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…