Sunday, January 10, 2010

Random Who Report: The Sea Devils (1972)

Sea Devils DVD cover and Amazon Link
As much as I enjoyed “The End of Time”, the Tenth Doctor’s fiery swan song, all that apocalypse stuff and tear-jerking goodbyes call for a palate-cleansing. “The Sea Devils” is a tricky story to review because it’s a sequel to one I haven’t reviewed yet; “Doctor Who and the Silurians” had the Doctor encountering a race of reptile men who inhabited Earth before man and now wanted it back, and here he meets their cousins with the same agenda. Malcolm Hulke (arguably the old series’ most socially conscious writer) manages to mix things up, though, and it’s a respectable sequel with just enough action and adventure to justify its six-episode length.

The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Jo Grant (Katy Manning) head out to check up on the Master (Roger Delgado), currently being held in an island prison. Ships have been disappearing in the area, and the Navy’s getting nervous. The Doctor tries to make contact with the Sea Devils in hopes that he can work out a peaceful solution to their displacement, but they’re not much for words and more for killing people with heat rays. It doesn’t help that the Master, with the cooperation of his jailer who hopes to get the credit for flushing out “enemy agents”, has made contact with the Sea Devils and plans to help them in their goal of destroying the human race, just to get back at the Doctor. (Some things never change.)

The original Master, Delgado is always a treat to see in the part. His is probably the most understated take on the character- not yet maniacally driven to survive at all costs, the Master is simply interested in gaining power and putting one over on his old friend/foe whenever possible. He’s more the sane evil mastermind, witty and urbane and with a twisted respect for our hero.

Essentially the story has two major plots; the Sea Devils wanting to take over the Earth, and the Master playing them to his advantage. By alternating between these two elements, the story generally avoids the feeling of padding most six-parters get; it’s probably a little longer than it needs to be, but there are no obvious plot cul-de-sacs or red herrings.

Instead, there’s quite a lot of action, here with the participation of the genuine Royal Navy. There are some very nice stunt sequences and battle scenes, but the highlight has to be the authentic working combat hovercraft that plays a key role in a few scenes. It’s interesting that the Navy’s participation was secured for a story which calls into question our rush to solve problems with violence, but it does put the blame for human escalation not on the sailors, but an amusingly spineless government functionary who just wants the business to be over with as quickly as possible.

The Sea Devils are an interesting design, undermined slightly by the execution- they have stiff, inexpressive heads perched upon long necks which conceal the heads of the actors, resulting in some awkward movement to say the least. That said, they can be a chilling sight rising from the water in groups, and their turtle-like faces are almost charming.

The social commentary that formed so much of “Doctor Who and the Silurians” is here mostly reduced to a couple of scenes, but the moral ambiguity of the situation still adds a lot to the story. It plays up the Doctor’s altruism against the Master’s self-interest, as well as pitting our desire to see humanity win out over our knowledge that it’s not necessarily the most just outcome. “The Sea Devils” is a fun story overall, and rumors seem to indicate that the monsters (and their Silurian cousins) may return to the show for Matt Smith’s first season, so this isn’t a bad time to catch up.

Written by Malcolm Hulke
Produced by Barry Letts
Directed by Michael Briant

Grade: B+

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