For nearly 60 years, Doctor Who has introduced TV audiences to a universe full of threats.
Canadian producer Sydney Newman famously banned bug-eyed monsters (BEMs) when developing the show. His educational program aimed at a family audience was beyond the pulp aliens that dominated 1950s science-fiction. Fortunately, producer Verity Lambert and script editor David Whitaker broke that rule almost immediately. The show’s popularity soared when they introduced the eye-stalked Daleks in the second serial.
That healthy disobedience was worthy of Doctor Who’s lead character. The maverick Doctor has remained one of the show’s few constants, despite their ability to change face, gender, and personality. The interfering time traveler hasn’t stopped righting wrongs and battling BEMs across time and space since they met the Daleks. Jump forward to 2022, and the Doctor is about to face a BEM we haven’t seen for a while.
This Easter, the Sea Devils are surfacing for the first time since Doctor Who’s modern era began in 2005 in Legend of the Sea Devils.
Following 2021’s epic Flux event, Legends of the Sea Devils will transport the TARDIS crew to an embattled coastal village in 19th century China. Legendary pirate queen Ching Shih may dominate the South China Sea, but it looks like the Doctor and companions Yaz and Dan will find she’s awakened something even worse below the waves. This Easter’s all about catching up with the Sea Devils on their 40th anniversary for Doctor Who fans.
But who are these fantastically named monsters, and where have they been?
The Sea Devils emerge
The Sea Devils emerged in March 1972. Their six-part self-titled debut began with ships mysteriously disappearing on the English Channel. It wasn’t long before the Doctor, then in their third incarnation, and companion Jo Grant discovered the Sea Devils weren’t local superstitions. The technologically advanced aquatic humanoids had woken from prolonged hibernation below the waves and were determined to take the Earth from humans. Typical of the era, it also featured the Master, a villainous Time Lord seeking to use the Sea Devils as a personal army.
The six-part story isn’t action-packed — it relies primarily on suspense and an experimental music score. However, the Third Doctor was at his most iconic when using his Sonic Screwdriver to stop the sound-sensitive Sea Devils’ beach assault.
Opening the floodgates
If the premise of The Sea Devils sounds familiar, it is. We learn they’re amphibious cousins of the Silurians, a race of subterranean reptiles the Doctor had encountered in 1970. Like their aquatic relatives, the Silurians had awoken and plotted to take the Earth from humans. While their mothers are questionable, neither are quite the monsters they appear to be.
Silurians and Sea Devils come from the prehistoric age when they were the dominant species on Earth, developing technology beyond 20th-century humans. They used their advanced science to cryogenically freeze their species until a threat to Earth had passed, probably the disruptive arrival of the moon in the planet’s orbit. Fortunately for humans, the reptiles’ cooling systems malfunctioned, and their hibernation extended far beyond their intended waking point. Unfortunately for Silurians and Sea Devils, they woke to find the irritating mammals that had started to appear during their era were the new masters of Earth.
It’s a fascinating idea that writer Malcolm Hulke developed in both stories and an ethical debate the show has continued to explore. Doctor Who is no stranger to villainous humans of the past, present, and future, but we’re rarely shown to be the interlopers or possibly accidental aggressors. Is it finders keepers, or can Earth’s native species find some way to get along? If the show tells us anything, it’ll take a while.
Despite returning to the themes of The Silurians, The Sea Devils is more than a watery remake. It’s a fine addition to the show’s history of aquatic threats and myths-made-real, from the Fury from the Deep to frequent cameos from the Loch Ness Monster, Doctor Who has never left its island roots.
A cold-blooded team-up
After a lengthy break, the Silurians and their aquatic cousins teamed up for 1984’s Warriors of the Deep. This cold war-themed base-under-siege story had the Earth’s original masters exploiting humanity’s political splits and potential for nuclear annihilation in 2084.
Having entered hibernation in colonies dotted around the Earth, there’s an almost unlimited supply of disgruntled reptiles ready to reawaken. In true Doctor Who style, that also explains away sightings of dragons and sea monsters throughout history.
