A Vermin Race (The Sea Devils)


It’s February 26th, 1972. Between now and April 1st, 125 will die in a coal sludge spill in West Virginia, 19 will die in an avalanche on Mount Fuji, and the Easter Offensive wll begin in the Vietnam War, lasting into Octoer and resulting in somewhere between fifty and a hundred thousand deaths. In addition, M.C. Escher will die in a hospital in the Netherlands, the world will inch ever closer to the eschaton, and The Sea Devils will air.

Within the innate conservatism of the Pertwee era, Malcolm Hulke remains one of the most interesting figures. At one point in his life, he was a member of the Communist Party, and while this membership at some point lapsed, he appears to have been a lifelong socialist and leftist. And yet the era of Doctor Who he’s associated with is one of its most resolutely conservative. More to the point, his stories are not the ones that most challenge that tendency. Three of his Pertwee stories are earth-based military action pieces that trend away from the era’s nominally progressive glam instincts. The other two are space-based stories displaying the most uncomplicated liberalism imaginable. The overall impression is of the sort of bland centrist who imagines himself to be progressive—a Buttigieg voter, to use a contemporary metaphor. 

But implicit within that image is the presence of some genuinely progressive instinct that is subsequently smothered under the blandness of centrist liberalism—a moment in which some sort of serious political engagement is entertained. And Hulke generally displays that as well—Colony in Space, with its setup of a bunch of working class miners oppressed by an evil corporation, is probably the clearest case, but the interest in the moral question of how legitimate the Silurians’ claim to the planet is in their eponymous story is also clear. In both cases, the end results are disappointing, but you can see the vague consideration of being interesting before the stories commit to their worst political instincts.

But neither of these stories compare with The Sea Devils, which elevates political confusion into an art form. On the one hand you have Hulke revisiting the concept of The Silurians. On the other, you have Barry Letts dictating that they do a propaganda piece for the Royal Navy. The result is a tangle of influences and directions. One case, pushed by Tat Wood, is that the story (at least as director Michael Briant conceives it) is about consumption, shot from a perspective where the Sea Devils are the sense of normality and the humans are the weird ones, as apparently evidenced by the (admittedly peculiar) frequency with which they’re seen eating and the odd camera angles. It’s certainly an interesting interpretation, but even Wood is forced to admit that it’s only marginally in the actual story. You certainly could do a story about the indigenous lizard people of the world and their horrified bewilderment at human consumption—it’s even a pretty good idea for a story. But Hulke hasn’t actually written that story, and Briant can’t conjure it into existence with a few odd camera angles and shots of sandwich eating.

What Hulke has actually written is immensely compromised, even for him. One cannot imagine that Royal Navy propaganda was a brief that he was excited about. Nor is there any reason to think he’d be straightforwardly enthused by “that thing you wrote two years ago—can you do it again only with the Master?” There was, in other words, precious little room to manuever here, given how much time was needed showing off the shiny military hardware the Navy had agreed to lend them, or giving the Doctor and the Master a tediously long sword fight. The result, along with the fact that he’s got one fewer episode than he had last time around, is that not only can Hulke not expand on the moral debate from The Silurians, he has to dramatically contract it. Compared with their land-based cousins, the Sea Devils are a bunch of war-crazed brutes—they entertain the notion of peace only briefly before getting talked by the Master into war, and seem ready to respond to the slightest provocation with declarations that no mercy will be shown. They also simply have less sense of culture and personality—only one of them speaks, and so we never see them interacting with each other. The Silurians can be fairly criticized as being overly scant in its treatment of the titular creatures, but it’s nothing compared to The Sea Devils, where everything has to be condensed down to two scenes. The issue is even more pronounced in the novelization, where Hulke ends up reducing the period where the Sea Devils contemplate peace to a mere half a page.

In the absence of any treatment of this moral debate, then, what do we have? Well, the truth of it is that we have what may be the single most racist story in Doctor Who. True, it does not actually directly invoke any racial groups, but at the end of the day, The Sea Devils and The Silurians are both stories about indigenous populations responding to colonization. True, they put their fingers on the scale, creating colonialism without colonists by having the indigenous reptiles retreat into hibernation in error and then try to reclaim their land from an entirely oblivious human population. This is an appalling sleight of hand that serves no purpose other than trying to construct a story about colonialism in which the colonial power is entirely blameless, lacking any culpability. It is entirely divorced from the reality of any actual people to whom the indigenous reptiles might be equated, removing the reality of generational trauma and invariably brutal oppression. 

