Warriors of the Deep – Pantomime Meets Cold War Nihilism

Reading Time Approx: 3 minutes

There should have been another way…

It has been noted that all Silurian stories are basically the same. That’s an over-simplification but one that has a bit of truth to it too. The Silurians told us a tale of two races effectively going to war for ownership of Earth and the Doctor trying to persuade both sides to talk to each other. The Sea Devils did much the same thing only with aquatic Silurians  and the Master. The plot beats were different but the core was the same. Warriors of the Deep is essentially telling the same story for a third time and on the surface it looks like they threw in a team-up just to freshen things up, but there’s a much cleverer mirror plot happening.

Consider when Warriors of the Deep aired. This is 1984 and the cold war is in full effect, the USSR and USA are rattling sabers at each other and for those of us growing up at the time, things feel tense. So this story of a base under-siege in a claustrophobic underwater setting where two powers threaten to destroy the world with their games doesn’t try to make the humans look any better than the aliens.

On paper this is a pretty bleak story. The message is that if you keep escalating all that happens is everyone dies, which is literally what happens in this story (spoilers!!). Just as with previous attempts at diplomacy the Doctor cannot make peace either between the humans and the Silurians or the humans and the humans. Every group is so locked into their own ideology and world-view that they can’t even attempt to engage with the other parties. That’s some decently sophisticated stuff for a tea-time kids show.

And let’s be clear, “family show” label aside at this stage, was aimed at kids. Look at the budget, look at the acting, look at everything about it, this was not a prime-time drama. If someone had been paying attention I’m pretty sure they’d have shot down this overtly political bit of storytelling. Believe it or not there were some more blatant references to a Cold War that were edited out.

What probably lets them get away with it is the presentation. Not just that it’s sci-fi which was a genre that was thoroughly looked down on in the 80s but the production values and staging.  Everything is too brightly lit (a common problem in 80s Who) which just makes the sets and costumes look even cheaper, but they were cheap. Production on this episode was rushed and it absolutely shows. The Myrka is in concept a classic Who monster but let’s be frank it looks like an outsized pantomime horse. There’s really no question that to a large extent production let the script down.

And yet…

If this had been given a more realistic treatment, it would have been so grim and miserable to watch. We’re seeing Eric Saward fully moving into his nihilistic phase here. Deaths are needlessly gory and by at least some accounts several of the deaths were not part of the original script but added by him. In a strange way the cheap and cheerful sets and the stagey acting may have not only allowed the story to get aired, but also allowed the message of the story to be presented without turning people off the show completely and creating howls of outrage in the press.

Can I imagine a version closer to Johnny Byrne’s one where the base is falling apart and half abandoned? Yeah, very atmospheric. Do I want to watch a version where characters are brutally murdered, gassed, electrocuted, mind controlled and where it feels real and hopeless because everyone fails? Not really and definitely not as a Doctor Who episode. The world is full of grim and gritty stories, Doctor Who needs to be something else. And so in its weird half-panto format this story works for me despite all the production flaws.

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