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Doctor Who (Classic): “The Sea Devils”

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The Third Doctor era began with grand ambitions to raise the stakes of what Doctor Who was about. Season seven, Jon Pertwee’s debut as No. 3, brought such sweeping changes to the show that it was practically a reboot. It jumped out of black-and-white and into color, and put a greater emphasis on elaborate stunts and action scenes than ever before. It also made a concerted effort to tell more complex and sophisticated stories. To take a not-so-random example, “The Silurians” turned the series‘ well-worn alien-invasion scenario inside-out with a race of “aliens” who were actually prehistoric reptiles who called Earth home long before humans, and who saw us as the bad guys that conquered the planet. And instead of working for their downfall the way the Second Doctor would have done with the Cybermen or Ice Warriors, the Third Doctor was forced to admit the Silurians had some merit to their claim, and spent his time trying to get the humans and lizards to settle things peacefully. He failed, and the inevitable defeat of the monsters seemed much less like a victory than a tragedy that should have been avoidable. It was startlingly ambiguous and unexpected—not only did the Doctor not win the day, but it wasn’t entirely clear that he should have.


If it didn’t always quite hit the mark it aimed for, Doctor Who’s seventh season deserves recognition as one of the high points in its history—a well-intentioned and mostly successful attempt by producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks to make the series thought-provoking and relevant at the same time it was fun and thrilling. For whatever reason, though, that didn’t last. Doctor Who’s technical chops kept getting better and better, with increasingly skillful editing and a dedicated stunt team making the action-adventure elements crackle and pop like never before—even the new series doesn’t do action as well as the Pertwee era did on a regular basis. But while the smarter, darker style of the scripts left a lasting legacy that’s still with the show today, the next couple of seasons were far more likely to embrace the easy, formulaic approach.

Which is where, two years later in the middle of season nine, we come to “The Sea Devils”—a sequel to “The Silurians” pitting the Doctor against both the aquatic cousins of the original reptiles and his own personal Time Lord nemesis, the Master, who’s locked away in prison after conducting a rampaging vendetta against the Doctor over the entire previous season. Produced with significant technical support by the British Navy, which let the crew film a fleet training exercise on location, and written by the always-competent thriller craftsman Malcolm Hulke, “The Sea Devils” is loads of fun to watch in terms of the meat and potatoes of the action—the bangs and the running around and swordfights and submarine rescues and blowing things up. But as a story and not just a bunch of things happening that are loud and exciting, it’s a weak recapitulation of what made “The Silurians” worthwhile.

Although the plot begins with the sinking of a defenseless ship by the Sea Devils, the title monsters are kept in the background for the first two-thirds of the story. In one respect, it’s easy to understand why: The Master is just way more fun to hang around with. It goes without saying that Roger Delgado is far more charismatic and has a far better chemistry with Pertwee than any other antagonist of this period—has anyone ever topped him, in fact? Here, he steals nearly every scene he’s in, whether he’s putting on a fake show of repentance (he’s even wearing white!), bamboozling his jailer into voluntarily becoming his flunky, or being charmed by a children’s puppet show on TV. Still, by this point the character had been used so often—this would be his sixth appearance in eight serials—that it was hard to miss that the character himself was limited in range, and limited what kind of stories could be told around him. He’s a cartoon—a highly entertaining cartoon, but a cartoon. Despite the Doctor’s conflicted love/hate relationship with his best frenemy, he’s also dead serious when he calls the Master “the personification of evil”—and that lack of nuance makes it more difficult to recreate the sense that “The Silurians” had that everyone in the story was a mix of good and evil.


Then again, it’s not really true that the story is much concerned with moral gray areas this time around. The Sea Devils themselves are incredibly underwritten. They have no personalities and no dialogue for the first four episodes, and unlike the Silurians, we don’t get to see whether there are any disagreements within their group because only one of them ever gets any lines. (At least, until he’s killed off. Then another one starts talking instead. It’s not entirely clear if the producers even gave enough thought to this second, equally nameless Chief Sea Devil to see him as a new character.)

The Master, by his very nature, demands screen time, and by teaming the reptiles with him for their sequel, they lose the option of being the dominant antagonist in a story with their names in the titles. It’s a fairly common formula for Doctor Who, in fact—“evil genius who has an uneasy partnership with army of faceless monsters” describes any number of Doctor Who serials, from “The Invasion” to “Terror Of The Autons” to most of the Davros/Dalek stories. But that template always favors the evil genius, who can be played by an actor who isn’t hampered by a faceless Dalek shell or, in this case, a giant turtle-beaked full-head mask that has less expression than your average Muppet. This is no exception: Because the Master gets the attention, the Sea Devils are robbed of the importance in the story that they deserve.


Meanwhile, the humans are divided into two groups: On the one hand, you’ve got fatuous civil servants whose blunderings make everything worse—the foolish Trenchard and the needs-to-be-slapped Walker. On the other, there’s friendly, professional Navy personnel who might take a little convincing to believe the Doctor’s crazy theories, but can be counted on when they’re needed. “The Sea Devils” is notable as the only Earth-set Third Doctor serial that doesn’t involve the Brigadier or any of the other characters from UNIT, which is because they were written out specifically to include the Navy characters like Captain Hart—understandably, part of the agreement to let the BBC film on real Navy ships and bases was that the Navy should be part of the story, and be presented in a positive light. (Conditions happily agreed to by Letts and Pertwee, both veterans.) I certainly have no problem with the Navy folks all being depicted as nice people, but it does close off the very disagreements that kept the drama in “The Silurians” boiling. As a sequel to “The Silurians,” “Sea Devils” also tries to tell a story about the Doctor trying to stop a needless war that happens because of bad elements and misunderstandings on both sides, including the “good guys.” But if you’re trying to make the Navy look good because they gave you a bunch of free stuff, Captain Hart can’t have any serious disagreements with the Doctor, nor can he seem too eager to use Navy force against the monsters, even in cold, premeditated self-defense (as the Brig would argue he did last time around).


But someone has to be the warmonger for the story to work, which is why we have the odious Mr. Walker, parliamentary private secretary and cowardly, gluttonous toad. Walker exists, I think, to give the forces of human belligerence a face that doesn’t have to belong to the Navy. Though it’s a bit abrupt to have him pop into the story only two episodes before the end, you can’t say he’s not a memorable character, arriving like a hurricane of repellent dickishness who is able to make the simple act of demanding breakfast somehow seem morally offensive, even before he starts loudly braying about bombing the Queen’s enemies. (I wonder if Peter Jackson had Walker in mind when Denethor sent his unloved son to die in Return Of The King—there’s a strikingly similar presentation of eating as an act of indecency in both scenes.)

In the end, Hulke kind of abandons the Doctor’s pacifism anyway. Instead of trying until the bitter end to forge a peaceful solution, the Doctor takes the same brute-force route—blowing up the enemy base—that made him so furious with the Brigadier when he did it to the other reptiles. It’s true that by doing this, he also stops Walker from dropping a nuclear weapon that would have been far more destructive, but his solution has more than a little aroma of “well, screw it, I tried to reason with them, so to hell with ’em.”


Stray observations

• Originally broadcast Feb. 26-April 1, 1972.

• The reason the Doctor’s late to the prison in the first episode is a scene that had to be left unfilmed for time reasons—he deliberately blows off his appointment to check on his nemesis in prison so he can go water-skiing. That is so Third Doctor.


• Besides how easily he lets the Master fool him, another sign that Trenchard is maybe a terrible prison warden is the fact that Jo is able to break into this maximum-security facility by finding an unlocked ground-level window.

• The “Silurian/Sea Devil history makes NO SENSE” argument can be found in the Stray Observations of the other story.


• It’s hard to let this one go without mentioning Malcolm Clarke’s wildly experimental electronic score, surely the most unforgettably strange background music of any Doctor Who story. I’d be a much bigger fan of it if it had been dialed back considerably. The stinger that announces the Sea Devils’ first appearances is fantastic, but plenty of the later sections sound like Clarke is just pounding his fists randomly up and down his keyboard, or having some sort of seizure.

• If you’re in the Minneapolis area, I’m planning to attend the CONsole Room Doctor Who convention coming up May 29-31. Come say hi. This year’s main guest is Colin Baker, Doctor of the coat of many colors. More details here: http://console-room.mpls.cx/


• A couple of you guessed this last month by the story I’ve got slated for June—”Survival,” the last serial of Classic-era Doctor Who. But I should make the announcement official that after five years and 80-plus articles, I’ve decided it’s time to step away from writing about the TARDIS and her thief, at least as for a while, as a regular thing. I still love the show, and writing about the show, and writing about the show here for you guys who regularly read and comment. But it’s time for a break. It’s been a great time. Thank you all for joining me for so long. We’ll wind things down with the last Key To Time serial, a favorite early Tom Baker show, and Sylvester McCoy’s swan song.

• Upcoming schedule:

Doctor Who Classic reviews publish monthly. Coming up:

• April: “The Armageddon Factor”

• May: “Pyramids Of Mars”

• June: “Survival”


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