But with The Sea Devils Hulke takes things even further than he did with The Silurians. There, as mentioned, the Silurians contemplate peace, and display internal political tensions. Ultimately the Doctor is forced to act against them, but even then moves not to kill them, but rather to force them back into hibernation with a goal of negotiating peace again later. (The Brigadier foils this by killing them after all, but that’s presented as horrible, if not horrible enough to stay a problem more than a few lines into The Ambassadors of Death.) Here, though, the Sea Devils are utterly unsympathetic—uninterested in compromise and determined to wipe out humanity. This serves to justify hostile action against them—indeed, outright genocide, as the Doctor ends things by blowing up the Sea Devil nest in exactly the manner he condemned the Brigadier for two seasons earlier. This time, apparently, it’s fine. Sure, there’s some hand-wringing, with Hulke writing the government minister who pushes the humans to attack as a noxious buffoon, but at the end of the day this is a story that portrays indigenous people as bloodthirsty warmongers deserving of genocide. As, ultimately, is evidenced by the fact that the indigenous people are called the fucking Sea Devils, which is to say that a disparaging slur used against native people (see Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden,” specifically “your new-caught sullen people / half devil and half child,” for instance) is worked directly into their name. And how do they get this name? The Doctor just calmly parrots the description given by the repair man who sees them, apparently thinking that this is a perfectly acceptable thing to call the indigenous reptiles. It is, to put it bluntly, monstrously fucked up, depicting literally the worst possible biases to have against indigenous populations. 

So Hulke ends up writing propaganda for the Royal Navy that goes well beyond merely putting a lot of ships in it, but that instead serves as an apologia for the centuries of imperialist warfare conducted by that same navy. It’s a shocking result from a writer nominally so leftist he used to be a communist—one that confirms, in many ways, just how toxic the basic conception of the series right now is. From its decision to center proceedings around the military in the first place to its heavy reliance on a black-hatted villain whose motivations consist purely of “be evil,” this is an era of the show that is singularly unable to offer the sort of nuance that a story about indigenous people requires. 

That, at least, is the charitable view. But the fact that the Silurians (let’s just use that term for both species, having unpicked the ugliness of the title) have turned up in multiple other eras of Doctor Who largely puts the lie to this. The truth is that taking out the worst instincts of the Pertwee era do nothing to fix the problems here. When the terrestrial and aquatic versions both come back in Warriors of the Deep, the same exact problems we see here are in evidence. A generation later, Chris Chibnall attempted to revamp them for the Matt Smith era, and while he sands off the worst instincts of the two Hulke stories, most obviously by having one of the Silurians be responsible for forcing his people back into hibernation and by not having anyone commit fucking genocide at the end, he still relies on the presence of an entrenched and unwaveringly xenophobic faction within Silurian society, against which he’s only willing to pair humans who are reacting out of sympathetic fears like “our son has been kidnapped” and “one of us has been poisoned and is dying.” The closest anyone has come to making the concept anything other than politically toxic comes with Steven Moffat’s subsequent development of Madame Vastra, who essentially works by detaching the concept from the idea of a larger indigenous culture, and then making a stereotypical and racist idea of the spiritually wise native woman work by pairing it with a bunch of dissonant elements that don’t go with the stereotype, making her a lesbian cannibal Sherlock Holmes riff. The result arguably avoids being politically offensive in any serious way, but at the expense of being anything other than titillating spectacle.

The truth is that to do a Silurian story with any moral integrity, you’d have to approach it in a way that is fundamentally and massively hostile to the entire cultural context in which Doctor Who is made. Doctor Who is a show that is made by an extremely wealthy country—a country with one of the largest economies in the world due virtually entirely to the fact that it spent centuries violently looting the world. To do a story about the displaced indigenous population of the world that is at all minded towards justice, one would have to fundamentally reject the very idea that the United Kingdom should exist in the first place. The thread that Hulke half-heartedly offers in the novelization, where the Master’s case against peace with humanity is based not on the events of The Silurians but on the environmental damage and extinctions caused by capitalism, would have to be expanded into the primary meat of the story, with the Silurians asking, in all seriousness, why humanity should be allowed further stewardship of a planet they have plunged into a mass extinction. The genocidal warmongers would have to belong, as in practice they do, to human society, whose reaction to the existence of an indigenous population would have to be the same disinterested sadism with which the British historically attempted genocide. Perhaps a near-future setting in which “peace” has been established with the Silurians only for the humans to attempt to manufacture a famine. The viable solution, presented as the only way with the same grim solemnity with which the Doctor repeatedly slaughters the Silurians, would have to be for human civilization and capitalism to renounce its control over the world, giving way to a fundamentally different shape of society—one in which the Silurians are at the very least equal stakeholders.

