Thursday, 3 August 2017

Doctor Who and the Silurians

Chapter The 61st, is strong, long and the title's very wrong.

The Third Doctor and Liz are summoned (forthwith) to join the Brigadier at a research centre based in Pat Troughton's Season 5 (futuristic but plausible science base overseen by rigid boss headed for a nervous breakdown, which has been infiltrated by monsters - Bingo!). These monsters are not invaders, though, they're from prehistoric Earth - an intelligent reptile species from a completely different period than the Silurian era. They went into cryo-sleep hundreds of millennia ago in nearby caves, to avoid an impending global catastrophe that never materialised. Some members of the hibernating group were woken up by the humans' activity, and they've been tapping the centre's power since in order to revive the rest. This has caused the mysterious power losses that the Brig and his men are investigating. The Doctor persuades the creature's leader to discuss a peaceful solution to share the Earth with the humans; but, before that can happen, the leader is deposed and killed by a young pretender, who then releases a plague to wipe out the human race. The Doctor and Liz find a cure, and the Brig (against the Doctor's wishes) blows up the caves and entombs the Silurians, or whatever they're called.

Watched across the course of approximately a week from the DVD, with the whole family. The Better Half dropped in and out, depending on mood, but all the children (boys of 11 and 7, girl of 5) stuck with it, and there was lots of (frankly, unexpected) chanting of their standard "Next ep, next ep" refrain when the end credits of each episode rolled. Indeed, the last three episodes - which cover the plague subplot and pretty much act as a discrete mini-adventure in their own right - were watched in one Sunday afternoon binge. The level of engagement from the kids was high. The youngest was amused through the early episodes, where the Silurian costume is teased with the odd glimpse here and there, exclaiming "When are we going to see the Monster Man!" at regular intervals, and later admonishing the onscreen Silurians with "You're never gonna get away with this!". Best of all, she joyously commentated on the scenes of the Doctor and Liz in the lab working on the antidote: with a nod she said "They're doing science", followed up with "I love watching them do science". Producer of this show Barry Letts, as I've said before and will say again, should have had more faith in his audience: he famously ditched Liz after one series as he thought it would be alienating to have the leads be two intelligent scientists. But we love watching them do science.

First-time round:
I'm trying to remember if I ever saw this story in black and white. Unlike the made-in-monochrome 60s, the 1970s era has all its episodes present in the BBC archives, many located and returned from abroad after the original master copies were wiped (as was the practice at the time). Not all the returned episodes were in colour, though; a lot of international broadcasters could not handle colour video or film, and they instead bought black and white film copies from the BBC; in many instances, including Doctor Who and the Silurians, that was the only broadcast-quality version that was ever found. In November 1992, some very clever Doctor Who fans - who moonlighted as TV technicians - invented a clever way to restore the colour to those episodes, by merging it in from inferior quality versions that had been taped from colour repeats on US TV. The first story to get this treatment was The Daemons, and it was followed up by Doctor Who and the Silurians the following year, restored using the same process.

Before then, only back and white copies were in circulation for certain stories. I'd seen a pirate tape of The Daemons by then, so knew what I'd been missing chroma-wise, but I think I'd only seen clips of Silurians at the most, so the first time I saw it in full was in colour in July 1993; I was back in Worthing during the long Summer vac from Uni, and I rushed back from town clutching the VHS double-pack purchased from Volume One, my favoured supplier in those days. The Daemons 'Redux' was deemed so miraculous it was granted a terrestrial repeat on BBC2; Doctor Who and the Silurians had to wait until December 1999 - when it had been further restored - for a similar honour. I remember catching one episode of that run in a hotel room of an evening, when I was being put up to do a course for my day job of the time.

