There’s molecular movement!
For anyone keeping track at home, with Victor Pemberton’s “Fury from the Deep” (Story Production Code RR), the Doctor and his companions have now spent five straight stories (thirty episodes total) on Earth, at various times in that planet’s history, an unprecedented run. Not until the Third Doctor is stranded on Earth by the as-yet-unknown Time Lords (and by BBC budgets) will the Doctor rack up quite so many frequent flyer miles in the general vicinity of London. What’s more, the TARDIS displays an increasing tendency towards the sea, this time materializing above the waves close to the North Sea coastline. The TARDIS can float, at least, which is more than can be said for the story’s plot.
To be fair, the story moves along with some pace, though it’s not the fare one has come to expect from Doctor Who. Indeed, the Doctor barely figures in the first four episodes, which are given over instead to the intramural power struggle between a grizzled old rig hand and a fancy college educated technocrat whose wife just happens to have sprouted weed tentacles from her wrist. While Robson, the vet, and Harris, the know-it-all, fight, the Doctor dithers about until Victoria is finally (and inevitably) captured, spurring him to action. Throw in a meddling Dutchman appointed by the multi-national organization overseeing the gas extraction, a Laurel-and-Hardy-esque pair of villains named Mr. Oak and Mr. Quill, an overactive foam machine, and lots of helicopters flying to and fro, and you’ve got “Fury from the Deep” in a nutshell.
“Fury from the Deep” shows Doctor Who in a rut, with another isolated base (this time a set of gas drilling rigs in the North Sea) under attack from another enemy that can control minds and generate copious amounts of foam. Only this time, unlike the Great Intelligence and the Yeti, the foe has no intelligence of its own. Because it’s seaweed. Evil seaweed. Six episodes of evil seaweed.
The scant existing footage of this fifth season story shows, predictably, lots and lots of foam. The effects department seems determined to justify their expenditure on a foam making machine. The regulars even have a foam fight at the beginning of the story, near a pipeline that shows a curious build-up of seaweed. The Doctor pokes around a control box near the pipeline, using a device that will appear quite frequently in the future: the Sonic Screwdriver.
Sonic power features prominently in this story, with the weed creatures ultimately vulnerable to loud noises. Or, more precisely, to Victoria’s screaming. Whether or not Pemberton and the production team added this touch as a knowing aside, given how often female companions are reduced to screaming fits, remains uncertain, but the production team has shown some winking knowledge of the still-young series’ tropes, most notably in the continued returns to Earth. Victoria even notes, again, “We always seem to end up on this planet.”
The build-up to the Doctor’s direct involvement in the plot highlights an odd turn of character. He defers, often, to others in this story, allowing the two authority figures, Harris and Robson, to fight amongst themselves. Where previously the Second Doctor has allowed others to think they’re driving events while he waits, patiently, in the background, here the Doctor genuinely is just along for the ride. Having been captured for tampering (sort of) with the pipeline control box, he’s suspected of causing the odd pipeline sounds and readings. In actuality, a strain of “living” seaweed has begun to thrive in the presence of the natural gas being mined by the rigs, and it has developed the ability to parasitically control human beings. The Doctor exhibits curiosity, but he doesn’t act. Only when Harris’ wife has come under attack from the seaweed does the Doctor begin to take the reins and figure out what’s going on.
Not that we ever really figure out what’s going on. Because the seaweed is, effectively, just a plant, albeit one that shows group intelligence while controlling human brains, there’s no moral or ethical compulsion on the Doctor’s part to understand it or to bargain with it. The implication is that it’s only sentient because it has tapped into human intelligence. Like the Macra, the nameless weed creature exists as nothing more than a parasite, and the Doctor destroys parasites without batting an eye.
Moving away from intelligent foes allows for a more action-oriented resolution to events without compromising the Doctor’s already-established pseudo-pacifism. Even the potential for an ecological reading here, that humans caused the growth of the seaweed through the exploitation of natural gas reserves, remains unexplored, as the Doctor pulls out a book of eighteenth century mythology and folk tales and comes across a mention of a weed beast that attacked mariners in the North Sea. This threat has always existed on Earth and attacks through no real fault of the friendly people on the gas rigs, so keep the gas flowing, lads.
The Second Doctor having a handy book of maritime legends sitting around calls back to his Five Hundred Year Diary, a bit of internal coherence that helps ground this story in the Doctor Who universe. Such coherence also comes through in the explicit reference to a prior story involving helicopters: when the Doctor tries his hand, unsteadily, at flying one of the primitive whirlybirds, he mentions how he saw Astrid Ferrier pilot one, recalling “The Enemy of the World.” The entire sequence, sadly lost on film, shows as well a dedication to a bit of levity in the series, as the audio of the scene suggests quite a few close-calls and periods of upside-down flight.
Eventually, the Doctor realizes that Victoria’s screams harm the weed creature (and stuns any humans who have been symbiotically controlled by it), so he rigs up a “sonic laser” using Victoria’s screams looping through a tape recorder. A few good blasts clear out the rig everyone is trapped on, then a few blasts reverberating through the pipeline kill the creature in its lair, and the day is solved. Harris and Robson begin to appreciate one another and the Doctor declares that, as has become typical, he and his companions are leaving immediately. Except, they don’t all go.
A pleasant amount of the story revolves around the subplot of Victoria growing tired of travelling with the Doctor, and to some extent, the rather pro forma main plot, with the monster and all that, allows room for Victoria to voice her concerns. We all know that the Doctor will figure out how to defeat the parasitic seaweed in the final episode, so there’s no need to belabor the point, freeing up dialogue time for more interesting matters.
Past companion departures have been sudden. Ian, Barbara, Ben, and Polly all found a chance opportunity to return to their own time and took it; Vicki (and Susan, sort of) fell in love and left in the final episode of a story; Steven was appointed head of a whole civilization; and Dodo, well, the less said, the better. Victoria, on the other hand, shows her anxiety gradually, playing off of Jamie’s rather child-like enthusiasm for danger and adventure. She’s grown up in the span of five stories, and she’s seen enough:
Victoria: Every time we go anywhere, something awful happens. Daleks, Cybermen…
Victoria: Yes, and Yeti. Why can’t we go anywhere pleasant, where there’s no fighting? Just peace and happiness?
At the end of the story, she decides to stay on Earth, and it makes sense. Captured once more, used as bait once more, and forced to scream so often that even she declares it silly, one understands entirely why she’s willing to leave the blue box behind. Deborah Watling plays Victoria’s leaving with subtle grace, relieved and yet heartbroken.
Jamie, rather than the Doctor, shows the most emotion at her leaving, with Frazer Hines sulking at the end of the story, uninterested in whatever destination the Doctor has in store for them next. While Patrick Troughton inflects his final words of the story—”I was fond of her, too, you know, Jamie,”—to good effect, the leave-taking lacks the pathos of William Hartnell closing the TARDIS doors on Susan, or even leaving Cameca behind in “The Aztecs.” One can read this tonal difference in the fact that the Doctor knows she was going to leave, that he has seen her moving in this direction. He, too, understands her reasoning, making the decision more palatable for all concerned.
Setting aside the storyline, the care taken with Victoria’s departure shows a maturation in the series. Having established certain guidelines, certain expectations, the writers and production team are free to focus more on the characters themselves and their development from story to story. The degree to which the characters grow (and even remain relatively consistent) will depend greatly on the writers for each story, but there’s an arc to the characters now. If the occasional foamy ancient weed creature is the price to pay, well, so be it. Besides, it’s not like the Cybermen are ever far away.
(Previous Story: The Web of Fear)
(Next Story: The Wheel in Space)
Post 43 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project