Doctor Who: Beneath the Surface review

Silurians, Sea-Devils, and surfaces. Martin dives into a boxset of classic Who...

This four-disc collection covers the three stories to date which deal with the Silurians and Sea-Devils, two branches of an ancient reptilian Earth-race predating man by millions of years, which awakens from hibernation to discover that the apocalyptic event they were hiding from never actually transpired, and that in the meantime a bunch of insolent monkeys have taken over their planet! The set consists of two Jon Pertwee adventures and one from fifth Doctor Peter Davison.

First up is Doctor Who And The Silurians, a six-parter involving The Doctor and Liz Shaw (Caroline Johns) being sequestered by those stiff UNIT bods to investigate bizarre phenomena at the site of an underground particle accelerator in Derbyshire. Turns out all that rampant energy has woken up the scaly Silurians, who are prowling the adjacent caves with their pet dinosaur and wondering how they can get rid of all those pesky humans that have overpopulated their beautiful planet in their absence.

Silurians is an imaginative piece with an anti-government bias and excellent guest turns from Who regular Geoffrey Palmer (who played the traitorous captain in Voyage Of The Damned and also narrates the extras on the disc) and the reliable Fulton McKay (Porridge). The production is only marred by its excessive number of episodes compared to the story it had to tell (something also admitted in the commentary) and an often-appalling ‘medieval’ score by experimentalist Carey Blyton. But production values are high and an early Pertwee is already in his stride as the ‘dashing’ Doctor.

This is the only serial to span two discs, leaving more room on disc 1 for a revealing, extra-length documentary which explains Silurians in the context of 1970s Britain. The piece doesn’t shrink from the arc’s genuine shortcomings but also seeks to explain to curious fans of Tennent-era Who the impact the show would have had on contemporary audiences in a pre-digital age where it was only just beginning to evolve from a children’s programme into a ‘family’ drama.

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Next is the well-loved Sea Devils, comfortably the jewel of this collection. Where else can you see Roger Delgado’s Master sizing up The Klangers as potential collaborators, only to be gently informed that it is a children’s show?

This six-part story finds the Silurian’s turtle-faced aquatic cousins being woken from their own slumber by repairs to the foundations of a Sealand-style off-shore fortress. Before you know it, six ships have gone missing and The Doctor and Jo Grant (Katy Manning) are waving their UNIT passes around to get to the bottom of it.

The co-operation of the British navy lends Sea Devils a cinematic quality rarely found in the show, while Delgado strikes a perfect balance between brooding menace and comic surety as The Master, now apparently imprisoned by the British army but curiously coming and going as he pleases, with the ambit of helping the Sea Devils with their second attempt to wipe out the human race.

Once again, Sea Devils would comfortably have fitted into 4 episodes, and suffers from many time-filling ‘cliff-hanger recaps’, but early Who never looked better, the commentary is illuminating and direction and lighting are sharp, with palpable tension in use of the very original Sea Devils design.

A sharp contrast then to the mercifully shorter 4-parter Warriors Of The Deep, the last of the water-logged sagas in the set. This Peter Davison final-season opener finds the cricket-loving time lord dragging Tegan (Janet Fielding) round an undersea base in 2084. The Silurians and Sea Devils have joined forces to set the warring economic blocs of the human race against each other, with the intention of claiming the post-nuclear spoils for themselves.

Our Ingrid is in this one, briefly, but even she cannot rescue a story that contains arguably the crappiest monster ever to appear in any of the series, the Myrka. This shambling, laughable latex absurdity is peopled by the two halves of the pantomime horse in Rentaghost, and suffers –as does the whole production- from atmosphere-killing overlighting in the marine base. Arch-cheese Tom Adams struggles under rather feminising make-up, and the above-average set-design and construction is doomed by the lack of ambience, worthwhile dialogue or real direction.

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Yet Warriors is as enjoyable as the other two episodes if you turn on the stinging commentary from Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Terrance Dicks and BBC effects maestro Matt Irvine, and the whole unbearable run of episodes takes on the jocular tone of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The accompanying documentary is also unflinching in its apologism and criticism of the piece, with pundits Davison and Fielding emerging as a great double-act.

All the associated commentaries and docs suffer from some ‘story duplication’, but there is a fascinating insight into the job of restoring Silurians and Sea Devils back to their former glory, and in general the standard of extras on Beneath The Surface is exemplary. Only the annoying previews of upcoming Who DVD releases, which will be redundant within months, mar this effort.

Beneath The Surface is already available for pre-order at £10 less than the RRP, and considering how valuable the commentaries are, it’s an excellent package for the price.

Discs: 4

RRP: £39.99

Distributor: BBC/2|Entertain

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Release Date: January 14th 2008

Runtime: 7 hours, 5 minutes

Extras: includes full ‘real time’ commentaries from significant cast and crew members for all episodes first-class original documentary material for all three stories, amongst many other features.

Also see: Doctor Who: The Time Meddler DVD review 



4 out of 5