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I’m afraid the Myrka takes quite a lot to impress.

Doctor Who 
Warriors of the Deep

There’s an oft-voiced suggestion that, if only it had the benefit of a better class of production, Warriors of the Deep would be acclaimed as a classic. I think we all know this is phooey, but at the same time, it’s undeniable that a better class of production couldn’t have harmed its reputation any. It might still have had paper-thin characters and a desperately uninventive plot (“linear”, as Pennant Roberts put it) along with an entirely perfunctory reintroduction of old monsters, but it could also have claimed some zip, some verve and some drama.

The Doctor: How do you do? I’m the Doctor. Haven’t we met before?

The Discontinuity Guide cited Warriors of the Deep’s “great” script and “radical” Doctor – Doctor wilfully oblivious to the stark truth of the situation, more like – attesting that it was “only spoilt by those two fan obsessions, design and continuity”. Would that it were so simple. I mean, the continuity is cockeyed at best, but there are worse things than a clear intention to have the story sequelising The Silurians yet making so little sense that it requires retconning in the New Adventures. And it isn’t so much that the Silurians now appear to incorporate some kind of transhumanist (transilurianist?) aberration of flashing speaker lights and Cyber verbiage (“Excellent”) – this does, after all, offer a parallel with Maddox’s sorry situation – as their being rendered entirely arbitrary any-villains (to such an extent that the philosophy at the core of Warriors of the Deep’s tensions is continually referenced and continually dismissed out of hand… They might as well be Cybermen).

The Doctor: There can be no alternative to peaceful co-existence.
Icthar: There is, Doctor. A final solution.

About Time likewise was of the view that “on paper the story’s got so much going for it”. It should have been “a grand tragedy, a tale of human-and-reptile folly, which sees the people of the future hatching convoluted plots against each other while greater forces move to engulf them… It should feel like Hamlet with dinosaurs”. Yeah. No. That’s a bit like saying Arc of Infinity has so much potential it should feel like The Deadly Assassin (not that The Deadly Assassin is Hamlet, that craven-hearted spineless poltroon of a Prince of Denmark).

Turlough: Face it Tegan, he’s drowned!

Evidence of just how far off base About Time is can be found in the assertion that it’s a surprise this came from Pennant Roberts. As if “badly directed” didn’t also characterise is his ’70s work on the show. Ed Stradling suggests Doctor Who might not really have been his bag in the Making Of doc, and that his work on Tenko better evidences an actors’ director’s milieu. It certainly seems that, by all accounts, he was very popular with actors (as was Peter Moffat). It’s certainly also the case that he had no facility for action, or visual acumen (The Face of Evil, his sole Hinchcliffe story, is by some distance the cheapest looking of that era).

Icthar: We will harm no one. These ape primitives will destroy themselves. We, Doctor, will merely provide the pretext.

To suggest Warriors of the Deep’s principal deficiency is being “let down by his lighting director” inevitably leads one to conclude Roberts must always have been let down by his lighting directors. Besides which, there a numerous instances in the story where the lighting is fine. Less fine are the director’s consistently basic choices in terms of camera and editing. He’s obviously never heard the concept of shooting round a problem. You can see his strengths and weaknesses most clearly in The Sun Makers – anything involving gunfights and action falls flat, but the richly comic exchanges sing. Which is why The Pirate Planet is the Roberts story that works best. It’s funny, stuffed with rich (some would say OTT) performances and boasts a dense plot. It also has little enough action – marching through a Welsh field aside ­– that it barely registers as a deficiency.

The Doctor: Hexachromite. It does that to all reptile life.
Preston: Then use it on the invaders.
The Doctor: And kill them?
Preston: Why not? They’re about to start a war that will destroy everyone on Earth.

Warriors of the Deep is kind of the reverse. It’s almost devoid of humour. It was, as has been noted by those involved, Johnny Byrne attempting to do Earthshock (and being significantly rewritten by Eric Saward in the process). For that to succeed, you need someone who could tell the difference between economy of writing and a wealth of clichés (Earthshock is by no means free of them, but it has a clear sense of motivation in the majority of its characters and a firm grasp of propulsive plotting). The problem with Warriors of the Deep – one of the era’s better titles; so good, it should have starred Doug McClure – is that it begins with its “marvellously meaningful” final line and work its way backwards, as if that’s enough. So everything must culminate in a tragic “what a waste”, yet that regret only counts for something if it is earned. And you don’t earn it simply by piling up the bodies.

Icthar: And these humans will die as they have lived, in a sea of their own blood.

The Doctor spends four episodes attempting to broker a peace, in spite of all evidence suggesting he’s being a complete fool. Escalating events only confirm this (even gassed, Icthar is gunning down Vorshak). A particularly unkind contrast can be found between the Doctor’s behaviour here and the maligning of his subsequent incarnation. The latter may have offered similarly misplaced sentiments over the death of Lytton after another blood bath that opened the next season, but at least they weren’t laced throughout the story.

Icthar: We bear you no malice, Doctor.

The Doctor sets the reactor to overload as a “distraction”. He offers churlish comments defending a species bent on genocide that are grossly inaccurate (“They could have blown this place apart. They certainly have every reason to”); even if an offscreen incident may have supported his claims, the two prior stories we do have tell us other than “They’re honourable. All they wanted to do was live in peace”. And then he contradicts himself with “To them you’re all the same. Ape-descended primitives. An evolutionary error they obviously mean to correct”. Well, which is it Davo? The Silurians even pre-empt the War on Terror with their “Defensive war” terminology.

