In the argument over which story could be considered the best example of the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who, it’s interesting to note that some of the most popular choices (“Inferno,” “The Daemons”) only check off a couple of the boxes of elements most associated with that era of show. It’s probably because the stores in question feature an iconic moment or two or at least enough of the iconic elements that (before the age of VHS, DVD or streaming video) that fans could easily remember elements from one story carrying over to the next. (Indeed, there was an entire column in my days of reading Doctor Who Magazine in which fans wrote in with pieces of memories of stories and tried to have the columnist identify which story it might have come from. Not realizing how spoiled I was by my PBS station at the time airing the entire run of complete Doctor Who serials, I often wondered how the fans could mix up details from stories that were in the BBC archives).
One such example of this is the popular third Doctor era story, “The Sea Devils.”
In many ways, “The Sea Devils” is a re-telling of “Doctor Who and the Silurians” from two seasons before. Writer Malcolm Hulke seems to hit all the high points of that seven-part serial, but without as much nuance as the original. Essentially, it’s the story of a reptillian race that went into hibernation when it appeared the moon would crash into Earth, overslept and is now waking up to find humanity has assumed their place as the dominant lifeform on Earth. “The Sea Devils” ties itself to “The Silurians” by having both reptile races related — the earlier ones existed in caves and in this case the titular Sea Devils live underwater and seeking to take back Earth from the depths of the ocean.
But while “The Silurans” has the presence of UNIT and (some of) the UNIT regulars, “The Sea Devils” features the Master, played with considerable panache by the late Robert Delgado. After a season of every story featuring the Master in some capacity, it’s nice to see the Pertwee era take a break from the Master’s mechanizations. It makes his return here a pleasant one, but it also allows us to have some breathing room from him so when he gets up to the same tricks, it seems fresh, exciting and interesting again.
Of course, the Master is once again hoisted by his own short-sightedness and falling into the same trap he does every time. From his prison, he’s forged an alliance with the Sea Devils to conquer the Earth, but quickly finds himself in over his head and needs the Doctor’s help to finish said plan. Of course, by the time we get to the final episode, said invading force has decided to discard the Master and he’s forced to team up with the Doctor to save his own skin instead of just somehow allowing this week’s alien menace to conquer humanity and destroy the Doctor.
While “The Silurians” presented a nuanced view of both sides of conflict over who should be the dominant species on our planet, “The Sea Devils” goes for a more black and white approach. It’s clear from the earliest moments as the Sea Devils skulk in the shadows (though interestingly, we see a lot more of their appearance early than we do of their cave-dwelling cousins) that this reptilian race isn’t as much interested in bartering a peace treaty as they are in conquering humanity and taking back the planet. A lot of this could come from the Master, who is apparently casting humanity in a not so positive light with the creatures (it’s not helped by the fact that every time the Doctor proposes peace talks or finding a common ground, the military is forced to attack or bomb the Sea Devils undersea fortress, mind you). But part of it could be that at only six episodes, there isn’t time to build up the Sea Devil civilization as much as we saw two seasons before. Of course, there’s also the time we have to spend with the Master trying to keep up the illusion that he’s really a prisoner and not actually manipulating the entire prison staff to do his will.
“The Sea Devils” gets a leg-up on its predecessor because the production received cooperation from the British Navy. This means that we get a lot of stock footage to lend authenticity to the military proceedings (and to look very different from the footage filmed for the episodes) as well as filming on the open water and naval vessels that ordinarily might not have been available to Doctor Who. And while you can easily spot the stunt doubles for our leads climbing on and off ships, the overall production feels more authentic than the standard BBC cave sets that served as the home for “The Silurians.”
It’s also helped that there is an iconic cliffhanger that is seared into the collective memory of Who fans of that era. “The Sea Devils” rising from the ocean at the end of episode three remains one of those iconic moments in the original series’ run (I’d argue that the Haemovores rising from the deep in “The Curse of Fenric” is meant to call-back to this moment). Indeed, you could argue that episode three of this story is one of the most memorable of the entire run of the third Doctor’s era.
“The Sea Devils” is also a story that represents the mid-point of the Pertwee year. Comprised of twenty-four stories, I’ve argued for years that the Pertwee years start strong with a dozen stories that are generally excellent with the odd clunker thrown in and then finish up with a dozen stories where that feature more misses than hits with the odd classic serial thrown in along the way. With location shooting, the Master on hand and Pertwee clearly settled into his role as the Doctor, “The Sea Devils” features just about everything you could want from a third Doctor era story.
It even features Jon Pertwee getting to have a jolly good time by using some type of rare and exotic transport to chase the villain. In this case, it’s an extended (though not nearly as extended as we’ll get in “Planet of the Spiders”) chase using jet skis. I often wonder if this is how the production team sold Pertwee on certain stories — “So, there are reptilian sea creatures and you get to go on board a hovercraft and a jet ski.”
It also features the Doctor and the Master having a sword fight…in the prison that is supposed to be holding the Master. The fact that a prison would have swords outside a prisoner’s cells is one of those things that can only happen on TV…and only because they’re planning to have a sword fight at some point during the proceedings!
It’s interesting that the new series has given us an updated take on the Silurians but, so far, we haven’t encountered the Sea Devils again. (Though we will see them one more time during the Davison era). Maybe it’s just a matter of time before they show up on the new series.
“The Sea Devils” also features one of the more experimental soundtracks in the classic series run. During my initial days as a Whovian, my local library has a copy of Doctor Who: The Music on vinyl, which I promptly checked out and dubbed to cassette. The record included samples of electronically created music from various eras of the show, including a suite from “The Sea Devils.” So, I’d heard some of the music long before I ever sat down to watch the six-part story on my local PBS station.
This both helped and hindered my expectations for the story. It helped that since I’d already heard the score, it wasn’t quite as a shock to the system from the typical Dudley Simpson scored serials of the era. And while there are parts of the score that work extremely well, there are others where it just clashes a bit or feels like someone is mashing their fingers on a keyboard to create some type of soundscape for the episodes.
It was a hindrance because hearing the score, I imagined a bit more of the story would be filmed and take place underwater. Again, the limited budget of the era doesn’t allow for this. And while I’ve reconciled my initial imaginings of how the story might play out on screen with the reality of what does, there’s still part of me as that young Who fan that can’t help but wonder what if….