Following Spearhead from Space, it was the second story, Doctor Who and the Silurians that really firmed-up the Third Doctor‘s era with the appearance of Bessie and a real sense of mystery on Earth / UNIT adventures. Malcolm Hulke’s epic tale is seven episodes long, or three and a half modern episodes! Unheard of perhaps, but for the most part this works, and works well. Let’s find out why…
Welcome to Wenley Moor
Beneath Wenley Moor lies a nest of caves in which a team of scientists is experimenting in the search for cheap electricity. The Director (in my head the character spells his title with a capital D at all times), Dr Lawrence (Peter Miles) reluctantly allows UNIT to help investigate the cause of unexplained power drains and meanwhile Dr Quinn (Fulton MacKay) has secrets of his own. He will be revealed to be a Silurian collaborator, though much good it will do him.
As the Doctor, Liz Shaw and UNIT investigate we slowly become aware of the Silurian threat, there are plenty of ethical dilemmas and even a plague sequence. It all ends with the emotionally powerful scene of the Doctor and Liz watching as UNIT explosives destroy the Silurian cave complex. If nothing else it’s a scene to consider in depth as one alien watches how humanity treats another alien species it feels (with some legitimacy in this case) threatened by.
Yes it’s a long story and in places drags a little compared to a modern Doctor Who story. This got me thinking; a lot of fans aren’t over-enamoured with Chris Chibnall’s storytelling in the recent Thirteenth Doctor series. He is well-regarded for Broadchurch, telling a difficult story across a lot of episodes with plenty of character. Perhaps it’s time to consider changing the episode format? I don’t want a season arc as such, but something more akin to a connected set of episodes telling an interlinked story?
Malcolm Hulke shows how to tell a long story in Doctor Who with a neat segue through mystery in caves, alien menace, mistaken scientists, over-stressed director and then a plague, all cued via the death of Dr Quinn just after the midway. It brings fresh energy to the story before a little dash of base under seige.
In a week when we sadly lost Paul Darrow, I found myself watching his first appearance in Doctor Who as UNIT’s Captain Hawking without planning to. Of all the UNIT troops in this story he seems to get the best lines, and looks most like a trained solder, the others being prone to sitting around, getting shot and not being terribly impressive. Early days for UNIT perhaps, but looking back Paul’s character could easily have been a regular.
I won’t repeat the whole Silurian / Eocene debate or the Van Allen / Ozone Layer mistake (see the link to the BBC page if you want details), but I will moan about the slightly inflexible face masks of the Silurians, Pertwee’s comedy face when blasted by Silurians and note Liz spent a large part of the middle of this seeming to change mini-skirt in every scene (I exaggerate, but her character is much better at the top and tail of this story).
I also want to point out the comments on mental health, which date this a bit. When Liz finds evidence of undue stress, the Director’s response is that there are always weak links. A terrible line, perhaps showing how callous he is and also how much stress he himself was under. I’d like to a hope a modern writer would have challenged that position in the dialogue.
Basically though it’s a strong story, you can trace the links to Quatermass if you so choose, but even so I think the enemy from history is a clever concept. Add threats of genocide and morally difficult decisions and it all gets even stronger.
History tells is the decision to bomb the caves was stark. Having re-watched I’m not so sure, given how aggressive most Silurians were shown to be and the plague (foreshadowing, perhaps, the Survivors series). The show can’t have Silurians living among us in current history, there’s no way to find a new world, so I don’t know how else this can end except badly.
Anyway, a good story, and worth a re-watch!