Ships vanishing. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
As nice as it is to see Roger Delgado return as the Master, this renegade Time Lord’s appearance in Malcolm Hulke’s “The Sea Devils” (Story Production Code LLL) adds about as much to the story as the Daleks did for “Day of the Daleks” earlier this season—which is to say, narrative padding at best. But where the Daleks were shoehorned into an otherwise tight four episode story, here the Master occupies prime plot real estate for much of six episodes, leaving the titular aquatic Silurians with little room to hiss their sibilant demands.
Hulke’s original foray with his Silurians, in the somewhat unoriginally titled “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” provided ample dimension to the prehistoric rulers of Earth, with clearly defined personalities (and conflicts) within their ranks that drove much of the story. Here, their waterborne cousins have no names and even less nuance, seeming dimwitted and easily manipulated by the Master, as well as in need of a tailor to spruce up those blue net coveralls.
Perhaps it’s better, then, to see this as a Master story that draws upon an established series creature, like “Terror of the Autons,” rather than a story about the Sea Devils, awakened from their eons-long slumber by Royal Navy sonar tests. The incessant need to pair the Master with another monster/alien/villain, though, points out that this rightly beloved character lacks any actual depth beyond a desire to further his pet project, namely the destruction of the Doctor’s favorite planet, Earth. Only once, in “The Mind of Evil,” has the Master actually tried to carry out a plot of world domination and/or destruction without piggybacking on another attempt at the same, and even then he used an alien mental parasite to conduct most of his dirty work. The Master needs monsters like the Doctor needs companions.
What’s more disappointing, though, is that the initial Silurian story helped define the Third Doctor’s fundamental character arc: the Brigadier’s destruction of the Silurian cave complex devastated the Doctor more than any other event we had, to that point, see him live through, a trauma made all the more compelling by the development of the Silurians as a multifaceted culture. The Third Doctor trusts humans only warily as a result, seeing them as well-armed children, casting him as more alien than the prior two Doctors.
The Silurians/Sea Devils represent an important civilization in the world of Doctor Who. Coming on the heels of Brian Hayles’ volte-face with the Ice Warriors as diplomats in “The Curse of Peladon,” the Sea Devils’ downgrade to one-dimensional bit players becomes even harder to take. But, on the plus side, we do learn that Jo knows how to pilot a hovercraft…
Filmed with the assistance of the Royal Navy, “The Sea Devils” spares no effort to put that assistance on screen, with many shots of expensive naval equipment (and, one assumes, personnel) on display, from hovering sea-air rescue helicopters to location shooting on an at-sea naval vessel, replete with a diving bell that serves as an episode cliffhanger. On the whole, the Royal Navy comes out well, with its sailors shown being forthright and brave. Even the Doctor’s ability to infiltrate a secret naval research base doesn’t seem like a commentary on the Navy’s proficiency as much as on the Doctor’s chutzpah. Sailors are shown being killed on screen (and gambling in submarines), so it seems that the Royal Navy exercised a light touch with script notes.
Much of the story takes place on the island of doorless cars, home to both the aforementioned naval base and the castle prison where (conveniently) the Master is being held after his capture at the end of “The Daemons.” The Doctor and Jo visit the Master there, mostly so that the Doctor can assure himself that his longtime foe is well. When Jo forces him to admit as much, he replies:
Doctor: Well, he used to be a friend of mine once, a very good friend. In fact you might almost say we were at school together.
The prison warden, who just so happens to be helping the Master, casually mentions by way of nervous conversation that there have been three ship sinking in the area in recent days, causing the Doctor’s detour to the research base that holds debris from the sinking. The first several episodes are given over to the Doctor and Jo making their way onto the base and then to the remote sea fort that houses some form of sonar research station, and the main concern seems more that the Doctor and Jo have failed to return a boat, a motorcycle, and a staff car than the fact that the sea fort has been attacked by the Sea Devils. It’s a story in two halves, to be sure, with the nature of the research on the fort being dropped abruptly, again suggesting that a four episode story idea suffered the all-too-frequent ignominy of being stretched to fill a shootable script gap.
