Art and War: the Silurians and Sea Devils

The ‘Silurians’ and ‘Sea Devils’ are among the most enduring of Doctor Who species, speaking as they do directly to deep human anxieties about our ability to trust others different from ourselves. Their stories touch on popular Doctor Who themes: the value of building common understandings across seemingly deep chasms of differences, the need to deal fairly and respectfully with all life, and an (often failed) striving for peace over conflict. Many of us love Doctor Who most as it tackles these kinds of ubiquitous problems again and again. And these particular species have given us some of the most enduring stories, since they deal directly with social contexts so familiar to many of us. As Earth-based people who have as just and equal a claim to our world as we ourselves do – perhaps even a greater one – they speak to long-standing issues of xenophobia and dispossession that are so prevalent in our modern world.

I recently had reason to watch the three original series stories in which they featured – Doctor Who and The Silurians [1970], The Sea Devils [1972] and Warriors of the Deep [1984] – as a follow up to my essay on The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood [2010], and was struck again by how much food for thought they give us. I am going to digress for a moment from my central point, to talk about something I hadn’t remembered from the first story, which I found ultimately troubling but also rather intriguing. The people called the ‘Silurians’ and ‘Sea Devils’ (these are both misnomers given to these species in the first two stories by the humans who met them, and not used as actual species designations until the later Warriors of the Deep) are both sentient reptilian species who long pre-existed humans, who have lain dormant for millions of years, owing to a technological failure. The former are awakened in caves under the earth’s surface, the latter deep in the oceans. Their sudden re-awakening, often by human disturbance, raises all sorts of questions about whether it is possible for human societies to share Earth with another very different group of people. And in each case it gives rise, very rapidly, to conflict, owing to mistrust and aggression on both sides, ending every time in mass-slaughter of the re-awakened peoples.

There are many things to say about how these stories speak to long-standing questions of racism and dispossession, some of which I write about in my essay. But watching these stories again, and particularly the first of these, I found myself drawn in by a fascinating thread of psychoanalysis that, from the human point of view, might be called ‘the return of the repressed’. The idea of a reptilian species emerging from deep underground or under the ocean to disrupt our lives has powerful Freudian resonances, as a metaphor for deeply troubling things in the unconscious of our societies, which threaten to ‘come to the surface’ and disturb the neat and comfortable order that has been established. Granted, there are lots of problems with reading the stories this way. There is a long and troubling history of European psychoanalytic theory painting non-Europeans around the world as a kind of unconscious mirror for white people’s anxieties, which writers such as Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi have spectacularly critiqued. I am not wishing to endorse this view. But I do think this is a theme of these stories: this idea of the surfacing of these underground people as tapping into deep-seated anxieties – potentially racial anxieties – of predominantly white societies, tapping into how troubling these encounters would be, how much of a problem many of our societies have with engaging fairly with people who are seen as ‘different’, who might not quite fit in with the expectations of dominant interests.

Confirming my suspicions, Doctor Who and the Silurians shows the mental impact on humans of seeing these underground reptilian people. They were clearly deeply psychologically disturbed by their encounters, rendered incoherent and babbling, incapable of ordinary human interaction. The only thing they could manage was to draw on walls in a form that resembles what the Doctor calls “cave drawings”. In the first case, the Doctor describes this as arising from “some kind of fear” which has “thrown his mind back millions of years”, turning him into “a brilliant Paleolithic cave artist.” These first encounters mostly have this kind of effect, with the humans depicted as being thrown into a kind of pre-verbal state and into an older state of being human.

"Cave drawings" from Doctor Who and the Silurians (BBC)

“Cave drawings” from Doctor Who and the Silurians (BBC)

Leaving aside the obvious disparities of dates between the Silurian era and the Paleolithic period, the idea of such encounters triggering a Freudian regression is apparent. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory marries the idea that what is repressed in the “civilised” human psyche are experiences both from that person’s own pre-verbal childhood and from the human past. Essays like Civilisation and its Discontents and Totem and Taboo are attempts to trace contemporary psychoanalytic concerns to their supposed roots in the past of human societies. The idea that someone could be faced with such fear that they regress to the deep past of humanity in the Paleolithic has its roots in this kind of problematic Freudian psychology.

