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50 Years Ago, Doctor Who Gave Us One of Its Most Chilling Scenes Ever

Masters succumbs to the Silurian plague.
Masters succumbs to the Silurian plague.
Image: BBC

Half a century ago today, Doctor Who introduced us to the Silurians, an ancient race of reptilians who had lived on Earth long before the dawn of human civilization awoke them from their underground slumber. An icon of ‘70s Doctor Who, their debut adventure is still one of the Third Doctor’s finest outings—but it’s also home to a scene that still shocks to this very day.

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Although it was 50 years ago today that season seven’s seven-part epic “Doctor Who and the Silurians” (or simply “The Silurians”) first began, the shocking moment doesn’t occur until the climax of its sixth part, first broadcast on March 7, 1970. After discovering the existence of the Silurians beneath the Earth, reawoken by an experimental nuclear power research facility in the English moorlands, the Doctor tries to encourage peaceful negotiations between the angry Silurians and the fearful humans over who actually has the right to exist on planet Earth. Tensions fray and the stakes escalate to dire effect.

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A younger Silurian usurps the rule of his commander and infects the plant’s security chief, Baker, with an ancient, lethal virus. The resulting pandemic means the Doctor, his companion Liz, and UNIT must race against the clock to prevent the end of humanity. It leads to this horrifying moment at the end of part six, where, as the Doctor and Liz work hard on a cure, it seems as if they’ve run out of time. The nuclear plant’s Permanent Under-Secretary, Masters (Geoffrey Palmer, who returned to Doctor Who briefly in the Tenth Doctor Christmas Special, “Voyage of the Damned”), flees to London to avoid being quarantined after contracting the virus—setting off a horrifying and sudden outbreak.

Yes, with the hindsight of 50 years, the moment might seem a little quaint to modern eyes. Even a little camp, with all these extras hammily smooshing their plague-mottled faces against myriad surfaces as they collapse to the ground. But there is also a brutal simplicity to the scene that feels grounded.

The immediacy of the plague’s effects might be the most science-fictional element of the moment, but it’s a moment of pure, nauseating terror that doesn’t need a patented Doctor Who monster attack to make it scary. It’s starkly real—the soundscape full of increasingly alarmed calls for people to maintain quarantine, wailing ambulance sirens. Shots of the Doctor, the Brigadier, and Liz racing against the ticking clock fade in and out as we see, in spite of our heroes’ best efforts, that they’re already fighting a losing battle: bodies are dropping to the floor, the Silurians’ virus is spreading, and lives are being lost.

The most chilling death of them all however, is saved for last, as Masters finally succumbs to the disease he’s brought to London. The soundtrack fades away to give us only the ambient noise of Masters himself, delirious, struggling to ascend a pathway as scared civilians look on. The cuts to and from his own point of view in what are his last, labored moments only amplify the sense of delirium, before the camera only stops to linger as Masters slumps dead against the railing.

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We remember Doctor Who’s frights as those iconic “behind-the-sofa” moments—pepperpot aliens and rubber-suited monsters that speak to fantastical, heightened fears, the charm in the fictionality of it all. “Doctor Who and the Silurians” instead gave us a terror that felt primal, raw, and so very believable, without a single monster or alien in sight. It’s a moment that still feels real today, as anxieties over the cornavirus outbreak swirl about in our heads and in our media, as it did 50 years ago.

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James is a News Editor at io9. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!

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DISCUSSION

The period of Doctor Who with Earth-bound UNIT episodes is something quite special in the history of the show for me in terms of the atmosphere it invokes. They represent something that seems sadly lacking in children’s television these days, which is a willingness to have shows that were happy to be genuinely dark. I appreciate that there are similar plot-lines in the nu-Who stories, but they don’t seem to have the same bleakness and grittiness to them as the shows from that era.

Oddly enough, what I found most terrifying from that era as a child were the Auton daffodils and chairs from Terror of the Autons. This is despite not actually watching the story until much, much later. It was the broadcast the year before I was born, so I grew up in the period when we were relying on Target novelisations and Doctor Who Weekly. Simply the notion that seemingly everyday objects could suddenly turn on you freaked me out when I was younger.

I do think it is a shame that we don’t allow kids to be properly scared by television any more, I don’t think it did my generation any harm. It may have scared the crap out of us, but we weren’t scarred for life, although Children of the Stones did leave me somewhat nervous of stone circles for a while.