you going? Or do I have to throw you out myself!’

The Good Stuff:
· Considering the production nightmare they went through to get them right (Barry Letts literally halting production because they were so bad) the cave sets are actually quite nicely done. They look genuinely cavernous and dank although I wish they had treated these scenes to some film work at Ealing to complete the effect.
· I love the feeling at the start of this adventure that it could literally be taking place anywhere on the Earth. In the previous six seasons you know that even if the opening scene isn’t set in the TARDIS (which it generally was) that the travellers would turn up soon enough and sort things out. With the TARDIS out of action that Doctor trying to find his way on the Earth it is exciting to think we don’t know how this adventure is going to proceed for a change. It was exciting times for the show.
· An atomic research centre built into some caves in Derbyshire – it just sounds like a Doctor Who location, doesn’t it? One of the benefits of have seven episodes (despite what Dicks/Letts will tell you) is that you can spread the budget of one and a half stories over one and thus have far more impressive sets than usual. The Cyclotron for example looks completely authentic and the set is large enough to be split level with an impressive partition between the dialogue scenes and the action down below. It looks like a fully functioning research centre. Doctor Quinn’s country cottage is another beautifully designed and lit set (its full of ornaments and little character touches and has a nice, homely fire set in the grate).
· Peter Miles, Fulton McKay, Normal Jones, Geoffrey Palmer…that is an incredible guest cast for a show in the seventies and proof that the show was attracting big names in its new format. A young Paul Darrow makes his Doctor Who debut here and I have to say that it is extremely disconcerting seeing Avon in a military uniform playing such a straight part!
· The storytelling is complex, mature and full of mystery and not the sort of straightforward action adventure we have been used to during the Troughton era. Headaches, power failures, psychological breakdowns, an unstable Director…this is being pitched at a much more sophisticated audience than those watching Troughton gooning around in foam and chasing Ice Warriors (as glorious as that was). Scenes such as the Doctor being assaulted by a bestial man, Roberts suffering a breakdown and attacking Miss Dawson and the Director’s astonishing psychological meltdown are not the sort of scenes we haven't seen for a while in the show (not since the early historicals have we seen material quite this psychologically stimulating) and it certainly makes the show a richer for having the guts to explore these darker areas of the human psychology. At least there’s a bloody great T-Rex and some walking lizards about to remind us this is still Doctor Who. The urgency of breaking into the barn is another shocking moment because by all the evidence inside Liz could be dead inside, there is simply no way of knowing until the UNIT boys break inside.
· Allowing us to see through the wounded Silurians eyes lets us sympathise with the creature and experience its experiences of being hunted down and trying to find refuge in a nearby barn. The scenes are shot with a dizzying, almost nauseous hand held camera and with creepy heavy breathing piped in the suggestion is that this is a creature in a great deal of pain.
· I like how the story doesn’t adhere to the Doctor Who cliché of revealing the monster at the end of episode one. It reveals a monster but the titular creatures are still left in the shadows, with only limbs briefly seen and POV shots  until the end of the third episode.
· Season seven saw some of the most impressive production values that Doctor Who managed to pull off in its first 26 seasons. Seen here is some extensive location work that pulls off both a military sweep of the Derbyshire moorland and an outbreak of plague at a busy London train station. A helicopter can be seen sweeping across the beautiful hillsides and there is a gorgeous Ariel shot of Bessie driving along the rugged landscape. Not to mention the slick filming in Central London with some fantastic long shots showing the enormity of the infection in the capital City. Masters eventual death is captured in as uncomfortable a way as possible with a low angle shot through some railings as he clings onto them as his body finally gives up and he slides down towards the camera. Timothy Coombe wants yo to know how terrifying this threat to London truly is and shoves succumbing victims with disgusting welts and pustules on their faces right down the camera.
· Often guest characters in Doctor Who have a surface level of characterisation but nothing too substantial underneath. Dr Who & the Silurians looks like it is going down that path in episode one but as the story progresses they soon start to reveal layers and nobody is quite what they appeared to be at the beginning of the tale. Dr Quinn is a smiley loon but underneath he wants the power and knowledge that the Silurians and will do anything to obtain it, Dr Lawrence is terrified that his reputation will be in ruins if his complex is closed down, Miss Dawson clearly has more affection for Quinn than just a professional affiliation, Major Baker is suffering from a previous career mistake and is desperately trying to salvage his reputation and Masters doesn’t want the embarrassment of the research centre to tarnished his otherwise flawless political career and heads off to London and winds up infecting the population – they’ve all been touched by some Malcolm Hulke magic that transforms their stereotypes into flesh and blood people with real lives. Even the Silurian characters enjoy greater depth than is usual with the alien characters on this show. The squabbles between the Silurians reveals them to be just as argumentative and stubborn as the human characters, just as flawed.
· The use of the globe showing the Earth before the great continental shift is a massive clue to the origins of the Silurians but only in hindsight. The idea that the small planet was due to collide with the Earth and forced the Silurians into hibernation turning out to be the Moon is an ingeniously thought through backstory that uses real historical events imaginatively.
· Quinn makes the first step towards war by keeping the wounded creature hostage and demanding their knowledge and it costs him his life, which provokes the Silurians first act of aggression. It’s a tightrope that this story walks very finely throughout with both sides putting pressure on the conflict that is bound to explode sooner or later until one side or the other is wiped out. Placing the Doctor in the middle of these two warring sides is a mesmerising exercise because we have never seen him in the role of a diplomat before and with both sides acting so aggressively he starts to run out of excuses for them. There is no right or wrong in what either the humans or the Silurians are doing and they both have a claim to the planet – that is why watching this play out is so fascinating. Although we naturally side with humanity in the conflict, if the Silurians did succeed in wiping us out they would just be taking back what used to be theirs. I love that ambiguity, with no side technically being in the wrong and an uncertainty that couldn't be pulled off under any other circumstances as far as a colonisation of the planet is concerned, which makes this tale truly unique.
· The Doctor’s solution is somewhat naïve – does he really think that humanity will live in peace with the Silurians and let them move into the uninhabited lands on the Earth? When the only other solution is extermination of one of the species I guess it is an option that is worth fighting for. Wouldn’t it have been brave to have kept this storyline running throughout the Pertwee era and showing the political and social ramifications of such a union? I don’t think the show was ready to make such a bold step but it remains a fascinating what if...
· Sending Baker back to his own people with a deadly virus is such an insidious way of committing genocide you almost have to admire the Silurian guile. This is the extra plot element that the story needed to justify its extended length and it becomes an extremely prominent and dramatic divergence from the central narrative in the sixth episode. The way the virus spreads so suddenly and uncontrollably is terrifyingly realised with scarred bodies piling up in London, Baker collapsing outside the hospital and Masters tearing down the street as though he can outrun his body succumbing to the disease. Most of the guest cast are wiped out indiscriminately, these people that we have come to know and understand are killed in a violent fashion that really helps to sell how desperate and chilling the fight for the planet has become. People bemoan that the scenes of the Doctor and Liz working on the antidote take forever but a quick solution would blunt the drama – the fact that we can see people dying horribly whilst they are ponderously trying to mix different drugs to prevent this going global gives the latter half of the story some real bite-your-nails tension.
· ‘The Daily what?’ is such an unnecessary touch that add a whole extra layer of realism and that is Malcolm Hulke all over.

