“You fire,” says Peter Davison’s dashing Doctor to gun wielding double agent Nilson (Ian McCulloch) in Warriors of the Deep, “and every Sea Devil in the area will come running.” It’s an obviously empty threat. Those Sea Devils can’t run. Haven’t you noticed, Doctor? The best they can manage is a kind of slow lumber, legs stretched out wide like they’ve all soiled themselves. It’s a typically strained moment in this uneven adventure, the production values of which constantly undermine its efforts to excite and entertain.
But you know what? Pointing out what’s wrong with Warriors of the Deep is like shooting Sea Devils in a brightly lit barrel. We’ve been doing it since 1984. We can sing it like a New Romantic pop song. In fact, let’s have a go right now. It’s “overuse of old monsters, hexachromite reveal gives away the ending, lighting’s all wrong, oh dear the Myrka, paint’s not dry, blokes from Rentaghost, continuity’s screwed, all those dead bodies, attempt to remake Earthshock, there should have been another way, Michael Grade and Room 101.” Ah yes, there’s nothing like the classics.
But Warriors is also nothing like a classic. So I’m not going to attempt a redemptive reading of this story. That, I think, would be utterly nutty. But is there anything new to say about it?
Mrs Spandrell gave it a go. She gave a cursory glance at the TV screen and said, “that set’s better than normal”. And I think she has a point; the Sea Base sets may be too white and then flooded with light, but they do have a sturdy, industrial look which isn’t half bad (if we ignore that bit at the end of Part One where a wall wobbles alarmingly during the Doctor’s fight with the guards). And look, that stunt fall into the tank is pretty cool.
It provides an exciting end to Part One, which is otherwise weirdly slow for a season opener. It’s basically an episode where we find out some background information about the Sea Base (a cold war is in full swing, a synch op’s needed to fire missiles, there are enemy agents on board), and wait for both the Doctor and the monsters to turn up. The monsters are, in this case, the lizardy Silurians and their fishy cousins the Sea Devils. The scenes with the Silurians are particularly languid, adopting a Hartnellesque pace. Every scene with them in Part One consists of them explaining the plot to each other. Slowly. While walking. Slowly.
(Incidentally, I’ve never understood why we get both Silurians and Sea Devils in this story. It doesn’t need them both; just one would do, and presumably that would be the aquatic Sea Devils seeing as this story is set, y’know, underwater. They could have saved themselves the cost of three costumes and loads of explanatory dialogue.)
But once Part One is done, the pace picks up nicely. The remaining three episodes are quite tightly scripted and move along swiftly. It’s unusual because although the four episode structure favoured by Doctor Who often means there’s an episode which lags, it’s commonly the second or third parts, or both. It’s such an odd thing, that four part format; it’s a wonder the series took so long to move to regularly producing three part stories with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. At least Warriors shows it up in a novel way (now that’s damning with faint praise!)
(And although the last three quarters are better than the first, I have to point out this odd piece of dialogue from Chief Sea Devil, the carefully pronounced Sauvix (Christopher Farries). He’s feeling confident about how the invasion’s going, as the watery beasts break through Airlock 5. “The outcome is certain,” he whispers. In his next scene, Ichtar (Norman Comer) tells him the Myrka will soon take the bridge, and Sauvix replies, “then the outcome is doubly certain.” Have we run out of dialogue for poor Sauvix so soon that we have to recycle lines already? When will the outcome be trebly certain, I wonder? Or quadruplely certain?)
There is an interesting mingle of plot and subplot though, because there are two dastardly plans afoot on the Sea Base. The first is the Silurians’ – they plan to provoke a massive global war. The second is courtesy of infiltrators Nilson (who for Australian viewers has the distracting misfortune to be the spit of former treasurer Peter Costello) and Dr. Solow (Ingrid Pitt, who had the distracting misfortune of being in The Time Monster). Now usually these plans would intersect in some pleasingly neat way. In standard Who Nilson would be in league with the Silurians, arrange them access to the Base and then be betrayed and killed by them, rather than assisting his own evil ends.
But here, the two wicked plans never co-incide. And Nilson’s plan runs a poor second to the Silurians’. When the truth comes out, he struggles to find anyone to care; the Doctor’s the first to dismiss it as trivia compared to the greater underwater menace the Base faces. It all falls apart in Part Three anyway when both conspirators are killed; Solow when she attempts to first dance with, and then roundhouse kick the Myrka and Nilson when the Doctor burns out his eyes with a big lamp. Hashtag ignominious.
And as silly as all this is, Warriors is Doctor Who‘s most committed attempt to addressing the threat of nuclear war, a fear which survives today, but was most potent in the 1980s. In particular, it plays into the fear that war could be triggered by some computerised error. A popular Hollywood film in 1983 was WarGames, in which a young hacker almost triggers war by playing a game which turns out to be the national defense system. Warriors’ version has a worldwide computerised defense system which is permanently on edge, seemingly able to be set off by a stray piece of space debris or an unprepared synch operator. In this way, Warriors is as topical as The Green Death was in the 70s. It’s a shame its production limitations overshadow its promising premise which, just in case we’ve forgotten, is strong enough to be repeated 29 years later in Cold War (complete with scaly green monster).
But the really good news from 2084 is fashions are roughly the same as in 1984. So don’t throw out those puffy jackets and ski pants. Your grandchildren are going to want them. Oh yes. The outcome is certain.
Link to The Sensorites. Both feature humans affected by mind control.
NEXT TIME… Nottingham is not enough! We get merry with Robot of Sherwood.