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Posts Tagged ‘The Crimson Horror’

So, then, other than a potential continuity headache regarding the Silurians, what has The Crimson Horror brought into our lives? What have we learned? What feelings has it summoned forth?

Well, firstly, a mild sense of surprise, although quite at whom it should be directed I’m not entirely certain. Ben Kingsley has taken a considerable amount of stick in the past over his supposed insistence upon being called, and credited as, Sir Ben (I don’t seem to recall this happening on Iron Man 3, for what it’s worth), and yet here we have the show’s major guest star listed as Dame Diana Rigg, and hardly anyone seems to have raised an eyebrow. I’m not sure I would have recognised her were it not for the attendant publicity, but then the image of Diana Rigg I store in my head is of her in about 1967, and the passage of time does make grotesques of us all. Not that she wasn’t predictably brilliant, of course.

No, not doing a sarcastic caption. It's Diana Rigg and she's awesome.

No, not doing a sarcastic caption. It’s Diana Rigg and she’s awesome.

This was a good episode all round for the guest cast, though – when I was first watching it, I found myself thinking ‘is some sneaky double-banking going on here?’ because the actual regulars felt like they were in it rather less than usual. You notice this less than would be the case with most other episodes due to the raft of recurring characters brought in to cover the hole. Now, I’m not in the habit of frequenting Doctor Who message boards as I am generally wary of Doctor Who fans en masse (except when they’re queueing up to buy Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories, available now from ATB Publishing, of course) but recently I was quite surprised to discover that in some ways my opinion is not that far removed from the superfan consensus.

Now, I like the Paternoster Street Gang, broadly speaking. I’m a bit wary of the way they seem to have been designed to appeal to the in-jokey cutesy meme-loving element of fandom – and if this wasn’t intentional, they’ve certainly been adopted by said element – but on the whole I like the characters, especially Vastra. At the same time, though, I’m very sympathetic to the suggestion that the characterisation of Strax in particular is a bit problematic if you like the Sontarans as a proper antagonistic returning race: we’ve gone some way beyond the basic idea of an honour-bound warrior forced to go against his instincts and natural proclivities, and into the realms of comedy so broad it inevitably kicks you out of the story. I’m thinking particularly of the satnav joke, which was… well… jaw-droppingly stupid.

And this was a shame, because I have to confess that overall I enjoyed The Crimson Horror much more than most of the other episodes in the last year, its only real rival being The Snowmen (another Paternoster Street Gang story, funnily enough). I’ve been trying to think why this should be – I don’t think it’s just down to my appreciation of the performances involved. In the case of The Crimson Horror I think it was just because this was a rattling good yarn where the basic plot came first, didn’t feel over-squashed by other considerations, and didn’t seem to exist mainly to articulate some sort of hackneyed and overwrought emotional story. Not that it was wholly bereft of this sort of thing: but the revelation of the truth of the relationship between Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling didn’t swamp the story and didn’t feel particularly contrived or irrelevant.

As I say, some of the humour was too broad for my taste, and some of the plot developments whizzed by a bit too fast for comfort – brilliant scientist by the standards of her day she may have been, but where exactly in 1893 did Mrs Gillyflower get the funds and expertise to build what’s essentially an ICBM? No doubt collusion with Torchwood will be proposed by someone, sooner or later. And quite how did standing in a cupboard with the sonic screwdriver enable the Doctor to miraculously cure himself of the odd affliction he’d acquired? (I’ve been watching this show too long: I guessed pretty much straight off the bat the identity of the monster in the locked cell.)

But now I think I’m starting to nitpick. It occurs to me I’ve slowly turned into one of those people who claims to be a Doctor Who fan but really does nothing but whinge and pick holes in the current version of the programme. This is quite a recent phenomenon – certainly, even during David Tennant’s final full season I remember walking away from each episode shaking my head in delighted amazement at the consistent inventiveness and surefootedness of the show in balancing its various constituents, and my memories of Matt Smith’s first year are overwhelmingly positive too. These days, though – I don’t know. Most of the time gimmicks and cleverness for its own sake seem to be the guiding principles involved in commissioning episodes, sentimentality feels crowbarred in, and the show’s beginning to feel relentlessly pleased with itself. Even Matt Smith’s performance is starting to feel less nuanced than it used to.

The Crimson Horror was not what I’d describe as a genuinely great Doctor Who story by any means. But there were still enough of what I’d describe as the classic Doctor Who virtues in it for it to qualify as a superior example of the modern show. I’m hoping for more of the same over the next fortnight; not, admittedly, with much expectation of them actually appearing. I think I am almost at the point of hunkering down and waiting for Moffat and Smith to finish their work and move on, although where the series will go then is surely anybody’s guess. I’m betting the answers will not be too long in coming, though.

