“Doctor Who and the Silurians” was the first script by Malcolm (Mac) Hulke for the new team now running Doctor Who, ie producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks. Terrance and Mac were old friends, having worked together to write episodes for The Avengers in the early 1960s. Mac then wrote two serials for Doctor Who in the late 1960s: “The Faceless Ones” (1967) and “The War Games” (1969), the final serial of the Patrick Troughton era. I have written about Mac’s career here.
In an interview Mac commented that Doctor Who is “a very political show. Remember what politics refers to, it refers to relationships between groups of people. It doesn’t necessarily mean left or right…so all Doctor Who’s are political, even though the other group of people are reptiles, they’re still a group of people”. Mac says of this serial that he was asked to do something in caves, and that in science fiction there are only two stories. ”They come to us or we go to them and I thought, they come to us but they’ve always been here.”
In a previous post “the Doctor who fell to earth” I have written about the first Jon Pertwee serial, “Spearhead from Space”. This second serial it establishes his character more firmly as a somewhat brusque and patrician figure, impatient with authority in all its forms; and also as a scientist, with the Doctor spending a good deal of time in the laboratory in this serial. He is also a man of action, acquiring a fast bright yellow retro car nicknamed “Bessie”, and venturing into the caves several times on his own.
The story begins with UNIT being called into investigate unexplained incidents and power losses at an experimental nuclear reactor beneath Wenley Moor, with the reluctant consent of the Project Director, Lawrence. We eventually learn that these are being caused by the Silurians, a highly intelligent and technologically advanced reptile race race who once ruled the earth tens of millions of years ago and who retreated underground into hibernation when they believed that the surface of the Earth would be destroyed by an approaching small planetary body, possibly the Moon.
Their technology failed them , and they did not revive until they were disturbed by the building of the reactor. The Doctor attempts to negotiate peace but fails, and hostilities commence. The Silurians plant a virus among humans which spreads quickly until the Doctor finds a cure. He also defeats their attempt to use the nuclear reactor to destroy the Van Allen belt and make the earth uninhabitable for humans, but not for Silurians. At the end of the serial UNIT blows up the Silurians’ caves.
Key themes in the serial are the Doctor’s strong disapproval of the military mindset of shooting first, and asking questions later, and his attempts to broker peace between hostile forces. This is surely inspired by the Cold War in which the West and the Soviet Union had vast arsenals of weapons pointing at each other. By some miracle a nuclear war never took place. This was a theme that Mac would return to in future serials for Doctor Who
In episode two, as UNIT head to the caves equipped with small arms and grenades, the Doctor comments to his companion Liz Shaw,“That’s typical of the military mind, isn’t it? Present them with a new problem and they start shooting at it” adding “It’s not the only way you know, blasting away at things.”
When he meets a Silurian for the first time in Quinn’s cottage in episode three, the Doctor offers his hand and says, “Look, do you understand me?… What do you people want? How can we help you?…unless you Silurians tell us what you want the humans will destroy you”. He tells the Brigadier that what is needed is “a planned, cautious, scientific investigation of those caves. Not an invasion by a lot of big-booted soldiers.” Later in the episode he has an exchange with Liz after she has been attacked by a Silurian.
DOCTOR: Liz, these creatures aren’t just animals. They’re an alien life form, as intelligent as we are.
LIZ: Why didn’t you tell the Brigadier?
DOCTOR: Because I want to find out more about these creatures. They’re not necessarily hostile.
LIZ: Doctor, it attacked me.
DOCTOR: Yes, but only to escape. It didn’t kill you. It didn’t attack me when I was in Quinn’s cottage. Well, don’t you see? They only attack for survival. Well, human beings behave in very much the same way
In episode four when the Brigadier asks what weapons the Silurians have, the Doctor responds “spoken like true soldier” and says “so far they have only attacked in self-defence, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.” He goes to warn the Silurians that the UNIT soldiers are coming, “I want there to be peace between you and the humans. This is their planet now.” The Silurian leader agrees to a peace, but is killed by his younger subordinate who wants a war with the humans.
In episode six, as the Doctor races to find a cure for the plague, he is still hoping for a peaceful outcome, pleading that “at all costs we must avoid a pitched battle.” In the seventh and final episode the Doctor tells the Brigadier that he wants to revive the Silurians one at a time, “there is a wealth of scientific knowledge down here..and I can’t wait to get started on it.”. But unknown to the Doctor , UNIT has planted explosives which detonate as he and Liz look across the moor.
DOCTOR: The Brigadier. He’s blown up the Silurian base.
LIZ: He must have had orders from the Ministry.
DOCTOR: And you knew?
LIZ: No! The government were frightened. They just couldn’t take the risk.
DOCTOR: But that’s murder. They were intelligent alien beings. A whole race of them. And he’s just wiped them out.
Another theme of the serial is the danger of seeking scientific knowledge without moral responsibility. The project Director, Lawrence, continually complains about UNIT and the Doctor, demanding to be allowed to get back to running the reactor and achieving his goal of “cheap, safe, atomic energy”. He refuses to accept any of the Doctor’s warnings, and also refuses to accept the reality of the Silurian plague, even when he has clearly caught it himself.
Quinn, a scientist who works at the centre and who first discovered the Silurians, gives them help because they have promised to reveal some of their scientific secrets. He imprisons one of the Silurians in his cottage to force it to give him their knowledge, but it kills him.
Finally the Doctor’s companion Liz has been given a bit of a makeover from “Spearhead from Space”, no longer quite as prim and proper, now sporting fashionable short skirts and longer hair. She is often the only woman in a world of men – soldiers, scientists, civil servants etc – who frequently patronise her, and she has to assert herself. In episode two she objects to being left behind when the rest of them head off to the caves, asking the Brigadier, “Have you never heard of women’s emancipation?” In episode four she does go into the caves with the Doctor. In episode six , when the Brigadier asks her to man the phones Liz snaps back, “I am scientist, not an office boy.” In 1970 the Women’s Liberation Movement was beginning to make its voice heard, something that a writer as politically attuned as Mac was would surely have noticed.
You can read Mac Hulke’s script of this serial here
Where have I seen them before?
Peter Miles who plays Lawrence also appears in “Genesis of the Daleks” as Nyder and in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (also written by Mac Hulke) as Professor Whittaker.
Paul Darrow (Captain Hawkins) played Avon in the long-runnning television science fiction series Blake’s Seven.