This is, of course, impossible—for one thing, it would force us to confront the fact that there is literally not a single future-based story in which the Silurians are shown as a major part of Earth culture. (The 90s Virgin New Adventures made fleeting effort to establish otherwise, but the gravity of the TV series is inexorable.) But more to the point, it would involve violating the implicit line that Doctor Who simply cannot cross—the one that involves seriously considering the possibility that liberal capitalism might not be an eternal structure. It would, in short, involve being a show about the possibilities of the universe and about imagining new things, instead of the cold reality of what it is: a show about projecting liberal capitalism onto every textual surface imaginable in the name of reassuring a nation fat on the blood-drenched wealth of empire that its most rancid paranoias are valid.


Alex Watts 12 months ago

"The truth is that to do a Silurian story with any moral integrity, you’d have to approach it in a way that is fundamentally and massively hostile to the entire cultural context in which Doctor Who is made"

On this basis, how fair is it to criticise Doctor Who for existing in this context? I'm not saying I don't agree, but this critique seems to over-savagely land the responsibility for the moral mess of this story on Doctor Who and its production, and not the of state of the UK and its culture and television. It's putting the entire blame for a cold on a single sneeze.

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Christopher Brown 12 months ago

Not until Kerblam! a decade later did I find myself hating a Doctor Who story I'd expected to like more than when I saw this story for the first time.

The ironic bit, as far as Eruditorum is concerned? My friend and brother were also disappointed by what they saw of this. Afterwards, we watched Invasion of the Dinosaurs and enjoyed it. Quote from my friend: "Now that's a good Doctor Who episode!" XD

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wyngatecarpenter 12 months ago

Invasion Of The Dinosaurs is my 8 year old son's favourite classic Who story. I put that down to two things; firstly he's obsessed with dinosaurs; secondly he didn't find it remotely scary. On the other hand I put on Carnival Of Monsters once thinking that he wouldn't be too bothered by it. Instead he had nightmares about the Drashigs for a couple of weeks afterwards.

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wyngatecarpenter 12 months ago

I can't really disagree with this assessment of the story. I do wonder about the naming of the Sea Devils though. It was previously going to be called The Sea Silurians. I wonder if Sea Devils was chosen as a more exciting , less clunky name and the dialogue was changed without giving it too much thought. It seems a bit odd that the Doctor uses this name. It doesn't really excuse it of course, but you'd have expected Hulke togive it a bit more thought. (On the other hand he also came up with the name Silurians for a race that appear to be from the Jurassic, and then in this story has the Doctor say that they shiould really have been called the Eocenes, so maybe thinking through the meaning of names wasn't Hulke's thing).

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Lambda 12 months ago

Or maybe Hulke just wasn't very good at geology.

It's easy to forget nowadays that getting such things right in the 1970s would likely require a trip to the library.

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Sleepyscholar 12 months ago

I don't know whether it was intentional or accidental, but my formatting of the page had "It's" followed by a picture of a Sea Silurian emerging from the sea, Michael Palin-like. Absolute genius either way.

I also very much enjoyed having a story that was one of my favourites as a kid (watched on transmission) trashed so forensically and deservedly.

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Aylwin 12 months ago

This happens, but that is an exceptionally good one. My favourite previous case was the Sleep No More post.

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Aylwin 12 months ago

Well, using Doctor Who as a lens through which to view its context is pretty much the object of the exercise here, so I don't think "Doctor Who's not to blame, it's the society that made it" is an objection that really makes sense here.

And I'm not sure fairness to it is a priority. As I understand it, Dalek Eruditorum is a polemic, in dialogue with its predecessor, in a way that partly reflects the author's changes in outlook over time, but is also partly about just taking a different perspective. It is not aiming to be balanced and comprehensive. Indeed,on the level of individual stories, even TARDIS Eruditorum was avowedly prone to going easy on some and hard on others, in service to a larger rhetorical design. This is the counsel for the prosecution.

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Aylwin 12 months ago

Sod, that was meant to be a reply to Alex Watts above.

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Alex Watts 12 months ago

I do appreciate that - both in this and in the original Eruditorum - the writer (the Two Sandifers, to both adopt the premise of this revisit and suggest a crossover episode) is creating a narrative as much as 'writing criticism'.

