In my mind, I can sum up the third Doctor era by saying that the only real classics are in season seven (Pertwee’s first). I knew that The Sea Devils was pretty good though, and so when I came to rewatch it for this review I was hoping I could give out a five-star rating. Unfortunately, while it remains a strong story and one of the era’s best, it never quite achieves its lofty ambitions.
Partly, its good-but-not-a-classic status is down to the most basic methods used to get it onto screen. The opening scene, for example, uses all the obvious methods to get a reaction from the audience, such as coming from the monster’s point of view to prevent the viewer from seeing what they look like. I’m not going to be precious and criticise something like this – and it isn’t bad in any case – but it does set the tone for something that isn’t going to break new ground.
Here’s the thing though: how well is this story made? The cast are largely top-notch, the script is tight and more or less bereft of silly lines and the set design is sumptuous, with even locations that are onscreen for a few seconds given dozens of tiny details. With this and The Curse Of Peladon it’s easy to see what drained the money from The Mutants.
Clive Morton’s charming portrayal of Trenchard is one of the story’s highlights as comes across as a man genuinely convinced that what he’s doing is the right thing and as a consequence prepared to commit some rather dodgy acts. This is crucial for the character, as it offsets the more-or-less motiveless Master (Roger Delgado was a fantastic actor but the character only had credibility in The Deadly Assassin). However, there is some crude plotting evident as Trenchard drops the expo-bomb early on by crowbarring in a reference in about sinking ships. This might slip by unnoticed apart from the fact that Trenchard is – so he believes – in on an extra-legal spy mission with regards to that. There’s more nice characterisation to make up for it with the Doctor and Jo being cautiously civil to the Master (the Doctor refusing to shake his hand is a great moment), and it must be said that while he isn’t really given a reason to be evil apart from simply being the baddie, Delgado is as good here as he ever was and he does at least make the character interesting. This is seen later as well, in the wonderful scene where he watches an episode of The Clangers and seems to be genuinely charmed by it.
Malcolm Clarke’s score is an acquired taste, but his use of early synthesisers creates a score that totally fits with the atmosphere of the story, even if it’s not something I’d want to actually listen to itself. Thinking of this and his dramatic, chilling score to Earthshock it’s hard to credit him with Attack Of The Cybermen, where he sounds like he’s playing a broken harpsichord with his elbows.
Edwin Richfield puts in a good performance as the stern but sympathetic Captain Hart (it’s difficult to believe he went on to play Mestor, the king of the giant slugs, in The Twin Dilemma). It’s a bit strange though as to why he’d leave some valuable forensic evidence just lying around on the shingle.
The scenes set on the sea fort are wonderfully done, with some interesting camera angles, dark lighting and echoing sound effects all coming together to create a real feeling of unease and claustrophobia. The two crewmen are well played (you’ve got to love Declan Mulholland) but their characterisation as superstitious sea-dogs is a bit corny. This also marks the point where the Sea Devils are seen clearly for the first time, and while they’re reasonably effective – better than the Silurians, to which it’s natural to compare them, and above average by Barry Letts’s standards – but their immobile, rubbery heads could do with being kept in the shadows a bit more. The flash from their guns is a great special effect and it’s hard to credit how much more effective the complete package as a whole is here than in the sequel Warriors Of The Deep a whole twelve years later.
The drama of the Doctor radioing for help is undermined somewhat because the rescue helicopter is already on its way, but really it’s done for comedic purposes and as such works in a generally intelligent and unobtrusive way. It’s here that we really get to notice just how slow-paced the story is, with a huge amount of emphasis placed on what are in real terms minor plot points: namely the Master’s theft from the naval base and Trenchard’s distraction. There’s a well-choreographed fight sequence at the end of the episode that’s fun to watch, as although Pertwee’s by no means my favourite Doctor it’s always nice to see him swash his buckle (or is that the other way round?); when all’s said and done though there isn’t much in this episode to develop what we’ve learned from part one.
Part three has a huge reprise that does get a bit tedious (although I acknowledge that the story wasn’t originally intended to be seen all in one go) and makes it difficult to ignore the amount of padding that’s creeping in at this stage. This is what prevents The Sea Devils from being as great as it nearly is: it’s well written, acted and produced but it takes a long time to do very little. We’re almost halfway through the story by this stage of the proceedings by we’re still hearing about the same sinking ships as we were in part one. Meanwhile poor old Till is still raving about Sea Devils. After an hour, I would have expected a story to have progressed a bit further than this.
