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The Sea Devils! A Navy Lark?

January 27, 2015


Jon Pertwee made became a household name thanks to his role in a campy maritime radio comedy.  He returns to the sea in a rather more po-faced capacity in The Sea Devils, written by Malcolm Hulke.

Like all Silurian (or is that Eocene?) adventures – the Doctor tries to broker a peaceful solution in which humans and reptiles can share their planet equally.  The Sea Devils is perhaps the least bleak and anti-mammalian of these stories.  (What incidentally do “Sea Devils” call themselves – or how would it translate?  They surely can’t call themselves any version or equivalent of “Sea Devils”.)

The Sea Devils is an adventure that gets to play with boats, personnel and equipment.  A lot.  The Doctor may still work for UNIT – but this is not a UNIT adventure.  This is all about the Royal Navy.

And this adventure contains hovercrafts!  Or one hovercraft at least .  I miss hovercrafts.  As a boy I owned a science and technology book that pronounced with certainty that hovercrafts would dominate twenty-first century travel.  Actually, they were never much fun to travel in – but always fun to watch inflate and “take off”.

As a consequence of getting to play with so much of their stuff, the Navy is not subjected to the kind of anti-militarist critique that dominates the earlier and grimmer Silurian adventure.  The responsibility for violent idiocy is shunted upwards – to a “man from the ministry” – who issues orders while ignoring naval as well as Gallifreyan advice.  (“Men from the Ministry” are always a pretty contemptible lot during the Letts-Dicks era – they must have had a considerable quarrel with the Heath administration.)  This particular Man from the Ministry is perhaps the most despicable cocktail of stupidity, cowardice and cruelty ever to have wandered into a Doctor Who adventure.  Even the spectacularly dim Trenchard, the Master’s duped jailer, is allowed a redemptive death, but this Man from the Ministry will survive to cause casual misery on some future occasion.

There’s a lot of fun to be had in The Sea Devils.  The joke of having the Master watching the Klangers and thinking its real is so good that it’s shamelessly recycled decades later when a future version of the Master gets to watch Tellytubbies.  If there’ a weakness in the story it’s that the Master’s motive (revenge against humanity) never really convinces.  There’s not enough a sneaky yet grandiloquent personal angle to satisfy what we’ve come to expect from the Master’s brand of villainy.

Perhaps the single most distinctive aspect of The Sea Devils is, however, the “music”.  Tristram Cary’s Silurian soundtrack had irritated a great many people with its fuzzy and reedy faux medievalism.   Indeed, the recurring hautboy leitmotif might just be Cary’s second most irritating bit of music ever (after, of course, the “Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon”).  For The Sea Devils we get Malcolm Clarke and the radiophonic workshop offering us the most intransigently electronic, modernist and atonal score ever provided in the history of the whoniverse.

When rewatching The Sea Devils, I initially had a strong aversion to what initially sounded just like a lot of footling about on a synthesiser.  Then it grew on me, and I realised that that irritation and aversion were what I was supposed to feel, at least at first, in the process of being exposed to something truly alien.  Given the BBC’s budgetary and technological limitations in the 1970s music was one of the chief means of communicating wonderment and fear.   In those days, it was still assumed that a disturbing alien futurity deserved a scary and alien soundtrack.

Thanks to John Williams and Star Wars, we are now used to the idea that sci-fi (more accurately, space opera) requires lush, traditional  and melodic orchestral scoring.   Malcolm Clarke’s aggressively spiky sounds would never be permitted in the revived Doctor Who series.

Mind you, most of Dudley Simpson’s scores would be regarded as too radical and unsettling for a twenty-first century audience as well.

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