The Bad Stuff:
· Dr Quinn has the oddest habit of breaking tragic news with a huge smile on his face – he tells the Doctor about the two potholers dying in the caves as though he is about burst into song. It's fascinating to learn that his smiles mask something much more sinister underneath.
· ‘He’s just frightened that’s all’ ‘Well what’s made him like this?’ ‘Some kind of fear!’ – that could have been rewritten to sound far less embarrassing than it does. ‘She was found in the barn paralysed with fear. She may have seen something!’ doesn’t help matters either.
· The first (and probably the most successful considering the competition is a number of stop motion animation cuties from Big Man T-Rex in Invasion of the Dinosaurs to the terrifying (not) Skarasen and the pantomime horse with the limp head Myrka) dinosaur in the series is still an effects disaster. Had I been Tim Coombe I probably would have suggested its size and not actually shown it in its entirety. What is the point of their T Rex if they keep calling it off every time it tries to kill somebody? Is it just serving a cliffhanging function?
· The soundtrack for this story has a terrible reputation and I have to admit it is awfully distracting and jarringly discordant for the most part. What is especially weird are the few moments where Carey Blyton proves that he can write music that is easy on ear such as the introduction to Squire’s Farm and so why he chose to go down such an unpleasant route baffles me. There is logic behind his use of primitive instruments but when the net result is something that alienates this many people perhaps more traditional instruments would have done a better job. People like Mark Ayres can be heard praising the experimental musical techniques pioneered during the Pertwee era but he is a trained musician who can sift out all the nuances and challenge the scores technically. To your average laymen the scores of Clarey Blyton and Malcolm Clarke are just cacophonous noise. The comedy nonsense when Baker tries to escape the Silurians is especially painful, gutting the scene of any drama.
· Some thought has clearly gone into the Silurian design but thanks to a reliance on rubber the idea doesn't quite translate effectively on screen. The masks are great with their beady little eyes and sucker mouths (and the flashing third eye is a lovely touch) but in long shot they do look like men dressed up in rubbery fabric that is designed to look like reptile skin. Plus the clawed feet are very funny, flapping about as they run.

