Doctor Who: The Sea Devils at the BFI

❉ Mike Kenwood reports back from the latest BFI Southbank launch event for the Doctor Who Blu-ray Collection.

Frank Bellamy’s Radio Times illustration for the omnibus repeat of The Sea Devils, broadcast on BBC One, 27 December 1972. Source:

“Murder? War always is my dear. Now where’s that girl with the toast?”

I find it very hard to view this story even-handedly. Two reasons. One – it was amongst the very first Doctor Who stories I ever saw, in 1972, aged just under six. It simultaneously scared me and enthralled me into returning next Saturday – a common experience I’m sure. It wasn’t my first story, but it was the first one where I began to understand the ideas, the implications, albeit very basically. The summer time seaside holiday must have been challenging for my parents that year, as no doubt I was constantly looking down Paignton beach, wondering what would emerge from beneath the waves…

Reason Two? Fast forward 20 years – when BBC2 repeated this story in 1992, I was living in Portsmouth, right where this story was filmed, and working with the Royal Navy. So you can see, this tale is close to my heart.   

Fast forward another 31 years – what makes this story still stand out?

In my opinion there is an almost imperceptible tug-of-war here, between writer Malcolm Hulke’s desire to write a morality play about racism and blind patriotism, and the BBC’s need to produce a gripping family friendly action thriller of six episodes’ duration. The story is a sequel to a previous Jon Pertwee story, Doctor Who and the Silurians, that featured intelligent reptiles which occupied Earth millions of years before humanity, went into hibernation and have a legitimate claim on the planet. Many of the same lessons about intolerance are on display in this sequel, exemplified in later episodes by a jingoistic English politician, Walker, and the enraged Chief Sea Devil. (Significantly the creatures don’t refer to themselves by that name, one terrified human victim coins the phrase.) The Doctor’s arch-enemy, the Master, is also looking to provoke a war between the two species for his own ends. (It’s worth noting Hulke’s novelisation of this story stresses the political dimension further.)

The family friendly action thriller elements win over the politics, as they probably had to. Every single element of the storytelling is very clearly laid out, such as the sequence in Episode One where both the Doctor and the Master spot a common factor in some recent unexplained ship sinkings, and we cut away to the source of the trouble. There is generally at least one big set piece per episode, situated around one location (presumably so the sets could be dismantled afterwards). Everything builds until in the final instalment, when the team throw every last action trope into the mix. It’s plotted like a well-wound bomb.

Director Michael E. Briant seems to triangulate between these two different approaches, building up the tension in the battle sequences with closeups of the combatants faces human and Sea Devil alike and lots of safety catches being snapped off guns. He’s clearly trying to make a piece that’s like nothing else on television at the time, combining conventional framing of actors in some scenes with innovative camera angles and a genuinely unearthly atmosphere. There is an element of sympathy for the Sea Devils themselves during the climatic gunfight towards the end of the story.There’s some enjoyable (low key) light relief in the mix too; food related gags keep cropping up for some reason. Walker seems obsessed with stuffing his face, and at one point his desk is simply covered in empty plates. Even the Doctor joins in the fun, wolfing down sandwiches and fumbling with his exploding radio. Most amusing of all, perhaps, is the Master’s subtly exasperated reaction to Trenchard’s obtuseness when the prison governor finds the Time Lord watching The Clangers.

Ah, yes, the Master. Played by the colossus that is Roger Delgado. He seems a little over-the-top in his opening scene. He’s been incarcerated in a sort of one-man Parkhurst prison and is observed unsuccessfully trying to hypnotise a guard. It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal he’s taken over the joint. The hypnotism is a pretence for the Doctor’s benefit and he’s overacting because it’s stage-managed. By contrast, the Master’s second and third attempts to hypnotise people are more successful, genuinely mesmeric, framed in a disquieting way and they culminate in bouts of surprisingly intense violence. He simply radiates menace. He can be urbane and charming he and the Doctor nearly shake hands at one point. He can also be unhinged he laughs like a maniac when he thinks he’s fooled (or not fooled) the Doctor with his reformed character act, and later makes multiple attempts to murder him in one of the pair’s most antagonistic duels. In short, he’s a (just about) plausibly motivated, proper old-school scoundrel, straight out of the playbooks of ITC and the Bond films. When he solemnly tells the hapless Trenchard, “All your troubles will soon be over,” you know it’s not going to end well for the governor. The black leather gloves are well and truly off or on, if you see what I did there.

The story is an accomplished showcase for Jon Pertwee’s interpretation of the Doctor too. Slapstick aside, he is at his best when on the back foot, pleading with both humans and Sea Devils for a peaceful solution, and displaying formidable gravitas in his fury at Walker. He is very much the man of action, tackling soaking wet speedboat chases and swordplay with gusto, rapidly improvising to repel an attacking Sea Devil (twice), acting as a real medic by giving a sick man an injection, and quietly reflecting that the Master used to be an old “school” friend (the first time on screen this is stated). He is every inch the iconic moral hero from my childhood, and his disclosure that he’s solved matters by reversing the polarity of the neutron flow” elicited a genuine punch-the-air cheer from the audience.

