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Warriors of the Deep

Reviewed by Robert Boswell

[Cover]

It would be something of an understatement to say that fans found Warriors of the Deep a bit of a disappointment on its original transmission. The story had seemed to have so much going for it: a script by the reliable Johnny Byrne; direction by Pennant Roberts, a man with an impressive reputation, having been responsible for The Face of Evil and The Sun Makers - and even more respected outside Doctor Who circles for the P.O.W. drama Tenko; and the return of the Silurians and the Sea Devils, fondly remembered monsters from the Pertwee era. Unfortunately, the combination of these elements proved to be somewhat less satisfying than expected. But is the story really such a disappointment? And, if so, what went wrong?

'What year are we in?'
'Around two thousand and eighty-four.'
'Little seems to have changed since my time.'
'Absolutely nothing, Tegan. There are still two power blocs, fingers poised to annihilate each other.'

Setting the story exactly one hundred years after its transmission immediately puts the viewer on the lookout for allusions to contemporary society. And, indeed, Byrne's script is full of cold war imagery: the tense waiting for the enemy to attack, the weapons of mass destruction poised to fire, the suspicion that enemy spies and saboteurs are lurking around every corner. The allegorical aspects of the script are not heavily pursued, however. This cold war really just provides a backdrop for an alien invasion-style story, although it does allow Byrne to indulge in a bit of finger wagging at the superpowers along the way.

Taken as a whole, the script is of a high standard. It is tightly plotted, and the tension builds at a satisfying rate, especially in the first episode, with the missile run, Nilson and Solow plotting together, the Silurians thawing out their aquatic cousins and the destruction of the probe. There's even time for some nice bits of characterization; Karina reassuring Maddox, and the first TARDIS scene with the Doctor and Turlough being the best of these.

Sadly, things fall apart somewhat at the end of Part Two. We all know that the third episode of four-part Doctor Who stories usually contain rather a lot of padding, but the problem seems particularly pronounced in Warriors of the Deep. Basically, the entire third episode is taken up by scenes of Sea Base personnel being chased and killed by the Myrka - and the Myrka is just about the worst thing about the story!

The Solow / Nilson subplot also starts to wear a little thin at this point. The base has been invaded by a large party of reptilian creatures bent on humanity's mutual destruction, so they ... continue to sabotage the base's defences. Talk about devotion to duty! Thankfully, the whole thing gets back on track in Part Four, restoring some of the tension lost in the previous episode and bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion.

'We must remain undetected ... until we are ready to act.'

There is a well-known anecdote from this story about Janet Fielding and another actor not putting any effort into a scene because they thought it was just a rehearsal, then finding out that it was a take and there was no time to reshoot it. Frankly, going by the performances of much of the cast, this sort of thing must have been quite common. Most of them seem to put very little effort into their lines.

The main offenders in this respect are Nitza Saul with her extremely amateurish turn as Karina, and Tara Ward as the bland Preston. Ingrid Pitt manages the impressive feat of standing out as particularly bad even in this generally disappointing cast, with her embarrassingly OTT performance as Dr Solow.

Apparently, Solow was a man in the original script, but Pennant Roberts felt that there was a gender imbalance among the characters and cast the role as a woman instead. All very salutary, I'm sure, but it doesn't change the fact that Pitt is absolutely terrible. Her surreal karate attack on the Myrka easily ranks as the story's lowest moment.

Tom Adams, on the other hand, puts in a strong performance as the stoic Commander Vorshak, although it must be said the character is somewhat emotionally limited. Only his oddly underplayed death scene fails to impress. Martin Neil does impress, however, as the neurotic synch operator, Maddox. At least in the first episode, that is, until Nilson and Solow turn him into a zombie (a bit like some of the other cast members, really).

But it is the regular cast who really save the show on the acting front with a hat trick of superb performances. The team of Tegan, Turlough and the Doctor is one of the all-time best TARDIS crews. The interaction between these three well-defined characters serves to further emphasise each of their individual traits: Tegan's abrasiveness and practicality, Turlough's pessimism and instinct for self-preservation, and the Doctor's heroism and pacifism.

As usual, the best lines go to Turlough ('What is it about Earth people that makes them think a futile gesture is a noble one?') and the Doctor ('I sometimes wonder why I like the people of this miserable planet so much.'). Tegan basically gets to ask questions and complain a lot; but she does it so well! (Couldn't spot the scene where you weren't trying, by the way, Janet!).

'Progress doesn't seem to have solved anything!'

The major selling point of Warriors of the Deep is, of course, the return of the Silurians and the Sea Devils. Both varieties of Earth Reptile have undergone a major overhaul to 'bring them into the eighties'. Gone are the infamous 'string vests' sported by the Sea Devils in their debut story, replaced by impressive samurai-style armour. Also gone is the unfortunate tendency of the Silurians to wobble their heads when speaking.

