You must decide, Doctor.
As Season Twenty-One dawns—and with Peter Davison entering his final stories as the Fifth Doctor—producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward continue their policy of serving up deep cuts from Doctor Who‘s history, enlisting Johnny Byrne to dredge up the “Warriors of the Deep” (Story Production Code 6L), catching in the narrative net not one but two long dormant foes: the Silurians and their aquatic kin, the Sea Devils. Last seen during the Third Doctor’s run, these prehistoric reptilian rulers of Earth occupy a delicate space in the Doctor’s past; far from being mindless monsters or craven conquerers, they hold legitimate claim to co-existence with the “ape primitives” whose descendants came to rule the planet. Twice, in “Doctor Who and the Silurians” and “The Sea Devils,” the Doctor has attempted to bring about a truce between the humans and Silurian-kind, and twice he has presided instead over their destruction. Of his many regrets, the case can be made that these are the Doctor’s most keenly felt failings.
But Doctor Who has changed appreciably since, with the kind of moral nuance seen during Jon Pertwee’s turn as the Third Doctor giving way to a breezier, more rollicking and less ambiguous style by the time Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor steps from the stage. The overarching question for “Warriors of the Deep” is whether Byrne’s four-episode script can honor the duty owed to the Silurians by the Doctor while fitting Nathan-Turner’s requirements for contemporary Doctor Who, particularly given that both prior stories unfolded leisurely over six episodes, the better to balance action and adventure with diplomacy and discussion.
There’s no mystery as to the putative antagonists of “Warriors of the Deep,” with the Silurians revealed within the first ninety seconds after the title sequence fades from the screen. Their well-realized underwater battlecruiser plays cat and mouse with the scanners of Sea Base 4, crewed by a vaguely British military force whose uniforms and general base aesthetic owe a substantive stylistic debt to Space: 1999, with stark white techno-cool walls and color block attire. Set in 2084, exactly a hundred years from story’s first broadcast date, these soldiers represent one of two dominant political blocs on the planet, each ready to annihilate the other with “proton” missiles launched from underwater bases.
The Silurians’ motivation, however, remains initially unclear, as they first focus intently on reviving their Sea Devil brethren, entombed for “hundreds of years” after their hibernation process went awry. At this point, though, it becomes clear that a scrupulous adherence to the previously established, “canonical” Silurian/Sea Devil timeline will take a second place to the narrative needs of Byrne’s story. If the Sea Devils’ travails link directly to the Third Doctor having destroyed their underwater lair circa 1975—UNIT story dating being its own minefield—when his attempts to parley with them fail, caused equally by the Master’s conniving and the humans’ fear-based attack on their base, then scarcely a hundred years have passed, at odds with the stated passage of time. A minor quibble, to be sure, and one quickly forgiven by any devoted viewers who might notice, given that Silurians and Sea Devils finally appear on screen together for the first time…
The Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough find themselves on Sea Base 4 after the Doctor’s attempt to show Tegan a bit of Earth’s future triggers automated space defense systems, causing the Doctor to rue the day he passed up trading in his Type 40 for a Type 56, his old beater of a TARDIS making an emergency materialization in a hold of the underwater base just as tensions are on edge after a missile launch practice run and a probe being destroyed by the Silurians’ pet dinosaur, the Myrka. For the first time since “Earthshock,” the TARDIS crew spends the better part of an episode avoiding trigger-happy security forces after being blamed for everything that has happened, leading to a quite shocking first episode cliffhanger. No need to save a monster reveal for this crucial pivot in the story when you can drown the Doctor instead, shown, in Nathan-Turner and Saward’s increasingly violent fashion, more clearly than the Fourth Doctor’s face-down dip in “The Deadly Assassin.” Where’s Mary Whitehouse when you need her?
The Doctor survives, of course, though he changes out of his soaked cricket gear into a guard’s uniform in order to infiltrate the bridge, where a headstrong (and captive) Turlough has been taken. Handing over the gun he brandished as a sign of trust, the Doctor is right on time to convince Commander Vorshak (Tom Adams) that the ominous craft now headed towards Sea Base 4 is a Silurian Battlecruiser and far more of a threat than he and his companions, to say nothing of the enemy power bloc that would desperately love to learn of the base’s location.