Katy Manning’s Jo drives parts of the plot almost as much as the Doctor and she exhibits similar moral anger towards Walker. She’s proactive, self-reliant, employs nursing skills and a few martial arts, can pilot a hovercraft and crucially, she persuades the resident Naval commander, Captain Hart, to launch a search-and-rescue mission in the final reel. Third Officer Jane Blythe (June Murphy) is a similarly efficient assistant to Hart, raising common-sense questions in all the right places. While this is a male-dominated story by today’s standards, the way both these two women are depicted is a welcome step in a modern direction.

For a story with a larger than normal cast, all the characters are distinctly drawn, aided by some top drawer acting. Clive Morton’s Trenchard is self-important and ignorant but has the odd kindly moment towards Jo, and one cannot help but feel sympathy for him as he sits in his office, drinking Scotch, having realised he’s been duped. Edwin Richfield as Hart effectively plays a Naval equivalent to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and his character is equally unafraid to lead his troops into action. Martin Boddey makes a suitably pompous, wrong-headed and cowardly Walker, while Donald Sumpter as Ridgeway, the Submarine Commander, delivers a nuanced performance, exhibiting a nervous tic when he’s under pressure. Even the more minor parts, such as the crew on the Sea Fort and the various Naval staff, are convincingly depicted.

Malcolm Clarke’s experimental musical score for this story remains a contentious issue for fans. Personally I think it works well, especially in conjunction with the visuals and Brian Hodgson’s sound design. Tony Snoaden’s various sets, from the Naval Base to the Sea Fort to the run-down interior of the prison, are also impressive, especially when seen in detail on a big screen. The attention to detail is such that even the clock on the wall in the Master’s cell shows a (mostly) consistent set of times. Similar care and hard hours have evidently been put in by the Restoration Team for the Blu-Ray presentation, with some enhanced Special FX and recolourised footage.  

Overall, I thoroughly recommend this story, whether like me you are an older fan revisiting your youth, or a new viewer looking for a jumping-on point to experience early 1970s Doctor Who.

One of @Andydrewz’s brilliant spoof Dr Who adverts shown onscreen for the BFI Sea Devils event, reproduced by kind permission. Visit his Redbubble store.

In launching the Doctor Who Season 9 Blu-ray at the BFI Southbank, the organisers made an unusual decision by selecting The Sea Devils as the representative story; showing a six-part tale makes for a rather long viewing session. However, considerately, our hosts, Dick Fiddy and Justin Johnson, had scheduled in a brief intermission and interviews to break things up. Events kicked off with a quick screening of, and panel about, Defenders of Earth, a short film trailing the Blu-ray set. Defenders features Katy Manning reprising her role as Jo, and it was penned by new series writer Pete McTighe. It served nicely to whet everyone’s appetites before seeing Pertwee in action again.

Later highlights of the afternoon included interviews with Katy Manning, always a force of nature, and Hugh Futcher, who played Hickman, the unfortunate Red Shirt who’s an early Sea Devil victim. Futcher recalled, “I wanted to work with Michael [Briant] again, he was very good to me as an actor. Some of the finest actors were in Doctor Who, and it was good to see them again. It had a quality there on the screen which in my opinion, is sadly lacking today.”

Katy also found herself engrossed in the story. “I felt compassion for the Sea Devils, I was having quite a little moment there.” Regarding her costume she added, “I did have the worst outfit ever in my entire life, because that suit was made of wool. What’s the movie where if you get the creature wet it goes a bit bonkers? Gremlins. My suit belonged to Gremlins. When it got wet, it shrunk!”

The BFI even went to the trouble of interviewing a Clanger too, which was novel – Justin Johnson did the honours with a swanee whistle. As always with these BFI events now, there was a party atmosphere, and wide age range and diversity amongst the attendees, from seven-year olds to people in their seventies. Plenty of young cosplayers in attendance too, taking on the baton. Long may these parties continue.

❉ ‘Doctor Who: The Sea Devils’ + Q&A with Katy Manning and Hugh Futcher took place at BFI Southbank, Saturday 4 March 2023.

❉ Click here to pre-order DOCTOR WHO: THE COLLECTION – SEASON 9 from Amazon in the UK ahead of its release on Monday 20 March 2022. This is an Amazon Affiliate link, which means we will receive a commission if you make a purchase through our affiliate link, at no extra cost to you.

❉ Mike Kenwood is co-author of Fags, Slags, Blags and Jags (an unofficial guide to The Sweeney), The Sweeney – The Official Companion (with We Are Cult stalwart Rob Fairclough, and yes, they liked it so much they made it official), and The Callan File (also with Rob Fairclough). He lives in Surbiton, but doesn’t have a goat in his back garden (yet).

Artwork by @Andydrewz, reproduced by kind permission. Visit his Redbubble store for annuals, film posters, Target book covers, ice lollies…

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