‘The Black Archive #39: Doctor Who and the Silurians’

❉ This engaging and persuasive essay is a treat to read throughout, writes Nick Mellish.

Let’s get the obvious parallels out of the way to start with: Doctor Who and the Silurians features as a subplot a virus that slowly creeps round the world, threatening death and a significant effect on day-to-day life.  Meanwhile, the Doctor battles frantically to find a vaccine.  It’s hard right now at the time of writing this (April 2020) not to see the joins between this and the pandemic gripping the world.  It’s also arguably quite tacky and tasteless to do so, so I’ll try and step back from this and look purely at the essay in general.

(On a related note though, I originally wrote this review weeks ago now and genuinely thought I had sent it off to the editor, but discovered later that I had not, by which time I was laid up in bed with the worst fever I can remember having, with what we are fairly certain was the virus itself.)

Robert Smith? is a scientist and his appreciation for the science in The Silurians is evident from the off.  His essay praises the fact we actually see the Doctor and Liz engage in science, not resorting to a magical solution, and elsewhere defends the length of the story and looks at the Doctor’s relationship with the Brigadier and why it should by all rights have fallen apart by the end of this tale.

I share Smith?’s love of this story, having first discovered it when I was nine years old.  I was enthralled by the action and concepts and the multi-faceted Silurian society depicted so carefully by Malcolm Hulke, and I’ve never found the tale to be one which outstays its welcome.  As Smith? argues, part of the story’s charm is showing how events such as those in the story would take a while to come to fruition.  This is especially clear when a vaccine is sought: it takes ages with many, many wrong turns along the way. This is the sort of realism that Doctor Who so often shies away from, and of all the stories in Season 7 I’d say it’s the one which most took the show down to earth.

Smith?’s essay is frankly a treat to read throughout, heaping praise where he feels it is justified and not being afraid to criticise either.  This is mostly reserved for the conclusion of the story.  As he notes, the Doctor and the Brigadier have reached what should be an irreconcilable loggerhead, but the demands of the show dictate that this cannot be, and so all is forgiven and things carry on as normal next week.  In many ways, it’s a disappointment and betrayal of all Hulke has set up.  You can see why the Brigadier did what he did; you can see why the Doctor hates it.  Unlike, say, Harriet Jones years later, the repercussions are never fully felt.

Smith? articulates this betrayal in a really engaging way, as is the case throughout the essay.  This is one I devoured nearly in one sitting, such is the ease of his prose and the persuasiveness of his argument.  The history of vaccines, and their nasty bedfellow the anti-vaxxers, is fascinating and Smith? manages that tricky balance of detailing it and its parallels with the story without reaching too hard or leaning more on one subject over the other.

In short, this essay is an utter triumph and one of the best the Black Archive range has given us.  Well-researched and -argued, full of love for its subject matter and persuasive in its adoration and critique, they don’t really come better than this.

The Black Archive #39: Doctor Who and the Silurians’ is out now from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 to £8.99.

 Nick Mellish is a regular contributor to We Are Cult, and author of Target Trawl. Sometimes, he blogs: http://tinternetmellish.blogspot.com

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