Warriors of the Deep
Written by Johnny Byrne
Transmitted: 5 January – 13, 1984
In the near future, two power blocs are engaged in a deadly cold war. Sea bases on either side wait for the call to action with computerised precision and calculated inhumanity. The long sleeping reptilian races that once ruled the planet seek to ignite this situation, forcing the mutual extinction of the human race, making the planet inhabitable for them once more. In order to set things right, the Doctor must convince the Silurians that peaceful coexistence is possible, even though the human race seems determined to kill itself off with nuclear weapons.
For Doctor Who’s 21st series, John Nathan Turner wanted to open with a big bang. He had already received lauded praise for bringing back the Cybermen in 1982’s Earthshock and of course the 20th anniversary story the Five Doctors was a massive success. Again playing to the interest of fans, JNT decided to bring back two old foes for series 21; the Sea Devils and Silurians. Focusing on cold war anxiety, the story was written by former Space: 1999 writer Johnny Byrne, who had already brought back the Master in Keeper of Traken and Omega in Arc of Infinity.
In both of his previous scripts, it is apparent that Johnny Byrne is a very intelligent and sensitive person, infusing his scripts with character and emotion. However, on screen his previous efforts and his third, Warriors of the Deep, lack an impact. In the case of Warriors of the Deep, this can be explained by the production being rushed, resulting in a lackluster end result that no one involved was happy with.
However, there are some good qualities in this story that is almost entirely derided by fans of Doctor Who and used as an indicator of the shabby production values of the program by armchair critics.
The second appearance of the Sea Devils and Siluruans in the classic Doctor Who program, the story again relies on the fact that planet Earth was once ruled by a proud reptilian race (dubbed inaccurately as the Silurians) who kept humans as pets. When their scientists predicted a global catastrophe, the Silurians hid in a network of caves, placed in deep hibernation to reduce bodily functions. Due to a miscalculation, the Silurians awoke to find that all traces of their culture had been wiped from history by tectonic migration and the animals once kept as pets had evolved into upright hairless apes that thought of themselves as the dominant species. Furious, the Silurians were determined to exert their power on the surface world and reclaim their birthright. It was only the intervention of a fellow outsider, the Doctor, that caused them to pause and consider that harmony with the humans may be possible. Paranoid that such a path would fail, the United Nations voted to seal up the caves of the Silurians by exploding the passageways to their underground shelter.
In a separate instance, the Master awakened a cousin to the Silurians, dubbed Sea Devils, whom he convinced to attack the human race in an act of self-preservation. The Doctor again interceded and prevented the mutual destruction that could have taken place.
For his third outing, Warriors of the Deep offers a vague situation of two power blocs that are engaged in a prolonged cold war. Arriving in space, the TARDIS is mis-identified as a hostile craft by a hunter-killer satellite, prompting the Doctor to make an emergency landing inside of the undersea base belonging to one of the power blocs. Aboard the sea base, a pair of enemy agents are putting the finishing touches on their mission to take control of the station-designated operator responsible for interfacing with the base computer. For some reason, no one else can interface with the system that controls the launching of the nuclear missiles. When the operator on duty is put out of action, an operator-in-training is relied upon, even though he seems incapable of the job and is clearly on the verge of a nervous breakdown the more he realizes the responsibility placed upon his shoulders.
When the Silurians begin their assault mission by reviving a nest of Sea Devils, it seems that their course of action mirrors that of the enemy spies, to take control of the sea base. The Sea Devils are intended to be SAS-types, very dangerous and trained to kill. On screen they look a bit better than they did in their last appearance, but are more lumbering than deadly. Perhaps the hibernation impacted their mental capacity? The Silurians, once brilliant and sophisticated, are presented here as little more than a replacement for the Cybermen seen in Earthshock. In fact, much of the set up of this story is reminiscent of the 1982 classic. The Silurians seem driven by a thirst for revenge on their previous set backs and are determined to destroy the human race at any cost.
The design work by Mat Irvine is rather grand with the undersea base looking impressive even today and the Silurian craft appearing definitively organic and spooky. I’m a big fan of Gerry Anderson productions such as Stingray and Thunderbirds, so I could not help but think of the supermarionation programs when the probe was launched from the seabase. While the scenes involving the deep space probe have not aged well, the lighting and photography of the model shots is generally impressive if jarring with the stark white interiors of the base. Likewise, the scenes shot in the Sea Devil nest are very murky and lovely. I imagine that Johnny Byrne and director Pennant Roberts were happy with the results in those shots.
Unfortunately, the production of Warriors of the Deep was beset with problems from the get go. With numerous heavy rewrites demanded by continuity expert Ian Levine and script editor Eric Saward already overworked with the remainder of the series, the production schedule was shortened by a whole two weeks due to an impromptu election. John Nathan Turner reportedly had the option of scrapping the story or going forward with less time than usual and in the end chose the latter option. As such, we should be happy with what we got, given that many scenes were shot with no rehearsal and many effects were finished just before being put on camera.
