|You have to understand, Doctor, we need your fashion
sense to survive. As bad as velvet jackets are, my people
think chopped up fishing nets are acceptable evening wear.
It’s February 26, 1972. Chicory Tip are still at number one. Two weeks later, it’s Nilsson with “Without You,” which holds the title for the remainder of the story. Michael Jackson, T. Rex, Paul Simon, Slade, and, I am sorry to say given that I loathe and despise them with every fiber of my being, Chelsea FC also chart.
In other news, Nixon concludes his visit to China. He follows this by attempting to get John Lennon to conclude his visit to the United States, using the somewhat novel method of deporting him as a “strategic counter-measure” to his anti-war beliefs. (The phrase is not Nixon’s but Strom Thurmond’s. Not that that’s an improvement.) Two days thereafter, he passes an executive order setting standards for classified information, allowing the US to engage in a thirty-year campaign to cover up the FBI surveillance of John Lennon. Also in the US, demolition begins on the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, a disastrous public housing project that was a marvel of architecture, and a travesty of virtually everything else including “remembering to think about the tenants when doing architecture.” (We will on several occasions find ourselves dealing the UK equivalents of this particular farce.)
While in the country I’m actually supposed to be writing about, Edward Heath renounces the use of the “five techniques,” a set of approaches used widely by the UK in Northern Ireland for what I believe the current euphemism declares “enhanced interrogation,” but those of us not seeking to excuse our own monstrosity just call torture. He follows this by proclaiming direct rule over Northern Ireland, dissolving the Northern Ireland Parliament and administering the country from London.
While on television we have The Sea Devils. On the surface, this is as straightforward a piece as we could have. Vintage action-style Pertwee (which to be fair we haven’t really seen since The Mind of Evil) and a flat-out attempt to remake The Silurians with the Master and some impressive naval footage. Malcolm Hulke stuck on a script that in no way flatters his strengths. A blog post in which I find some bright spots to emphasize in amidst the general sense that there’s just something crushingly lackluster about this approach to Doctor Who when compared to the manic inventiveness of the glam style. Wrap it all up in under 2000 words, call it a short one, and clear some time tonight for watching Misfits or something instead of finishing up the post. God bless the easy ones.
Except that the convergences of circumstance and the fact that the show is moving successfully away from the season seven mould (which, while fascinating, was at its best when Whitaker and Hulke tried to break it) and toward a new mould mean that, under the patois of earthbound-by-numbers storytelling there’s some scattered points that are worth remarking on. So let’s take advantage of the fact that we’re well into the Pertwee era and have figured out most of the basics of what’s going on here and enjoy the ability to talk about some more marginal points.
First of all, let’s talk about the big weirdness in The Sea Devils – something that, despite having watched this story twice before (and while I’ve seen an awful lot of classic series Doctor Who, there’s relatively little of it I’d seen twice before starting this blog), I missed watching it as an out of sequence Pertwee story in the anthology mould: this is the only earthbound Pertwee story to feature no appearances by the Brigadier or any other UNIT characters. Watched on its own, this doesn’t jump out, but watched as part of a lengthy run of Pertwee stories the odd structure of this is extremely visible.
And much as it pains me to say, given how extraordinarily good Nicholas Courtney is, it’s an improvement. I’ve commented before that Pertwee’s Doctor thrives when forced onto his back foot. This story cinches it. Putting Pertwee in an environment where he doesn’t have the Brigadier to smooth things over or provide him cover from people in charge makes the story more interesting. The sequence where the Master manipulates Trenchard into arresting the Doctor (while setting the Master free) is fantastic, because it’s a level of out-of-control and in danger that we don’t get to see the Doctor on Earth. In the past it’s required shunting him off to alien planets, alternate universes, or the future to get that kind of danger. As fun as the familiar UNIT acting pieces are, one thing The Sea Devils really calls into question is whether those characters actually add new storytelling options for the show, and especially whether whatever options they add outnumber the ones they close off.
