This post contains spoilers for Legend of the Sea Devils. If you have not watched this episode yet, please come back once you have seen it!
In a swashbuckling special adventure, the Doctor, Yaz and Dan come face to fin with one of the Doctor’s oldest adversaries, the Sea Devils. Why has legendary pirate queen Madam Ching come searching for a lost treasure? What terrifying forces lurk beneath the oceans of the 19th century? And did Yaz really have to dress Dan up as a pirate?
Doctor Who has had a bit of a rough time dealing with pirates. In recent memory, we have had the Steve Thompson penned The Curse of the Black Spot, and in some ways this is a vast improvement on that story. However, Legend of the Sea Devils suffers from having a shortened run time for a usual special and I felt that it could have benefitted from even another 15 minutes to give it a bit more time to breathe and give us a chance to get to know the guest characters. Perhaps calling it a special is being disingenuous. This feels like it could have been a mid-season two-parter – much like the story that brought back the Silurians to the revived series in The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood.
Ultimately, the biggest flaw that I could possibly lay at this story’s door is that it feels rushed, and that is probably in no small part down to this story’s placing in this era’s timeline. It has to pick up threads left dangling from Eve of the Daleks surrounding the Doctor and Yaz’s relationship and keep things moving towards this October’s BBC Centenary Special and both Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall’s departure (no spoilers, but that trailer looks promising!) and do this all in the runtime of the average episode in a normal series. I think that it handles some of these things well – the resolution of the Doctor and Yaz’s feelings for each other seems to have closed the door on that for good now but certainly felt mostly well handled to me. It is mildly frustrating that this element wasn’t introduced slightly sooner as I think the emotional resonance could have been greater if this subplot had more time to breathe. Ultimately though, it is that whole ‘don’t get too attached’ dynamic that we have previously seen with the Tenth Doctor and Rose, and I think I’m so used to there being no references to previous Doctor Who in the early parts of Chibnall’s era that even having the Thirteenth Doctor acknowledge that she is still married to River Song raised a small cheer from me, even if it is only mentioned in passing. The scene between the Doctor and Yaz on the beach feels like a calm before the storm for a Doctor who does know that her time is running out.
I wish this would go on forever.The Thirteenth Doctor
Some other elements don’t work so well due to this though, especially the pirate captains Ji-Hun and Madame Ching, who feel a little bit underdeveloped. Madame Ching is an incredibly interesting figure in history, and for the curious, I have posted a link to Greg Jenner’s excellent history podcast You’re Dead to Me below. Essentially she is one of the most successful pirates who ever lived, establishing a pirate code amongst others and, remarkably, surviving her life of piracy and managing to retire. There are good moments for her character, like where she attempts to navigate by the stars but they move due to the Sea Devils’ interference and the conversation that follows about why the treasure of the Flor de la Mar is so important to her, requiring this to free her captured crew, including her children. It’s a good performance from Crystal Yu, I just wish there was more of it. Equally, Arthur Li as Ji-Hun feels underserved, even if you could map out the character’s trajectory from the point where it is revealed that the Sea Devils have kept him alive. However, it may have had more emotional impact when he switches places with the Doctor in the climactic moments of the story.
The story feels quite murky and a lot less like a romp than Curse of the Black Spot, which feels like a rush to get in as many pirate tropes as possible in 45 minutes. This feels more considered and calm and the characters feel less cartoonish as a result. It would be remiss of me not to mention the sword fight, which I didn’t follow very well on first viewing but actually liked a lot more on the second time around. I think it is a very well-put-together sequence, perhaps slightly too heavily edited to cut around the action but it works really well.
