In Defence Of…Warriors Of The Deep
In the first edition of an ongoing series of articles, guest writer Keith Baker offers up a defence for one of the most unloved stories from Peter Davison’s era.
You’ve Got It All Wrong
Conventional fan wisdom would have us believe that “Warriors Of The Deep” is a story with complete failure stamped all over it; an unmitigated disaster of epic, laughable proportions, that left the only decent Silurian and Sea Devil stories of Classic Who firmly in the Pertwee era and the early 1970’s. What I’m here to tell you you is that, well, conventional fan wisdom is wrong. In fact I’d go so far as to say that “Warriors Of The Deep” is the best Silurian/Sea Devil story of the classic series. Feel free to read that sentence again in case you think that you might have read it wrong. It’s alright, I’ll wait.
See? You didn’t read it wrong. I’ll say it again though, slowly. “Warriors Of The Deep” is the best Silurian/Sea Devil story of Classic Who.
Now that’s not to say that the original two stories are really that bad. I mean, the first one has a really good idea. Sadly it’s a really good idea that’s been told to sit there while being force fed cake and ice cream until it’s so incredibly bloated that it can’t even stand up under its own weight properly. Sure, it has some great ideas but, man, “The Silurians” is such a slog and there’s just not enough meat on the bone of the story to keep you satisfied. Then the second story, “The Sea Devils”, takes the same idea, sticks it on a treadmill and force feeds it salad for a few weeks. Add in some extra sparkles like The Master and the bureaucrat from the Home Office and it’s a marked improvement. But then it should be; they’d had the chance to learn from the first outing and as it’s essentially a retelling with some new elements. It’s tighter, it’s snappier, it fizzes better, but it’s just not as good as “Warriors Of The Deep”.
Okay, let me start my defence properly. First of all, let’s confront the pantomime elephant in the room.
Warriors On The Cheap
This story is often referred to as “Warriors on the cheap” because it had pretty much no budget to speak of and the director, rather than working with that and using dim lighting to hide any cosmetic sins, pretty much floodlit the whole thing. Result? All the costume seams show. The fact that the Myrka is essentially a rent-a-ghost pantomime horse is as clear as day, most of the costumes look a bit shonky, the make-up is a disaster and let’s not even mention the gun battles.
And we all know this. The story is famous for it! People just see the bad effects, bad direction, some slightly suspect acting and write it off as rubbish, much like “Invasion Of The Dinosaurs”. But given that this is classic Doctor Who isn’t that a bit…silly? Was Doctor Who ever about the execution? Wasn’t it instead about firing the imagination? And as a 10 year old who was into science fiction, this story really fired me up. I saw straight through the terrible effects and the terrible battles but I didn’t care. All my 10 year old mind was concerned with was two things; that was clearly a big monster and there were gun battles! That’s great! And of course it was all white and lit up – it’s the future, isn’t it?!
In the 1980’s it was perfectly reasonable to imagine that the world was still on the brink of nuclear destruction. With a still escalating cold war involving two sides with their fingers poised on the button, annihilation could come at a seconds notice. And in this case it was even worse. Missiles that leave the buildings intact but kill all life. A deeply cynical idea that would strike a chord with governments and corporations alike as they flowed in to take control of everything that was left. This is the harsh and grim world that the TARDIS lands in at the beginning of “Warriors Of The Deep”.
Let’s take the example of Maddox, the sync operator. Here we have a man who is deemed psychologically unsuitable for his job because he has too much empathy. The idea of killing all those people is way too much for him to bare and the pressure breaks him. In this harsh and cold world it is deemed a reasonable alternative to use a mental programming technique so he can return to operational effectiveness. Yes, this is the kind of world these people are living in. Only the emotionally cold survive and individual human rights are reduced to an almost zero point. Think about it; a world where the mental slavery of a human being, not even an enemy combatant but one of your own officers, is dismissed in the most blasé fashion.
That’s a dark, dark world. Now isn’t it so much easier, with that idea in your head, to see this world as one that the Silurians would be scared of and would want to destroy? Doesn’t it make their motives so much more understandable? Contrast it to their previous motives of “Well, we were here first!” in what was little more than the planetary equivalent of “I had bagsy’s”. Suddenly the Silurians have an almost righteous agenda when compared with the horrors of the human society they witness in this story.
The Silurians As A Species
For the first time The Silurians and Sea Devils seem like creatures that credibly could have been rulers of the planet as opposed to a couple of people in green suits in a cave or a bunch of fish people dressed in nets.
