Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Sea Devils written by Malcolm Hulke and directed by Michael Briant

This story in a nutshell: After allying himself with the Axons and the Devil, the master is back in cahoots with another race that could determine the fate of humanity...

Good Grief: Even when you don’t entirely like the third Doctor you can’t deny that he has a lot of personality. I would rather watch Pertwee's Doctor  at his most arrogant and ungrateful than Davison when he is sidelined or McCoy when he attempts to emote (although I understand that that is a purely subjective viewpoint). Malcolm Hulke’s Silurian/Sea Devils stories see the Doctor at his most obstinate and arrogant but there is still a vein of humour here that keeps you on side. There is something about the way the Doctor treats Trenchard that makes the character seem so desperately inadequate - I'm pleased that he turns out to be in the Master's pocket because otherwise there would be no excuse for the way the Time Lord talks to him. We learn a little backstory about the Doctor and the Master, that they used to be good friends and went to school together and when he visits him in his cell there does seem to be a genuine amount of concern (although why that should be after his behaviour last season baffles me). It’s an intriguing relationship because the Master is the only other member of his race on the planet who can understand his plight in exile and yet he proves to be a corrupt meddler in the affairs of the planet when he is let off the leash. He’s happy to flash a bit of cash to get his own way. The sheer gravity of his statement that Horatio Nelson used to be a personal friend of the Doctor's is almost enough to allow him to get away with such an egotistical namedrop. I was getting flash forwards to Austin Powers' 'Judo chop!' when the Doctor dramatically cries 'Akidaa!' and  performs his signature Venusian karate. His little diatribe that violence will get you nowhere might have more of an impact if the Doctor wasn't kicking the crap out of people wherever he goes in this story. ‘You really think you can keep me here?’ he tells Trenchard, his confidence knowing no bounds. Pertwee ensures that every scene is packed with a little moment of character, his ‘how very kind of you…how very unkind of you!’ is wonderful. I was laughing my head off when the Doctor tells Jo to leave the explanations to him (he’s so sexist you almost imagine him adding ‘you dumb bint’ at the end of the sentence) and then scoffing down all her cheese sandwiches. Sarah Jane Smith would never have put up with that kind of behaviour, neither would Liz Shaw. At times you are barely on the Doctor's side he is behaving so brutishly and with the Master pouring on the charm it is sometimes easier to offer your sympathies to the villain. What saves the Doctor is his earnestness, attempting to forge a relationship between the Sea Devils and humanity with such gravity. Everything he does is for the good of humanity, even if he barely disguises his disgust for the species at times. There is a quiet moment of humility when he admits that he failed to save the Silurians before and you feel that this is a second chance for him to get it right. The Doctor gives the submarine Commander a Sea Devil gun suggesting he wont kill himself but he is happy for others to do it for him…then he gives him a hard time when he does! Hypocrisy thy name is Number Three. Every fibre of my being screams at me to dislike this guy at times and yet there is something in Pertwee's portrayal that never lets me do so. It is the strangest anomaly.

Dippy Agent: Katy Manning looks fabulous in her white suit and there is no sign of the dizzy blonde here, she’s a professional spy once again and responsible for beating up three guards and rescuing the Doctor twice. The last time we saw her this resourceful was The Mind of Evil and I although I find she matures beautifully in her last season I’m not sure she would ever be this practical again.  The chemistry between Manning and Pertwee is effortless at this point. I love her ‘that was my favourite DJ’ scene with him when they are trapped on the Fort together. She’s learnt the paralyzing ‘Judo Chop!’ technique, knocking out guards with a single blow. This is not the work of the Doctor, she has clearly she has been taking lessons from her old pal Tara King.

The Doctor’s Moriarty: Despite some efforts in the eighties to serialise the show (it doesn't work when your efforts consist of a one line reference to the previous story at the beginning of each new one) they never quite had the tools that the show did in the early seventies. This is not only a sequel to The Silurians but also to The Daemons, picking up the threads that climaxed at the end of season end when the Master was arrested. ‘You can consider yourself lucky. Quite a few people were in favour of having you executed’ says the Doctor in the story’s one moment of real life grit. Is the Master a changed man with a great deal to repent? It's an interesting angle to take with a villain and can only be dealt with at the moment whilst he is incarcerated. He has everything that he wants except his freedom. The iconic sequence where the Master watches The Clangers and pretends that he thinks they real is priceless and worth the admission price alone. We've seen him dressed as an Administrator and a Vicar and now it is time to tart the villain up as an Admiral and he looks every bit the naval officer, wandering around the base and saluting his subordinates. Whilst the fight between the Doctor and the Master feels a little comic strip (not helped by the gloriously insane moment when they speed the film up to give them the impression that they have super hero speed) but the idea of him pulling a knife and throwing at the Doctor's back feels genuinely dangerous. That sort of behaviour certainly wouldn't have been tolerated on the New Series. The Master plays Trenchard like a fine instrument, suave and confident and even manages to convince him that everything is fine when it has clearly gone to shit. Gloriously he doesn't even spare his ally a glance when the Sea Devils storm the prison and murder him, Trenchard was simply a means to an end. Finally the Master thinks he has found a species that hates humanity as much as he does and his smugness knows no bounds so it is especially satisfying when the Sea Devils put their faith in the Doctor instead. Whilst this prison bound diversion has been fun I was pleased to see the guy escape at the end, I don't think the idea of him constantly outwitting whoever is put in charge of locking him had the ability to run. His little wave as he departs in a hovercraft is perfect.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The point Mr Parliamentary Private Secretary is that you have not destroyed them. You have just made them angry. Very, very angry!
‘You said man is weak!’ ‘So he is! Soon you can surge from the sea in your millions and exterminate them!’

