Doctor Who: the history (and pre-history) of the Silurians

As the Silurians return to Doctor Who, Mark charts their history, and why they're in such a bad mood...

Civilisations beneath the Earth, eh? In the second somewhat unconventional cliffhanger of the new series of Doctor Who, the Eleventh Doctor and the intrepid Nasreen Chaudhry found a massive Silurian city after the TARDIS was dragged thousands of metres beneath the surface.

Well, that’s just the Silurians’ bag, really. Created by Malcolm Hulke, they’re scientifically advanced creatures from before humanity evolved. At some point in their original reign, they detected that a large planet was on a collision course with the Earth, and went into hibernation deep underground.

However, their hibernation technology was faulty and they ended up in stasis for a very long time, indeed, and groups of Silurians have only been awakened sporadically since the 20th century.

To add insult to injury, that large planet that the Silurians believed would destroy the Earth turned out to be the Moon, and caused no damage whatsoever. Ouch.

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So, you’d be mad too, but what makes the Silurians inherently different to most other Doctor Who monsters is the head of righteous rage that builds up whenever they cross paths with the apes who usurped them. It’s the evolutionary equivalent of having a nap and waking up to find that a bunch of chavs have started squatting in your house and trashing all your stuff.

This makes a different kind of trouble for the Doctor too. Some Silurians refuse to share their world with humanity and frequently try to carpet-bomb the new order with viruses, proton missiles and bio-programming. However, they’re not below the art of diplomacy and they’re intensely intelligent, giving the Doctor a dilemma if any trigger happy humans get wind of them.

So, for newcomers, here’s a quick recap of the Silurians’ appearances in Doctor Who.

Doctor Who And The Silurians (1970)

Quite aside from the anomaly of the title, which would be a lot easier to ignore if everyone really wanted to, this sophomore story for the Third Doctor is one of the best of Jon Pertwee’s tenure.

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The Silurians introduced the species with a group who’d been woken up by energy from a nuclear research centre. When any humans go down into their caves, they’re attacked by the Silurians’ pet dinosaur. Let’s be generous and say that dinosaur was an ambitious special effect.

Enter the Doctor, who tries his best to broker a deal between the Silurians and the humans. His case isn’t helped when a brash young Silurian, Morka, gave a deadly disease to a human prisoner and sent him back above ground to cause an epidemic. The Doctor is able to find a cure with help from an older and wiser Silurian, Okdel.

Okdel is killed for his troubles, and negotiations collapse.

At the end of the story, it looks like the Doctor has manipulated the Silurians into a stalemate by irradiating their caves and forcing them back into hibernation. As he drives away, however, a massive explosion shakes the ground as UNIT wipes out the Silurian group on the orders of a frightened government.

The Doctor is saddened and disgusted, and promptly… never mentions it again. Hmm.

The Sea Devils (1972)

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The Silurians are just the ruling caste of the creatures variously known as homo reptilia, Earth Reptiles, Eocenes and Psionosauropodomorpha (gesundheit). And in The Sea Devils, we saw a more subordinate caste who the Silurians used as soldiers.

With that in mind, there’s little to say here about the Silurians themselves, as this story, at least in my view, always seems to be a rehash of the previous season’s story, albeit with aquatic Eocenes instead.

Besides which, with all those names for the Earth Reptiles, we instead get the series’ enthusiasm for naming races after their most obvious traits: Time Lords, Ice Warriors and then Sea Devils.

The story pretty much goes through the same motions as Doctor Who And The Silurians, except this time around they destroy themselves before the human attack can get going. It does still have its classic moments, like the Sea Devils emerging from the water and a rather excellent sword fight between the Doctor and the Master.

Warriors Of The Deep (1984)

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In the midst of a highly allegorical Cold War, set a century after the actual broadcast of this story, an underwater base with nuclear capabilities is invaded by the Earth Reptiles. Once again the story ends with humanity wiping out the opposition to their residence, this time with a bold performance from Peter Davison, who gives weight to what is essentially a reprise of the Third Doctor’s sadness at a similar act.

As good as the idea of the Earth Reptiles might be, their appearance together here was the biggest clunker of the Fifth Doctor’s era

Many fans maintain that this was a good script spoiled by a low budget and poor production values, taking a potentially dark and grimy story and turning into a clinical white corridor runaround.

“I was very specific in my description of the base,” said writer Johnny Byrne. “Rusting, leaking virtually forgotten by all except those on board – the atmosphere and look was something like Alien with the Myrka essentially a lurking deadly presence waiting to reveal itself.”

Oh, and the reason why I said the pet dinosaur in Doctor Who And The Silurians was ambitious is because this is the Silurian story with the truly crap special effect. Meet the Myrka, which ended up as a bizarre pantomime horse of a creature that looks like a manatee.

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As stories go, this is poison. During production, both Peter Davison and Janet Fielding announced they would quit at the end of the current season. Footage of the Myrka being karate-kicked by Hammer Horror star Ingrid Pitt was actually presented by BBC executives in the case for axing the show altogether in the late 80s.

It’s not only the worst use of the Silurians, but the worst use of anyone or anything that has the misfortune to be credited.

The Hungry Earth (2010)

Silurian fans, rejoice! 40 years after their first use, someone outside of the spin-off media remembers how to use them properly. Moreover, Chris Chibnall and Steven Moffat seem to be delivering on an old promise.

Just after the Third Doctor tricked them into hibernation again, Morka defiantly left orders for the Silurians to rise again in fifty years and destroy the apes.

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That story was broadcast in 1970, and UNIT dating confusion aside, let’s assume that’s when it’s supposed to be set.

The Hungry Earth is set in 2020, and the Silurians are understandably irked to find that us apes are digging towards them. Just as it was half a century before, both sides have hostages, and it now falls to the Eleventh Doctor to save the day without casualties, and he hasn’t got the best form for that when Silurians are involved.

So, to conclude, the Silurians remain one of the better creations of the world’s longest-running sci-fi series, which is no mean feat when you look at some of the other great ideas.

As Steven Moffat enthused, “Just having that idea could make you rich for the rest of your life. So Malcolm (Hulke) gave it to Doctor Who. Quite right.”

Whether the first blood shed is warm or cold, there looks to be a terrific battle coming this Saturday in the concluding episode.

Find more from Mark Harrison at his blog here.

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