Doctor Who and the Silurians

Written by Malcolm Hulke

Directed by Timothy Combe

Richard Dawkins is known for many things. Nowadays, he is probably most famous for being a militant, outspoken, and many would say obnoxious ambassador for atheism. More importantly, he is known for being married to former Doctor Who companion actress, Lalla Ward. But once upon a time he was known for being a biologist. Not just any biologist either, he came up with one of the most important theoretical notions in the field since Darwin and Wallace published their theory of evolution by means of natural selection. In his book, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins argued that life forms such as yourself should best be viewed not in terms of our own life span, but more of a vehicle, a means for our individual genes to achieve immortality. From this viewpoint he was able to form a tremendously insightful, partly hopeful and partly chilling conclusion: that if we perceive a fellow life-form to have enough genes in common with ourself we will do anything, even sacrifice ourselves, in order to help it survive, but if we do not feel that they are related enough to us then we will callously go about destroying them with no remorse. He even came up with a perfectly balanced set of equations showing that either course of action, be it altruistic self sacrifice or selfish genocide, were equally valid from our gene’s point of view. In doing so he explained, from an evolutionary standpoint, how humans were capable of both extraordinary altruism, and heinous atrocities. Whether or not we can accept others in this way is down to empathy.

One of the more interesting things about Dawkins’ equations though is that they do not just relate to humans – they relate to any life form that has come about due to evolution through natural selection. Everything alive, in other words*. Its clear in Doctor Who and the Silurians that it certainly applies to the eponymous Bug Eyed Monsters. Which is in many ways deeply insightful of writer Mac Hulke, since Dawkins’ book was not published until six years after this show was aired.

Silurians was one of the earlier classic Whos that I watched, and even no I remember being struck at its marvelous maturity. This is a sci-fi story in which neither the humans or the monsters are the villains, but there are small minded members of both groups who are spoiling for a fight, while others, again in both species, are striving for a peaceful outcome without bloodshed. This story is not the first in Who to do this, The Sensorites was similar in this regard, but Mac Hulke really pushed the point he was trying to make to the fore.

For a seven parter the pace isn’t too bad either, though compared to shorter stories it is a bit soggy. The disease sub-plot introduced half way through to add some more tension in the latter half works to some degree, but ends up mostly being the Doctor and Liz hanging about in a lab ogling petri dishes while the Brig answers the phone. Exciting.

Rather depressingly, the ultimate villain of the piece ends up being the Doctor’s companion, and rather than ending peacefully, shit gets all blowed up, much the their disgust of the Doctor. In fact, the Brig here is responsible for one of the worst atrocities in Who history – the Doctor will do worse, but he always had good reason, whereas the Brig’s only excuse is that he was following orders**. But this again only serves to further demonstrate the greatness of the show – a show in which even the character responsible for the most repugnant acts can be a respected in their own way.

So far, the crippling changes made to the show at the end of the last season were actually seeming to work, but could the show keep delivering without the Doctor being able to travel in space? Probably not, but don’t worry, the government have an experimental rocket for him to play with next time, in The Ambassadors of Death.

*I’m not a Dawkenzian atheist myself, but if you don’t believe evolution is the source of all life that we know of, then you don’t understand evolution.
**regardless of the outcome of the Nuremberg trials, this is actually quite a good excuse, as many many studies, like the Milgram and Stanford experiments, demonstrate that following orders is a fundamental part of human nature.

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Spearhead From Space

Written by Robert Holmes

Directed by Derek Martinus

If you’ve ever been to the home counties there is a good chance that you’d think that the whole area is a shit hole. And you’d be right. An endless sea of pointless little towns filled with Daily Mail reading, racist, sexist, homophobic, hate filled gobshites. Worse than that, its really fucking dull. Nothing happens there. Ever.

Throughout the sixties though, something had been brewing in the home counties: it was slowly becoming the centre for a new type of horror film. Just about all of the classic Hammer movies were filmed there, while others, such as Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Devil Rides out are even set there.

With the turn of the decade the formerly sleepy county towns and villages would have even more dangers to face. Along with ghouls, vampires and reconstructed, resurrected corpses they would have to face down a seemingly endless parade of alien invasions and mad scientists intent on destroying the planet*.

