Saturday, June 5, 2010

the silurians

11/5/10 “The Silurians
“The Doctor’s qualified to do almost anything.” --The Brigadier

We’re back to the rambling multi-part stories that this era is known for, and while “The Silurians” could be reined in an episode or two—the red herring of the plague in episode six—overall it’s not a bad story. A lot of the ideas are very interesting, though I think their effectiveness is diluted by all the running around. The Doctor, as ever, and the Third Doctor in particular, begins his long-suffering battle against violence, his weariness over not being to get through to people palpable. Much of what I remember of the Third Doctor’s era is exasperation, which comes to a head in “Inferno.”

Caves make a very good setting for science fiction, almost as good as quarries. The caves, like the descent underground in stories like “Vampires of Venice,” symbolize the descent into the subconscious, and where better to find the monsters that populate our nightmares? The cave set here is primitive but effective. All of this is taking place under Wenley Moor (in Derbyshire, I’m told), which made me wistfully wonder how great it would be if the Doctor ever visited Carlsbad Caverns or Mammoth Caves in Kentucky. Also under Wenley Moor is a research center, headed by the irascible Dr. Lawrence. Attempts to characterize Dr. Lawrence only go so far: when asked to comment on his singlemindedness and uptight attitude, the Brigadier suggests, “He slipped up badly several years ago and is very very careful.” But in the caves, the researchers are prone to getting killed—or worse.

The beginning of this serial sees the Doctor working on his new car, the ebullient yellow Bessie. (Jamie rightly pointed out that it might be insulting to Liz to have a car named after her!) Liz continues to get her dress sense from another planet. She and the Doctor are summoned to Wenley Moor by the Brigadier. “I never report anywhere and certainly not forthwith!” The research center reminds me a bit of the interior of “Tomb of the Cybermen.” Its claim to fame is a proton accelerator, the aim to provide “cheap, safe atomic energy” (an aim, I think, that is echoed in “Inferno,” emblematic of the time in which the programme was made but also, certainly for the writers, something the forward-thinking 1980s of their imaginations would be concerned with). Although the Doctor starts his visit with nonchalance—“I can’t find my sonic screwdriver”—he quickly turns serious. “Your nuclear reactor could be a giant atomic bomb.”

What UNIT, and by extension, the Doctor, are investigating are a series of energy problems with the reactor as well as problems with some of the personnel. As the Doctor and Liz begin questioning people, it becomes apparent that Dr. Quinn, one of Dr. Lawrence’s top scientists, is hiding something. In the log book, the Doctor finds pages missing. One of the researchers, though, has a lot more missing than pages—his marbles! In the medical quarters, the Doctor finds him alternating between psychosis and drawing on the walls. “Stress turned him into a wonderful Paleolithic artist?”

The Doctor, as ever, has to investigate this himself, so he gets kitted out in the 1970s version of “The Satan Pit”’s jumpsuit. Wandering around, the Doctor is surprised to find himself warded off but not killed by a rather unconvincing dinosaur. Expert guesses suggest this is an allosaurus or a megladon, but even by the end of the serial I was still trying to figure out why there was a dinosaur in the caves at all. Is it just because Malcolm Hulke loved dinosaurs?

Unfortunately, any power from the episode one ending is dispelled by the Doctor discovering dinosaur footprints after the big reveal of the dinosaur. When he tells the others what he saw, he’s sure to add, “It could have been prehistoric.” Liz Shaw, relegated by the Brigadier into going through personnel files, shoots back, “Haven’t you ever heard of female emancipation?” Alas, the Brigadier, between his sexism and pro-militarianism, doesn’t escape unscathed in this story. “Present them with a new problem and they shoot at it,” ruminates the Doctor after UNIT suggests sending armed men down the caves to deal with “whatever.” The soldiers do find something, which manages to escape up to the surface, leaving “traces of blood.” Making up for the dinosaur gaffe, the rest of the serial masterfully hides the true prehistoric protagonists until the end of episode three. This is the bona fide beginning of Monster-Vision, which has never been better used: the monster’s vision is in triplicate.

Against the Doctor’s assertion that Dr. Quinn might be involved in the personnel problems, his assistant Miss Dawson passionately defends him: “Dr. Quinn works harder than anyone at this center!” The Doctor is quick to humor her, but the whole Quinn/Dawson thing argues for a lot going on at the subtextual level. A well-directed sequence follows the prehistoric creature to a nearby village where it takes refuge in a barn. A bumbling and frightened farmer attacks it with a pitch fork; his wife reacts in terror, giving us this immortal line from the Doctor: “She was found in the barn, paralyzed with fear. She may have seen something.” Off on a wild goose chase, the Doctor leaves Liz in the barn—when the monster attacks!

Liz is spared, of course, and by the time the Doctor and the Brigadier et al get back, the creature has escaped. Meanwhile, Dr. Quinn has been doing mysterious things in his country cottage. A worried Miss Dawson had followed him, “I wanted to know if you were all right.” He is dismissive of her, just as he is dismissive of the Silurians with whom he has done a deed: he just wants easy fame with the secrets of their scientists. Persuaded by the Silurian Leader to take a homing device to the cottage to retrace the steps of the injured Silurian, Dr. Quinn is deaf to Miss Dawson’s pleas—“People are being killed and it’s your fault!”