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Whatever else it’s remembered for, in terms of Doctor Who‘s internal mythology The Crimson Horror marks a small but significant watershed moment. Midway through the episode, Vastra, the series’ current recurring Silurian, realises that the menace the protagonists are confronting is disturbingly familiar to her – she has seen something similar, a long time ago.

‘How long ago?’ asks another character, innocently enough.

‘Sixty-five million years,’ replies Vastra.

So what, you may be wondering, but this is actually the first time anything approaching an explicit date has been put on the ‘home time’ of the Silurian civilisation. Previous stories have generally danced around this particular topic, quite simply because – for various reasons – this has become a bit of a knotty issue in terms of the internal history of Who-world.

To recap: in Doctor Who, the Silurians are (one example of?) an intelligent humanoid species which is native to Earth and evolved there prior to the rise of humanity. They are reptilian by nature – actually cold-blooded, to judge by one recent appearance – appear to keep dinosaurs as pets, and have a technological level somewhat in advance of that of 21st century humanity (very considerably in advance, in some stories). There are at least three anatomically distinct subspecies of Silurian, one of which is amphibious, and one of which has notable psychokinetic powers. Despite their power and success, the Silurians were forced into hibernation by an approaching catastrophe, planning to re-emerge and repopulate the planet in its aftermath. However, their reawakening never happened and sleeping colonies of Silurians remained undisturbed, as mammals evolved to dominate the planet. It was not until the 1970s (or possibly the 1980s) that resuscitated Silurians came face to face with the Humans that had usurped their world…

All very well, and a great premise for any number of Doctor Who stories. However, in this case the (Sea) Devil is in the details. On the face of things, Vastra casually announcing her civilisation was at its peak sixty-five million years ago is perfectly logical and hardly a surprise: the Silurians are suggested to be contemporaries of dinosaurs, so it makes sense for the catastrophe which brought about their fall to be the same one which brought about the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Except we are in the realm of Doctor Who continuity, and things are seldom as simple as they first appear. Even limiting ourselves to the on-screen appearances of the Silurians, and not their various comic strip, audio, and novel outings, placing their civilisation during the final years of the Mesozoic (65 million years ago – hereafter mya) is rather problematic.

I'm tempted to say something about 'careless tongues' but am wary of being misunderstood...

I’m tempted to say something about ‘careless tongues’ but am wary of being misunderstood…

Then again, it’s not as if the series has never acknowledged some of the problems with the Silurian dates. The very fact they’re called Silurians at all is awkward – the Silurian period concluded 420mya, which is all very well, but all existing evidence suggests that the most advanced lifeforms on Earth at this time were fish. Luckily the series suggests that the Silurians were actually named by a nuclear physicist, rather than a geologist, so it is just plausible that he made a terrible mistake in nomenclature.

The Doctor has a go at fixing this problem in The Sea Devils, declaring that they should have been called Eocenes instead. The Eocene epoch (yes, I know: periods, eras, and epochs, it’s all very technical for an essay on Doctor Who continuity, isn’t it?) is potentially more hopeful, lasting roughly from 56 to 34mya – which still means the Silurians were around at least ten million years after the dinosaurs died out, and potentially much later. But we never get any evidence beyond the Doctor’s say so, and – as usual – the source of his information remains undisclosed (he didn’t seem to have even heard of the Silurians prior to his first meeting with them).

Nevertheless, on the face of it there doesn’t seem to be an immediate problem with the 65mya date given by Vastra (even if it hardly tallies with the 300mya date offered by the Doctor in another recent story). However, trust me, there are problems here.

I’m assuming here that the 65mya date is intended to be a reference to Vastra’s home time, rather than actually being derived from a trip in the TARDIS with the Doctor. It’s pretty clear that the authorial intention here is to place the Silurians in the Upper Cretaceous, and my first instinct is always to respect that.

However, authorial intention is a cruel master, especially when you have multiple authors operating independently. By placing the Silurians in the Upper Cretaceous, the implication is that the disaster which forced them into hibernation is the same one which wiped out the dinosaurs. The very first Silurian story tells us what this disaster is: the approach of a rogue planetoid, threatening immense natural turmoil on the surface of the earth. However, rather than sailing past Earth, the planetoid went into orbit around it, becoming the Moon.

This seems to be all well and good, if one accepts that – despite appearances to the contrary – the ancient history of the Doctor Who universe is actually wildly different to that of our own. (We will return to this point in a bit.) Unfortunately, the 1982 non-Silurian story Earthshock explicitly states that something else wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Earthshock‘s explanation of their demise makes no mention of the Silurian civilisation, but it does reflect real-world scientific thinking much more closely than the explanation in the Silurian stories.