To some extent the same can be said of the Master, who here serves in part to cause the major alterations in the plot between The Sea Devils and The Silurians. Where The Silurians spent the bulk of its time fretting with the possibility that peace could be negotiated between the Silurians and humans, The Sea Devils spends only 5-10 minutes on this before the Master manages to exploit a human attack on the base to foreclose all possibility of peace. While he adds some variety so that this story isn’t a straight remake of the original, the fact is, it’s been two years since the original version of the story. Compared to the non-existent gaps between reiterated bases under siege in the Troughton years, the gap here is an eternity. It’s tough to argue that the need to create variety between the two stories was a solid reason to swap out moral complexity for Delgado showpieces.
But on the other hand, it’s not like the moral ambiguity of The Silurians worked. Swapping it out in favor of the Master at least avoids the problems of the ending there. Having the Master win out over the Doctor in persuading the Sea Devils at least makes the resolution of blowing them up be something other than a series-derailer. Even still, the real problem is that the Master is in the wrong story. He should be off in the UNIT story providing moral cover for the Brigadier blowing up the Silurian base, and the moral ambiguity and outrage should go in this story where it can be blamed on characters we don’t have to see again next week.
But this story also ends up starting to show some of the weaknesses of the Master as a character. The thing about the Master is that he eliminates moral ambiguity in the story. In some stories, that works – in something like The Daemons or The Claws of Axos where all of the characters are overtly either good or bad guys, having the Master on there as the ultimate bad guy ups the stakes. But in a story with actual moral issues, putting him in distorts the gravity. As Tat Wood suggests, the problem here is that we love the Master too much, and it gets in the way. (The irony, of course, is that Hulke is the one who figured out how to use the Master in a story with moral ambiguity – have him loom over it in the background for 2/3 of the story, then bring him on once tensions are already ratcheted up.)
The thing is, for all the apparent simplicity, this story is at least trying to do something else. Tat Wood deserves a lot of credit here for observing it. Wood draws a distinction between two modes of Pertwee stories. They roughly correspond to the glam/action division I’ve already articulated, though Wood focuses it differently identifying stories in we’re presented with the Doctor’s world and stories in which we’re presented with our world plus the Doctor. The former roughly maps to the glam stories, while the latter maps with the action stories. But the thing is, as Wood points out, for all that this story is the latter, the director is visibly trying something else: the world of the Sea Devils.
Wood comes up with a host of details supporting this claim – the strange focus on the way in which the human characters eat, for instance, and the odd music (a last hurrah of the “let’s just make this show seem really weird” style). But, of course, as Wood admits, this side of the story is drowned out by the desire to make a big showpiece about the Navy starring Jon Pertwee, a Navy veteran himself. Which is a pity – the central idea, in which humans are cast as creatures of raw consumption and opposed by the original inhabitants of the Earth who want it back because humans keep screwing it up – is brilliant.
Which brings us around to my last major point, since The Sea Devils is in many ways the last hurrah of the Earthbound format, and the last story in which the TARDIS does not appear and is not mentioned. And it’s a format I’ve been very hard on, so this seems like the point where I should concede the point and admit that it can and does work as a format. The proof of this being Torchwood.
Here’s the thing about Torchwood. At this point, as I said last entry, Doctor Who and UNIT are going in two separate directions. Doctor Who is returning to its space and time-traveling roots, and in two years will embrace the eccentric wanderer through space and time approach in a deeper way than ever before. UNIT, on the other hand, basically winds up, although as David McIntee showed, it didn’t really have to. But imagine an alternate universe – one in which the format of Season 7 reigned supreme and the Doctor never used the TARDIS again.
But let’s also imagine that this is all that changed. The show never integrates the Doctor fully on Earth, leaving him as an eccentric ex-time traveler now trapped on Earth. And the show still keeps regeneration, so it can run as long as there are interesting ideas. It’s just that instead of going to Tom Baker and the bohemian traveler, it continues on variations of Jon Pertwee – action man heroes. Now I’ll admit, I don’t think the show could have reached 1989 like that, little yet been the subject of a massive and unprecedentedly successful revival.
