Season 7@50. Familiarity can dull the impact of creative material yet there are some things which remain absorbing even though we know their every secret for example a favourite film or album or place. Or a Doctor Who story like `The Silurians`. The behind the scenes situation suggests this 1970 classic could easily have been a bit of a mess. With Derrick Sherwin and Peter Bryant having left, Barry Letts unavailable for the location filming, a 7 episode storyline and a new Doctor still finding his way it was hardly a settled production though nothing of this makes the finished version. Instead a confident, bold narrative offers a fresh take on the traditional `aliens on earth` story and a compelling representation of the Doctor as a high profile agitator rather than the low key subversive the previous incarnation had tended to be. The first episode is masterfully assembled and played and a sign that during this era of the programme episode ones would almost always be top class.
Considering this is just the first of seven episodes it moves at a fair pace outlining all we need to know, building a mystery involving power losses and psychological issues. There’s clearly some connected secret that Doctor Quinn and Miss Dawson are hiding while we gain a sense of the agitation of Major Baker and Doctor Lawrence at the turn of events. I’ve no idea if any of the process we see in the cyclotron room makes any real scientific sense- those numbers for example – but it shows willing to invest some realism into an un real scenario. From a 2020 perspective the idea of building a place like this underground makes more sense than it probably did in 1970. The procedure we see in this episode resembles a pocket sized version of the large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and I like to think there are numbers read out like a lottery there too!
There are some wonderfully brisk, compact scenes with every line shining and helping advance some aspect of the narrative. From Liz’s sideways look when reading the Brigadier’s note, the unspoken animosity already bubbling between the Doctor and Baker, to Doctor Quinn’s furtive guilt it is all there and much else besides. Every scene feeds the story with no filler material, no pause for breath. The dialogue itself is rich and sweeping, especially the Doctor’s imperious approach to almost everyone.
It feels like after a tentative start in `Spearhead from Space` Jon Pertwee finds his feet here with a more pronounced performance still wrapped in some lovely little eccentricities. The scenes he shares with an equally on form Nicholas Courtney are lively despite often being technical or procedural. Its impossible not to look at Fulton Mackay’s performance and wonder just how he would have fared as the Doctor. The evidence suggests he would do very well. Quinn is a man whose outward confidence must take a lot of effort considering what he’s up to but even for viewers coming to this fresh and not knowing you can get a real sense of that.
Occasionally the design side is a little wanting. There seems to be no point to the split level layout of the accelerator room when people wander up and down at will when presumably the idea is that a security screen protects the people upstairs in the control room. Despite excellent sound effects in the caves, the cyclotron itself doesn’t seem noisy enough and the colourful glow makes it look less like a proper piece of kit. The dinosaur isn’t perfect though remarkably is much more convincing than the ones the series had five years later.
It is a sign of the level of confidence of this production that they even show us the Silurians before we see them on screen courtesy of the drawings on the wall. By the end the Doctor is in the caves facing the dinosaur and confirming that this new era of Doctor Who is now flying high.