Doctor Who: Beneath the Surface Review
The anachronistically-named Silurians and their aquatic cousins have a place in the second rank of Doctor Who monsters. Unless Russell T. Davies has plans for David Tennant’s Doctor to meet them, their encounters with the Doctor number two each, once separately and once together. They may not have been perennial, iconic foes such as the Daleks or the Cybermen but their first two stories at least – both with Jon Pertwee’s Doctor – are fondly remembered. Their joint rematch, with Peter Davison now as the Doctor, is much less well regarded.
Both reptilian races were the creation of writer Malcolm Hulke. Doctor Who and the Silurians (167:15), a seven-parter, is – accidentally – the only time a story had an on-screen title beginning Doctor Who and…. This was Pertwee’s second story aas the Doctor and the first – after the entirely 16mm-film-shot Spearhead from Space - to be made on colour videotape, though 16mm film was still used for exteriors. With Barry Letts as the new producer, the show was settling into its new format, with the Doctor exiled on Earth by his fellow Time Lords and working for UNIT under the command of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney). After a brief opening scene where two cavemen are attacked by something unknown and horrible, the Doctor and his assistant Liz Shaw (Caroline John) introduce another piece of Third Doctor iconography – his vintage roadster Bessie. Then it’s off to Wenley Moor, Derbyshire, where an underground research station run by Dr Lawrence (Peter Miles) is suffering unexplained power losses and strange behaviour by some of the staff. At the root of this are the Silurians, previous inhabitants of the Earth who had emerged from hibernation to find that the insignificant mammals of their time had become the human race and were now in charge of the planet…
Pertwee’s first season, the show’s seventh, is something of an oddity in the show’s history. Intentionally half the length of previous seasons, it comprised one four-part story (Spearhead) followed by three seven-parters. Letts and his script editor Terrance Dicks were aware of the limitations of the Earthbound format they had inherited, as it restricted the number of possible stories. While the 60s had seen some even longer stories – the last Troughton serial, The War Games was all of ten episodes long – and they had advantages on cost grounds, Letts and Dicks found them particularly irksome from a storytelling viewpoint. You can see why: The Silurians has to sustain its extra length by throwing in a subplot where the Silurians unleash a plague on the human race. This length requirement may also explain the rather rambling feel this serial has, as principal characters at the start give way to others later on. (One in particular, set up as a major antagonist early on, dies in Episode 3.) After this season, seven-part stories were abandoned, and four- and six-parters became the norm.
The Silurians holds the attention largely due to its intelligent script. At the time, Doctor Who was being aimed at a slightly older audience than the children it was originally aimed at. Hulke opposes the Doctor’s basic pacifism, aiming to make both inhabitants of the planet live in harmony, with the Brigadier’s policy of destroying the enemy. Because of this, the final sequence packs quite a punch. The regular cast have grown into their roles. Pertwee’s Doctor is as authoritative in his way as William Hartnell was. Unlike other versions of the Doctor, he works with the establishment even if he is at odds with it – and especially with the Brigadier. Doctor Who in its seventh season is frequently reminiscent of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass serials from the 1950s. There’s more than a little of Quatermass and the Pit in this particular story. Especially in the way he relates to his assistant, there’s less of the patriarchal Doctor of later serials that some people now find hard to take. Nicholas Courtney and Caroline John are fine as the other regulars, and guest stars Peter Miles, Fulton Mackay and Geoffrey Palmer make strong impressions.
Round Two came two years later with The Sea Devils (148:01), again written by Malcolm Hulke. After being arrested at the end of The Daemons, The Master (Roger Delgado) is held in an offshore high-security prison run by Colonel Trenchard (Clive Morton). However, there have been mysterious ship sinkings centered around an abandoned sea fort.