This 1999 showing was the second story in an ill-fated run of repeats, intending to run through everything from Jon Pertwee's debut onwards; but it was a hiding to nothing - the following story, The Ambassadors of Death, had only been restored in patches, due to lack of available colour bits. There was no way the Beeb was going to show a partly or wholly black and white story in the 1990s, even on BBC2; so, the repeats fizzled out. Those clever fans didn't stop there, though. It was just the start of a 20+ year mission, for them and other clever people who joined them along the way, to bring back colour to all stories that had lost it, and now - by many different means - they have achieved this, closed up those grey gaps in the colourful Jon Pertwee era, and released them all on DVD. More evidence that Doctor Who has the most creative fans ever.

Let's get the title out of the way first: he's not called Doctor Who (I don't care what Steven Moffat may have recently said in an interview) and they're not called Silurians. The 'and' and the 'the' are the only bits that are approaching correct. Title aside, though, I rather like this one. I knew it was worthy, but this time I was surprised by how watchable it also is. Since the show had settled in to being the Doctor versus the Monsters, Good versus Evil, which developed as the theme during Hartnell's time and became set as the template with Patrick Troughton, Doctor Who hadn't done much in the way of moral ambiguity, and hadn't bothered to differentiate too much between the attitudes of individual members of the alien species it included. All that is brought back with a vengeance here.

It's also played straight, like all of season 7. The Brig is not written as an idiot, as he would later be, but as a professional that conflicts with the Doctor, but still retains an underlying warmth that neither man will perhaps admit is friendship, but is nonetheless. As an example, there's a tiny but wonderful moment where the Brigadier calls our hero "Doctor Watson", which is - it probably barely needs saying - expertly played by both actors, as every moment is here. The Doctor is affable though sometimes brusque, and doesn't edge into the off-putting peeved acting that he sometimes did in future series. Then, there's Caroline John as Liz Shaw, slightly softened from her debut appearance, but still nobody's fool. The Doctor gets to act paternally about her occasionally, but it doesn't cloy, as she gives as good as she gets, and both are written as adults if not quite equals. Every moment with the Three-Liz-Brig team is magic, and a year is not long enough in their company; it's very similar, in fact, to the triumvirate of regulars whose run has just ended too soon in 2017; we're left wanting more.

The plot is slick and intriguing. Writer Malcolm Hulke manages to sustain the mystery for over three episodes without the pace dragging at all; part of the reason for this is that the action is driven forward by character subplots. Fulton Mackay, who's in particularly fine form as the smarmy Dr. Quinn, lying through his smiling teeth all the time while hiding a deadly secret, is the engine of that beginning section. What is Quinn hiding? As the story enters another phase, the baton is passed to another flawed three-dimensional character, then another, and they're all excellently drawn and filled out: Baker, Masters, Lawrence; and then there's Captain Hawkins, played by a young Paul Darrow, the regular who alas never was. All men, though. Aside from Liz, the only significant female role is Thomasine Heiner as Miss Dawson, who does some subtle work expressing her unrequited love for Quinn, which after his death turns her into perhaps the most dangerous exponent of war with the Silurians. But she is wholly defined in relation to a male character, and once Quinn is gone, she's abruptly pushed off stage too. It's a shame, and not just for the obvious reason of equal representation. As every other guest cast member has been offed once their dramatic crisis point was reached, and the research centre is sparsely populated by the end, it might have been better to have Miss Dawson still operating the controls. Otherwise, it's just extras and people we know aren't going to die being put through the ultimate threat. It damages our emotional engagement at the climax.

If anything lets the side down in this story, it's the visuals. Some of this is probably as a result of the restoration work creating some unwanted artifacts but, even without that, the cave sets and the Silurian base are a bit tatty looking and lacking in detailing. The Cyclotron room, which is big and presumably had a bit of money spent on it, doesn't really look all that. The musical score too is disproportionately unimpressive to some compared to the investment. It's intellectually very satisfying that composer Carey Blyton arranged the music to underscore the Silurians' appearances using archaic instruments to indicate their prehistoric nature; but, if that means it sounds like the key motifs are being played on a kazoo, I can see how it would be unsettling to some people (me, I love it, but I'm a sucker for Carey Blyton's Doctor Who work). One last thought: did I miss it, or do they never fully explain the headaches and high levels of absenteeism that are uncovered as part of UNIT's investigation, which are highlighted as significant early on, but then forgotten about? Is it something the Silurians are doing, or something to do with the Cyclotron, or just a coincidence? We may never know.