One of the biggest problems with this is that Freud tended to conflate the human past with non-Western societies (as a lot of Western social science has done). In Totem and Taboo, the idea of ‘totemism’, existing in many contemporary societies, was seen by Freud as something arising at the origins of human ‘civilisation’. Even though Doctor Who and the Silurians doesn’t directly make this same connection, it does touch on these problems. In particular, art that is painted, drawn or inscribed on rocks, which has been a feature of many human societies from all over the world into the present, is depicted not as a form of creative, human engagement with the world, an example of our unique desire to interpret the world through our material creations, but as a ‘throw-back’ to an earlier time.


But, as I say, I digress. Because what I really wanted to write about was something common to all the original series stories, and which speaks more strongly to contemporary dynamics of racism, xenophobia and imperialism: the critique of war, militarism and the aggressive political state. Much of this is owed to the original writer, Malcolm Hulke, who according to historian Michael Herbert was a committed left-winger, deeply involved with the socialist Unity Theatre in the 1960s, and at an earlier point a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Hulke’s anti-war and anti-imperialist views can be seen in many of his serials, including The War Games [1969] (which itself is well worth the look).

Doctor Who and the Silurians is perhaps closest to home, exposing the uncomfortable underbelly of the Doctor’s involvement with UNIT. The story is set at a nuclear facility designed to develop a cheap source of energy, but led by ambitious scientists more determined to see themselves succeed than adapt to difficult situations. Meanwhile, the energy generated has woken up the underground species, who repeatedly drain part of it to revive their companions. Amidst a back and forth of the Doctor’s attempts to broker peace, and coups that continue to see changes in policy among the reptilian people underground, UNIT soldiers are positioned for more and more aggressive acts, egged on at various points by scientists, the visiting government official, and the Brigadier himself.

One of the cleverest things about this story (which sets the tone for the new series version) is that neither side is depicted as uniform – both involve more warlike and more peace-seeking individuals, vying for influence. At one point, when an aggressor gains the upper hand in the caves, he releases a virus among the humans which causes countless deaths, as it spreads to London and from there, to Paris and beyond. The Doctor finds a cure, but the damage is done. Although this new aggressive leader is killed, allowing the Doctor and Liz to begin reviving the others in hibernation one by one to see if they can broker their peace, the human military machine is already moved into gear, its momentum seemingly unstoppable. As the Doctor and Liz plead for time, driving back towards London for more equipment and scientists, the Brigadier gives the order to bomb the cave entrances, doing extensive damage, and apparently killing all those underground. Liz believes that he has been ordered by the ministry: “The government were frightened. They just couldn’t take the risk.” But as the Doctor says, “That’s murder. They were intelligent, alien beings, a whole race of them, and he’s just wiped them out.”

The later serial featuring this same species alongside their water-dwelling cousins – Warriors of the Deep – is a classic Cold War tale. Reviews of it widely focus on its low production values, but I can’t help but feel this is missing the point. Here, we encounter a situation where, just as in 1984 (the year it was aired), the world is poised on the edge of nuclear war, as two unspecified power-blocs vie for domination. Deep on an underwater base, one side monitors an unknown structure, assuming it to be an outpost of their enemy. With echoes of the Hollywood hit The War Games, released the previous year, a computer launches missile strike countdowns whenever it judges appropriate – which may or may not be trial runs. But unlike The War Games, there is a human failsafe on this missile base, especially fitted and programmed for this task, who must make the final call to launch once the countdown is completed.

Taking advantage of this situation, members of both reptilian species attack the base to launch the missile attack that will start the human war. Again, the Doctor pleads for peace, but cannot convince the leaders, since he is forced to admit that on previous occasions, his efforts resulted in the slaughter of their species. In the end, he and the humans are only able to stop the missile strike by another massacre, piping a gas through the base that kills only reptiles. Adding to the pathos of the story, Peter Davison’s Doctor lays it on very thick about the nobility of the reptilian people who only ever wanted peace, rather rewriting the history of his previous encounters. Nevertheless, at face value this story is told as a tragedy, ending in the Doctor’s final statement “there should have been another way.”

In condemning the readiness of humans, past and present, to commit mass-murder against these unfamiliar peoples, the story also overtly condemns the Cold War situation that makes the attackers’ plans possible. An exchange between the leader of the attack on the base, Icthar, and the Doctor, highlights this situation:

Icthar:   We will harm no one. These ape primitives will destroy themselves. We, Doctor, will merely provide the pretext.

Doctor:  You’ll trigger the war this base was designed to fight.

Icthar:   Yes. And these human beings will die as they have lived: in a sea of their own blood.