The Doctor: I sometimes wonder why I like the people of this miserable planet so much. The Silurians and Sea Devils are noble races. They have skills and talents you pathetic humans can only dream about.

Structurally, the Doctor’s involvement is a disaster. The monsters don’t even know he’s involved in the story until Episode Four, and then he has to tell them who he is (no, not ringing any bells). And after all his high and mighty posturing, insulting humans left and right all along the way, he gets thoroughly snubbed when he’s told the Silurians have “long since abandoned the ways of negotiation”. His quote above is in response to the entirely reasonable observation that “They're about to start a war that will destroy everyone on Earth”.

Turlough: They’re all dead, you know.

The Doctor is, essentially, completely deluded throughout the story. Turlough’s “What is it about Earth people that makes them think a futile gesture is a noble one?” would be better applied to his travelling companion (the Doctor’s a complete dick to Turlough throughout too. Perhaps he dislikes him so much because he’s always right about the pointlessness of what they’re doing, and his conclusion that the best thing to do would be getting back to the TARDIS is usually on point). The Doctor is ineffectual, out of his depth, impotent, and still he’s trying to revive Icthar and Scibus.

The Doctor: That’s a Silurian battle cruiser!

The structural issues aren’t only found with the Doctor’s involvement. There’s zero reason to show the Silurians two minutes into the first episode, since they do nothing of note until midway through the second. The laborious inclusion of Chekov’s Hexachromite gas also serves to telegraph how these dramatically inert reptiles will be dispatched later. The subplot of Nilson and Solow is all very well, but it fails to interact with the main story in any kind of meaningful way. In theory, yes, there’s merit to About Time’s idea that the pointlessness of their behaviour is counterpointed by the Silurians’ plan, but in practice, it simply looks stranded. Like the five-minute scene of Turlough trying to press Preston into a ventilation duct.

The Doctor: Launching those things will trigger a holocaust. You’ll destroy everyone.

Gary Russell asserted that it’s an “ambitious” and “clever story that never tells you if Sea Base Four is part of an Eastern or Western Bloc”. That’s true. Big Finish-worthy, even (complete with dialogue that makes a meal of that very reticence: “the power bloc opposed to this sea base”. I mean, I’m never one to demand naturalistic dialogue, but that’s just appalling). I’m not really sure why Saward went back to Byrne after it was evident Bidmead was the reason The Keeper of Traken was so good, but Roberts involvement only serves to emphasise the story’s deficiencies; it isn’t as if he’s desecrating solid material.

Solow: Whatever commands we give him, Maddox has no other choice but to obey.

Despite such general berating, I don’t think Warriors of the Deep is as bad as the real dregs of the Davison era. For the most part, it isn’t boring. As an eleven-year-old, I well recall the ridicule that greeted the story’s big monster, but at the same time, as an eleven-year-old, I was engrossed in the proceedings. And certain elements, such as Maddox and his man/machine interface, complete with bloodstained brain hub, are really quite grisly and deserved keener exploration (as ever with this era, something set up effectively is then spuriously dispensed with; Maddox becomes mind controlled for the next few episodes). Today – if anyone talented were running the show – such an idea would be realised via nanoparticles infusing the synch operator. Administered through, oh I don’t know, an injection and their being controlled remotely by AI. But that wouldn’t be science fiction. They might even have guards running around in protective headgear for no discernible reason.

The Doctor: The bulkhead wouldn’t have kept the Myrka out for long.

Ingrid Pitt is both terrible and utterly hilarious, looking like a Blake's 7 Season Four guest star dragged through a hedge backwards while delivering a bewildering yet insanely inspired karate chop on the Mryka. There are a couple of good performances, though. Ian McCulloch gives his best budget Julian Glover, and Tom Adams does a better job of the Ronald Leigh-Hunt part than he has any right to. Certainly better than Ronald Leigh-Hunt ever would have. The guys playing the Silurians are dreadful, but I dig the Sea Devil samurai gear (less so their floppy heads).

Vorshak: You’ll get no help from me, Silurian.

That said, I don’t even think the story really deserves the Warriors on the Cheap swipe. It doesn’t look like it was cheap, BBC Micro graphics aside. The sea base set is pretty good. The Sea Devils costumes are pretty good. The Myrka isn’t really that much worse than the Tractators (the Silurians in a way, are a bigger misstep). It’s just sloppy and careless in execution everywhere. The visuals are sloppy. The performances are sloppy. The framing is sloppy. Sauvix is introduced via an extended bit of bending over double to get through a doorway. It makes Varl’s long shot introduction in Two Doctors look like Sergi Leone.

The Doctor: There are still two power blocs, fingers poised to annihilate each other.

Warriors of the Deep offers a rather banal attempt to comment on Cold War politics, but the 2084 setting might have been better served by a reframed Orwellian plot line (for that, we’d have to wait until the following season). Notably, the Doctor buys into Cold War propaganda, but then, he is an ijit throughout. The economy of being trusted due (indirectly) to leaving the TARDIS door open is notable; perhaps they should have tried that more often. Really, though, deciding to explore Sea Base Four was damn stupid to start with. True, the Doctor prevents human genocide, but if he’d wised up about the Silurians straight off, he might have saved the Sea Base’s humans too. The Myrka’s rump end of Season 21? Definitely, but that’s still some distance from being the worst Davo.

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