Greatest hits, villainous love and The Sea Devils (1972)

The Sea Devils

The ol’ Random Who Generator loves a Pertwee and this time we’re smack in the middle of the bouffant one’s five year stretch. This is our fourth story out of the five which make up Season 9, which, I have to confess, was not a year I would have rushed to revisit. But that’s why I’m doing this randomly, to avoid any personal bias in the selection of stories. So I’m getting to know the Pert pretty randomly well.

But for all his charms, his era can justly be accused of being repetitive. Like that Auton story? Here’s another just like it! That Peladon one worked out all right, and we’ve still got the costumes… Let’s do another! Not that playing the greatest hits is the worst tactic ever. But even the production team knew they’d gone a bit far with five Master stories in a row.

The Silurians though (to use its truncated name) was a better candidate than most for a lap of honour. At its heart is one of the series’ best ideas: that there was a civilization on Earth before us and they want their planet back. The Sea Devils doesn’t stray too far from the template it laid down; indeed its working title was The Sea Silurians. It also features the Navy as a kind of sea UNIT, complete with Captain Hart (Edwin Richfield, so dignified it’s hard to believe his next Who role will be as a giant slug in The Twin Dilemma) as a sea Brigadier. I really wish they’d given the Pert some sort of antique boat which could have been his sea Bessie. How the minimum inertia superdrive would have worked is anyone’s guess.

So The Silurians and The Sea Devils have the same basic plot. Reptiles awake ready to wipe out man, Doctor seeks to make peace, but ultimately man’s too xenophobic to work towards peace. In fact that’s the plot of every Silurian story. By the time we get to The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, it really is beginning to wear thin. Funnily enough, it’s the rarely praised Warriors of the Deep which does something interesting with the same old plot, by drawing a parallel between man/reptiles and east/west, fighting for control over the planet.

Recently though, Doctor Who‘s found more use for the Silurians as supporting characters. There’s Vastra, of course, but representatives also turn up in The Wedding of River Song and Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. It seems they’re of more interest as an irregular feature of the Doctor’s world than as a recurring monster. I have to agree. That standard template is too entrenched; it’s hard to imagine a what a new – a genuinely new – Silurian story would be. (Although perhaps it’s one which sees Vastra torn between loyalties for an awakening Silurian tribe and her new found human love. Moff, I’m giving these away!)

Still, if it’s hard to do something new with homo reptilia, it’s just as hard to do something new with the Master, at least in the Pertwee era. A quick run through the Pertwee Master stories shows that in every one – every one! – the Master aligns himself with an alien force in the hope of harnessing their power for conquest. He’s nothin’, this guy, without an alien super being or a phalanx of shambling monsters to back him up.

But what is new about him in The Sea Devils is the exploration of his relationship with the Doctor. As we find out here, they were friends once, and they still have a grudging admiration for each other. There are as many scenes of them chatting amiably together as there are of them snarling at each other. The new series takes this even further, making it clear that despite it all, there’s an enduring love between these two misfits. A fraternal love, as expressed when the Doctor cradles the dying Master in his arms at the end of The Last of the Time Lords. And even, now that the Master has changed gender, a romantic love as shown in a couple of well placed smooches in Dark Water/Death in Heaven. It’s the continuation of a theme which first emerges here in The Sea Devils.

The Master’s not in this alone, and true to form, he’s chosen an accomplice of questionable competence. He’s managed to hoodwink his gaoler Trenchard (Clive Morton) into helping him out. Trenchard’s a kind of old school, by jove, its a rum old thing, there’s a turn-up for the books sort of chap, and he seems to think he’s on the trail of foreign saboteurs. He’s not running a very tight ship. Despite all the carry on about security passes, there’s an unlocked window for Jo to climb through in Episode Three. And just about my favourite thing in the story is when the Master has to remind him that he can’t have the run of his own prison. ‘Er, it might be better if one of the guards were to take me back’ he gently suggests upon leaving Trenchard’s office. Once the Sea Devils turns up, Trenchard gets wise to the Master’s scheme and turns on the big green buggers with a natty little revolver, but he’s quickly disposed on before the cliffhanger in Episode Four.

‘What would you say was Trenchard’s strongest characteristic?’, the Doctor asks Hart, as if posing a question on a year 9 English exam. ‘Patriotism’, says Hart generously. I would have gone for ‘boorishness’ myself. But if it was patriotism (and there’s very little onscreen evidence of that), viewers may have recognised another flash back to The Silurians, where the similarly nationalistic Major Barker fought the lizards and lost. Add to this rank the truculent General Williams in Frontier in Space, and we can deduce that writer Malcolm Hulke thought patriotism to be, at best, a dubious virtue.

