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maryann johanson | watching movies at home

Doctor Who: Beneath the Surface (review)

Waves to the Past

So you’re loving the new Doctor Who, and you want to catch up with some of the old stuff. Where do you even start? There’s a lot of it — a lot. The original incarnation of the show ran continually from 1963 through 1989, with only a few hiccoughs in the late 80s. There are 159 stories (though there is some minor fannish controversy over the count), of lengths varying from two to ten 25-minute episodes (most are four or six episodes long). And sure, some of the very early stories are missing episodes or are lost entirely, and not all of the intact ones are yet available on DVD. But that still leaves a crazy ton of stuff to watch.
I’ve been wishing that the BBC would do with the old shows what they’re doing with the new ones: release a whole season’s worth at a time. Instead, we’re getting them one story at a time, which is not only expensive for us fans but frustrating, too: I want to sit and watch a whole big stretch of Tom Baker’s or Peter Davison’s Whos all at once, not just a story here and there. But I have to admit that having had some time to explore the new set Doctor Who: Beneath the Surface, just out on DVD, maybe this isn’t such a bad plan after all. Because here we have three stories, two from Jon Pertwee’s era and one from Davison’s, that are thematically related: they feature the same “monsters,” the Sea Devils and the Silurians. In fact, these three stories comprise their entire appearance in the show to date. That’s kinda cool, actually, in a geeky-completist way. (You can also purchase the stories individually.)

I put quotes around monsters because the Sea Devils and Silurians are intelligent, civilized beings, and in fact they’re not even aliens: they’re reptilian beings who evolved on Earth long before humans did, but they’ve been in hibernation for a while. (You’ll find out why here.) And all three of these stories serve as reminders of the Doctor’s alienness: he may love humans and love Earth, but he doesn’t share our self-centeredness, and if it comes down to humans versus other beings, he’s not necessarily going to be on our side, especially if we’re trying to blow them up instead of talking to them.

The two Pertwee stories — “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” which first aired in early 1970, and “The Sea Devils,” from early 1972 — are great introductions to that era. The show would not be this sophisticated and almost “adult” again until Russell Davies took up the mantle in 2005: this is science fiction drama with an emphasis on the drama. “The Silurians” is only the second Pertwee tale, and it sets the stage for the Doctor’s Earthbound existence: he’s been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords, and he can’t leave — in fact, not only do we not see the TARDIS in this story, it’s not even mentioned. His exile is rescinded later on, but for now — and through “The Sea Devils” as well — the Doctor’s life is all running around with UNIT in the 1980s (though there’s been a bit of retconning of the timeline, with later episodes actually shot and set in the 80s seeming to have forgotten that), the secret UN military branch that deals with alien threats on Earth, and with the UNIT scientist, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Caroline Johns), who serves as his assistant, and later with the slightly scatterbrained but keen-for-adventure Jo Grant (Katy Manning). It’s very James Bond in a lot of ways — for “The Sea Devils,” the production enlisted the help of the Royal Navy, and that story has the feel of a movie about it — and the Doctor won’t be quite this overtly masculine again till the Davies era, either. He can be a bit of a dandy here, with his cape and his ruffled shirts, but that doesn’t mean he won’t strip down to his T-shirt — and reveal his tattoo! — when it’s time for some dirty work.

“The Sea Devils” is also must-see for the appearance — not the first, alas — of the Master, originated by the wonderful actor Roger Delgado, the best Master till John Simm in the new series. (If not for Delgado’s untimely death in a car accident in 1973, which put the kibosh on the ongoing story arc featuring the Master, the Doctor Who chronology would likely be very different today.) Another fannish notable: the classic bit of Who technobabble “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow” first appears in “The Sea Devils,” though a version of it pops up in, yup, “The Silurians.” (It’s somewhere in the copious fan-catnip extras, which include commentary tracks and pop-up info text that runs at the bottom of the screen, that we learn that this line was a favorite of Pertwee’s, who otherwise hated all the scientific jargon.) In “The Silurians” you’ll also see now-legendary British TV actor Geoffrey Palmer (who recently portrayed the Starship Titanic captain in the last Who Christmas special, “Voyage of the Damned”) as well as Paul Darrow, who a few years later would cement his place in cult TV history as Kerr Avon in Blake’s Seven.

The Peter Davison episode, “Warriors of the Deep” (from 1984) is, unfortunately, one of more minor examples of his era as the Doctor as, a century after the events of the Pertwee episodes, the Sea Devils and Silurians have joined forces in an attempt to finally expel the humans from their planet. However, just as Davison was David Tennant’s Doctor (something that Davison himself notes with chagrin on the commentary track, suggesting that that is now his, Davison’s, only great claim to fame), Davison was my Doctor, too, so I pretty much had this episode memorized from my most devoted era of Who fandom, when I taped them all as a teenager and watched them over and over again. But I got mucho new amusement out of listening to Davison and Janet Fielding — who played the Doctor’s companion Tegan — snarking on the commentary track about wobbly sets and cheap FX and all the many, many limitations both technical and financial that hindered the old Doctor Who. (If you’re a production geek, then you’ll certainly want to check out all the extras, because there’s tons of fascinating tidbits about how TV got made in England in the 70s and 80s.)

There’s a lot of love and respect in their snarking — and likewise on the commentary tracks on the Pertwee episodes, too, which sadly do not feature the actor himself, who died in 1996, though we do hear from other cast and crew. But the physical cheesiness of these old Whos may astonish anyone used to the beautiful and expensive production values of the new show. They astonished me, and I’m no newcomer to the show — I’d just forgotten, because other aspects are the ones that loom in my memory. And that’s really a testament to the old Doctor Who: the stories and the concepts it played with always trumped the wobbly sets and the rubber suits.

MPAA: not rated

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