Sunday, 27 September 2009

The Sea Devils

Previous viewings - many

It's nice to know that I'm not completely out of step for once. Of all the Pertwee serials so far, it was felt that Doctor Who and the Silurians had the most mileage for a sequel, a sentiment I heartily agree with. Considering the roots of The Sea Devils, it certainly does it own thing; consider this the more action-driven cousin of its predecessor, swapping the intelligent Silurians for warlike Sea Devils, caves for the sea and moral ambiguities for a more clear-cut good vs. evil battle. About the only thing carried over is the terrible soundtrack.

Returning to pen this sequel to his successful original is writer Malcolm Hulke. In many ways, he is the wrong person to write this story, with his penchant for character and ideas-driven stories showing through here, in a story which is really about action and style, with the coastal setting and Navy involvement setting the tone much more than the monsters themselves or the Doctor's dilemma, and which is best when it diverges from the original. I'd almost go as far to say that if the Sea Devils were a typical alien invasion force rather than an offshoot of the Silurians, this story would be all the better for it.

Thats not to say that I didn't enjoy this. It may lack the depth (pun not intended) of its predecessor, but it has a lot going for it that ...and the Silurians doesn't. For the first time in ages, its the present day but UNIT aren't helping out. Instead, Captain Hart is commander of a Royal Navy base, with the use of boats and submarines putting a whole different spin on the action scenes than the norm. This gives the military scenes a freshness to them that we haven't seen since UNIT was introduced. Then there's the return of the Master, with him coincidentally (!) locked up close by the Navy base following his capture in The Dæmons. Then there's the Sea Devils themselves, a widely remembered monster due to some impressive design work, even if they sound a bit generic.

Episode 1 begins with the Doctor and Jo visiting the Master in prison. The irascible Colonel Trenchard is the warden of the top-security prison which has apparently been set up solely to keep the Master under lock and key (what would the taxpayers say?). The Doctor and Jo are let in to see the Master as they're not convinced any prison is escape-proof for the Master. The Master claims to be a changed man, and apparently satisfied the Doctor and Jo leave.

For some reason, these scenes didn't sit right with me. It's just so contrived; the Doctor leaving the Master in an Earth prison is hard to fathom, when he has the option of handing him over to the Time Lords or dealing with him himself. The Doctor chats with the Master, laughing and joking with him like he's his best friend who hasn't tried to destroy the planet a few times. It's there to hammer home the fact that they were once friends, but it's at the expense of the Doctor's integrity and the reality of the scene - consider how unforgiving Pertwee's Doctor is to anyone else. At least Roger Delgado is back and he's as great as ever.

The rest of the episode is more plot-based, with the Doctor and Jo heading to the Navy base to help with an investigation of missing submarines. The Doctor doesn't even bother to show his credentials as he asserts his authority to the base personnel, using sheer charisma to gain access and blunder his way to the top. Pertwee does this very well. Of the personnel, Captain Hart does a good job of filling the void left by the Brigadier, being a good foil to the Doctor in the few scenes they have together, and Edwin Richfield brings a lot of empathy to a role that doesn't receive much characterisation in the script. By the end, I'm crying out for the UNIT family, but for one story this setup works fine and the base here at least has one prominent woman in authority, even though she doesn't get to do much.

The first episode ends with a usual monster reveal, as the Doctor and Jo are menaced by a Sea Devil at a rig. The problem with this is that Pertwee stories aren't monster-driven. They like to take their time to set the scene and let the plot unfold slowly, with the monsters coming out in force very late on. So after this Sea Devil is injured and runs off, the Doctor, Jo and a survivor of an attack are rescued and we don't see any more Sea Devils (and again it's only one!) until the end of Episode 3. What a tease! Just a cheap thrill, really, and a bad pacing problem, because when we get back to the base and the Master subplot we're left feeling like we're missing out on something more exciting than what we're getting.