Still, that’s nothing to the disdain he has for bureaucracy. Trenchard’s replacement as second fiddle baddie for the last two episodes is Parliamentary Secretary Walker (Martin Boddey). We know he’s no good from the moment he walks in, patronising women and wolfing down all the available food. Doesn’t he know that’s the Doctor’s job? Over his two eps we see him be rude, greedy, cowardly, bombastic and all too ready to drop the bomb on our fishy friends. His best moment is when he can’t bring himself to run past a suffering Sea Devil to make his escape and runs back to hide in an office. It’s a pity he doesn’t get a flipper to the back of the neck before story’s end. ‘What you would say was Walker’s strongest characteristic, Jo?’, the Doctor might have asked. ‘Being a complete dick?’ Jo could have suggested and been spot on.

It’s a funny and familiar old story this one, but it’s had a lasting impact. A friend who’s a casual viewer surprised me one day by discussing returning monsters and saying, ‘Sea Devils. All I want is Sea Devils’. What, you want to hear that old story again? I suppose you never get tired of the classics.

LINK to The Long Game. Well, this is not great. But in The Sea Devils a menace from Earth’s past collides with the present day. And in The Long Game, Adam’s knowledge of the future threatens the present day. So, threats to the present day separated by time.

NEXT TIME… This time we’re going back to 1959. The rock ‘n’ roll years! Warm up those vocal cords for Delta and the Bannermen.

 

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5 thoughts on “Greatest hits, villainous love and The Sea Devils (1972)”

  1. I’d like to see a story set in the Silurians’ time: conflict with the encroaching primitive apes, Doctor struggling to help both, he’s probably instrumental in getting the Silurians to go into hibernation (fakes the threat to them?). Throw in some dinosaurs if you really want. Not aware of any spin-off fiction that’s dealt with that era (just a DW Weekly backup comic strip).

    1. Nice idea! I wonder if they’d do it on TV? All those prosthetics! It might be better for Big Finish to tackle.

      But if you’re going to set a story in what we might cheekily call ‘the Silurian era’, does it need to retread the old ‘conflict with the apes’ theme at all? Personally I like your idea of setting it on the eve of their hibernation and as Robert Holmes might have said, I see no apes in it. Perhaps the story is that someone from the future is there trying to stop them sleeping, thus changing history and preventing human development.

      Alternatively, we know from Dinosaurs on a Spaceship that they were a space faring species. Perhaps there are out among the stars, being indomitable. Silurians in Space, perhaps?

      1. “Perhaps they’re out among the stars, being indomitable…”

        If you haven’t already seen it, may I suggest watching the ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ episode ‘Distant Origin’ (Season 3, Ep 23), which very much feels like this scenario in action. The beings in this story (here called ‘Voth’) are highly reminiscent of Pertwee-era Silurians, both in terms of backstory & prosthetics, making them (to me) a more faithful continuation of said characters than anything actually seen on post-millennial Dr Who!

      2. Thanks for commenting, Perry!

        I’ve read about Distant Origin on Wikipedia rather than watching it. I only have time for an all encompassing obsession with one sci-fi TV series. Can’t risk another. Mrs Spandrell would kill me!

        But it does sound intriguing. I think the new series Silurians, certainly post Cold Blood, represent a significant variation from the old series ones. I’m OK with that because, as I was saying they tend to be ‘one issue’ villains. And I agree it would be nice to see them developed a la Distant Origin.

        Your comment has got me thinking about them again. This is always dangerous, and has resulted in these three random follow on questions for you to wrap your might brain around.

        1. Just how advanced was their technology? If they can build spaceships the size of Canada with ocean-powered engines, internal teleports and so on, how come they couldn’t correctly diagnose and prevent the calamity that made them retreat into hibernation?

        2. How long do Silurians live? Vastra and Jenny shacked up in the 1890s, so Jenny is long since dead. But could Vastra still be alive in the 21st century? What about Strax, for that matter?

        3. Just how pissed are they going to be when they wake up and find humanity’s sharing their world with 20 million Zygons?

        But anyway – space faring Silurians. They’re a thing worth exploring. Maybe The Silurian Ark in Space? The campaign starts here.

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