Which the other side kind of already knows, since a somewhat overwrought sub-plot (no pun intended) centers on two enemy agents on the submerged base who surreptitiously take mental control of the base’s “sync operator” (Martin Neil), a person fitted with a neural link that allows connection to the base computer as a safeguard against unauthorized missile firing. The pair, Nilsen (Ian McCulloch) and Solow (Ingrid Pitt), serve essentially to complicate the plot and slow down both the Doctor and, eventually, the Silurians, and while the story might have benefitted from the time spent on their conniving to a more fulsome exploration of the Silurians’ ends, their skulduggery does highlight the extensive paranoia that everyone on the base experiences as a result of tensions between the two blocs, which are closer than ever to full-on war. The spies meet their end at the claws of the Sea Devils, having prioritized the needs of their faction ahead of humanity’s needs, but at least Pitt goes out with the most unlikely kung-fu kick to ever grace Doctor Who.
Director Pennant Roberts, an old Doctor Who hand, films the Silurian invasion of Sea Base 4 quite well, taking advantage of the space afforded by the tall interior sets and creating a feeling of a large underwater structure as opposed to a handful of flats rearranged as different corridors as needed. He gamely does his best with the Myrka, which stands out as an unsuccessfully realized aquatic dinosaur only by comparison to the rest of the well-considered effects work. Menacing in close up, its pantomime horse shambling lets down this otherwise fearsome foe, felled only by a blast of ultraviolet light rigged up by the Doctor. Otherwise, the conceptualization of the Silurians and the Sea Devils hews closely to their original manifestations, any visual changes from the original scarcely noticable—well, other than the Sea Devils losing their trademark, ’70s-chic mesh vests, which are not to be mourned. The voice of the Sea Devils, however, could use some tuning, as the extreme sibilance and bubbly nature of the processing distorts the voice of Sauvix, Commander of Elite Force One (Christopher Farries) to near-incomprehensibility.
Byrne’s script takes until the final of four episodes to unveil the Silurian’s ultimate goal: the destruction of all ape-primitives, in an uncomfortably named “final solution.” Once the Doctor is face to face with Icthar (Norman Comer), the last surviving member of the Silurian ruling Triad, the Time Lord convinces the Silurian leader that he was the one who tried to broker peace between the humans and Silurians a hundred years past, directly linking Icthar to one of the heretofore unnamed Silurians in “Doctor Who and the Silurians.” Calling upon the long and honorable tradition of peaceful survival that the Silurians hold as a primary value, the Doctor begs Icthar to stop his plan to launch missiles into space, triggering a cataclysmic war that will wipe out all non-Silurian/Sea Devil life on Earth. Citing the two prior encounters with humans (and the Doctor’s two prior failures to secure a non-violent resolution), Icthar avers that he is merely helping humans bring about a destruction they have worked so dilligently to bring about themselves, leaving the Silurians’ hands clean. As for the Doctor himself, Icthar kindly notes, “We bear you no malice, Doctor. Once we have finished here, you and your companions may be released,” a recognition of appreciation for his prior efforts, if nothing else.
As the missile countdown begins, the Doctor escapes and, aided by Preston (Tara Ward), Bulic (Nigel Humphries), Tegan, and Turlough, he makes for chemical storage, where he hopes to concoct some agent to neutralize the reptilian invaders. Immediately the Doctor notes the “hexachromide,” commented upon in the first episode like Chekhov’s chemistry set, a nasty compound used to seal underwater structures with the highly unfortunate side effect of killing marine—and reptile—life. A Sea Devil searching for them proves his point, as it fires and misses in a manner befitting UNIT’s finest, hitting instead a jar of the potent compound.
The compressed gas spray kills the assailant not slowly but painfully, horrifically, its face collapsing in a pile of goo. This constant need for the Doctor Who effects team to dissolve creatures, slime oozing from every orifice, stands as perhaps the least appealing feature of the entirety of Nathan-Turner and Saward’s run at the helm of the series (q.v. “The Five Doctors,” “Snakedance, and “Time-Flight,” with special mention of the pulsating exposed brains in “Mawdryn Undead.”) The gratutious display points out, however, what the Doctor will be inflicting on the invaders should he pump the ventilation shafts full of the gas—no painless demise but guaranteed suffering, perhaps the only time this predilection for pustulation pays off by summing up the stakes.
Frantically, the Doctor searches for an alternative, and when Preston demands that he use the hexachromide, he turns on her with venom, asking “I sometimes wonder why I like the people of this miserable planet so much.” As with the Third Doctor’s encounters with the Silurians and Sea Devils, the Doctor’s alienness, his non-human background, comes out clearly in a moment like this. What gives humans undisputed claim to a planet that is not exclusively theirs? Only when the missile launch countdown nears its conclusion does the Doctor decide, as Tegan insists he must. He will save the billions of humans on Earth, though fully aware of the cost of such an action.