The Shallow Bit: I think there is something to Terrance Dicks’ bouffant scale in telling how long Pertwee has been in the part because season seven sees his hairstyle at it's most controllable and least crazy, it's almost a respectable look.

Result: Good on Malcolm Hulke for proving Terrance Dicks wrong in his assertion that there were only certain types of story you could tell set on Earth and in doing so has written one of the most intelligent and sophisticated of Doctor Who adventures. The Silurians are an excellently conceived race and their origins open up a huge moral quandary which has no easy answers – who is to say they don’t have a right to reclaim the planet that has become overwhelmed with human beings since they have slept beneath the surface? Hulke always characterises his stories to the hilt but he has surpassed his best efforts elsewhere with this memorable guest cast. Every one of these characters comes alive in unexpected ways and the director has cast them all perfectly, the performances adding much weight to the already substantially characterised parts. With some Doctor Who stories I can barely remember the guest characters once I have finished (Were there any in Meglos? Or The Kings' Demons? Or The Monster of Peladon?) but I have never forgotten the stubborn and  violently objectionable Dr Lawrence, the outwardly smiling but manipulative and exploitative Dr Quinn, the regretful and accusatory Major Baker or Parliamentary Under Secretary Marsters who is trying desperately to salvage his career. These are real people, not just ciphers out to service the plot. The regulars all shine too with Jon Pertwee Caroline John and Nicholas Coutney all given plenty to do and treating the drama with apropriate seriousness. At seven episodes you would think that the story would outstay its welcome but there is enough drama and surprises to see you through to the last second and I skipped through this viewing in one go. The ending is justly hailed as one of the shows best and it shows that the Doctor’s new military allies might not be as trustworthy as we all thought. I have to lop off a point for the horrendous musical score (some might consider it blasphemy but I would love to watch this story with a completely different, Dudley Simpson score) and a couple of dodgy moments (mostly involving the Silurians exposed in their entirety and their pet Dino) but overall this story not only justifies the Earthbound format, it positively revels in it: 9/10


Paolo said...

Another great review, thank you.

You have inspired me to sit down later today and watch this episode for the first time in years :)

Cheers Paolo

Joe Ford said...

I really hope you enjoyed it. It's so packed full of memorable scenes seven episodes go by like a dream.