Lazy Luddite Log

22.6.10

Silurians

I once looked at some Silurian Period sediments but never saw a Silurian itself. This may be because the species name is a misnomer. Or it may be because they are a fictitious Doctor Who monster. But sometimes fictional concepts have a power over us and this is definitely the case here.

The Silurians recently returned in a new Doctor Who two-part story (The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood) and I was excited. For most of my life I had loved these creatures and the concepts behind them. Introduced originally in 1970, the Silurians are a classic science fiction concept. If we contemplate that the Earth is well over four billion years old, and if we also consider that humans developed in only a few million, then there is the tantalizing what if that at other times in that long history intelligent life might have evolved. The Silurians are a product of such speculation, a race of intelligent reptiles who ruled the Earth long ago and then had to hibernate in bunkers to escape a natural disaster (itself a classic SF concept that I will pass over here). While they slept we evolved and now human actions (such as mining) wake our predecessors.

Good SF explores more than just amazing natural or technical speculations. It also examines ethical considerations and Silurian tales do just that. They may look like aliens but they are as Terran as we are. Who has the right to rule Earth now? Can we share the planet? Can differences between reptile and ‘ape’ be reconciled. I think these issues were well explored in the new story. I will review that story here while keeping the longer history of the Silurians in mind.

Tragic Fan

I am a Doctor Who fan with a memory of the old show and a love of things like monster and spaceship design. As such I was concerned by the new Silurians. I feel it was too much of a departure from the older visualizations. The skull crests are still there but so much has changed. New Who is supposed to be a continuation of the original series but often feels like a reboot. However because it is a continuation the writers felt the need to have the Doctor say we were simply seeing a different tribal group. Nonetheless I feel the look is too altered and – frankly – too human.

Do I just say that because I am a tragic fan who wants consistency in my shows? I think there is more to it than that – I am interested in how effects affect the message of the story.

The face makeup reminds me too much of aliens from Babylon-5. It is excellent but it allows me to relate too readily with these creatures. I should find them alien and animalistic. I should have a natural inclination to be scared of them. Fear breeds hate and that is what the story needed. Give me distorted sibilant vocals and creepy snake-like pupils. I want to have to make an effort to accept that what is needed is conciliation with these monsters that want to take my world from me.

A few more comments on design however: I do like the attire and technology of the re-imagined Silurians. It combines the original organic look of Silurian technology with the retro-futuristic feel that defines much of New Who. The guns are a nice tip-of-the-hat to those of the marine relatives of the Silurians. The masks are a nifty way of making the Silurians more menacing while also giving them some useful sense enhancements. I never liked the ‘third eye’ of the original Silurians but now wish it could have been preserved in the form of an infra-red sensor on those masks. But back now to the story itself…

Humanitarian

So you can tell that I think the message of the Silurian concept has something to do with accommodating difference, which is why I want them to be monsters and then have us come to terms with that. I think that the new story definitely attempts this but that it is hampered by the anthropomorphic depiction of the Silurians. Yes – the military reptiles were suitably hostile but the civilians were just too nice. There have always been wise elder Silurians but never have they looked like a kindly grandparent. If that elder was offering his technology in return for human land he would never then undermine his ability to offer that by postponing the negotiation process for a millennium (during which any technological superiority may be lost).

Still it is difficult for me to assess the story because of my fannish background. What does someone new to the Silurian concept think of it? Were they challenged or moved? Did they want the humans to win or did they want an accord to be won? At any rate we know what the Doctor wanted – has always wanted – and this time he almost got it. This is good because the latest incarnation of the Doctor is an embodiment of compassion and deserves a happy ending every now-and-then.

There are a few nice touches in the story that show Doctor Who moving with the times and keeping fresh. One was recognition of gender differences among the reptiles and, along with it, a novel demarcation with females as military and males as civilian authority. The other, which was delicious, was seeing a human of Indian descent negotiating on behalf of all Humanity. Overall I enjoyed the return of the Silurians, changed as they are, and am happy that a whole new bunch of viewers have be introduced to these beautiful creatures.

Cross-posted here.

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9 Comments:

  • Put me in the old codger "they're not REAL Silurians" group… The original design was cool, the third eye was uber-cool, and they replaced it with a throw-away super-toungue and guns that can be sonic-screwdrivered out of hands quicker than they can be fired.

