The Sea Devils

Written by:
Malcolm Hulke
Directed by: Michael Briant
Starring: Jon Pertwee
Year: 1972
Video Availability: Try

When it comes to The Sea Devils and The Silurians, I've always said that The Silurians is the better film, The Sea Devils the better movie. They're essentially the same story, of course, written by the same writer. Where Silurians was subtle for the series and had developing plot and characterisation, The Sea Devils has noisy set pieces, explosions and the moral ambiguities wrapped up in trite platitudes. And while the Doctor's distasteful murder of the eponymous creatures does make him the equal of the Brigadier, it's merely lip service to any semblance of worth or meaning.

Yet The Sea Devils is brilliant, a fun flash-bang adventure yarn that never fails to entertain, almost despite itself. Havoc are on hand for some somersaulting Sea Devils (who are virtually mute here, compared to their cousins), but I can overlook this. Perhaps the first two striking things about this story are the unusual direction and the extremely unorthodox music from Malcolm Clarke. A nice change from Dudley Simpson's somewhat staid renditions, it's bizarre yet works brilliantly here. What also compels are the performances. Captain Hart, a stock military type, is likeably rendered in the shape of Edwin Richfield, while what could easily have been a Chinn-style caricature in Colonel Trenchard is played superbly by Clive Morton, one of my favourite guest actors in the series. He never feels less than real, with his scripted hesitations feeling so natural. Big up, Clive Morton, big up!

It's also the return of the Master for the first time since The Dæmons, the right length of time to leave it before he started to become really stale. It's a shame, because while this is Delgado's wittiest performance, this is also the last decent one he would give. While I love The Time Monster overall, Roger's final two appearances in Doctor Who are tongue-in-cheek ham. Not without charm, of course, but symptomatic of how cosy and trite the series had become in the later Pertwee years. There's a very famous scene here where some fans believe The Master thinks The Clangers are real. I must confess I did once believe this myself, despite the fact that it's obvious the Master is joking, and even double-takes when it goes over Trenchard's head.

After praising all these performances, we must note that Jon, while not asleep as he would be the following story, does operate by the numbers heavily here. His PMS rating is still fairly low, yet if I was counting facial strokes it'd be at least doubled.

You know, this opening episode is pacey, intriguing, amusing and deftly introduces a large range of characters (for Who) without it feeling forced. Not only that, but it passes so quickly you just end up wanting more - the textbook example of a good first episode? Even the presence of a stereotyped Irishman can't spoil it.
* * * * ½

The skewed camera angles really add to the opening of this one, what would otherwise be a silly opening gambit. The Sea Devils are just men in rubber suits with silly painted-on pupils (some of them even half scratched-off) yet they're kind of fun somehow, aren't they? And it's notable again that while a major complaint with The Silurians could be that it's slow, here there's no time to rest or worry about build-up. The dialogue is snappy and progressive, and the divergent plot strands compel. After the kid-friendly sappery of Colony In Space, this is a massive return to form for Malcolm Hulke, albeit in a completely different way to his prior work.

A downer in this episode is what must surely qualify as the worst example of exposition ever witnessed in the series, which Jo's toe-curlingly bad "Silurians, wasn't it? The Brigadier was telling me […] That was that race of super-reptiles that had been in hibernation for millions of years, wasn't it?" She then goes on to ask why they should be aggressive, and what we've done to them, should any younger viewers not pick up on its race parable schtick.

Jon's on better form here - is his "wires crossed" line an ad-lib? It seems natural enough, as does his laughter. With doorless cars and cold, electronic music, this is a step away from the usual Pertwee story, and a further break away from the UNIT team (with The Mutants, that'll make it three in a row) give it a unique feel for the era. And coming right in the centre of the Jon Pertwee era, it's a talisman, the final Pertwee story to attempt genuine realism (with the possible exception of The Green Death), as opposed to plastic artificiality. This is the final Jon Pertwee story that it's possible to take seriously. Well, as seriously as you can a story about six foot lizards, obviously. The daft padding in this one, all blindfolded golf and sword fighting, also works despite itself. Yes, even the crap speeded up bit.
* * * *

If the long reprise wasn't clue enough, then it soon becomes clear this is a coasting episode. The rampant pace of the first two instalments has cooled, and narrative progression has virtually halted. Look at the set-up at the start and end of this episode. Nothing really changes.