The Good Stuff: If you can filter out Malcolm Hulke's ear splitting music then the first episode is a perfect exercise in suspense building without ever revealing the monster. Briant uses his cameras very carefully to suggest horrors unseen, often filming in near darkness to suggest something moving about within. With a copious amount of location work, some unusual action (the Doctor and Jo at sea), what feels like hundreds of extras and terrific technology on display (the cars with their doors removed, the diving bell, the submarine), The Sea Devils feels like a very expensive production. Clearly the aid of the Naval forces has given the show access to resources that would otherwise have felt lacking. Hulke is a fantastic character writer and his scripts always have a touch of realism about them - I especially like the sea fort workers drinking and gambling but Hart made quite an impression on me too, looking for all the world as though he is undergoing a nervous breakdown at points. The scenes of the Doctor and Jo investigating the sea fort are atmospherically handled, I don't think some of this material would be out place in a good chiller at the movies at the time. Some real thought has gone into the Sea Devil design, somebody has sat down and really thought through what an underwater species would look like and struck upon an inspired turtle motif. I really like their guns too, something unlike anything we have seen before. Michael Briant goes all Batman on us, offering tilted angles and overly dramatic music as the Doctor pursues the Sea Devil through the fort. There is a real atmosphere to the sequences set on the submarine, I always love it when Doctor Who heads beneath the waves and the model work (which bests that seen in Cold War in my opinion) and sets are dazzlingly realised to ensure this looks as real as possible. The submarine descends to the seabed, clanging noises resound from the hull, screams pour from the intercom and the door starts to melt away...who said the middle episodes of these six parters sag? This is vintage stuff and I can imagine kids biting their nails as the Sea Devils emerge. The era is famed for it's superb cliffhangers (Drashigs, Maggots and Dinos, oh my!) and I detect the hand of Terrance Dicks at work when the Doctor and Jo are caught between a minefield, a squadron of armed guards and a Sea Devil emerging from the shore! It would seem that we are to be denied any material from the 60s set on a beach (The Smugglers, The Underwater Menace, Enemy of the World and Fury from the Deep all absent from the archives) so it is great to finally get out in the sea air and enjoy some coastline action. The shots of the Sea Devils emerging from the waves are justly famous, Doctor Who once against proving that you don't need a huge budget to create moments of television that last. Captain Hart is a very believable character, Edwin Richfield gives a marvelously irritable and tired performance and he is unwilling to take the Doctor’s absurd suggestions at face value. Trenchard's off screen death is his final indignity, he's one of Doctor Who's most interesting bad guys because he thought he was behaving inappropriately for all the right reasons. Your sympathies are with him because he is clearly not up to his job and yet at the same time his heart is in the right place. I really enjoy the cliffhanger to episode four even if the build up does seem to take forever. In true dramatic form, the Doctor manages to form a bond with the Sea Devil leader just as Walker orders the ships to attack them. The Sub in the underground harbour – Gerry Anderson eat your heart out! The last episode is one of those Pertwee installments that impresses you with a whirlwind of violence and great set pieces; Sea Devils die in the most spectacular way on the beach as hovercrafts full of naval officers emerge and massacre them and the whole thing climaxes in an impressive speedboat chase between the Doctor and the Master. This is high octane Who, playing to a cinema audience and it flies by in entertaining fashion.

