Little Boats Like Men


Doctor Who and the Sea-Devils.  Original 1974 cover.

Title: Doctor Who and the Sea-Devils
Televised as: The Sea Devils
Written by: Malcolm Hulke
Teleplay by: Malcolm Hulke
Televised in: February through April 1972
Published in: October 1974
Chapters: One through Three

With the release of Doctor Who and the Sea-Devils, Malcolm Hulke becomes the undisputed king of the Doctor Who novelization. With his third book (and that’s just in 1974 alone), he surpasses both David Whitaker (two in the 1960s) and Terrance Dicks (two in 1974), as the most prolific novelization author of all time.  For now.  Dicks will catch up with Hulke courtesy of the following month’s release of Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen, and will overtake him for good when Doctor Who and the Giant Robot hits the shelves in early 1975.  And, after that… well, nobody’s ever catching up with Terrance again.

But Sea-Devils is a very fitting jewel in the crown for Hulke’s brief reign as king of the novelization.  In an alternate universe, the novelization would be 450 pages long and be rightly hailed as a genre classic.  Instead, Hulke was limited to only 139 pages, and he uses nearly a third of that in adapting Episode One. The first three chapters of the book are just about my favorite chapters in the whole Target run – rivaled only by the first few chapters of Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, which similarly lavished a disproportionate page count on the first episode of a six-part serial.

What’s interesting to me about Hulke’s adaptation of the Episode One material of The Sea Devils is how much of the best writing has nothing to do with the TV serial itself. The Sea Devils is a story that I find passable, but not in my top few tiers of favorites.  It’s a condensed version of the plot of Doctor Who and The Silurians, with the Master worked in, and a few members of the Royal Navy subbed in for UNIT.  There’s lots of location footage, and the Navy’s cooperation gives parts of it a big action-adventure blockbuster feel, but I haven’t exactly worn out my DVD copy yet.

In print, Hulke essentially removes the actual Sea Devils from the plot of the book that bears their name.  What he replaces them with instead, is everything but Sea-Devils, and a whole bunch of new minor characters who bear little resemblance to their TV counterparts. And all that stuff, is gold.

Chapter 1 is essentially a prologue, told from the point of view of a doomed low-level ship’s officer named Mason, who watches the Sea-Devils wreck his boat and then take his life.  We saw a ship destroyed by the Sea Devils in the opening seconds of the TV story, but in this prologue we learn more about the ship’s crew and what happened before the distress call went out.  Mason is quite a progressive character, while he’s on the page; his best friend on the ship is called “The Jamaican” — a sailor who’s actually from Trinidad, but the other sailors are so Anglo Saxon-normative that they can’t be bothered to care which island he’s really from.  Doctor Who wasn’t doing interracial friendships at this point in its history – in fact, the 1970s were about as whitewashed as the show ever got. So for Hulke to have added this scene to the book is a bit radical for its day. Especially considering that, in the TV Episode One, there was no Mason, was no The Jamaican. Hulke effortlessly brings these two most minor characters to life in just a few sentences, and then kills them off by Sea-Devil.

Visitors for the Master, Chapter 2, is essentially plotless. It’s a short story, a comedy of manners; it follows the Doctor and Jo as they visit the Master (last seen getting arrested at the end of The Daemons) in a special island prison on which the Master is the only prisoner (a locale which seems especially relevant as I write this a few days after the airing of the Season 4 finale of Sherlock).  On TV, the island was mere set-dressing, but the novelization proves that Hulke probably planned to write a whole 900-page novel about the place – a surprisingly bustling haven for retired sailors, with a secret naval base on one side, a top-security prison on the others, and ancient ruins everywhere.

Chapter 2 is populated with several islanders who believe that they’re the protagonists of the story, and that the Doctor is just a wacky buffoon making a one-day cameo in their lives. And boy, does the Doctor look nuts, to their eyes.

An island boatman named Robbins has ferried the Doctor and Jo over from the mainland. Hulke sketches Robbins as an insular older man who believes that living on a small island leads him to understand the business of the whole world.  Robbins rails against taxes and the government, and probably wants to make Britain great again — and then Hulke acknowledges that the man may have a point, and sketches him with honest sympathy.  Robbins has no time for the Doctor and Jo’s views, and spends most of his brief appearances in Chapter 2 grumbling.  I loved reading about this guy, and he’s not even real. Robbins had a smaller and more kindly role on TV, smiling ruefully as the Doctor and Jo separately bribed him for use of his boat and motorbike (in the book, the Doctor and Jo just stole both vehicles), and there was no grumbling about the taxman.

Meanwhile, back in the book, the Doctor is busy ignoring Robbins by baffling Jo with small talk.

“When do we get there?”
“As the porcupine said to the turtle,” shouted the Doctor, “When we get there.”
It sounded like a quote from “Alice in Wonderland”, but Jo suspected the Doctor had just made it up.

As far as Google tells us, the Doctor (and Hulke) did indeed make that quote up.

As the Doctor and Jo take a leisurely walk from the island’s quayside to the prison, the Doctor attempts to unravel the not-yet-revealed plot, by reading an ancient poem inscribed on a mossy old stone marker.   The poem evidently recounts an as yet-untold adventure, when the Sea-Devils must have invaded this island back in the 19th century.