Again, Jon works harder than I remembered, though you can't help shake the feeling he gets intimidated by Delgado's performance. Navy footage makes its first real appearance here, with a submarine shot that clearly jars with the rest in terms of film stock. Yet it gets by adequately, and while finance isn't everything, this is one of the very few Who stories where you don't (almost) have to be embarrassed by the budget. That said, the "old chap" "what the Devil" submarine personnel must be the poshest crew in history. And Jo joining in with the Doctor's karate-chopping is a worrying sign. But while heavily padded around escape and recapture antics, this is still highly enjoyable.
* * * *

Weirdly, a sole Sea Devil with its head on wonky is the cliffhanger, meaning the famous "Sea Devils rise from the sea" isn't actually a cliffhanger at all, but a mid-episode event.

The Doctor leaping over barbwire for Jo is taking chivalry too far, and just seems too silly and parochial. As for the sonic screwdriver suddenly becoming a land mine detector/detonator… please! Yet though I've said it before, the Delgado/Morton double act is one of my favourites, they work exceptionally well together. Sadly, this is Morton's last episode, with him killed off screen by Sea Devils.

This is a weaker episode though, with Jon stumbling over his lines after being called to ad-lib with the sandwiches. There's nothing worse than seeing someone ad-lib and then fall on their arse. I'm reminded of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, where Sylvester ad-libs a "heyyy" hippy expression…. Then immediately forgets his next line. And Jo's twittering idiot routine is rapidly starting to annoy again, at odds with the season ten Jo where she grew a brain.

The end of this one sees the Doctor go to contact the Sea Devils in a last ditch attempt to divert disaster, a bit like Tony Benn. Only the puerile would snigger at Jo telling him "Doctor… is it really necessary for you to go down?"
* * * ½

A bit of a Muppet show here, with the lead Sea Devils' tunic accidentally coming undone and some plastic vessel being awkwardly opened. This is the first time they speak, and not only do their mouths move out of synch with their (quite daft) voices, but there's precious little explanation for those who didn't see The Silurians. In many ways this is the first anorakky Who story, as a sequel to a story two years ealier with small reference for casual viewers. They talk about colonies over the Earth and the way they can destroy man through terrorist acts, almost like some marine Al-Quaida.

On the opposing side, the episode introduces a war-mongering buffoon as a politician - I mean, as if! It is interesting that the Royal Navy supplied many clips for this episode (over 90 seconds worth), despite it presenting them as war-mongering bastards. Talk of "weapons of annihilation" make this the most topical Pertwee rerun yet, though the description of The Master as "the personification of evil" just goes to show how one-dimensional the character really was. On the subject of motivation, with all the well-drawn human characters that rise above their stereotypes, it's sadly the Sea Devils themselves that remain cardboard cut-outs. And thankfully they kill the one on the submarine - that half-missing pupil of his was really starting to distract me.
* * * ½

Despite its shortcomings - it's padded and the final two episodes lack the charm of the first four - I'm really glad The Sea Devils is a six-parter. Whereas some Pertwee six parters seem to go on forever and a day (stand up fellow Hulke tales Colony and Frontier in Space) this one fills its duration admirably. It's also the best story of season nine. The best acted, the best directed and the best made, with the most - however little - to say. It's great fun, too, and for the only time in his era Jon gets to say return the popularity of the neuron blow.

This episode is pretty crap in many ways though, a backwards look at the cartoon antics of season eight. Three trained Navy personal couldn't overtake a single Sea Devil, but here Jon's shouting "Hai!" and karate-chopping them all over the place. This is then followed by a full-on gurn as he's attacked from behind. Jon does almost threaten to act at times here, though his pious moralising old granny routine has already taken hold by now. And unusually for a final episode, this is still padded in places, with multiple shots of Jo's arse running about. Interesting though to see Roger in the water... isn't there a rumour that he puked and then chucked his teddy out the pram as a result?

Ultimately the Doctor destroys the Sea Devils with the tenuous justification that "I did what I had to to prevent a war." (Delivered like a bad case of wind from a disinterested Jon) Yeah, right - that's got about as much ethical integrity as a Clare Short resignation. Yet a rewarding final pay off has the Master escape… just why didn't anyone notice that guy was wearing a pathetic rubber mask until they got close up?.
* * * ½

Almost a classic in many ways, this is a fast-packed action adventure retooling of Doctor Who and the Silurians. Shallow, certainly, but for once Doctor Who tries an action romp, and has the budget and the cast to back it up. The second half of the story betrays the promise of the first, but this is still fine entertainment.
PMS: Just twice, surprisingly.
* * * *