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9x03. The Sea Devils
Writer: Malcolm Hulke
Director: Michael Briant
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Producer: Barry Letts

Synopsis: A series of mysterious attacks and deaths at sea draws the attention of the Doctor and Jo while they are visiting the Master's prison. The Master has manipulated his warden, Colonel George Trenchard, into helping him contact the Sea Devils, relatives of the Silurians who have been carrying out the attacks, as the Doctor tries to prevent war between the humans and Sea Devils.

Review: "The Sea Devils" has been hailed as a classic in many quarters of Doctor Who fandom, and so I'm a little surprised to report that I mostly found it just average. On paper, at least some of the ingredients for a classic seem to be in place: a follow-up to "The Silurians," the return of the Master, and some of the best location work and action cinematography on the series to date. But the underlying story is almost always going to be what makes or breaks an outing, and in this case, I'm afraid I felt that the story just wasn't very good.

That's not to say that it's especially bad, or that it's simply illogical on its face, just that it felt like a retread of things we've seen before. Of course, the point can be made that "The Sea Devils" is a sequel, not only to "The Silurians" but in a sense to all of Season 8 given that it features the Master's return, and that therefore one should expect some familiarity, but there's a point at which the familiarity starts to work against the material. The Master is an obvious case: this is now the sixth time that he's tried to latch onto some sort of alien weapon or invasion force and had his plan fail. If he's truly meant to be the Doctor's intellectual equal and a real threat to the universe, why is he always dependent on the power and plans of others? And while I suppose he had to exploit the situation with the Sea Devils to convince Trenchard to go along with his scheme, the fact remains that he tried some version of this five times *before* he was caught and imprisoned. Maybe the point is that the Master isn't as smart or powerful as he thinks he is, but I really don't think that's the writers' intention: if nothing else, the Doctor's willingness to kill him at the end of "The Mind of Evil" indicates that he's meant to be seen as a legitimately dangerous villain. Sure, the Delgado/Pertwee confrontations are still fun, and there's an interesting revelation that the two were friends in school, but these elements alone hardly justify six episodes, and the writers could be a little more scrupulous about having something original for the Master to do if they're going to bring him back.

The same goes for the Sea Devils themselves. By making them relatives of the Silurians, writer Malcolm Hulke sets up high expectations that he ultimately fails to meet. Hulke's script for "The Silurians" was one of the series' best to date, giving the Silurians a uniquely sympathetic portrayal by setting up a conflict between their leader and his younger subordinate over the possibility of peace with humanity and showing both sides as prone to overreaction. We see some of the same themes in "The Sea Devils," but Hulke waters down the ambiguity this time. The chief advocate of using force on the human side is Walker, a parliamentary representative and a cartoonish chickenhawk who's obsessed with food and obviously meant to be despised as soon as he appears, while the Sea Devils are a largely undifferentiated bunch who appear only as brutish monsters until Episode 5. The script acknowledges that the humans are partly responsible for escalating the conflict, in that the Doctor has convinced the Sea Devils to try negotiating just as Walker orders an attack that quickly destroys any chances for peace, but Hulke still allows the Doctor to blow up the Sea Devils in good conscience by having their leader vow that nothing could change his mind regarding the need for war. The Doctor does so with regret, and destroying one Sea Devil base is probably better than allowing a full-blown war to break out, but this just doesn't carry the insight of "The Silurians," which examined how even relatively moral and well-intentioned individuals on both sides could eventually be driven to genocidal violence. By contrast, the Master is neither moral nor well-intentioned, Walker is too stupid for these categories even to apply, and the Sea Devils are given such scant development that it's impossible to view them nearly as sympathetically as their unfortunate cousins.

The action and suspense are better executed in "The Sea Devils" than in almost any serial to date: the chases and firefights are reasonably convincing, and the location work adds a touch of realism as well as a little variety (this is the first Pertwee serial to take place in or around the sea). And yet, several days after my initial viewing, I find that I can remember individual action scenes, but I can't remember too much about why they happened in the first place or what was accomplished as a result of them. The reason, I suspect, is that few of them actually advance the narrative, instead serving simply as a set of arbitrary obstacles that the characters must dodge before the story arrives at its obvious turning point, i.e. the Doctor and the Master making opposing arguments over the Sea Devils' decision to wage war. The subplot of the captured submarine proves especially frustrating: it leads absolutely nowhere in terms of the plot, and it pigeonholes Captain Hart (a character otherwise written and acted well enough to have some real potential) into the role of objecting to Walker's attack because it might endanger his men. That's certainly reasonable, but since the submarine's capture isn't necessary to the plot, I'd have preferred a situation that required Hart to take an actual stance on the possibility of peace with the Sea Devils rather than one that only prompts him to quibble over the specifics of Walker's plan.

I hate to sound unrelentingly negative, because "The Sea Devils" isn't bad so much as it is just disappointing. I was rarely bored while watching it, and the actors and the production team do a good job of bringing the script to life -- Hart's concern for his men, for example, is convincingly written and acted, and the Doctor and Jo are proving to be a good team after all, with Jo getting to show her bravery again by helping the Doctor escape from Trenchard's prison. And while most of the political commentary is a little too obvious, there's a more subtle point to be found in Trenchard's history as a disgraced colonial governor who is seeking to redeem himself: he believes that the Master is actually trying to foil an attack by enemy spies, and he sees a chance to recover his reputation and do the country a great service by assisting. Unfortunately, the serial's virtues couldn''t quite compensate for my feeling that "The Sea Devils" was rehashing old ideas and characters without enough of a new angle to merit a six-episode sequel.

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)

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