One of the strangest things to think about for a Doctor Who fan is that the show has been back on our screens for longer than it was off. 17 years since Rose and the Ninth Doctor started running. In all of that time, the show and its many writers have managed to bring back most of the classic villains or alien creatures, to varying degrees of success. From constant antagonists like the Daleks and Cybermen, to ones with a scant few classic appearances like the Zygons. For the upcoming special, “Legend of the Sea Devils,” the Thirteenth Doctor will get a rematch with a species we haven’t seen onscreen since 1984.
Sea Devils? Silurians First
Doctor Who made quite a few changes in 1970. It went from black-and-white to color; the episode number went from 45 to 25. As a cost-cutting measure, the BBC mandated every story take place on Earth. Infamously this meant the kinds of villains the Doctor could face were either alien invaders or mad scientists. But writer Malcolm Hulke, the frequent collaborator and mentor of Who‘s young script editor Terrance Dicks, gave the show a fascinating wrinkle early on.
In only the nascent Third Doctor’s second story, Hulke gave the audience “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” a seven-part epic which introduced the highly intelligent, bipedal reptile race, the Silurians (a bit of a misnomer, actually). The concept was a genius one; from deep beneath the Earth, the lizard people arise, having frozen themselves in cryogenic slumber on the eve of the dinosaur-killing meteorite. Prior to that moment, it was they, the Silurians, who had been the dominant species on the planet. Now that they’ve awakened, they want their planet back. Forget the piddly little primate species who claim it. The Doctor believes he can broker a piece between humans and Silurians…but can he?
“Doctor Who and the Silurians” is one of the very best stories of the 1970s, and immediately set the Third Doctor’s Earthbound era apart from the previous six seasons. The Doctor’s adventures would, at least for awhile, be a bit more grown up, the stakes much higher than merely “good versus evil.” The Silurians weren’t bad as a species; they were people, some of whom were not nice, and some of whom were. It was more of a political struggle, a cold war, for lack of a better term. It’s ends with one of the show’s great gut-punch endings. (More on that later.)
Now We Head to Sea
A couple of years later, the Third Doctor met the oceanic cousins of the Silurians. By this point in his journey, the Third Doctor had met his nemesis the Master a half-dozen times, the last of which ended with the Master under arrest. In “The Sea Devils,” the Doctor and his companion Jo Grant go visit the Master on an island penitentiary. Nearby, several ships have met with horrible attacks. One terrified crewman goes on and on about Sea Devils. Could it just be a bad coincidence, or is the Master somehow involved?
Well, I’ll spoil it: of course it’s the Master. And actually he sort of dominates the story, leaving the Sea Devils as little more than marching threats. Despite the cool design of the creatures—based on the facial features of turtles—the titular monsters lack the nuance and personality of the Silurians. In fairness, it’s a different kind of story from the jump; the production team received a huge amount of access to the Royal Navy which they used to basically do a raucous sea adventure. The Sea Devils were just the pawns of the Master, and their motivation is basically just the same as the Silurians’ from years earlier.
A Reptilian Team-Up?
Writer Malcolm Hulke stopped writing for Doctor Who once the Third Doctor years came to an end in 1974. He would pass away in 1979. So when it came time, coming off of the show’s 20th anniversary, for Hulke’s two creations to team up, it would be writer Johnny Byrne, who’d written two previous stories in the ’80s, who got the assignment. His job was to find a way to bring both the Silurians and the Sea Devils together for an epic story. The result was “Warriors of the Deep,” a script that’s much, much better than it ended up on screen.
Perfect for 1984, and an era in which the Fifth Doctor was always on his heels, “Warriors of the Deep” presented another kind of Cold War paranoia. In the near-future, two superpower blocs represent the whole of Earth’s forces. One side has an advanced sea base that houses nuclear weapons trained directly on the other bloc. The lone surviving Silurian from the original story’s triad awakens others of his brethren and have revived an elite pod of Sea Devil (yes, for some reason that’s their actual name) warriors to aid them in retaking the Earth.
This is one of the ’80s’ bleakest and most grown up stories, all about how power corrupts and mutually assured destruction means nobody wins. However, all most people remember is a very poor looking pantomime horse of a sea monster called the Myrkah and its laughable attack on the base. It’s truly one of the great dropped balls in Doctor Who directing. As the Doctor says when he and his companions are the lone survivors of the entire story, “there should have been a better way.”
A New Look for the Silurians, But Not the Sea Devils
We then cut to 2010. None other than writer Chris Chibnall penned a story for the Eleventh Doctor’s first series in which a new tribe of Silurians awaken and try to retake the Earth. “The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood” revamped the look of the Silurians into a sleeker, warrior-like species. Rather than the classic series’ bulky rubber suits and masks, these new versions were massive practical makeup effects that would allow the actor’s performances to shine through.
It was a pretty good story, but the Silurians were standouts enough that they’d show up throughout the rest of the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctor run. One of them, the Victorian adventurer Madame Vastra, was even a major ally character.
And now, for the penultimate episode of his run as lead writer, Chibnall brings back the other Reptillo Sapien race in “Legend of the Sea Devils.” However, these would look almost exactly like they looked in the ’70s and ’80s. No argument that mask design is iconic, but we definitely hope the advancement in puppeteering technology means they can express a little bit more than they ever got to previously.
Certainly one of the stranger and least likely classic monsters to make a return in the new series, but with a pirate ship and swashbuckling involved, the Sea Devils will hopefully make a…splash. Ha ha ha hah ha, okay I’m done.