Welcome to the thirty-sixth instalment of Who Review, my ongoing quest to review all available episodes of TV’s longest running SF series, Doctor Who. This week, the Doctor encounters a new colony of Silurians in The Sea Devils.
The Sea Devils
26 February – 1 April 1972 (6 episodes)
Since his capture at the end of The Daemons, The Master has been incarcerated in a prison on Fortress Island. He is the only prisoner held at the facility. Security is tight; he is monitored by CCTV at all times and watched over by guards trained to resist his hypnotic powers, while the prison itself is surrounded by a minefield.
The Doctor and Jo come to visit the villain, who claims to have reformed. However, he refuses to reveal the location of his TARDIS, casting doubt in the Doctor’s mind as to the sincerity of his words.
Not convinced, The Doctor prepares to leave when the prison’s governor, Colonel Trenchard, tells him that several ships have mysterious disappeared from the waters surrounding the island. His curiosity piqued, the Doctor decides to investigate.
The Doctor and Jo head to a small sea fort, where they find a crazed crewmember. They soon discover what has led to the crewman’s insanity when they are attacked by a strange, aquatic version of a Silurian that the crewman calls a “Sea Devil.” They manage to escape.
They return to the island and head for the nearby naval base, HMS Seasprite. There, they meet with the bases commander, Captain John Hart. Hart is in charge of transforming the base into a SONAR testing station. Despite some minor disagreements – based primarily on the Doctor’s rather erratic behaviour – Hart agrees to aid them in their investigation.
They soon discover that the Master has been stealing electrical equipment from the naval base, aided by Colonel Trenchard. A staunch patriot, Trenchard believes the Sea Devils to be enemy agents that only he and the Master can stop. Little does he realise that the Master is using the equipment to build a machine to control the Sea Devils and convert them into an army he can use to conquer the world.
Confronting the villain, the Doctor engages him in a duel of swords. Unfortunately, he cannot defeat the Master, who manages to use his device to summon the Sea Devils from the depths of the ocean. The Doctor is forced to repel the creatures by using his sonic screwdriver to detonate the landmines.
The Master returns to his cell and summons more Sea Devils. Soon, a battle rages for control of the facility. Trenchard is killed and the Doctor and Jo are forced to flee to the safety of the naval base. There, they learn that a naval submarine has vanished.
While the crew of the naval base prepare to battle the Sea Devils, the Doctor and Jo head out to the sea on a naval boat. Employing a submarine bell, the Doctor descends into the depths to investigate. Unfortunately, he is captured by the Sea Devils and taken to their underwater base.
Meeting with the leader of the Sea Devils, the Doctor tries to broker peace between the creatures and the humans above, much like he tried to negotiate with the Silurain leaders in the past. Unfortunately, the Master has also made his way into the base, hoping to promote war between the races.
The greater threat, however, comes from above, where a gluttonous politician, Robert Walker, has arrived at HMS Seasprite and taken control of the operations. Walker decides that the Sea Devils must be annihilated, much like the Silurians were wiped out by the Brigadier in Doctor Who and the Silurians. He orders depth charges be launched into the ocean to destroy the Sea Devil base.
Below, the charges disrupt the negotiations, causing havoc. In the ensuing chaos, the Doctor flees, returning to the surface. There, he persuades Walker to allow him to continue attempts at negotiating peace.
Unfortunately, The Master has manipulated the Sea Devils into invading the surface and attacking the naval base. Using the invasion as a cover, he finds the Doctor and forces him to aid in the construction of a device to revive Sea Devil colonies around the world.
With the device complete, the Master takes it down into the Sea Devil base and activates it. Unfortunately for the villain, both he and the Doctor are imprisoned by the Sea Devils. The Doctor, however, has sabotaged the device, causing massive feedback that destroys the Sea Devil colony. The Doctor and his arch nemesis manage to escape before the base is destroyed and are rescued by the navy.
On the surface, the Master manages to escape once more, fleeing in a hovercraft.
