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“This is our planet”: looking back at the classic serial “Doctor Who and the Silurians” by Malcolm Hulke, (1970)

“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”.

silurians-5

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 . They retreated underground into hibernation  when they believed that the surface of the Earth   would be destroyed by an approaching small planetary body, probably 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.

The key  themes of 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.

silurians-1In 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”. He adds, “It’s not the only way you know, blasting away at things”.

Meeting  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.

silurians-3In 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”. 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.

silurians-4Finally the Doctor’s companion Liz  has been  given a bit of a makeover  from  “Spearhead from Space”, no longer quite as prim, but now sporting fashionable  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 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.

 

The Doctor who fell to Earth: looking back at the classic Doctor Who serial, “Spearhead From Space” by Robert Holmes (1970)

Opening titles

With the departure of Patrick Troughton in 1969  Doctor Who  teetered on the edge of cancellation  as the ratings had  fallen  to not much above 5 million for his  final  ten part serial, “The War Games”.  In the end the BBC decided to give it  another  season, which some suspected might well prove to be the last.  Against the odds the series was re-invigorated and re-established itself as a Saturday teatime must-see  for another generation of young people, including myself. This was brought about by four  key factors:

the Brigadier

Firstly, the producer Derrick Sherwin –  who bridged the transition from  the Second to  the Third Doctor – opted for a new story line, anchoring the Doctor on Earth (having  been exiled by the Time Lords at the end  of “The War Games”)  where he becomes  the scientific advisor to UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), a  quasi-military outfit first encountered by the Second Doctor. UNIT is   led by  Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney)  who  had first appeared as a regular army officer in “The Web of Fear” and then as the commanding officer of UNIT in “The Invasion”.

The programme makers felt that the format had become tired and wanted to show the Doctor battling his enemies on Earth, rather than on far distant planets. The Earth in question  in fact  turned out to be the Home Counties, subject to an surprisingly high number of alien invasions. This format  harked back to the Quatermass  serials of the 1950s in which  Professor  Bernard Quatermass  also grappled with alien  invasions.

Secondly,  the new serials were filmed in colour,  which allowed a fresh  look (although it was not without problems when the screen showed less than convincing monsters and  questionable  sets). Of course,  to begin with  many people would still have watched  Doctor Who  in black and white as colour TV sets were very expensive to begin with: just  200,000  sets had been sold by the end of 1969. By 1976, however, over 1 million had been sold and  the sales of colour sets  had overtaken those of black and white sets.

Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks

Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks

Thirdly,  the new series was driven forward by  the script editor, Terrance Dicks, and the  new producer, Barry Letts,  who took over  from Sherwin  when he departed after producing  the new Doctor’s first  serial, “Spearhead in Space”.  Letts and  Dicks  formed a very close professional working relationship which was instrumental in popularising Doctor Who to a fresh  audience. From the interviews they seem quite different characters:    Letts is  the intellectual,   interested  subjects such as  Buddhism for instance,  whilst   Dicks is the practical  man of television  dedicated to ensuring,  as he says,  “that the screen doesn’t go blank at 5.30pm”.

And finally the inspired choice of Jon Pertwee as Troughton’s replacement, whose selection  was  a surprise to many.  Jon came from a “clan” (as he termed of it) of writers and actors.  When the Second World War started he joined the Royal Navy, avoiding  the RAF as,  according to Jon,  he had a fear of being trapped in a burning aircraft. If you look closely at his arm  in some episodes you can see his naval tattoo of a scarlet and green cobra, acquired after a very drunken night out.  Jon  served  for a time on HMS Hood, where he was a spotter up in the spotting top.  Jon  was transferred off the ship by the Captain   for officer training which was  very lucky for him, for, on 24 May 1941,    HMS  Hood was attacked  by the Bismarck and exploded  within minutes with the loss of 1, 415 men.  Just  three  crewmen survived.   Jon says, “It was such a dreadful thing to happen. I lost all my friends, all of my mates. All of them…You never really escape things like that. They stay with you all of your life”.

Jon Pertwee in navyLooking back Jon  was adamant about the horrors of  war:

“War is terrible. Anyone who tells you different is a liar…I realise I was very lucky to survive the war. There were a lot of times I nearly died. Once I was with some shipmates on leave in London and there was an air-raid. I had premonition and went down into the underground station to take shelter, but my shipmates wanted to get home to loved ones. …Next morning, I made my way back to my barracks, horrified by the damage done during the attack. It really was all smoke and ruins. I was the only one who got back to barracks. All of my mates had been killed during the bombing…A lot of nights it really did feel like the end of the world.” Doctor Who magazine, 457, March 2013, Interview with Jon Pertwee, p.25.

After the war Pertwee forged  a career as  a comic actor mainly on the radio,  his most well-known role being that of  Chief Officer  Pertwee  in The Navy  Lark  from 1959 to 1977  (which is still  being repeated on Radio Four Extra, by the way).  Jon was offered the part of Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army  but turned it down  as he was appearing on  Broadway in A Girl in My Soup. When  the role of the Doctor  came up Pertwee asked his agent to apply for the role,  and was surprised to find he was already on the shortlist. He was actually the second choice,  Ron Moody being  the first,  but was unavailable.   Jon had not watched the series much before taking the role.