Whatever else can be said for Icthar’s logic, there is no question that the logic of human imperialism – the mass build up of military armaments on both sides of a Cold War, designed to threaten the ‘enemy’ power – is shown to be the greatest culprit.

The Sea Devils is something of a departure from this pattern of condemning militarism, and is the more deeply disturbing for it. Filmed on a naval base, the permission of the British Navy was given on the proviso that they were to be depicted in a positive light. This indeed happens, with all of the naval leaders and sailors depicted as generally sociable, earnest, thoughtful types. On the surface, The Sea Devils comes across as a much more ordinary Doctor Who adventure tale, with a friendly naval base pitted against an invading opponent, and the Master thrown in to complicate matters. But when read alongside the other stories of its kind, it is chilling indeed.

Granted, this underwater reptilian species begins more aggressively than their underground cousins, with the seemingly unprovoked murder of one of two workers on an outpost at sea. When the Doctor first tries to engage one of them, he is shot at. But what we learn through the course of the story is that the leader of this species knows that the “apes” have taken over the Earth, and believes they must be wiped out for his own people to return to its rightful place. The tension is clearly driven by desire for possession of Earth and xenophobic disdain on both sides. But when the Doctor points out that he believes the humans could be convinced to share the Earth, the leader begins to come around. The Master, naturally, tries to intervene in favour of war, but it is only when human missiles hit the base that the leader realises that the humans cannot be trusted, and the path toward war is set.

From here, the situation escalates rapidly, as the underwater species attacks the naval base while attempting to set off a sonar device that will revive others around the world, allowing them to rise against the humans. Meanwhile the human aggressors plot a nuclear attack on their base. What results is a mass-slaughter of all of the so-called ‘Sea Devils’, which the Doctor fails to condemn, and in fact to which he contributes by rigging the sonar device to backfire. Read as a necessary defence against an attacker with murderous intent, with the Master as the focus, it becomes yet another sci-fi tale of grand adventure, a TV kind of war in which the real cost is neither noted nor really counted. But read in another way, as an example of a group of people who once lived free resisting a much more powerful (albeit unconscious) coloniser, the slaughter becomes an act of genocide, barely condemned by the Doctor, and certainly lacking the deep regret or reflectiveness of the other two stories.

The context of production partly accounts for this problem. In this version of the story, the human aggressor is the Parliamentary Undersecretary, Robert Walker, who comes to take control of the situation. And although his bellicose actions are clearly responsible for upsetting the Doctor’s attempts at diplomacy, the mild-mannered depiction of the naval leaders, and the need to paint the Navy in a positive light, mutes any condemnation – overt or implied – that we might expect of the slaughter that takes place.

Nevertheless, the script does not miss an opportunity to link warmongering to British nationalism, in a way that perhaps better reveals Hulke’s own politics. When the Doctor criticises Walker’s military attack on the base, Walker retaliates: “Our duty is to destroy the Queen’s enemies. Don’t you know the national anthem? Confound their politics, frustrate their navy’s tricks.” And when he orders all-out nuclear attack on the base (which thankfully never materialises), his actions highlight the dangerous possibilities of military aggression for which the world remains poised.

There are limitations to the Doctor’s favouring of diplomacy over war in these stories. All too often in our world, diplomatic negotiations are a mechanism for more powerful countries, business conglomerates and financial consortia to push their interests around the globe. Yet the message of these stories is clear – war initiated by those with military might, driven by xenophobic mistrust, greed, or a desire to hold on to land and possessions – is never justified. Whether it be between nation-states, power-blocs or species, war between two peoples, led by those seeking gain for themselves over others, kills the innocent along with the aggressors. In the case of deep power imbalances, it can lead to mass murder. And the military machine – even one such as UNIT with its mandate for scientific endeavour – is at base a tool of war, and will be used that way whenever powerful interests feel too threatened (or become too greedy).

This condemnation of the organised forces of imperialism and xenophobia – the military and the militaristic State – is sadly lacking from the new series rendition of the story. This tends to personalise the problem of racism, reducing it to being about mistrust among individuals. As moving as this new story is, and as wonderful as its realisation of the reptilian people is on contemporary technology and budgets, it is missing the grander scale of organised violence that has propped up centuries of racism, enslavement, colonialism and war. The original series stories, for all their lower budgets, rubber suits and silly lights flashing on the heads, still have much to offer us.