They’re organized, they have a battle cruiser, they have a caste system that survives retconning. The kind of retconning that would be lauded in the new series. The Sea Devils being a warrior caste and the Silurians being a leader caste makes perfect sense within the confines of the original stories and their motivations in them. In the original stories The Silurians make dastardly plans and squabble about leadership whereas the Sea Devils are of one mind under a commander. One is political, one is military. It makes perfect sense. They’re a real society and in “Warriors Of The Deep” they get real characters.
“What Have You Been Eating?”
We’ll take the “aliens” first. If we look at the Sea Devils in their first story, none of them have any character at all. Admittedly, they’re not dealt with much better in this, simply fulfilling their role as the military arm, but the Silurians are so much better here. The Silurians in the original story are the friendly one (who, if he were human, could have been conceivably played by Bernard Horsfall) and the bad one who wants to kill everyone. Basically the same archetypes that you get in so much of 70’s Doctor Who – you could pretty much ctrl-c, ctrl-v them into any other story at the time and it would only require changing the costumes.
But “Warriors Of The Deep” gives us the character of Icthar, last of the Silurian Triad, a once noble leader who has become broken and sickened by the death of his people. His motivations are incredibly similar to Captain Ahab from Moby Dick with a little of the John Hurt Doctor thrown in; “revenge” and “No More”. He’s been waking up his people, gathering equipment, planning, preparing, until he’s finally ready to go hunt his whale; mankind.
The base commander, while being fairly generic, is able to pull off the unlikely triumvirate of authoritative, morally bankrupt and likeable at the same time. His strength after being shot and reacting as little as possible so he doesn’t knock The Doctor off his concentration is both admirable and impressive. Even the enemy agents are clear in their plans and work perfectly well, using the alien invasion for their own ends. And of course there’s Maddox; pathetic and pitiable, the man who was engineered to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“They’re All Dead You Know…”
The key to a good plot is simplicity. That’s clear in “City Of Death” and it’s clear in “Warriors Of The Deep”;
1. The Chekhov’s Gun of Hexachromite is set up not 15 minutes into the episode. Whether you personally like the idea of Hexachromite being the eventual solution, it’s difficult to deny the elegance of the setup.
2. The motivations of the Silurians are clear. The human race have proven themselves untrustworthy and must be destroyed but Silurian law means they cannot kill everyone outright, so they invade the base and fire the missiles that start the final world war. Then they can claim “Not our fault!”
3. The enemy agents are still implementing their plans. The alien invasion doesn’t affect their country, but it’s a brilliant diversion so they can carry their plans out. If anything, sabotaging the base would have been the best thing they could possibly have done for the human race.
4. I mean, look at it! It’s a classic Troughton base-under-siege story. It’s brilliant, it’s “The Moonbase”, it’s “The Ice Warriors”, it’s all those great near-future base under siege stories but made in the 1980’s. You’ve just got a few more sub-plots and it also all makes sense.
5. Pacing. “Warriors Of The Deep” does not have the chance to get boring. It runs at a breakneck speed, especially when compared to the sludgey, slow pacing of “The Silurians” or “The Sea Devils”.
6. A twist in the standard Silurian/Sea Devil plot shape. This time, instead of The Doctor negotiating peace, he is forced to play the part of The Brigadier (much to his utter distaste). With no other options he is forced to use the Hexachromite in order to save the day. This time it’s The Doctor’s fault as he stands amongst the bodies of the humans and reptiles alike, which makes his final line “There should have been another way.” all the more poignant. Much like “The Horror of Fang Rock”, the only people to survive this encounter are the TARDIS team.
7. You could even argue that The Sea Devils being such bad shots in all of the gun battles is a result of them only being recently woken up. The Silurians mention there may have been issues due to the long hibernation!
“There Should Have Been Another Way.”
I firmly believe that had this been given to a more competent director like Graham Harper and had the budget received an injection of more funds, this story would be in the pantheon of Doctor Who classics. It takes a race that already exists and adds meat to the bones of their mythology. It takes the Troughton era base-under-siege plot and updates it for a more modern era. The plot is clear, concise and well crafted and everyone’s motivations and actions work for their characters. Nobody seems to ever go off and do something nonsensical…karate kick aside…
If you try and see through all the muck of a troubled production there’s a diamond underneath. I have watched “Warriors Of The Deep” many times and have never failed to enjoy it whereas the other two have sometimes been a tough watch and an endurance trial. “Warriors Of The Deep” is the best Sea Devil/Silurian story. Give it another try with fresh eyes. You might even agree with me.
Written and edited by Keith Baker