There is some very good modelwork to be seen with the submarine, and there are some atmospheric scenes as the Sea Devils infiltrate it. Donald Sumpter’s performance as Commander Ridgeway (wasn’t he in The Queen’s Nose?) is amusingly earnest, with his facial twitch making him seem vaguely Ahab-like in a rather establishment way. The cliffhanger to the third episode is deservedly iconic and back in 1972 my Mum had nightmares over it while ill with German Measles…
Trenchard’s shock at seeing the Sea Devils is nice – he’s the most interesting character in the story, a fundamentally good man whose desire to protect his country is perverted by the master. However, the scene going into the minefield is the beginning of the sonic screwdriver becoming an all-purpose magic wand. “This makes a rather good mine detector…” says the Doctor. I bet it does. There are more atmospheric scenes on the submarine, but the big exposition scene yet again sticks to what we already know. The storming of the castle, by contrast is very well done, exciting without trying to be too flashy which gives it a low-key dynamism. Something swiftly comes along to undermine this though, with the rather old-fashioned feel of the Pertwee era comes to the fore with Blythe – apparently 3rd officer – reduced to the girl who fetches the sandwiches. The cliffhanger to part four is very clever, as we don’t even get to see what Jo finds so shocking.
The civil servant Walker is a great character but doesn’t really have credibility; he’s very much a character of tedious red tape. He’s still fun to watch though, although suddenly Blythe is an officer again and annoyed about being asked to fetch food.
The Sea Devil voices are good, but the negotiation scene brings on the usual Greenpeace line from Malcolm Hulke that pretty much retreads Doctor Who And The Silurians. Surprise surprise, some stock footage later and all is undone. The comedy scene on the submarine is fun if a bit out of place; it does inject a bit of life into what is, while still enjoyable, going on too long.
We go into the climax with the Doctor using the overfamiliar motif of buying time by pretending to help the villain. Oh look, he’s double-crossed him. I don’t want to sound churlish though as episode six is characterised by some great action scenes that remind me a lot of The Invasion (one of my favourite stories), even replicating the somersault-off-the-roof stunt. I don’t really have anything to say about the climax since it’s so obvious there’s no real way of getting an angle on it, but the final twist is almost comforting, as it sees a return to the Doctor vs Master set up of the previous season. Thankfully it wouldn’t be overused like it was then: in fact Delgado only made two more appearances in the show after this before his premature death.
I don’t want to come across as sounding like I don’t like this story: The Sea Devils is well made and very entertaining, but basically it brings nothing new to the table. Put in context of the Pertwee years then it acquits itself well, but on its own terms then despite its general high quality it feels like a wasted opportunity.
Yet another classic example of fan nostalgia versus actual story content.
Don't get me wrong, here, "Sea Devils" is not completely awful. It's moreso a case of not being half as good (in my view, at least) as the fanboys who grew up in that era try to make it out to be. I am frequently amused by the complaints levelled at 80s Who (the era I grew up with) since so much of the problems that fans had with stories in this time period exist in equal or oftentimes greater abundance in 70s stories like the "Sea Devils". But these problems seem, for the most part, to go unnoticed by most of fandomn because this is the great "uncriticizeable" golden era of Doctor Who.
First off, we'll start with what I notice most in any form of entertainment I watch: the actual story. Next to big bad Robby Holmes himself, Malcolm Hulke is my second-favourite writer for the original series. His scripts were, oftentimes, the most maturely-written three-dimensional stories the show ever produced. But here, Malcolm falls a bit short. He really gives us a pretty threadbare plotline that could barely stand up to a four episode format - forget that he's been given a six-parter! So, to try to fill the gaps, he gives us lots of captures and escapes (not something that is entirely new to the series, of course, but boy does he lay it on heavy here) and attempts at cheap thrills that look even cheaper, these days, because the story is now 30 years old. This makes my disappointment in the story all the more poignant. I expected so much more from the pen of such a great author.