As the bridge fills with the toxic smoke, the Doctor pleads with Icthar once more to stop, to reach accommodation with the humans, but the defiant Silurian will persevere even at the cost of his own life. As the Silurians collapse, the Doctor stops the hexachromide flow and instructs his companions to try to save the downed foes with oxygen masks. His kindness costs the life of Vorshak, shot by a partially revived Icthar while synching the Doctor into the computer to cancel the launch. Turlough stands above the once-proud reptile ruler and dispatches him coldly. With seconds to spare, a singed, drained Doctor stops the proton missiles from firing. He stands with his companions in a room full of dead bodies, the story ending with a haunting coda: “There should have been another way.”
Despite several strong turns from the guest cast, with Tom Adams and Norman Comer imbuing their rival commanders with both honor and fierceness—Comer in particular delivering emotional depth despite a full body Silurian carapace—this story belongs to Peter Davison. His range has already been well-established, his capacity for error and failure both givens, especially after the traumatic events of “Earthshock” and Adric’s death. But personal loss stands distinct from what happens to the Fifth Doctor here; failure plucks its own emotional chords, and when combined with the dissonant strings of earlier regrets about the Silurians and Sea Devils, devastation is the only fitting term for what he suffers. As with Jon Pertwee at the end of “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” Davison stands defeated, more powerfully felt still for his seeming helplessness in the face of tides too great to overcome. Davison rises to the challenge of this chilling and somber revelation in a scene as iconic as Pertwee and Caroline John sitting in Bessie with the orange glow of the exploding Silurian base tinting their downcast faces.
Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson play more modest parts in “Warriors of the Deep,” though Tegan and Turlough each have opportunities to drive the action forward, and not just by both getting captured. Tegan has, thankfully, shed her shrinking nature, so out of keeping with the character as developed in Season Nineteen, but all too prominent in Season Twenty, and she leads the charge to rescue the Doctor whenever possible. Turlough puts the sanctity of his own skin front and center, not seeing the point of the “heroic” rescues so beloved by Earthlings that only result in inevitable capture or death, a pragmatic point of view from this alien teenager that serves as a counterpoint to human nobility as expressed through his fellow companion’s attitude. Strickson makes up for any aspersions on his character with frequent fight scenes; he conducts a running gun battle with Sea Base 4’s defenders as the Sea Devils harry them down endless corridors. Given the relatively large cast of characters in this one, both Fielding and Strickson receive a solid number of scenes, certainly far more than in “The Five Doctors.”
Byrne succeeds, broadly, with “Warriors of the Deep,” respecting the special position of the Silurians and Sea Devils in Doctor Who as aggrieved aggressors, fighting for survival rather than for conquest, scarred by their past willingness to trust. Compressed into four episodes, and with substantial world building, side plots, and action sequences on offer, the moral nuances of the Silurian position receive about as much exploration as could be provided or expected. The case could be made that this story works with any invading force putting a base under siege—substitute the Cybermen and the plot would play out much as it does regardless, down to the interminable scenes of breaking down doors and gloating in the command center.
Regardless, for reasons of freshness, and to draw on the show’s rich history, the decision was made to bring the Silurians and their sibilant cousins, the Sea Devils, out of hibernation. Perhaps an extended rumination on the rightness of the Silurian cause, on the moral considerations of balancing past wrongs versus present costs, could never work in Doctor Who in 1984, itself a time (like most in human history) wrestling with the same issues. To be certain, as opposed to the superlative “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” the follow-up, “The Sea Devils,” was itself hardly a stirring colloquy on rights and ethics, what with the Master and the hovercrafts and all the explosions filling the screen. In the person of the Fifth Doctor, though, ably portrayed by Peter Davison, we get not argument and debate but instead its aftermath, the quiet, lonely moment that is the burden of the person who must decide. Few discussions can match that power.
One could only wish that Byrne, Nathan-Turner, and Saward had the courage to end the story differently, more pointedly, stopping just before the Doctor utters his wish for a different outcome, another way, a plea that softens what has just occurred. Stumbling out of the computer link-up, he asks, “Did I succeed?” Tegan assures him he did, but Turlough notes, as acrid smoke drifts across the carnage in front of them, “They’re all dead, you know.” Such is the Doctor’s legacy with the Silurians.
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Post 135 of the Doctor Who Project