The Sea Devils highlights many of the best aspects of a great Who storyline. It is an thrilling adventure story, filled with action and excitement. It’s a mystery, showcasing the Doctor’s deductive and investigative sills. It’s a story of exploration, revealing a strange new world beneath the ocean. Writer Malcolm Hulke manages to find a near-perfect balance between all of these elements.
It also carries with it a strong message of peace and understanding. The Doctor’s attempts to broker peace in the face of aggressive forces on both sides highlights the many facets of human nature, but is never too heavy-handed and preachy, nor does it ever threatens to derail the story.
The Sea Devils is also an excellent example of how location shooting can add an air of authenticity to a storyline. The prison exteriors were filmed at Norris Castle, an imposing structure that could easily have been a high-security prison. The Sea Fort was an actual sea defence fort built in the 1860’s in the river Solent, in anticipation of a potential French invasion.
The most important location, however, is the use of Fraser Gunnery Range, the naval base used for HMS Seasprite. Seeing actual navy personnel, equipment and weaponry employed creates a level of heightened realism rarely seen in Doctor Who. In reviewing Day of the Daleks, I commented on the poorly executed invasion in the final episode, which detracted from the overall quality of the story. There is no such problem in here, as the battle between the navy and the Sea Devils is excellently executed.
Another highlight of the story is the fencing between the Doctor and the Master, invoking images of classic swashbuckling battles of the past. It’s only fitting that these arch nemeses should confront one another in this manner.
On a rather humorous note, the Ministry of Defence visited Producer Barry Letts shortly after the story was broadcast, believing the footage of the submarine was actual footage of a prototype being designed by the Ministry. The similarities were purely coincidental, as the submarine was a modified model kit purchased at Woolworths that just happened to look like the prototype.
Jon Pertwee is most definitely in his element in The Sea Devils. A former naval officer, he seems to relish his time at the naval base and in the submarine bell. According to the soldiers stationed at the base, Pertwee was fascinated in all aspects of their duties, and that interest and excitement carries over into his performance as the Doctor.
We learn in this storyline that the Doctor was a personal friend of Horatio Nelson, the famed 18th century navy commander.
The Sea Devils shows one of the earliest uses of the Sonic Screwdriver as something more than a device for opening doors and disrupting signals. Here, the Doctor uses it to detect and detonate mines. Eventually, the device would develop into andues ex machina, a means of getting the Doctor out of almost any situation. It’s interesting to watch as the abilities of the device grow.
After an incredibly strong showing in The Curse of Peladon, Jo is relegated to the role of sidekick in this story. She makes the most of her screen time, and her concern for the Doctor during his descent into the Sea Devils base is heartfelt and genuine, but she doesn’t show much of the ingenuity and resourcefulness that made Peladon such a joy to watch.
Of course, The Sea Devils is really a Doctor vs. The Master showcase, so it’s not surprising that Jo has less chance to shine. Hopefully she’ll be back on track next storyline.
The Sea Devils are a welcome addition to the Who mythos, expanding upon the concepts first presented in Doctor Who and the Silurians. Apparently, Barry Letts and Script Editor Terrance Dicks approached writer Malcolm Hulke about creating a sea-based story, and it was Hulke’s idea to create a sea-based offshoot of the Silurians. It’s an inspired choice, opening a whole realm of possibilities in relation to the Silurians – who knows how many different offshoots of the race could be hidden beneath the earth.
Unfortunately, the Silurians and the Sea Devils wouldn’t appear again for another 12 years.
At the end of the last season, I was critical of the constant use of the Master during the season, especially in The Claws of Axos. It reached the point where the appearance of the Master was no longer a surprise. I’m glad that they held back on having him appear for a few stories during this season, building up the anticipation of the return.
The payoff in The Sea Devils is excellent. The Master is back to his manipulative best and, as always, Roger Delgado’s performance is inspired.
According to Jon Pertwee and Barry Letts, Roger Delgado was afraid of being out in the water during the naval boat and submarine scenes. He certainly looks uncomfortable during those scenes.
The Sea Devils is another excellent story combining many of the elements that make Doctor Who such an incredible series.
The Doctor and Jo journey into space once more to battle The Mutants.