Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Hulke's Devilish Cunning

I was going to put up the second part of "A True Love's Lament" here, but after the last post I don't think it's humour time just yet, so let's go for something totally out of left field and discuss The Sea Devils.

I figured I'd mention this simply because I finished watching it last night for the first time in, ooh, eighteen years or so, and it suggested something very clearly to me in light of Phil Sandifer's post on The Silurians eighteen months ago. Since Sandifer himself didn't make the link (perhaps because it's too obvious, too obviously wrong, or contained in About Time or Running Through Corridors; I don't know), I thought I'd say something in passing.

Let me start off by saying I'm not entirely sure I agree with Sandifer's reading of The Silurians itself, mainly because it's not clear to me that the Brigadier does indeed destroy the Silurian base at the end.  It's clear that both the Doctor and Liz believe that's what he's done, as they watch the explosions from the hillside, and Walker demonstrates in The Sea Devils that the government thinks the same thing.

But consider what the Brigadier actually says.  Not that he wants the base destroyed, that he wants it sealed off.  Although he's never told on screen, one can easily imagine the Doctor informing him (via elementary calculations) that the Silurians won't be showing up again for another fifty years.  It's entirely possible that the Brigadier's intention here isn't to murder unknown thousands of sentient reptiles, but to cut off the base and, crucially, make the Doctor think he's murdered unknown thousands of sentient reptiles, to stop him going ahead with his plan of waking the Silurians up one at a time to attempt to reason with them (a race, of course, that tried to render mankind extinct twice in the space of five episodes, with the second attempt guaranteed to exterminate every warm-blooded species of animal on the planet into the bargain, but let's not get into that now).

The only genuine textual evidence against this argument is the fact that the Silurian leader himself is caught in the blast, though with no knowledge of how the base is set up it's difficult to know whether that indicates wide-spread destruction or simply the blow back from sealing the caves near what was presumed to be the base entrance.  Indeed, the totally unknown size and structure of the base makes it far more likely that sealing the surrounding tunnels was a- far more plausible objective than trying to destroy the base in itself.  Then there's the aforementioned comment by the Brigadier, and also the size of the explosion the Doctor and Liz see, which is far too small to have taken out caverns holding many thousands of man-sized lizards.

Obviously, anyone arguing the size of a Doctor Who special effect should be considered a valid indicator of authorial (or as Sandifer notes, editorial) intent is clearly a lunatic, but my point remains that neither option is ruled out beyond dispute.

That's a lot of words to quibble about what "actually" happened when you consider Sandifer is focusing on what the Doctor thinks happened, but it's important because it at least plausibly allows a reading in which Hulke was able to mitigate the damage done by Lett's decision.  This is vital, because I think Sandifer's point that The Silurians could otherwise be read as a criticism of the show's then-format is basically sound, and following from that, The Sea Devils is Hulke re-writing his own criticism to absurd levels, an almost NEXTWAVE level of self-parody based around giving the public what they want, and shooting it through with moral bankruptcy.

Consider the differences between the two stories.  The infighting Silurians with their genuine (if exceptionally underdeveloped) character traits have been replaced with a race that has one character (their chief) and a host of nameless cannon-fodder.  The brief sequences of gunfire echoing around Derbyshire caves have now been spun out into extended action sequences, including a battle that claims the lives of dozens of sentients, as well as a jet-ski chase tacked on for very little reason at all.  Hulke has taken the action-series format the show has been pushing towards since Pertwee took the lead role, and extrapolated to its extreme.  Sword-fights! Venusian Karate! Heavy ordnance! Torpedo launches!  Are you not entertained? Sure, it wasn't Hulke's idea to have the Navy involved (something they did apparently in the hopes of improving recruitment, something you have to feel was undercut by having a civilian come in at the end and order HMS Seaspite to bomb its own lads).

If that isn't enough to suggest the show is undergoing a wee bit of reductio ad absurdum, Hulke brings in the Master, a character massively popular with fans and apparently the show's writers as well, despite every one of his previous appearances involving him either screwing up his plan or being betrayed by his allies (or in his debut story, just assuming his allies will betray him because the Doctor says they will).  So Hulke sticks him in here, has him partake in some of the most pointless action set-pieces (one of which is repeated in its entirety), and then has him betrayed by his allies completely at random.  Seriously, it comes out of nowhere; one minute the Sea Devils are all "Perhaps peace is a good idea", then it's "Right, we're having a war; kill that alien who said having a war was what we should do."

But the crowning turd in the water pipe, as Melchett would say, is that after all that fuss last time around about the Doctor's horror about watching the Brigadier "destroy" the Silurian base, the Doctor himself does the dirty work this time, murdering thousands of Sea Devils because their boss turns out to not like having his based bombed.

It's of course true that the Sea Devils started the hostilities; dozens if not hundreds of sailors are already dead by the time the Doctor first meets one of the Silurians' cousins, and its immediate response is to try and kill him.  On the other hand, the Sea Devils are planning to reanimate the entirety of their species and persuade them to wage war on man.  They haven't tried to exterminate humanity with a virus or disperse the Van Allen Belt to fry every mammal going.  The Doctor attempts to negotiate exactly twice, once just before the Navy attack the Sea Devil base, and once just after the Sea Devils have lost dozens of their own kind in a pitched battle.  It's hardly surprising their chief isn't in the mood for talking just then.

And yet instead of playing for time, say by - I don't know - sabotaging the reanimation device in such a way as it fails rather than blows up the base, The Doctor decides to kill them all.  It's almost impossible to overstate how big a problem this is.  There are any number of things that could have been done between the Doctor starting work on the reanimation machine (which clearly the Master isn't sure he can get to work, otherwise he'd never have been so willing to let his nemesis help out with the circuitry, or react with so little concern to the Doctor's use of it to temporarily immobilise the Sea Devils) and the declaration of war by the assembled might of the Silurian/Sea Devil alliance.  But the Doctor just doesn't bother.  We've had the scary monster running around in the dark (something that Hulke also subverts at the top of Episode 2), the fiddling with the sonic screwdriver, the gun fights and sword fights and explosions, we've polished off the pitched battle for HMS Seaspite; we just need to tie up the loose ends.

So the Doctor kills all the reptiles, and goes home for tea.  Hope you enjoyed all this messing around in boats; we'll do something else next week.

It's really hard to read all of this as just a standard Doctor Who story. It's really easy to read it as an attempt to just connect the dots of the Pertwee era up to that point and thus show the outline of the elephant in the room.  Apparently, someone was paying attention; there's only one more story set entirely on Earth left before the Doctor regains use of the TARDIS.  In that sense, this story was a resounding success.  It's also a lot of good fun right up to the end; this might be a ridiculous overstating of this era of the show, but the whole Pertwee run seems so lunatic to modern eyes that Hulke strikes us as not so much over-egging the pudding as over-egging the omelette.

But none of this changes the fact that this story ends in tragedy, and no-one seems to care.  It's just something to think about, for those so inclined.  We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming.

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