Jon Pertwee

Jon was given a wardrobe which exactly suited his character and patrician personality, cutting an Edwardian dash in frills, velvets, hat and cape. They also gave him a retro car, Bessie.  In contrast to Pat Troughton quixotic clowning, Jon is very much the  action man. He often uses  Venusian Akido, felling his opponents with a single  touch.  In “The Time Warrior” he fights  the   medieval knights  with a sword,  and even swings across the room on a chandelier,   Errol Flynn style.  In  “The Curse of Peladon” he fights  the King’s champion, Grun,  in single-combat –  and wins.  In “Colony in Space” he fights off an attack from the Primitives who are armed with spears. The Doctor is launched into space in  “The Ambassadors of Death” and goes on a space walk  in “Frontier in Space”.  Jon never  missed an opportunity to include a gadget or some mechanised  method of transport  into the role.

He is also presented as a scientist. The serials often open with the Doctor sitting in a laboratory conducting an experiment or tinkering with sa piece of the Tardis,  as he tries to overcome the Timelords’ prohibition on his leaving the  Earth. In “The Silurians”  he works to find a cure for the plague spread by the Silurians. In “The Sea Devils” he rejigs a transistor radio to transmit a distress signal.  In “The Time Monster” he rigs up a Heath Robinson gadget which he calls a “time flow analogue “ to interrupt the Master’s experiments  with time.

The Third  Doctor is  an anti-authority figure,  impatient with red-tape or bureaucracy,  and very short-tempered  with the establishment  figures  he comes across such   Whitehall civil servants in pin-stripes,   army generals, businessmen  and scientists.

There are occasional flashes  of Jon’s  talent  for comedy.  In “The Green Death” he dresses up as  milk-man with a Welsh accent  to infiltrate the headquarters of   Global Chemicals,  and later on in the same serial  masquerades as  a char-lady in a scene straight out of a Carry On film.

Barry Letts says:

“Jon was a kind and unselfish man as well; indeed, his sensitivity was extended to everyone else. He did a lot to turn our casts and crew into a cohesive and happy company. For example, when a newcomer (even playing a small part)  arrived in the rehearsal room, he’d wander over  and introduce himself. ‘Hello,  I’m Jon Pertwee, I play the Doctor’. He made good friends of all the stunt men and other actors who were regularly cast. He was amusing and charming,  and could surprise you with flashes of unexpected humility”. Barry Letts, Who & Me (2007) , p25.

Robert Holmes

Jon was introduced as the Doctor in “Spearhead from Space”, written by Robert Holmes, probably the most influential writer the show has ever had. After serving in the army  during the war in Burma where he became an officer and joining the police on returning to England, he started working as journalist. He then progressed to writing for television including scripts for The Saint, Public Eye and a science fiction series, Undermind. Holmes  began writing for Doctor Who,   working with Terrance Dicks on  “The Krotons” to fill a gap in the schedule,  and then wrote “The Space Pirates”.

Caroline John

Jon’s  companion  for his first season was Caroline John, who plays a  Cambridge scientist, Dr Liz Shaw.  Caroline had worked mostly worked in the theatre and had struggled to get any roles on television.   When she went for the interview they talked  to her about The Avengers and how they wanted to make it more sophisticated with Jon Pertwee taking on the role as the Doctor. Caroline says that when the filming started for the first serial she was “a bundle of nerves”. She recalls Jon as being totally  professional  and an excellent actor and says they got  on very well “in a sort of father-daughter relationship”. As a character Liz  is clever, self-assured, cool, not at all  over-awed by the military men or male scientists with whom she is  usually  surrounded,  and sticks up for herself when neccessary. She never gets to travel in the Tardis, or even see inside.

“Spearhead From Space”   opens with  meteorites falling to Earth, part of an invasion by the Autons, a collective intelligence, which has seized control of a plastics factory and is creating replicas in readiness to take over the Earth. At the start of the first episode the Doctor is shown falling out of the Tardis and spends much of the first  and second episode in a coma, recovering from his regeneration. Meanwhile Lethbridge- Stewart has recruited Liz Shaw  to advise on the scientific implications of the meteorites. The Doctor finally wakes up, escapes from hospital in borrowed clothes,   steals a car and makes his way to UNIT HQ,  where he convinces the Brigadier that he is indeed the Doctor, despite his new appearance.

The AutonsThe invasion begins when shop dummies spark to life and terrorise the high streets of England  in a classic scene (although to Derrick Sherwin’s chagrin, the BBC budget did not stretch to the dummies being shown smashing their way through the shop windows). Finally the Doctor puts together a device  with Liz’s help which defeats the Autons. The serial ends with the Brigadier offering the Doctor a job as their scientific advisor  as “Doctor John Smith”

Unusually “Spearhead from  Space”  was shot entirely on location in 16mm  without the use of studio sets because there was a strike at the BBC,and the studios could not be used. This meant that the direction  is  fluid and  dynamic (just watch the press scrum scene at the hospital),   and  looks great more than forty years later.

Overall it’s a great season opener and harbinger of  even greater things to come. When  Russell T Davies brought back Doctor Who in 2005, out of all the possible alien threats  from Doctor Who’s past, he chose the Autons to appear in the very first  serial, “Rose”, his  fitting tribute to  a classic era of Doctor Who.

In future posts I will be looking back at other Third Doctor serials.

Further reading and useful links

Barry Letts, Who & Me (2007)

Richard Molesworth,  Robert Holmes: A Life in Words (2013) published by Telos publishing

interview with Caroline John (1990)  Wine and Dine

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