As far as Judge Jim Thomas is concerned, the beleaguered production schedule of this episode of Doctor Who is just one more atrocity for which Margaret Thatcher must answer.
"There should have been another way." Truer words have never been spoken.
Looking towards the 1984 season of Doctor Who, BBC brass, preparing for Peter Davison's final year as the Doctor, decided to move away from the more historical episodes and human villains, and have a season of monsters. To kick the season off, they decided to bring together two favorite monsters from the Jon Pertwee era. The reptilian Silurians, introduced in "Doctor Who and the Silurians" ruled Earth in ages past. When a cataclysm threatened the planet, the entire race went into suspended animation; however, due to faulty equipment, they did not awaken when the danger was passed, and their absence allowed humans to develop. The amphibious Sea Devils, introduced in "The Sea Devils," were the Silurians' foot soldiers. The combination resulted in the four-part episode released here as Doctor Who: Warriors of the Deep. The producers hoped to start the twenty-first season with a truly memorable story.
Well, the episode is memorable, but for all the wrong reasons. An already weak script suffered a crippling blow when Margaret Thatcher, awash in the afterglow of the Falkland Islands War and a recovering economy, called for elections; in the resulting media chaos, the shooting schedule for the episode was pushed forward two weeks, making it impossible to work out the kinks in the script or to finesse the problems that couldn't be resolved. The result was an episode more worthy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 than Doctor Who.
By a truly Dickensian coincidence, all three episodes are being released on the same day. Other judges have the earlier two episodes; to this court falls the task of seeing if Warriors of the Deep does right by our favorite Gallifreyan gadabout.
Facts of the Case
It is 2084. The Earth is still mired in the Cold War, and tensions are high. The TARDIS, having been fired upon by an orbital outpost, arrives at underwater nuclear missile station Sea Base 4. Away from the base, a Silurian battle cruiser has located a nest of Sea Devils still in hibernation, and begins to revive their troops. Within the base, the treacherous Nilson and Doctor Solow (Ingrid Pitt, The Vampire Lovers) plan to sabotage the base and escape with vital information.
The Silurians and Sea Devils attack the base. The Sea Devils enter the base at one end; the Myrka enters at the other, and the two move inexorably towards the bridge. Once the base is under Silurian control, they force the humans to initiate a launch sequence. The Silurians explain to the Doctor that after several failed attempts to attain a peaceful coexistence with humanity, they have reluctantly decided that humanity must be destroyed. Siluruan ethics won't allow them to eradicate humanity themselves, so they must get humanity to do the deed themselves. The Silurians have victory in their grasp, forcing the Doctor to use drastic measures to stop them.
My first introduction to the Doctor was in 1986, when a friend of mine had a Doctor Who marathon featuring several classic Tom Baker episodes, as well as a couple of Peter Davison episodes. I was hooked on the stories and the breezy sense of fun and adventure, but grad school and a quirky PBS schedule conspired against me staying current. The Doctor brought me back into the fold when Christopher Eccleston exploded across the screen in 2005. I mention this to establish that I get that cheesy special effects, clunky dialogue, and less-than-polished acting are part of Doctor Who's charm. Still, this episode just doesn't work.
Doctor Who has a long history of overcoming weak scripts and minuscule budgets. In most cases, though, you have to have a little time to think through these problems. In this case, the rushed production schedule effectively hamstrung the episode. Directing and lighting are basic, and frequently draw attention to story problems rather than diminish them. You think imperial stormtroopers can't hit the broad side of a Death Star? You should see the "soldiers" in this episode. The Sea Devils break through a door, devils and humans face off at point-blank range, and the two groups exchange fire for 10 seconds before anyone gets hit (and I'm not even going to discuss the wisdom of using firearms and explosives in an undersea base). Again, it's a function of the rushed production; there was no time for more elaborate blocking.
But hands down, the biggest flop in this episode is the Myrka. Supposedly a nigh-indestructible monster created by the Silurians, the Myrka turned into a BBC punchline from the moment it crashed through the sea base's foam-rubber doors. The monster was a suit worn by two guys famous for their performance as a horse, and, well, you can pretty much fill in the blanks from there. The rushed production schedule resulted in no rehearsal time, and as a result, the Myrka looks pretty much like two guys in a horse outfit who don't quite have the thing under control. The production was so rushed that the green paint on the costume had not yet dried; you can see the paint rubbing off on other characters in several scenes.
But the problem with the Myrka is that while it was (almost) indestructible and had some electric eel action, it was also slow and lumbering. So it should not have presented any real threat, so long as people had the good sense to stay the hell away, right? But sure enough, redshirts practically queue up to get fried. And then, in perhaps the silliest scene of all Doctor Who, Solon attempts to defeat the Myrka with some of the worst kung fu moves ever committed to videotape. She is summarily fried mid-kick.
The acting from the principals works well enough. The only time Davison doesn't convince is towards the end, when he weighs the death of a few Silurians and Sea Devils against the death of all humanity. Even given that the Doctor has a different perspective on things, it's not much of a choice, but the script tries to make it a moral dilemma, even though the Doctor has not only already killed several of the invaders, but has also already initiated a plan that will kill the invaders. But in an attempt to generate tension, the Doctor pauses to weigh his options, and Davison has to deliver dialogue that simply doesn't make sense, and he can't quite sell it. Janet Fielding's Tegan has complete faith in the Doctor, and that faith gives her inner reserves of courage; she isn't given a lot to do, however. Turlough (Mark Strickson) is more of a slippery character—particularly for a companion. He's more devoted to his own survival than anything else; still, he comes through for the Doctor and Tegan in a number of key moments.
The episode was shot on videotape, which as a general rule is difficult to restore. But for some reason, the BBC insisted that the sea base set be as brightly lit as possible; as a result, a fair amount of restoration was feasible. If it had been a darker episode, much more detail would have been lost—the few scenes in the Silurian ship demonstrates the difference. That lighting is a double-edged sword, however, as it illuminates flaws that would have remained unnoticed in a more darkly-lit episode. The sound is okay; in some scenes dialogue is a touch muted.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Silurians themselves don't instill much in the way of fear, but the Sea Devils remain creepy, particularly in the early scenes when you can't see them clearly. Their hissing mode of speech is also much more effective than the Silurians' electronic voice.
The BBC may not have shown the series much love back in the day, but they are trying to make up for it now in the form of a sterling set of extras. The commentary track is just flat-out fun, with everyone poking fun at one another. The making-of featurettes serve as a sort of post-mortem on the episode, as the various parties hash out the various things that went wrong with the episode. Davison and Fielding have a wonderful sense of humor about the whole thing. All concerned agree (correctly, IMO) that the episode had great promise, but that fate conspired against it at every turn. Even the existing footage could probably be re-edited into a more effective episode.
While this episode is a bust, it must be noted that the season as a whole was excellent, culminating in Davison's sendoff in "The Caves of Andronazi." Who completists will want the disc and Davison fans (such as my oldest brother) will want the disc, but the casual Who fan will probably want to skip this one.
The court finds the BBC of placing the episode behind the eight-ball from the very beginning, so that a story with a fair amount of potential ended in a shambles. Sentence is suspended because of the care taken in the production of the disc.
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