...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, November 23, 2007

Day 2518: Mysteries of Doctor Who #13: What's Wrong with Calling them Silurians?


The especially SPLENDID thing about "Doctor Who and the Silurians" is the way that the title misnames both.

Obviously it was never anyone's intention that the Target Book-esque "and the" should end up on the caption roller. But more importantly, the titular monsters get lumbered with the moniker "Silurians", which has a snakey, lizardy feel to it but is scientific COBBLERS.

The Silurian Period, GEOLOGICALLY speaking, is an era of time from about 440 million years ago to about 415 million years ago. Life on Earth at that time was mainly GIANT SEA SCORPIONS, like this almost cute example, in the sea competing with early FISH.

On land, plants were just discovering the joys of having xylem and phloem to pump water and nutrients around, but animal life hadn't really got beyond your basic centipede.

Reptiles – and certainly not the walking, talking, radiophonic-kazoo-playing variety – didn't arrive until a HUNDRED million years, or two whole geological ages later (the Devonian Period and most of the Carboniferous Period if you're asking).

Of course, many Doctor Who books have tried to put this right – starting with Mr Mac Hulke's own novelisation "Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters" which called them simply Reptile People – including such formulations as "Earth Reptiles" (ER!) and "Indigenous Terrans" (IT!). Though they didn't QUITE go so far as suggesting "Earth Life Forms" and "Prehistoric Indigenous Xenomorphs Interred Entire Species.

Dr Who himself had a go at putting it right when they – or rather their fishy cousins – turned up in "The Sea Devils", saying that the person who came up with the name "Silurian" was a complete idiot.

(This is either a FREUDIAN SLIP or he has forgotten that his first words to a Reptile Person are: "Are you a Silurian?". Mind you, the Reptile Person in question then punches his lights out, so it’s possible that he quickly realised this was quite RUDE!)

In spite of that, for most of the story, the Reptile People are then referred to as Sea Devils, a name which MAY be in the title (again) but is coined by a human, Mr Alan Clark, a sea-fort maintenance worker scared out of his wits and trying to describe what he has seen. (Unless you want to believe that they call THEMSELVES "Sea Devils" and the worker is having an attack of the RACE MEMORIES!)

And Dr Who himself is back to calling them Silurians by the time he is Mr Dr Peter in "The Warriors on the Cheap". Which is hardly unfair, since they refer to EACH OTHER as Silurians and Sea Devils too!

What Mr Dr Jon SAID (back in "The Sea Devils") is that the Reptile People ought to have been called Eocenes.

Although to be PROPERLY consistent, Dr Who OUGHT to have said that they OUGHT to have been called Paleogenes, because the Eocene Epoch, from about 56 million years ago to about 34 million years ago, is the middle third of the Paleogene Period. (Just as the name Silurian refers to the Silurian PERIOD rather than the constituent Landovery, Wenlock or Ludlow Epochs.)

But this DOES fit quite PLAUSIBLY into history as we know it (complete absence of archaeological evidence notwithstanding).

The Eocene Epoch began and ended with an Extinction Event. (Not quite as dramatic as one of the Five Mass Extinctions – the End of the Ordovician, the End of the Devonian, the End of the Permian, the end of the Triassic and the End of the Cretaceous, aka the End of the Dinosaurs – or SIX Mass Extinctions if you include what's going on TODAY!)

The first was caused by what looks like RUNAWAY GLOBAL WARMING! In a very short geological time, the planet heated up by at least seven degrees and the weather was to remain WARM and SUNNY from the equator to the poles for the rest of the epoch, making it a GOOD time for REPTILES!

That temperature spiral was ARRESTED by a bloom of freshwater Azolla ferns in the Arctic Ocean – called THE AZOLLA EVENT – which locked up SO MUCH carbon-dioxide that it reversed the warming; eventually causing the ICE AGES we've been having for the last couple of million years!

The extinction at the end of the Epoch is called the Grande Coupre or "great break" when a whole lot of European fauna were wiped out and after that, recognisable modern mammals start to move in from Asia.

Either of those would fit quite nicely with a supposed civilisation of intelligent Reptiles: either the global warming caused by their early industry, fixed when the planet was nice and warm for them, or when they figured out carbon capture in a big way; or the Grande Coupre was caused by the environmental catastrophe that sent them into hibernation.

