Jon Pertwee’s second adventure is most easily remembered for the production gaffe that saw the title appear as “Doctor Who and the Silurians” – after the team neglected to remember the naming convention that it should be curtailed to “The Silurians.” While this alone makes the story unique in the history of classic Doctor Who, there is plenty else to note in this exceptional adventure.
Season 7 was a year of massive transition for the show. Patrick Troughton had left after three seasons as the Doctor, and most unusually the entire TARDIS crew had changed at the same time – a trick not to be repeated until The Eleventh Hour (or, technically, Rose). A number of concurrent production decisions were taken, all with the aim of reducing costs to the programme. A plot device was used to strand the Doctor on earth (reducing the need for expensive sets to set the show on alien landscapes), placing himself alongside new series regulars Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Leighbridge-Stewart and Caroline John as new assistant Liz Shaw. Very significantly, the show was produced in colour for the first time. Also significant was the decision to halve the season run from 44 episodes making up 7 stories, to 25 episodes making up 4 stories.
The Silurians was the first show to reflect this decision – while preceding story Spearhead from Space was a traditional four-part adventure, this story was a mammoth seven parts, as were the two following adventures Ambassadors of Death and Inferno. For Season 8 the producers would conclude that six episodes was the optimal length for these longer stories, but in Season 7 we have these slightly unusual longer adventures. And I have to confess – I am something of a fan.
One of the highly enjoyable aspects of Season 7 was that it forced the writers to think outside the box, not having the usual capacity to simply whisk the Doctor away in the TARDIS. While Script Editor Terrance Dicks panicked that they were effectively reduced to alien invasion or mad scientist plots, The Silurians is a great example of the lateral thinking brought about through intentional limitation – they dared to ask the question “What if the aliens have been on earth all along?”
The net result is a compelling adventure, that sees the Doctor and U.N.I.T. encounter the titular Silurians, a reptilian hominid race who lived on the earth before mankind and went into suspended hibernation to avoid a global apocalypse. When the Silurians are awoken by activity from a nearby nuclear reactor, the Doctor is forced to try and bring a peaceful resolution between the Silurians and mankind, both believing that the Earth is rightfully theirs.
There are so many excellent story elements at play that it seems wrong to highlight a few. There are the whole range of human reactions – from Dr Quinn trying to make a name for himself by keeping discovery of Silurian technology to himself; Dr Lawrence trying to preserve his own scientific research; and the Brigadier’s concern for global security. We even see the sympathetic appraisal of the Silurians – not merely bug-eyed baddies, but a sophisticated and intelligent race, initially led by an elder Silurian who is willing to broker peace with mankind. When the Brigadier blows up the Silurian base at the end of the adventure, the Doctor is genuinely disgusted – a fantastic example of the show being unafraid to explore ethical dilemmas.
The Silurians is a fantastic story with a fantastic cast – but I do confess it falls behind both its sequel, The Sea Devils (while being a lot better than Warriors of the Deep!); and also the other three stories in Season 7. That is no reason to discredit this story however. It undoubtedly could have been better paced as a four or six part adventure, but it is still an outstanding example of the Pertwee era.