It’s a testament to how brilliant Roger Delgado’s Master is that an absence of just two stories can lead to such a sense of triumph in his return. A short gap when you watch the seasons back-to-back, but the break has done the character the world of good, as you can tell that both the script and the actor are having so much fun.
There’s a willingness to play things for laughs, seen through much of The Master’s imprisonment and especially his enjoyment of The Clangers. Plus, when a character’s appearance is a special occasion rather than the norm, it allows you to be more elaborate – sword fights and jet-ski chases spring to mind – and it brings with it a requirement to raise the stakes. The Master leading the successful takeover of a naval base is certainly a career highlight of his.
The Sea Devils are a worthy addition to the Silurian family, and are arguably more effectively deployed here than their cave-based cousins were in the original. Gone is the internal power struggle, but the moral ambiguity remains – in both stories, it’s regrettable that the reptiles had to wiped out, with bittersweet endings aplenty. Here, it’s because all of their actions were down to being used as pawns in The Master’s ongoing war on everything that isn’t him. This allows them to function both as The Master’s personal army, and eventually the bringers of his downfall.
Elsewhere, the production values seemed exceptionally high for this story, no doubt thanks to the extensive location work, produced with the co-operation of the Royal Navy. The various ships, submarines, sea forts, diving bells, hovercraft and jet-skis added a huge sense of scale to the story, and it was action-packed and exciting throughout.
Even by her standards, Jo is notably brilliant in this serial, acting almost as a co-lead at times, as her and The Doctor share the action hero duties at various points. The only issue is that UNIT are completely conspicuous by their absence – that’s two serials in a row without even a glimpse of The Brig, Benton or Yates. It’s clear that Letts and Dicks are trying to vary each story as much as possible within the mandated restrictions, and that’s extremely admirable and worthy. But the thing is, I know that The Three Doctors is fast approaching, and I’ll miss the UNIT family when The Doctor and Jo fly the nest. These last two serials have been like his exile has been lifted already.
But still, the absence of the Brig aside, given that this serial marks the first time that the Sonic is used extensively throughout, and that it contains the full unexpurgated phrase “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow”, The Sea Devils is pretty much peak Pertwee era. And now I’m pretty much exactly halfway through it, I’ve concluded that I really like the Pertwee era.