Audio: Audiobooks: BBC: Doctor Who
Written by Terrance Dicks, and read by Janet Fielding
The Silurians and the Sea Devils, originally created by Malcolm Hulke for a pair of Jon Pertwee Doctor Who stories in the 1970s, are among the most enduringly interesting species ever devised for the show.
Hulke flipped the usual Doctor Who script of non-human aliens invading Earth, by making the reptilian Silurians, and later their aquatic, turtle-faced cousins, the Sea Devils the previous dominant species on Earth, massively technologically advanced but having made one crucial mistake – sending their whole species into cryogenic sleep deep underground to sleep through the impact of a piece of space rock.
The rock was actually captured by Earth’s orbit, becoming the moon, every single one of the reptiles’ alarm clocks failed to go off, and they slept on while, quite apart from anything else, a futuristic space freighter crashed into the Earth (meaning their cryo-plan had accidentally been an excellent one!), wiping out the dinosaurs, and allowing the small ape-like creatures who’d been little more than vermin on their Earth to learn all sorts of tricks, becoming human beings.
Inventive, But Complex
The Silurians and the Sea Devils weren’t invading the Earth – their narrative was that they were reclaiming their planet from we furry, flea-ridden interlopers, the human race. It was an act of genius, allowing the joyously left-wing Hulke to hold a mirror up to human horrors like man’s pollution of the oceans and his inhumanity to anyone he was capable of convincing himself was “lesser” than himself.
The only trouble with them as fantastic anti-heroes was that their backstory was so convoluted they could only work if, say, there were big digging projects to wake up a pod or two of them, or something similar. The budget – not to mention the storytelling conventions – of Seventies Who would never support something as simple as “And then all their alarms finally went off,” because a mass Silurian presence would have been ruinous to film.
So, while everybody tended to agree that the Silurians and the Sea Devils were fantastic creations, they were never actually re-used in the show after their single appearance each against Jon Pertwee…
Until 1984, when John Nathan-Turner, Doctor Who’s producer, decided to kick off Peter Davison’s final season in the Tardis by bringing both species back to work together in a tense, taut Cold War thriller, set a hundred years on from the date of transmission.
Johnny Byrne was brought in to craft the story.
Not nearly enough is said of the skill of Johnny Byrne generally. Creator of cosy Sunday night nostalgiathon Heartbeat, he also had a long career in science fiction, including most of the episodes that make Series 1 of Space:1999 the joy it is, and two previous, excellent Doctor Who stories – The Keeper of Traken (creating Nyssa and setting Anthony Ainley on the journey of his life), and Arc of Infinity, resurrecting Omega (another backstory-heavy character from the Pertwee era who returned to trouble Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor). Oh and not for nothing, he’s also credited with writing an unmade movie in 1991 called Doctor Who: The Last of the Time Lords. So there’s that, too.
The Flaws of Eighties TV
Sadly these days, Warriors of the Deep as it appeared on screen is mostly remembered for the things that didn’t work. The redesigned Silurian bodies, the staggeringly slow-moving Sea Devils (who, in their first outing over a decade previously, had been pretty freaking nippy), the pantomime horse from hell known as the Myrka, some obviously polystyrene doors, and the fact that the whole thing was so ludicrously overlit that every budgetary shortfall is illuminated for everyone to see and pick holes in.
What’s important about that list of course is that none of those are issues with the story.
Which means when redoubtable Doctor Who novelizer Terrance Dicks got his hands on the story, he appears to have seen it for what it was – a story of people, of politics, and of a third focus point (ironically enough for a story about Silurians, who famously had a third, central eye) that provides a view of just how pathetic and petty most human conflicts would look from the outside.
To Increase Quality, Just Add Dicks
Dicks often novelized stories more or less as they appeared on-screen, adding little but rendering faithfully. But sometimes, he’d take the opportunity to add bits and pieces of depth and clarity to a story, and on those occasions, you wanted a Terrance Dicks novelization, because they made so much more sense of things than the TV stories sometimes had the time to do.
Happily for the poorly-remembered Warriors of the Deep, the novelization is one of those times when Dicks felt able to add depth, round out the background of the story, give tantalizing pieces of additional character information, and above all, make the situation feel real, rather than something rendered on an Eighties BBC budget.
Here, for instance, we learn about the sad family history of Dr Solow, that made her easy prey for Nilson’s eastern bloc fanaticism. We learn of Karina’s kindness to pre-breakdown sync operator Maddox. We learn of the invention of proton missiles, and how what we think of as a nuclear war was deemed “winnable” by their creation – adding a shiver down the spine of the story.
And perhaps most valuable of all, we learn of the years of planning and preparation that have gone into the Silurians’ plan – finding the Myrka and liberating it, working out the location of Elite Group 3, the Sea Devil warrior enclave so handily close to a vital sub-sea defence installation of the ape primitives, and so on. Icthar at least comes alive in the story in the novel, where his vocal modulator in the on-screen story did its best to technologically throttle our ability to empathise with him.
Above all, what Dicks’ novelization does is drive home how good a story Warriors of the Deep is in its bones, shorn of budgetary constraints.
Shiny, Happy Sea Devils…
It is, along the way, about as bleak a Doctor Who story as Resurrection of the Daleks (which was to come later that same season). Between the hard-bitten paranoia of the human factions, the insane, cold zealotry of Nilson, the potential bloodbath of the war the Silurians aim to start, the poisoning of marine life, and the actual bloodbath which leaves most people on the base stone dead on the bottom of the ocean, it’s grim going, beneath the ever-busy surface of the action adventure. And all, the story seems to say, for ultimately nothing. By the end of the story, there’s been no big revolution, no change to the politics of the humans on the world above. The world is still as fragile as it was before the Silurians arrived. It’s a conclusion of which Silurian creator Malcolm Hulke would probably have approved.
Janet Fielding (who played companion Tegan Jovanka in the story) doesn’t do a lot of audiobook reading – and based on this release, that’s rather a shame. There will be fans who shudder at the thought of three and a half hours of adventure being read by Tegan, but of course, that’s not what you’re getting here. Fielding’s reading is sensitive, full of light and shade, and her Silurian intonations are better than we have any right to expect, given that Warriors of the Deep constituted four episodes of a show she was in almost forty years ago.
Real nit-pickers will quarrel with only one thing, and that’s the pronunciation of Dr Solow’s name as “Solo” – but you really have to be harsh to mind about that, given the richness, the warmth, and the building tension that Janet fielding mixes into her reading of Dicks’ novelization.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that, by fixing the budget problems and allowing the reptiles to be people, rather than acres of heavy costume that could barely move, by telling us more about the nature of the Myrka and wiping the on-screen version from our mind, and from allowing us to invent our own level of illumination, the audiobook version of Warriors of the Deep is already probably the best version of that story we’re ever going to get.
Add Janet Fielding’s impressive reading and her willingness to go for points of vocal differentiation to establish a variety of characters, and the three-and-a-half-hour audiobook version significantly succeeds – as the TV version could have done with more money and different creative decisions. If, for you, Warriors of the Deep is a story that needs salvation from its times and budgets, then the audiobook release will give you everything you dreamed of – and a little bit more besides. Tony Fyler