This epoch also sees the evolution of early primates which would certainly fit the Reptile People's history of apes raiding their crops better than any Giant Silurian Centipedes!

So – in spite of what the Wikipedia might say – it looks like Dr Who could be RIGHT and the Reptile People DO come from the Eocene Epoch.

The question then is why would a scientist like Dr Quinn (medicine woman) decide to call the Reptile People "Silurians"? Well, the obvious – but unsatisfying – answer is that he is a nuclear engineer and wouldn't know one end of a Paleobiologist from the other. But that's a bit insulting to his intelligence (even if it IS the reason that Mr Hulke the writer got it wrong in the first place!).

But how about this: he names them Silurians after the STRATA OF ROCK in which he discovers their hibernation units.

Silurian rock strata certainly exist in Great Britain, first identified in WALES actually, down beneath all the coal-bearing Carboniferous strata (why do you think it's called CARBON-iferous). And in fact the story's WENLEY Moor sounds SUSPICIOUSLY like the WENLOCK Edge – actually in Shropshire – that gives its name to the middle Silurian epoch.

As a pot-holer, as well as a scientist, Dr Quinn (medicine woman) could well be familiar with the classification of the rock strata. And he might make the obvious, erroneous assumption of associating the Reptile People with the strata in which he finds them.

Of course, it IS erroneous because the Reptile People built their shelters DEEP UNDERGROUND. i.e. they DUG DOWN to those Silurian Period strata – just like the humans THEMSELVES have dug down into the caves to build their Research Institute – in order to find a nice safe retreat to, er, hide from the arrival of the Moon.

(Okay, sorry, people USED to believe that the Moon was a rogue planet that came into Earth's orbit quite recently – analysis of MOON ROCK, though, now tells us that the moon and Earth are so similar that it's most likely the Moon is a large chunk of the Earth blasted off in some ancient interplanetary collision.)

It might be a BIT rude to use the name of a twenty-five million year slice of history during which oodles of species lived and died to name just ONE sort of creature, but it is a SMALL fig leaf to cover Dr Quinn (medicine woman)'s scientific dignity.

Still, at least it's not as DUMB as assuming that Silurians are aliens from the planet Siluria!

Today was the 44th Anniversary of the beginning of Doctor Who. Very sadly, today was also the day we learned of the death of the lady who very much made that beginning happen, Ms Verity Lambert.

Daddy Alex and Mr Will have written some lovely words of tribute to this marvellous person.

Ms Verity shaped the way that British Television looked for most of the last forty years. With an uncompromising commitment to drama and comedy of quality and diversity and imagination, she oversaw, not only the creation of Doctor Who, but such landmarks as “The Naked Civil Servant” and “Widows” as well as much loved series such as “Minder” and “Jonathan Creek”. She was in charge of Euston Films when they were redefining what the British police drama looked like through “The Sweeney”.

Through attending a party hosted by John Nathan Turner to celebrate Doctor Who’s twentieth anniversary she rediscovered a joy in the series that had been her first success at the BBC – even though she disagreed with a lot of what Mr JNT was doing. Because of that, through the nineteen-nineties she lobbied the BBC to let her company, Cinema Verity, take up production of the series. Although unsuccessful – the BBC turned instead to an American production with Mr Philip Segal that eventually became Mr Dr Paul’s adventure, Time Waits for No Man – the interest of one of the most important ladies in television was one of the things that kept the IDEA of Doctor Who alive at the BBC in the years before 2005. When the series eventually did return, Ms Verity was delighted to give it her endorsement, and said that – finally – it was all she had wanted it to be.

Mr Paul Cornell was able to pay tribute to Ms Verity this year when, in his story “Human Nature”, Dr Who’s human alter ego Mr John Smith names his parents as Sydney (for Sydney Newman, the series creator) and Verity.

But I find myself remembering an exchange between Dr Who and Mr Charles Dickens in the third new series episode: “The Unquiet Dead” by Mr Mark Gatiss.

Dickens: “There is one thing I must ask: Doctor, do my books last?

Dr Who: “Oh, yes!

Dickens: “For how long?

Dr Who: “Forever.

Be it so for Ms Verity

Farewell, and thanks.

1 comment:

James Diggs said...

I have literally just learned about Verity Lambert as I have learned about her passing. She left a large legacy because so many people enjoy what she greatly contributed too even if they do not know her name. Thanks for posting about her.