A UNIT helicopter (!) is called in as they search for the wounded creature; Quinn manages to bluff his way out into the moors to rescue the Silurian and take it back to his cottage. What follows is a very amusing sequence of the Doctor being annoying as he invites himself into the cottage and comments on the heating and offers to fix it for Quinn. “You’d save yourself a lot of trouble if you let me help you.” At last defeated, the Doctor goes away. In Quinn’s office in the research center, the Doctor and Liz find a globe that’s purporting to show continental drift ; I think it’s supposed to be Pangaea. Then again, as we all know, Dr. Quinn’s paleontology is pretty sketchy—trying to make sense of when exactly the Silurians (a misnomer? we never really know what they call themselves) lived and whether it was during the Silurian, Eocene, or another age is as impossible as sorting out the chronology of the UNIT years. When the Doctor returns to Quinn’s cottage, he finds him dead (why did the Silurian kill him?), and we have the big reveal. Surely the image of the Silurians contributed a lot to the enduring image of Doctor Who monsters as men in rubber suits—they are wonderfully easy to poke fun at, but I think you quickly get used to them and let the story move on.

“Hello, are you a Silurian?” asks the Doctor of the creature as it moves toward him. This is a wonderfully Doctor-ish thing to do. “How can we help you?” The Doctor’s attempts to communicate with the creature come to nothing as it runs off. A UNIT soldier named Baker, who was responsible for shooting the Silurian back in episode two, gets captured by the Silurians after he returns to the caves despite being warned not to—“Not an invasion of big-booted soldiers,” the Doctor derides. “They’re not necessarily hostile!” The Doctor and Liz, in their miner gear, follow Baker’s route using the device the Doctor picked up from the unfortunate Quinn. (When Baker got stuck in quicksand, I couldn’t help think of the Fire Swamp from The Princess Bride.) When Liz catches a glimpse of the Silurians, she says, “Those creatures died out millions of years ago!” “Apparently not.”

In the research center, Permanent Under Secretary Masters (!) comes to deal with Dr. Lawrence’s grievances against UNIT’s interference in his nuclear program (“it’s so ridiculous to have all these search parties running around the caves!”). Everyone’s feeling the pressure; the Doctor doesn’t make it better when he arrives and explains what he’s seen. “We should kill them all!” exclaims the homicidal Miss Dawson, who is turning out—as one of the only two women in the story—to be quite the opposite of a role model for girls. When the Doctor’s pleas for peace fail to move the humans, he returns to the caves to try to reason with the Silurians. For his pains, they lock him up in the cage with Baker, and Pertwee gets to indulge in some fabulous drunken eye acting as “the Silurians attack him psychically with their third eye.”

When the Brigadier and his task force of soldiers bent on bloodshed pursue, they get stuck in a section of the cave and start to run out of air. Liz confesses that the Doctor has preemptively gone to assay for peace. “He wanted to prevent bloodshed.” Unfortunately, neither side seems to want to listen to the Doctor. The Silurians explain that they’ve been using the power from the reactor to revive their race, which was put into hibernation when it looked like the Moon was going to hit the Earth (um . . . what?). The Silurian Leader is sympathetic to the Doctor’s bid for peace, but his younger brethren want the Earth for themselves, not for the “apes.” “There is not room for two civilizations.” The Younger Silurian infects Baker with a virus before setting him free; one of the Silurian Leader’s last acts before he’s killed is to give the Doctor the virus in canister form so he can develop an antidote.

When the Doctor returns to the chaos at the research center, he tells everyone to stay back from the contagious Baker, going so far as to jump up onto a table and shout, “Look at your wrist—look at it!” The disease is indeed ugly and debilitating. The episode ends as Baker dies, having unfortunately spread the disease higgledy-piggedly. We next start the part of this story that, while rather gripping, doesn’t seem to belong with the rest of it! There’s some great location work as Masters takes the disease to London, spreading contagion across England and to France, as the Doctor and Liz work on the antidote. “I am a scientist, not an office boy,” Liz says, quite rightly, to the Brigadier when he tries to get her to admin work. (I feel like shouting that at temp agencies sometimes, “I am a writer, not an office boy!”)

This story teems with actors who will later be seen in other Doctor Who serials. Paul Darrow, as a young UNIT soldier, who of course later played Tekker in “Timelash.” Geoffrey Palmer, who, as Jamie pointed out, is going to crash into Earth later with the Titanic. And Peter Miles, one of the stand out actors of “Genesis of the Daleks,” is in a much less restrained villain role as Dr. Lawrence, who really turns out to be insanely oblivious to anything but his own work. “An imaginary epidemic!” he says when Liz tries to inoculate him against the disease. He ends the episode with what could be the performance of his career, barking mad psychosis before he ends violently from the disease, still citing UNIT for ruining his career. With an antidote eventually found, the Doctor is kidnapped by the new Silurian Leader, who had identified him as the most prevalent threat.

The Silurians next come up with a rather impressive and again, as they say, “game-changing” plot to destroy the Van Allen belt and make the Earth uninhabitable by all except themselves. (It occurred to me then that it was worth asking what the Silurians ate, as perhaps that destruction could have left them without a food source.) A tense confrontation between the new Silurian Leader and the Doctor occurs, but the Doctor and Liz are able to dupe the Silurians into going back into hibernation for 50 years. The new Leader is about to kill the Doctor for this trickery, but the Brigadier steps in and pumps him full of lead. “Well-done,” says the Doctor, and I go WHAA? Well-done for shooting someone in the back? It seems inconsistent with the end of the story—obviously something had to be done, and the Brig is qualified to wield the gun when the Doctor’s morals prevent it. But, still. In any case, the Doctor is angered and saddened when the Brigadier gives the order to blow up the Silurians’ base. “They just couldn’t take the risk,” says Liz. “He’s just wiped them out.”

There should have been another way!

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