Doctor Who complete reviews: The Sea Devils
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Walking, homicidal turtles bestrew the third Doctor's path...
It’s funny that each era of Doctor Who always contains its fair share of memorable monsters and incidents. Each generation remembers a particular highlight. Talkin’ bout my generation, it’s usually a memory mix of one-eyed spaghetti heads, falling Doctors and exploding Adrics.
I just missed the much vaunted era of Pertwee monsters. Presumably, if you’re a 40-something Who fan, your eyes will mist up at the thought of Giant Maggots, living gargoyles and…
Sea Devils! So memorable they even got the story named after them. Whether The Green Death should have been called The Giant Maggots I don’t know, but you can’t deny that the string-vested dog/fish things made quite an impression back in the day.
The Sea Devils is one of the most memorable Pertwee stories, and also, arguably, one of the best. It’s neared Genesis Of The Daleks status with quite a few repeats on TV - including the 1992 one which caused quite a few laughs at my 6th form college. OK, so the music’s weird, the two blokes reacting in ‘horror’ to the invading Sea Devils at the castle looked ridiculous, but the story stands up as perfect entertainment.
Which is actually quite surprising, since in theory, it’s basically a retread of the acclaimed Doctor Who And The Silurians. Angry reptiles are woken up. Doctor tries to broker a peace between the reptiles and the humans. Doctor fails. The only difference is that there’s a greater emphasis on fun in The Sea Devils. Brilliant as The Silurians is, it’s not exactly heavy on the fun factor. Whereas The Sea Devils, for all its scares for the kids and moral messages, is a two-and-a-half-hour whirligig of fun. We get all kinds of vehicles - jeeps, Minimokes, motorbikes, submarines, ships and even those jet-ski things, the sort of thing you’d hop on when you’re spending a day at the beach. There’re also many vaunted action sequences, including the memorable sword duel between The Doctor and The Master. It’s hugely ridiculous of course, with more “Hai!”s than a crowd of Woodstock hippies, but again, this contributes to the good time feel of the adventure.
The other big difference is that the Sea Devils now have their very own human agent, The Master. Whereas The Doctor wants to aim for a peaceful solution, The Master is hell-bent on provoking war and the extermination of the humans that sent him into jail.
Not that The Master should be worried about jail, since his prison sentence is more akin to a stay at an exclusive country manor hotel. OK, so in theory he’s denied his freedom (well, until he admits that he can leave there any time he chooses) but he’s got his rowing machine, a walking, talking library service and a colour TV. He’s even on speaking terms with the landlord - sorry, prison governor.
"For the second story on the trot, patriotism isn’t exactly shown in the best light"
Ah, Trenchard. Normally The Master hypnotises his victims into submission, but it seems that here he’s brought Trenchard into line with just a handful of promises. In particular, The Master plays on Trenchard’s in-built notion of “Jelly eld Britain” by suggesting that enemy spies are threatening the good of the country. For the second story on the trot, patriotism isn’t exactly shown in the best light. As The Doctor says: “The Master used patriotism as a weapon”. And The Doctor should know - what with all the many wonders of the universe to see, patriotism - at its worst - is just seen as insular and narrow minded.
Flag-waving Brits will probably choke on their tea at the depiction of both Trenchard and Walker - that’s Parliamentary Private Secretary to you. Both men are fiercely patriotic and driven by a love of and dedication to their country. But they are also seen as incompetent, bumbling nincompoops. Trenchard is a boring old duffer, driving The Master wild with his lack of conversation and humour (he certainly doesn’t get The Master’s Clangers joke). He’s also a bit of an old perv, eyeing up Jo like a dirty old man leering at women in tight dresses at the annual Christmas party. That leads to the understated but hilarious scene in which Trenchard holds out his hand to shake Jo’s, only for Jo to completely rebuff this gesture, leaving Trenchard looking even more of a fool than he normally does. But at least Trenchard is superbly played by Clive Morton, and in the end you feel a bit sorry for the bluff old cove as he’s killed by the Sea Devils while protecting The Master - loyal to the last.
Walker, on the other hand, is more problematic. He’s so OTT that he’s impossible to take seriously. Walker is the pompous English civil servant amplified to the max. Whether quoting his title at every opportunity or wolfing down food like there’s no tomorrow, Walker is something of a laughing stock. He’s like a one-man eating machine, gulping down great mouthfuls of eggs, bacon, toast and rough-cut marmalade, as well as smoked salmon sandwiches and tea. We even get a none-too-subtle shot of his big mouth as he proclaims to Jo: “Murder? That’s all war is, my dear. Now where’s that girl with my toast?”
