Doctor Who and the Silurians [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, and lately I have been revisiting old episodes for the first time in a long time. I haven’t been doing this in any sort of systematic way–rather, I pop through the series randomly. In fact, sometimes, my daughter and I will use the internet to generate a random story number and then just watch that.

Doctor Who and the Silurians

Starring Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor.
Companion:  Caroline John as Liz Shaw.
Recurring Character: Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart
Written by Malcolm Hulke.  Directed by Timothy Combe. Produced by Barry Letts. Script edited by Terrance Dicks.

Format:  7 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  May – June 1970 (Episodes 19-25 of Season 7)

By a quirk of clerical confusion, this story is the only one in Doctor Who‘s long and varied television history to have the phrase “Doctor Who and the…” at the start of its on-screen title. Long-time fans of the franchise are used to this language in the novelization of the show and in other media, but on television it is unique. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor was the first one that I ever saw an entire adventure of, simply because the first PBS station that I was able to track down that was showing the series after I learned about it was in the middle of his era when I initially started watching. But I came in well past this story so it was ages before I finally saw it

Spoilers Ahead!

Doctor Who and the Silurians comes at an interesting point in the show’s history. This is the second story of the Third Doctor’s era, which had represented the show’s biggest re-invention up to that point. The series was now in color and the Doctor was exiled “permanently” to earth. But the pulp-like high adventure tone that the Third Doctor would come to be known for over his five seasons was not really in play yet, with this season having a more hard-edged science-horror tone. The newly minted regular cast of Jon Pertwee, Caroline John and Nicholas Courtney all play things extremely straight, with the show working hard to mix its monster, military and moralistic elements.

This period in the show’s history also had to exert a lot of energy coming up with credible earth-based threats for the Doctor to face, and Doctor Who and the Silurians has one of the best: reptilian humanoids who were mankind’s predecessor’s as the rulers of the earth. The Silurians are a great addition to the Doctor’s list of enemies, fairly elaborately produced with a fair amount of thought given to their nature and motivation. However, it is also early 1970s Doctor Who, which means that no matter how much work is put into them they still look kind of silly.

There are a bunch of other things that date the story pretty badly. While the Silurians’ design is unavoidably limited, their dinosaur pet is just ludicrous. But that’s the great thing about Doctor Who (or maybe the terrible thing, depending on your perspective)–it never shies away from going big even when its reach far exceeds its grasp.

But far more frustrating is the serial’s musical score, which is a truly bizarre cacophony of bells and whistles that can be charitably described as “extremely distracting.” Dudley Simpson’s work could sometimes be a kind hokey, but it was positively subtle and restrained compared to the odd soundscape produced by Carey Blyton. At times its quite difficult to tell whether you are listening to incidental music or some sort of diegetic sound effects (ie, the Silurians machines or something).

Its relentlessly annoying, which is a pity since the story is pretty solid otherwise. Even at a longish seven episodes, the adventure always keep pace with fresh developments. The tense dynamic between the leader Silurian and his young counterpart is not exactly unique but is still engaging. There is a good guest cast backing up Jon Pertwee through the story, including the likes of Peter Miles, Geoffrey Palmer and Paul Darrow. I wouldn’t say the script makes the best use of all its characters–Dr. Quinn gets killed off a bit early and Miss Dawson disappears completely at the story’s conclusion. As much as I’m entertained by Peter Miles whenever I see him in anything, it feels like most of what his character, Dr. Lawrence, contributes to the story could have been farmed out to others.

Probably what makes Doctor Who and the Silurians the most interesting are the ethica dilemmas that is poises. The Doctor is often at odds with the human cast throughout the story as he strives to find a way for their to be a peace with the Silurians. But even as he is generally “right” in his stance, the threat poised by the Silurians is severe enough that the audience can sympathize with the position of the Brigadier, Major Baker and the others. After all, the Silurians are legitimate threats, and not just harmless creatures who are misunderstood.

The ending, where the Brigadier destroys the Silurians base behinds the Doctor’s back, provides our hero with the most opportunity to be morally outraged, but it’s intriguing that the Doctor doesn’t know what we do: in many ways, the Brigadier is right. If he hadn’t acted, the angry young Silurian leader would have awakened his people and relaunched their aggressive campaign to destroy the human race. Why was this element included in the episode? Was is it to add nuance to the argument being poised, or was it just to keep the tension going to end of the episode? Either way, it’s a nice touch to the story’s climax.


2 thoughts on “Doctor Who and the Silurians [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. I think “Hello, are you a Silurian?” is perhaps the most Doctor Who line of all time.
    Our PBS station didn’t broadcast the Pertwee so I didn’t see any of them until years later. Glad to have caught them all now.

  2. Dr. Who & The Silurians came very late for me and, along with many of the much earlier Dr. Who classics up to that point, it gave me a great appreciation for how sophisticated Dr. Who was in the first seven years. This story surely earned great respect for how serious Dr. Who could be when tackling major issues. The Silurians’ return in the modern Who were a good reminder of that. In fact it’s one of the best reminders of why the classic Who can hold up a great deal more in this century and beyond than its modern successor. Also memorable for how Paul Darrow became a distinguished talent in the sci-fi universe before Blake’s 7. I can especially appreciate how Peter Miles found fame as a Who guest star before his huge break as Nyder in Genesis Of The Daleks. Thank you, Ben, for your review.

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