Doctor Who had changed a great deal over the six or so years it had been on the air by this point, but the huge shift between seasons 6 and 7 was by far the biggest change yet**. A new Doctor, a new companion and a  new producer all arrived at once and even the script editor, Terrance Dicks only really got to take over from his predecessor at this juncture. And on top of that the whole dynamic of the show was set to change: incoming producer/editor team Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks were handed a bit of a shit sandwich by their predecessors who had seen it ordained that the show would henceforth be confined to contemporary earth, and have stories of, for the most part, seven episodes. These remarkably awful ideas from the people behind some of the best Who stories were largely meant to keep costs down, but would do so by undermining a large part of what made the show work.

To their immense credit, Letts and Dicks made it work, for at least the first year, and Spearhead From Space is a really high octane (in the context of classic who) opener. Robert Holmes had demonstrated already his ability to write solid scripts on time, but Spearhead is the first hint of the truly awesome stories he had in him.

Perhaps less obvious was the choice of Jon Pertwee as the new Doctor. Much more of a comedian than an actor, most people at the time probably best knew him from the Carry On film series. However, casting Carry Oners as villains had worked in the case of Bernard Bresslaw and Peter Butterworth though, and the great Hartnell himself had been in Carry on Sergeant. As it turns out, it was not a crazy idea at all. Throughout Spearhead he radiates a sort of playful-yet-commanding energy. Pertwee probably isn’t my all time favorite doctor, but I must admit that he’s the first of the classic Doctors that I really got into, and Spearhead is a great introduction to him.

Filling out the companion roles are new arrival Dr Liz Shaw, and the welcome return of the Brig. Liz is not quite Zoe, but she’s not just some bimbo either, being a highly intelligent and qualified scientist in her own right. Caroline John, who plays Dr Shaw believes that she got the role after sending in a shot of herself in a swimsuit, but she does herself a disservice there, as her acting is top notch. As for the Brig, it may seem odd for such an anti-establishment character as the Doctor to be paired up with an army officer, but it sort of works, as the two of them never actually see eye to eye, they just have a begrudging respect for eachother.

But its the villains that really steal the show in spearhead. With them, Holmes had the perfect way to introduce this new Earth based Doctor, and in doing so would scare the living shit out of a generation of children. Previous monsters to invade a recognizable earth had been things like Daleks and Cybermen – not things you’d tend to see around the place on a day to day basis in other words, but Holmes took their menace and attached it to something you see every day: shop window dummies. Its all well and good to find the Daleks terrifying, but try going shopping when a manikin makes you want to dive behind the sofa.

When Who writer Mac Hulke heard that the Doctor would be trapped on contemporary Earth his instant reaction was to point out that the only two stories you could have would be mad scientist and alien invasion. Doctor Who and the Silurians was Dicks’ attempt to disprove that. Will he manage? We’ll find out next time.

*I suppose that if you want a dramatic conflict its best to set an alien invasion in the home counties: the people who live there can’t even get on withe with folks from other countries, never mind other planets. If aliens landed here in Scotland they’d probably be welcomed with a hug and a pint, but down there they’d be stoned to death by an angry mob before they could even leave their saucer.

** still maybe true.

The War Games

Written by Malcolm Hulke & Terrance Dicks

Directed by David Maloney

Yesterday the Egyptian army decided that enough was enough and deposed the country’s president. For the second time in as many years though, they do not have appeared to have done so to seize power for themselves, as one may expect, but because it seems to be what the majority of the country wanted to happen. which raises a number of interesting (to me, at least) questions. Not least, should the military serve the government or the people? The whole point of a democracy, of course, is that the will of the government is the will of the people, but to the best of my knowledge this has never actually been the case, which is why I’m a Kropotkinite, not a democrat. The difficulty there is that without some form of anarcho-syndicalist structure its not really possible to guess the will of the people, so who knows what the fuck most people in Egypt actually want.

Regardless of that, one thing the military is certainly not for is endlessly murdering each other for the shadowy purposes of some sinister alien oligarch, which is precisely what they are used for in arguably the finest Doctor who stories of all time, The War Games. After labeling many early stories as being too long, most of them seem to shrink away to nothing when compared to this ten part epic, but at no point does it ever seem drawn out or overlong. which is surprising, since it was never planned to be more than five parts, but was constantly extended throughout the writing process as other stories were dropped. Indeed, writer Terence Dicks has said a number of times that he only thinks the first and last episodes are any good. He is, of course, wrong: the whole thing is awesome. Its a real credit to both the writers and the cast that even during the seemingly endless parade of loops that make up the middle of the story, it never stops being entertaining.