Possibly in response to comments that the Silurian era did not feature complex reptile life, Hulke has the Doctor say just as inaccurately that the creatures should more properly be called “Eocenes”. That name has never stuck, so Sea Devils it is. They are imposing creatures – played by tall actors made taller by wearing the heads as hats while looking out of holes in their necks. The Chief Sea Devil is the only one who speaks, in a voice that’s a little too close to Larry the Lamb for those of us of a certain age. The story sustains itself quite well over its six episodes, with plenty of action, some typical Pertwee-era gadgetry and derring-do and some ripe villainy from Delgado. The serial also benefits from the collaboration the BBC received from the Royal Navy, something which they are thanked for at the end of each episode. Much of this is stock footage, but there’s something about using genuine bases, ships and hardware that gives this story an edge it might have lacked otherwise. On the other hand, the Third Doctor’s relationship with Jo Grant (Katy Manning) – more paternal and indeed patronising than the one he had with Liz and the one he would have with Sarah Jane – is something of a sticking point for latterday viewers. I’m not a great fan of the character, but she’s close to her best here, being given quite a lot more to do than in other stories and being less prone to cutesiness or screaming. UNIT, and hence the Brigadier, do not appear in this story, and their place is kept by the patriotic if ineffectual Trenchard, played by Clive Morton. Edwin Richfield and June Murphy give strong support as naval officers. (Murphy had played a leading role in 1968’s now-lost Fury from the Deep and apparently has been unable to be traced by the BBC who owe her residual payments.)
Malcolm Hulke died in 1979 and did not return to either of his creations. In 1984, the then producer John Nathan-Turner decided to bring both ancient reptilian races back. The four-part Warriors of the Deep (97:40) was written by Johnny Byrne. I hadn’t seen this serial before, as I’d stopped watching the show four years earlier. Its reputation is not high, to say the least, but I found it watchable, a decent if not outstanding storyline done in by production deficiencies. We’re on Earth in the near future. The Doctor (now in his fifth incarnation, played by Peter Davison), Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Turlough (Mark Strickson) arrive on an underwater base. It’s a time of political instability, and the base is on high alert. It’s at this time that the Silurians and the Sea Devils join forces to launch an attack on the base. They hope to provoke a world war which will destroy the human race and allow themselves to take over.
The main issue with the storyline is that it’s very linear, without the complexities and subplots of the two Hulke serials, so much so it’s stretched thin even at four parts long. However, much worse are the actual production values. Much of this is not the production team’s fault. Margaret Thatcher had just announced a General Election, which caused the programme’s budget and leadtime to be cut. With such an effects-heavy serial as this, the results are disastrous. The whole thing has a flat, overlit look (to be fair, characteristic of a lot of videotaped TV drama of the time) that is devoid of any atmosphere. And then there’s the Myrka. If I say that this creature is played by the two men who acted as the Pantomime Horse in Rentaghost, and it shows, that will give you some idea how unconvincing it is. And the scene where scientist Solow (Ingrid Pitt) makes the fatal mistake of trying to karate-kick it is apparently the scene which told Michael Grade that he really did not like Doctor Who.
As Doctors go, Peter Davison is of the Patrick Troughton school: an in-demand actor who takes over the role for three years before going back to being an in-demand actor. He had probably the highest profile with the general public of any of the actors when he took over the role, with his starring roles in All Creatures Great and Small and others. He also played lead roles in two sitcoms while he was The Doctor. Therefore for me he doesn’t quite own the role in the way that Pertwee and Tom Baker did. Those two were tall men with large personalities, which made them for a while hard to cast once they had left the role. That said, Davison played the role perfectly well, and there are some gems among his stories, along with subpar efforts like this one. But that was always the way.
Tegan, who had been introduced in Tom Baker’s swansong Logopolis, was one of the better later companions for me, her forthright Australianness giving her role an unusual colouring, unlike the middle-Englandness of most of her predecessors. (It helps that the actress who plays her is a forthright Australian in real life.) Turlough, on the other hand, is simply colourless. A decent guest cast led by Ian McCulloch (of Survivors or Zombie Flesh-Eaters depending on your genre bias) has not very much to do.
Beneath the Surface is a set of four dual-layered discs encoded for Regions 2 and 4. Doctor Who and The Silurians is split over two discs, four episodes on one and three on the other with extras on both. All six episodes of The Sea Devils plus extras make up one disc, as do the four parts of Warriors of the Deep with its own extras. All three stories are in a ratio of 4:3 with mono soundtracks, isolated score options, and the ever-informative production subtitles which are this time the work of Martin Wiggins.
