Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Serial 62: The Sea Devils

Doctor: Jon Pertwee (3rd Doctor)
Companion: Jo Grant

Written by: Malcolm Hulke
Directed by: Michael Briant

Editor's Note: So we're back again after our month of celebration with yet another great story, in this case some Malcolm Hulke and "the return of the Silurians" in a way. But I'm not reviewing it. Guest-friend Cassandra is, but I'll be back next week for... something of an experiment. We'll see how that goes... But enough of me! Let's get to her!

Background & Significance: Let's talk about the sea, shall we?

In the history of Doctor Who, very rarely will you see a story set on water. Which is understandable, considering the trickiness of filming in such conditions, and also the considerable expenses of pulling it off. I imagine producer Barry Letts saw it as something of a challenge, because he specifically wanted to set a story in such circumstances when in the midst of planning out Season 9, Jon Pertwee's third season as the Doctor.

What ultimately became of this ambition is "The Sea Devils." Written by Malcolm Hulke, this would see the quasi-return of the Silurians, the main focus in his script from his story two seasons previous.

But it would also see the return of the Master, who hadn't been seen in a while. The Master had appeared in all of the stories in the previous season, but the Doctor Who team realized that this was a lot of overexposure for the character, and so decided to limit his appearances. So this story picks up from where we left off, with the Master in prison (which is actually more awesome than it sounds).

Aside from just a return of some villains and the decision to have a story set on and alongside the sea, I think "The Sea Devils" does some rather remarkable things as far as characters are concerned; which is rather surprising, considering the fact that this was the early 70s, and the emphasis on character development instead of plot was really a rare, almost unheard of thing. But the return of not only the Master, but the Silurians (the Sea Devils being their aquatic cousins) meant that this was to serve as a sort of sequel or companion piece to that previous story, with all of the baggage and repercussions that implies.

But enough of all that. Let's take a closer look, shall we?



Commentary!:

Part 1


I think talking about the Master is as good a place to start the discussion of this serial as any. Especially considering much of the episode is about him and his new… circumstances.

The last time the Master had been seen was in “The Daemons,” the last story of Season 8. For once (spoilers), he doesn’t get away, but is instead captured and confined in a maximum security somewhere, presumably for the rest of his days.

And in “The Sea Devils” we get to see what’s become of him. To be honest, it’s… kind of rad.

Seriously, the guy has a high security castle-fort with tons of mustached guards (every single one of them in this episode has a 70’s mustache and it’s quite glorious), a suite of rooms to lounge around in, and he’s the only prisoner. He doesn’t have to worry about being shanked in the lunch line or becoming someone’s very special friend, oh no. He’s got it pretty sweet. I’m a little jealous, except for that whole not-being-able-to-leave thing.

He even has the ability to ask for another television set. AND HE GETS ONE. IN COLOR. DO YOU KNOW HOW EXPENSIVE THAT IS? Maybe Colonel Trenchard really is the Master’s very special friend.

In all honesty, I really have no idea why this Colonel Trenchard, who is supposed to be overseeing the prison and making sure the prisoner stays put, is working with the Master in the first place. I have no idea what their relationship is. Obviously the Master is just using the guy as a means to an end, but why is Trenchard working with him? What does he have to gain? And he doesn’t seem hypnotized, either. Maybe he is and it’s just not explicitly made clear. Which is kind of a problem. You’re setting this whole new dynamic up, why not give us some background on it while you’re at it? It leaves me wondering and questioning. I do like it though. One thing they do accomplish with this interesting partnership is furthering along the story with some exposition that gets the ball rolling but it’s not too overt, all with a healthy dose of humor (it’s totally okay to watch children’s television, because the Master does it).

The thing I love most about this episode, though, is probably the Doctor’s relationship with the Master and their interactions in this. I love that he and Jo drop by for a visit and a chat with the Master. While it is to make sure he sticks around and is unable to escape, I think it’s just so interesting and a testament to the Doctor’s character. I love when the Doctor hints to Jo about their backstory, of a long-ago friendship turned wrong. I love the Master still trying to be manipulative and sneaky, pretending to be on his way to a moral and ethical transformation of sorts. And I love the awkward goodbye handshake moment, because it’s just so telling. You can tell that the Doctor is very much out of his element, not used to dealing with the Master being all genial and chummy. You can tell he doesn’t believe him one bit, and that even in this high-security prison, he’s reticent to trust his old friend/enemy. And yet at the same time, he does almost go for the handshake. It’s a really interesting moment that serves as a comedic beat, but also gives rise to some really complex character/relationship things. It’s just so good. I love Delgado and Pertwee.