He also delivers a few really big wallops of super-shaky plotting. The most obvious one being his apparent hope that we will forget basic geography as the episodes progress. The Master is supposed to be imprisonned out on an island that seems to only be accessible by boat. Yet, everyone, by episode three, seems to be zipping back and forth to the prison via land rovers. How exactly did this happen? Did a bridge get built somewhere between episodes? Yes, bad plotting is something that can happen in Who-scripts sometimes - particularly since it is an episode-based series. But this error, to me, borders on the unforgiveable. Didn't someone in production pick up on this problem? Obviously not, since there are some other wobbly plot elements littering the script - (another one being just how long the Master is able to sit around not unplugging a highly disruptive machine that is totally screwing over the Sea-Devils in episode six!) - this whole "island that is not" issue is just one of the bigger ones!
Equally shaky are some of his characterisations. Trenchard's alliance with the Master seems completely unbelievable - even if he is supposed to be something of a fool (which gets me to wonder, right there, why the British government would put such a bumbler in charge of keeping an eye on a criminal mastermind who is so dangerous that he got his own special prison). It's barely stated as to why he is even letting the Master do what he's doing. We get some vague sense that the Master has appealed to his sense of patriotism and perhaps his desire for glory. But it almost seems more like it was just Malcolm going along with that notorious "Pertwee-era formulae". The Master always recruits someone from Earth to help him execute his plans so, this time, it's Trenchard. And we're just supposed to accept that cause that's the way the formuale works. Quit looking too hard at the plot, little fanboy, just enjoy the formulae. Which is still my biggest quelm with much of what was done in the Pertwee era.
This problem persists through most of this story. Even the Master's motivation to re-awaken the Sea Devils seems kind of inconsistent and even somewhat preposterous. If this were the more mean and twisted Ainley Master, I might be able to accept what he was up to. Because the Ainley Master had, pretty well, gone insane in his attempts to artificially extend his life. Therefore, strange, warped motivations could be somewhat acceptable. But the Master, at this stage of his life (or, more appropriately, lives), is supposed to be much more calculating and interested in supremacy rather than just "making bad things happen". Yet, suddenly, for no real reason that seems to benifit him directly, he wants to release the former masters of Earth and bring down humanity. Just doesn't seem to make sense in my view of the character's progression. If, perhaps, Hulke had taken a moment to give the Master some sort of dialogue to explain that maybe his prison term had given him a thirst for revenge on Earth or something similiar to that - I might have accepted it. But we get none of that. So, instead, we're just supposed to accept the stereotypical "the Master is up to something really bad" formulae and not question things too hard. Again, very typical of this era.
Now, I'll slow down a bit on my criticism and try to formulate some good points about this tale.
The story is off to a very promising start. Hulke - as well as the performances of Delgadoe and Pertwee - all do a great job of deepening the relationship between Master and Doctor. I really liked how this played out. Except that, as I pointed out earlier, all this deliberate attempt to display the isolation the Master is facing causes the story's geography to fall apart later!
Sadly, as I try to get through several other good points of this story - they oftentimes have a "shadow of flaw" following them too. Another great example of this would be the swordfight between the Master and the Doctor. Easilly one of the best swordfights in the show's history. I get a real impression here that both Delgadoe and Pertwee have a considerable background in swordfighting (which most of classically-trained actors of the time would) and they really perform the duel masterfully. But, once more, if we look past the window-dressing plot element, we see a fundemental flaw. Who, in God's name, arranges several sets of sharpened swords directly outside the cell of a prisoner in a maximum security prison?! Once again, something that is set up for the execution of formulae rather than genuine plot.
The same can also be said of one of the other famous traits of this story. That of the huge cast that it had. It was neat to see so many characters in one story but it does almost seem like, rather than develop storyline properly, the author chose to just keep introducing as many new characters as he could in hopes that getting to know them would keep us distracted from the underlying flaws of the plot.
Okay, okay, I'll look for some genuine strengths to this story! I certainly like that we got a Pertwee story taking place during his exile where UNIT wasn't actually used to fight the menace. Yes, there was still millitairy involvement but it was nice to see that other factions of the millitairy exist in the Whoniverse besides UNIT. And how the Doctor must deal with things differently because he doesn't have the familiarity with this millitairy organisation that he does with the Brig and the boys. A neat direction to take the story in.
