The 1960s brought a new dimension to science fiction fandom with the arrival of what would become iconic television series. In the US Star Trek had an immediate impact on the World Science Fiction convention and the Hugo awards. The 1967 Hugo Awards had three episodes of the first season nominated for Best Dramatic Presentation, one of which (The Menagerie) won the award.
In the UK, the BBC had begun its own culture-warping science-fiction show in 1964. Doctor Who had been initially planned as an educational serial that would use time-travel to introduce different historical periods to children. However, the second episodic story hit pop-culture gold with the introduction of the pepper-pot like monsters the Daleks. The show staked its claim in the otherwise unloved tea-time slot of Saturday evening, establishing itself as a weird, eclectic family show with some of the sensibilities of children’s television but with it’s own element of horror.
For most of it’s original run (1964-1989), Doctor Who had no impact on the Hugo Awards. With inconsistent distribution in North America, US fans had limited access to current episodes. However, the show developed its own following in the US despite its limited availability.
After a prolonged hiatus (interrupted briefly with an attempt at a TV movie), the BBC began a new version of Doctor Who in 2005. Helped perhaps by a boost in British voting members due to the 2005 Worldcon being held in Glascow, the 2006 Hugo Awards saw four episodes from the newly revived Doctor Who as finalists for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form). Of those, the two part story “The Empty Child“/”The Doctor Dances” won the award. For the next few years, Doctor Who would regularly occupy multiple finalist spots in the Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) category with multiple wins. The peak set of nominations came in 2014 when four of the six finalists being either Doctor Who episodes or shows about Doctor Who and additional Queers Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the LGBTQ Fans Who Love It being a finalist for Best Related Work.
Despite (or because) the Doctor almost swamping the category, the award in 2014 went to a newer TV behemoth: Game of Thrones. This was the second win for the TV version of George R R Martin’s epic fantasy, having also won in 2013.
Of the sixteen nominees in the long list of the 2013 Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) category over a third were Doctor Who episodes. However, I have tarried too long on matters Hugo-related and as yet haven’t mentioned dinosaurs. So I need to dig down into the non-finalists and pick out the tenth ranked nominee for 2013: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.
I need to hop-back in time first though. In 1970 the third version of the character The Doctor, played by John Pertwee, encountered a species of beings called (geologically misleadingly) the Silurians. The Silurians were a race of humanoid reptiles from the Earth’s distant past. Facing extinction due to the arrival of the moon, the Silurians had gone into a deep hibernation in underground cities. After being accidentally woken up by an underground nuclear research centre, the Silurians and Humanity end up on a collision course with a faction of the Silurians planning to wipe out humanity as interlopers. Despite the Doctor’s best attempts at a peaceful solution the story ends badly for the Silurians.
Like a lot of Doctor Who, the Silurian story is both great and frustrating. It is packed full of ideas and a really clever “monster”: alien like creatures who actually have a quite legitimate claim to the Earth. The Doctor’s position of peaceful coexistence, however, is refuted by the ending where the destruction of the Silurians is treated as a bad decision but not as essentially a genocidal one.
The revived version of Doctor Who attempted to revisit the original story line in 2010 in a two-part episode “The Hungry Earth” / “Cold Blood“. The story follows many aspects of the original Silurians story in an intentional attempt to have the new version of Doctor Who engage with its past but also attempt to fix that past with a more hopeful (and non-genocidal) ending.
While the story was not a complete success, it did succeed in one aspect: bringing back the Silurians as part of Doctor Who‘s roster of creatures. The addition of Madame Vastra (a Victorian Silurian married to a human woman who acts a quasi-Sherlock Holmes character and who has a Sontaran warrior as a butler) meant that at least one Silurian would be a recurring character in Doctor Who for several seasons.
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is a special-effects driven episode that initially aims for a fun romping quality. The Doctor, his two companions Amy & Rory, Rory’s dad, Queen Nefertiti and a mandatory big-game hunter find themselves on a giant spaceship that is on a collision course for Earth. The ship is a giant ark-ship containing dinosaurs that was sent from Earth by Silurians in the distant past.
Over the course of the plot the story takes a darker tone. The ship has been stolen by a cynical man called Solomon (a choice of name that has raised concerns about anti-Semitism in the episode). Solomon not only was hoping to steal the dinosaurs but also eliminated the hibernation Silurians onboard. At the end of the episode, The Doctor uncharacteristically refuses to save Solomon from certain death.
The dark end and the strong stance taken by The Doctor is particularly notable given that the episode was written by Chris Chibnall, who has since go on to become the show-runner for the 13th Doctor. Chibnall’s first season as director was criticised for having the Doctor take very inconclusive actions against multiple antagonists. The contrast specifically with this episode written by Chibnall is notable in which the Doctor takes a more punitive stance when faced with a mass murderer.
It’s possible that peak-Doctor who is long past in the Hugo Awards. Even so, it has been a finalist for a Hugo Award every year since 2006, even in years when the show has had only a limited number of episodes. The longevity of both Doctor Who and Star Trek suggests otherwise. Fans help drive what is produced on television and it is more than likely that new version of classic shows will be forever re-invented and sometimes for the better.
Next Time: If you were a dinosaur…