But if any writers were going to be able to pull off a ten part story with only enough plot for five, it would be Dicks and Hulke. Mac Hulke always made his stories about something more than simply an action romp – this story, for example, is a strong allegory about the futility of war – while Terrance Dicks’ main concern is that the pace of a story never slowed, even for a single scene. The result of the two of them working together is a story that is an action heavy roller coaster* while actually having something to say.

And if any cast were ever going to keep our attention for this long it would be these guys. Troughton is on absolutely top form here, whether facing a farcical court martial or heading up a multi-era resistance group, he always seems to be just about in control, while his companions have some of their finest moments too. Jamie attempting to convince a Mexican bandit that he’s some sort of ferocious war-lord probably stands out as my favorite thing he ever did. The guest cast too are at times magnificent. Philip Madoc, a semi-regular on Holmes’ stories, is fantastic as the sinister War Lord, and Bernard Horsfall makes a very welcome return, this time as one of the prosecuting Time Lords.

But wonderful as this story is, I can’t watch it without a feeling of sadness, as it really marks the end of an era in Doctor Who. Not only does it mark the end of my favorite Doctor, and my favorite TARDIS crew, it also marks the end of the show as it was, about an endless wanderer in space and time, who has no real control of where he and his companions were going to end up next. for the next few years the Doctor would be more or less stuck on 20th century earth, and after that he seemed to learn how to pilot the TARDIS to a degree, so things would never really be the same again. Future script editor, and respected sci-fi write outside of Who, Douglas Adams once said that Doctor Who never recovered from moving into colour, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

Not that things necessarily went downhill right away. Doctor Who’s main strength, the thing that has allowed it to keep running for nigh on 50 years, is that it is endlessly adaptable, and can still tell a great story in any situation. We’ll find out how well it managed to adapt to probably the most drastic changes in its whole history next time, in Spearhead From Space.

*for 60s TV. Don’t expect Die Hard.

The Space Pirates

Written by Robert Holmes

Directed by Michael Hart

Lets face it, most pirates are probably cunts. To be sure, most nowadays are desperate men in an awful situation, attempting to scrape out a living in any way possible. But cunts nonetheless.

Despite this they seem to have been romanticized to an extraordinary degree over the past few centuries. Right back since Stevenson’s Treasure Island up until the recent Pirates of the Caribbean films, the murderous scallywags are presented as swashbuckling anti-heros in the vast majority of fiction. Its easy to see why – there’s very few situations that I would see any kind of law enforcement, government establishment or any other form of The Man as anything other than a villain, and so their natural enemies, the pirates, have an undeniable allure. But when it comes down to it, they’re really just a bunch of selfish cunts. I do agree with their stance on rum though.

Its refreshing, therefore, to find in The Space Pirates a story in which the pirates are very definitely the villains. Even better, they’re also The Man, meaning that it still remains a wonderfully anti-establishment story. But the Doctor always was an anti-establishment sort of guy.

The main strength of The Space Pirates lies in its densely plotted, constantly twisting story from first rate Who writer, Robert Holmes, in which it is never clear, right up until the end, which side anyone is on (apart from the Doctor et al, of course). Some great performances really help to back this up. Gordon Gostelow as Milo Clancy in particular would have been brilliant if it were not for his awful accent.

Sadly, though, The Space Pirates never seems to live up to the sum of its parts. It may well simply be down to the fact that its 6 episodes, and nothing happens until episode three, but I found it quite hard to stay focused on it any time I’ve tried to listen to it, though I will admit that the remaining episode two is highly watchable. To be perfectly honest though, if any story from Troughton’s near perfect last year had to be lost, I’m glad it’s this one.
Troughton’s era of Who had marked a noticeable departure from historical stories and a move towards out and out sci-fi. Would that last, or would the historical stories be making a comeback? It would seem that way at the start of the next story, but is all as it seems? Find out next time, in The War Games.