And, of course, if the Doctor hadn’t decided to go visit the Master in the first place, he wouldn’t be having this adventure, so that’s something.

This story is just another in a long trend of stories in the Pertwee era where the story is ostensibly about one thing, but the Master is either the mastermind, or at the very least along for the ride. And, at this point in the serial (granted, only one episode in), all of the circumstances have to do with the Doctor visiting the Master in prison. It is there he finds out about the various ships disappearing, it is because of the trip that he learns of the top-secret Navy base and the strange burnt little lifeboat, and he decides to investigate. And, as it turns out, the Master is up to speed with all of this stuff, too. But how is he involved? What’s he got to do with the silly lizard creatures who explode small boats and kill maintenance men and mouthbreathe down a corridor and scare poor Jo and the Doctor? I kinda like that the Master’s presence in all these things forces us to ask questions like that. It’s neat and so far, it works.

Also the cliffhanger to this episode was stupid and weak.

Part 2

So there’s this really excellent youtube I want to show you guys, but it comes at the end so I have to be patient.

Now, we’ve talked about the Master, but what about the Sea Devils? They are the titular characters in this, after all.

So far, we’ve gotten glimpses of a few (or the same?) Sea Devil, but it is in this part that we really get our first encounter with them. I really love the Sea Devils. The costumes are so hokey, but I think that’s part of the charm of watching these old serials, and instead of not being able to take the villains seriously and writing them off, I see them as kind of adorable and go with it. Of course, whether or not you view the Sea Devils as the villains is entirely up to you, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The way the Doctor chooses to interact with this particular specimen is extremely interesting to me. He attempts to engage it in conversation right off the bat, like giant lizard creatures rise out of the sea and attack naval forts every day. Granted, he has seen something very similar before, which I’m sure is what dictates how he acts. Yet when the creature turns out hostile, I always feel so bad for the little guy. The way the Doctor zaps him and his howl of pain… It just makes me feel so sad. Yes, the Doctor acts in self-defense, and yes the thing did kill the other maintenance man, but I can’t help but feel he goes a little too far with this one.

Also, the sets in this story are magic, the seafort one in particular. The vertical space, it is stunning. I also really really adore the camera angles during the Sea Devil/Doctor chase scene. The strangeness gives the whole thing an extra layer of tension.

It’s interesting viewing this story both as a sequel to “Doctor Who and the Silurians” from season 7, and also as its own stand-alone adventure. Since it comes from the same writer, Malcolm Hulke, and references that previous adventure on several occasions, it’s impossible to not consider it a sequel. But at the same time, it’s also interesting because, so far, the Doctor’s approach is not only informed by his previous adventure with these prehistoric lizard civilizations, but its unfolding is turning out to be more of a repeat of that than anything else. Again, we’re only two episodes in, but already you have the Doctor attempting to negotiate peace between the two parties. In that respect, it acts as both a reflection of what the Doctor would do anyway, but also as influenced by the previous events.

I’m not saying this story is identical to “The Silurians” though, because it’s not. It’s very clear that they’re playing up the more action/adventure aspects of what Doctor Who can offer (the youtube! Wait for it, I’m telling you!), and, of course, there’s the inclusion of the Master as well.

Speaking of the Master… What the devil is he up to? I like how they keep playing out the mystery of what exactly the Master is doing in all this. There is a hint in this episode, a grand master plan (pardon the pun) that he alludes to in conversation with Trenchard, but aside from that, we’re given nothing in the way of explicit exposition and we’re left guessing. I like that. String us along and let us piece together the clues before info dumping all over us. Granted, they really have no choice but to spread everything out like this, what with the serial being six episodes and all, but still. It really works here, I think. I enjoy the mystery of it all. Though I still don’t know why Trenchard is in on all this, but I enjoy his role as the comedic relief. He’s just a giant oaf and a doofus and it’s kind of grating but also amusing and a little endearing.

Another thing I really enjoy about the Master being in this is his pimptastic disguise as a captain. Awesome. Delgado looks so classy.

Okay you guys, I’ve waited long enough. Time for a youtube. Seriously, if you watch one youtube on this blog, make it this one. It’s definitely worth your time and is one of the greatest moments in all of Doctor Who, at least as I reckon it.

Also, swordfight.


Badass. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched that scene so far. That is how you do a cliffhanger.