I have noted this in other articles, but in my opinion Peter Davison really came into his own in his last series. The scripts were far less ambitious than the previous year, but I think that this worked toward the program’s strengths. Essentially a ‘base under siege’ story hearkening back to the Patrick Troughton monster era of 1968, Warriors of the Deep gave ample room for Davison’s Doctor to breath and develop, unhindered by dogs in vests or dueling cosmic deities.
The story features some magnificent stunt work and unusual fight sequences as the Doctor triggers a nuclear meltdown to cover the escape of himself and his companions.
You can choose for yourself which of the above is most out of place in Doctor Who; the fight sequence or the Doctor triggering a nuclear meltdown just to cover his escape. It’s a bizarre notion that makes little sense but in the end is a gripping piece of drama that stands out as an iconic moment for fans of this era. The sequence of the Doctor swimming in the water tank is also a stand out moment and I’m sure that Davison was grateful for the opportunity to give his Doctor some ‘edge.’
Companions Tegan and Turlough are almost less than useless in this story, though Turlough does get to brandish a gun and help the Doctor and Tegan escape the Myrka… more on that later. Turlough does come off as especially catty in this one, snipping at almost everyone throughout the story. I quite like Turlough as he stands out as one of the few companions with any real depth, but he’s reduced to a mincer in this one. Tegan, the bitchy mouth on legs, is quite good here, but mainly runs up and down corridors showing off the aforementioned legs.
Johynny Byrne’s script was intended to be an exploration of a dispossessed people, presenting the Silurians in a sympathetic light. As the Silurians appear comical on screen, this never really comes together, but if you concentrate on the dialog, you can see his intentions. A gifted author, Byrne often shot for the moon in his scripts and sought to develop complex worlds of lush characters, each with his or her own agenda. As the production was rushed and the details of the world that the Warriors of the Deep is set in are so vague, this too falls flat. However, if it is viewed as a nod to the classic days of Doctor Who filtered through an unusually modern and politically influenced script, it almost works.
The guest cast is very strong with Tom Adams as the butch commander and Ian McCulloch and Hammer Horror starlet Ingrid Pitt as the enemy saboteurs. A strong supporter of sci-fi, the dear departed Ingrid Pitt had of course previously appeared on Doctor Who in the Jon Pertwee story the Time Monster. Here she was shoe-horned in place by director Pennant Roberts who merely wished to cast as many actors as he could that he had worked with previously. There’s not much for Pitt to do in her role aside from smolder and make knowing glances (probably a departure from her usual vamp roles), which may explain why she suddenly appears performing martial arts against a rubber monster.
Honestly, there is no other explanation that I can think of for this scene.
Watching the DVD (excellently packaged with Silurians and Sea Devils as the ‘Beneath the Surface’ box set), it is interesting that an in-depth documentary was included exploring the creation of the dreaded Myrka. The creature was intended to be the mega weapon of the Silurians, a brutal and terrifying monstrosity that would clear a path for the boarding party. The special effect was created by the amazing Mat Irvine, though he can clearly see that the end result is laughable, mainly due to poor lighting. It’s funny that director Pennant Roberts is convinced that CGi would enhance the monster, overlooking the fact that it is blindingly lit, making it painfully obvious that the creature is a pantomime horse. To add to the failure, the glue was still wet when the actors donned the costume, leading to the operators getting high and woozy. It’s a thoroughly entertaining and informative extra that I highly recommend checking out.
When I first saw this story as a teenager, I loved it. Davison’s final year on the program saw a progression of downbeat apocalyptic adventures in which everything that could go wrong does. This appealed to me as I had grown tired of viewing the Doctor as a ‘magical mister fix-it’ as Nightmare of Eden described him. This Doctor was brilliant, resourceful and brave, but still could not stop those around him from dying. The Doctor succeeded this time in preventing nuclear war, but at the expense of the base crew and the last surviving member of the Silurian triad that he first met two lifetimes ago. It is still a devastating moment when the shell-shocked Doctor stands amid the bodies of the fallen and (in ghastly silence) mutters ‘there should have been another way.’
There are plenty of problems with Warriors of the Deep that reside in the effects, lighting, direction and acting… but at its heart it is an intensely dramatic parable on the futility of violence and the genuine anxiety that gripped the planet in the days of the Cold War.
Warriors of the Deep also clearly points out that just because a monster looks goofy doesn’t mean that it can’t kill you.
I should point out that this article was drafted at the request of regular reader Matthew Clarke. Please check out his excellent Doctor Who blog Tea With Morbius to see his take on this story and much more.
Available on DVD: