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Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Sea Devils originally aired in 1973.

If Horatio Nelson had been in charge of this operation, I hardly think that he would have waited for official instructions.

Yes, a pretty impulsive fellow, if one can believe the history books.

History books? Captain Hart, Horatio Nelson was a personal friend of mine. Come on, Jo.

– Namedropping? The Doctor? Never!

When it comes to Doctor Who, “sequel” stories get a bit of a hard time from fandom. It seems to be easy to dismiss Snakedance in favour of Kinda, and to praise Spearhead from Space at the expense of Terrors of the Autons and even elevate The Daleks above The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It seems that time, and conventional wisdom, tend to favour the original serials. Of course, there are undoubtedly examples where follow-up scripts have disappointed (the ridiculously padded The Monster of Peladon following The Curse of Peladon). Still, for my money, The Sea Devils represents a tighter, complimentary and ambitious sequel to Doctor Who and the Silurians, easily one of the most highly regarded adventures of the seventies. It’s a fairly impressive accomplishment, but The Sea Devils is more than up to it.

Everybody out of the water!

I actually really like Malcolm Hulke’s contributions to the show during the seventies. Sure, every writer of the era was living in the shadow of Robert Holmes (and arguably Terence Dicks), but Hulke has a wonderful grasp of the characters involved – in particular, he writes the Third Doctor at his very finest and a superb Master. I’ll concede that The Sea Devils isn’t nearly as morally complex as The Silurians, and rather feels like “Doctor Who as James Bond”, with naval scenes and boat chases and landmines and such. I’ll also argue that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I like The Silurians. I think it’s a bold example of the show doing serious science-fiction in the middle of a wonderful and challenging year. However, I do think that Hulke’s earlier story was somewhat flawed, having a lot of difficulty with pacing. It was three episodes before we even saw the Silurians, and then they were launching a global biological attack on humanity for the space of an episode before the Doctor found a cure and so there was the final confrontation. It was very clever and very ambitious, but it was also very muddled. The seven-part adventure seemed to start too slow and end too fast, with the rather juicy stuff in the second half left struggling for space.

Who the devil are you?

I’d also argue that the Silurian costumes in that original serial looked a bit disappointing, pretty much like cheap pajamas with dodgy masks, something only really salvaged by superb direction of the tenser moments in the earlier episodes. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the serial, but I don’t think it was perfect. Nor, I should state here, do I think that The Sea Devils is perfect, but it does gain a lot from having better looking monsters and for balancing its ambitions quite well.

Filmed with the collaboration of the Royal Navy, and apparently an absolute joy for Pertwee to shoot, The Sea Devils is a pure action movie, in the most British sense, right down to the final last-minute twist where the Master swaps places with a guard wearing a convincing mask, only to escape in a helicopter. I was practically waiting for the credits to assure me, “The Doctor will return in…” There are explosions and boat chases and an impressive sense of scale and peril. The Sea Devilsdoesn’t look cheap. In fact, I’d say that it looks like one of the better produced stories of the Pertwee era.

Master craftsman...

A lot of people would argue that The Sea Devils lacks the moral complexity of The Silurians, and they’re right. There’s not a lot here to make you think. The notion of peaceful coexistence is floated in the penultimate episode, but is never really considered before matters get out of hand. It’s a smart move, as Hulke is allowed to offer the slightest hint of tragedy, while not retreading old ground. We’ve already had the tragic story of how humans can’t share the planet, so it would be pointless to repeat an adventure we’d already seen only two years ago. I respect Hulke for not settling to offer us the same beats over and over again.

So instead of the complex moral issue, the early part of the serial is padded with interactions between the Doctor and the Master, as a means of distracting away from the mysterious creatures emerging from the ocean and buying time in this six-part adventure. Truth be told, watching Delgado and Pertwee interact is perfectly enjoyable padding. The pair just work really well together, and Roger Delgado’s Master is as much a member of the ensemble as Jo Grant. Indeed, I even noticed that Delgado was credited ahead of Katy Manning on the end credits.

All washed up...

The Third Doctor was the Doctor as an action hero, and here we get a huge fencing match between the pair, complete with Bond one-liners (Pertwee is channeling his inner James Bond as he warns the Master, “ah, but you haven’t seen the quality of my footwork yet!” before kicking him) and badass cheek (at one point, during the fencing match, the Doctor eats the Master’s lunch). Only Pertwee’s Doctor could end an ass-whopping with the line, “Tut, tut, tut. How many times have I told you? Violence will never get you anywhere.”

Try to imagine The Sea Devils with any other lead actor. It just wouldn’t have worked. I’m not the biggest fan in the world of this particular era of the show, but there’s no denying that it had its own very distinctive style, and a very warm and chummy atmosphere. Sometimes it was a bit too much, overwhelming the stories, but here it works perfectly. Jo Grant isn’t a companion I rate especially well, but the interactions between Pertwee and Manning just work very well, like this little snippet, as the Doctor tries to get a radio working, but tunes into a radio station instead.

Hey, that was my favourite DJ!

I think I must have got me wires crossed somewhere.

Here’s your tea.

Thanks.

A screw loose...

There’s just something about how they can play with one another so well, and yet still look out for each other perfectly. Other highlights include the Doctor stealing Jo’s lunch (“for heaven’s sakes, Jo, what do you think this is, a picnic?”) or his befuddled reaction when Jo attempts to explain the situation to a senior naval officer, her somewhat “high-level” account of events not exactly winning over the audience, and prompting the Doctor to cut her off in a ridiculously patronising manner, “All right, Jo, all right, all right. Let me deal with the explanations.”

Jo wasn’t exactly a feminist companion, and I think she’s perhaps one of the companions that fuels the debates about the sexist nature of the classic show. It’s a little awkward to watch sometimes, with the audience getting the impression that Jo is a lovely girl, but she’s not especially bright. Still, there’s genuine affection in her interactions with Pertwee as a Doctor who is, by turns, frustrated with her and incredibly affectionate towards her. I know it reinforces various paternalistic stereotypes, but Pertwee and Manning work well enough together it isn’t as horrible as it might have been.

The Master always wanted a visit from the Doctor, but he's so hard to tie down...

There’s a sense that the group are something of a family, and there’s something very chummy about the Doctor’s observation of the Master, “He’s putting on weight.” That sounds like a horrible thing to say, but it seems more like the observation of an old friend than the insensitive insult of an old enemy. Indeed, the serial opens with the Doctor visiting the Master in prison, something one can’t imagine he does for too many other evil genius villains. The Master is more than a bit paranoid about this, suspecting an ulterior motive. It seems the Master honestly can’t believe his old friend would visit for his company, which I think reflects low self esteem. It says a lot, I think.

When the Doctor asks about the location of his TARDIS, the Master retorts, “So that you could use it in order to escape from this planet, Doctor?” While it makes sense that the Doctor would be interested in it for that purpose, I think Pertwee’s Doctor would be honest about it. He is a gentleman, after all. When that isn’t the case, the Master suggests he’s investigating the wrecks. “Don’t underestimate the Doctor. Do you really believe that he came here to see me?”Of course, the Doctor didn’t know about the wrecks before he arrived.

All at sea...

Indeed, the Doctor’s visit is motivated by an affection for his old friend. “You felt sorry for him, didn’t you?” Jo asks, proving her emotional awareness is more sophisticated than her intelligence is made out to be. “You wanted to come down here and see that he was all right?” The Doctor concedes, “Well, he used to be a friend of mine once. A very good friend.” It’s an interesting observation that the Doctor, who traditionally seems to have very little time for the Master’s fun and games, is willing to reach out to him when he has the upper hand.

We also see a return of the suggestion in Mind of Evil that the Master has… erm, issues… with the Doctor. There, his greatest fear was the Doctor laughing at him, and it’s something suggested again here with the dismissive way the Doctor remarks on his “usual childish desire to gloat.” In fact, the Master’s sole motivation here is to strike back at the Doctor emotionally, through genocide. the only thing he gets from his scheme is “the pleasure of seeing the human race exterminated, Doctor. The human race of which you are so fond. Believe me, that’ll be a reward in itself.” He’s only concerned with the death of six billion people as it affects the emotional state of mind of his adversary.

On the fence...

And, yet, there’s something quite appealing about the way that the Doctor is shown repeatedly to be more capable than the Master. The Master likes to project an air of superiority, but he’s repeatedly embarrassed her, physically and mentally. I think part of his fixation might be an inferiority complex. First the Doctor beats him at fencing, and then figures out how to escape the Sea Devil base, and the Master seems more than a few steps behind him in figuring it out.

As they enter the main chamber, the Doctor remarks, “Now, all we’ve got to do is find the airlock.” Almost on cue, and without realising how stupid he must sound, the Master asks, “Airlock?” With that air of superiority Pertwee does so well, the Doctor takes glee in spelling it out, “Yes, there must be one around here somewhere. Otherwise how else did we get down in those capsules?” Handing him a life jacket, he instructs, “Here you are. Put this on.” I imagine the Doctor actually enjoys being so condescending to the Master, knowing how much it frustrates him.

Beach head invasion...

The serial also does a good job at illustrating how close the Doctor has grown to UNIT since The Silurians, by isolating him from them for the course of the story. The Doctor and Jo actually seem relatively impotent without the military might of UNIT to back them up, and one imagines things could have been resolved a lot quicker if the Brigadier had been around to listen to the Doctor, rather than all the authority figures dismissing him as a crank. It’s fascinating, because The Silurians represented the best example of the philosophical contrast between the two, but here – in the two years since – we have the perfect illustration of how close they’ve grown, as Jo and the Doctor seem to spend quite a bit of time trying to alert UNIT of what’s going on.

I should also mention a fondness for the Sea Devils. They don’t speak until towards the end of the adventure, which gives them a definite alien quality. When they do speak, I like the distortion to their voices, creating the impression that they are talking through water. The costumes are effective and the sound design is great. They genuinely soundalien, especially when they make growling noises or other non-verbal sounds. In fact, the entire serial’s sound design is wonderfully impressive.

The devil not in disguise...

Michael E. Briant, who’d go on to direct two more solid stories (one good story and one genuine classic), and he proves his worth here, favouring strange and slight askew camera angles to create the impression of something alien observing our cast. You might argue that dutch angles were a bit passé even at this stage of the game, but I think they work, and contribute to a wonderful atmosphere. Even though the serial never quite reaches the same scale as The Silurians (with its biological attack on humanity), The Sea Devils definitely seems like an epic little adventure.

I enjoyed The Sea Devils. I think it really works well, and that’s coming from somebody who doesn’t generally like the longer stories. It works because it has enough going on to sustain interest over a long runtime, which is really something quite remarkable. While it’s probably not as clever, and it lacks a lot of the ambition, I would even go so far as to make the case that it’s a more entertaining story than The Silurians.

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