But the changes aren't all improvements. The Silurians can no longer use their third eyes as weapons (one of their defining traits, some might say); instead, the eye flashes on and off in time with their speech (perhaps the production team was afraid we wouldn't be able to tell which Silurian is speaking now their heads don't wobble). Although the eighties design for the Silurians is undoubtedly superior to the original, the loss of this unique weapon is somewhat unfortunate.

The Sea Devils have their problems too. Their blinking eyes are impressive, but it is a pity that they could not also have mouths which move when they talk. More worrying is the way that they seem to be picking up the slack in the head-wobbling department now the Silurians have given it up. You see, their samurai helmets are too heavy for their flimsy necks, causing their heads to oscillate from side to side quite alarmingly, even when they are standing still.

Another problem with the Sea Devils is that they are just too slow moving. One of the things that set the seventies Sea Devils apart from other monsters, such as the Ice Warriors, was their speed and agility. Unfortunately, their eighties counterparts do not share this trait. Instead, they shamble forward at half the speed of a paraplegic tortoise, firing their weapons seemingly at random. It should be noted, however, that at least part of the problem here is with the direction and not the redesigned costumes.

These problems aside, the new looks for the old monsters do generally impress, with the Silurians being more of an improvement over their original incarnation than the Sea Devils over theirs. Where the treatment of these returning monsters really falls down is in their scripting. I said earlier that Johnny Byrne's script is of a high calibre. While this is true, and the monsters are not really served badly by the script as such, it is slightly disappointing that the creatures (or, at least, the Silurians) are not as complex as their seventies appearances.

Perhaps it is a little unfair to expect characters with the complexity of Malcolm Hulke creations - Hulke is, after all, noted for the depth of characterisation in his scripts. But it is, nevertheless, a little disappointing to see the Silurians set on destroying humanity without any dissension among their ranks ('I should tell you that the Silurians have long since abandoned the ways of mediation.'). Without the wrinkle of their division over whether or not to destroy the humans, they are just like any other world-conquering monsters.

Which brings me to my major complaint about the use of the Silurians in this story: it should have been the Zygons. Think about it - the Myrka is the Skarasen, they have an organic-looking underwater craft, and the plan to clear Earth of all human life is much more suited to the Zygons' needs than the Silurians. Throw in a couple of the Sea Base crew turning out to be Zygons in disguise and you would have had a perfect Zygon story. Makes you wonder if this was always a Silurian / Sea Devil story, actually.

'Oh dear.'
'What is it?'
'The Myrka.'

Yes, the Myrka. I bet you were all wondering when I'd get to this, weren't you? It still amazes me that when, at one of the production meetings for this story, someone said, 'I know, let's get the blokes who operate the pantomime horse from Rentaghost to do the Myrka,' no one suggested that it just might be a bad idea.

Actually, joking aside, the Myrka is by no means as bad as its reputation would suggest. Not that it's particularly good, either, but it's not the worst monster Doctor Who has ever seen. It's no worse than the magma beast from The Caves of Androzani later the same season - and Androzani is considered to be one of Who's all-time classics.

The thing is, the magma beast was used extremely sparingly, and when it was seen it was in poor light and was often largely obscured from view. If this tack had been taken with the Myrka, it might not have been so disappointing. But, then, Pennant Roberts would have had something of a problem trying to keep the Myrka obscured because the Sea Base sets are so brightly lit. There simply are no shadows to hide it in.

The Sea Base sets have been widely criticised for their bright lighting, of course. It is a problem which is highlighted by the atmospheric opening shot of the model Sea Base: on the outside, Sea Base 4 is dark and foreboding; inside, it is brightly lit and spacious. That said, the sets are very well done, even if they are slightly inappropriate. The multiple catwalks, ladders and stairwells give the impression that it really is part of a large complex, and not just a series of studio sets.

The major fault with this story must lie in the direction. Although some shots are marvellous (notably the first tracking shot of the Sea Base control room, the model sequences, and the scenes in the Sea Devil cavern), it is the direction that causes most of the story's greatest failures. In addition to those Myrka scenes, it is Roberts' mishandling of the running battle between the Sea Devils and the base's combat marines, which causes the Sea Devils to seem so ineffective. What should have been a fast, exciting battle sequence becomes instead a standard 'soldiers firing ineffectively at slow moving aliens' piece.

'There should have been another way.'

Overall, Warriors of the Deep is not as disappointing as some have found it to be, but neither is it as good as it could - and should - have been. Despite its problems, the script is generally strong enough to save the day, ably assisted by the excellent performances of the regular cast. Of course, it's not a patch on its illustrious predecessors, Doctor Who and the Silurians and The Sea Devils, but it is an acceptable sequel to those stories, despite its problems. Not the best Davison Who, but certainly not the worst either.

This item appeared in TSV 49 (November 1996).

Index nodes: Warriors of the Deep