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The Sea Devils

Reviewed by Alistair Hughes

'Monsters? Coming out of the sea?'

The Master watching The Clangers in prison, Jo's trouser suit, the Royal Navy stock footage and, of course, the Sea Devils rising out of the ocean. These images are always fondly recalled whenever The Sea Devils is discussed. This serial seems to be one of those remembered as a set of icons rather than a story, as such. We might reminisce about the Doctor and Jo trapped on the sea fort, but would be hard pressed to remember how or why. Then there's the spectacular gun battle between the Navy forces and the Sea Devils, but what was it all about? Maybe the plot doesn't stay in our minds because we've heard it all before somewhere...

'Those reptiles were once the rulers of Earth with my help they can be so again...'

Inevitably The Sea Devils must bear comparison with the first Malcolm Hulke 'Eocenes' story, Doctor Who and the Silurians. Very broadly speaking, it is in fact, the same story (apart from the more obvious differences and setting). So I won't bother to detail the plot here. Instead, an examination of some of the characters in this entertaining story raises some points.

Once again, it seems that iconography comes into play. Replacing the complex characters and relationships found in Doctor Who and the Silurians, we have altogether far more stylised figures: Parliamentary Private Secretary Walker, Captain Hart, and the wonderfully portrayed Trenchard. All very enjoyable, but not in the same grittily realistic league as their earlier counterparts.

The Sea Devils themselves appear to be mute, apart from their leader, and therefore speak with only one voice. Inevitably this negates their individuality and reduces them to the status of 'grunts'; a far cry from the very distinct Silurian personalities. Even the Master's involvement, though welcome as always, seems very simplistic. His motivation this time appears to be purely one of revenge: the destruction of the human race that is responsible for his imprisonment and so special to the Doctor.

Jo is given quite a lot to do, showing an uncanny knack for locating rooms in which the Doctor is imprisoned, but is ultimately fairly ineffectual. Given that she isn't Navy personnel, it would have been great to see her stand up to the obnoxious politician Walker, as many of the later companions would no doubt have done. (Even Sarah would have landed a stinging feminist attack, and Leela would probably have filleted him.) However, I suppose that being a member of UNIT, Jo is still a Government employee, and so would have to watch her over-glossed lip.

The Doctor once again tries to mediate between the two races and strives for peace. It seems ironic that his final solution: the fiery destruction of the Sea Devil base, is exactly the same course of action which the Brigadier adopts at the conclusion of Doctor Who and the Silurians, much to the Doctor's shock and total disgust. Not capitalised upon in the televised version (appearing to be merely another 'serial-capping explosion'), the irony of this situation didn't escape Malcolm Hulke's attention in the novelisation:

'Very clever of you,' said the Master. 'Do you realise that you've just committed mass murder?'

The Doctor looked down at the seething waters as the helicopter turned and flew them back to safety. He said nothing. What the Master had just said was true.

'Ships vanishing - makes you think, doesn't it?'

One aspect in which The Sea Devils compares unfavourably with its predecessor is in what could be termed as atmosphere. The story takes place against wide and brightly-lit backdrops - beaches, a quayside, the deck of a ship and a Naval Base; all in broad daylight. Although these locations suit the more 'comic-book action' style of The Sea Devils, they don't generate a fraction of the ambience of the gloomily effective cave and claustrophobic reactor sets of Doctor Who and the Silurians.

To be fair to the later story, the sea fort scenes in Episode Two are well executed, tensely filmed and employing unusual camera angles to heighten the sense of unease. However, an unknown threat rising from the dark depths is such a primal image, invoking fear from our most ancient legends all the way through to Jaws and beyond, that it would have been more satisfying to see this serial treated a little more evocatively. Instead, the word appears to have been... fun. The following quote from Hulke's novelisation seems to embody the sense of foreboding so absent from the televised version. En route to the Masters prison, the Doctor and Jo come across a 200 year old inscription, carved into a roadside marker:

'For you who tread this land
Beware the justice hand
Little boats like men
in days of yore
They come by stealth at night
They come in broad daylight
Little boats like men
Beware the shore.'

Consider the scope which these few lines add to the story. Two hundred years ago the local inhabitants were aware of the existence of the Sea Devils, possibly if only as a half-believed legend from the 'days of yore'. Or could it be a race memory dating right back to the origins of our species (a plot device which Hulke used in Doctor Who and the Silurians)? The 'justice hand' in line 2 of the verse is suggested to be a pun on the (reptilian) scales of justice by the Doctor, but I wonder if it could also predict the Eocenes attempts to 'see justice done' and take back their planet. Sadly, from the point of view of atmosphere, the 'little boats like men' choose not to 'come by stealth at night' in this story, but 'broad daylight', instead.