The two Pertwee serials exemplify particular restoration problems. Season Seven was shown in early 1970, only a month after BBC1 began broadcasting in colour. With limited coverage and the need for a new (and more expensive) TV set and licence, it’s a fair bet that most of its original audience were watching in black and white. As many other countries had not gone over to colour yet, the episodes were recorded when they were broadcast on black and white 16mm film, which was often sold overseas. And as many of the original colour videotapes were wiped, the black and white telerecordings were all that remained. For one whole serial (The Mind of Evil), about half of another (The Ambassadors of Death) and single episodes of Invasion of the Dinosaurs (Episode 1) and Planet of the Daleks (Episode 3), that is all that remains to this day. However in many cases, colour copies were found, NTSC conversions of the PAL tapes, or in some cases off-air videotaped copies.
The latter is the case with The Silurians. Back in 1992, for the VHS release, the Restoration team combined the colour signal from the off-air copy with the black-and-white film recording. This was also the source of the 1999/2000 BBC2 repeat showing, which was the first time I had seen this serial. (Like many 70s fans I had read the Target novelisation, though.) However, with improvements in technology, including the VidFIRE process, the restoration is certainly impressive. Inevitably the 16mm-originated location footage looks softer than the studio-based material, but given the loss of the original PAL master tapes, this is as good as this is ever going to look.
The Sea Devils posed a different problem. The original PAL tapes for Episodes 4 to 6 still survive, but the first three episodes exist as NTSC broadcast copies. These were converted back to PAL using Reverse Standards Conversion, previously used on the DVDs of The Claws of Axos and Inferno. The results are inevitably a little softer and noisier than the native-PAL-sourced later episodes. As with a lot of 70s television, the junction between video interiors and film exteriors is noticeable enough to be jarring if you aren’t used to it. After all that, Warriors of the Deep was relatively straightforward as the original one-inch tape (the first serial shot that way, as opposed to the two-inch tape used previously) still survives and the results are sharp and good quality.
The soundtracks have also been restored. Dialogue is clear and the rather eccentric scores of the two Pertwee serials (medieval krumhorns from Carey Blyton for Silurians, electronic atonality from Malcolm Clarke for Sea Devils) sounding very good. They are both available as isolated score options, as is Jonathan Gibbs’s less distinctive music for Warriors.
As usual, commentaries are provided for all episodes. For Silurians the participants are Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, director Timothy Combe, Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney, Peter Miles and Geoffrey Palmer. As usual, Letts and Dicks, with or without John and Courtney, are their entertaining selves, giving the feeling of a reunion of old friends. However, newcomers Combe, Miles and Palmer give good value in their contributions. For Sea Devils, Letts and Dicks are joined by director Michael Briant and there is a moderator in the form of later script editor Andrew Cartmel. The moderator barely features, as Briant is the star of this show, and even manages to out-talk the other two with his enthusiasm. I hope that Briant can feature on future serials which he directed. (His comment that there were two good reasons for hiring June Murphy could have been better phrased, but he interrupts himself and never returns to the subject.)
Needless to say, the atmosphere on the Warriors commentary is different, with Peter Davison and Janet Fielding joined by script editor Eric Saward and special effects designer Mat Irvine. This is a lively if very critical chat, rather dominated by Davison and Fielding, while Irvine defends his team’s work in the circumstances while pointing out the shortcomings of the results.
The only extras on Disc One is “What Lies Beneath” (35:12). This is a different type of extra and a welcome one. It’s a look back at the different style and pacing (not to mention length) of the 1970s stories compared to the new ones. So far, so standard, but the featurette goes on to discuss the social and political climate and fears of the time and how they were reflected in Doctor Who. Along with Barry Letts, Terrance Dicks, Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney and Peter Miles, speakers include new-era Who Paul Cornell and former Labour MP Roy Hattersley. A fascinating documentary that won’t tell people who were alive at the time anything they didn’t already know, but it’s an excellent attempt to take the programme seriously and to look a little deeper.
