Review: The Black Archive #39 – The Silurians by Robert Smith?

Key Facts:

  • Based on the Story: Doctor Who and The Silurians (No. 52).
  • Written by Malcolm Hulke. Directed by Timothy Combe.
  • Key Themes: Technology, the 1970s energy crisis, the military, land rights, animal testing, science and ethics, how long should a Doctor Who story be, and whether the Silurian plague could’ve killed us all.

The Review

Mathematicians typically review each other’s work. Whether it’s checking calculations or peer reviewing a new research paper, mathematics is very much a subject about teamwork and collaboration. Perhaps this goes against the stereotype that mathematicians are reclusive souls who solve hard problems on their lonesome, but the more common reality is that you need to work with others to ensure your arguments are communicated clearly and precisely; that we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet so to speak. This is the norm when it comes to mathematics (and indeed science), but it’s pretty rare when it comes to Doctor Who. And since Black Archive scribe Robert Smith? and myself are both mathematicians, this is in fact one of those rare occasions.

Smith?’s specialism is mathematical biology, so it’s no surprise he’s opted to write about the second outing for Jon Pertwee’s incarnation. This entry by Smith? specialising in science and the spread of plague contains seven succinct chapters on seven separate themes over a seven-episode serial called Doctor Who and The Silurians (1970), which perhaps makes it the most sibilant book in the series so far. Not content with last month’s controversial decision to omit Utopia (2007) from the analysis of the Series 3 finale, this Black Archive pretends that the initial three words of this serial’s title were never there, as the book predominantly refers to the story as “The Silurians”. I can however understand the latter decision a lot more given it was an in-house production error that led to this unusual title occurring.

The themes covered are diverse, ranging from the links to the 1970s energy crisis, morality in science, and the role of technology in the story. I strongly felt that the book developed in strength as each chapter went by, which gives it a nice crescendo in quality. The particular highlights were when Smith? enters his specialisms, providing unique and informed insights into questions on whether Doctor Who is a science show and whether the Silurian plague could have actually killed us all, a topic that has become surprisingly prescient with the coronavirus outbreak happening right now. The book is also beautifully and thoroughly referenced, as it evident by the surprisingly lengthy bibliography on display.

However, by structuring the book around some rather broad questions does at times lead to some rather general conclusions, such the book’s initial two chapters saying that technology both can and can’t solve all our problems, and that a Doctor Who story should be as long as it needs to be. The discussions had about these topics were certainly good reads, and I was particularly intrigued by Smith?’s passionate defence about the story’s exceptional length, but I did feel these could have led to more interesting results. For example, I would suggest the book’s second chapter should really have been framed as “Does The Silurians really need to be seven episodes long?” instead. What I’m trying to say here is, I think there should have been another way.

I have also so far in these reviews neglected to even mention the cover art and icon designed by Cody Schell and Blair Bidmead respectively (and if you haven’t seen the latest covers by them then go here and look at them!). I’m actually quite the fan of this entry’s cover, which features the cave drawings of a Silurian with woodland creatures as it’s icon, brilliantly captured by Bidmead, as seen in the serial’s first episode. The choice by Schell to then overlap parts of the three creatures using white, brown and green outlines is inspired. It quite neatly represents the overlap of science and nature in the story here as well as perhaps the harmonious coexistence between the Silurians and the animals many billions of years ago.

Concluding Thoughts

Smith?’s Black Archive entry breaks exciting new ground by looking at the themes of science and ethics in The Silurians, bringing unique and specialist insight on this particular serial. The discussions on morality, animal rights and pandemic plagues are well worth your time here and I do hope this encourages more scientific takes on the show in future entries. After all, “science leads” according to Kate Stewart, Head of Scientific Research at UNIT. She learnt that from her father, but did her father learn it from reflecting on this story’s events? Who knows.