Part 3

There’s something about part threes, in that a lot of nothing happens in them. Most of the time, anyway. But ‘nothing’ is perhaps being a bit too harsh on this episode, because it is quite entertaining. There’s just a lot of run-around and wheel spinning. Unfortunately, since this is a six-parter, that’s going to keep going for a while til we can reach resolution in the last episode. Ah well, c’est la.

It’s interesting to me, watching this through again, just how… funny this story is. We’ll definitely be treated to some much darker themes and occurrences in the upcoming episodes, but for now, it’s surprisingly light and entertaining and actiony adventurey. There was a swordfight, for godsake (which we get to see again at the beginning of this episode, heck yes).

I think the word I’m looking for here that best describes my amusement with this episode is… campy. But I’m extremely hesitant to use that word because (for me, anyway) it always carries with it some negative connotation. But I think it’s apt here. The Master and Trenchard playing off each other almost like a double act (even the character of Trenchard himself), Jo karate chopping guards and running around on the grounds of the castle/prison before busting the Doctor out, the way the submarine commander’s eye twitches dramatically when he hears that the other section of the vessel is being attacked, and again, the Sea Devils’ hokey costumes. Also the fact that there’s a freaking mine field on the beach. Who does that?

Anyway, all of those elements add up to something that is just the right balance of delightfully campy and still being able to take itself seriously, which is something I think the Pertwee era really excelled at. I also really appreciate the fact that they do this little fun and games portion before everything’s all said and done; having seen this all the way through before, it does get dark, but they’re not afraid to have a little fun with it before things get serious. Which is another reason why I think the Master’s presence works rather well in this serial so far. The Master as Delgado portrayed him is inherently campy (also badass and awesome), and while he is a threat, he’s almost a good-natured one—certainly one we’re much more familiar with.

Another great example of this balance of camp and other cool things like character is what Jo is up to in this whole episode. She is a total badass, escaping from guards with some sweet karate moves (has she been taking lessons from the Doctor, I wonder?), and running around the grounds trying to find the Doctor and get him out of there. I absolutely love the scene where she is at the window, communicating with hand gestures and lip reading. It totally reminds me of that moment in “Partners in Crime” from the newer series, where Donna has found the Doctor and they have a conversation on opposite ends of the room through the windows right over the bad guys’ head. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if that moment was a subtle callback to this episode. I love this sequence because it is so amusing, and yet at the same time it’s a great illustration of character and the relationship between Doctor and Companion. You know they’re close because they’re able to understand each other perfectly, and their escape plan goes off without much of a hitch. Jo’s not a hindrance or weak spot in the Doctor’s armor, but she’s the reason he’s able to get out in the first place and I think it illustrates quite well that he needs her just as much as she needs him, which is awesome fantastic. They’re like a well-oiled machine, they’re so in tune with each other, and I really love that this scene shows off this particular aspect of their dynamic so well.

So this episode, in my mind, serves two purposes: a little fun and games run-around interlude, and exposition/filler/set-up. It is in this episode that we finally know what the Master’s up to, as well as why Trenchard is working with him (though this latter point is not as clear as it can and should be, which I don’t like), we get a lot of literal running around with Jo and the Doctor and Captain Hart trying to find them and trying to figure out and deal with the missing ship situation as well as the possible existence of the Sea Devils. This leads him to send out a submarine to scout the area in question, which is setting up for the arrival of more Sea Devils on the scene, as well as helping to eventually propel us into the second half of the story.

Excitement!

Also, someone’s gotta teach the Sea Devils how to dress, I don’t think the netted mesh nightgowns are working for them.

Part 4

So this is where shit starts getting real.

I don’t think I have a lot to say about this part (then again, I thought that about the previous section, and look how that turned out, so don’t quote me on that), but I think it’s interesting what Malcolm Hulke chooses to do here. Because this story is six parts, the writer has to make his story substantial enough that it uses the space wisely, otherwise you get episodes that are a total bore. Luckily, this is not the case with this story. While it does still move slower than I think it should (this story would be rockin if it was tight and constricted to four parts), it’s always entertaining on at least some level.

What intrigues me most about this episode in particular is the gradual transition from the humorous into the darker elements and plot points that come hand in hand with dealing with the Sea Devils. There are still moments of humor, like the Doctor eating all of Jo’s sandwiches, for example (Pertwee is *always* eating, my goodness). Same with the Sea Devils taking over the submarine; yeah it’s really scary he just melted that door, but how the heck did he just walk through it when it’s still red hot? Beats me. It’s silly moments like this that add a little hilarity to the proceedings.