Once the existence of the Sea Devils has been confirmed to the powers-that-be, a Parliamentary Private Secretary arrives to coordinate a response, one that is purely aggressive and military in nature. The secretary is presented as a fool, ordering nuclear strikes at one moment and demanding that the toast caddy be refilled in the next. Why UNIT was not involved in the response (besides not wanting to hire on Nicholas Courtney and friends) remains somewhat unclear, but the buffoonish bureaucrat becomes a more fearsome villain than either the Master or the Sea Devils by the end of the story.
The Doctor attempts to make peace between the humans and the Sea Devils, rehashing the same ground as in “Doctor Who and the Silurians” and suggesting that the two species share the planet, given that they are suited for inhabiting different, mutually exclusive portions of it. An initial desire to seek a peaceful solution is dismissed by the Sea Devils (with some prodding from the Master) once the Royal Navy gives their underwater base a once-over with depth charges on orders of the man from Whitehall.
Perhaps having the Sea Devils accede to a peace treaty and then having the humans inevitably attempt to destroy them would hew too closely to the prior story, but there’s little to no motivation shown for the Sea Devils’ desire to take back the planet from humans beyond pure greed or bloodthirstiness. This characterization (or lack thereof) represents a step backwards for an otherwise fascinating species in the series. Absent the Master, screen time could have been spent developing them and their motivations further; the need for a fight- and explosion-filled final episode certainly demands bad guys, so one can accept that the Sea Devils were always going to lumber from the ocean to attack humans, but at least tell us why.
The Master once more believes that the Doctor will come around in the end to his way of thinking, either via threat or change of heart(s), and here he enlists his schoolmate’s assistance to complete the machine that will reactivate the broken Sea Devil hibernation systems. The Doctor tinkers with the device in a way that the Master either misses or is incapable of understanding, for it not only incapacitates the Sea Devils at one point but then destroys their base (and all the Sea Devils in it, theoretically).
Comparisons to the Brigadier’s genocidal act earlier are unescapable, but here the Doctor avers that he did what he needed to in order to prevent a war. He asked the nameless Sea Devil chief if there were any way to convince them not to attack the humans, and when the amphibian refused, the Doctor set the trap to kill them all. The script does not dwell on the moment, focusing instead on the Master making his escape in a purloined hovercraft, but it’s an uncomfortable sequel to the initial chapter of the Silurian story.
We’ve seen the Doctor shift from someone who hesitated to use his cane in self-defense to a master practitioner of Venusian aikido who shoots to kill as a first option, not a last recourse; someone who revels in the physical (if only to allow Jon Pertwee to gurn and bluster) with more than a little blood on his hands. The somewhat introspective stories of Season Seven have given way, on the whole, to more breezy affairs by Season Nine, and while the fight scenes are good fun and the monster costumes are getting better (or at least more varied), one can’t help but wonder what has been lost. But still, there’s lots of gurning.
The Doctor, rather than Jo, is captured several times in this story, first by the Master and then by the Sea Devils (and then the Sea Devils and the Master in tandem). Indeed, if anything, this story stands out for the strength shown by (and respect shown to) Jo Grant, and Katy Manning takes advantage of the opportunity, rescuing the Doctor several times. Most significantly, when Jo sees the Master disguised as a naval officer on the base (where he’s gone to purloin equipment with which to communicate with the Sea Devils), the Doctor takes her at her word even though he doesn’t see the Master himself, and he never wavers from his belief that Jo saw the putative prisoner. It’s an unswerving faith in her, and though he does eat the sandwiches she has procured for herself, he treats her as close to an equal as we’ve yet seen, certainly a signal change from the initial days of the Season Eight when he thought Jo lacked the coordination to procure tea properly.
For all the effort expended on location shooting, with varied sets and a relatively large cast, the return of both the Silurians/Sea Devils and the Master falls flat on some fundamental levels. While the Master never promised to be more than a caricature, the Doctor’s evil twin as it were, the Silurians had the potential to retain a bit of dignity while still playing the formidable foe. But in the end, when given the chance to film a Bofors gun firing at six guys in reptile costumes running across the beach, sometimes you just have to take it.
(Previous Story: The Curse of Peladon)
(Next Story: The Mutants)
Post 64 of the Doctor Who Project