Season 21: the worst series of Doctor Who ever made starts here. It will have its moment of brilliance very soon, but it will be fleeting and then it’s downhill all the way, and the problems have little to do with a lack of time or money. You could make this on a movie schedule and budget and it would still be a disappointing piece of work, because it’s morally bankrupt.
Something changed with the perceived success of Earthshock, coming so close to the anniversary year. Suddenly the right way to do Doctor Who seemed to be to bring back some old monsters. This continued with Omega, the Black Guardian, the Silurians, the Daleks, the Sontarans, and would have culminated in the unmade original version of the 23rd Season, with Autons, Ice Warriors and even the Celestial Toymaker. There is nothing wrong with bringing back successful monsters, as long as there is a good reason for it and something interesting is done with them. In fact, the ratio of old to new monsters in the early 80s is not so very different to the late 2000s. But Warriors of the Deep shows us how not to do it. The problem is not so much with the Sea Devils here, who were little more than the monster of the week in their original appearance, lacking any individual character traits. What really goes wrong is the return of the Silurians, who actually had some moral ambiguity to them the first time round, as Icthar recalls:
You forget. Twice we offered the hand of friendship to these ape-descended primitives, and twice we were treacherously attacked, our people slaughtered. It will not happen again.
And this is one of the moments the Doctor collapses as a character, because he has no answer to that, and yet it’s nonsense. As a survivor from Doctor Who and the Silurians (who has inexplicably rewired his head gun into a Dalek-style voice light), Icthar has to have been one of the warmongering Silurians, and he must know that. The only dissenting voices within their ranks were killed off, and then the others set about trying to commit genocide, twice. So Warriors of the Deep plunders the past, and looks back on it through a distorted lens. The Silurians this time round are simply monsters who want to kill everybody, the Sea Devils are their muscle, and yet the Doctor throws out a line at the end as if he has been taking part in Pertwee’s story rather than his own:
There should have been another way.
Yes, there should have been, and it might have started with the Doctor not deciding to overload the base’s reactor to cause a distraction, attacking a guard and then blithely apologising, and getting himself nearly drowned as a reward. And then this great hero says this:
I sometimes wonder why I like the people of this miserable planet so much. The Silurians and Sea Devils are noble races. They have skills and talents you pathetic humans can only dream about.
Yes, they’re very noble, these monsters who have arrived with one, unshakeable belief that they have to wipe out every human in existence. And here in a nutshell is the big problem with the story: the script. All the problems hail from the writing: Johnny Byrne’s vision for this story as something like Alien, with dark corridors and a giant distorted version of a Sea Devil lurking in the darkness (if you write that kind of stuff for Doctor Who in the early 80s, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a brightly lit base and a pantomime horse); a story about cold war tensions, with every hint of politics removed from it for fear of being taken off air while an election was going on. Faced with such material, everyone dropped the ball here, and it’s rare to get a Doctor Who story where literally every single person involved does a bad job. Eric Saward took a bad script and made it worse. JNT apparently insisted on some of the worst aspects of what appeared on screen. Davison got chucked into freezing cold water. The director was like a dog with his tail being wagged for him, overruled on every creative decision that mattered, and taking on board Ingrid Pitt’s karate attack idea on the Myrka, which should have been dismissed with hysterical laughter. And the actors almost visibly give up on trying to do anything good with this whole sorry mess. With Classic Who, the visuals are largely unimportant. We can forgive the Skarasen in Terror of the Zygons, and the kirby wires in The Tomb of the Cybermen, because those stories are brilliant. To take a more relevant example, we don’t need to let the dinosaur in Doctor Who and the Silurians spoil our enjoyment. We can view these things as a product of their times. But when a story has nothing to offer in the way of interesting ideas, or even one single, solitary, likeable character, it is hard to see past the wobbly-headed Sea Devils and the Myrka, lurching around with its paint still wet, the puppeteers inside getting dizzy with the fumes.
But the single, most disappointing thing about Warriors of the Deep? When you get to the end of it, you haven’t even seen the worst story of the season. Unbelievably, there was some more downhill to be found. RP
The view from across the pond:
You’ve got to love Doctor Who monsters that take their names from what humans call them. Luckily Sea Devils and Silurians have been around for a while and probably got used to calling each other by their English names, rather than use their own language. Very thoughtful of them. The reality is that the TARDIS must be translating for the listener, working not unlike a censor on TV when a vulgarity is replaced with a less offensive phrase. Like in Die Hard II with “Yippee Ki-yay Mister Falcon.” (Yes, that is for real!)
The truth is, I liked this story despite its weaknesses. And there is at least one big weakness! The Myrka is utterly awful and probably one of the worst attempts at a monster in all of Doctor Who history. What compounds it is that the creature was supposed to be somewhat akin to the xenomorph of Alien skulking about the base adding terror to the story. Instead it truly comes off like a college prank. To make matters worse, when Solow thinks she can fight it, it’s high pantomime. Her fist… movements, for want of anything else to call them… look like someone trying to tease a particularly large and perturbed cat. When she adds to the train wreck we are watching by trying to karate kick the hulking behemoth only to get electrocuted to death, the viewer isn’t sure if they should laugh out loud or cringe that this was intended to be taken seriously!
As terrible as all of that is, I thought the Silurians looked fantastic for the time, having won a make-over for their loss against the humans last time. Granted, they’ve put on weight, but some species carry their weight better than others, so who cares? Their unmoving mouths might have been a bit weird too but I found the eyes so reptilian, I had to love them. The Sea Devils also look great, wearing armor now instead of fishnet shawls. Probably a bit more challenging to swim in, what with the added weight and all that, but hey, muscles count for a lot underwater. The base, while it might have been aiming for creepy, ends up with a bright futuristic feel that I liked a lot. Think: 2009 Star Trek Enterprise sans lens flares.
But like the two earlier stories, the Doctor is determined to broker a peace between humans and the two reptilian species. And again, I can’t help but ask what makes him feel this is a possibility? Even with Icthar present, it’s one Silurian and one Time Lord against all of the humans, Sea Devils and Silurians who want to wipe one another out. Despite that, it almost looks like he could succeed. But the Doctor is not really looking at things logically. Not to mention, the Silurians are supposedly down to three members remaining; the rest are gone. When Icthar dies, there’s no reason to think the Sea Devils or the humans would honor any pact made. On the other hand, there are so few of them, why would it matter to either species if they are allowed to live? It’s tantamount to being worried about Ahab’s White Whale – the likelihood of encountering it is pretty remote.
And like each of the former stories with those two races, the Doctor loses. Not just one side is wiped out, but everyone is dead by the end. And all he can say is a very sad and memorable “There should have been another way”. A final bookend for the original series use of these once noble creatures and it leaves us wanting for something happier.
I’ll end with one question. The Doctor likes to say “When I say run, run… RUN!” He says it in this story, which is why I bring it up now. I want to know why he has to prelude that. For instance, if he just said “RUN!” would his companions all stand there drooling and say “wait, you didn’t prep us? We can’t just break into a run!”? Or would it be more surprising to the villain and you don’t want to run the risk of giving the bad guy a stroke? “Oh, no! I didn’t see that coming! Heart… failing…” By first telling the companions he’s about to announce “run”, he’s also giving the villain a chance to prep. Thoughtful, but impractical.
Maybe it’s like writing a blog; you don’t want to end too abruptly. So when I stay stop writing, stop writing…
Stop writing! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Awakening