But it’s also in this episode that the body count begins to rise, for both human and Sea Devil alike. The Sea Devil infiltration of the castle (brought on by the Master communicating with his devious machine, of course, because the Master has to be in this somehow) is actually both amusing and shocking. There’s always a level of camp to the way characters die on classic Doctor Who, especially random mustached guards, and I personally find their reactions funny. But at the same time, there’s some real violence happening, and guards and Sea Devils are both going down. It’s really terrible, if you think about it.

It’s this presence of the terrible that really prompts me to feel some sympathy for what’s going on here. The part where the Doctor sets off the mines on the beach and scares the Sea Devil, for example, always makes me feel so bad for the little guy. I also like the fact that there are moments that really remind us of the levity of this situation; Trenchard’s death, for example, is all the more terrifying and serious because we don’t witness it. Same with the cliffhanger to this part (which I love, by the way): we don’t know where the Doctor’s gone, if he’s dead or alive or at the mercy of the Sea Devils on the ocean floor or what. It’s a real kick in the pants moment that makes me want to know what happens next, and serves to remind us that it’s not all fun and games anymore.

Part 5

I feel so bad for the Sea Devils. Really, I feel so bad for everyone in this story.

The shift in tone is even more present here in this episode than it was in the one previous. While there was still some humor present, as I was talking about earlier, in this episode there’s practically none at all, and it’s really exploring some interesting but serious topics like war and genocide. Pleasant topics for a Doctor Who serial, no?

I mentioned earlier about how this story functions both as a standalone one, and also as a sequel (which is quite an impressive achievement, if you think about it). It is in this episode that we really see the sequel aspects shine through the most. And it makes for some interesting points for discussion (which is awesome for me).

I think the most interesting consequence of “The Silurians” is the fact the Doctor fails. And he fails hardcore. It’s not often that we have a story in which the Doctor fails (most of these would be regeneration stories), so when it happens, it’s all the more important and kind of a big deal. So in this story, he has a second shot at it, a chance to redeem himself in the light of the catastrophe that was the end of that story. (And it totally is a catastrophe. Talk about a dark, dark ending.)

Aside from the multiple references to this prior adventure that are littered throughout, in this episode especially but in other places as well, it becomes clear that the Doctor is doing everything in his power to prevent what happened last time from happening again. Which is a good plan, because nobody wants a genocide on their hands. But I really get the feeling that he’s doing so to make up for the fact that last time wasn’t good enough. Which makes for some really compelling and surprisingly deep character work. The Doctor’s trying to negotiate a peace, but everyone is working against him, the Master gumming up the works by working with the Sea Devils (for some reason?? Still don’t really know why he’s chosen to hang out with them. Unless it’s just for the simple satisfaction of starting a war and seeing all mankind destroyed? Which sounds like a very Masterish thing to do, but to be honest, not very original), and this new chap ordering the Navy to blow everything to hell, making the point to site the Brigadier’s very similar decision in “The Silurians.”

Speaking of the Brigadier… I’m really sad that he’s not in this. But I can’t really justify that sadness with any concrete reason pertaining to the story, because his absence actually makes a whole lot of sense. Obviously if this were a UNIT story, the outcome would be very different, having encountered these sorts of creatures before. Add to that the more comradely and genial relationship the Doctor has with UNIT at this point; they’re more willing to listen to him than they were two seasons ago. But I like that this is a completely different set of people who are just meeting and dealing with the Doctor for the first time, they have no reason to believe that he actually knows what the fuck he’s talking about and what’s going on. This is a branch of the military, and the military tends to do one thing pretty well: fight. It doesn’t help that the one previous example of this sort of thing happening ended badly and with a whole lot of explosions. So instead of a classically UNIT story, we get one that’s much more focused on the Doctor trying to get people to listen to him, fighting to be heard and not make the same mistakes twice. It’s a story about the Doctor trying to redeem himself, pretty much isolated from the surroundings and friends he’s gotten so used to interacting with (Jo being the exception, of course, but no one’s listening to her either), and I think that’s a fascinating choice.

Also, the new guy sent from the government, Parliamentary Secretary Walters or whatever the fuck—he is a total misogynistic douchebag and I hate him. Not cool, dude.

Part 6

You guys, this story makes me so depressed.