Inevitably, his shoot-first-ask-questions-later policy doesn’t go according to plan, since it only angers the Sea Devils further. Although, The Doctor’s just as angry, and it certainly didn’t help that he had the national anthem relayed to him by Walker. “That is an extremely insular view!” he bellows, before warning that Walker has only made the Sea Devils “Very very angry!!” His OTT patriotism has only made a bad situation much worse, because he didn’t think to look at all the options. A shame though, that Martin Boddey’s acting isn’t quite in the same league as Clive Morton’s.
"The Sea Devils is a perfect showcase for Malcolm Hulke’s considerable talents, both in characterisation and moral messaging"
This glitch aside, The Sea Devils is a perfect showcase for Malcolm Hulke’s considerable talents, both in characterisation and moral messaging. Captain Hart is one of the best characters, a Brigadier-type substitute that starts off sceptical and mistrustful of The Doctor, before he gets on side. Edwin Richfield is very good as Hart, displaying some understated comic timing when dealing with The Doctor’s outrageous claims (“The poor chap’s as mad as a hatter,” he says after The Doctor’s been namedropping Horatio Nelson as a good friend). June Murphy is also good as Hart’s number two, Jane Blythe.
Even the more minor characters are well drawn, including the luckless Hickman and his soon-to-be-deranged buddy Clark. The submarine crew are also well written and acted, especially Donald Sumpter’s Dreyfus-channelling Ridgeway and David Griffin’s old school Mitchell. Jolly what, sir?
The moral message is very much at the forefront here. Like Doctor Who And The Silurians, the message is very anti-violence, instructing the viewers to always try and look for a peaceful solution rather than to start a conflict. That said, it’s a bit odd that The Doctor feels that he has to resort to sabotaging the Sea Devils’ gadget and blowing them up in the process. As his fifth incarnation would say, surely there must be another way?
"The sword-fight between The Doctor and The Master rattles along at a breakneck pace, complete with the occasional speeded-up sequence"
Despite this, The Sea Devils is sheer entertainment, and it helps that after the relative disaster of Colony In Space, Michael E. Briant is really on form. He uses the best camera angles to create that queasy fear in the opening episodes. Normally, he rotates the camera at a slight angle, such as when the radio operator is killed at the start or when the lone Sea Devil runs up and down the fort - this technique makes for a suitably disorientating viewing experience. Keeping the Sea Devils off screen for most of the first episode is also a good move, restricting their appearances to brief shots of claws. Briant is also a master at handling the action sequences, and these are all handled very well indeed. The aforementioned sword-fight between The Doctor and The Master is a very good example, and it rattles along at a breakneck pace, complete with the occasional speeded-up sequence.
The location filming is also very impressive, although it’s a shame that it couldn’t have been filmed in summer, since the occasional grey sky creeps in from time to time, making the story look a bit dull here and there. But overall, it’s very well filmed, and it helps that a lot of The Sea Devils is on film. It adds to the realism of the story, as does the display of naval hardware and weapons. The many Sea Devil battles are also well staged, with one enthusiastic stunt man even doing a double flip before meeting his maker.
The Sea Devils themselves are very memorable. The masks are superbly realised, although the overlong string vests look a bit daft. The voices are probably more successful this time around than the Silurians - Peter Forbes Robertson is very good as the chief Sea Devil. The only argument against the Sea Devils is that they don’t have the same depth that the Silurians had. Whereas the Silurians had an elder, a hothead youth and a scientist, the Sea Devils only have their chief and that’s all. Mind you, with all the other characters jostling for attention, maybe there just wasn’t room. But like the Silurians, you do feel sorry for the Sea Devils - all they wanted was a peaceful co-existence, until The Master convinced them otherwise. And their piercing shrieks when they’ve been zapped or shot are also really disconcerting.
"The Sea Devils is excellent, full of action, pathos and many great moments for The Doctor, Jo and The Master"
Not nearly as disconcerting as the music which bypasses tuneful and takes a wrong turn at bizarre. There’s no real melodies in The Sea Devils, more a series of odd electronic burbles, shrieks and jarring chords. The most obvious one is that jarring Sea Devil chord - Eeeeeeeee!!!! Eee! Eee! Eee! Eeeeeeeeee!!!! - which does kind of distract from the drama. It’s a brave experiment, but for me it just doesn’t quite work this time.
That aside, The Sea Devils is excellent, full of action, pathos and many great moments for The Doctor, Jo and The Master. Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning and Roger Delgado are on top form as usual, and even if there’s not a UNIT grunt to be found, The Sea Devils rightly deserves its place among the upper echelons of the third Doctor stories.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.