The Bad Stuff: This story is responsible for many, many years of ridicule by my Uncle who just happened to be babysitting one day when this was repeated on BBC2 and he saw the cliffhanger featuring the Sea Devils emerging from the sea. Every time the show was mentioned during family gatherings throughout my childhood he would always go on about the Sea Devils (or 'the monsters where the eyes don't move' to be precise) to the point where it has become a regular joke (I even bought him a T-shirt with a Sea Devil on it for his 60th). Everybody has that moment when somebody in their family spoils Doctor Who for them, pointing out its absurdities previously unnoticed by the seasoned fan and The Sea Devils is mine. The discordant Malcolm Clarke music veers between atmospheric (not very often) and ear bleedingly dreadful and distracting (about 80% of the time). One of the sea fort workers coins the term Sea Devil and yet in true Doctor Who form from here on this seems to be their official name (see also The Ice Warriors and the Silurians). I abhor plots that hinge on co-incidence and Jo peering out of the window and just happening to spot the Master certainly qualifies. The padding creeps in during episode two with the Doctor and Jo heading back and forth to the prison to check that the Master really is behind bares. Barry Letts is right, the swordfight is stagy and it feels too rehearsed and the music distracts. Jo creeping around the castle is accompanied by something that sounds awfully like high-pitched wet farts. With its grainy location work and penchant for browns, greens and greys, The Sea Devils is a pretty ugly story to look at at times. When the Sea Devils leave the ocean en masse the picture quality is horrendous, it's so dark and grainy it looks like they are walking out of black ink. A lesson in over reaction – watch the two guards who walk around the corner in the prison and bump into a Sea Devil! The action slams to a halt for five minutes as the diving bell is plunged beneath the waves and then brought up again with laborious detail. Walker is another one of those characters that turns up simply to get in the way cause further complication to the plot. To give him some credit he is much better written and performed than Chinn in The Claws of Axos (he felt as though he just stepped from an overblown comic) but in his own way his character is just as vacuous. Doctor Who really doesn't have any very positive to say about official types in the early seventies, does it? Walker is very confident when scoffing down rough cut marmalade on toast but becomes a gibbering idiot when he is put in danger (and his Hitler mustache impression when he is confronted with a Sea Devil has to be seen to be believed). After a story that has impressed with it's authentic sets it is a shame to head down into the Sea Devil base with its cheap black drapes and polystyrene rocks. Once all the incredible set pieces are out of the way the only place this story can go is to blow up the Sea Devils because the series isn’t brave enough to explore an ongoing story of rehabilitating the creatures into society. It would have been brave decision to have made when the Doctor met the Silurians (there was certainly the time in seasons seven and eight to explore the idea, the Doctor almost exclusively on the Earth during that period) but considering he is going to be given his freedom in three stories time I can understand why this might not have been the best time.

The Shallow Bit: I hadn't realised that the submarine Commander was Donald Sumpter! He was quite a hottie in his youth!

Result: I have been far too hard on this story in the past. I had always written it off as an ugly looking, tuneless repeat of the Silurians with about half it's intelligence and lacking its decent characterisation. Whilst some of those criticisms do hold water I can feel a counter argument brewing in my mind even as I type those words. Yes the story is drenched in miserable colours and the location work does look grainy and dour but the direction in general is of an extremely high quality and the action is covered dynamically throughout. Yes the music is extremely experimental but at least the show was trying something different and occasionally Malcolm Clarke manages to strike upon something genuinely spooky and atmospheric (the submarine scenes are very well scored). And yes the character work may not match Doctor Who & the Silurians for shades of grey but Malcolm Hulke is too strong a writer to let even the smallest of characters slip by without some colour and conviction. Like all six parters it is stuffed full of padding but as a complete story it holds together far better than I have ever given it credit for, aided by the high action content which adds a war movie credibility to the piece. We can thank the Royal Navy for that, ensuring that when Walker orders a strike against the Sea Devils it genuinely looks like they have the facilities to blow them off the planet. Michael Briant's direction is excellent and he ensures the pace rarely lets up, filling the story with exciting set pieces (and some nicely handled scares) and I can understand why Barry Letts kept turning to the youthful and risk taking director. The Doctor and the Master dance around each other, revelling in their rivalry and yet always on the verge of polishing each other off. It would be fair to say that in stories of this type that Roger Delgado's Master is every bit the central character as the Pertwee's Doctor and during parts of The Sea Devils you might even find yourself siding with the villain such is his mesmeric influence. On its own strenghts I would probably give this story a 7 but this has been one of my biggest surprises since I ran this higgeldy piggledy marathon and I felt a tingle of excitement that you get when discovering a great Doctor Who story throughout which bumps it up to a: 8/10


BSC SSC said...

I think this is the best of the Original Series Earth Reptile episodes.

CatCat said...

Hello Joe
I love your reviews, I wanted to ask you if you plan to review the audios The With from the Well an Army o Death (Eighth Doctor and Mary Shelley)

Joe Ford said...

Hi there, thanks for the lovely comment. Oh yes, I do plan to finish all the Big Finish reviews. It's finding the time at the moment! :-)