For you who tread this land
Beware the justice hand
Little boats like men in days of yore,
They come by stealth at night
They come in broad daylight.
Little boats like men – beware the shore.

The Doctor also works in a brief lecture about coastal erosion, and a personal anecdote about Henry VIII (who he’s never met) strolling the ramparts of the now-submerged Sandown Castle.  When asked by Jo why all of these verbal meanderings matter, the Doctor responds with one of his great credos: “Physical exercise without mental exercise is a bore.”

Once they arrive at the prison, the Doctor instantly clashes with the Master’s prison guards. Another of the great philosophies of life is revealed by one Prison Officer Crawley. Crawley is clearly bored with his job and hides behind a great show of officious rule-following. When Jo reveals that the Doctor’s the one who captured Crawley’s prisoner in the first place, Crawley has no reason to believe it, and sarcastically blurts back that he’s the Lord Mayor of London. Later, when the Third Doctor goes all Pertwee and begins to mock the prison’s strict adherence to procedure, Crawley delivers a get-off-my-lawn warning: “The way I look at it, the world’s divided into three groups of people – those who have been in prison, those are are in prison, and those who will be going to prison.”

(As a one-time criminal defense attorney, I have used this quote, but I always attribute it to Ralph, a deputy sheriff whom I once knew in Lucas County, Ohio; I don’t admit to quoting Malcolm Hulke at my day job.)

Of course, there is no Officer Crawley on TV; it takes pages and pages in the book for the Doctor and Jo to even reach the chateau prison, but only about a minute on TV.

So none of the above advances the plot of The Sea-Devils, but it makes Chapter 2 one of the most quotable stretches of any Target novelization, and, taken by itself (removing the Sea-Devils and all the naval stuff, and, indeed, the plot) is quite literary.  This chapter takes up a full fifth of the book, and it’s just a shame that it didn’t take up a fifth of the TV story as well…


The Master, in prison, watches an episode of “Clangers” with Governor Trenchard.  Image composite lifted from another blog.

In the book, the Master’s reunion with the Doctor and Jo is a bit more emotionally fraught.  Hulke describes at length the Master’s trial and lifelong imprisonment, and the Doctor’s own surprising role in trying to get the courts to extend the Master some mercy:

In his plea the Doctor talked of the Master’s better qualities — his intelligence, and his occasional wit and good humor.  Jo well-remembered the Doctor’s final words to the Judges: “My Lords, I beg you to spare the prisoner’s life, for by so doing you will acknowledge that there is always the possibility of redemption, and that is an important principle for us all.  If we do not believe that anyone, even the worst criminal,  can be saved from wickedness, then in what can we ever believe?”

The Master also affects a tear at Jo Grant’s kindness in visiting, describing the two of them as “victor and vanquished” (after he tried to kill her in the previous novelization), and gives her a religious blessing on her way on the door. Of course, in the book, he’s also not seen whistling along to “Clangers” (that scene was added late in production as the episode was under-running), so that denies the book the label “absolutely perfect”.

But much improved from TV is the Doctor’s quick deduction that the Master’s up to no good in prison. The Doctor knows Her Majesty’s prison regulations better than Governor Trenchard, it turns out, and when Trenchard sends in a security guard to exchange the Master’s book (to demonstrate to the Doctor that the prison guards are hypnotism-proof), the Doctor realizes that he’s being set up.  In Hulke’s hands, the Doctor’s mind never stops spinning.  Physical exercise without mental exercise is a bore, indeed.

The key mystery to Episode One is the rash of ships sinking just off-shore to island.  We know from Chapter 1 that this is the work of the Sea-Devils.  The Master already knows that the Sea-Devils are doing this,  but has convinced the patriotic Governor Trenchard that it’s the work of foreign agents out to weaken Great Britain.  The Doctor is unaware of the ships having been sunk at all, but is clued in by a careless comment by Trenchard, and dives into the investigation after leaving the Master’s prison.  He visits the island’s secret Naval base, and then takes Jo out to a semi-deserted oil rig, which he quickly realizes is at the center point of a triangle visible on a map when you connect the locations of the three sunken ships.  This is all faithful from TV to book (except, for production reasons, the planned oil rig shoot was turned into a sea fort on TV).  But in the book, the Doctor also uses the sunken ships as an excuse to remind Jo of the story of the Mary Celeste — a historical incident that Doctor Who will have occasion to revisit many times over the years (even after having already landed on that ship, in The Chase).  The Mary Celeste wasn’t mentioned on TV — this is just one more instance of Hulke adding as much scientific and historical context as he can into this one slim book.

But, that’s talking about the plot of The Sea Devils again, and, honestly, that plot is the least important thing about the novelization.  Hulke’s ear for authentic character voices, factoids and invented literary quotes, and observational humor, are what win the day in the first three chapters of Doctor Who and the Sea-Devils.

Next Time: The sad life and death of Governor Trenchard, and more of Mac Hulke’s notes on island living.

About drwhonovels

An incredibly languid sojourn through the "Doctor Who" canon, with illustrations from the Topps 1979 baseball card set.
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3 Responses to Little Boats Like Men

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