Warriors of the Deep had a great premise, but the four-part serial was beset by production issues and lost the ethical nuance found in earlier stories.
Doctor Who fans hope that Legends of the Sea Devils will bring some justice to the species, not least their fearsome weaponized sea monster, the Myrka. In Warriors of the Deep, the wannabe Jörmungandr was a weak link. Legendarily one of Doctor Who’s least convincing monsters, imagine two men in a horse suit with some mesh gills falling off and, well, that’s it. Its greatest moment came when cult actress Ingrid Pitt karate-kicked it.
Look of the Sea Devils
The Sea Devils serial earned a popular place in Doctor Who lore thanks to its extensive outside filming, particularly at Royal Navy bases, and the reptiles’ distinctive appearance. Their full head masks and groovy flowing robes were almost perfect Doctor Who. Just slightly ridiculous, but capturing the imagination perfectly.
There’s no mistaking the influence of turtles and aquatic dinosaurs in their design. Above long necks, they have beak-like mouths, huge eyes, and fins on either side of their head. Sea Devils also have three webbed digits on their hands and feet. Like the Silurians, the Sea Devils’ global reach has allowed variations in their appearance. As well as green, we’ve seen them in shades of blue, orange, and silver over the years.
Be careful if you think they look silly or lumbering. Sea Devils are far more resilient than humans, thanks to the pressure of their ocean habitat.
The sea part of their name is explicable, but the devilish part comes from humans trying to make sense of them. If you think that name’s a bit on point, spare a thought for the Silurians. One of the show’s long-running jokes is that the reptiles come from the Eocene epoch and have been misnamed for decades. Stop laughing at the back.
Awakening in the 21st century
Warriors from the Deep wasn’t great for Silurians or Sea Devils, but the real 21st century has been better behind the scenes. The Silurians have enjoyed a resurgence in the modern era of Doctor Who. They returned in a Series Five two-parter that was arguably the show’s first remake. The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood mined a similar premise to the Silurians’ 1970 debut, but that year’s convoluted plot overcame its worthy moments. Coincidentally their epic return was written by current Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall.
The Silurians have reappeared since, most notably in the form of Madam Vastra. Awakened under Victorian London, she became a detective and firm ally of the Doctor. Her Paternoster Gang, including her wife Jenny, and Sontaran manservant Strax, are a mischievous parody of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
As for the Silurians’ cousins, they haven’t fared so well… Until now. Chris Chibnall and debut Who writer Ella Road have defrosted them with a familiar but evolved look. Warriors of the Deep gave Sea Devil soldiers Samurai-like armor. In 19th century China, they cut a dashing look in a more pirate style. Their heads are a soft and faithful upgrade of their classic look compared to the streamlined make-up of modern Silurians.
Future of the Sea Devils
This being Doctor Who, Legends of the Sea Devils will be the reptiles’ first chronological meeting with the Doctor. The species will later encounter the Time Lord’s third incarnation in the 1970s and fifth in the 21st century.
While the new special will advance the species’ history in canon, the extended Doctor Who universe has speculated on past and future paths for the ancient race. As part of the Doctor Who: The New Adventures range, the novel Love and War suggested that humans, Silurians, and Sea Devils would resolve their differences by the 26th century. Canonically, we’re yet to see a happy future for Homo sapiens and Homo reptilia. If the Series 5 season episode The Pandorica Opens is anything to go by, Silurians may hold a grudge against the Doctor for some time. Don’t expect things to go swimmingly this Easter.
Legend of the Sea Devils is the first of two Doctor Who specials in 2022. It’s the penultimate adventure for the Thirteenth Doctor, with Jodie Whittaker’s Time Lord destined to regenerate this Autumn as part of the BBC’s centenary celebrations. At least that’s what we think right now — stay tuned for surprises.
Legend of the Sea Devils airs on Sunday, April 17, 2022, on BBC One, BBC America, and other global channels.