The Doctor Who episode “The Hungry Earth,” was the first part of a two-part story which concluded in the episode “Cold Blood.” The pun is an interesting one, since the main characters apart from the Doctor and humans are Silurians, “homo reptilia,” a race that inhabited the planet long before humans evolved. Being reptiles, they are literally cold blooded. But this story explores whether they—and whether we humans—are “cold blooded” in the sense in which that phrase is used metaphorically.
In the last episode, hostages were taken by both sides, as each felt threatened by the other. On one side, a human woman had her husband and son taken by the Silurians who responded to the incursion into their realm by a human drill. The same woman’s father had been stung by a Silurian’s venom. On the other side, the humans managed to capture a Silurian who we later learned was the sister of a Silurian military leader.
In her desperation to find her family and save her father, the human woman tries hurting the Silurian prisoner, hoping she’ll provide information. But the Silurian dies.
This is how violence spirals out of control. We act in desperation to help, protect, or save those who are dear to us. But in the process, we harm those who are dear to someone else. Every human being, every sentient being we are likely to encounter in the universe, will almost certainly be someone’s offspring, someone’s sibling, someone’s parent, or in some other way someone significant to someone else.
As a survival mechanism we have a tendency to forge relationships of blood, friendship, or ideology, and then engage in competition with others who are at best more distantly related, and in some fashion “different” from us.
It is for pointing out how morality based on such allegiances breaks down that I appreciate the parable of “the Good Samaritan.” After focus has turned onto the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” a follow-up question was asked: “Who is my neighbor?” In the story in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus responds with a story in which a man is robbed even of his clothing. Clothing is a key means of identifying ourselves, and stripped of these identity markers, few passersby would know if this half-dead individual was part of their in-group or out-group. And that is the point of the story. If we define our responsibility to help others in terms of shared identity, what do we do when identity markers are missing? And what happens to us when we are in similarly desperate circumstances?
In the Doctor Who episode “Cold Blood” we are asked to see the “humanity” in bipedal lizard people. But that is a much-needed challenge. Sometimes we need to strip away clothing, sometimes even our very skin, in order to recognize a common humanity. Perhaps one day we will need to apply the same principle to recognize a common sentience.
Intriguingly, the Doctor himself sees the need to bring in religion to assist with his plan. Humanity is deemed not to be ready to share the planet with the Silurians. But they need to be, because the Silurians have every bit as much right to the planet as humans do (in fact, they were here first). And so the Silurians return into hibernation for another millennium, while the Doctor tells the humans who have shared this adventure to use legend, prophecy, religion—whatever it takes—to spread the message: this planet will be shared in a thousand years from now.
Religion in our time has been the focus of much criticism, and not all of it unfairly. Religion at its worst can be just another identity marker that divides some of us from others.
But as the Doctor reminds us, religion at its best can prepare us for a surprising future, and challenge us to look beyond our in-group to see a hates Samaritan—or scaly-skinned Silurian—as a neighbor.
The Second Letter of St. Doctor to the Silurians
A bit of behind-the-scenes for you: the subject line on the e-mail thread for “Cold Blood” is “Second Silurians.” At first that just meant that this was the second part of the lizard people two-parter, but given the context of the episode it could just as easily be The Second Letter of St. Doctor to the Silurians. Given the above-alluded-to indication that the Doctor’s message, that “this planet is to be shared,” should be made into “legend, or prophecy, or religion.” More than any episode since “The Beast Below,” this episode was about the Doctor’s ethics of peace, his demand that we abandon our gut need for revenge and violence.
Ambrose, whose son has been kidnapped and father poisoned by the Silurians, threatens to torture a reptilian prisoner unless she provides an antidote. When the Silurian doesn’t answer, Ambrose zaps he with a taser, and the wound soon proves fatal. In the moral calculus of most TV and movies, the Silurian “deserves” it—24 does this kind of ticking-bomb torture weekly. But when Ambrose’s father Tony enters the room to find his daughter standing over the writhing form of the tortured reptile-woman, he’s furious, even though it’s his life she was trying to save. Through gritted teeth he admonishes her: “We have to be better than this!” I don’t know how this plays in the UK, but for an American viewer there’s a pretty clear message: you may not torture anyone in my name, no matter the reason.
The Doctor later echoes Tony’s moral message, telling Ambrose: “In future, when you talk about this, you tell people there was a chance, but you were so much less than the best of humanity.” His turn of phrase is a bit prettier (as is his later order to “Be extraordinary”), but I think it’s important—and a sign of Doctor Who’s moral optimism—that this message came from a human being first. The alien Doctor may be this show’s de facto messiah, but the ethical message he brings comes from ourselves first. If it’s just the Doctor telling us to “be better,” we have the opportunity to write off that call to moral improvement as an impossible bit of science-fantasy. But if it comes from an earthbound elder like Tony Mack, then maybe we do have a chance…
There’s another clear parallel to real-world situations in this episode, of course—the humans and Silurians reach an agreement to share the surface of the planet, only to have the process derailed by the violence of extremists—that of the human Ambrose, who has killed her prisoner, and of the Silurian military commander who refuses to forgive that death. Emotions override reason, neither side backs down, and the peace deal is scuttled. It’s not too much of a stretch to conclude that the situation is a science fictionalization of Israel/Palestine (though, in that context, it’s probably best not to take the whole “lizard people” thing too literally).
In this context, though, the Doctor’s suggestion that the idea of sharing the planet should be carried on through the Silurians’ thousand-year hibernation as a religion becomes potentially ironic. I’m not one for the reductionist view that religion is the sole, or even the primary, factor in the Israel-Palestine conflict. But many do so argue, including prominent Brits like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Are we to read this order optimistically, or cynically? After all, the Doctor of all people should realize how a simple message can be distorted over a millennium. When the Silurians awaken, will they find that this religious message has been carried down faithfully, or twisted, even inverted? The brief opening narration of this episode, in which the Silurian leader speaks from a thousand years in the future, tends to imply an optimistic reading (as, indeed, does the series’ general hopefulness), but the issue still feels unresolved. I certainly hope Doctor Who revisits the future of the Silurian/human conflict; there is certainly more for the show to say about how to communicate a moral message.