The Sea Devils themselves look incredibly faithful to their debut appearance in the eponymous Jon Pertwee serial, augmented by some computer-generated blinking and movement of the prosthetics, as well as their ability to appear in clouds of green smoke. They certainly make their presence known in the opening moments of this story as they slaughter a village full of civilians and escape on their hovering pirate ship. It’s great to see Craige Els back in the show and he doesn’t seem to have a problem with giving characters behind prosthetics some personality, although he has a lot less to work with here in the script to give his Chief Sea Devil (named Marsisussus according to IMDB) much personality. The Sea Devils plan to flip the Poles of the Earth causing ecological chaos and the Sea Devils to have space to wander around their sub-aqua bases and wonder what happened to the neighbourhood, presumably. The device that they need to do so is contained within the loot from the Flor de la Mar, and the keystone is a plutonic crystal created by them for this purpose. It feels like it could have been thought up by Stromberg in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me. It’s nice to have the Sea Devils added to the roster of ‘Classic’ Who foes who have returned for the modern series though, and I’d definitely like to see them crop up again. Their creature, the fearsome Hua-Shen, looks pretty fantastic too, and it’s good to see the TARDIS in peril when the creature has it firmly in its jaws.
I know what you’re doing. You’re trying to flip the Earth’s geomagnetic poles south to north, north to south, longitude to latitude. That’s why even the stars feel like they’re moving. You want to create chaos.The Thirteenth Doctor
The TARDIS crew are on good form here, continuing their good performances from Flux and Eve of the Daleks. With the Doctor and Yaz being paired up again, following Dan giving both of them a nudge in the right direction in the last story, it does lead to the characters properly talking about their relationship. Whilst the outcome might not be what a section of the fanbase want to hear, I think that it is a wise decision given what we as an audience know is coming and allows both Whittaker and Gill a chance to shine in the scene on the beach. Jodie Whittaker is good in the scenes confronting the Chief Sea Devil and she really seems to have these confrontations down to a fine art now. I really like the dynamic between Yaz and Dan too, although they are together for far too short a time here. Even simple things like Yaz having Dan dress up as a pirate feel like glimpses into a far deeper relationship than it ever felt existed between the Thirteenth Doctor’s first TARDIS team. I was wondering whether Dan might be the companion to spend the least amount of time actually with the Doctor in the course of his travels, as he is separated from the other two again here. It was potentially a missed opportunity to have Dan bond with Ying Ki, the man who sees his father killed by the Sea Devil as I think that he and John Bishop had some quite easy chemistry.
Ultimately, though, with the phone call with Diane at the end of the episode, it feels like Dan has a clear route off the TARDIS – I was actually quite surprised that he didn’t decide to leave at the end of this one. The BBC Centenary Special certainly has a lot of loose ends to tie up!
Verdict: The penultimate story of the Jodie Whittaker era feels rushed but benefits from good performances from its leads and guest cast. It may, ultimately, turn out to be forgettable judging by the trailer for the regeneration episode coming in October, but it’s nice to see the Sea Devils back. 6/10
Cast: Jodie Whitaker (The Doctor), Mandip Gill (Yasmin Khan), John Bishop (Dan Lewis), Crystal Yu (Madame Ching), Arthur Li (Ji-Hun), Marlowe Chan-Reeves (Ying Ki), David K S. Tse (Ying Was), Craig Els (Chief Sea Devil/Marsissus), Nadia Albina (Diane) & Simon Carew, Andrew Cross, Jon Davey, Chester Durrant, Mickey Lewis and Richard Price (Sea Devils),
Writer: Chris Chibnall & Ella Page
Director: Haulo Wang
Behind the Scenes
- At 47 minutes long, Legend of the Sea Devils is the shortest episode to go out as a ‘special’.
- The Sea Devils made their debut appearances in the eponymous serial in 1972, and also featured in the Fifth Doctor serial Warriors of the Deep.
- Craig Els previously played the Lupar Karvanista in the Flux series.
I really like the shot of the TARDIS from above whilst it is on the ocean bed, with the light from the console room spilling out through the open doors.
Something’s missing. No ship, Sherlock!The Thirteenth Doctor
Previous Thirteenth Doctor review: Eve of the Daleks
Podcast: You’re Dead To Me: Zheng Yi Sao