Season 21 – Story 130
“Friend or enemy, it’s a distinction that’s lost on the Silurians… To them you’re all the same. Ape-descended primitives. An evolutionary error they obviously mean to correct” – the Doctor
The Tardis makes an emergency landing inside Sea Base Four, a military colony on the ocean floor. The date is around 2084 and the crew under Commander Vorshak are monitoring an enemy power bloc. The base comes under attack from an unexpected force – reptile creatures that once ruled the Earth. The last of a Silurian triad reanimate their marine cousins, Sea Devil warriors, and together with a gigantic Myrka penetrate the Sea Base. Their aim: to provoke an internecine war between the humans…
Part 1 – Thursday 5 January 1984
Part 2 – Friday 6 January 1984
Part 3 – Thursday 12 January 1984
Part 4 – Friday 13 January 1984
OB recording: June 1983 at McMullen Barracks, Marchwood, Hampshire and Shepperton Studios
Studio recording: June/July 1983 in TC6
The Doctor – Peter Davison
Tegan – Janet Fielding
Turlough – Mark Strickson
Commander Vorshak – Tom Adams
Dr Solow – Ingrid Pitt
Nilson – Ian McCulloch
Bulic – Nigel Humphreys
Maddox – Martin Neil
Preston – Tara Ward
Icthar – Norman Comer
Karina – Nitza Saul
Scibus – Stuart Blake
Tarpok – Vincent Brimble
Sauvix – Christopher Farries
Paroli – James Coombes
Writer – Johnny Byrne
Incidental music – Jonathan Gibbs
Designer – Tony Burrough
Script editor – Eric Saward
Producer – John Nathan-Turner
Director – Pennant Roberts
RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
Faded horror film siren Ingrid Pitt tackles a cumbersome panto-lizard with an arthritic karate kick, is electrocuted and crumples, shrieking, to the floor… This, for many is the abiding image from Warriors of the Deep. A moment so embarrassing that 18 years later it was shown on Room 101 when Michael Grade, former BBC1 controller and Doctor Who’s nemesis, justified his loathing for a series he deemed “pathetic” and “rubbish”.
This 21st season opener isn’t by any stretch the feeblest 1980s production, but it does present on screen – mostly under harsh, unforgiving studio lighting – a catalogue of disasters. The behind-the-scenes doc on the BBC DVD records a litany of woe from its contributors: good-humoured star Peter Davison, dejected scriptwriter Johnny Byrne, bewildered director Pennant Roberts and don’t-blame-me-guv visual effects man Mat Irvine. They’d all had better days.
As usual, a lack of time and money is cited as the Time Lord’s greatest enemy. But Doctor Who should never be faulted for its ambition. A lot of patchy plywood-and-glue serials in the 1960s and 70s prevailed thanks to the precision of the scripts, credible characterisation and taut direction. Here, none of that comes into play, as is so often the case in 1980s productions.
And there we have it really in the word “production”. Ultimate responsibility must lie with producer John Nathan-Turner for his failure to surmount the problems to hand: overlit sets, the limp script, a shambling parade of monsters… In his memoirs, he recalls being badly let down by the visual effects department, hours of phone calls and staff working through the night to rescue the gigantic, shoddy Myrka costume. “Just writing about it has made me go quite cold.”
Yet on the DVD, Mat Irvine recalls with astonishment how JN-T came to the effects workshop in Acton and proclaimed the Myrka “wonderful”.
Director Pennant Roberts fared well on other BBC series (Survivors, Tenko) but never shone on Doctor Who. One of his undeniable strengths was casting. Let’s not forget, this is the man who chose Louise Jameson as Leela. Here he assembles an interesting guest ensemble, including more women than the script intended.
Alas, his staging is plodding throughout. The cliffhangers are devoid of tension. The various monsters are established with zero impact. Plonk! Here’s your first shot of three Silurians standing about in their battlecruiser. The battle sequences (which consume most of part three) waver between static and snail’s pace. At one point, the Doctor says, “You fire, and every Sea Devil in the area will come running.” If only! The best they can muster is a haemorrhoidal waddle.
Roberts complained that the script was too linear. It is pretty much A to B, with a vaguely diverting subplot about enemy agents. While the concept of a human/computer interface seems ahead of its time, the larger picture of unspecified power blocs at war 100 years hence is underdeveloped. Eric Saward tried to iron out Byrne’s scripts and unofficial continuity adviser Ian Levine expunged dozens of errors, including an assertion that the Silurians (of Earth origin) had just arrived from their home planet Siluria.
It’s also overlooked that “Silurian” is a misnomer attributed to the ancient reptiles by the scientist who found them in their debut story. Worse, their marine cousins are now solely identified by their hyperbolic moniker. The Silurian leader says, “For hundreds of years our Sea Devil brothers have lain entombed.” Ridiculous.
And here’s my real bugbear – the fond memory of two classic monsters from the Pertwee era being besmirched. OK, the originals weren’t without fault, they were of their time, but any shortcomings were offset by excellent storytelling and direction. Now the Silurians and Sea Devils appear just as they are: men in rigid rubber costumes.
The Silurians’ red third eye flashes as they speak and their voices have none of the gurgling power Peter Halliday gave them in 1970. The Sea Devils retain the whispery vocal effect from 1972, but look odd in armour and without their frill of gills.
“Oh no,” says the Doctor. “What is it?” says Tegan. “The Myrka,” gulps the Doctor as a less than menacing reptilian head peeks out behind a floppy polystyrene airlock. This creature almost defies description. It has a front end. It has a back end. There’s a flimsy intersection. And it’s green. More monstrosity than monster, its various sections heave, one centimeter at a time, along the stark corridors.
Its two operators, seconded from duties inside the Rentaghost panto horse, were given no rehearsal time. The Sea Base guards and La Pitt must collapse against it to meet their doom.
If only this had been intended as a comedy. Davison sums up every sane viewer’s thoughts at the end with his concluding observation, “There should have been another way.”
Radio Times archive material
There was no fanfare in RT to introduce the 21st season. Here are the four-parter’s RT billings.
[Available on BBC DVD]