So I know I just talked a whole lot about how the Doctor is doing everything in his power to stop the total and utter destruction of the Sea Devils, but this episode totally just negated that whole thing. At least, on the surface it does. AND IT’S THE SADDEST THING EVER.

Everything about this episode makes me super sad. I know that’s the point, because it’s supposed to be sad and thought-provoking and there’s a ton of senseless violence and carnage, and you know what? I’m not going to talk about it anymore, I’m gonna let you guys witness it in a youtube.


Seriously. The sad Sea Devil face breaks my heart.

So the Doctor decides to work with the Master so that the Master can reawaken all of the Silurians/Sea Devils/lizard people who are hibernating in the depths of the earth’s crust. The Doctor needs a distraction to get the other people out of the base, so what does he do? He tries to kill them all with sound. It’s so cruel. I hate it. And then later he sets the mechanism to self-destruct and he and the Master pimp the fuck out of there before the whole Sea Devil base explodes? That is SUCH bullshit. I hate that too.

While his explanation is valid, it just doesn’t sit right with me. Blowing up all the Sea Devils in that base in order to prevent a war… I understand it, and yes, he was left with no other options, but at the same time… I don’t know. And I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s supposed to echo the ending of “The Silurians” but this time is different because the Doctor blows them all up instead of it just happening and him watching passively as all his hard work to try and establish a peace goes down the drain. The fact that it’s prefaced by all the carnage gives his actions some justification and he does have the greater good in mind, but at the same time it just… It doesn’t sit right with me at all and I seriously want to cry whenever I see this episode because it’s so fucking depressing.

One thing this story does do really well: it shows how much it sucks to be the Doctor. This scenario places him in an impossible position, and no matter what he decides to do, someone dies. That’s such a terrible place to be in, playing god like that. Perhaps that is the point. It wouldn’t surprise me if that were the point of this whole story, especially because this serial places so much emphasis on the Doctor and his position and him dealing with past choices and failures and the consequences of those things. And you know what? It really sucks and I feel bad for him.

I feel bad for everybody.

Except the Master, who totally jacks a hovercraft from the Navy. What a pimp.

Final Thoughts?: I have to admit I was dreading this story. Having seen it twice at this point, though, I have two completely separate reasons for doing so.

The first time, it was largely because I had no idea what to expect. For the most part, I hadn't heard anything either way, aside from the fact that there was a swordfight (oh, what a swordfight). All I knew was... well, that there were Sea Devils.

This story ended up shocking me. It was surprisingly well-done, it was fun, and it was also devastating. I really love that they got the assistance of the Navy to help them pull everything off; it really gives the story a sense of reality and takes away from the more hokey aspects (*cough* Sea Devil costume *cough*). I found myself rooting for the Sea Devils in a way; they were silly, yes, but they were also awesome and kind of adorable. Who cares if they were killing people and sinking ships? They were trying to get their planet back. I have a tendency to root for the underdog, and I fell into this trap hook, line, and sinker.

So when episode six happened... I'm not even really sure how to describe it. Doctor Who is my favorite show ever, I watch to make me feel better about myself and humanity and just for an awesome time. But what happens to the Sea Devils is legitimately horrifying, and it produced an emotional response from me that I wasn't expecting. I've seen "The Silurians", and that ending was very dark but this... This seemed somehow different, even worse than before.

And so it was for this reason that I was positively dreading watching through again, much less blogging about it for all of you lovely readers. Again, this story surprised me, and instead of focusing on how sad it was, I found that I was appreciating it more, noticing the humor, noticing the character work. And that was awesome. Which is not to say that the story isn't inherently depressing and tragic, because it so is, but it's also more than that.

Which is what I love about this show; there's so many things going on that you actually tend to benefit from repeat viewings. Of course it helps that this story is actually quite solid and doesn't make me want to gouge out my eyes with a spoon (the music kinda does though. Oh lord, what the heck is this score, seriously). So I come away from this experience with a new appreciation for this story and all of its strengths and weaknesses, its messages about violence, and how much it really bites to be the Doctor at the end of the day. And I hope you guys do too.

Save the Sea Devils!

Next Time!: Second Doctor! Jamie! Victoria! Missing episodes! The Himalayas! Tibetan warrior monks! And some freaking adorable monsters! Matt's back next Tuesday with "The Abominable Snowmen!"

2 comments:

  1. I don't have an high opinion of this one. Roger Delgado is great and it's well produced, but Jo is awful, the plot is rambling and the Sea Devils seem like zombies.

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    Replies
    1. Jo is ass-kicking in this one!

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