Like Into The Dalek, this story features disagreements with soldiers, and negotiations with a friendlier individual member of a race while the rest of its kind are hostile.

Deeper Thoughts:
It's what you do with it that counts. At seven episodes duration, Doctor Who and the Silurians is the longest story yet tackled for the blog. One of the advantages that random jumping through the back catalogue has over watching in order is that the stories seem to be longer in the early years of Who, and it can feel like a slog. On closer examination, though, I find that may be something of a false impression: in the first twenty odd years of the series, the vast majority of stories are 4 or 6 parters, with a rare 2 or 3 parter here and there. A mere nine oversized outliers, three apiece for the first three Doctors, exist; Pertwee's three are all in his first year, so from 1971 onwards there is nothing longer than 6 episodes again (Trial of a Timelord, nominally a 14 episode epic, is being treated as four separate stories for the purposes of this blog, chiefly because it is not a 14 episode epic and is four separate stories, so there!). Specific circumstances dictated some of the nine's extra length: a couple of scripts fell through in Troughton's final year, so many stories, including his swansong The War Games, were stretched to fill the gaps, and a 12 episode Dalek story was deliberately commissioned for William Hartnell's era, as it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

The remainder of the nine are all seven episodes long, like the Silurians story. Though it doesn't seem like much - only an episode more than the standard 6-parters - the addition of that one extra part does something significant to the structure, forcing the author to find more incident to sustain the running time. In this story, it necessitates the need for the plague subplot; my eldest picked up on this, and said he thought it might have been better to have two separate stories (lizard men, plague) rather than lump them together. That's the issue in a nutshell; seven eps is long, but not quite long enough to be special, and if it forces you to bring in strong subplots, why not just do two stories and give yourself the extra marketing potential of more 'opening nights'. Barry Letts took over the producer role for Doctor Who during Jon Pertwee's first season, and he inherited a season structure where there were three - three! - seven-episode stories in a row. This was dictated not by story but by cost (making the most out of the sets created for each new tale), but it was a straitjacket, and it was understandably changed as quickly as possible. More by luck than judgement they all turned out to be very strong stories, but I'd still recommend not often watching them back to back.

Even though they were never perhaps so long early on as one would think, the average length of a story has reduced as Doctor Who has endured. Nowadays, multi-episode stories and cliffhangers are mostly for special occasions, and the norm is a single 45 minute-long story, the rough equivalent of the old 2-parter. This can mean that new Who loses out on depth, but it makes up for that with sparing use of the longer tale (a story like Human Nature, for example, could not have been told effectively in one episode) and weaving in elements to tell a longer story arc over the course of a series. The quality of results have differed over the years, as one would expect them to; experimentation doesn't and shouldn't stop. In 2015, an attempt to do more longer stories ended up being a bit plodding, but this latest year was better for doing more one-offs.

In fact, the only slightly bum note for me of a generally successful 2017 run came in the final one of the sequence of three linked 'Monks' stories. I loved Extremis and The Pyramid at the End of the World, and I wanted to love The Lie of the Land. In the end, though, it suffered too much from inflated expectations in being the end of a trilogy. It would have been stronger if the aliens in control were completely new to the audience at the beginning of the episode, and it also wouldn't have felt so easy at the end when they were banished if we'd only seen them around for 45 minutes instead of three whole weeks. The earlier two shows would have had to have been rewritten, obviously, but they'd have withstood that. We'd also have had eleven precious stories to treasure from the Twelve-Bill-Nardole era, instead of what feels like only nine.

In Summary:
The Doctor and the Reptile Earthmen.

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