    The ending to the two stories is also a marked contrast. In the original, after the Silurians have demonstrated their technological advantage, a truce of sorts is reached — and a near-companion blows them up (to his knowledge, committing genocide). In this new story, our personal superiority is reinforced as the Silurians voluntarily turn themselves off for a thousand years.

    By Anonymous David J Richardson, At 22 June, 2010  

  • Dear Daniel,

    I thought the whole Silurian episode was very retro-feel, especially in the plot--- lots of running around in corridors etc.

    Also the van Gogh ep--- quite boring! I understand they have had to cut back special effects, but it seems like they have cut back interesting storylines too.

    Hope you are well!

    Julie.

    By Blogger julie, At 22 June, 2010  

  • Is it wrong that I didn't notice the female-as-military link? Am I sexist for not noticing or not sexist because I saw no importance in the two military members genders?

    This appears to be (for me) a common question, not just with gender, but with race.

    By Anonymous Bowie, At 22 June, 2010  

  • To J

    We feel similarly on the design front. The tongue was kinda silly. I think the third eye was silly too, for an Earth reptile, but it is kinda iconic now.

    I forget a lot of the original story and cannot remember what happened in the serial as distinct from the novalisation (think the Silurians were merely entombed in the book). I think the difference this time was that the humans were all civilian and so much more under the influence of the Doctor. But the Silurians were also too swayed by him and his flirty ways. I think a century would have been more appropriate.

    To Julie

    The feel of the story was reminiscent of older Dr Who in lots of ways. The running along tunnels but also the "danger at the mine" vibe. Nice.

    I enjoyed the Vincent story as a emotional experience, which I think is a good thing with a lot of New Who. And Bill Nighy! I was sold from the moment I knew he was in it.

    Will email you sometime soon...

    To Bowie

    Interesting question. If you translate the question to one of race then there are two arguments (both from groups opposing racism).

    One is that to be non-racist you must also be non-racialist in that you deny the existence of race in favour of recognizing the unity of the human species.

    However there is another argument which says that you cannot be 'colour blind' and ignore the power of race as a cultural construct that empowers some while disempowering others. They say you have to recognize race as long as there is racism in the world.

    I tend more to the former but understand that there will be instances in which the latter is a useful position to take.

    As for Silurian gender - I was paying close attention to the costumes so did notice that even the masked warriors were played by women.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 23 June, 2010  

  • On reflection I decided that my ignorance was caused mostly by the lack of actors. If there had have been four/five or more security people and they were all female I might have noticed. It might also have helped that there were essentially only four alien characters (if you ignore the guards as non-characters).

    I guess two-out-of-two occurrences doesn't equal a pattern in my head.

    By Anonymous Bowie, At 23 June, 2010  

  • Course I may be assuming too much from too small a sample. I have a feeling we will see more of these creatures in future.

    Also - aliens? You are a prejudiced ape!

    By Blogger Daniel, At 23 June, 2010  

  • Regarding the Third Eye

    I take back my comment that the third eye is silly. Just remembered and have looked into the fact that some amphibians and reptiles have a "Parietal Eye" which detects light and may play some role in regulating biological cycles. Course that is a far cry from a death ray but still...

    Sometimes I forget how crazy life on Earth is.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 23 June, 2010  

  • At first, I thought the new design was _too_ different, but it grew on me quickly. I liked that most of them were female, looked and moved differently. I also liked that one of the male leaders was Marvin the Paranoid Android.
    Super-tongue looked like bad CGI, and added little to the story and could have been done another way.
    I also like that an Indian woman was one of the main characters, and the usually-idolised mother stereotype was turned on its head.
    The overall design and story were a great balance of retro and new Who.

    @Julie, "Vincent and the Doctor" was one of the best eps of the new Who era!

    By Blogger Damien, At 24 June, 2010  

  • Putting women into anonymous alien costumes is an old trick. The Talosians in The Cage (original Star Trek pilot) were women with male voice-overs. A similar thing was done for Greedo in Star Wars. Makes for something that seems _somehow_ alien. Maybe it is a bit like the 'uncanny valley' effect.

    In the case of the Silurian warriors we lack the incongruity of voice and body but still there was something a bit different in how they looked and moved.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 24 June, 2010  

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