We’re now over halfway through our low-budget, four-part series showing the best bits of premier Doctor Who companion Liz Shaw. Liz appeared during the first season of Jon Pertwee’s reign as the Doctor 40 years ago and is still unmatched when it comes to being the smartest, most assertive, most useful, most adult of all the Companions Who.
After last week’s look at her introductory story, Spearhead from Space, we look at what is the first of the “true” season 7 stories and the only one to really give the game away about the Doctor’s real name, Doctor Who and the Silurians. And since this is Liz Shaw’s best bits, I should point out that Liz Shaw uses science to save the entire human race from destruction by plague and takes control of a nuclear reactor – top that, Peri.
Doctor Who and the Silurians
This story is something of a slow-burner, but if you’ve seen Cold Blood and The Hungry Earth, you’ll have seen the basic story (intermixed with bits of Liz Shaw’s fourth story, Inferno), just done badly.
The Doctor and Liz get summoned by the Brigadier to a research centre that’s been having all sorts of problems with its staff as well as its nuclear reactor. Soon, people are getting attacked in the caves near the centre and it becomes apparent that a race of intelligent reptiles lives in the caves and they’re responsible for the centre’s problems. These ‘Silurians’ are the original rulers of the Earth, having gone into hibernation to avoid the disaster they foresaw happening when a small planet looked like it would collide with the Earth – except that planet became the Moon and the Silurians didn’t wake up on schedule, instead lying dormant for millions of years until the research centre’s activities triggered their revival.
When the Silurians discover they’ve been found out, they infect some humans with a plague, hoping that it will destroy all the ‘apes’. That leaves the Doctor and Liz having to develop a cure before the entire human race is killed. Which they do. Nice.
As a result, the Silurians come out of their caves, take over the centre and try to use the reactor to destroy the Earth’s Van Allen belt. Can the Doc and Liz save us all?
Apart from being the only show that includes Doctor Who and… in the titles, there are a lot of remarkable things about the story. Although Spearhead from Space is the show that sets the template for most of the Pertwee years, it’s really Doctor Who and the Silurians that sets the tone for the rest of season seven.
For starters, it’s seven parts, just like The Ambassadors of Death and Inferno. It also steers Jon Pertwee’s Doctor away from the slightly comedic performance he gives in Spearhead from Space in favour of a colder, more austere, scientific Doctor who owes a lot to previous BBC sci-fi hero, Bernard Quatermass. Indeed, season 7 is mostly a retread of the Quatermass stories, with Spearhead being Quatermass II (meteorites come to Earth containing alien intelligences that try to take over the government), Ambassadors The Quatermass Experiment (astronauts go up into space and come back different) and Doctor Who and the Silurians Quatermass and the Pit (the aliens have always been here, know us from when we were just apes and get roused when we start digging). Only Inferno differs from the Quatermass template.
Similarly, the relationship between the Brigadier and the Doctor is not the jovial pairing of later years – here, it’s the Breen/Quatermass relationship of Quatermass and the Pit, with the Brigadier looking for a military solution wherever possible, and the Doctor doing his best to come up with a peaceful alternative.
The script is also one of the very few Doctor Who stories where the ‘monsters’ aren’t some simple amorphous bunch who want to destroy the humans. There are factions. Some want to kill the humans because they’re apes who don’t know their place, others appreciate that the humans are an intelligent species now and must be treated with respect.
At seven parts, the story is perhaps a little overlong, with big chunks of episodes devoted to the Doctor staring down a microscope, and with various factions of Silurians and humans going down to the caves and vice versa. But it’s intelligently written, aimed at adults and its conclusion, with the Brigadier committing genocide at the government’s request, is as bleak as they come. Although, actually, watching it now, I think the Brig was right and that Doctor was a leftie pansy.
Well, we’ve seen Liz Shaw the physicist, meteorite expert, chemist and electronics engineer in action in Spearhead. In Ambassadors, we saw her as master linguist, computer programmer, action heroine, code-breaker and physicist.
But in Doctor Who and the Silurians, it’s Liz’s medical training that comes to the fore as we get to see the general format of the rest of the season get built. Rather than having the traditional Doctor-companion relationship, with companion asking “what’s happening?” at regular occasions, Liz and the Doctor are essentially equals, each understanding the other. Both come up with cunning plans, both suggest things that the other hasn’t thought of. The audience has to keep up, or Liz or the Doctor will helpfully explain things to the other characters if necessary. She even forces the Doctor to have some injections – which she administers herself.
So as the story builds, Liz is the one who spots the patterns in the personnel records, goes all CSI at a crime scene and looks after patients in the hospital. For two episodes, she works with the Doctor to cure the plague the Silurians have unleashed and when the Doctor is abducted by the Silurians before he can give the cure to the Brigadier, it’s Liz who recognises the correct formula from the many the Doctor has been working on – and saves the entire human race.
Liz also proves to be as assertive and determined as an employee of UNIT as she was when she was just a consultant. She’s frequently the “buffer” between the Brigadier and the Doctor, using a few social skills to smooth the ways between them. But she also stands up for her right to be treated with respect as a scientist, demands to go caving with all the others (“Have you never heard of female emancipation?”), blackmails the Doctor, lies to the Brigadier to protect the Doctor and generally slaps down anyone in the facility if they’re being idiotic. In the end, it’s up to Liz and the Doctor to run an entire nuclear reactor by themselves and prevent the whole thing from destroying the Earth.
Also, beyond one little scream when she’s attacked from behind by a Silurian (most people regress back to million-year-old race memories when they see a Silurian, so that’s not bad. It’s also her only scream out of the 25 episodes in which she appears), she’s stoic in the face of things that would scare the bejesus out of most people, including death and being attacked by a plague-carrying loony.
Go, Liz, go!
Anyway, for your delectation, here are Liz Shaw’s best bits from Doctor Who and the Silurians.
Part 1: In which she’s deadpan, does some analysis, does some biology, does forensic science, spots a liar, is firm with a patient, lies to the Brigadier, blackmails the Doctor, goes caving, stands up for Silurian rights and makes sure the Doctor takes his medicine.
Part 2: In which she refuses to obey orders, stands up to a tyrant, does lots of science, comes up with some good ideas for how to cure a plague, is stoic in the face of a loony plague-ridden tyrant, works out how to save the entire human race, explains the Van Allen belt and takes control of a nuclear reactor.