I'm as big a fan of Delgado's Master as anyone, but there's no denying that Episodes 2 and 3 see the story dancing around on the spot. Having seen the Master infiltrate the Navy base, the Doctor and Jo return to the prison, where he is apparently still imprisoned. The Doctor discovers that he has hypnotised the entire staff, so.... he engages the Master in a swordfight, while some music consisting of strange farting noises plays. The cliffhanger of the Master throwing the knife is good, but what should be a big heroic moment for Pertwee's Doctor is undermined by randomness of it all. The Doctor is a bit cocky in this scene, seemingly enjoying the fight because he finds it fun. Episode 3 is the story's weakest, consisting entirely of the Doctor tied to a chair while Jo breaks in and rescues him.

The second half of the story sees it vastly improve. As they're chased by a Sea Devil rising from the waves, the Doctor and Jo cross a minefield, with the Doctor blowing up mines with his sonic screwdriver. Sure, he's using a gadget rather than his wits, but this is Pertwee's Doctor we're talking about, and as action scenes go, I found this far more effective than that ridiculous swordfight. It doesn't stretch credibility that the sonic screwdriver can be used for this purpose.

As in Doctor Who and the Silurians, the meat of the story lies with the Doctor's attempts to broken a peace between the terrestrial race and the humans. Or rather, that part of the story anyway. The Doctor is captured by the Sea Devils and tries to convince them to cease hostilities. The Master is also present and warns them that humans can't be trusted and are quick to violence. Since there is far less time devoted to these scenes than in Silurians, they can do nothing more than briefly rehash some of the key ideas, avoiding the moral issue almost entirely. It also suffers by having action scenes taking place all around it, with the Navy mobilising under the orders of Private Secretary Walker, who takes on the role the Brigadier did in the previous story. The key difference here is that Walker is presented as a hateable character, with no redeeming features; he shows up at the base with orders to settle the situation, and seems to view the preparation of his breakfast and the bombing of the Sea Devil base as equally urgent, showing no consideration for the kidnapped Naval officers or the Doctor. The Brigadier was a good choice to be the one to quash the Doctor's peaceful plans in Silurians because he was a good guy who the Doctor trusted.

This all sounds like it's a big comedown from Silurians, and intellectually it is. However this is not an intellectual story. The Sea Devils are more monster-ish than the Silurians. They do monster-ish things like invade the base and attack in number. While the latter portion of Silurians involves the Doctor working away in the lab to find a cure to a Silurian plague, The Sea Devils is pure action. It had to be, too; the heavy use of location work, all manner of different Naval vehicles trotted out and terrific direction by Michael Briant give the story an aura of authenticity. The studio scenes early in the story were to its detriment; now we're mostly outside and it's all about action and atmosphere.

Having failed to negotiate with the Sea Devils, the Doctor is forced to work with the Master to build a device which will wake other colonies of the creatures. The Doctor turns the tables by reversing the polarity of the neutron flow (what a rubbish catchphrase - it's hardly clever to use the same tech solution to every problem), blowing up the Sea Devils instead. The Master then escapes using one of his disguises.

Despite my misgivings and my preference for Doctor Who and the Silurians, I really like The Sea Devils. It has action in abundance, but the action is authentic and well directed, almost cinematic. The Sea Devils are iconic, while the Silurians are merely creative. The Master is along for the ride, and the Doctor and the Jo are gelling perfectly. I would have preferred it had it been four episodes, and a different soundtrack, but they're a given.

Horror quotient - The music works against the Sea Devils, because it's just silly. And so obtrusive.
Comedy quotient - With the Doctor it's hit and miss. Hits include his defiant claim about being a personal friend of Nelson, and Hart's reaction. Misses include anything to do with the Master in this story - the 'best buddies' routine is just awful.
Drama quotient - A damp squib compared with Silurians. But then, it makes up for it in other areas.

Doctor Who and the Silurians it ain't, but it's a good action-packed yarn with a decent monster.



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