'The whole body was like that of a fish; and had under a fish's head another head and also feet below, similar to those of a man. His voice too, and language, was articulate... and a representation of him is preserved even to this day... When the sun set, it was the custom of this Being to plunge again into the sea and abide all night in the deep for he was amphibious.'
- Berossus, Mesopotamian scribe, c.3000 BC

[Sea Devils]

In terms of visual interest, the title characters in The Sea Devils probably win out over their landlubber (rubber?) cousins, the Silurians. The finned, turtle-like Sea Devil heads are especially striking and stand lingering close-ups on many memorable occasions. The head masks were worn as 'top hats' by the actors to increase the neck length and break up the human shape and the resulting creature brings to mind large aquatic creatures like whales and dolphins, which have very large heads with long tapering bodies. As has always been a strength in Doctor Who, the Sea Devils behave intelligently, not as lumbering 'man-in-suit' monsters. Generally, they are used well and it's refreshing to see them move quickly and agilely when they have to, pursuing the Doctor through the sea fort and capturing the naval base as efficiently as any commando team (or should that be SEALs?).

On the other hand, the lone Sea Devil's flight from the exploding minefield at the beginning of Episode Three is hilarious, earning the Master's sneer: 'Stupid beast!' This foreshadows Episode Six, by which time the creatures have descended to the 'cannon-fodder' depths of the Cybermen in their final stories. They are shown stumbling through shell smoke like a reptilian version of the Dad's Army end credits, before being wiped out. Presumably this carnage was orchestrated to please the Navy, who gave their cooperation to the production team on the condition that they were portrayed in a good light.

'Dear oh dear, Doctor, will you never learn ...?'

On Saturday, 26 February 1972, I had been six for just over a week, and my family were very preoccupied with our upcoming flight to New Zealand. In a couple of days time we would be winging towards a new home, on the other side of the world. What preoccupied me the most, however, was the frightening possibility that we might be moving to a country which didn't screen Doctor Who. And so, with a heavy heart, I sat down at 5.50pm that evening, switched to BBC Scotland, and watched Episode One of The Sea Devils wondering if it might be my last ever. Consequently, this particular episode holds some-what out-of-proportion significance for me (although watching the story again, I still think that Episode One is the best of the six). I particularly remember the very last scene, where the Doctor and Jo are confronted by a silhouetted, hoarsely-breathing horror on the sea fort. For the following thirteen years, I was convinced that our heroes had been threatened by a Sea Devil, in those closing moments.

Years earlier, a school friend of mine told me how this story was a bit special for him, too. Also an 'Ex-Pat', his father had served his naval training at HMS Frazer Gunnery Range School in Portsmouth, which was used as the naval base in The Sea Devils. Apparently his father had been hugely amused when watching this serial to see a friend from his training days ambushed and killed by a Sea Devil. Well, you would be, wouldn't you?

Like many people, my first taste of the full story was the Target novelisation (an original Chris Achilleos cover edition, 15c from the local book exchange). And as usual with Hulke's writing, the novelisation includes many touches absent from the televised story, which consequently diminish the serial. One which springs to mind is Trenchard trying to repel the Sea Devils and dying without firing a shot, the safety catch on his revolver mistakenly left on. Later, when the body is discovered, the Doctor discretely disengages the catch, preserving the misguided Governor's memory as a 'brave man'.

I've already mentioned other such moments, but to balance this it's only fair to address one sequence which the televised version handles so much better than the book, which is, of course, the wonderfully over-the-top sword duel between the two Time Lords, complete with snappy asides and sandwich quaffing. In the novelisation we have to make do with a hastily flung coffee table.

As I said earlier, it's very difficult to avoid a comparison with Doctor Who and the Silurians, when analysing The Sea Devils. Consequently, these two stories also serve as a clear illustration of the stylistic differences between Season Seven, and the rest of the Pertwee era. There is the matter of complex 'shades of grey' characterisation that Doctor Who and the Silurians gave us, as opposed to the more archetypical figures that The Sea Devils presents. In Season Seven the Doctor was constantly at odds with bureaucracy (and even a certain fascist regime). Season Eight onwards gave us the more cosy 'UNIT Family', so that the politicians are still there, but now we have the Brigadier and co. to more actively smooth things over. By now you will have spotted the deliberate mistake; The Sea Devils is the only Earth-bound UNIT-less story in the Pertwee era. But even here the Doctor and Jo's UNIT passes help them to procure the help of a 'substitute Brigadier' in the form of Captain Hart.

Lastly, we have atmosphere versus action. The Silurians were as unlikely to swing athletically under a hand rail while attacking in broad daylight as the Sea Devils were to lurk about almost totally unseen until Episode Three. The Silurians attacked psychologically and mentally (even the release of the 'Silurian disease' was a rather cerebral approach to a problem) whereas a Sea Devil would just fry you or twist your head off.

But perhaps this is all missing the point. The Sea Devils was intended to be fun and that's exactly what it succeeds in being. From the Doctor's famous 'Horatio Nelson' quote in Episode One to the Master's cavalier wave as he makes his escape in Episode Six, we are treated to an enjoyable ride filled with memorable moments and fine portrayals. Now, about that incidental music...

This item appeared in TSV 48 (August 1996).

Index nodes: The Sea Devils