But if it had, would it, in 2011, actually look any different from Torchwood? I propose that it would not, and that Captain Jack is a dead ringer for what the Eleventh Doctor would look like if Jon Pertwee were the dominant model for the part. An socially transgressive action man who is slightly out of place and old-fashioned, seeming like the leading man from another era. Or, to put it another way, a sort of drag leading man – exaggerated characteristics of the leading man that aren’t quite played right. (After all, the glam aesthetic that’s so influential on the Pertwee era was always sexually ambiguous.)
Indeed, the entire plot of Miracle Day could just as easily work with the Doctor becoming mortal and everyone else getting eternal life. And Torchwood goes out of its way to remind us once an episode that Jack is a former immortal time traveler.
Crucially, it’s not just the similarities in the main characters. It’s the whole structure. Torchwood still depends on the sort of gonzo plot logic of Inferno or The Claws of Axos. It’s still fundamentally a show that works on Doctor Who plot logic. It’s just that instead of being the natural extension thirty-nine years later of The Curse of Peladon, it’s the natural extension of The Sea Devils.
And, of course, watching the brutal dramatics of Torchwood (and at the time of writing I’ve only seen up through “The Categories of Life,” though the ending of that episode is a perfect case in point), it’s easy to see the logic of something like The Sea Devils, with its not-quite-working attempt to be an earthbound story written from the monsters’ POV, as something that would fit in. Yeah, Torchwood would almost certainly handle that better than The Sea Devils does – just like Colin in “The Categories of Life” is a far better sick and twisted bureaucrat than Walker is here. But phrased that way, it’s an idea that’s just as brilliant in 2011 as it is in 1972 – something that one wishes Torchwood would do someday – a story from the monsters’ POV.
And this is the thing that we have to admit. Because it’s one of the basic remits of this blog, and it’s something I’m at least open to the possibility that I haven’t served well enough in the Pertwee era yet. (Though, as I said, we’re halfway through – there’s plenty left to discover about the Pertwee era, and plenty of twists and turns to come. It would not be good if there were nothing I hadn’t already said enough about in the Pertwee era.) For all my frustrations with it, we’re looking here at a story that doesn’t do a very good job at something that would still be ahead of its time nearly forty years later. And it’s not just this story – the extreme expressionism of The Claws of Axos or the uncanny horrors of Terror of the Autons both still resonate strongly. And we mustn’t forget that Spearhead From Space has an action sequence so good they did a near shot-for-shot remake of it in 2005 to kick off the new series.
Yeah, fine, we could do the Letts era better in 2011 than Letts could in 1972. But as I’ve argued before, Doctor Who, and really television in general, has improved continually. It wasn’t quite up to the task of the UNIT era in the early 70s though. For all the techniques it pioneered in this period – the jump cut, faster editing, CSO, and, with this story, filming in an organized and planned enough fashion that this story could be aired after The Curse of Peladon even though it was made before (which, given that at one point in the Troughton era they got to where they were filming the week before an episode aired, is an incredible feat of organization on Letts’s part, and one that has obvious benefits for the show in terms of production quality), perhaps the largest problem with the UNIT era is that it needed a slightly bolder, slightly more mature era of television to thrive.
But perhaps even that’s unfair. Doctor Who in the Pertwee era was as popular as it ever was in the classic era, and Tat Wood makes an impressive case in About Time that in 1973 the show was at its popular peak for the classic series. Perhaps when it comes to the earthbound format we should simply say this – they tried things that are still innovative and bold 40 years later, and they worked well enough to captivate a generation. Complaining that they didn’t do even better than that amazing feat isn’t just unfair. It’s like the old joke where the man teaches a dog to play checkers and is disappointed that he only wins about half the games. At this point in its history, Doctor Who is combining James Bond, Doomwatch, glam rock, Ace of Wands, and Doctor Who as we knew it in the 60s into a coherent collage. Find me another show in 1972 that manages half of that and we can start talking seriously about the flaws of the Pertwee era.