Yet another classic example of fan nostalgia versus actual story content.
Don't get me wrong, here, "Sea Devils" is not completely awful. It's more so a case of not being half as good (in my view, at least) as the fanboys who grew up in that era try to make it out to be. I am frequently amused by the complaints levelled at 80s Who (the era I grew up with) since so much of the problems that fans had with stories in this time period exist in equal or oftentimes greater abundance in 70s stories like the "Sea Devils". But these problems seem, for the most part, to go unnoticed by most of fandom because this is the great "uncriticizable" golden era of Doctor Who.
First off, we'll start with what I notice most in any form of entertainment I watch: the actual story. Next to big bad Robby Holmes himself, Malcolm Hulke is my second-favourite writer for the original series. His scripts were, oftentimes, the most maturely-written three-dimensional stories the show ever produced. But here, Malcolm falls a bit short. He really gives us a pretty threadbare plotline that could barely stand up to a four episode format - forget that he's been given a six-parter! So, to try to fill the gaps, he gives us lots of captures and escapes (not something that is entirely new to the series, of course, but boy does he lay it on heavy here) and attempts at cheap thrills that look even cheaper, these days, because the story is now 30 years old. This makes my disappointment in the story all the more poignant. I expected so much more from the pen of such a great author.
He also delivers a few really big wallops of super-shaky plotting. The most obvious one being his apparent hope that we will forget basic geography as the episodes progress. The Master is supposed to be imprisoned out on an island that seems to only be accessible by boat. Yet, everyone, by episode three, seems to be zipping back and forth to the prison via land rovers. How exactly did this happen? Did a bridge get built somewhere between episodes? Yes, bad plotting is something that can happen in Who-scripts sometimes - particularly since it is an episode-based series. But this error, to me, borders on the unforgivable. Didn't someone in production pick up on this problem? Obviously not, since there are some other wobbly plot elements littering the script - (another one being just how long the Master is able to sit around not unplugging a highly disruptive machine that is totally screwing over the Sea-Devils in episode six!) - this whole "island that is not" issue is just one of the bigger ones!
Equally shaky are some of his characterisations. Trenchard's alliance with the Master seems completely unbelievable - even if he is supposed to be something of a fool (which gets me to wonder, right there, why the British government would put such a bumbler in charge of keeping an eye on a criminal mastermind who is so dangerous that he got his own special prison). It's barely stated as to why he is even letting the Master do what he's doing. We get some vague sense that the Master has appealed to his sense of patriotism and perhaps his desire for glory. But it almost seems more like it was just Malcolm going along with that notorious "Pertwee-era formulae". The Master always recruits someone from Earth to help him execute his plans so, this time, it's Trenchard. And we're just supposed to accept that cause that's the way the formula works. Quit looking too hard at the plot, little fanboy, just enjoy the formulae. Which is still my biggest qualm with much of what was done in the Pertwee era.
This problem persists through most of this story. Even the Master's motivation to re-awaken the Sea Devils seems kind of inconsistent and even somewhat preposterous. If this were the more mean and twisted Ainley Master, I might be able to accept what he was up to. Because the Ainley Master had, pretty well, gone insane in his attempts to artificially extend his life. Therefore, strange, warped motivations could be somewhat acceptable. But the Master, at this stage of his life (or, more appropriately, lives), is supposed to be much more calculating and interested in supremacy rather than just "making bad things happen". Yet, suddenly, for no real reason that seems to benefit him directly, he wants to release the former masters of Earth and bring down humanity. Just doesn't seem to make sense in my view of the character's progression. If, perhaps, Hulke had taken a moment to give the Master some sort of dialogue to explain that maybe his prison term had given him a thirst for revenge on Earth or something similar to that - I might have accepted it. But we get none of that. So, instead, we're just supposed to accept the stereotypical "the Master is up to something really bad" formulae and not question things too hard. Again, very typical of this era.
Now, I'll slow down a bit on my criticism and try to formulate some good points about this tale.
The story is off to a very promising start. Hulke - as well as the performances of Delgado and Pertwee - all do a great job of deepening the relationship between Master and Doctor. I really liked how this played out. Except that, as I pointed out earlier, all this deliberate attempt to display the isolation the Master is facing causes the story's geography to fall apart later!
Sadly, as I try to get through several other good points of this story - they oftentimes have a "shadow of flaw" following them too. Another great example of this would be the swordfight between the Master and the Doctor. Easily one of the best swordfights in the show's history. I get a real impression here that both Delgado and Pertwee have a considerable background in swordfighting (which most of classically-trained actors of the time would) and they really perform the duel masterfully. But, once more, if we look past the window-dressing plot element, we see a fundamental flaw. Who, in God's name, arranges several sets of sharpened swords directly outside the cell of a prisoner in a maximum security prison?! Once again, something that is set up for the execution of formulae rather than genuine plot.
The same can also be said of one of the other famous traits of this story. That of the huge cast that it had. It was neat to see so many characters in one story but it does almost seem like, rather than develop storyline properly, the author chose to just keep introducing as many new characters as he could in hopes that getting to know them would keep us distracted from the underlying flaws of the plot.
Okay, okay, I'll look for some genuine strengths to this story! I certainly like that we got a Pertwee story taking place during his exile where UNIT wasn't actually used to fight the menace. Yes, there was still millitairy involvement but it was nice to see that other factions of the millitairy exist in the Whoniverse besides UNIT. And how the Doctor must deal with things differently because he doesn't have the familiarity with this millitairy organisation that he does with the Brig and the boys. A neat direction to take the story in.
I also liked the concept of the Sea Devils and the way they return us to the idea Hulke first explored so beautifully in "The Silurians" of how we would all react if we suddenly realised we might have to share our planet with someone else as sentient as us. I even think he made a good choice by not getting too much into this idea again (since it had been explored quite adequately in Silurians) and focussing more on action and battle rather than debate and pontification. It sort of even gives us the sense that the Sea Devils are more of a war-like or even subservient culture and that the Silurians are the real leaders. Something we see fleshed out many years later when both species return in "Warriors of the Deep".
I also think this is a spectacularly well-directed story, in many ways. It has some excellent battle sequences that exceeded the limitations of low-budget 70s T.V. (yes, I remember noting earlier how "cheap" the story looks in places - but now I'm trying to get validly contextual in my analysis rather than contradicting myself!). I'm even willing to admit that a couple of those action shots look pretty gosh-darned good by even modern-day standards. As well, there are some really memorable shots, in general, that I thought were highly effective. The creepy close-up of the bureaucrat's mouth as he explains that "war is hell -what's for breakfast?" being one of the best examples.
Even the music, believe it or not, didn't annoy me much. The show was trying a different approach with the incidental music and - although it was wildly intrusive in most places - it was neat to, at least, see them try something new and different. How's that for a massively differing opinion from general fandom?!
But then, I rather get the impression that this review, in general, is differing from the opinion of general fandomn! Sorry, worshippers of the holy Petwee, but I really don't think there's much here. Again, not completely awful - but not the "shining piece of glory" most of you claim it to be. This is made even more glaringly obvious by the fact that someone as magnificent as Malcolm Hulke should not have cranked out such a flimsy, formulae-driven piece. I almost have to wonder if some radical changes occurred after Hulke passed it on to the production team. The whole story seems to be a watered-down version of his story-telling skills with various "chills, spills and action" elements turned up intentionally.
"Below-par" Who, in my opinion. But I get the impression I'm pretty alone in it!