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7x02. Doctor Who and the Silurians
Writer: Malcolm Hulke
Director: Timothy Combe
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Producer: Barry Letts

Synopsis: The Doctor and Liz take part in a UNIT investigation of an underground laboratory that has suffered an unusually high degree of strange behavior from its staff as well as a number of unexplained power failures. The Doctor discovers that the disturbances are due to the presence of the Silurians, an ancient Earth race that has only just now awakened from hibernation. Despite the Doctor's best efforts at mediation, the Silurians and the humans come into conflict, and he finds himself trying in vain to convince both sides not to launch lethal attacks against each other.

Review: "Spearhead from Space" had a difficult task in that it not only had to tell a story, but it had to introduce a new Doctor and a new style of storytelling. The plot itself necessarily suffered a little, but the setup was accomplished smoothly enough, and now with "Doctor Who and the Silurians" we get to see what the writers can really do with this formula. Despite a spectacularly awful title (anyone mind if I just call it "The Silurians"?), they start off with all cylinders firing, proving that good things happen when Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks collaborate (as co-writers of "The War Games," and here as writer and script editor).

It would have been easy for a seven-episode serial to become padded or simply unwieldy, but Hulke wisely divides the story into several stages rather than sticking to a single plot line the whole way through: first we have the Doctor and UNIT simply trying to figure out what's really going on, then we have the Doctor trying to broker a truce between the two sides, and then, when that fails, the scramble to foil the Silurians' plans. The serial does lose a little momentum in the last episode, when the Doctor has neutralized the Silurian bioweapon and the Silurians come up with a new plan to overheat the Earth and make it inhospitable to humans. At this point, the story has run its course, and this additional crisis seems like it's over before it's even started. But Hulke otherwise sticks to a reasonable pace, and the concept of the Silurians is a clever variation on the alien invasion formula, one that allows for a considerable dose of moral ambiguity (more on that later). The rest of the production team also seem to be benefiting from the new Earth-bound setup: if, for example, the search for the wounded Silurian in Episode 3 had taken place in a '60s serial on another planet, we would have probably been subjected to painfully obvious miniatures zipping around tacky sets, but it's a lot easier to look realistic when you can just use regular hills, roads, cars, and helicopters.

Characterization is solid all around, with the different approaches and points of view among the human characters playing just as important a role as the human/Silurian conflict. Dr. Lawrence is overtly egocentric, dismissing the idea that anything is seriously wrong at the research center not because of evidence, but because UNIT's investigation is interfering with his work, and his skepticism eventually reaches almost absurd heights when he insists that all the disturbances and the disease outbreak are part of a conspiracy to discredit him. Dr. Quinn seems more reasonable and mild-mannered, but he's just as self-centered and even more dangerous: not only does he conceal the Silurians' presence, but he attempts to hold one of them hostage in return for a share of their exclusive scientific knowledge, badly exacerbating the situation. Both of them stand as sharp contrasts to Liz Shaw, whose own scientific expertise proves invaluable to the Doctor but who never even thinks about any credit or acclaim she might receive from what they're discovering -- the immediate life-and-death situation is all that matters to her.

The most interesting conflicts arise over the very nature of the threat that each species poses to the other. Even before Dr. Quinn's ill-advised hostage scheme, the humans initiate hostilities with the Silurians when Major Baker shoots one of them in the caves with minimal provocation. Baker is presented as a dangerous hothead, and yet the Brigadier basically agrees with him that the problem should be resolved with military force. Nicholas Courtney's typically calm, dignified performance allows us to assume that, unlike Baker, the Brigadier has actually thought this through and isn't simply trigger-happy, but that's about as far as it goes -- he doesn't seem too interested in considering alternative ways to handle the possible threat. By the end, we see that the Doctor's relationship with UNIT is not always going to be cozy and harmonious: ignoring the Doctor's wish to try again to reach an agreement now that the Silurians have resumed hibernation and can be kept under control, the Brigadier carries out his orders to destroy their underground base with no visible regrets. And it is to the creative team's credit that, even though this happens after the Silurians have launched two failed attempts to wipe out the human race, it still doesn't seem justified.

That's not to say that there was nothing to fear from the Silurians -- we learn that they had originally used a bioweapon against an ape population in response to threats and attacks from the apes, and when Quinn tells them that their activities are harming humans, they tell him quite clearly that they aren't concerned about that. All the same, as the Doctor points out, they only seem to attack in self-defense, and the fact that they predated humans on Earth gives them a legitimate claim to the planet as well. Most importantly, they don't turn into intractable aggressors even when they begin to view the humans as enemies. The Doctor is able to convince the Old Silurian that a compromise can still be reached, and he accordingly reveals that the Silurian bioweapon is about to be unleashed in order to give the Doctor a chance to stop it. He pays for this with his life, as the Young Silurian, convinced that humans cannot be trusted, kills him and takes over as leader, illustrating the difficulties in negotiating an end to what we would now call "asymmetric warfare": even if the leaders can reach an agreement, hard-liners in the lower ranks may decide to continue the conflict. And while it doesn't justify pre-emptive genocide, the Young Silurian is not entirely unreasonable in his belief that humans will always be a threat in light of UNIT's actions at the end. One could even argue that killing the hibernating Silurians is in fact more disproportionate than anything the Silurians do, given that the Silurians are defeated and under control and the Young Silurian, who was responsible for their more aggressive tactics, is now dead.

This conflict also gives us a window into the personality of the Third Doctor, who is still new to us at this point. He clearly has a more proactive, confrontational style than his two predecessors, but this doesn't translate into an eagerness to use force to solve a problem. Instead, it translates into an equally formidable moral toughness, as the Doctor takes some real risks to try to find a peaceful solution and goes out on a limb in a way that his more reticent predecessors probably would not have. A cynic might point out that he's arguably putting others' lives at more risk than his own -- it's unclear if he'd be affected by the Silurian bioweapon or by a drastic rise in atmospheric temperature. A better way to look at it, however, is that his alien wisdom leads him to see the potential in both the humans and the Silurians, and that he demands no more of them than what he thinks they ought to demand of themselves, i.e. that they follow their better instincts and refrain from more violence. It's also interesting that the Doctor's efforts might legitimately be judged as a failure: he does not convince anyone of his point of view except the Old Silurian and perhaps Liz, and there are many deaths on both sides before the situation is over. We've seen Doctor Who serials end on a downbeat note in the past, but it's most striking in "The Silurians" due to the Third Doctor's different style: never before this have we seen him try so hard for something and still come up mostly empty-handed.

"The Silurians" completes the task begun by "Spearhead from Space" in establishing a formula that promises to challenge the Doctor in ways previously unseen, while also telling a story that works on several different levels. It's definitely one of the best serials to date, and it left me eager to see how the Doctor's role in UNIT would develop in future serials.

Other notes:

- This serial marks the debut of Bessie. It's a welcome development, but what's with the "WHO-1" license plate? Of course, given the serial's title, this is probably the wrong place to look for adherence to the rule that the Doctor's name is not actually "Doctor Who."

- One thing that never seemed quite clear to me was the cause of the nervous breakdowns among the laboratory staff. Were the workings of the Silurian base causing some sort of physiological reaction, or are we to assume that it was more along the lines of a parapsychological effect?

- Speaking of which, Hulke effectively taps into some popular paranormal lore in positing an advanced species that inhabited Earth before the human race but disappeared for some reason, as well as the Silurians' use of their "third eye."

Rating: **** (out of four)

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