But the counsel for the prosecution implies the existence of - potentially the necessity for - a defence. I'm suggesting the CPS may have misfired on this one. You're attempting to sentence a single bullet, not even the weapon and certainly not whoever pulled the trigger

Abandoning this decreasingly sensical analogy, I don't think it's wholly counterproductive to look at the extent to which we should expect an artefact from a different cultural context (be it the 1970s at home or 2020 abroad) to match with the values we've arrived at by living from our birth and having experiences until this moment in time, and the intensity with which we should condemn it if and when it fails.

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Sleepyscholar 12 months ago

As I suggested above, this was one of my favourites as a kind, so you might expect me to rise to its defence. However, I would say that El is not 'expecting' an artefact from the past to match our values. She is judging it by her current values, because such an interrogation throws light on both.

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Sleepyscholar 12 months ago

As a kid. Why can't I type any more?

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prandeamus 12 months ago

The name "Sea Devils" is problematic on several layers, because it pushes the creatures into generic monster territory and it also continues the grand tradition of Who writers coming up with utterly implausible scientific names (Homo Reptilia, indeed, Mr. Chibnall, I'm looking at you).

Devil has a significance because of the quasi-religious imagery, just like Bok and Azal.

Introducing the "white man's burden" into the mix is completely unnecessary. Or, being more generous, there's a loser connection to colonialism and oppressed peoples, but it doesn't need the Kipling imagery to make it work. Until reading this article I'd simply interpreted Devil=Monster, much as the S7 story was novelised as Dr. Who and the Cave Monsters.

It IS a worthwhile thing to talk about, but I don't find it necessary as an interpretive point.

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CJM123 12 months ago

I love Homo Reptilla because it implies there is an evolutionary link between them and humans. When even just inverting the name would make it clearer this is a case of convergent evolution, not divergent evolution.

I think the Kipling reference is fair game. Devil is the most used representation of an "underformed society in British literature" (the whole phrase is in quotation marks because it's icky to say but the best I can come up with.). And the Sea Devils asks to be more closely read in relation to colonialism than religion. So, a colonial story relies on colonial ideas and commonplaces.

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Paul F Cockburn 11 months, 4 weeks ago

Ms Sandifer, an enlightening read, but the pedant in me can’t help but rule at some sloppy fact-checking:

Malcolm Hulke was, for many years, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain—not to be confused with the later Communist Party of Britain or indeed any other Communist Party in the world, current or otherwise.

‘Colony in Space’ was NOT about “a bunch of working class miners oppressed by an evil corporation”—it’s primarily about a bunch of middle class farmers being threatened by a self-serving mining corporation while being mildly condescending to an indigenous culture thousands of years old. (Most of those working for the mining company seemed OK with doing so.)

Madame Vastra was happy to eat Jack the Ripper and the Camberwell Child Poisoner but, as far as I can remember, never ate another of her species (whatever we call it). So, not a cannibal then.

Can I also ask how propaganda FOR the Royal Navy is inherently any worse in terms of television drama than propaganda against it?

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kevin merchant 11 months, 4 weeks ago

You are right. The farmers were as middle class as the majority of the survivors in um "The Survivors".

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CJM123 11 months, 4 weeks ago

Propaganda for the Royal Navy is propaganda for a tangible thing that does a lot of bad things, including operating the British nuclear programme. To make propaganda for it is to take a deliberate stance on its merit, and side-step, ignore or accidentally promote British imperialism, aggression and nuclear weapons.

Anti-Naval propaganda is for a concept, a concept that can be as nuanced or angry as it wants. And because "Peace is good" is not an inherently disgusting idea, it has far more room and scale than the opposite.

Also, I'm not sure Doctor Who should promote nuclear weapon wielding groups at the best of times. Let alone whilst destroying an indigenous population.

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wyngatecarpenter 10 months, 3 weeks ago

"The Doctor just calmly parrots the description given by the repair man who sees them, apparently thinking that this is a perfectly acceptable thing to call the indigenous reptiles."

Apologies if I missed something but I've just rewatched it and I didn't notice that ,the only reference I noticed came from the repair man. Throughout the script appears to suggest that the creatures are more or less indistinguishable from the Silurians. Terrance Dicks recalls in the extra features that the story was called The Sea Devils to give it a more exciting name and somewhere along the way in the production it was decided to give them a design modelled on a turtle, making them quite distinct from Silurians. Fan lore tends to require monsters to have a name so I guess that's why "Sea Devils" stuck. In other words I'mnot convinced that the colonial slur interpretation isreally supported by the story. Of course Hulke's novel may be different , I can't remember now.

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