We’re left with two options – either we conclude that the freighter impact from Earthshock took place on a planet which had (coincidentally) already been devastated by the arrival of the Moon, ignoring Eric Saward’s intentions when writing Earthshock (as well as the explicit text of the story), or we find a way to reconcile The Crimson Horror‘s dating of the Silurian civilisation to the Upper Cretaceous with the evidence presented elsewhere.

Complicating this still further are a number of references in Silurian stories to the relationship between the reptile people and the ancestors of humanity. Silurians, as a rule, tend to refer to human beings as ‘apes’, which – given the 65mya date we’re taking as a starting point – is slightly surprising: the most evolved human ancestor at the end of the Upper Cretaceous more closely resembled a shrew than any kind of primate. But time and again the ‘ape’ cracks keep coming – ‘my people ruled this world when man was only an ape,’ declares the Sea Devil Leader in The Sea Devils, and there are many other examples. (I suppose it may just be possible that ‘ape’ is how the TARDIS translation matrix handles a Silurian word meaning ‘giant shrew-descendant’, but we’re clutching just a little at straws here.)

So the evidence is piling up in two different places: there’s a lot of intuitive and prima facie evidence for the Upper Cretaceous date, along with explicit dialogue from The Crimson Horror. On the other hand, there’s the ‘Eocene’ reference, the whole ‘ape’ issue (modern  human scientists believe that apes appeared about 35mya – which, rather wonderfully, means the first apes were indeed around in the Eocene epoch), and – possibly the biggest problem – the whole issue of the Moon approaching Earth out of deep space, none of which are particularly consistent with the 65mya dating.

Let’s deal with this Moon-approaching-Earth thing, while we’re here. It’s one of those bits of Doctor Who mythology which the current show never mentions – in fact, it’s barely ever mentioned outside of the one story to which it’s pertinent – mainly because it’s wildly at odds with everything we understand about what actually happened in the real world. There are various other things like this in Doctor Who – Great Unmentionables which conflict so irreconcilably with either the real world or the rest of the series it’s as if they’ve been obliterated from the collective consciousness of the series and its fandom.

Does this therefore mean we can disregard them, then? Well, generally, yes, but not if we’re going to take the business of being a continuity cop seriously. Once you start picking and choosing which elements of the mythology you include, you’re not really continuity cop-ing in any real sense. For our purposes, we have to accept that – and find a way of explaining how – life on Earth in Who-world started much later than it did in the real world (as per City of Death‘s date of 400mya) and that, in defiance of all known laws of nature, Earth had an identical twin planet which wandered off into deep space at some point in the distant past (as per The Tenth Planet, etc). The whole point of being a continuity cop is to find a way to make all these ridiculous ‘facts’ cohere.

So, then, we have two plausible, but mutually exclusive dates on offer for the home time of the Silurians – about 65mya and (for argument’s sake) about 35mya. Could the very fact that there are two strong candidates suggest a possible solution? Could there in fact have been two separate Silurian civilisations, existing 30 million years apart – Vastra’s civilisation, 65mya, and – picking a name at random – Icthar’s, 35mya?

It sounds to be in complete defiance of Occam’s Razor, but it does explain many of the peculiar inconsistencies between the Silurian stories of the 20th century series and those of the current incarnation of the show.

Time for a game of 'Doctor Who monster spot-the-difference'...

Time for a game of ‘Doctor Who monster spot-the-difference’…

Consider: the Silurians of Vastra’s civilisation are physically and culturally very different from those of Icthar’s, much more humanoid in appearance, and lacking any kind of psychic development. Also, the level of technology displayed by the two civilisations is very, very different – Icthar’s people are only a few centuries in advance of 20th century man, while Vastra’s civilisation is capable of building immense space-arks apparently capable of interstellar travel. Icthar’s people build basic survival shelters; Vastra’s people construct vast underground cities.

Furthermore, Vastra’s people are seen in association with specific dinosaur species, while the animals Icthar’s civilisation uses don’t resemble any known Cretaceous species (the Doctor claims to have seen a tyrannosaur near the Wenley Moor shelter, but the creature’s anatomy is visibly different in many respects). The two subspecies of Icthar’s civilisation occasionally work in concert, but Icthar’s civilisation never makes reference to Vastra’s, nor she theirs, almost as if they are completely unaware of each others’ existence.

This does not solve all the problems – Alaya, one of Vastra’s people, is as fond of calling humans ‘ape’ as any of the Silurians from the 20th century series, and there is still that nagging issue of the drifting Moon (but I suppose we’re stuck with that). I am sure there are other problems too which have yet to occur to me. But whichever date you go for – 65mya, 35mya, or some combination of both – you are going to have problems, as I hope I’ve just illustrated. The two-civilisation theory may be more complicated, but it resolves at least a few of the issues and gives scope for working on some of the others.

Now, about the Earth’s twin planet Mondas…

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