Disc Two features “Going Underground” (19:10). This is a more standard making-of- featurette. All the commentary participants appear, but the major addition is longtime Who designer Barry Newbery, who discusses his decision to have the caves as sets rather than the real thing, and the problems he had realising this. Narrated by Geoffrey Palmer, “Now and Then” (9:41) is another in the occasional series which revisits Who locations and compares them as they are now with the way they appeared in the serial. “Musical Scales” (13:55) is an interesting look at the show’s use of incidental music, in particular the experimental scores used in The Silurians and The Sea Devils. Barry Letts appears here again, as do directors Timothy Combe, Christopher Barry and Michael Briant and composers Mark Ayres and Malcolm Clarke, the latter in archive footage. “Colour Silurian Overlay” (4:45) is a short look at the restoration of this particular serial. The extras on this disc are concluded by a stills gallery (6:03), original Radio Times listings in PDF format and a “Coming Soon” (1:05), for the next DVD release, The Time Meddler.
There is, however, one additional extra. Go to the final chapter of Episode 7, either via the episode selection or scene selection menus (it doesn’t work using “Play All”) and you will see the trailer for the next serial, The Ambassadors of Death which immediately followed this episode on its original transmission. This trailer, which features specially-shot footage of Jon Pertwee talking to camera, appeared on the VHS release of Ambassadors in black and white, but it has been restored to colour here. If you are listening to the commentary, it continues over this trailer, which ends with the BBC globe and the continuity announcement of the next programme, The Debbie Reynolds Show.
The Sea Devils disc extras begin with “Hello Sailor” (36:41), another making-of. Letts, Dicks and Briant reappear, as do Katy Manning, actor Donald Sumpter and stuntman Stuart Fell, along with some of the real-life Navy personnel who appeared as extras. You know what to expect from this, and you get it, an entertaining half-hour-plus of anecdotes, along with memories of the since-departed (Pertwee and Delgado). Stuart Fell remembers doubling for Katy Manning and performing a backflip in Sea Devil costume that wasn’t called for in his contract.
Also included is some 8mm footage (3:54) shot by sailor Dave King during the production. The film is silent, but a commentary is provided by Michael Briant, Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts. Next up is a compilation of the trails and continuity announcements recreated using off-air audio. This also includes a reconstruction of the recap included before Episode 2 as much of the country had missed the previous week’s episode due to power cuts. Also included is a stills gallery (8:40) and the same trailer for The Time Meddler as mentioned above. In PDF format are cuttings from Radio Times which also include the winners of a build-a-Dalek competition and a brief feature on what Katy Manning was watching on TV in 1972. As a bonus, also as a PDF, is the full text of the book The Making of Doctor Who, written by the team of Hulke and Dicks.
Onto the Warriors disc, and we have “The Depths” (31:45). As you might expect, the interviewees on this making-of piece look back with some affection but more criticism than they do on the other discs in this set. Peter Davison, Janet Fielding and Mat Irvine reappear from the commentary track, and they are joined by director Pennant Roberts, writer Johnny Byrne, actors Ian McCulloch, James Coombes and John Asquith, fan and continuity advisor Ian Levine and documentary producer Ed Stradling. “They Came from Beneath the Sea” (12:57) takes a closer look at the realisation of the Silurians, the Sea Devils, not to mention the Myrka. Along with Davison, Byrne, Irvine and Roberts from the previous featurette, we also meet William Perrie and John Asquith, namely the front and back half of the Myrka.
Mat Irvine also features in “Science in Action” (6:00), an extract from a 1987 BBC Schools programme. Presenter Kjartan Poskitt talks to Irvine about his work. The disc concludes with trails and continuities (3:59), the photo gallery (7:43), the Time Meddler trailer again, and PDFs of Radio Times cuttings. The latter are less interesting than on earlier serials: as the serial was broadcast on two weeknights, Parts 2 and 4 simply say “for cast see Thursday”. There is an Easter egg: click left from “Science in Action” and click on the green Doctor Who logo which appears. This is “Mat’s Models: Relics from the Irvine Workshop” (4:35), another look at Irvine’s work, with the emphasis on the models used in the serial.
Beneath the Surface comprises two excellent, well-remembered serials plus one watchable if decidedly second-rate one. Given that every existing Who serial will make its way to DVD, good bad and indifferent alike, a themed box set like this is value for money. As ever the Restoration Team have worked miracles, especially considering what they had to work with on the two Pertwee stories, and 2 Entertain have commissioned some excellent extras. Perhaps an appreciation of Malcolm Hulke's work for Who could have been included, but there are still opportunities for that on another DVD. Otherwise this package is hard to fault.