I also liked the concept of the Sea Devils and the way they return us to the idea Hulke first explored so beautifully in "The Silurians" of how we would all react if we suddenly realised we might have to share our planet with someone else as sentient as us. I even think he made a good choice by not getting too much into this idea again (since it had been explored quite adequately in Silurians) and focussing more on action and battle rather than debate and pontification. It sort of even gives us the sense that the Sea Devils are more of a war-like or even subservient culture and that the Silurians are the real leaders. Something we see fleshed out many years later when both species return in "Warriors of the Deep".
I also think this is a spectacularly well-directed story, in many ways. It has some excellent battle sequences that exceeded the limitations of low-budget 70s T.V. (yes, I remember noting earlier how "cheap" the story looks in places - but now I'm trying to get validly contextual in my analysis rather than contradicting myself!). I'm even willing to admit that a couple of those action shots look pretty gosh-darned good by even modern-day standards. As well, there are some really memorable shots, in general, that I thought were highly effective. The creepy close-up of the beauracrat's mouth as he explains that "war is hell -what's for breakfast?" being one of the best examples.
Even the music, believe it or not, didn't annoy me much. The show was trying a different approach with the incidental music and - although it was wildly intrusive in most places - it was neat to, at least, see them try something new and different. How's that for a massively differing opinion from general fandom?!
But then, I rather get the impression that this review, in general, is differing from the opinion of general fandomn! Sorry, worshippers of the holy Petwee, but I really don't think there's much here. Again, not completely awful - but not the "shining piece of glory" most of you claim it to be. This is made even more glaringly obvious by the fact that someone as magnificient as Malcolm Hulke should not have cranked out such a flimsy, formulae-driven piece. I almost have to wonder if some radical changes occurred after Hulke passed it on to the production team. The whole story seems to be a watered-down version of his story-telling skills with various "chills, spills and action" elements turned up intentionally.
"Below-par" Who, in my opinion. But I get the impression I'm pretty alone in it!
I really can't fault 'The Sea Devils'. Well all right, apart from the incidental music, which is almost supernaturally irritating, I can't fault 'The Sea Devils'. Great monsters, superb characterisation, and perhaps my favourite use of the Doctor's arch-enemy, add up to make something of a classic.
First off, the Doctor/Master rivalry is marvelous here. I've charted the progress of their relationship over the course of Season Eight in previous reviews, and I've noticed that most of the time the Doctor has very little regard for the Master, whereas the Master seems to respect the Doctor far more and is desperate to impress him. This seemed to change somewhat after the Doctor's refusal of a half-share in the Universe in 'Colony in Space', and this is evident here; the Master is far more ready to actually kill the Doctor here (rather than finding excuses not to do so), first throwing a knife at his back with a genuinely murderous look on his face, and later in episode six urging the Sea Devil leader to kill him. Despite this, his respect for the Doctor's intellect is once again on display, as he forces the Doctor to help him build a device to wake up the Sea Devils. As in 'The Mind of Evil', the Master seems to rather enjoy this brief collaboration. On the other hand, the Doctor's attitude towards the Master seems to have mellowed slightly, since his enemy has been imprisoned by UNIT and possibly because he is thus trapped on Earth just like the Doctor. Although the sunken ships arouse his curiosity, and although he seems to want to get his hands on the Master's TARDIS, he does nevertheless admit to Jo that he feels sorry for the Master, and that they used to be friends, the first time this is actually confirmed.
The Master is both at his most charismatic and most ruthless here, exhibiting his considerable avuncular charm when in conversation with the Doctor and Jo or even Trenchard, but eager to start a war purely out of malice and a desire to avenge himself on the human race for locking him up. Delgado puts in an especially good performance, effortless switching from charm to fury in an instant; of particular note is the scene in episode six, when the Sea Devils attacking the base are defeated and he is briefly held prisoner in the Naval storeroom whilst the Doctor goes to check on Jo. Earlier, he attacked a petty officer when caught stealing equipment, but whereas there he did so casually and without obvious emotion, here he lashes out in fury, raising his voice as he does so, Delgado giving us a brief glimpse of just how frustrated he really is that his plans have briefly been derailed. The whole story is full of great Master scenes, including his sword-fight with the Doctor, him being saluted by sailors whilst he poses as an officer, and his wave goodbye to the Doctor as he escapes in the hovercraft during the final scene.
Pertwee, for his part, puts in a very good performance as the Doctor. He is just as good as Delgado in his scenes with the Master, and helps to make their sword-fight a highlight of the story. The Doctor is generally at his eccentric, egocentric best here, gallantly diving onto barbed wire so that Jo can cross it without injury, guilelessly stealing her sandwiches later on, assuring an attacking and obviously hostile Sea Devil that he won't harm him in episode two, handling Walker in episode five, and briefly convincing the Sea Devil leader to consider peace despite the interference of the Master. In addition, the Doctor gets to pilot a speedboat and a ski-jet, and take a trip in a diving bell (rather smugly responding to Hart's question as to whether he's an experienced diver or not with the answer "Naturally!"). He also turns a transistor radio into a transmitter (in the process demonstrating that he isn't infallible, since it first doesn't work and then explodes after he's used it, in a nice moment of comic relief) and even gets to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow. In short, he's at his most capable, heroic best. That said, points are deducted for him falling for the Master's fake collapse routine in the hovercraft, although being taken in by such an obvious ruse would explain why he looks so frustrated in the very last scene (incidentally, when did the Master get the chance to obtain that mask? Surely he didn't have it in prison…). Jo also does well here, rescuing the Doctor in episode three and again in episode six (well, almost - he rescues himself, but at least she makes the effort), and standing up to Walker.
The Sea Devils themselves look rather good, despite their static eyes. I rather like them actually; although only one of them speaks (their leader), he comes across as a rather noble sort, certainly more prepared to listen to reason than Walker when it comes to discussing peace. It makes me wonder what the Doctor might have achieved had the Master not got involved. In addition, despite having less to say than their cousins in 'Doctor Who and the Silurians', the actors playing them manage to convey subtle characterisation, especially the Sea Devil guard in the submarine, who watches the captive sailors with curiosity as they play cards. As in 'Doctor Who and the Silurians', the tragedy of the situation is that both reptiles and humans have a right to the planet, but both make a peaceful solution difficult at best, the former sinking ships and killing their crews, the latter retaliating automatically and foiling the Doctor's hopes of a peaceful solution. The actions of both sides are understandable, which only adds to the tragedy.
The characterisation is generally superb, a trademark of Malcolm Hulke's scripts. Captain Hart is a stand-in for the Brigadier, displaying none of the unfortunate buffoonery inflicted on Lethbridge-Stewart by the production team of this era. His exasperation at the Doctor and later growing respect for him are very familiar and work very well, thanks to Edwin Richfield's acting. The pompous and boring but ultimately well-intentioned Colonel Trenchard is played to perfection by Clive Morton. His naiveté and indeed stupidity in dealing with the Master make raise the question of whether he was told anything about his prisoner but at least his heart is in the right place, even if his brain isn't. The scene in which he believes that the Master thinks the Clangers are extra-terrestrials rather than puppets, to the Master's obvious exasperation, nicely highlights Trenchard's lack of imagination and gullibility. And his death has a certain stout nobility to it, as he determinedly guards his prisoner to the last. The other supporting character of note is Martin Boddey's Parliamentary Private Secretary Walker, one of the most genuinely loathsome characters ever to appear in the series. Stupid, arrogant, patronizing, self-opinionated, and willing to exercise the powers unwisely granted to him with any regard whatsoever for the consequences (he seriously considers nuclear strikes off the English shoreline), he is thoroughly dislikable, and this makes the Doctor's verbal dressing down of the man and his later exposure as an abject coward all the more gratifying.
The direction is excellent. There are some marvellous set pieces, especially on board the sea fort, which boasts some highly suspenseful scenes. Sets and model work throughout look highly effective, but most notable is the extensive filmed location work, plus footage of the navy, which integrates very well and makes the entire story seem impressively lavish. The use of the navy is part of the reason that I like 'The Sea Devils' so much I think; they serve the same purpose as UNIT, but lack the twee coziness that genuinely grates on my nerves by this point in the series and aren't blighted by Mike Yates. Overall, 'The Sea Devils' maintains the high quality of the season thus far, a quality that sadly starts to decline with the next story.